St. Brice’s Day and the Danish Conquest

Cover image: a medieval illustration of Cnut the Great (right) battling Edmund Ironside (left), by Matthew Paris.

Re-evaluating a Medieval Revenge Tale

I’m writing this post on 13 November, an unlucky day in English history. Even unluckier, today is also Friday the 13th. 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 12th 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.

[7] Roach, 200.

[8] Roach, 201.

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