On This Day in 1014: Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, Norway and England Dies

Sweyn Forkbeard, possibly being murdered in his sleep by St Edmund. 13th century, artist unknown.

Sweyn Forkbeard, possibly being murdered in his sleep by St Edmund. 13th century, artist unknown.

One thousand years ago today…

…Sweyn Forkbeard, son of Harald Bluetooth, father of Cnut the Great, died of causes yet to be agreed upon. By the time of his death, he had set the groundwork for a great maritime power known as The North Sea Empire, to be ruled by his son. He ruled over Denmark, his territorial homeland, Norway, and for a period of five weeks, England (becoming the first Viking king of that country).

The cause of death is uncertain. Some say he fell from a horse. Others say he was murdered in his sleep by St. Edmund. He died in Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. As if being a Viking king weren’t epic enough, he may have been murdered by a ghost saint!

He was born a heathen but would later convert to Christianity. Whether the conversion was heartfelt or a shrewd political move is contested. Regardless, after his death in England, his body would be taken to Roskilde to be buried in the cathedral. He also began a process of sending English bishops to Denmark.

King Sweyn sailing up the Thames, from John Cassell's Illustrated History of England, 1865.

King Sweyn sailing up the Thames, from John Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, 1865.

From an Anglo-Saxon perspective, Sweyn was a terror. He had taken part in numerous raids on the island. Some say that the full-scale invasion was retribution for the St. Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, in which numerous Danes were murdered in a spate of ethnic violence. King Æthelred, the Saxon king at the time, may or may not have been responsible. Whether or not he had a hand in it, promoted it, or simply allowed it to happen hoping it would stem Danish raids, he showed no remorse.

Sweyn landed with a conquering force in 1013. He harried the various earldoms into submission to his rule, taking hostages and demanding acquiescence. In December of that year, under duress, the nobility of England named him King Sweyn. Æthelred fled to Normandy. Five weeks later, Sweyn was dead. Æthelred would return to reclaim his throne. Sweyn’s son Cnut would take it back a few years later and would go on to be one of the greatest Viking rulers.

His conquest of England set about a long period of instability and insecurity. The House of Wessex and House of Denmark would vie back and forth for the throne, weakening the country in the process. The culmination of this was the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Happy Anniversary!

Check out more of my 1014 Series. It will include 1,000 year anniversaries as well as posts illuminating the general feel of the life and times.

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4 thoughts on “On This Day in 1014: Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, Norway and England Dies

  1. Jenny says:

    I like your 1014 concept—the 1000-year anniversary. This takes us to a period of history that’s overlooked most of the time. Also, I’m pleased to be reminded of Ethelred the Unready. That was one of my favorite titles, or epithets I guess it would be called. I was disappointed when a college professor explained that “unready” in Old English meant, strictly speaking, “of poor counsel” rather than “unprepared.”

  2. Ste J says:

    They had proper names back in the day, you knew were you were with them and it was easy to spot a stranger in a crowd just by their name. Still England for the English and all that totally wrong stuff.

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