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Vengeance on the Vikings

Mass burials in England attest to a turbulent time, and perhaps a notorious medieval massacre

November/December 2013



On November 13, A.D. 1002, Æthelred Unræd, ruler of the English kingdom of Wessex, “ordered slain all the Danish men who were in England,” according to a royal charter. This drastic step was not taken on a whim, but was the product of 200 years of Anglo-Saxon frustration and fear. Vikings, who had long plagued the Isles with raids and wars, had taken over the north and begun settling there. Concerns were growing that they had designs on Æthelred’s southern realm as well.


Æthelred’s order led to what is known as the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, named for the saint’s feast day on which it fell. The event has long been cloaked in mystery and misinformation. Archaeology, so far, has had little to offer in the matter of what actually happened and how many people died that day, but two mass burials recently unearthed are beginning to expose this turbulent period around the end of the first millennium. Could they be the first archaeological evidence of the massacre? Or might they offer a glimpse into some other aspect of the conflict between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings? Archaeologists are examining a trail of clues, including historical sources, wound patterns, and isotopic analysis of teeth, to put what was no doubt a violent series of deaths into perspective.


The Vikings of popular imagination were raiders and pillagers in longboats and (mythical) horned helmets, but the term “Viking” also refers to the farming, trading, crafting, exploring Scandinavian culture from which these raiders came. The Vikings that attacked and settled England and France were, for the most part, from or identified with Denmark. (The Norwegians went north and west, and the Swedes east, though there was a lot of movement of people among the Viking territories.) Viking raids in England began in the late eighth century A.D. and led to the fall of England’s northern kingdoms. Many of the Danish settlers were warriors granted land as a reward for success in battle. The only Anglo-Saxon holdout was Wessex, a powerful and wealthy kingdom that controlled most of the south of the island. An 878 treaty established the boundaries of Wessex and the Danish-controlled area, known as the Danelaw.


There is much discussion among historians about the nature of the relationship between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes. Many of the new settlers had once been warriors, but they eventually brought along their families. The Danes farmed, traded, and even intermarried with the Anglo-Saxon population, and their cultural influence can be seen in language, place names, and surnames that persist in England today. Some historians argue that there weren’t all that many Danish settlers and that they assimilated many local traditions and beliefs. But there was likely some tension and resentment between the Danish settlers and the Anglo-Saxons (who, ironically, were also descended from continental invaders).



Burial Pit, ca. 960-1020, St. John's College, Oxford



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