The Life of Sweyn Forkbeard
The Danish Invasion of England
Following the death of his father, Harald Bluetooth, Sweyn Forkbeard became the King of Denmark sometime in the year 1000.
Unlike many other royal nicknames, Sweyn’s was probably used in his lifetime. The name Sweyn Forkbeard is thought to refer to the pitchfork-style moustache that was common in England during that time.
On the northern border of the Holy Roman Empire, Sweyn is believed to have had coins minted bearing the words, “Zven Rex Daenor,” or “Sweyn, King of the Danes.”
Sweyn Forkbeard in the Primary Sources
According to the 11th Century historian, Adam of Bremen, Sweyn’s father, Harald Bluetooth was one of the first Scandinavian Kings to accept Christianity, sometime in the early 960s. He is also believed to have baptized Sweyn as Otto, in honour of Otto I, the first King of the Holy Roman Empire.
Many of the details of Sweyn’s life have come under scrutiny as a result of conflicting accounts found in the historical record. Contrary accounts of Sweyn’s life appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the writings of Adam of Bremen, as well as the writings of the 13th Century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson.
Some historians have even gone so far as to suggest that Sweyn’s second wife Sigrid the Haughty, the dowager Queen of Sweden, did not exist.
On top of this, some primary sources also make the claim that Sweyn was illegitimate, in addition to being a rebellious pagan who persecuted Christians and opposed his father’s rule. These claims may have been influenced by the writings of Adam of Bremen. As a result, he is no longer considered to be a reliable source by medieval historians.
Sweyn Forkbeard’s Invasion
According to the English chronicler, John of Wallingford, Sweyn took part in a number of raids on the English coast between 1002 and 1013. These raids were carried out in response to the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, in which Sweyn’s predecessor,Ethelred the Unready, tried to have all of the Danes in England killed. Sweyn is believed to have taken an interest in the raids because his sister is thought to have been among Ethelred’s victims.
A more realistic explanation for Sweyn’s participation in the Danish raids against England is money. The reason for this may have been because, Sweyn was held captive by his father’s supporters and forced pay a ransom for his release. Doing so may have left him impoverished and short of funds. As a result, he may have chosen to take part in the Danish attacks on England, in an effort to replenish his personal coffers.
According to the Peterbourgh Chronicle, one of the documents that comprised the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Sweyn, exacted large amounts of Danegeld, or tribute, from the English, and in 1013 personally financed an invasion of England.
He began by attacking East Anglia, gradually working his way north to Northumbria, while the Danish fleet sailed up the River Thames and attempted to attack London. However, the Londoners burned all the bridges crossing the Thames, blocking the river and preventing the Danish fleet from entering London. According to the Peterborough Chronicle, Sweyn was not deterred by this setback, however. “King Sweyn went from there to Wallingford over the Thames to Bath and stayed there with his troops; Ealdorman Aethelmaer came and the western Thegns with him. They all bowed to Sweyn and gave hostages.”
Even though the people of London had successfully beaten back the Danish army, they now found themselves surrounded and isolated as the entire country submitted to Sweyn’s rule. Following Ethelred’s abdication, and flight to Normandy, Sweyn was accepted as king. He was crowned King of England on Christmas Day, 1013.
The Death of Sweyn Forkbeard
Following his coronation, Sweyn immediately set about organizing his new kingdom from his capital at Gainsborough. However, he only reigned for five weeks before he died in February, 1014.
Sweyn Forkbeard’s Legacy
Following his death, Sweyn’s oldest son, Harald II, became the King of Denmark. However, the Danish fleet threw its support behind Harald’s younger brother, Canute, who was eventually able to topple Ethelred in 1016. Sweyn’s descendants continue to rule Denmark today, and every English monarch from 1603 onward can also claim descent from Sweyn Forkbeard.
Howard, Ian, Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991– 1017. first edn., Woodbridge&Boydell (2003),
Ashley, Mike (1998). British Monarchs. Robinson Publishing, 1998
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