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Viking in action. Credit: Nomad_Soul / Adobe Stock

The Life and Death of Sweyn Forkbeard and His Viking Empire

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Sweyn I, known also as Sweyn Tiugeskaeg (which means ‘Forkbeard’), was a Viking chief who became the ruler of Denmark, Norway, and England. His byname, ‘Forkbeard’, is a reference to his long, cleft beard. Although Sweyn ruled over Denmark and Norway for decades, he only gained control of England towards the end of his life, and ruled for slightly over a month. In fact, although he was declared King of England, Sweyn Forkbeard did not even live long enough for his coronation.

Soon after his death, Sweyn’s empire disintegrated. Whilst he was succeeded as king by one of his sons in Denmark, both Norway and England returned to native rulers. The domains of Sweyn, however, would be reunited by another son, Cnut the Great . The empire of Sweyn Forkbeard and his son is often referred to by historians today as the North Sea Empire or the Anglo-Scandinavian Empire.

Sweyn I is believed to have been born around 960 AD. His father was Harald I, known also as Harald Bluetooth , whereas the identity of his mother is not known for certain. Harald was a member of the House of Gorm, a Danish dynasty that was established by his father, Gorm the Old. This new royal house was based in Jelling, in North Jutland. Under Harald’s rule, Denmark was united for the first time. Although Harald is credited with the country’s unification, the project actually started under his predecessor. Apart from that, Harald also conquered Norway, and converted to Christianity. As a result of the latter, Christianity began to spread throughout Denmark and Norway.

The larger of the Jelling stones, enormous carved runestones found in Jelling, was raised by Harold Bluetooth in 970 to celebrate Denmark’s conversion to Christianity. (Ljunie / CC BY-SA)

The larger of the Jelling stones, enormous carved runestones found in Jelling, was raised by Harold Bluetooth in 970 to celebrate Denmark’s conversion to Christianity. ( Ljunie / CC BY-SA )

Sweyn Forkbeard Revolts Against His Father, Harald Bluetooth

Little is known about Sweyn’s childhood and early years. His first appearance in historical record is rather brutal. According to medieval writers, Sweyn revolted against his father in the final years of Harald’s life. This occurred around 987 AD. The German chronicler, Adam of Bremen, alleged that Sweyn’s revolt was a pagan reaction towards the increasing Christianization of Denmark. The chronicler’s claim, however, is somewhat dubious, as there is no indication that Sweyn was a pagan. Additionally, Adam may have held a grudge against the Danish king, as he had been unsympathetic to the church of Hamburg-Bremen.

The baptism of Harald Bluetooth. Detail from baptismal font from circa 1100 in Tamdrup Kirke, Denmark. (Sven Rosborn / CC BY-SA)

The baptism of Harald Bluetooth. Detail from baptismal font from circa 1100 in Tamdrup Kirke, Denmark. ( Sven Rosborn / CC BY-SA )

The story of Sweyn’s revolt is also recounted in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (translated as  ‘The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway’  ). In this version of the story, Sweyn is said to have asked his father for a part of Denmark. Harald, who had no intention of dividing his kingdom, naturally denied his son’s request. Therefore, Sweyn assembled his men and reported to his father than he was going on a raid. In fact, he was preparing to revolt. When the preparations were complete, Sweyn attacked his father. Harald won the battle, as he had a larger army, but received a mortal wound and died shortly after.

In some versions of the story, Harald was defeated, fleeing to the Wends where he died of his wounds. As for Sweyn, he fled from the battlefield, but following the death of his father he was proclaimed king. The new king, however, had been captured by Sigvaldi, the chieftain of the Jomsvikings. Sigvaldi forced Sweyn to make peace with the Wends, before returning him to Denmark. 

In the Heimskringla, Sweyn is recorded to have married Gunhild, the daughter of Burizleif, the Wendish king. The Heimskringla goes on to say that the couple’s sons were Harald and Cnut. Although Burizleif is a legendary figure, it has been speculated that he may be based on an actual person. Sweyn later married Sigrid the Haughty , the widow of the Swedish king, Eric the Victorious. In some sources, Sweyn is said to have married Sigrid after the death of Gunhild. In others, Sweyn is said to have repudiated Gunhild, and married Sigrid. As a result, Gunhild went back to Wendland, and was only brought back to Denmark by her sons after Sweyn’s death.

12th century depiction of invading Vikings from the Life and Miracles of St. Edmund. (Public Domain)

12th century depiction of invading Vikings from the Life and Miracles of St. Edmund. ( Public Domain )

Viking Raiders Set Their Sights on Britain

Not long after ascending the throne of Denmark, Sweyn set his sights on England. As early as the end of the 8th century AD, Britain was a favorite target of the Viking raiders , as the largely undefended monasteries were easy pickings for them. In the following century, the Vikings began to establish settlements on the island, rather than simply raiding its inhabitants. By the end of the 9th century AD, a large portion of England had been conquered by the Vikings. This area became known as the Danelaw, and Viking rule lasted until the middle of the 10th century.

In 954 AD, Eric Bloodaxe , the last Viking ruler of Northumbria, was expelled, marking the end of the Danelaw. In the decades that followed, England was ruled by native kings. In 978 AD, Aethelred II, whose nickname was ‘the Unready’, meaning ‘ill-advised’ in Old English, became the new king of England. This was about a decade before Sweyn came to power.

Danegeld and the Extortion of Britain Under Sweyn Forkbeard

During the 990s, Aethelred was still on the English throne. In fact, he went on to rule until 1016. This was also the beginning of the ‘second Viking Age’. Unlike the Vikings of the 9th and 10th centuries, Sweyn was initially not interested in conquering England. Instead, he preferred to conduct raids on the island.

Unlike the Vikings of the 8th century, Sweyn’s raids were carried out on a much larger scale. These were normally organized by royal leaders, and the aim was extortion. Sweyn’s raiders did not target isolated monasteries, but the English state itself. The Viking raids were so devastating that the English agreed to pay tribute to the Vikings. This tribute, known as the Danegeld, was essentially protection money, and the Vikings profited greatly from it. In 991 AD, for instance, the raiders were paid 4500 kilograms (9921 lbs) of silver in exchange for leaving England in peace.

Sweyn Forkbeard invades England      Source: Public Domain

Sweyn Forkbeard invades England      Source: Public Domain

Sweyn Forkbeard and the Viking Raid of London

This strategy was not entirely successful and, particularly in the north of England, the Viking raids continued. These raids were much smaller. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, in 994 AD Sweyn himself led a failed raid on England, with London as his ultimate goal. The account of Sweyn’s attack on London is as follows:

“This year came Anlaf (Olaf Trygvasson, the king of Norway) and Sweyne to London, on the Nativity of St. Mary, with four and ninety-ships. And they closely besieged the city, and would fain have set it on fire; but they sustained more harm and evil than they ever supposed that any citizens could inflict on them. The holy mother of God on that day in her mercy considered the citizens, and ridded them of their enemies.”

Although the Vikings failed to take London, they did not return home immediately. Instead, they went on to terrorize the rest of England:

“Thence they advanced, and wrought the greatest evil that ever any army could do, in burning and plundering and manslaughter, not only on the sea-coast in Essex, but in Kent and in Sussex and in Hampshire. Next they took horse, and rode as wide as they would, and committed unspeakable evil.”

Viking warrior with an axe. “Thence they advanced, and wrought the greatest evil that ever any army could do, in burning and plundering and manslaughter”. (TheStockCube / Adobe Stock)

Viking warrior with an axe. “Thence they advanced, and wrought the greatest evil that ever any army could do, in burning and plundering and manslaughter”. ( TheStockCube / Adobe Stock)

For one reason or another, Aethelred did not resort to military force to get rid of the Vikings raiders. Rather, he chose to pay them off, as he had been doing in the past:

“Then resolved the king and his council to send to them, and offer them tribute and provision, on condition that they desisted from plunder. The terms they accepted; and the whole army came to Southampton, and there fixed their winter quarters; where they were fed by all the subjects of the West Saxon kingdom. And they gave them 16,000 pounds in money.”

In exchange, Olaf converted to Christianity, and promised not to act in a hostile manner towards England ever again. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles , Olaf kept his promise. It may be noted that in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ entry for the year 994 AD, Olaf is portrayed as the main character, whereas Sweyn plays a secondary role. Although Olaf is said to have promised never to attack England again, it seems that Sweyn did not make such a promise. According to some sources, whilst Sweyn was away raiding England, Erik the Victorious seized the opportunity to occupy Denmark. Nevertheless, the Swedish king died soon after and Sweyn was able to reclaim his throne.

St. Brice’s Day Massacre and Sweyn’s Retaliation

Under Sweyn Forkbeard the Vikings continued to raid England in the years that followed, and he himself launched an attack on the island in 1003. The Danish king decided to lead the attack personally as a result of an incident that occurred the year before. In the spring of that year, Aethelred married Emma, the sister of Richard II, the Duke of Normandy. This was meant to seal the alliance between England and Normandy, and may have emboldened Aethelred to take a tougher stand against the Vikings.

Aethelred the Unready ordered the execution of all Danes living in England on St. Brice’s Day 1002. (Public Domain)

Aethelred the Unready ordered the execution of all Danes living in England on St. Brice’s Day 1002. (Public Domain )

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, in 1002 Aethelred received news that the Danes in England were plotting to assassinate him and take over his kingdom. He therefore launched a preemptive strike by massacring all the Danes in England on St. Brice’s Day (the 13th of November). Although it is certain that some Danes were killed, the scale of the St. Brice’s Day Massacre is unclear.

In some accounts it has been speculated that one of the Danes who was killed during the massacre was Gunhild, the sister of Sweyn. If this were true, it would have intensified Sweyn’s antagonism towards the English. Alternatively, the massacre of the Danes itself may have increased Sweyn’s hostility. In any case, Sweyn raided England in 1003:

“When Sweyne saw that they were not ready, and that they all retreated, then led he his army into Wilton; and they plundered and burned the town. Then went he to Sarum; and thence back to the sea, where he knew his ships were.”

Sweyn and the Conquest of both Norway and England

Whilst his Vikings were raiding England, Sweyn conquered Norway, which was ruled by Sweyn’s old raiding partner Olaf Trygvasson. Sweyn formed an alliance with the Swedes and the Earls of Lade, and attacked Olaf. At the Battle of Svolder, in 1000, the Norwegians were defeated, and Sweyn became the new ruler of Norway. England would fall under Danish rule as well, though many years after Sweyn’s conquest of Norway. 

In 1013, Sweyn led another raid on England. It appears that the Danish king had not personally led a raid on the island since 1004. This raid was different from the ones he had conducted previously, and it soon became a conquest. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles:

“before the month August, came King Sweyne with his fleet to Sandwich; and very soon went about East-Anglia into the Humber-mouth, and so upward along the Trent, until he came to Gainsborough. Then soon submitted to him Earl Utred, and all the Northumbrians, and all the people of Lindsey, and afterwards the people of the Five Boroughs, and soon after all the army to the north of Watling-street.”

Cnut the Great, Sweyn’s son, illustrated within the initial of a medieval manuscript (Public Domain)

Cnut the Great, Sweyn’s son, illustrated within the initial of a medieval manuscript (Public Domain )

To ensure the loyalty of the English nobles who had submitted to them, hostages were taken by the Danes. These hostages were left with Sweyn’s son, Cnut, in Gainsborough, the new Viking base camp. The Danish king then turned southward, continuing his conquest of the island. When Sweyn reached London he found that the population would not submit, and so decided to continue to Bath where he received the submission of the western thanes before returning to Gainsborough. By this time London had also surrendered. Aethelred was forced into exile and found refuge at the court of his brother-in-law in Normandy. The exiled king remained there until Sweyn’s death, which, in fact, did not take long to happen.

Sweyn Forkbeard’s Sudden Death and the Disintegration of His Empire

By the end of 1013, Sweyn was at the height of his power and was the ruler of Denmark, Norway, and England. Having said that, by February of the following year he was dead. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ entry for the year 1014 states, “This year King Sweyne ended his days at Candlemas, the third day before the nones of February,” (which meant the second of February). Interestingly, the Heimskringla gives more details about Sweyn’s death: “it happened that King Svein died suddenly in the night in his bed; and it is said by Englishmen that Edmund the Saint killed him, in the same way that the holy Mercurius had killed the apostate Julian.”

Sweyn Forkbeard, England’s shortest reigning king, is killed by King Edmund the Saint. Illustration from The Life of King Edward the Confessor in a manuscript from around 1250. (Public domain)

Sweyn Forkbeard, England’s shortest reigning king, is killed by King Edmund the Saint. Illustration from The Life of King Edward the Confessor in a manuscript from around 1250. ( Public domain )

As a result of Sweyn’s sudden death, the empire that he created disintegrated almost immediately. In England, Aethelred returned from exile and ruled until his death in 1016. Likewise, the throne of Norway was returned to a native ruler. Nevertheless, Sweyn’s son, Cnut, would later resurrect his father’s empire. Cnut ruled England for much longer than his father, giving him more time to impress the English, which he did. His good deeds were recorded by English writers of that time, and, as a consequence, he is known today as ‘ Cnut the Great’ . Sweyn, on the other hand, only ruled England for about five weeks, and did not have the time to prove that he was a capable ruler. Hence, he was stuck with the (still pretty impressive) byname ‘Forkbeard’.

Top image: Viking in action. Credit: Nomad_Soul / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

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