St. Brice’s Day Massacre


During the years that started with the Viking raids, England, then ruled primarily by Anglo-Saxon kings, felt vulnerable to what was widely regarded as gangs of Scandinavian bandits. England had been ravaged and plundered by Viking raids every year from 997 to 1001 AD.

AEthelred is Crowned

In the year 968 AD, a 10-year-old boy, later known as AEthelred the Unready, took the throne of England when his half -brother, Edward, was murdered. AEthelred was the son of King Edgar and Queen AElfhryth. The murder of his brother took place at Corfe Castle and was perpetrated by the attendants of AEthelred’s mother. Edward’s death increased AEthelred’s problems with the Vikings. When Edward’s body was disinterred after one year, it was found to be incorrupt, thus implying that he had been more than a mere mortal. The half brother became sanctified as St. Edward the Martyr.

Origin of Aethelred’s Appellation, “Unready”

AEthelred only became known as the “unready” after St. Brice’s Day Massacre. His appellation was a mistranslation of the Old English “unraed,” meaning “bad counsel.”

AEthelred’s Effort to Manage Viking Raids

In an effort to manage the Viking threats, Aethelred paid Danegeld to Danish leaders from 991 until 1002 AD as a result of his ignominious defat by the Danes at the Battle of Maldon in 991. This strategy was not successful as the Danish raiders always wanted more. Additionally, the Danes were helped by their Norman “cousins,” and not until Pope John XV negotiated peace did the Normans stop aiding the Danes.

Decision to Massacre Danes

On November 13,1002 AD, on the Feast Day of St. Brice, perhaps in a pique of exasperation, AEthelred ordered the massacre of all Danes living in England. In reality, the massacre was probably confined to the Dorset area. The English east coast, the Danelaw area, was never involved or at least no archeological evidence exists indicating a massacre in that area.

The massacre took place on the Feast of St. Brice. Under the orders of AEthelred, the Anglo-Saxons rose up and killed Danes who were mostly merchants and mercenaries living around what is now the Oxford area. The Danish settlers, fearing for their lives, sought refuge in the church of St. Frideswide’s, named for the female saint who was alleged to be the founder of Oxford. (Cardinal Wolsey later transformed her monastery into Christ Church College.)

Right of Sanctuary

The Danes were so frantic to escape the Anglo-Saxons that they literally ripped the locked doors of the church off of their hinges. In those days, one could seek the “right of asylum” or the sanctuary of the church or temple and that sanctuary was recognized in English law until James I in 1623. AEthelred’s ancestor, King Aethelbert, made the first laws regarding sanctuary about 600 AD. The right of asylum protected the accused from legal action. Disregarding what was then the law, the townspeople burnt the church to the ground, causing a considerable loss of life.

Recent Excavations Supporting the Massacre

In 2010, the remains of between 34 and 38 young men were found during the excavation at St. John’s College in Oxford, supporting the massacre factually. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the bones date from 960 to 1020 AD. By measuring the amount of oxygen in the bones, archeologists determined that these men were probably from Scandinavia. Also, the size and strength measured in muscle attachment area to the bones of the men pointed to Scandinavian origins.

However, AEthelred miscalculated the Danish anger. Apparently, the marauding Anglo-Saxons also killed Gunnhild (Gunnhilda), sister of King Sweyn I (Forkbeard) of Denmark, and also the daughter-in-law of King Canute. However, among the skeletons unearthed at Oxford, there were no females, so whether Sweyn’s resulting vengeance was well founded or an excuse for further conquest is unknown.

Danish Reaction

The effect of the St. Brice’s Day massacre was to exacerbate tensions between Denmark and England. Sweyn then resumed harassing the English kingdom with a self-proclaimed righteous vengeance. Together with his son, Cnut, he invaded England through the Humber and the Trent, setting up a base at Gainsborough. By 1013, Sweyn ruled England and forced AEthelred to seek sanctuary in Normandy. Sweyn the Forkbeard then became king of England from 1013 to 1014. However, on February 3, 1014, Sweyn died at Gainsborough. The Danes then swore their allegiance to Canute, Sweyn’s son. Subsequently, the Danes sent a delegation to AEthelred to sue for peace, While the terms were distasteful to AEthelred, his agreement to them marked the first contract between a king and his people. AEthelred returned to England and assumed the throne from 1014 to 1016.

AEthelred then attempted to defeat Canute and his allies at Lindsey. Canute’s army was unprepared and so Canute chose to withdraw from England, abandoning the men of Lindsay to AEthelred’s ravages. Even AEthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, revolted against his father as a result of the slaughter of the men at Lindsay and established himself in Danelaw.

Danish King of England

Canute conquered most of England and subsequently warred with Edmund who was defeated by the Danes at the Battle of Ashingdon on October 18, 1016. Canute then agreed to divide the English kingdom with Edmund. Edmund got Wessex and Canute got everything else beyond the Thames. At Edmund’s death, later in 1016, Canute was crowned king of England.

Effect of Massacre on English History

The effect of Aethelred’s unwise decision to throw off the Danish invasions resulted in chaos and economic insecurity for years after his death.