Swein Forkbeard

Sweyn Forkbeard

Sweyn I Forkbeard, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in English Sven the Dane, also known as Swegen and Tuck, (Old Norse: Sveinn Tjúguskegg, Svein Tjugeskjegg, Sven Tveskägg; Svend Tveskæg, originally Tjugeskæg or Tyvskæg), (c. 960 – February 3, 1014), was king of Denmark and England, as well as parts of Norway. He was a Viking leader and the father of Canute the Great. On his father Harald Bluetooth's death in late 986 or early 987, he became King of Denmark; in 1000, with allegiance of the Trondejarl, Erik of Lade, he was ruler over most of Norway. After a long effort at conquest, and shortly before his death, in 1013 he became King of England. For the last months of his life, he was the Danish sovereign of a North Sea empire, which only his son Canute was to rival in northern Europe.

Forkbeard's cognomen

Sweyn Forkbeard's nickname, which was probably used during his lifetime, unlike many royal nicknames, refers to a pitchfork-style moustache which was fashionable at the time, particularly in England, where Sweyn may have picked up the idea. Similar type moustaches can be seen depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Church and currency

On the northern edges of the relatively recent domain known as the Holy Roman Empire, with its roots in Charlemagne's conquests hundreds of years prior to Sweyn's time, Sweyn Forkbeard had coins made with an image in his likeness. The Latin inscription on the coins produced read, "ZVEN REX DAENOR", which translates as, "Sweyn, king of Danes".

Sweyn's father, Harald Bluetooth, was the first of the Scandinavian kings to officially accept Christianity, in the early or mid-960s. According to Adam of Bremen, an 11th century historian, Harald's son Sweyn was baptised Otto, paying tribute to the German king Otto I who was the first Holy Roman Emperor. Forkbeard is never known to have officially made use of this Christian name though. He did not use it on the coins he proudly sent forth, and when he was given the English crown by the Witenagemot of Anglo-Saxon nobles, in 1013, he took the crown as king Sweyn.

Life and legacy

Many details about Sweyn's life are contested. There is an ongoing dispute among scholars over the extent of trust historians may place in the various, too often contradictory, accounts of his life given in the sources from his era of history, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, and the Heimskringla, a 13th century work by Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson. Contrary accounts of Sweyn's later life also appear in the Encomium Emmae, an 11th century Latin encomium in honour of his son king Canute's queen Emma, of Normandy, along with Chronicle of World and English History by Florence of Worcester, another 11th century author.

Some historians, such as Lauritz Weibull, have argued that Sweyn's wife described in the sagas - Swedish dowager queen Sigrid the Haughty- is purely fictional, whereas others have accepted her existence on the evidence of the Norse sagas. Weibull's conclusion is shared by Den Store Danske Encyklopædi which identifies the queen as Gunhild. In some of the old sources, such as the Jómsvíkinga saga, Sweyn appears as an illegitimate son of Harald Bluetooth, raised by the legendary Jomsviking and jarl of Jomsborg, Palnatoke. Sweyn is also depicted as a rebellious son, who lead an uprising against his father, in 987, and chased him out of the court, forcing him to abandon his kingdom. Harald apparently spent the rest of his days with the Slavs, in Wendland, within modern-day Germany.

Many negative accounts build on Adam of Bremen's writings; Adam is said to have watched Sweyn and Scandinavia in general with an "unsympathetic and intolerant eye" according to some scholars. Adam accused Forkbeard of being a rebellious pagan who persecuted Christians, betrayed his father and expelled German bishops from Scania and Zealand. According to Adam, Sweyn was therefore sent into exile by his father's German friends and deposed in favor of king Eric the Victorious of Sweden, whom Adam wrote ruled Denmark until his death in 994 or 995. Historians generally have found problems with these claims Adam made, such as that Sweyn was driven into exile in Scotland for a period as long as fourteen years. As many scholars point out, he built churches in Denmark throughout this period, such as Lund and Roskilde, while he led Danish raids against England too.

Ruler of England

According to the chronicles of John of Wallingford, Sweyn was involved in raids against England during 1002-1005, 1006-1007, and 1009-1012, to revenge the St. Brice's Day massacre of England's Danish inhabitants in November 1002, a massacre often seen as large-scale ethnic cleansing of the Danes in England orchestrated by Ethelred the Unready. Sweyn is thought to have had a personal interest in these raids due to his sister, Gunhilde, being amongst the victims, according to Mike Ashley, in British Monarchs: "Probably his [Ethelred's] worst decision was the St. Brice's day massacre on 13 November 1002...he ordered the killing of every Dane who lived in England, except the Anglo-Danes in the Danelaw. The massacre brought back to English shores the Danish commander Swein, whose sister and brother-in-law had been killed in the massacre".

According to Michael Lapidge, in "Swein Forkbeard" (The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England), Sweyn was active in Wessex and East Anglia in 1003-1004, but a 1005 famine forced him to return home.

Some scholars have argued that Sweyn's participation may have been prompted by his state of impoverishment, after having been forced to pay a hefty ransom, and that he was in need of the income from the raids. He acquired massive sums of Danegeld through the raids, and in 1013, he is reported to have personally led his forces in a full-scale invasion. The contemporary Peterborough Chronicle (also called the Laud Manuscript), one of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, states that "before the month of August came king Sweyn with his fleet to Sandwich. He went very quickly about East Anglia into the Humber's mouth, and so upward along the Trent till he came to Gainsborough. Earl Uchtred and all Northumbria quickly bowed to him, as did all the people of Lindsey, then the people of the Five Boroughs. He was given hostages from each shire. When he understood that all the people had submitted to him, he bade that his force should be provisioned and horsed; he went south with the main part of the invasion force, while some of the invasion force, as well as the hostages, were with his son Canute. After he came over Watling Street, they went to Oxford, and the town-dwellers soon bowed to him, and gave hostages. From there they went to Winchester, and the people did the same, then eastward to London.

But the Londoners are said to have destroyed the bridges that spanned the river Thames ("London Bridge is falling down"), and Sweyn suffered heavy losses and had to withdraw. The chronicles tells that "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."

London had withstood the assault of the Danish army, but the city was now alone, isolated within a country which had completely surrendered. Sweyn Forkbeard was accepted as King of England following the flight to Normandy of King Ethelred the Unready in late 1013. With the acceptance of the Witan, London had finally surrendered to him, and he was declared king on Christmas day.

Sweyn was based in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, and began to organize his vast new kingdom, but he died there on February 3 1014, having ruled England unopposed for only five weeks. His embalmed body was subsequently returned to Denmark, to be buried in the church he built in Roskilde. He was succeeded as King of Denmark by his elder son, Harald II, but the Danish fleet proclaimed his younger son Canute king. In England, the councillors had sent for Æthelred, who upon his return from exile in Normandy in the spring of 1014 managed to drive Canute out of England. However, Canute returned to become King of England in 1016, while also ruling Denmark, Norway, parts of Sweden, Pomerania, and Schleswig.


Adam of Bremen's writings regarding Sweyn and his father may have been compromised by Adam's desire to emphasize Sweyn's father, Harald, as a candidate for sainthood, and he claims that Sweyn, who was baptized along with his father, was a heathen. This may have been true, as much of Scandinavia was pagan at the time, though there is no data to corroborate the assertion. German and French records support that Harald Bluetooth was baptized.

According to Adam, Sweyn was punished by God for supposedly leading the uprising which led to king Harald's death, and had to spend "fourteen years" abroad - perhaps a Biblical reference from an ecclesiastical writer. Adam purports that Sweyn was shunned by all those with whom he sought refuge, but was finally allowed to live for a while in Scotland. The Scottish king at the time was apparently known in Europe as a heathen and a murderer, and Adam's intention is obviously to show that Sweyn belonged with heathens and murderers and was not fit to rule a Christian country. He only achieves success as a ruler once he accepts Christ as his saviour.

Sweyn was tolerant of paganism while favoring Christianity, at least politically. By allowing English ecclesiastical influence in his kingdom, he was purposely spurning the Hamburg-Bremen archbishop, and since German bishops were an integral part of the secular state, Sweyn's preference for the English church may thus have been a political move to preempt any threat against his independence posed by the German kings. However, contrary to Adam's writings, he does not appear to have reestablished paganism; there is no evidence of a reversion to pagan burial practices during Sweyn's reign. Whether King Sweyn was a heathen or not, he did enlist priests and bishops from England rather than from Hamburg and this may have given Adam of Bremen further cause to dislike him. It also may have been because there were ample converted priests of a Danish origin from the Danelaw in England, while Sweyn really had few connections to Germany or its priests.

Sweyn must have known that once the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen gained influence in Denmark, the German Emperor Otto II would not be far behind; his Slavic neighbours to the south-east had all but been under an annex of Germany once Otto's father Otto I had divided their lands into Bishoprics and put them under the "care" of the Holy Roman emperor. Sweyn may have envisaged the same happening to his own territory.


In literature

  • Lund, Niels (1997). Harald Blåtands Død (The Death of Harold Bluetooth). Roskilde Museum's publishing house, Denmark 1997.
  • Ashley, Mike (1998). British Monarchs. Robinson Publishing, 1998.

External links

See also

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