A Viking Mystery- page 3 | History | Smithsonian
British archaeologists looking for evidence of prehistoric activity in the English county of Dorset discovered instead a mass grave holding 54 male skeletons. (Oxford Archaeology)

A Viking Mystery

Beneath Oxford University, archaeologists have uncovered a medieval city that altered the course of English history

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According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Aethelred was “informed” that Danish mercenaries intended to “beguile him out of his life.” (It is unknown whether an informer learned of an actual plot, or if Aethelred and his council fabricated the threat.) Aethelred then set in motion one of the most heinous acts of mass murder in English history, committed on St. Brice’s Day, November 13, 1002. As he himself recounted in a charter written two years later, “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 [weeds] amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination.”

Prior to 2008, the only known inhabitants of the St. John’s College garden had been the songbirds and squirrels that darted across the neatly cropped lawn and hid in an ancient beech tree. Generations of dons and students had strolled across that greenery, unsuspecting of what lay beneath.

The lab data indicating that the men buried there for 1,000 years had eaten lots of seafood, plus the burn markings and other evidence, convinced the archaeologists that the grave probably held victims of the St. Brice’s Day massacre. Aethelred himself recounted exactly how the residents of Oxford killed the Danes in a local church: “Striving to escape death, [the Danes] entered [a] sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make a 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 [building’s] timbers and burnt [it] down.”

Wallis, the archaeologist in charge at Oxford, surmises that the townspeople loaded the corpses onto a cart and drove out through the north gate of the city, past land that today encompasses the Oxford colleges of Balliol and most of St. John’s, then threw the Vikings into the prehistoric henge—the largest ditch nearest the city’s northern exit.

A year after this discovery, another team of investigators, from the company Oxford Archaeology, were looking for evidence of prehistoric activity at a site 90 miles to the southwest in the English county of Dorset, near Weymouth, when they discovered a second mass grave. This one held the skeletons of 54 well-built, fighting-age males, all of whom had been decapitated with sharp weapons, most likely swords. Lab tests of the teeth suggested the men were Scandinavians. The ratio between various types of oxygen atoms in the skeletons’ tooth enamel indicates the victims came from a cold region (one man from inside the Arctic Circle). Radiocarbon dating placed the victims’ deaths between A.D. 910 and 1030; historical records of Viking activities in England narrow that to between A.D. 980 and 1009. The corpses had been unceremoniously dumped in a chalk and flint quarry that had been dug hundreds of years earlier, possibly during Roman times. Although no historical account of the massacre exists, the archaeologists believe the Vikings were apprehended and brought to the site to be executed.

The discovery of the two mass graves may resolve a question that has long vexed historians. In the centuries following the St. Brice’s Day massacre, many chroniclers believed that the Danish community in England (a substantial percentage of the population) was targeted for mass murder, akin to a pogrom. Certainly there was undisguised hatred for the Scandinavians, who were described by contemporary writers as “a most vile people,” “a filthy pestilence” and “the hated ones.” But more recently, the massacre has been seen more as a police action against only those who posed a military threat to the government. The discovery of the two mass graves supports this view, since victims were found where the rebellious mercenaries would have been stationed: close to royal administrative centers (usually towns or important royal estates) on or near England’s south coast and in the Thames Valley. By contrast, no such graves have been found in the region of eastern England once known as the Danelaw, which was populated by descendants of Scandinavian settlers. “I would estimate that out of a total population of around two million in England, perhaps half were of Scandinavian or partly Scandinavian origin—most of whom were loyal subjects,” says Ian Howard, a historian writing a biography of Aethelred. “I think it inherently unlikely that the king ever intended to kill them all, as it would obviously have been impossible to do so.”

Far from being just a ghoulish footnote to medieval history, Aethelred’s massacre of the Danes likely reinforced Danish determination to attack England and set in motion a chain of events that would change the course of England’s future. In A.D. 1003, the year after the massacres, King Svein of Denmark launched his own assault against a much wider swath of Anglo-Saxon England. This renewed aggression continued off and on for more than a decade, inspiring a level of terror the Anglo-Saxons had not faced since the first Viking invasions a century and a half earlier. An Anglo-Danish text, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written around A.D. 1041 or 1042, described the Danish war fleet of 1016: “What adversary could gaze upon the lions, terrible in the glitter of their gold...all these on the ships, and not feel dread and fear in the face of a king with so great a fighting force?”

Both circumstantial and historical evidence suggests that revenge was at least part of the motivation for Svein’s invasions. There were almost certainly blood ties between Aethelred’s victims and Danish nobility. According to medieval chronicler William of Malmesbury, Svein’s sister (or, possibly, half sister) Gunnhild was a victim of the St. Brice’s Day massacre (although her body has never been found). Neither her gender nor her royal blood saved her, probably because she was the wife of Pallig, one of the turncoat mercenaries. Wrote William of Malmesbury: “[She was] beheaded with the other Danes, though she declared plainly that the shedding of her blood would cost all England dear.”

Gunnhild’s words proved prophetic. The Danes ultimately conquered England, in A.D. 1016, and Canute, the son of Svein, was crowned the nation’s king in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in January 1017. Twenty-five years later, the Anglo-Saxons would regain the crown, but only for a generation. The Scandinavians, who had refused to renounce the throne, embarked on yet another onslaught against England in September 1066—less than a fortnight before William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, launched his own invasion of the country.

Although the English pushed back the Scandinavian invaders, the effort so weakened the Anglo-Saxons that they were defeated by William at the Battle of Hastings, also in 1066. The Norman Conquest consolidated the unification of England, as the new rulers introduced a more centralized, hierarchal government. The Anglo-Saxons would rise again, their culture and language merging with that of their oppressors to produce a new nation—the predecessor of modern England, and eventually an empire that would span half the globe.

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