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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Ian Howard

Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017

Illustrated by Wayne Reynolds. Oxford: Osprey, 2004. (Warrior Series, 91). 64pp $17.95. ISBN 1-84176-670-4.

Howard, Ian,, Warfare in History (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2003). xiv, 188 pp. $80.00 USD. ISBN 0851159281, ISBN13 9780851159287

This book focuses on the life and military adventures of Swein Forkbeard, a Danish king who began invading England in 991 until his death. Swein’s life was an excellent example of a political and military leader during the late Viking period. Howard focuses on the invasions of Anglo Saxon England by Swein and his ally Thorkell the Tall, and the interrelationship between the Viking armies and the native English. Howard uses and displays a thorough knowledge of the textual sources, focusing on the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Encomium Emmae Reginae and John of Worcester.

The first chapter is a historiographic analysis of the written texts. Howard discusses the various uses the texts had at the time of composition, namely propaganda pro Swein and Aethelred. He also examines the legendary accretion which occurred in later centuries that was specifically directed at discrediting Aethelred, especially in the various lives of St. Dunstan.

The second chapter discusses the economic and military situation in Anglo Saxon England prior to and during the invasions by Swein Forkbeard. The economy of England at the time was experiencing a boom as under King Edgar England was at peace and military expenditures were reduced. Taxes were increased during the invasions but much of the money was used to pay local soldiers and to pay mercenaries who wintered in England where, “it is possible that the economic impact of a Scandinavian military presence in England…was to increase the coinage in circulation, stimulate demand for land, food and implements, redistribute wealth, and enhance the economic prosperity of London and the eastern shires.” (22) The second part of the chapter discusses the military reasons that the Scandinavians invaded England. The primary reason was the development of mounted combat and the lack of such cavalry in England; another factor was the poor deployment of equivalent naval resources by the English.

The third chapter examines the first invasion which Swein Forkbeard participated in. This raid spanned the years 993-994 and was co-led by Olaf Tryggvason and Swein Forkbeard. The raiding was focused on the eastern and southern coasts of England and resulted in a treaty with Aethelred establishing a permanent peace and employing the Scandinavians as mercenaries. Howard states that this treaty, in protecting England, directed other Scandinavian raiders to Saxony.

Chapter four discusses the events leading up to and including Swein’s second invasion in 1003-1005. The invasion occurred due to the St. Brice’s Day massacre where Aethelred ordered all of the “Danish” mercenaries, employed by England, killed due to raids conducted in 1001. The results of these raids were a mixed blessing for Swein. He avenged the massacre of his fellow Danes but the losses incurred and the lack of a payment by Aethelred did nothing to enhance Swein’s prestige in Denmark.

The fifth chapter discusses the massive invasion force assembled by Swein Forkbeard, but not led by him, in 1006. The invading army conducted deep raids from the south coast of England and, after extensive campaigning; a treaty was made securing Scandinavian mercenaries in 1012. This chapter also discusses the large scale (and ultimately unsuccessful) naval operations conducted by the English fleet.

The sixth chapter discusses Swein’s invasion of England in 1013. This invasion differed significantly from the previous ones in that this one was of conquest. The rise of Scandinavian power in the early eleventh century and the increasing tribute from England coupled with Swein’s secure political position in Denmark spurred him to undertake this conquest. Howard turns from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle to the Encomium Emmae Reginae as the primary source using the Anglo Saxon Chronicle to corroborate. The conquest was swift and well orchestrated with likely collaborators in England, namely Northumbria, who were discontent with Aethelred’s rule. The chapter concludes with Aethelred’s return to England and the defeat for Cnut, Swein’s son.

The seventh chapter discusses the period after 1014 and the interaction between Thorkell the Tall, a Danish commander in the employ of Aethelred, and Cnut. With the death of Swein the kingship was transferred to his son, Cnut. Aethelred chose to return to England at the head of an army led by Thorkell with the goal of driving Cnut out of England. Cnut returned to Denmark to shore up his political position, which was sufficiently strong in 1015 allowing Cnut to return to England. At his side was Thorkell the Tall who left Aethelred’s court after a purge of Danish nobles took place. After a brief civil war, Cnut became sole king of England in 1017.

Howard includes two appendices: the first discussing the chronology in the Heimskringla concerning Olaf II Haraldsson and how the discrepancies fit into Olaf’s involvement in English history. The second appendix seeks to synthesize five versions of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle to recreate events for the year 1008 dealing specifically with the build up of forces in England under Aethelred.

This book is a well written overview of the events covered. Howard draws from primary sources from England, Scandinavia and Germany in an attempt to reconcile some of the chronological discrepancies concerning Swein’s multiple invasions of England. He takes a very balanced view of Aethelred and repeatedly points out the propagandistic nature of the documentary sources.

Cason Snow

Northern Illinois University <c60cxs1@wpo.cso.niu.edu>

Page Added: July 2007