St Brice's Day massacre

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The St. Brice's Day massacre was the planned mass killing of all Danes ordered by King Æthelred the Unready in response to a perceived threat to his life, that occurred 13th of November 1002, within territory under his control. The skeletons of over 30 young men found during an excavation at St John's College, Oxford, in 2008, may be those of some victims.


The name (Danish: Danemordet, Massakren på Sankt Brictiusdag) refers to St. Brice, fifth-century Bishop of Tours, whose feast day is 13 November.[1][2] The Kingdom of England had been ravaged by Danish raids every year from 997 to 1001, and in 1002 the king was told that the Danish men in England "would faithlessly take his life, and then all his councillors, and possess his kingdom afterwards". In response, he ordered the deaths of all Danes living in England.[3][4]

Historians believe there was significant loss of life, though evidence is lacking on any specific estimates. There are historical records that state Gunhilde the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, the King of Denmark was a victim along with her husband Pallig Tokesen, the Danish Ealdorman of Devonshire.[5] he had taken part in raids on the south coast.[6]

Oxford Massacre[edit]

The massacre in Oxford was referred to by Æthelred in a royal charter of 1004 as 'a most just extermination' of Danes who had settled and 'sprung up in this island', he goes on to proclaim it was with Gods aid he rebuilt St Frideswide's Church (now Christ Church Cathedral):

"For it is fully agreed that to all dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since 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 cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in the afore-mentioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, with God's aid, it was renewed by me."[7]

During an excavation at St John's College, Oxford, in 2008, the remains were found of 37 people who had been massacred. All of them appeared to be male apart two who were too young for their sex to be identified and most were aged 16 to 25.[8][9][10] Chemical analysis carried out in 2012 by Oxford University researchers suggests that the remains are Viking; older scars on some of the bones suggest a mixture of settlers and some who had old battle scars, the Oxford site’s chief archaeologist concluded the victims had no defensive wounds were unarmed and killed while running away from being burned alive in the church, with wounds on the back. [8] [11]The bodies show evidence of multiple serious injuries caused by a range of weapons.[12] Their manner of death was a frenzied attack while defenceless by more than one attacker and from all sides of the body.[8] Radiocarbon dating suggests a burial date of 960 to 1020 AD. Charring on the bones is consistent with historical records of the church burning (see above).[13] DNA testing of one of the bodies closely matched it with the remains of a man who had been excavated in Otterup, central Denmark, suggesting that they were either half-brothers or uncle and nephew.[12] The massacre could also coincide with a mass burial just outside of Weymouth, Dorset. When building a new relief road a mass grave of 54 'Scandanavian Men' was discovered. All of the skeletons had been beheaded suggesting a mass execution. The site was dated as being between 970-1038 AD supporting the theory that it was a Kingdom wide execution order. Ridgeway Hill Viking burial pit

Historians' views[edit]

Historians have generally viewed the massacre as a political act which helped to provoke Sweyn's invasion of 1003.[14] Simon Keynes in his Oxford Online DNB article on Æthelred described it as a "so-called" massacre, the reaction of a people who had been slaughtered and pillaged for a decade, directed not at the inhabitants of the Danelaw but at the mercenaries who had turned on their employers.[15] Æthelred's biographer, Ryan Lavelle, also questions its extent, arguing that it could not have been carried out in the Danelaw, where the Danes would have been too strong, and that it was probably confined to frontier towns such as Oxford, and larger towns with small Danish communities, such as Bristol, Gloucester and London. He comments on the remarkable lack of remorse shown by Æthelred in the Oxford charter, but views the massacre not so much as a royally executed order as an exploitation of popular ethnic hatred and millenarianism.[3] Audrey MacDonald sees it as leading on to the onslaught which eventually led to the accession of Cnut in 1016.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The 13th of November 1002 AD, St Brice's Day Massacre". Information Britain. Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  2. ^ Cavendish, Richard (November 2002). "The St Brice's Day Massacre". History Today. 52 (11): 62–63.
  3. ^ a b Lavelle, Ryan (1 November 2008). Aethelred II: King of the English. The History Press. pp. 104–109. ISBN 978-0752446783.
  4. ^ "Oxford Reference". Oxford University Press. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 22 May 2022.
  5. ^ Cawley, Charles (August 2012), Medieval Lands Project: Denmark, Kings, Medieval Lands database, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, retrieved 10 June 2021
  6. ^ a b MacDonald, Audrey. "St Brice's Day Massacre". The Oxford Companion to British History.(subscription required)
  7. ^ Wates, Michele. "Massacre at St Frideswide's". Oxford Today (Michaelmas 2002 ed.). Archived from the original on 7 October 2009.
  8. ^ a b c "Vengeance on the Vikings". Institute of America. Retrieved 19 May 2022.
  9. ^ Sloan, Liam (5 November 2010). "Experts reveal brutal Viking massacre". Oxford Mail. Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  10. ^ Ord, Louise (12 August 2011). "Skeletons reveal Viking massacre". BBC News. Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  11. ^ DURRANI, NADIA. "Burial Pit, ca. 960-1020, St. John's College, Oxford". Archaeology Magazine. Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved 22 May 2022.
  12. ^ a b Sample, Ian (9 June 2021). "Skeletons of Viking men to be reunited in Danish exhibition". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  13. ^ "Skeletons found at mass burial site in Oxford could be 10th-century Viking raiders". ScienceDaily. 1 May 2012. Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  14. ^ Stenton, Frank (1971). Anglo-Saxon England (3 ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 380. ISBN 978-0198217169.
  15. ^ Keynes, Simon (23 September 2004). "Æthelred II [Ethelred; known as Ethelred the Unready]". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/8915. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)(subscription required)

Further reading[edit]