Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Massacre in Oxford

Well that headline got your attention, but it is rather stale news. Today is the feast of St Brice and the anniversary of the massacre on that day of the Danes in Oxford, and elsewhere, in 1002 on the orders of King Æthelred II. It was ethnic cleansing eleventh century style.

There is an informative assessment online of King Æthelred II which reflects current historical thinking about his life and reign. An article about the massacre, with an interesting discussion of various historians interpretations of what actually happened can be seen here. As the article shows by quoting himself in a charter to St Frideswide's (now Christ Church cathedral) from 1004 things had been violent in Oxford two years earlier:

For it is fully agreed that to all dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in the afore-mentioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, with God's aid, it was renewed by me.

The King does not appear at all penitent, other than for the incidental damage to St Frideswide's church, even though the massacre probably caused the Danish invasions which were to force him into exile in Normandy a few years later and after his restoration and death the establishment of the Danish line of Kings from 1016 until 1042.

A gold mancus of King Æthelred II
British Museum



King Æthelred II
An illumination from the Abingdon Chronicle of c.1220


In 2008 building work for an extension to St John's college revealed a series of skeletons of young men who had suffered violent deaths and been dumped in mass grave outside the city on the site of a bronzeage temple circle. The dating would indicate that these were victims of the St Brice's day massacre. The choice of this place for the burial suggests that a place associated with demons or suchlike in their minds was where the inhabitants of Oxford thought the Danes belonged. There is a report on the discovery here.

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