Thursday, December 12, 2013

Svend's Conquest 1002—1013

Æthelred, having failed to buy off the Danes, tried to murder them. In 1002, on St. Brice's Day, there was a general massacre of all the Danes—not of the old inhabitants of Danish blood who had settled in Ælfred's time—but of the new-comers. Svend returned to avenge his countrymen. Æthelred had in an earlier part of his reign levied a land-tax known as the Danegeld to pay off the Danes—the first instance of a general tax in England. He now called on all the shires to furnish ships for a fleet; but he could not trust his ealdormen. Some of the stories told of these times may be exaggerated, and some may be merely idle tales, but we know enough to be sure that England was a kingdom divided against itself. Svend, ravaging as he went, beat down resistance everywhere.

In 1012 the Danes seized Ælfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury, and offered to set him free if he would pay a ransom for his life. He refused to do so, lest he should have to wring money from the poor in order to pay it. The drunken Danes pelted him with bones till one of the number clave his skull with an axe. He was soon counted as a martyr. Long afterwards one of the most famous of his successors, the Norman Lanfranc, doubted whether he was really a martyr, as he had not died for the faith. 'He that dies for righteousness,' answered the gentle Anselm, 'dies for the faith,' and to this day the name of Ælfheah is retained as St. Alphege in the list of English saints.

In 1013 Svend appeared no longer as a plunderer but as a conqueror. First the old Danish districts of the north and east, and then the Anglo-Saxon realm of Ælfred—Mercia and Wessex—submitted to him to avoid destruction. In 1013 Æthelred fled to Normandy.

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