Saturday, 21 April 2012

St Brice's Day Massacre or Viking Execution?

The grisly remains of nearly forty Scandinavian bodies discovered at St John’s College, Oxford, initially thought to be evidence of the the well documented St Brice's Day Massacre, may be a band of tenth century Viking raiders.

The King of England Æthelred the Unready, c.968 – 1016 AD, had paid tribute, or Danegeld, effectively a tax to the Danish King, from 991 in order to prevent the land from being ravaged by Viking raiders. On 13th November 1002, Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danish settlers in England. The St Brice's Day Massacre ultimately led to King Sweyn Forkbeard's invasion of England in 1003 following the death of his sister Gunhilde in the storm.

Justifying the massacre Æthelred displayed a complete lack of remorse in exploiting popular ethnic hatred, recording the events in Oxford himself in a Royal charter to St Frideswide’s church two years later:

“For it is fully agreed that to all dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt [in Oxford],in the afore-mentioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ [St Frideswide’s], having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, with God's aid, it was renewed by me."

The Massacre of the Danes’.
Engraving after a drawing by Samuel Wale
Historians generally regard the massacre as a reaction of people who had been continually slaughtered and pillaged for a decade, yet not directed at the inhabitants of the Danelaw but at mercenaries who had turned on their employers, arguing the massacre could not have been carried out in the Danelaw with any success where the Danes would have been too strong and was probably confined to frontier towns such as Oxford, and larger towns with small Danish communities.

This view seems to be upheld by the findings of the excavation during 2008 at St John's College, Oxford. Prior to commencing construction work of new student accommodation at the Oxford University college archaeologists were summoned to investigate the site in January 2008. Following  just a few hours of digging the archaeologists discovered the remains of a Late Neolithic earthwork enclosure, or henge, close to the north-south road.

The previously unknown henge monument, constructed c.2300 BC, highlights the fact that the Neolithic monument was still a feature in the landscape during these turbulent times. The ditch excavated here is up to 8m across and at least 2.5m deep and based on the small part of the plan exposed would have enclosed an area of at least 150m diameter, encompassing all of what is now Keble College and the Pitt Rivers Museum, qualifying the earthwork as one of the largest of Britain’s prehistoric henges.

The skeletons of between 34 and 38 young men, aged 16 to 25, were found disrespectfully dumped in the henge ditch. They were more robust and taller than average, some bearing older scars indicative that they were professional warriors and all initially thought to be Danes killed during the St Brice's Day Massacre. The severity of the wounds suggests the young Viking men were brutally slaughtered, the skeletons showing evidence that each individual was stabbed many times shortly before death.

There is also evidence of charring on some of the skeletons, showing they may have been exposed to burning before burial and thrown into the makeshift grave of the henge ditch. The evidence of knife wounds and the burning of the bodies is consistent with the documented account of the St Brice's Day Massacre at St Frideswide’s Church, rather than having died in combat.

Following further study of the skeletons Oxford University academics have suggested that the victims may have been Viking raiders who were captured and then executed rather than settlers of the Danelaw. Chemical analysis of the teeth suggests they could have been a group of professional warriors, rather than a group of residents of Danish origin who were later rounded up and executed. They also had a substantial amount of seafood in their diet which was higher in marine protein than that found in the typical local Oxfordshire population. Radiocarbon analysis fits the date of 1002 AD.

The study team compared data to previous research in which isotopic analysis of 51 decapitated skeletons found in a burial pit at the Weymouth Ridgeway in Dorset had identified the victims as Viking raiders from Scandinavia, dated between 970 and 1025 AD. The isotopic analysis of the Dorset group compared favourably with the individuals found in the mass burial site at St John’s College, Oxford, suggesting similar origins for the groups of raiders and indicates that the Saxons were capable of being quite ruthless when dealing with Viking raiders.

A Viking Mystery - David Keys, Smithsonian magazine, October 2010

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