13 November 1002: Æthelred massacres the Danes on St Brice’s Day

Anglo-Saxon king oversees an “early form of ethnic cleansing”


It is one of the most tantalising and controversial passages in the entire Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In the same year, says the entry for 1002, “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 [curse] him of his life, and afterwards all his council, and then have his kingdom without any resistance.”

More than a millennium later, the St Brice’s Day Massacre remains one of the most blood-curdling events in English history. The king in question was Æthelred II, known to generations of children as the Unready – which really meant ‘ill-advised’. For years the king had been struggling to cope with Viking raids on England’s shores. Often Æthelred paid the raiders off and allowed them to settle in the eastern part of his country, known as the Danelaw, where Scandinavian settlers already used Danish language and law. But shortly after the turn of the new century, the king’s patience ran out.

We will never really know the tensions and motives that provoked Æthelred to order the extermination of the Danes in England. Nor will we know how many were killed, although possible sites for mass graves have been identified in the West Country and Oxford, where a royal charter later described Danish men being burned alive in St Frideswide’s Church. Given the locations, it seems that the Danelaw itself was exempt: historians suggest that this early form of ethnic cleansing was directed against arrogant young Viking mercenaries who had recently settled in the west.

But the massacre was a political disaster. Just a year later, Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, invaded England. And within a decade, Æthelred was in exile and Sweyn was master of England. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

Read more: Viking apocalypse: the invasion that spelled doom for the Anglo-Saxons

13 November 1761

British soldier Sir John Moore was born in Glasgow. Moore first saw active service during the American War of Independence and served in Corsica, Ireland, Holland, Egypt and the Baltic before losing his life at Corunna in Spain in 1809.

13 November 1849

English painter William Etty died in York, the city of his birth. A statue of him stands outside York Art Gallery. Etty, who never married, is best known for his opulent paintings of the female nude.

13 November 1850

Scottish novelist, poet and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh. Both his father and grandfather were lighthouse engineers and the family had initially hoped that the young Robert would follow in their footsteps.

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13 November 1887

Police clash with demonstrators in Trafalgar Square in the first ‘Bloody Sunday’.

13 November 1908

Andrew Fisher becomes fifth prime minister of Australia. Born in Scotland, he became a miner aged ten. His trade union activities made it difficult for him to find a job and he emigrated in 1885. His three periods in office will see social reform, creation of the Royal Australian Navy and Commonwealth Bank, construction of the trans-Australian railway and Australia's entry into the First World War.

13 November 1940: Fantasia makes movie history

Walt Disney’s animation receives rapturous praise from critics

“At the risk of being utterly obvious,” began the New York Times’s review on 14 November 1940, “let us begin by noting that motion-picture history was made at the Broadway Theatre last night with the spectacular world première of Walt Disney’s long-awaited Fantasia.”

The Times was not exaggerating. Four years after Walt Disney had come up with the idea of interweaving animation and classical music, and at a then-enormous cost of more than $2m, Fantasia was the cultural sensation of the season. Not only had the film devoured the talents of some 1,000 animators, but Disney had spent a colossal $200,000 devising a special new sound system, Fantasound, to “create the illusion that the actual symphony orchestra is playing in the theater”.

All this, just for a film about classical music? Disney’s usual distributors, RKO, got cold feet and refused to organise a general release. But when Fantasia opened in New York’s Broadway Theatre, the reaction was sheer ecstasy.


With London under siege by Adolf Hitler’s bombers, proceeds from the premiere went to the British War Relief Society. Everybody wanted to be there, and the theatre even had to take on extra telephonists to cope with the demand. And the reviewers were bowled over by Disney’s extraordinary ambition. Fantasia might be “caviar to the general”, wrote one critic, but it was “ambrosia and nectar for the intelligentsia”. It was “simply terrific”, agreed the New York Times, “as terrific as anything that has ever happened on a screen”. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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