Monday, November 13, 2006

November 13

EthelUnIt has been one thousand and four years since the St. Brice's Day Massacre, when the English King Aethelred ("The Unready") ordered the killing of every Dane in his country. Explanations for the slaughter are varied. According to the 12th century chronicles of John of Wallingford, the English -- particularly the men -- resented the Danes because of their impeccable cleanliness, which made them somewhat more appealing to the local women. More plausibly, Ethelred was motivated by concerns that the Danes were plotting against his rule. Indeed, the Danes had occupied and governed much of the central and eastern regions of England (known as "Danelaw") since the late ninth century; although the English kings had gradually eroded the holdings of Danelaw, Viking raiders had accelerated their raids against the countryside since a.d. 980, extracting tributes that depleted the nation's wealth.

In November 1002, Aethelred announced that the cleansing would begin:
For it is fully agreed that to all dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since 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 cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death . . . .
Wallingford and William of Jumieges among other later chroniclers reported that Danish women were buried waist-deep in the earth before being set upon by mastiffs; children were crushed with rocks. It being harvest month, English mobs used farm implements to dispatch their victims. Few were spared. Aethelred was particularly pleased to report that the Danish population of Oxford, "striving to escape death," took refuge in St. Frideswide's Church. When their pursuers were unable to force them from the church, "they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books."

Unremarked in Aethelred's account, of course, was the fact that none of the refugees survived the fire. He generously appropriated funds for the reconstruction of the church.

The Danes would have their revenge soon enough, as Aethelred's shortsighted policy only magnified the anger of Sweyn Forkbeard, the ruler of Denmark, whose sister Grunhilde was among those killed on 13 November 1002. The following year, Forkbeard commenced a ten-year campaign that ultimately sent Aethelred aflight to Normandy in 1013. Alas, Forkbeard was only able to savor his victory for a short time. Five weeks after taking the crown of England in December 1013, the vengeful Dane died unexpectedly.