Posts Tagged ‘vikings’

Vikings in Oxford: What Led to the Attack of 1009 AD

January 27, 2022
Viking ships at sea with warriors on board. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration

“We all need earnestly to strive that we might gain God’s mercy and compassion, and that with his help we might resist our enemies. Now it is our will that all the people perform a general penance for three days on bread and herbs and water… and cry out urgently to Christ from their innermost heart.” Bishop Wulfstan’s law code composed for King Aethelred in 1009 AD

Even at the distance of 1000 years, you can feel the palpable sense of panic behind these words. The end of the world had not transpired as many had predicted with dread as the year 1000 approached yet England was scourged by continued Viking attacks which seemed unstoppable. The presence of the Antichrist hung like a malevolent cloud over the land and the people lived in a constant state of anxiety and nervous anticipation. No amount of penance, prayer or pleading seemed to do any good. No amount of money or valuables handed over by the king would make the raiders disappear across the sea.

Wulfstan’s law codes and sermons must have done little for morale and seemed to reinforce the idea that the English had brought their woes upon themselves by sinful behaviour and crimes against God’s laws which could only be redeemed by humble penitence, fasting and devotion to a Christian lifestyle. In an age where belief in divine favour was so crucially important, this relentless criticism of morality must have hit at the heart of Aethelred’s administration and further demoralised his forces. An army that feels they have lost before the first blow is struck is already set up to fail.

Wulfstan’s sermons echo the earlier writings of Alcuin of York who wrote to Athelred of Northumbria in 793 AD after the Viking raid on Lindisfarne

‘What may I say about avarice, robbery, violent judgments? – when it is clearer than day how much these crimes have increased everywhere and a despoiled people testifies to it. Whoever reads the Holy Scriptures and ponders ancient histories and considers the fortune of the world will find that for sins of this kind kings lost kingdoms and peoples their country; and while the strong unjustly seized the goods of others, they justly lost their own.’ (Somerville & McDonald, 186).

The underlying moral argument remained the same despite the distance between the two writers; the country was lawless and weak, society was corrupted and in need of firm governance and the people were suffering as a result of crime and lax morality. The heathen attacks were a punishment from God for wickedness, rather than the consequence of external factors such a land hunger or greed.

King Aethelred

King Aethelred had tried appeasement; offering 10,000 pounds in danegeld after his defeat at the Battle of Malden in 991 AD to see off one threat and another 22,000 pounds in gold and silver after further defeats in 993 AD and 994 AD. He encouraged conversion to Christianity in the hopes that the raiders might be persuaded against attacking a fellow Christian kingdom yet more attacks ensued as many Vikings only paid lip-service to their new religion or had been forcibly converted by leaders who had embraced a new religion for political reasons.

The Norman dukes, descending from the Norwegian Rollo who had become the first Norman ruler of the region after the Siege of Chartres in 911 AD with their shared Scandinavian ancestry facilitated raids on England; offering shelter and a convenient launch pad for successive Viking parties from their shoreline despite being Christian themselves. Athelred had married Emma of Normandy who was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy and Gunnor, his Danish wife in order to create an alliance and prevent further Viking attacks from Normandy but even this strategic move with the promise of Anglo-Norman heirs failed to prevent further violence.

Emma of Normandy receiving the ‘Encomium Emmae Reginae’ from its author, with her sons Harthacanute and Edward the Confessor in the background

Athelred also tried recruiting Viking mercenaries to counter-act other raiders but this policy also failed to prevent further sorties while the people continued to suffer at the hands of lawless men who took what they wanted and were never satisfied.

Things turned ugly in 1002 AD when Aethelred sanctioned the St Brice’s Day massacre on 13th November. A mass grave found in Oxford attests to the brutality of the attacks on Norse communities; whether they were mercenaries or merchants, strangers or neighbours who had been settled in the community for some years in an area not far from the border of the Danelaw established in the reign of King Alfred generations before. Excavations under St John’s College in Oxford found the remains of 36 victims; young men aged around 16-25 who had been murdered. The pattern of wounds on their skeletal remains suggests they were attacked from behind.

20 of the skeletons showed evidence of punctures in their vertebrae and pelvic bones, and 27 skulls were broken or cracked, indicating traumatic head injuries. From markings on the ribs, experts were able to ascertain that at least a dozen of the victims had been stabbed in the back, and attempts were made on 5 others. Some victims had suffered serious burns to their heads, backs, pelvic regions and arms. They were most likely taken out of the city and thrown into a mass pit in unconsecrated ground which had been on the site of an earlier pagan henge.

Excavation of a grave pit

Some had sought sanctuary in the church of Saxon St Frideswide but had been locked up inside and the church torched. A restoration of the church and re-dedication was required two years later by the king ‘with God’s aid’ but even this drastic action failed to prevent further attacks from the Norsemen. Some historians argue that the St Brice’s Day attacks were a state-sanctioned response to intelligence that the Danes in England planned to attack the king and his council and overthrow the monarch. The day was carefully selected as St Brice had been a penitential bishop who redeemed himself in the eyes of God. Aethelred was seeking to win back divine favour as well as rid himself of the Viking presence in the country to prove to his people that he could be a decisive and successful ruler favoured by the almighty who was capable of protecting his people and striking hard at their oppressors.

A similar mass grave pit has been excavated near Weymouth though the dating remains open to interpretation but does provide evidence of retribution attacks against Viking raiding parties by local communities during this period.

There have been recent reassessments of Aethelred’s effectiveness as a king with renewed focus on his attempts to divide the Viking forces and peel off individual leaders and turn them to Christianity, as seen in the case of King Olaf Trygvasson who did return to Norway and convert his people to Christianity. Although the traditional view of Aethelred as ‘ill-advised’, weak and a poor military tactician still tends to dominate assessments of his reign, it could be argued that he tried every means possible to prevent the attacks but it was virtually impossible to defend the whole coastline of the British Isles or to prevent successive waves of attack by different groups of Vikings.

One tactical error that would fan the flames higher however did result from the St Brice’s Day massacre. Gunhild was the daughter of Harald Bluetooth and Tove and sister of Svein Forkbeard. She was married to Palling Tokesen, Jarl of Devonshire and both were victims of the massacre which gave Svein the perfect excuse for retribution against the English in 1004 AD.

Was Oxford targeted in particular as retribution for the St Brice’s Day massacre or was it just in the path of successive raiding parties and therefore fair game? It’s strategic position was probably also a factor in the raids which followed. Oxford had already been burned by Viking attackers in 979 AD. There must have been visible evidence of the recent attack of 1004 around the city and recent memories of the violence that had been unleashed when the townspeople braced themselves for yet another attack in 1009 AD.

Wulfstan’s Sermon of the Wolf to the People, written around 1009 AD details God’s punishment for sinful behaviour

“Beloved men, know the truth. This world is in haste, and approaches its end. And so it is the worse in this world the longer it goes on, and because of the people’s sins it must needs worsen from day to day, until the coming of Antichrist.”

These great sins have overrun the country, Wulfstan said, and so the Danish raiders and invaders will never be defeated: “The English are now long victory-less, terribly demoralised through God’s anger.”

In this climate of fear, judgement and perceived sin, the English faced a great attack in the year 1009 AD.

Thorkell the Tall was leader of the legendary JomsVikings, a particularly feared group among the Viking raiders who operated under a strict military code and refused to retreat or show fear. He landed in Kent and attacked Canterbury, which managed to raise 3000 to pay him off, then turned south and swept across the country, pillaging and burning as he went and attacked Oxford in August 1009.

There is much debate about whether the JomsVikings were an actual raiding band or a semi-mythical invention by later Scandinavian sources to add weight to the terror of their Viking ancestry. The Gesta Danorum written in the C12th by Saxo Grammaticus recounts some of their history and exploits as mercenaries who were staunch believers in the old Norse gods but would fight for any lord who paid them sufficiently, even for Christians. The JomsViking Saga written in C13th Iceland further adds to their reputation as fierce warriors. There has even been a suggestion that the mass grave pit found near Weymouth could contain the bodies of JomsVikings based on incisions in the teeth of the victims and the manner of their death. The bodies show evidence that the men faced their executioners in the manner of the brotherhood who refused to show fear in the face of certain death but rather stare it in the face.

Gesta Danorum (Angers fragment)

Whoever Thorkell’s men were, they overcame the defences of Oxford and exacted a heavy toll on the inhabitants of the town. We can only imagine the violence and destruction that they inflicted and the resulting trauma to those who were in their path. Oxford’s Saxon Tower by St Michael at the North Gate was constructed between 1000 -1050 AD, in response to the Viking attacks. Along with the Saxon foundations of St George’s Tower at Oxford Castle which is thought to date to around 1025 AD, these two ancient towers are the earliest remaining structures to the period of the Viking threat in the city.

The Saxon Tower at Oxford

Click to access oxford.pdf