The Many Deaths of Swein Forkbeard

Swein Forkbeard, one of the most notable figures of Scandinavian history, had a long and storied career. He overthrew his father, Harald Bluetooth, to become king of Denmark in the mid-980s, raided throughout the British Isles in the 990s and 1000s, and focused his attention on England in particular in the 1010s. After a whirlwind campaign in 1013, Swein was recognized as “full king” of the English, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, supplanting the ancient West Saxon dynasty and its incumbent king, Æthelred II.

But Swein’s reign was to last mere weeks. Swein died on February 3rd, 1014. His death is more than just a date, though: in a literary sense, Swein died many deaths, recounted by varying sources in vastly different ways. Accounts of his demise range from an old man dying in his bed to supernatural intervention by a vengeful saint.

An early and straightforward account comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is the ASC that tells us Swein died on February 3rd, 1014. Other than adding that this was a “happy event,” no other details are provided. This terseness can be interpreted in different ways. On one hand, it is probably important that such an early source says nothing of divine intervention or assassination. On the other hand, the ASC is known for its short, blunt annals, and it can be dangerous to argue from its silence.

Another account also portrays Swein’s death as unremarkable. According to the Heimskringla, a later medieval Scandinavian source, Swein died at night in his bed. Although late, perhaps the Heimskringla is accurate in its depiction of the fifty-something year old conqueror dying in his sleep without warning.

A more specific account comes from the Encomium Emmae Reginae. Although it is a relatively early source, from the 1040s, it is a minefield due to its political agenda. The Encomium portrays Swein’s demise as less sudden, presenting him as aware of his impending death and managing to lecture his son and eventual successor, Cnut, on the importance of Christian rulership before passing away – an ideal, even sanitized, death. The Encomium’s overtly religious and sterile account can be explained by the document’s purpose. It was written in honor of Queen Emma of Normandy, Cnut’s second wife. Unsurprisingly, its author went to great lengths to ensure that Cnut, Emma, and their royal family were portrayed in the best light possible – as pious, righteous rulers who succeeded to England not only because of their military might, but also because they were favored by God. Although some medieval writers like Adam of Bremen and Thietmar of Merseburg preferred to depict Swein as a mindless pagan barbarian, there is little doubt that Swein, as the son of a triumphant Christianizing king, was also Christian. In that sense, although it is propaganda, the Encomium may not be as far off base as it seems.

Regarding Swein’s death in particular, Thietmar writes that Swein was an old man: “death came to him very late…he was buried in the place where he died, as his companions fled.” Thietmar records that after Swein’s death and burial, an unnamed Englishwoman had Swein disinterred and returned to Denmark so that the old king Æthelred, triumphantly returning from exile, would not be able to desecrate the corpse. The Encomium includes a similar tale. The identity of this woman is a mystery, although it is possible that she is Ælfgifu of Northampton, Cnut’s first wife, who would have been one of the few individuals with the connections to relocate Swein’s body to Denmark while still meeting Thietmar’s criteria of being English. Disinterment stories aside, Thietmar’s acknowledgment of Swein’s advanced age for the era could lend some credence to the Heimskringla’s assertion that he died in his bed, and to the ASC’s straightforward and drama-free account. Another factor in Thietmar’s favor is that he was writing very early, just a few years after the events he describes. But far more fanciful stories were circulating by the end of the eleventh century, often involving divine intervention.

In the 1080s, Osbern of Canterbury wrote that Swein was killed by God in a “terrible” but unspecified way. Herman the Archdeacon, writing around the 1090s, claims that Swein was killed by the spirit of St. Edmund, a ninth century king of East Anglia who had been martyred by vikings. According to this legend, St. Edmund appeared to Swein and pierced him with a lance. This was divine punishment for Swein’s heavy taxation of the English, although Eleanor Parker has pointed out that the story also works as an allegory for oppressive taxation in Herman’s time. In the 1100s, John of Worcester recorded a variation of the St. Edmund tale that involved Swein falling from his horse:

He was surrounded by Danish troops crowded together, he alone saw St Edmund, armed, coming towards him. When he had seen him, he was terrified and began to shout very noisily, saying “Help, fellow-warriors, help! St Edmund is coming to kill me!” And while he was saying this he was run through fiercely by the saint with a spear, and fell from the stallion on which he sat, and, tormented with great pain until twilight, he ended his life with a wretched death on 3 February.

Modern interpretations of Swein’s death have been almost as imaginative. A 2013 BBC article includes an interview with a local historian of Gainsborough who speculates that Swein may have been assassinated by someone close to him. “Sweyn was ruthless and a lot of questions remain about who he may have upset at the time – was there someone within his court ready to stick the knife in?” It’s a headline-grabbing theory, but one not mentioned by medieval sources.

Whichever view one subscribes to, the aftermath of Swein’s death is well established. His son Cnut was unable to claim his father’s throne immediately, even though the viking fleet in Lindsey declared for him and was preparing to support him in further campaigns. Æthelred had returned from exile and was invited to resume his rule, as long as he behaved less harshly this time. Æthelred agreed and led an army at full force to Lindsey, where he expelled Cnut. Cnut returned in 1015, but it took another year of bloody fighting and the deaths of Æthelred and his heir, Edmund Ironside, to secure the Danish conquest of England. Cnut and his sons would go on to rule England from 1016-1042.

Cover image from The Life of St. Edward the Confessor.

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