by Patricia Bracewell
In Anglo-Saxon England – as in most of the medieval world – the game of thrones was a deadly serious one. A particularly vicious move in that game occurred in Britain on 13 November, 1002, and it was one of the most infamous events of English history. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported it this way:
“…the king gave an order to slay all the Danes that were in England. This was accordingly done on the mass-day of St. Brice because it was told the king that they would beshrew him of his life, and afterwards all his council, and then have his kingdom without any resistance.”
In 1002 the feast day of St. Brice fell on Friday the 13th and it was a bad luck day if you were a Dane in England.
Later historians added details to the story of the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, although it is difficult to determine how much of what they added was factual and how much was embroidered, or drawn from hearsay, or confused with other events.
Nevertheless there is no question that the St. Brice’s Day Massacre took place. There is still, though, some speculation regarding the details. How extensive was this “just extermination”? Who was caught in the net? Why, specifically was it carried out?
What led to the massacre is a long and convoluted tale. Aethelred II’s reign (979-1016) was troubled by consecutive waves of ship borne marauders hailing from all parts of Scandinavia and Ireland. Aethelred tried to resolve his Viking problem by paying off some of these pirates with gold and giving them property in England. He wasn’t the first to do this. In an earlier century, after long years of battling the Viking plague, Alfred the Great had made treaties with his enemies, granting them land in eastern England. The area was named the Danelaw and in Aethelred’s time – a century later – the folk there still followed Danish laws and language, although their political and ecclesiastical leaders were appointed by the king.
Unfortunately for Aethelred, one of the Viking leaders who took the king’s coin around the year 1000 was a man named Pallig whose wife was the half-sister of the Danish king, Swein Forkbeard. When King Swein himself raided England in 1001, his brother-in-law Pallig, who should have defended his new English home against this Danish threat, gathered men and ships and joined in the pillaging and burning. Who can say what motivated him? Was he bored and discontented on his new properties? Did Swein call on kinship ties to persuade Pallig to his side?
Were Pallig’s shipmen surly and combative, in need of some more strenuous occupation than farming? Or was it merely a case of once a thief, always a thief?
Aethelred must have decided that it was the latter, because even though he eventually bribed King Swein to depart and bribed Pallig (again), to go back to his estates, Aethelred apparently began laying the plans for the massacre that would occur on St. Brice’s Day in 1002.
Patricia Bracewell is the author of Shadow on the Crown, the first book of a trilogy set in the reign of Aethelred II and his queen, Emma of Normandy, to be released in 2013 by Viking in the U.S. and by HarperCollins in the U.K. Patricia blogs weekly about history, fiction, her travels and research HERE.