The Life and Death of Sweyn Forkbeard and His Viking Empire

The Life and Death of Sweyn Forkbeard and His Viking Empire

Sweyn I, known also as Sweyn Tiugeskaeg (which means ‘Forkbeard’), was a Viking chief who became the ruler of Denmark, Norway, and England. His byname, ‘Forkbeard’, is a reference to his long, cleft beard. Although Sweyn ruled over Denmark and Norway for decades, he only gained control of England towards the end of his life, and ruled for slightly over a month. In fact, although he was declared King of England, Sweyn Forkbeard did not even live long enough for his coronation.

Soon after his death, Sweyn’s empire disintegrated. Whilst he was succeeded as king by one of his sons in Denmark, both Norway and England returned to native rulers. The domains of Sweyn, however, would be reunited by another son, Cnut the Great . The empire of Sweyn Forkbeard and his son is often referred to by historians today as the North Sea Empire or the Anglo-Scandinavian Empire.

Sweyn I is believed to have been born around 960 AD. His father was Harald I, known also as Harald Bluetooth , whereas the identity of his mother is not known for certain. Harald was a member of the House of Gorm, a Danish dynasty that was established by his father, Gorm the Old. This new royal house was based in Jelling, in North Jutland. Under Harald’s rule, Denmark was united for the first time. Although Harald is credited with the country’s unification, the project actually started under his predecessor. Apart from that, Harald also conquered Norway, and converted to Christianity. As a result of the latter, Christianity began to spread throughout Denmark and Norway.

The larger of the Jelling stones, enormous carved runestones found in Jelling, was raised by Harold Bluetooth in 970 to celebrate Denmark’s conversion to Christianity. ( Ljunie / CC BY-SA )

Sweyn Forkbeard Revolts Against His Father, Harald Bluetooth

Little is known about Sweyn’s childhood and early years. His first appearance in historical record is rather brutal. According to medieval writers, Sweyn revolted against his father in the final years of Harald’s life. This occurred around 987 AD. The German chronicler, Adam of Bremen, alleged that Sweyn’s revolt was a pagan reaction towards the increasing Christianization of Denmark. The chronicler’s claim, however, is somewhat dubious, as there is no indication that Sweyn was a pagan. Additionally, Adam may have held a grudge against the Danish king, as he had been unsympathetic to the church of Hamburg-Bremen.

The baptism of Harald Bluetooth. Detail from baptismal font from circa 1100 in Tamdrup Kirke, Denmark. ( Sven Rosborn / CC BY-SA )

The story of Sweyn’s revolt is also recounted in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (translated as ‘The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway’ ). In this version of the story, Sweyn is said to have asked his father for a part of Denmark. Harald, who had no intention of dividing his kingdom, naturally denied his son’s request. Therefore, Sweyn assembled his men and reported to his father than he was going on a raid. In fact, he was preparing to revolt. When the preparations were complete, Sweyn attacked his father. Harald won the battle, as he had a larger army, but received a mortal wound and died shortly after.

In some versions of the story, Harald was defeated, fleeing to the Wends where he died of his wounds. As for Sweyn, he fled from the battlefield, but following the death of his father he was proclaimed king. The new king, however, had been captured by Sigvaldi, the chieftain of the Jomsvikings. Sigvaldi forced Sweyn to make peace with the Wends, before returning him to Denmark.

In the Heimskringla, Sweyn is recorded to have married Gunhild, the daughter of Burizleif, the Wendish king. The Heimskringla goes on to say that the couple’s sons were Harald and Cnut. Although Burizleif is a legendary figure, it has been speculated that he may be based on an actual person. Sweyn later married Sigrid the Haughty , the widow of the Swedish king, Eric the Victorious. In some sources, Sweyn is said to have married Sigrid after the death of Gunhild. In others, Sweyn is said to have repudiated Gunhild, and married Sigrid. As a result, Gunhild went back to Wendland, and was only brought back to Denmark by her sons after Sweyn’s death.

12th century depiction of invading Vikings from the Life and Miracles of St. Edmund.

Viking Raiders Set Their Sights on Britain

Not long after ascending the throne of Denmark, Sweyn set his sights on England. As early as the end of the 8th century AD, Britain was a favorite target of the Viking raiders , as the largely undefended monasteries were easy pickings for them. In the following century, the Vikings began to establish settlements on the island, rather than simply raiding its inhabitants. By the end of the 9th century AD, a large portion of England had been conquered by the Vikings. This area became known as the Danelaw, and Viking rule lasted until the middle of the 10th century.

In 954 AD, Eric Bloodaxe , the last Viking ruler of Northumbria, was expelled, marking the end of the Danelaw. In the decades that followed, England was ruled by native kings. In 978 AD, Aethelred II, whose nickname was ‘the Unready’, meaning ‘ill-advised’ in Old English, became the new king of England. This was about a decade before Sweyn came to power.

Danegeld and the Extortion of Britain Under Sweyn Forkbeard

During the 990s, Aethelred was still on the English throne. In fact, he went on to rule until 1016. This was also the beginning of the ‘second Viking Age’. Unlike the Vikings of the 9th and 10th centuries, Sweyn was initially not interested in conquering England. Instead, he preferred to conduct raids on the island.

Unlike the Vikings of the 8th century, Sweyn’s raids were carried out on a much larger scale. These were normally organized by royal leaders, and the aim was extortion. Sweyn’s raiders did not target isolated monasteries, but the English state itself. The Viking raids were so devastating that the English agreed to pay tribute to the Vikings. This tribute, known as the Danegeld, was essentially protection money, and the Vikings profited greatly from it. In 991 AD, for instance, the raiders were paid 4500 kilograms (9921 lbs) of silver in exchange for leaving England in peace.

Sweyn Forkbeard invades England Source:

Sweyn Forkbeard and the Viking Raid of London

This strategy was not entirely successful and, particularly in the north of England, the Viking raids continued. These raids were much smaller. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, in 994 AD Sweyn himself led a failed raid on England, with London as his ultimate goal. The account of Sweyn’s attack on London is as follows:

“This year came Anlaf (Olaf Trygvasson, the king of Norway) and Sweyne to London, on the Nativity of St. Mary, with four and ninety-ships. And they closely besieged the city, and would fain have set it on fire; but they sustained more harm and evil than they ever supposed that any citizens could inflict on them. The holy mother of God on that day in her mercy considered the citizens, and ridded them of their enemies.”

Although the Vikings failed to take London, they did not return home immediately. Instead, they went on to terrorize the rest of England:

“Thence they advanced, and wrought the greatest evil that ever any army could do, in burning and plundering and manslaughter, not only on the sea-coast in Essex, but in Kent and in Sussex and in Hampshire. Next they took horse, and rode as wide as they would, and committed unspeakable evil.”

Viking warrior with an axe. “Thence they advanced, and wrought the greatest evil that ever any army could do, in burning and plundering and manslaughter”. ( TheStockCube / Adobe Stock)

For one reason or another, Aethelred did not resort to military force to get rid of the Vikings raiders. Rather, he chose to pay them off, as he had been doing in the past:

“Then resolved the king and his council to send to them, and offer them tribute and provision, on condition that they desisted from plunder. The terms they accepted; and the whole army came to Southampton, and there fixed their winter quarters; where they were fed by all the subjects of the West Saxon kingdom. And they gave them 16,000 pounds in money.”

In exchange, Olaf converted to Christianity, and promised not to act in a hostile manner towards England ever again. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles , Olaf kept his promise. It may be noted that in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ entry for the year 994 AD, Olaf is portrayed as the main character, whereas Sweyn plays a secondary role. Although Olaf is said to have promised never to attack England again, it seems that Sweyn did not make such a promise. According to some sources, whilst Sweyn was away raiding England, Erik the Victorious seized the opportunity to occupy Denmark. Nevertheless, the Swedish king died soon after and Sweyn was able to reclaim his throne.

St. Brice’s Day Massacre and Sweyn’s Retaliation

Under Sweyn Forkbeard the Vikings continued to raid England in the years that followed, and he himself launched an attack on the island in 1003. The Danish king decided to lead the attack personally as a result of an incident that occurred the year before. In the spring of that year, Aethelred married Emma, the sister of Richard II, the Duke of Normandy. This was meant to seal the alliance between England and Normandy, and may have emboldened Aethelred to take a tougher stand against the Vikings.

Aethelred the Unready ordered the execution of all Danes living in England on St. Brice’s Day 1002. ()

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, in 1002 Aethelred received news that the Danes in England were plotting to assassinate him and take over his kingdom. He therefore launched a preemptive strike by massacring all the Danes in England on St. Brice’s Day (the 13th of November). Although it is certain that some Danes were killed, the scale of the St. Brice’s Day Massacre is unclear.

In some accounts it has been speculated that one of the Danes who was killed during the massacre was Gunhild, the sister of Sweyn. If this were true, it would have intensified Sweyn’s antagonism towards the English. Alternatively, the massacre of the Danes itself may have increased Sweyn’s hostility. In any case, Sweyn raided England in 1003:

“When Sweyne saw that they were not ready, and that they all retreated, then led he his army into Wilton; and they plundered and burned the town. Then went he to Sarum; and thence back to the sea, where he knew his ships were.”

Sweyn and the Conquest of both Norway and England

Whilst his Vikings were raiding England, Sweyn conquered Norway, which was ruled by Sweyn’s old raiding partner Olaf Trygvasson. Sweyn formed an alliance with the Swedes and the Earls of Lade, and attacked Olaf. At the Battle of Svolder, in 1000, the Norwegians were defeated, and Sweyn became the new ruler of Norway. England would fall under Danish rule as well, though many years after Sweyn’s conquest of Norway.

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In 1013, Sweyn led another raid on England. It appears that the Danish king had not personally led a raid on the island since 1004. This raid was different from the ones he had conducted previously, and it soon became a conquest. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles:

“before the month August, came King Sweyne with his fleet to Sandwich; and very soon went about East-Anglia into the Humber-mouth, and so upward along the Trent, until he came to Gainsborough. Then soon submitted to him Earl Utred, and all the Northumbrians, and all the people of Lindsey, and afterwards the people of the Five Boroughs, and soon after all the army to the north of Watling-street.”

Cnut the Great, Sweyn’s son, illustrated within the initial of a medieval manuscript ()

To ensure the loyalty of the English nobles who had submitted to them, hostages were taken by the Danes. These hostages were left with Sweyn’s son, Cnut, in Gainsborough, the new Viking base camp. The Danish king then turned southward, continuing his conquest of the island. When Sweyn reached London he found that the population would not submit, and so decided to continue to Bath where he received the submission of the western thanes before returning to Gainsborough. By this time London had also surrendered. Aethelred was forced into exile and found refuge at the court of his brother-in-law in Normandy. The exiled king remained there until Sweyn’s death, which, in fact, did not take long to happen.

Sweyn Forkbeard’s Sudden Death and the Disintegration of His Empire

By the end of 1013, Sweyn was at the height of his power and was the ruler of Denmark, Norway, and England. Having said that, by February of the following year he was dead. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ entry for the year 1014 states, “This year King Sweyne ended his days at Candlemas, the third day before the nones of February,” (which meant the second of February). Interestingly, the Heimskringla gives more details about Sweyn’s death: “it happened that King Svein died suddenly in the night in his bed; and it is said by Englishmen that Edmund the Saint killed him, in the same way that the holy Mercurius had killed the apostate Julian.”

Sweyn Forkbeard, England’s shortest reigning king, is killed by King Edmund the Saint. Illustration from The Life of King Edward the Confessor in a manuscript from around 1250.

As a result of Sweyn’s sudden death, the empire that he created disintegrated almost immediately. In England, Aethelred returned from exile and ruled until his death in 1016. Likewise, the throne of Norway was returned to a native ruler. Nevertheless, Sweyn’s son, Cnut, would later resurrect his father’s empire. Cnut ruled England for much longer than his father, giving him more time to impress the English, which he did. His good deeds were recorded by English writers of that time, and, as a consequence, he is known today as ‘ Cnut the Great’ . Sweyn, on the other hand, only ruled England for about five weeks, and did not have the time to prove that he was a capable ruler. Hence, he was stuck with the (still pretty impressive) byname ‘Forkbeard’.

Kings and queens of England timeline

Egbert (802–839) Egbert, King of Wessex, was the first monarch to establish stable rule over the whole of Anglo-Saxon England.

Aethelwulf (839–856) Aethelwulf was the son of Egbert. In 851 he defeated a Viking Danish army at the Battle of Aclea.

Aethelbald (856–860) The eldest son of Aethelwulf, Aethelbald was born around 834. He forced his father to abdicate upon his return from his pilgrimage to Rome.

Aethelbert (860–866) Aethelbert became king following the death of his brother Aethelbald.

Aethelred I (866–871) Aethelred succeeded his brother Aethelbert. His reign became a struggle against the invading Danish forces, who established the Viking kingdom of Yorvik.

Alfred the Great (871–899) Alfred became king of Wessex in 871 and spent the first years of his reign fighting the Vikings. After he defeated them in 878, he signed a treaty with their leader, Guthrum, dividing England in two along a line from London to Chester. Alfred ruled the land to the south but was recognized as overlord of the Viking-run territory, which was later known as the Danelaw, to the north.

Edward the Elder (899–924) Edward was the son of Alfred the Great. A bold soldier, he made substantial gains from the Danes.

Aethelstan (924–939) Son of Edward the Elder, Aethelstan extended the boundaries of his kingdom even further than his father had done. For the first time, all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were brought together to create a unified England.

Edmund I (939–946) Edmund succeeded his half-bother Aethelstan as king at the age of 18. He re-established Anglo-Saxon control over northern England and suppressed rebellions by the Mercian Danes.

Eadred (946–955) The son of Edward the Elder by his third marriage to Eadgifu, Eadred succeeded his brother Edmund. He defeated the last Viking king of York, Eric Bloodaxe, in 954.

Eadwig (955–959) The eldest son of Edmund, Eadwig (Edwy) was about 16 when he was crowned king. Mercia and Northumbria broke away in rebellion during Eadwig’s short reign.

Edgar (959–975) The youngest son of Edmund, Edgar “the Peaceful” had been in dispute with his brother concerning succession to the throne. He was already king of Mercia and the Danelaw from 957, and succeeded his brother as king of England following Eadwig's death in 959.

Edward the Martyr (975–978) Eldest son of Edgar, Edward was crowned king when aged just 12. His claim to the throne was contested by the supporters of his even younger half-brother, Aethelred.

Aethelred II (978–1013 and 1014–1016) Aethelred “the Unready”, the younger son of Edgar, became king at the age of about 10. He was forced to flee to Normandy in 1013 when Sweyn Forkbeard, King of the Danes, invaded England, but returned in 1014 after Sweyn's death.

Sweyn Forkbeard (1013–1014) The Danish king, Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England in 2013. He was pronounced king of England on Christmas Day 1013, becoming the first Danish king of England. Just five weeks later he was dead.

Edmund II Ironside (1016) The son of Aethelred and his first wife, Aelfgifu of York, Edmund Ironside was chosen to succeed Aethelred by the citizens of London—but much of the rest of the country had by that time been conquered by Cnut, who had succeeded his father, Sweyn, as the Danish king.

Cnut (1016–1035) Edmund Ironside agreed to divide the kingdom of England, with the Danish king, Cnut, ruling the north and Edmund the south. However, Edmund suddenly died, leaving the whole country to Cnut. A wise ruler, he created a large empire, including Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden, as well as England.

Harold I (1035–1040) Harold I, known as Harold Harefoot, was the son of Cnut and his first wife, Aelfgifu. He and his half-brother Harthacnut divided up the kingdom of England between them after their father's death.

Harthacnut (1040–1042) Harthacnut was the son of Cnut and his second wife, Emma of Normandy, the former wife of Aethelred the Unready. On the death of his half-brother Harold Harefoot in 1040, the kingdom of England fell to Harthacnut alone.

Edward the Confessor (1042–1066) As the surviving son of Aethelred and his second wife Emma, Edward the Confessor became the undisputed king. He gained a reputation as a skilled and powerful leader.

Harold II (1066) Harold II, originally called Harold Godwinson, was elected King of England by a council of high-ranking nobles and religious leaders following the death of Edward the Confessor. This decision infuriated William, Duke of Normandy, who believed the throne had been promised to him. Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings.

St. Brice’s Day and the Danish Conquest

I’m writing this post on 13 November, an unlucky day in English history. Even unluckier, today is also Friday the 13 th . It’s a fitting time to dive into one of Anglo-Saxon England’s most infamous events: the St. Brice’s Day Massacre. On 13 November 1002, King Æthelred II of England, after suffering years of viking incursions, commanded that all Danes in his kingdom were to be killed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains one of the earliest accounts of what happened that day:

…the king ordered all the Danish men who were among the English race to be killed on Brice’s Day, because it was made known to the king that they wanted to ensnare his life – and afterwards all of his councillors – and have his kingdom afterwards.

As the chronicler reveals, this bloody event occurred on the feast day, 13 November, of a now-obscure saint named St. Brice of Tours, thus giving the massacre its name. We have an even earlier account of the massacre, though. Amazingly, it comes from the man who ordered it:

…it will be well known that a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like weeds among the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination [1].

Yes, that’s a charter of King Æthelred, where the king (or more likely, someone writing on his behalf) provides several important details that line up with the ASC’s account: the decree came directly from the king his councillors are involved in some way (either as targets of a plot, co-planners of the massacre, or both) and all Danes in England are to be killed. Over a decade later, King Sweyn (also spelled Svein, Sven, or Swein) of Denmark conquered England. After Sweyn died in 1014, Æthelred recovered his crown and drove Sweyn’s son, Cnut, out of the country. After the death of Æthelred and his successor, Edmund, Cnut finally succeeded in conquering the entire kingdom. That much is clear and always has been. Together, the conquests of Sweyn (1013) and Cnut (1016) are referred to as The Danish Conquest.

A Medieval Revenge Tale: Dead Princesses, Avenging Brothers, and Conquest?

However, accounts of the St. Brice’s Day Massacre are usually followed up by a claim that Gunnhild (there are numerous spelling variations), the sister of King Sweyn of Denmark, was among those slain in the massacre. Supposedly her husband Pallig, a Norse mercenary in Æthelred’s service, was also killed. These claims come from William of Malmesbury, writing in the 1100s, and later appeared in countless other medieval and modern sources [2]. According to this story, Sweyn swore revenge on Æthelred and launched the campaign that would eventually topple the English kingdom. It’s a noble tale, one of revenge and retribution, where King Æthelred orders an insane purge of civilians, an innocent Danish princess is killed, and her brother punishes the mad King Æthelred by stealing his crown.

This revenge story is so routinely brought up that it occurs in informal and serious work alike. Wikipedia’s St. Brice’s Day entry, the first place most people will turn when researching the massacre, has this to say about the story of Gunnhild’s death, Sweyn’s reaction, and the massacre’s link to the Danish Conquest (as of 13 November 2020):

Among those thought to have been killed is Gunhilde, who may have been the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, the King of Denmark… Historians have generally viewed the massacre as a political act which helped to provoke Sweyn’s invasion of 1003… Audrey MacDonald sees it as leading on to the onslaught which eventually led to the accession of Cnut in 1016.

But you know your teachers told you to never trust Wikipedia. More rigorous popular sources like History Today also make the Gunnhild story part of their accounts of St. Brice’s Day: “One of those killed at Oxford, apparently, was Gunnhild, the sister of Swein Forkbeard, which inevitably sharpened the latter’s hostility.” The author’s use of apparently tells me he’s at least a little skeptical of the story, but – perhaps due to a tight word count – that’s all he says about it. Is Richard Cavendish, the author of the piece, on to something? [3] Does the Gunnhild revenge story deserve to be taken at face value, as it so often has been, or will it crumble under scrutiny?

It turns out, Cavendish is far from the only writer to express some doubt over the story. Most academics are highly skeptical that Sweyn’s sister Gunnhild (if she existed) was killed in the massacre, and even more skeptical that the massacre “led to” or “caused” the Danish Conquest, which happened over a decade after St. Brice’s Day.

Nearly all scholars who address this story point out that it doesn’t appear until much later, which is obviously a major strike against it from a historical standpoint. William of Malmesbury was writing over a century later, despite earlier sources saying nothing about Gunnhild’s death or Sweyn’s revenge [4]. Whenever a well-attested historical event grows more and more specific with each retelling, that’s a sign we’re looking at a legend rather than something more straightforward, especially when it starts messing up chronology and contradicting earlier and better sources. But we’ll get to that. This does not mean that William of Malmesbury made the story up himself, nor does it mean he’s necessarily the first person to claim Gunnhild was married to Pallig, just that he is the first to write them down. A late date alone is not insurmountable, so we’ll need to look at some more factors before we dismiss this tale.

Gunnhild and Pallig: Victims of St. Brice’s Day?

The link between St. Brice’s Day and the Danish Conquest, as told by William of Malmesbury, stands or falls based on whether we think Gunnhild and Pallig were victims of the massacre. Without their deaths, William of Malmesbury’s claim – that the conquest was largely prompted by a personal vendetta – has nothing to stand on. However, it’s unclear if Gunnhild even existed. Levi Roach, in his book on Æthelred, tellingly lists Gunnhild in his index as the “(purported) sister of Swein Forkbeard” [5]. Ann Williams, one of the foremost experts on Æthelred’s reign, lists Gunnhild as the “supposed” sister of Sweyn Forkbeard in one of her indexes and provides one of the most thorough dismissals of the tale. She says that “the St Brice’s Day massacre had by this time acquired a crop of half-truths, tales and legends, some of which surface in the writings of those keen to blacken Æthelred’s already grimy reputation.” She also points out just how unclear William of Malmesbury’s chronology is, as he seemingly conflates Sweyn’s invasion of 1003 with his conquest of 1013. Judging by William of Malmesbury’s account, it isn’t even clear whether Pallig died in the massacre of 1002 or the invasion of 1013. Beyond that, Ann Williams sees no reason to make Pallig the husband of the possibly fictional Gunnhild. Based on the ASC, Pallig seems to have escaped before the massacre anyway [6].

Roach likewise points out that no evidence for Gunnhild exists prior to this story [7]. The much earlier ASC also records a near constant litany of assassinations, exiles, ousters, and mutilations ordered by Æthelred, especially against nobles who had betrayed the king. However, Pallig is not one of them. Why would the ASC choose to omit the grisly death of this one particular traitor when it mentions the demise of so many others? The most obvious answer is that Pallig didn’t die in England in 1002 or 1013 but that, like the Chronicle’s entry of 1001 would lead us to believe, he simply rejoined his viking allies and left Æthelred’s service altogether. Pallig aside, we still must reconcile this story with an unclear and muddled sequence of events, no evidence for Gunnhild’s existence before the 12 th century, and (understandably) skeptical scholars. The story is beginning to quickly unravel.

For the purposes of this post, that means all the assumptions that follow from this story – that Sweyn wanted revenge and invaded England as a result of his sister’s death – begin to crumble, too. If there is no Gunnhild who was married to Pallig (who did not die at Æthelred’s hands, either), then why should we believe that Sweyn invaded to avenge her? And just as importantly, why the ten-year gap between the invasion of 1003 and Sweyn’s actual conquest in 1013? Perhaps this is why William of Malmesbury conflates the two – he was trying to make sense of the decade-long interruption while still claiming that St. Brice’s Day led to the Danish Conquest. He could either place Æthelred’s overthrow eleven years too early (1003) or place the massacre eleven years too late (1013), neither of which is particularly easy to resolve. As Ann Williams has suggested, maybe the episode of Gunnhild and Pallig being put to death, with all the other Danes, refers to an entirely different event than the St. Brice’s Day Massacre. If we follow this route, we now have two massacres instead of one, which makes William of Malmesbury’s story even more confused. The end result is the same, though, because we’d still have Sweyn launching his conquest to avenge his sister. There are plenty of other bizarre rationalizations one could make here, but I think it would be a fruitless endeavor. At some point, we have to admit that the story is no longer tenable as serious history, and no amount of mental gymnastics can save it.

Here is where I need to pause and clarify something, though. Even if Sweyn’s conquest of 1013 was not motivated by a desire to avenge his sister, the St. Brice’s Day Massacre might have still been a motive for his raids in 1003 [8]. It’s hard to imagine that Sweyn would have shrugged off the news of Æthelred committing genocide against his kinsmen, but this would have been one of many factors that made England attractive as a target. Sweyn would have also been motivated by the possibility of plunder and tribute. He had been raiding in England since the 990s, in any case.

Did St. Brice’s Day Cause the Danish Conquest?

So no, the Gunnhild revenge story does not hold up to scrutiny, and as an after-effect, neither does William of Malmesbury’s insinuation that the Danish Conquest was caused by the St. Brice’s Day Massacre. While plenty of scholars have critiqued the Gunnhild story, when it comes to the direct link between St. Brice’s Day and the Danish Conquest, it’s even worse: most academics don’t even address it, almost certainly because once the Gunnhild story is written off, the Danish Conquest connection, as argued by William of Malmesbury and others, crumbles by default. It’s an engaging legend, but it’s time that more writers (not just academics) start treating it as just that – a legend. Save as an amusing side note or historiography, it has no real purpose in the story of the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, and neither does it have anything substantial to do with the Danish Conquest.

Medieval Fact Check:

And finally, just for fun, let’s summarize this with a Snopes-style “medieval fact check.” Here in the States, our political fact-checkers have been busier than ever, which is probably why this idea came to me. This is simplistic, sure, but I may do more of these depending on the reception:

The St. Brice’s Day Massacre was ordered by Æthelred II in 1002 : Accurate. The ASC provides a very early account that is confirmed by an even earlier charter by Æthelred. There are countless later accounts of the massacre, of course, but these two are by far the earliest and most valuable. This is as rock-solid as they come.

Sweyn had a sister named Gunnhild : Unknown. The source for this is so late that it’s hard to really know with any certainty. In Gunnhild’s favor, I’m not aware of any sources that outright contradict her identity (yes, believe it or not, this does happen with some medieval sources), which is the only thing stopping me from labeling this as “probably inaccurate.”

Pallig was killed in the St. Brice’s Day Massacre : Probably inaccurate. Pallig is mentioned by name in the ASC’s entries for 1001, where he deserts from Æthelred’s service. He reunites with his old viking pals in the entry, but there is no indication that he remained in England. The ASC does not mention him again, even though his death in the massacre (or later) would have been relevant. The ASC records Æthelred killing, ousting, or mutilating other nobles throughout the reign. It does record not him punishing Pallig. Only much later sources say that Pallig was killed in the massacre. It’s far more likely that Pallig rejoined a larger viking force following his treachery.

Gunnhild was killed in the St. Brice’s Day Massacre : Unknown. This is another case of “we don’t know.” Pallig is a bona fide historical figure whose activity is mentioned in the ASC, but Gunnhild remains a total mystery because there are no earlier sources to help verify or contradict the later story.

Sweyn’s invasion of 1003 was prompted by the massacre : Partially accurate. While Sweyn probably wasn’t avenging the death of his (possibly fictional) sister, the massacre would have been one more justification for an invasion. Sweyn’s list of reasons would have been fairly long by this point: England is rich, I could win some tribute, I could gain more prestige, Æthelred is a madman, etc.

The massacre caused or led to the Danish Conquest : Probably inaccurate. While King Sweyn did return to raid England in 1003, England’s most formidable opponent in in late 1000s and early 1010s was not Sweyn, but Thorkell the Tall. Only after Thorkell had considerably weakened England did Sweyn return and conquer it in 1013. The decade-long gap between the massacre and the conquest, with several years where Sweyn wasn’t in England at all, is probably the nail in the coffin for this. Without the Gunnhild story to link the massacre to the conquest, things appear even more farfetched.

Sources and Notes

[1] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, edited and translated by Michael Swanton (J.M. Dent, 1998). For this post, I have directly quoted the passage about the massacre in the 1002 annal. The charter is quoted in the footnotes for 1002.

[2] William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum: Volume 1: The History of the English Kings, edited and translated by R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thompson, and M. Winterbottom (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1998).

[3] Richard Cavendish, “The St Brice’s Day Massacre,” History Today 52, no. 11 (2002).

[4] Simon Keynes, The Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’: A Study in Their Use as Historical Evidence (Cambridge University Press, 1980), 205.

[5] Levi Roach, Æthelred the Unready (Yale University Press, 2016), index.

[6] Ann Williams, Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counseled King (Hambledon and London, 2003), 53-54, index.

Parshat Vaetchanan — Power shift

Last week, I wrote about the US president who served the shortest time in office. This week I want to cross the Atlantic and go back several centuries to write about the English king who reigned for the shortest length of time — only 40 days.

His was only the second-shortest reign of any British monarch because Lady Jane Grey ruled England for nine days while imprisoned in the Tower of London. But her reign was contested and she was never actually crowned.

Sweyn Forkbeard was the first Viking king of England. He was crowned on December 25th, 1013 in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, but died there only five weeks later, on February 3, 1014.

Though his rule over England was brief, his impact on British and European history was not insignificant. Since 986 he had been king of both Denmark and parts of Norway. Several times he sent longboats to attack England but they were bought off with gold (Daengold) and the marauders returned home, in what became a very lucrative business.

However, King Æthelred the Unready was called “unready” (originally “unraed” meaning ill-advised) for a reason. He eventually figured he had paid too much Danegold to keep the Vikings out of the country. So on St. Brice’s Day, November 13, 1002 he and his men massacred every Dane they found. Among them was possibly Sweyn’s sister Gunhilde.

After this Sweyn could not be bought off with English money, and for the next decade one viking raid after another gradually weakened the English.

According to the Peterborough Chronicle (a historical record of those years), in 1013 Sweyn headed to England for his final assault.

In August Sweyn landed with his fleet of ships and took one city after another until he came to London. There, Æthelred allied himself with a former viking raider named Thorkell the Tall and managed to defend the city for a short while, but eventually that also fell to Sweyn and Æthelred and his family fled the country.

Sweyn’s impact was also felt through his son, King Cnut (also known as Canute, Knut or Cnut the Great) who once famously described the futility of human action with the analogy of holding back the tide. This became, in popular memory, a story about Cnut actually trying to hold back the water.

After Sweyn’s death, Æthelred returned briefly as king, but then Cnut ruled England from 1016 until his death in 1035. He also ruled Denmark from 1018 and Norway from 1028. Cnut’s two sons, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut ruled after him, but then the crown returned to the Anglo-Saxons until the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

After the deaths of Cnut’s sons, Sweyn’s line no longer ruled England, Denmark or Norway.

I want to look more at the idea of regal succession. How did Sweyn become king in the first place? Simple. He rebelled against his father, Harald Bluetooth, who was not only king of Denmark and later Norway, but also gave his name to one way our mobile phones communicate wirelessly. (Harald’s initials in runes are the origin of the modern symbol for bluetooth.)

In the mid-980s Sweyn ousted his father Harald, forcing him into exile where he died a few years later.

According to Adam of Bremen, a German, Christian medieval chronicler, the pagan Sweyn unseated his father because Harald had converted to Christianity. Or perhaps Sweyn seized on his father’s weakness, attacking him shortly after Harald had lost control of Norway. Either way, to paraphrase Simba, he just couldn’t wait to be king.

Throughout history the royal line has usually passed from father to son (or occasionally daughter and sometimes even to another relative when there were no children). Often, this was a peaceful transition. Occasionally, as in the case of Sweyn, there was a coup. The only times sovereignty ever passed to another family was when there were no close relatives, or if an outsider overthrew the monarch and seized power for himself.

I was unable to find a single case where the right to rule was passed peacefully and willingly to a non-relative if the king had children of his own.

Because we all grew up with the Bible stories, we fail to appreciate how unique the transition of power from Moses to Joshua actually was. Moses had two sons of his own who he had hoped would take over from him. Furthermore, not only was Joshua not related to Moses , but he was not even from the same tribe. Moses was a Levite, of the priestly class, a descendant of Levi, Jacob’s fourth son by Leah. Joshua was from the tribe of Ephraim, son of Jacob’s favorite — Joseph, Rachel’s son.

Only a few generations earlier, Jacob’s other sons had sold Joseph into slavery, claiming that he was trying to usurp the leadership from Leah’s son, Judah. Yet now Moses willingly handed the leadership over to Joshua at God’s command (Deuteronomy 3:28).

Command Joshua, strengthen and fortify him for he will cross over before this people and he will conquer for them the land that you see.

Not only did he willingly hand over leadership to Joshua, but according to the Midrash (Devarim Rabba 2:4) Moses would have gladly become one of Joshua’s subjects if he could only enter the land of Israel. Has there ever been another leader in history who pleaded for the right to become an ordinary subject under the rule of a leader from a different tribe?

That’s what I wanted to write about: Leadership — the contrast between King Sweyn deposing his father, and Moses gladly handing over his reign to Joshua.

But there is another theme alluded to in the Torah reading which may also have a loose connection to Sweyn.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 90a) states that one who does not believe that the resurrection of the dead is written in the Torah will have no portion in the World to Come. One of the verses cited (Sanhedrin 90b) to prove the resurrection is from this week’s portion (Deuteronomy 4:4):

You who cling to the Lord, your God, are all of you alive today.

The Talmud interprets this to mean that just as you are alive today, so you shall be alive in the ultimate day of the World to Come.

How does this relate to King Sweyn Forkbeard? Well, nobody knows for sure how he died (though it was almost certainly according to natural causes).

But according to Archdeacon Hermann’s Miracles of St. Edmund, written in 1069, Sweyn was stabbed in his bed by St Edmund. Edmund had died almost 150 years earlier, in 869. According to the legend, when Sweyn began attacking villages in England, the locals ran to Edmund’s tomb and asked him to intercede. The spirit of Edmund then appeared to Sweyn in a dream and warned him of the dire consequences that would follow if he continued his attacks. The ghost of the saint was then temporarily resurrected after the coronation to deliver the punishment.

Another way in which Sweyn prepared for the afterlife comes from Encomium Emmae, an 11th century text written in praise of Emma, consort of both Æthelred and Cnut. According to the text, before his death Sweyn asked his son to carry his body back to Denmark and bury him there.

Roskilde Cathedral, in Zealand, Denmark, claims to be the burial place of both Sweyn and his father Harald Bluetooth.

But the ultimate irony of this story is how Sweyn’s royal line actually lived on. Despite the fact that Danish rule over Britain ended with Harthacnut, the current British Royal Family are actually descended from Sweyn.

In the 15th century Margaret of Denmark married James III of Scotland. James’s great-great grandson was James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, and the ancestor of the British royal family.

So even after death we can live on through our children. And it is interesting to think that Queen Elizabeth II is a tiny bit Bluetooth.

4. Personality

Sweyn was a knowledgeable and open person, who did not neglect any opportunity to hear news from travelers. Adam reports: "Like all his guests, I was very graciously received, and from his mouth I have gathered a large part of this book's content. For he possessed a thorough scientific education, and was also extremely accommodating to foreigners."

Detail of mural at Sweyn Estridson's grave in Roskilde Cathedral. It is painted several hundred years after his death and have with great certaincy no likeness.

The saga of Magnus the Good says something similar: "Sweyn Ulvson was the most beautiful man He was very big and strong, a great athlete and very clever It was the speech of all men, who knew him that he had all the qualities that adorn a good chieftain."

Saxo also says that Sweyn was a kind and generous man: "While winning a famous name by generosity and kindness and considered to be perfect in respect of noble behaviour, he also made an enthusiastic effort to build and decorate churches and guide his people, who were still quite uninformed in religion, to a deeper worship of God."

Sweyn was intelligent and knowledgeable. He could probably read and write. None other than Pope Gregory the 7. wrote in a letter to him: "But as we have understood that you, noble and high king, distinguishs yourself over other kingdom's princes both with academic knowledge and in your zeal for church beautifying, we address with so much more confidence our letter to you, who we believe that we easier progress with you, the more you are known to have made progress in learning and wisdom of life."

Sweyn's literacy is confirmed by Saxo in the episode, where some students making fun of Sven's favorite, Svend Normand, had removed some letters from a prayer book, so that "servant of God" had become to "God's donkey", which the victim unwittingly read aloud in latin: "A servant is in latin called famulus, and now they had deleted the first two letters, so there stood mulus, which means a donkey. Those present burst into such an immense laughter at this his ignorance that the worship service was turned into a joke by this coarse joke. When the mass was over, the king had the book taken from the altar, and when he saw that it recently had been forged by envious hands, and that it was this forgery, that caused that the prayer had been read erroneously, he became angry."

Sweyn Estridson and bishop Wilhelm. Saxo brings the story of the close friendship between Sweyn and Bishop Wilhelm. Bishop Vilhelm once stopped King Sweym at the entrance to the church and forced him to a humiliating penance, because he had let some men kill in the church but the friendship between them was nevertheless so strong that William by the message of Sweyn's death let dig a grave to himself next to the grave of the king, thereafter he went to meet the burial procession and died as it approached. Probably, none of the stories are true.

Some historians have suggested that as the younger son of the murdered and disgraced Ulf Jarl it was originally planned that Sweyn should have an ecclesiastical career. It will explain his great knowledge and his literacy skills. We can only congratulate Sweyn that it did not materialize with his great appetite for women it would have been unbearable to live a life of celibacy.

There is no doubt that Sweyn himself was convinced Christian. It was not something he pretended to win the newly converted Danes' hearts in competition with the holy Magnus, the saint king's son. Harald Hårderådes Saga says that after the battle of Lofofjord the victorious Norwegians found a reliquary on Sweyn's ship: "In the aft end of King Svend's ship they found a shrine with the holy Vicentii Diaconi sanctuary and brought it with them." But even though he was a convinced Christian, he was not so unwise to demand of his people that they should pay tithing, as he his son, Canute the Holy, later did - with fatal consequences for himself.

Although Sweyn lost most of his battles - but won the wars - he was personally courageous. Harald Hårderådes Saga recounts that Sweyn and Harald met in battle in Lofofjord (which reportedly is also called Lagefjord), probably located somewhere in southern Halland: "King Svend did not flee before his ship was completely cleared".

Brave Svend not without cause
Left his ship in battle,
Surely that time high helmets
The hard iron has split,
For before the king fled,
The Jutlanders protector
So completely left to swim
His navy, retainers death.

Hakon Earl speaks with Vanråd. Drawing by Wilhelm Wetlesen in Heimskringla Nationaludgaven.

The Norwegians won the battle, and King Harald pursued the fleeing Danes. The Norwegian Hakon Jarl, however, remained on the place of the battle as he could not sail because of the damaged ships: "Then a man rowed to the Earl's ship in a boat and docked at the ships side It was a tall man with a wide-brimmed and big hat on his head" - "Where is the earl?" he said. The earl stood in th fore end room, and stopped a man's blood He looked at the man with the hat and asked about his name "It is Vanråd, here is," he said." - "The earl bowed over the shipboard to him, and the man in the boat said: "I will ask you about my life, Earl, if you will grant it to me." Hakon Jarl stood up, and called two men, whom he loved very much, and asked them to bring the man to the land "Vanråd has proven me very well," sagde han, "follow him to my friend Karl, and say this as a sign that it is me, who sends him, that he should give the horse, that I gave him the day before yesterday and his saddle and give him his son to show the way." - "This happened early in the daybreak."

Harald Hårderåde's Saga continues: "Then they went up to Karl's farm It started to become daylight, they went into the living room, where Karl just had been dressed was The earl's men told him their errand, Karl said that they should eat first, he let the table be set and offered them a hand wash. Then the wife in the house came into the room and said immediately: "It is strange that we have not been able to sleep or rest in the night for a moment because of of shouting and roaring." Karl said: "Do you not know that the kings have met in battle in the night?" "Who then got the upper hand?" she said. "The Norwegians have won," said Karl. She answered: "Then our king again had to flee." "There is no one who knows," Karl said, "whether he has fallen or fled." She said: "Some wretches we are, for the king we have, who is both lame and cowardly." The newly arrived guest said: "Let's rather believe what is more decent, my dear! That the king is not a fool, but he is not very victorious." Vanråd washed his hands, and when he took the towel, he dried himself in the middle of the same The woman grabbed the towel and tore it from him, and said: "A poor upbringing you've got, it is not good behaviour to make the whole hand cloth wet at once." Vanråd answered: "Yet again, I hope if God's will to live the day that we can dry ourselves in the middle of the towel." They sat down and ate and drank a while, and then left Karl's horse was then prepared, and his son prepared to accompany Vanråd, he had another horse they rode into the woods, but Hakon Jarl's men went down to the boat and rowed out to the Earl's ship."

Vanråd was Sweyn Estridson. Hakon Jarl had previously been King Sveyen's man, and he immediately recognized him and helped him to the forest. Sweyn rewarded the peasant Karl.

The name Vanråd mean literally bad advice and reveals a certain self-knowledge and self-irony. Perhaps he thought his plan had not been good enough to win the battle. It also reflects responsibility, as he did not blame others for the defeat.

"In the morning when the sun rose, they saw the Danes' ships" . Drawing by Wilhelm Wetlesen i Heimskringla National udgaven.

Alter plate from Tamdrup Church at Horsens exhibited at the National Museum. Christ sits on his heavenly throne with the holy book in his left hand. On his right side is a person in a worldly suit and on his left side a person with crown and headscarf, in worshiping position. It is assumed that they are Sweyn Estridson and his mother. Photo Kim Bach Wikipedia.

A more hard-boiled commander might have thought that if he really could lay hand on Harald Hårderåde, then it would in the long run save more lives than the few who swimmed around in the sea of Kattegat. But Sweyn was soft-hearted and could not sail past his countrymen in distress.

Harald Hårderådes Saga continues to describe Sweyn's soft-heartedness: "King Sweyn returned with his fleet to the south near Læsø, and found there seven Norwegian ships, which were manned by conscripts and peasants from Viken they asked for peace, and offered ransom for themselves. Many asked King Sweyn to have them killed, and said that all Norwegians should suffer for what King Harald had done. King Sweyn answered: "Only little desirable I find it in my destiny to miss the victory in the battle, and then to treat them badly, who themselves surrendered to my mercy since now that major victory escaped our grasp, so we bestow these freedom and life."

Keeping Vinland settled

Well, Portugal will be preoccupied with the Reconquista well into the middle of the 13th century, giving the Norse a de facto monopoly on Transatlantic trade for more than 200 years. Once they've finished fighting the Morisco, they'll still need a couple of decades to make their nation internally stable and economically capable of supporting such ambitious ventures. Still, with the motivation there, it is highly likely that the Portuguese Age of Exploration can begin well over a century before what in OTL was the time of Henry the Navigator. Portuguese sailors will probably reach the Caribbeans before the year is even 1350. I expect to see a hostile reaction from Vinland, Iceland and the Scandinavian countries when their monopoly on Transatlantic trade is finally toppled by the Portuguese.

However, such projections still doesn't take into account the Black Death, Turkish invasions into Eastern Europe and the Mongol invasions. Will they be the same ITTL as in OTL? I will have to go through the events each in order to see the full consequences of what the non-conversion of Olaf Tryggvason will be. we have already concluded that it will radically change Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, English and Scottish history. What happens when the ripples of this reaches middle and southern Europe remains to be seen.



For Irish colonization efforts, much would depend on the policies pursued by the two major High Kings of Ireland at the time of Vindland's discovery:

*Máel Sechnaill II mac Domnaill/Malachy II, son of Domnall (Donald) (c. 950-1022, reigned 980-1002, 1014-1022). His victory in the Battle of Tara (1980) resulted in the Kingdom of Dublin (a Norse-Gaelic state) falling under the political influence of the various High-Kings. See: and
*Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig/Brian Boru (c. 940-1014, reigned 1002-1014). His victory in the Battle of Clontarf (1014) left the Kingdom of Dublin once again unable to achieve full independence and deprived of their allies. In 1018, the Dubliners sacked Kells but this was their last victory for quite a while. Their fleet was destroyed by the Ulaid in 1022. Dublin briefly recovered its influence in the 1030s, when they allied with Canute the Great for combined attacks against the various Welsh states. They managed to create a Norse-Gael colony at Gwynedd. See: and

For Scotland, the discovery of Vinland falls in the reign of Cináed III mac Duib/Kenneth III, son of Dub (prior to 967 -1005, reigned 997-1005) who is something of a mystery. His father was king in the 960s, but it is uncertain how Kenneth himself gained the throne. While his predecessor Constantine III was reportedly killed in a civil conflict, it is uncertain whether Kenneth was even involved in that conflict. He was himself killed in a battle against his cousin Malcolm II, which might suggest that the civil war was still ongoing for his entire reign. A granddaughter of Kenneth, Gruoch, was married to Macbeth, King of Scotland (reigned 1040-1057). Her son Lulach succeeded to the throne, reigning briefly (1057-1058). See: and

For Scottish colonization, you might need to produce your own theories on the internal situation of Scotland/Alba.

England was at the time under the reign of Aethelred II the Unready (c. 965-1016, reigned 978-1013, 1014-1016) and under the constant threat of Denmark. "In 1001, a Danish fleet – perhaps the same fleet from 1000 – returned and ravaged west Sussex. During its movements, the fleet regularly returned to its base in the Isle of Wight. There was later an attempted attack in the south of Devon, though the English mounted a successful defence at Exeter. Nevertheless, Æthelred must have felt at a loss, and, in the Spring of 1002, the English bought a truce for 24,000 pounds. Æthelred's frequent payments of immense Danegelds are often held up as exemplary of the incompetency of his government and his own short-sightedness. However, Keynes points out that such payments had been practice for at least a century, and had been adopted by Alfred the Great, Charles the Bald, and many others. Indeed, in some cases it "may have seemed the best available way of protecting the people against loss of life, shelter, livestock, and crops. Though undeniably burdensome, it constituted a measure for which the king could rely on widespread support." "See:Æthelred_the_Unready#Conflict_with_the_Danes

In 1002, Aethelred elevated himself to the top of the list among Sweyn Forkbeard's many enemies. Through the St. Brice's Day massacre. "On 13 November 1002, Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danish men in England on St Brice's Day. No order of this kind could be carried out in more than a third of England, where the Danes were too strong, but Gunhilde, sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, was said to have been among the victims. It is likely that a wish to avenge her was a principal motive for Sweyn's invasion of western England the following year. By 1004 Sweyn was in East Anglia, where he sacked Norwich. In this year, a nobleman of East Anglia, Ulfcytel Snillingr met Sweyn in force, and made an impression on the until-then rampant Danish expedition. Though Ulfcytel was eventually defeated, outside of Thetford, he caused the Danes heavy losses and was nearly able to destroy their ships. The Danish army left England for Denmark in 1005, perhaps because of their injuries sustained in East Anglia, perhaps from the very severe famine which afflicted the continent and the British Isles in that year."

I can see a good motivation for English subjects to leave Great Britain, but on their own initiative. Aethelred is not going to like England loosing population while he is in desperate need of more soldiers.



Finnish paganism may have been distinct from Aesir and Vanir worship, but some distinct similarities have been noted. See:

For example, their chief deity seems to have been Ukko/Perkele, God of the Sky. Who seems to be, in either incarnation, another of the Thunder Gods/Storm Gods whose worship was so wide-spread in the Old World that certain myths appear in variations anywhere from Ireland and to India, from Scandinavia to Egypt. See: and and

Ukko is often depicted wielding Ukonvasara (Ukko's Hammer). An equivalent to the Mjölnir from Scandinavian mythology. Which suggests there was some connection between the worships and legends of Ukko and Thor. Conversely, Ukko's worshippers used the stone-axe as a symbol. There are references in Scandinavian legend where Mjölnir is depicted as an axe. Suggesting that the influence worked both ways. See: andölnir

Further to the east, the Baltic thunder god Perkūnas/Pērkons/Perkūns/Parkuns is often depicted as wielding either an axe or a sledgehammer. The Slavic thunder god Perun was also depicted wielding the Axe of Perun. Less oftenly, the Axe is turned into a hammer. See:ūnas and and

To the north, we have the Sami thunder godf Horagalles. "Horagalles was occasionally symbolized with a sledge in one hand and a cross-hammer in the other. Sometimes he was depicted with two crossed hammers." See:

I would expect religious syncretism to result from pagans from these different regions settling together in a new environment. With various roughly similar deities now clearly identified with each other. Wonder what they would make of the Thunderbird legends of the natives.


The butterflies could, I dunno, result in some Pan-Scandinavian alliance invading the Rus', sometime in the late 11th century, and driving the Russians further eastward, forcing them to adopt a new way of living, say nomadic. Have them continue further eastward, looking for new land, and have them reach Mongolia before Genghis Khan have unified the tribes (or even been born) and perhaps rather than having stories of the Mongol invasion of Europe, we have stories of the Russian invasion of Asia? Stories about the Russian siege of Kaifeng and the sacking of Zhongdu, with the merciless and barbaric Russians under the leadership of powerful warlords who title themselves as Knyaz.

Extremely handwavey, I'll admit, and probably won't survive closer scrutiny, but the best I can come up for now.

Considering how soon after the POD this massacre occurs, it would be pretty much impossible for this to be prevented. Æthelred will still become Sweyn's most hated enemy.

Sweyn's English business becomes more interesting later on. In 1013, OTL, he invades and is crowned king of England after having taken London. In 1014, Sweyn suddenly dies, an opportunity which exiled king Æthelred have no desire to miss, and he quickly returns to England to assume the crown, driving Canute out in the process. Canute returns to Denmark, gathers a fleet and conquers England for Denmark again the following year.

ITTL, Canute wasn't born nor his brother Harald. Assuming that Sweyn never found another consort, Denmark may well fall into a civil war over the throne. How the Norwegian and Swedish Crowns will react to this will be interesting to see. Preoccupied with a civil war, Denmark will not conquer England a second time, and Æthelred gets to continue his rule. In OTL, Æthelred dies in 1016, and I can't find information on the cause of his death. However, his sons, Edmund, Edward and Alfred are all still alive, and can continue to rule in England. Things get a bit annoying when Edmund (Ironside) dies less than a year after his father, and I can't seem to find any solid information on his death. According to some sources, his death was completely unexpected but out of natural causes. According to others, he was assassinated by orders of Canute. Most sources doesn't even mention the cause of his death, only the date at which it occurred. Anyone willing to help me?

In any case, if Æthelred's sons can continue to rule without the constant threat of a Danish invasion on them, then they might produce more heirs, thus avoiding the situation where England lacks an heir to the throne that happened in the 1060s. If so, then William of Normandy will have no reason to claim the English throne, averting the Norman invasion of 1066. For example, Edward the Confessor married Edith of Wessex to formalize an alliance between himself and Godwin of Wessex, the most powerful earl in England, who had supported Edward's ascent to the throne. Without any such support being necessary, it is likely that Edward choses a different consort and thus produces an heir to the throne.

As for Ireland and Scotland. Considering how extremely slow information travels in the 11th century, Vinland itself will probably remain known only to Icelanders and Greenlanders for at least a couple of year, eventually Norwegians, and through them Danes and Swedes will find out about it. The British Isles, with its nations often visited by Norsemen will probably be the next ones to find out about it, but probably not before a decade has gone through, and they will first seriously consider the place as something worth thinking about a couple of decades after that.

Finally, iron ore is good, very good, then mining on a smaller scale is only a few decades away!

The butterflies could, I dunno, result in some Pan-Scandinavian alliance invading the Rus', sometime in the late 11th century, and driving the Russians further eastward, forcing them to adopt a new way of living, say nomadic. Have them continue further eastward, looking for new land, and have them reach Mongolia before Genghis Khan have unified the tribes (or even been born) and perhaps rather than having stories of the Mongol invasion of Europe, we have stories of the Russian invasion of Asia? Stories about the Russian siege of Kaifeng and the sacking of Zhongdu, with the merciless and barbaric Russians under the leadership of powerful warlords who title themselves as Knyaz.

Extremely handwavey, I'll admit, and probably won't survive closer scrutiny, but the best I can come up for now.

Late 11th c., as in coinciding with the Cuman invasions?

Well, either Russia's screwed from both sides, or the Scandinavians get to discover what combat with steppe cavalry is like if the Russians ally with the Cumans (which they did against each other let alone Scandinavians). With the single exception of Svyatoslav who's a bit of a nuanced Varangian, history suggests the result won't be in the Scandinavian favour even if they brought every fighting man in the Baltic.

Legacy [ edit ]

One of the legacies of King Sweyn was a fundamental change in Danish society which had been based on whether a person was free or a bondsman. Sweyn is often considered to be Denmark's last Viking king as well as the first medieval one. A strengthened church in alliance with the land-owning noble families begin to pit their power against the royal family. The peasants were left to fend for themselves. ⎜]

Sweyn built a strong foundation for royal power through cooperation with the church. He completed the final partition of Denmark into dioceses by corresponding directly with the pope, bypassing the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen. During his reign hundreds of small wooden churches were built throughout the kingdom many were rebuilt in stone in the 12th century. Δ] Sweyn sought to create a Nordic Archbishopric under Danish rule, a feat which his son Eric I accomplished. ⎙]

Sweyn seems to have been able to read and write, and was described as an especially educated monarch by his personal friend Pope Gregory VII. ⎙] He is the source of much of our current knowledge about Denmark and Sweden in the 9th and 10th centuries, having told the story of his ancestry to historian Adam of Bremen around 1070.

991–1002: The First Struggles and Solutions

The First Danegeld

Six months after the treaty, though, the Vikings start raiding England again. They begin in Folkestone, and make their way via Sandwich and Ipswich to Maldon. The Battle of Maldon in late summer of 991 seems insignificant enough. But its outcome clearly tells Æthelred who his foes are. The two unlikely allies called Olaf Tryggvason and Sweyn Haraldsson. Both are Scandinavian princes seeking the crown of their respective countries, Norway and Denmark. After Maldon, they leave with a good amount of danegeld 17 and a message to keep away for good. But they stay to haunt southern England. 18 The danegeld is raised mainly by tributes, 19 and Æthelred uses all he has to buy himself time to build an army that can defeat Olaf and Sweyn.

The First of Many Betrayals

Remarkably, Æthelred never asserts himself as a military leader. Most of the time, he leaves the command to Ælfric of Hampshire and other noblemen. 20 Yet, he builds a large fleet and infantry by 992. He is determined trap Olaf and Sweyn in London and defeat them. Unfortunately, Ælfric is disloyal and flees the city. In the process, he leaves the door open for the Vikings to escape. 21

The raids continue. The Vikings know they have high-born allies to help them to get easy money. Consequently, the attacks increase in force and ferocity. So much, that even Anglo-Saxon commanders flee the battleground in Northumbria in 993, leaving Æthelred weakened once more. 22

Divide and Conquer

Two years later in 994, the citizens of London must defend their city again. This time, though, Æthelred has not had the time to raise another army. The city successfully defends itself, but Olaf and Sweyn take their anger to the countryside and devastate it until Æthelred offers them a winter camp at Southampton to make them stop. 23

Æthelred then makes a calculated move and offers the Vikings a treaty known as II Aethelred. Sweyn’s signature is not on this treaty, but Olaf’s is. 24 The treaty is the start of a strong alliance between Æthelred and Olaf. Æthelred supports Olaf with money and means to return to Norway and claim the throne. After 995, Olaf and Sweyn both disappear from England, both heading home to claim their thrones. They will not bother Æthelred as they fight each other for land and crown, that culminates in the Battle of the Svold in 1000 where Olaf dies. 25


Despite Olaf and Sweyn leaving England, the raids continue. Again, Æthelred raises an army. He has relied on the tributes, but it is easy to see how England’s wealth might have been depleted with years of relentless attacks and devastation of towns, the raising of multiple armies and defences. 26 He is clearly less inclined to sit back and wait. Instead, he lays waste on areas in England where Vikings are and then moves to invade Normandy. 27

Richard II, the new duke and son of Richard I, stops the invasion by defeating the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Val-de-Saire. He and Æthelred sign a new treaty. To secure a stronger and more lasting peace, Æthelred marries Richard’s sister, Emma of Normandy, in 1002 after the death of his first wife. 28 This marriage will be William the Conqueror’s claim to the English throne in 1066.

Æthelred continues this assertive kingship upon his return. He orders the death of Scandinavian criminals and outlaws in England. 29 What should have been a small, clean killing spree, turns into a death pool. On St Brice’s Day the English kill any Scandinavian they come across. And the one significant person said to have died on this day, is Sweyn Forkbeard’s sister. 30


  • English Monarchs – A complete history of the Kings and Queens of England
  • Britannia: Monarchs of Britain
  • Archontology
  • Kings of England
  • Æthelstan
  • Edmund I
  • Eadred
  • Eadwig
  • Edgar the Peaceful
  • Edward the Martyr
  • Æthelred the Unready
  • Sweyn Forkbeard
  • Edmund Ironside
  • Cnut the Great
  • Harold Harefoot
  • Harthacnut
  • Edward the Confessor
  • Harold Godwinson
  • Edgar the Ætheling
  • William I
  • William II
  • Henry I
  • Stephen
  • Matilda
  • Henry II
  • Henry the Young King
  • Richard I
  • John
  • Henry III
  • Edward I
  • Edward II
  • Edward III
  • Richard II
  • Henry IV
  • Henry V
  • Henry VI
  • Edward IV
  • Edward V
  • Richard III
  • Henry VII
  • Henry VIII
  • Edward VI
  • Jane
  • Mary IandPhilip
  • Elizabeth I
  • Kenneth I MacAlpin
  • Donald I
  • Constantine I
  • Áed
  • Giric
  • Eochaid
  • Donald II
  • Constantine II
  • Malcolm I
  • Indulf
  • Dub
  • Cuilén
  • Amlaíb
  • Kenneth II
  • Constantine III
  • Kenneth III
  • Malcolm II
  • Duncan I
  • Macbeth
  • Lulach
  • Malcolm III Canmore
  • Donald III
  • Duncan II
  • Donald III
  • Edgar
  • Alexander I
  • David I
  • Malcolm IV
  • William I
  • Alexander II
  • Alexander III
  • Margaret
  • First Interregnum
  • John
  • Second Interregnum
  • Robert I
  • David II
  • Edward
  • Robert II
  • Robert III
  • James I
  • James II
  • James III
  • James IV
  • James V
  • Mary I
  • James VI
  • Anne
  • George I
  • George II
  • George III
  • George IV
  • William IV
  • Victoria
  • Edward VII
  • George V
  • Edward VIII
  • George VI
  • Elizabeth II
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