The Anglo-Saxon Invasion of Normandy: When, if at all, did it take place?

Æthelred’s plan was to invade Normandy and capture Duke Richard II.

Sometime around 1060-1070, a Norman monk named William of Jumieges wrote of an earlier, undated English attack on Normandy. The invasion had been led by Æthelred II, better known as Æthelred the Unready, who reigned from 978-1016. William described the event in colorful, bordering on florid, detail, noting that Æthelred’s plan was to invade Normandy and capture Duke Richard II. However, the English were opposed by a local leader named Nigel (sometimes written Neel or Niel) and a force of angry peasants who soundly defeated Æthelred [1]. 

Few historians would be willing to accept the dramatic details of this account at face value, but some Anglo-Saxon academics seem to believe the account has a historical core. In other words, even if Æthelred did not really blush with embarrassment after being defeated by peasants, the English very well could have crossed the channel and raided Duke Richard II’s territory. But when exactly did this raid take place — if it took place at all?

Background: English and Norman Relations During Æthelred’s Reign 

Regardless of the attack’s dating and historicity (we’ll get there), it would be helpful to understand the context of this alleged invasion. Æthelred had ruled England since his childhood. He came to the throne in 978, around the age of 11 (most historians believe Æthelred was born sometime between 966 and 968). Little of note occured during his minority, but intermittent viking raids affected English coastal areas in the 980s [2]. 

In the early 990s, we find our first connection between Æthelred and Normandy. A peace agreement between Æthelred and Duke Richard I was mediated by Pope John XV’s legate, Leo of Trevi [3]. The agreement states that neither ruler should aid the other’s enemies, but who are those enemies? For Æthelred, it has long been assumed that his enemies were the vikings, but we should not rule out more mundane possibilities, such as political exiles [4]. The treaty is dated to 991, a year that also saw the English fight the Battle of Maldon against the viking Olaf Tryggvason. Maldon is often seen as a watershed moment in English history — as the point when viking incursions evolved from local nuisance to national threat. I’ve never been too fond of “watershed moments” in general, and many would argue that the arrivals of Sweyn Forkbeard in 1003 and Thorkell the Tall in 1009 were far more significant to the decline of Æthelred’s kingdom. Nonetheless, the early 990s did see escalating viking raids on England and it’s curious that this aligns with the treaty’s date. No matter what prompted the treaty, Richard I and Æthelred II were obviously on poor terms prior to the pope’s intervention.  

The next connection between Normandy and England comes in 1000, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that the vikings had left England and taken refuge in “Richard’s kingdom.” Richard I had died in 996, so this is his son, Richard II. In the same entry, the Chronicle says Æthelred took advantage of the vikings’ absence by leading an army to Strathclyde (Cumbria) and “ravaging very nearly all of it,” while his navy harassed the Isle of Man at the same time.

The third notable link between England and Normandy occurs in 1002, when Æthelred married Emma, Richard II’s sister. Emma was crowned queen, which is notable because Æthelred’s previous wife had little to no political standing, and certainly was not elevated to the rank of queen. Emma’s status as English queen must have greatly enhanced the prestige of Normandy, but what was in it for Æthelred? Presumably, the king sought Richard II’s cooperation against the vikings, or at least wanted him to close his ports to the raiders; remember that in 1000, the Chronicle places the vikings in “Richard’s kingdom.”

Normandy was absent from English politics in any meaningful sense for a decade after the marriage. Normandy became significant again in 1013, when the Danish king Sweyn had overrun large parts of England, leaving Æthelred with control of only London. Emma and her children by Æthelred fled the country at this time, sailing to her brother’s court in Normandy [5]. Æthelred stayed behind to defend London, but when London did finally capitulate, the king also sought refuge in Normandy. At least from what the Chronicle tells us, this is the first concrete benefit of the marriage alliance between Æthelred and Emma. Æthelred may have benefitted in other ways, but we have been left no record of them. At the very least, he had a safe place to go after being expelled from his own nation. Early the next year, Sweyn died and Æthelred was invited to reclaim his crown — as long as he agreed to certain conditions [6]. Still living in Normandy, Æthelred sent envoys to England to negotiate his return to power. Once the negotiations were complete, he left Normandy in spring 1014, arriving to widespread support in southern England. He attacked Cnut (Sweyn’s son) shortly after this, expelling the vikings from the country. Æthelred died two years later amidst renewed viking attacks, aged about 49 [7].

Anglo-Saxon Historians on the Normandy Invasion

So, with this summary of Anglo-Norman relations in mind, let’s take a look at what experts have to say about the alleged invasion of Normandy, which is not mentioned in the Chronicle. Ann Williams is somewhat skeptical of the account in her Æthelred biography, owing to William of Jumieges’ confused chronology, [8] but not all scholars have expressed similar reservations. For example, Ryan Lavelle readily accepts the account in his 2002 biography of Æthelred. After a lengthy analysis, he concludes that “there is no valid reason to expect the account of William of Jumieges to have been anything other than correct” [9]. He also mentions the Normandy attack in Alfred’s Wars [10]. Eric John also includes the invasion, without questioning its historicity, in his memorable Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England [11]. Levi Roach mentions William of Jumieges’ tale in his own Æthelred biography, but clarifies that it should be “treated with caution” due to its “unreliable” chronology [12].

However, Richard Abels, in his 2018 Æthelred biography, omits the Normandy invasion entirely — the only campaign led by Æthelred that he does not discuss [13]. It’s not hard to see why, though; this event is one of the murkiest details of an already dimly-lit era. It’s not mentioned in the Chronicle, one of the few broadly-focused sources of the era. It has little to do with Æthelred’s overall struggle against the vikings (although it does have a tenuous connection if Æthelred was trying to disrupt Normandy as an area of Norse influence). It does not directly connect to the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, with Æthelred’s remarkable expressions of piety, or with his exile and triumphant return. 

Non-Academic Interpretations of the Normandy Invasion

In fact, the Normandy invasion is so obscure that little about it has made its way onto the internet — it has still stayed, for the most part, contained to the middle chapters and footnotes of strictly academic books. I could find only two detailed references to it online. The first was on a site called Military Wikia, which summarizes William of Jumieges’ account and adds occasional analysis, citing a single French source (Francois Neveux’s A Brief History of the Normans) but, curiously, not William’s account itself. The second comes from a blog post by author A.J. Sefton, which also largely summarizes William of Jumieges’ version. Military Wikia and Sefton both call it the Battle of Val-de-Saire. A website called English Monarchs makes brief reference to the invasion, if only to condemn Æthelred for his foolishness (the page is a safe haven for many of the most antiquated views on the king). Aside from those, though, I could find no supplemental detail outside of the handful of academic works I mentioned earlier.

So we already have very little to go on. However, this under-researched conflict in Æthelred’s reign is still worthy of attention. It’s a fascinating event, and one that helps fight back against the prevailing view (at least in popular culture) of Æthelred as a battle-shy monarch. But when did this alleged invasion take place, and should we consider it a historical event at all?

Dating Æthelred’s Normandy Invasion

Ryan Lavelle believes Æthelred’s attack took place c. 1000, while Levi Roach places it c. 1002 [14]. Here we have two of the foremost Æthelred experts placing the alleged invasion within a two-year span, which is remarkable considering that William of Jumieges does not provide a year at all. 

How have these scholars managed to narrow the attack down to a two-year range? Let’s start with the obvious and work our way backwards. The supposed invasion of Normandy must have taken place during Æthelred’s reign (978-1016) and can be further narrowed down to the years when Æthelred and Richard II were both in power. Richard II ruled Normandy from 996-1026, so our range of years is now 996-1016. However, it would be nearly unthinkable that Æthelred would have attacked Richard after the marriage to Emma, which further shrinks our range to 996-1002. We’re getting pretty close now, but we still aren’t quite there. I suspect there are two main reasons for the narrower 1000-02 estimate.

First, the Chronicle places the vikings in Normandy in 1000, not earlier. Æthelred clearly wants to punish the Normans for something in William’s account, and the Chronicle gives us a very strong motive when it independently notes that the Normans had been giving vikings shelter. Hadn’t the Normans and English agreed to avoid such practices in their 991 treaty? It could be that the agreement effectively terminated with Richard I’s death in 996 [15]. Either way, though, giving shelter to a viking force that had just been in England (!) was reason enough for Æthelred to be angry. 

Second, remember that Æthelred conducted two similar raids on Norse-influenced territory at this time: against Strathclyde (or Cumbria) and the Isle of Man, both in 1000. The Chronicle considers them part of the same expedition, an amphibious campaign that involved Æthelred marching north by land with his army, while his navy “went out round by Chester”. When the ships failed to make contact with the king’s land force, they ravaged the Isle of Man. So we know from the Chronicle that Æthelred was already engaging in behavior like this at precisely this time.

Alternative Dating

However, not everyone has placed the Normandy invasion at the start of the eleventh century. Eric John mentions that “it seems sensible to suppose [the treaty of 991] followed the invasion” [16]. While it does seem possible for the 991 treaty to be a side-effect of armed confrontation, William’s original words make this doubtful. Even though both dukes in question are named Richard, William identifies his Richard as the brother of Emma, so it can only be Richard II. I don’t think John meant to imply that there could have been two English invasions of Normandy; there is no reason to duplicate Æthelredian attacks without compelling evidence, so he most likely mixed up his Richards (an easy thing to do when dealing with turn-of-the-millennium Normandy). 

Williams declines to provide an exact date at all, which is understandable given the odd chronology of William of Jumieges’ account (for example, Nigel, who supposedly repelled Æthelred’s attack, does not appear until the 1020s, well after Æthelred had died) [17]. 

The only other non-1000-02 date I could find comes from a non-academic source, the aforementioned English Monarchs site. The site’s page for Æthelred says that, “Behaving with his customary arrogance, Ethelred succeeded in alienating his new brother-in-law and made an unsuccessful attempt to invade Normandy.” Judging by the word “new,” the page’s author seems to mean the invasion took place after Æthelred and Emma’s marriage, but not by much. So let’s call it 1003-04. I find this dating implausible, mainly because such an act would be incredibly stupid, even by Æthelred’s standards. Æthelred did make colossal errors in judgement from time to time, such as the St. Brice’s Day Massacre or his decision to assassinate Sigeferth and Morcar in 1015. But the idea that Æthelred would enter a marriage alliance and immediately break it is well outside the realm of possibility. It’s also worth noting that it’s hard to find a monarch who reigned as long as Æthelred who didn’t commit some severe errors of judgement; 38 years is a very long time to rule mistake-free.

So is the Invasion of Normandy a Historical Event?

Unfortunately, answering such a question is rarely straightforward, so it’s more helpful to think in terms of probability than “totally true vs. totally untrue.” As for the flamboyant details, like a blushing Æthelred and the dialogue that takes place between Æthelred and one of his soldiers, I think it’s safe to store them away as fiction. 

But as for the general core of the idea, that Æthelred attacked Normandy, I don’t think there is any strong reason to disbelieve it. We have been presented with the account from William and supplemented it with detail from the Chronicle and from papal negotiations, and it’s clear that there was tension between England and Normandy at this time. As for Æthelred’s marriage to Emma, it’s true that marriage alliances between friendly kingdoms did take place in the Middle Ages, but England and Normandy (as shown earlier) were not friends. This makes the marriage look far more like a diplomatic solution to long-running tensions. 

With that said, how likely is it that Æthelred would risk his people’s lives (and his own) to attack a neighboring territory? Well, judging by the Chronicle, very likely. He did the exact same thing with Strathclyde and the Isle of Man in 1000. Inside his own country, he had attacked Rochester in 986 in response to a land dispute. He led an army against Cnut in 1014, as well. Cnut then put to flight, “leaving his allies to endure Æthelred’s very bloody reprisals,” in the words of Eric John [18]. 

Despite Æthelred’s (largely outdated) reputation as a passive and militarily inactive ruler, his martial abilities are the least of my concerns. In fact, I feel so strongly that Æthelred was militarily resourceful that I wrote a short book about it. He was no Æthelstan or Edward the Elder, but he was more than willing to lead his men in person and campaign in enemy territory. 

So with all that in mind, it’s looking more and more like the Normandy attack fits snugly into English history c. 1000. 

William of Jumieges’ poor chronology is cause for reservation, but not enough for me to disregard the source as a whole. I accepted the core of a much later account in my book, where I concluded that Olaf Haraldsson probably did help Æthelred retake London in 1014, despite the account’s late composition, its dramatic details, and some occasional diversions from the Chronicle [19]. Another source, De obsessione Dunelmi, has far more egregious chronology errors when discussing Æthelred (it’s about 40 years off), but that has not stopped academics from using that portion of the source [20].

Perhaps the biggest strike against William’s account is that it does not appear in the Chronicle [21]. The Chronicle is the most valuable account of English politics in Æthelred’s reign, and many of its entries can be corroborated by other sources. For example, the Chronicle mentions a battle at Maldon in 991, which is also the subject of an epic poem. In 986, the Chronicle says Æthelred ravaged Rochester, which is confirmed by two later writers (Sulcard of Westminster and Osbern of Canterbury) and by Æthelred’s own charters. However, I would be wary of using the Chronicle’s silence as the main basis for discrediting the attack. If the attack made no sense in the political context of the time, I would be more likely to write it off. But it does make sense in the political context of the time: England and Normandy had been at odds for at least a decade (judging by the treaty), Normandy had been offering shelter to vikings, Æthelred had been embarking on punitive campaigns, and something prompted these two unfriendly territories to seek a marriage alliance [22]. 

So in all, yes, I think it’s probable that Æthelred the Unready really did attempt to invade Normandy around the year 1000, even if it cannot be proven beyond a doubt. Suspicion should fall on William’s identification of Nigel as the Norman defender, and on his more theatrical details, but I do not think the general premise of the account should be discarded. 

Notes

  1. William of Jumieges, Gesta Normannorum Ducum, translated by Elizabeth M. C. Van Houts (Claredon Press, 1995).
  2. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle (ASC) records attacks in 980-982 and 987-88, but none from 983-86.
  3. See Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents 500-1042: Second Edition (Routledge, 1979; online version from the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2007); Ann Williams, Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King (Bloomsbury Academic, 2003), 43-44; Ryan Lavelle, Æthelred II: King of the English 978-1016 (Tempus, 2002), 51; and Levi Roach, Æthelred the Unready (Yale University Press, 2016), 117, 187.
  4. Roach, 117.
  5. ASC 1013-14.
  6. Brandon M. Bender, “The Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta: Æthelred the Unready’s Agreement of 1014.” Presented at The Kansas Association of Historians, 2019.
  7. ASC 1014-16.
  8. Williams, 55.
  9. Lavelle’s full analysis in Æthelred II can be found on pages 97-99, with the quoted sentence on page 99.
  10. Lavelle, Alfred’s Wars, 9-10.
  11. Eric John, Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester University Press, 1996), 141.
  12. Roach, 187.
  13. Richard Abels, Æthelred the Unready: The Failed King (Penguin, 2018).
  14. Lavelle, Æthelred II, 97-99. Roach, 187.
  15. Roach, 187.
  16. John, 141.
  17. Williams, 55.
  18. John, 148.
  19. Bender, England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready (Rounded Globe, 2019), 55-58.
  20. Ibid., 37-39.
  21. Lavelle makes the same point in Æthelred II, 99.
  22. ASC 1000, 1002.