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1002: St. Brice’s Day Massacre

November 13th, 2007 Headsman

On this date over a millennium past, according to the chronicle of John of Wallingford, King Ethelred the Unready of England conducted a massacre of Danes living in the realm.

The character of this sanguinary event — named after a fourth-century French bishop whose feast day Nov. 13 happens to be — lies half-buried in history’s shifting sands. Surely the slaughter of every Dane in a Britain then very much in the Scandinavian orbit would have been not only morally reprehensible but logistically unimaginable.

The accepted, albeit sketchy, story has it that to consolidate his own authority — or to check an actual or suspected plot against him — Ethelred ordered the surprise apprehension and summary execution of some sizable number of Danish lords and mercenaries. British historian Thomas Hodgkin characterizes it as a sort of coup d’etat.

On this date, it was the Danes who were unready for Ethelred.

But whatever its true extent or immediate object, it occurred within the context of intensifying conflict between the English crown and Scandinavian aspirants. Ethelred was to spend the better part of his life struggling — both militarily and through the ruinous tribute of Danegeld — to hold back the incursions of the Viking king Sweyn I.

The St. Brice’s Day Massacre exacerbated those tensions. Sweyn’s sister was apparently among those massacred, and — whether driven by vengeance or simply availing a pretext — Sweyn resumed harrying the English kingdom in the following years.

By 1013, Sweyn had driven Ethelred to Normandy and ruled all of England, welding together a Norse empire fringing the whole north of Europe.

But the empire — and England’s place in it — proved an historical cul-de-sac. Authority in England would be contested for another half-century, gradually sapping the crown’s strength until the Norman Conquest in 1066 swept aside Viking power and set England on a course that would redefine its history.

Update: The story of Ethelred, Normandy, and the Vikings told in Episode 3 of Lars Brownworth’s Norman Centuries podcast:

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Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Early Middle Ages,England,Execution,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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4 thoughts on “1002: St. Brice’s Day Massacre”

  1. It reminds me of some Governors who also execute people, even where there is doubt as to their guilt, only to hold on to their positions of power…some Attorneys General too…Hi Bob! Hi Troy!

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