The St Brice’s Day Massacre

November 13th, 1002

Why St Brice became so popular in Anglo-Saxon England is a mystery. A Gaulish cleric of the fourth century, he succeeded St Martin as Bishop of Tours and behaved so badly that he was driven out of his diocese, but he changed his ways and was greatly revered by the time he died in 444. Little memory of him survives today, except for the massacre ordered on his festival day by King Ethelred of England.

Ethelred the Unready, or the Ill-Advised, had been king since the age of twelve in 978, after his step-brother had been murdered at Corfe on the orders of Ethelred's mother. The pretence that all the leading magnates and churchmen of England had preferred Ethelred to his brother failed to convince and the administration soon had to struggle with fresh waves of attacks by Vikings, who found England temptingly weak. Normandy, ruled by descendants of Norsemen, provided them with handy harbours and they established a base on the Isle of Wight. Sometimes there was fierce English resistance. In 991 Ealdorman Brihtnoth was killed at the famous battle of Maldon in Essex by a Viking host under Olaf Tryggvason, a Norwegian who returned to plunder the north-east in 993. The next year, he and Swein Forkbeard, the Danish king, attacked London together unsuccessfully. Olaf turned to harry the south-east, but Ethelred succeeded in buying him off. The men of Devon stood firm in 998. More often, however, English generals and officials seem to have been incompetent or irresolute.

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