The St Brice’s Day Massacre: what really happened?
David Musgrove talks to Dr Ben Savill about the violence of 13 November 1002, when Danes in England were attacked
The 11th century in English history features its fair share of bloodshed in battles, but right at the start of the new millennium, there is one event that has always seemed to stand out for its violence: the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 13 November 1002.
“It continues to exercise a curious allure over successive generations of undergraduate essay-writers and their lecturers, whose own occasionally lurid interest follows a historiographical tradition going back almost a millennium, beginning with the Norman observers who sought to depict the event as one of the great, gory English national sins justifying the conquest of 1066.”
That’s a quote from Dr Benjamin Savill, of Trinity College, Dublin, in his article Remembering St Brictius: Conspiracy, Violence and Liturgical Time in the Danish Massacre of 1002, published in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History.
The massacre is a striking incident, but one for which we have only limited evidence (in common with most of the events of the period). There is a reference to it in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which notes that “in this year the king ordered to be slain all the Danish men who were in England”, and a further more detailed comment in a diploma of King Æthelred (the reigning monarch at the time) for the monastery of St Frideswide, Oxford, of 1004. That diploma describes how the Danes in that city sought sanctuary in a church, which was set upon and burnt down by “all the people in pursuit”.
Archaeological evidence has recently supplemented those sources, with discovery and excavation of mass graves in Oxford and Dorset. Both excavations, but particularly the Oxford one, have been linked to the events of November 1002 as possible mass execution sites.
Listen: Benjamin Savill discusses the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, in which Danes living in England were killed, apparently on royal orders, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
With that limited dataset, the question of how widespread the violence was, and whether it deserves to be called a massacre at all, has been subject to considerable academic debate. Dr Savill spoke to the HistoryExtra podcast, and this is his take on the matter:
“It depends on what you're reading. If you're looking at the later sources coming from the Normans and Anglo-Normans, it was depicted as hyper-bloody, with babies being snatched and thrown out of windows and stuff like that, and it was happening all across the nation. Our only really concrete evidence for it is what we see in Oxford. But the point to make is the fact that this gets its own big entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is pretty laconic most of the time, signifies that this was a serious event.
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“In the Chronicle,” says Dr Savill, “they phrase it as something that applies to the kingdom at large. The thinking across the last few decades is that perhaps we’re not looking at total genocide, but that small groups of settlers within towns, people who were with the Danish army – mercenaries or former mercenaries – were killed on that day. You get into slightly dodgy territory by down-talking massacres, but what’s important is that this clearly played a significant role in public memory. Whatever size it was, it was perceived as significant and that's the key point.”
What’s important is that this clearly played a significant role in public memory
To grasp why the Danes living in England at the start of the 11th century were singled out for such treatment, you have to understand the context of the reign of King Æthelred II. Famous for his posthumously applied and pejorative moniker of ‘the Unready’, he has been the subject of some revision in recent years and with a corrective challenge to the view that he was on an “endless hapless downward path of eventually losing the kingdom”. Scholars have recently emphasised how the state was well-managed and centralised in his reign, and that he himself was calculating, rather than incompetent.
Æthelred had a long reign, from 978–1016, and one punctuated by serious incursions from Viking raiders. Æthelred’s response to the arrival of Viking forces in great numbers in the 990s was to pay them off, and to employ them as mercenaries. As a consequence in 1002, there was a truce, but also considerable concern about a court conspiracy, with the Danes there implicated in a plot to overthrow the king.
Academics have argued that, rather than an unregulated bout of mob violence, the events of 13 November 1002 were a planned response to this conspiracy plot, possibly drawn up by reform-minded churchmen among Æthelred’s counsellors.
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According to Dr Savill, a second and more interesting strand to the revision of Æthelred (for this, he recommends Prof Levi Roach’s recent biography Æthelred The Unready) has been to “emphasise the degree to which the idea of religion and reform really comes into play from the 990s. Æthelred is what we might call a penitential king, who publicly admits and arguably does penance for his own personal sins. This was linked to the creation of the idea of the English as God's people, a theocratic kingdom that would look good in God's eyes”.
That’s important in the context of Dr Savill’s interpretation, which is that not only was the massacre a planned act, but that it was planned specifically to take place on the feast day of St Brice. Brice, or Brictius, was a fifth-century bishop of Tours in what’s now northern France. As a saint he cuts a curious figure because in life, he was unpopular as bishop, faced a conspiracy from his own subjects, did penance, and then returned triumphantly. There were parallels therefore to King Æthelred, and Brice perhaps offered a suitable saintly figure who might intercede and help drive out the Danes.
If we accept that the 13 November violence was planned as a response to the presumed conspiracy, and that also Æthelred and his advisors were committed to penitence and religious reform, then in Dr Savill’s view, the link to St Brice is a way to control the narrative, an attempt to ensure that the violence was read not as a massacre, but as an act of legitimate state justice.
“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle specifically says that this was done on the day of the mass of St Brictius because there was a conspiracy to overthrow the king in his kingdom. And I think given how absolutely committed Æthelred and his advisers were to religious practice, to reform, to the cult of saints, by the first decade of the 11th century, that it is not a coincidence that they chose this particular day to frame this very problematic political action that they're undertaking.”
If that was their aim, Æthelred and his advisors failed. Events got out of hand and out of their control, as exemplified by the burning of the church in Oxford. Thus the 13 November 1002 has come down to us as a massacre, and a scar on public memory, rather than the act of saint-sanctioned legitimacy that Dr Savill suggests was the aim.
Dr Ben Savill was talking to David Musgrove on the HistoryExtra podcast