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St. Brice’s Day massacre was the killing of Danes in the Kingdom of England on Friday, the 13th of November 1002, ordered by King Æthelred the Unready. In response to the frequent Danish raids, King Æthelred ordered the execution of all Danes living in England. Although evidence is lacking, the skeletons of 34 to 38 men aged between 16 and 25 were found during an excavation at St John’s College, Oxford, in 2008.

Æthelred II ( c. 966 – 23 April 1016), known as the Unready, was King of the English from 978 to 1013 and again from 1014 until his death. His epithet does not derive from the modern word “unready”, but rather from the Old English unræd meaning “poorly advised”; it is a pun on his name, which means “well advised”.

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Æthelred was the son of King Edgar and Queen Ælfthryth. He came to the throne at about the age of 12, following the assassination of his older half-brother, Edward the Martyr. His brother’s murder was carried out by supporters of his own claim to the throne, although he was too young to have any personal involvement.

Background

The name refers to St. Brice, fifth-century Bishop of Tours, whose feast day is November 13. 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.

Massacre

Historians believe there was significant loss of life, though evidence is lacking on any specific estimates. Among those thought to have been killed is Gunhilde, who may have been the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, the King of Denmark. Her husband Pallig Tokesen, the Danish Ealdorman of Devonshire, may also have died in the massacre or, according to a different version, played a part in provoking it by his defection to join raiders ravaging the south coast.

The skeletons of 34 to 38 young men, all aged 16 to 25, were found during an excavation at St John’s College, Oxford, in 2008. Chemical analysis carried out in 2012 by Oxford University researchers suggests that the remains are Viking; older scars on the bones provide evidence that they were professional warriors. It is thought that they were stabbed repeatedly and then brutally slaughtered. Charring on the bones is consistent with historical records of the church burning (see above).

Historians’ views

Historians have generally viewed the massacre as a political act which helped to provoke Sweyn’s invasion of 1003. 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.

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. Audrey MacDonald sees it as leading on to the onslaught which eventually led to the accession of Cnut in 1016.