At the order of King Æthelred II, dubbed “Unræd” or “Ill-counselled” (and later misinterpreted, not inappropriately, as “Unready”), the Danish population of the Kingdom of England was massacred on the 13th of November 1002. The results of this slaughter would later have grave repercussions on King Æthelred, and the rest of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of England.
The history between the Saxons and the Danes had long been a troubled one. Ever since the Viking raids began upon English shores towards the beginning of the 9th century, thousands upon thousands of Scandinavian raiders pillaged the coasts and rivers of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, slaughtering, burning and kidnapping wherever they went. The Anglo-Saxons nearly faced extinction as a people when the Vikings later began to carve their own kingdoms out of the former realms of Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and Kent, leaving only the Kingdom of Wessex to turn the tide under King Alfred the Great, who finally expelled the Vikings from Wessex, Kent, London and Mercia, and re-established Saxon hegemony over what would eventually become the Kingdom of England.
Despite this victory, however, much of the land in northern England had come to be inhabited by Danish settlers, who had intermingled with the native Saxon populations to create a new people that could not easily be dislodged. Initially recognised as a separate autonomous “kingdom” that would eventually be called the Danelaw, it was gradually absorbed into the growing unified Kingdom of England. The people there were more Danish now than Anglo-Saxon, which influenced not only their ethnic make-up but also their cultural values, their art, and their language. It was thanks to this influx of Danish settlers that the English language acquired words such as “cake”, “sky”, “egg”, and even the very word “law” itself, all of which were derived from Old East Norse.
While the Danelaw had been brought under English rule by King Æthelred’s father, King Edgar, by the middle of the 10th century, Danish companies had again started raiding England’s shores. Culminating in the Battle of Maldon in August 991, immortalised in the Old English poem by the same name, King Æthelred managed to broker peace between his kingdom and the leader of the raids, Olaf Tryggvason. Olaf was confirmed as a Christian and swore never to return to England in hostility, in exchange for the forgiveness of his past raids and a “payment of peace” worth £22,000 of gold and silver. However, it seemed that while Olaf was content to honour the agreement, the mercenaries he brought with him did not consider themselves so bound. Shortly after his departure, they renewed their raiding upon English towns and settlements, demanding a Danegeld in exchange for their departure. Those who refused would be slaughtered.
Already suspected of harbouring sympathies for their kinsmen, King Æthelred received word in 1002 that the Danes in England were conspiring to murder him and his councilors to establish their own kingdom. It was this, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that compelled him to order “slain all the Danishmen who were in England”. The order could only be carried out within certain parts of the Kingdom, the rest being too heavily populated by Danes for the order to be completed without serious resistance. Nevertheless, during the massacre a Danish noblewoman called Gunhilde, sister to King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark, was slain. It was likely this act that compelled King Sweyn to invade the western shores of England the next year.
After many years of raids, and the payment of tens of thousands of pounds worth in bribes and Danegelds, King Sweyn would eventually invade and conquer England in 1013, crowning himself King of Denmark and England and forcing King Æthelred into exile in Normandy. King Æthelred would later die on the 23rd of April 1016 in London during an unsuccessful attempt at reconquering England from King Sveyn’s son, King Cnut.