Saturday, June 2, 2012

The St. Brice’s Day Massacre

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.”

The St. Brice’s Day Massacre, as it came to be called, was recounted again in an English charter written two years later. It stated that the king and his counselors had agreed that the Danes who had sprung up in England “like cockles amongst the wheat” should be exterminated. The charter went on to say that in Oxford the Danes had sought to escape their fate by breaking into a church, and when they could not be driven out, the townsfolk had destroyed them by setting the building afire.

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?

The king who gave the command was Aethelred II. His name meant “noble counsel”, but some time later another name, “Unraed”, meaning “ill counsel” was added. It was a punning name, the kind of word play that the Anglo-Saxons loved, so that he became King Aethelred Unraed, King Noble Counsel Lousy Counsel. The St. Brice’s Day Massacre turned out to be a spectacular example of lousy counsel.

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.

It’s doubtful that the killings were intended to reach into the long-settled region of the Danelaw where residents of Scandinavian descent probably outnumbered those whose bloodlines were Anglo-Saxon. The population targeted for execution would likely have been more recent arrivals in the south and west – shiploads of young warriors, trouble-makers who considered themselves outside the law. Pallig certainly was among the victims, as were his wife and young son – 11 th century collateral damage. In recent years, in Devon and Oxfordshire, archaeologists have found two mass graves of Scandinavian warriors dating to the period of the 1002 massacre, their bones bearing marks of multiple severe blade wounds. Some of the skeletons in the Oxford grave showed signs of burning. Quite possibly, these were victims of St. Brice’s Day and if so, the current body count from the two graves is 88. While it is impossible to know exactly how many were executed that day, we know this much: it did not accomplish the result that Aethelred intended – to preserve his kingdom from the hands of the Danes. It did just the opposite.

The Viking attacks continued and many historians believe that from St. Brice’s Day forward the raids were no longer random expeditions with the aim of accumulating wealth at the expense of the English, but were motivated by the dual goals of revenge and the complete conquest of England. In 1003 King Swein returned to Britain with an army, and Danish armies struck again every following year but one until 1016. It took more than a decade, but in the end not only was Aethelred dead, but a Danish king sat on the throne of England. Wyrd bið ful aræd. Fate is inexorable.

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.


  1. Utterly fascinating, Patricia. I knew little about this period, and now I want to know more. I'll certainly look for your book when it's released next year. Thanks for this post!

  2. Can I do a plug for mine novel of the same topic (Queen Emma early 11th c) (seeing as yours isn't out yet Patricia!)The Forever Queen (US title) / A Hollow Crown (UK title) - the US version is the better of the two though.
    I found the St Brice's Day scene somewhat harrowing to write. Not one of our best episodes in English history.

    1. Hi Helen,
      may I also do a minor"plug" for my new book "In the Wake of the Comet Star" in which the massacre of St Brice's day is the central, apocalyptic event which leads on to the Danish Conquest, and sets the scene for the final extinction of Anglo-Saxon culture in 1066.

  3. Great story. Fills in many blanks for me.

  4. Wow what a great blog, i really enjoyed reading this, good luck in your work. Clyde russell hollick


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