The Danish Invasion

Some writers believe that Olaf was at last converted to Christianity and baptised by a hermit who had correctly predicted his future and go on to say that he never again attacked Christian England. Other versions state that he received baptism at Andover at a meeting with Ethelred and, although promising to keep the peace, was considered by the Chronicle to be as dangerous as ever.

As if these events were not enough to occupy Ethelred, in 995AD, the Scots, led by Kenneth and taking advantage of the troubles in England, launch an attempt to seize the North East. The monks of St Cuthbert fled the area to escape the Scots and settled for a time in Ripon. The Scots invasion was eventually defeated by Uhtred, Earl of Bamburgh who later provided labour to build a new church at Durham and also fortified the town.  The Chronicle recorded the appearance of a comet “a long haired star” in the heavens which is reckoned a bad omen.

The next five years saw yet more ravaging by the Danes who, it seems, were unstoppable. In 997AD they attacked Devon, Cornwall and Wales and then sailed south into the mouth of the Tamar where they slaughtered the inhabitants of Lydford and burned the town.

The following year they attacked Dorset and went inland “as widely as they pleased”. The Chronicle relates that troops were often gathered against them but, “ as soon as they should have come together, always in some way, flight was ordered”, which illustrates not only the poor and indecisive chain of command from Ethelred and the Witan, but also the lack of confidence of the local commanders.

The Danes by now where moving freely wherever they fancied and although attempts were made to stand against them, the lack of clear leadership and the shortage of trained troops made it easy for the invaders to ravage at will. Kentish troops were assembled at Rochester in 999AD to oppose the Danes with the promise of reinforcements by Ethelred to destroy the invaders. Indecision resulted in the non arrival of the reinforcements and the Kentish force was defeated. The Danes then roamed throughout West Kent burning and killing as they pleased.

The situation was now so serious that the king and his advisors feared a total Danish takeover of the country. A great plan was devised where combined land and sea forces would be brought together to destroy the invaders once and for all, but the same indecisions and delays become evident in the Chronicle’s comment that, “but when the ships were ready there was delay from day to day, which exasperated the wretched people who were waiting on the ships and always when things ought to have advanced, so they were the more delayed and always let the enemy’s numbers grow”.

In the year 1000AD, the Danes ceased their raiding and for a while and left for Normandy. This was probably due to Ethelred’s inability to continue paying vast sums in Danegeld.  He used this period of relative calm to punish some northern areas seen as being to pro Danish, such as Cumberland and Strathclyde which suffered much devastation at his hand.

Surprisingly, throughout the conflict, the Danes who had settled in England had remained staunchly loyal with many achieving high positions in the nobility. One such was Pallig Tokeson, Earl of Devonshire who, by 1001AD had become so disgusted at Ethelred’s inability to defend his lands that he defected to Swein Forkbeard.

Together they raided throughout the West Country with impunity until Kola, the king’s High Reeve managed to make a stand against them at Pinhoe. The Danes easily defeated the king’s small force and Kola was killed. Again, the king offered tribute to stop the fighting, reckoned by the Chronicle to be 24,000 Pounds, but to no avail. Realising that he was losing his grip on the land and fearing that the Norsemen who had settled in England were plotting to oust him, the king ordered, on the 13th of November 1002, (St Brice’s Day) that all Danish settlers must be wiped out.  

This massacre was a terrible event with men, women and children being burned alive in the churches where they had fled for shelter. Among the victims was Earl Pallig and, more importantly, the lady Gunnhild, sister of Swein and daughter of Harald I of Denmark. From being an opportunistic raider continually being bought off with Danegeld, Swein now became a mortal enemy resolving to destroy Ethelred and take over the country.

In 1002AD, Aethelred married again, this time to Emma of Normandy, daughter of Duke Richard the Fearless. By this alliance Ethelred hoped to gain support from the Normans in his fight against the Danes. The marriage produced two sons, Edward, later to be known as “the confesser” and Alfred the Atheling. They also had a daughter, Goda who later married Drogo, the Count of Vexin.

In 1003AD, the Danes. under Swein Forkbeard, were back and raiding in the West Country and a year later their ships were attacking the coast of Norfolk and went on to sack Norwich. An Anglian nobleman named Ulfcytel Snillingr raised a force to oppose the raiders and also planned to destroy the enemy ships while they were fighting inland, but those given the task failed to carry out his instructions. Ulfcytel fought the enemy in a battle near Thetford and almost defeated them, with the Chronicle recording that, “if they had been up to full strength the enemy would never have got back to their ships”.

The Danes won this particularly bloody battle but left England shortly afterwards, perhaps due to their heavy losses or, more likely, because of a great famine that afflicted Northern Europe and England in 1005AD. A year later the force was back, this time attacking Sandwich with their usual ferocity. The king, reacting at last to these attacks, called up the Fyrd from Wessex and Mercia who remained on military service throughout the autumn but, as the Chronicle relates, “it availed no more than it ever had”. The Fyrd disbanded for the winter and the Danes moved on to the Isle of Wight to sit out the winter with regular forays into Hampshire and Berkshire to provision themselves.

With English eyes on the south, the Scottish king Malcolm chose to invade Northern England but was again defeated by Ealdorman Uhtred at Durham. In celebration of the victory, the men of Durham beheaded the best looking Scottish captives and the local women were said to have washed the dead faces and combed their hair before displaying the heads around the city walls, for which work they were presented with a cow. In gratitude for his bravery, Ethelred appointed Uhtred Earl of York, making him the effective ruler of Northumbria.

The king called a meeting of the Witan to decide how to rid the country of the Danish presence, but predictably, it was again decided to buy the attackers off and a tribute of thirty thousand pounds was raised together with promise of provisions for the winter.

Continuing his policy of appointing whom he considered strong men to control parts of the troubled kingdom, Ethelred promoted Ealdorman Eadric Streona to become Earl of Mercia in 1007AD and gave his daughter Eadgyth to him in marriage. Despite these honours the treacherous earl was to turn his coat more than once in the coming years. In the same year the king ordered a huge shipbuilding programme to be started in an attempt to confront the Danes around the coast before they could land. The whole country was taxed and it was decreed that every three hundred and ten hides of land would pay for one warship.

Further, every eight hides must provide a helmet and byrnie. Never before had such a force been assembled and it seemed that Ethelred was at last taking the fight to the enemy. All the ships were ordered to gather at Sandwich and to be ready to attack the raiders. An argument broke out among the leaders when, before the king, Brihtric, brother of Earl Eadric accused a Saxon thane named Wulfnoth of some transgression. The king banished Wulfnoth who somehow escaped with twenty ships and promptly began to ravage the south coast in some form of revenge over his treatment.

Brihtric pursued him with a fleet of eighty ships, intending to recapture the stolen fleet, but a storm blew up and his ships were “blown in pieces and dashed onto the land”. Seizing his chance, Wulfnoth fell on the damaged fleet and burnt them all. When the king heard of this setback, the heart clearly went out of him and, in the words of the Chronicle “the king, ealdorman and counsellors went home. The people on the ships went with them back to London and abandoned all the nation’s work so lightly and thus; this threat to the Danes in which the whole nation had hoped, was nothing better than this”.

Wulfnoth was exiled and died in 1015AD. He is thought to be a sixth generation descendant of King Ethelred of Wessex. His son Godwin became Earl of Wessex and fathered Harold Godwinson, who was to meet his end at Hastings in 1066AD. King Ethelred’s son Athelstan, in his will dated 1014AD, wrote that Godwin “was to receive the estate at Compton which his father possessed”. This estate had been originally willed by King Alfred to provide for the descendants of his elder brother Athelred and would seem to confirm that Wulfnoth did indeed descend from royalty.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

One thought on “The Danish Invasion

  • June 17, 2022 at 12:58 pm

    Very,very interesting


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