On the 13th November 1002, the St Brice’s Day Massacre took place when king Æthelred the Unready “ordered slain all the Danish men who were in England”. Although it is believed that there was considerable loss of life, actual numbers of Danes who were killed following the order are unknown. However, recent archaeological excavations including two mass graves have begun to shed some light on the mystery.
Æthelred came to the throne when he was just 10 years old, following the assassination of his half-brother Edward the Martyr, who he succeeded. Suspicions over Æthelred’s involvement led to distrust of the new king, and meant that he did not secure the full loyalty of all his subjects.
By this time Danes already dominated large areas of northern and eastern England in a region known as the Danelaw, where Danish settlers had practised self-rule since 878. Some Danes later settled in Æthelred’s kingdom, of which a portion exploited the existing divisions among the king’s subjects by raiding towns on the south coast. Combined with raids by new arrivals from Scandinavia, Æthelred found his kingdom under attack every year.
The king paid significant amounts of silver and gold to the new Danes as Danegeld (‘Dane-payment’) in an attempt to stop the attacks but, in 1002, received information that the Danes planned to “beshrew him of his life, and afterwards all his council, and then have his kingdom without any resistance.” In response, Æthelred ordered the killing of all Danes in England, although it is unlikely that the killing extended into the Danelaw. For Æthelred, the massacre had little effect but to provoke a brutal retaliation by Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, who invaded the following year.