Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Sweyn

Sweyn Forkbeard was born in 960, and was the son of Harold Bluetooth, King of Denmark.

He took the throne of Denmark after a rebellion in 985, and consolidated his power there the following year, when his father died.

Over the next few years, Sweyn joined the forces of Olaf Trygvasson and systematically ravaged England. He was probably present with Olaf at the Battle of Maldon in 991.

When, in 1002, Sweyn’s sister Gunnhild and her husband, Ealdorman Pallig, were among those killed at Oxford in the St. Brice’s Day massacre, he swore revenge on Ethelred and returned annually for several years. Almost immediately he sacked and burned Norwich.

On one occasion, his army reached as far as the Berkshire Downs, deep into Wessex. Danish legend held that any Vikings who got that far would never again see the sea, but Sweyn overcome his men’s fears in that respect.

In 1007, Ethelred paid Sweyn an enormous Danegeld and he returned to Denmark.

But in 1013 he invaded again. He landed beside the Humber, and immediately Northumbria and the Danelaw submitted to him.

Sweyn met very little resistance from the demoralised English people, and marched on through Mercia to Oxford and then on to Winchester, where Mercia and Wessex submitted.

London held out, though, and Sweyn returned to his base in Lindsey.

But when it was learned that Ethelred had fled to Normandy, Sweyn was recognised as king by the whole of England.

However, after only a few weeks, in 1014, Sweyn died, at Gainsborough.

According to the Danes and most historians, he fell off his horse and died.

But according to English stories, he scoffed at St. Edmund, the King of East Anglia who had been martyred by an earlier Danish war party, and had been buried at Bury St. Edmunds. The ghost of St. Edmund, in retaliation, ran him through with his lance.

Ethelred was then asked to come back and resume being king.

Sweyn was buried first at Gainsborough, and his body was later taken to Roeskild Cathedral in Denmark.

He had been married twice, firstly in 990 to Gunnhilda, daughter of Mjeczislas I, Duke of Poland. Among their children were Harold, who succeeded his father as King of Denmark; and Cnut, later a famous and illustrious King of England.

His second wife was Sigrid the Haughty, born in Sweden, who had earlier been courted by Olaf Trygvasson. They had a daughter Astrid, who married into the Royal family of Normandy.