1002 The St. Brice’s Day Massacre
For centuries Scandinavian warriors had been causing misery in England, carrying off slaves, levying vast amounts of tribute money (Danegeld), and occupying significant part of the country. At the turn of the millennium the raids became increasingly intense and damaging. Prayers and public fasting were directed against the pagan interlopers while a payment of 24,000 pounds was gathered to buy them off.
In 1002 Aethelred II (“the Unready”) decided on a policy of extermination, (iustissima exterminacio). Claiming to have heard of a plot to depose him, he ordered the death of all Danes in the country. Historians estimate that thousands were killed in the territories where Aethelred’s writ ran, possibly including Gunhilde, the sister of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. Aethelred defended this ethnic cleansing in a porclamation explaining why a church in Oxford had to be burned down in the affair.
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.
Rather than end the Danish problem, the massacre only prompted more warfare. Sweyn Forkbeard would invade England and depose Aethelred. By 1016 a Danish king, Canute, would rule England.