Sweyn I of Denmark

Svend Forkbeard
Reign Denmark: 986-February 3, 1014
Norway: 999- 1014
England: December 25, 1013-February 3, 1014
Born c.960
Died February 3, 1014
Buried Roskilde Cathedral
Married Gunhilde
Parents Harald Bluetooth

Sweyn I "Forkbeard" (Old Norse Sveinn tjúguskegg; Danish: Svend Tveskæg, originally Tjugeskæg or Tyvskæg, Norwegian: Svein Tjugeskjegg) (c. 960February 3, 1014). Sweyn succeeded his father Harald I "Blåtand" (Bluetooth) as king of Denmark, probably in late 986 or early 987. Sweyn had coins made with his likeness, being the first Danish king to do so. The inscription read "Zven, Rex ad Dener" which translates as "Sweyn, king of Danes". The year of his birth is unknown, but he is believed to have been born before his father accepted Christianity in the early or mid-960s. When the royal family converted Sweyn is said to have been given the Christian name Otto in honour of the German emperor. Sweyn is rarely recorded as having used this name though, and the inscriptions on his coinage and fact that he was accepted by the English Witan as king Sweyn seem to corroborate this.

In some of the old sources Sweyn appears as an illegimate son of Harald, and raised by the probably mythical viking jarl of Jomsborg, Palna-Toke. Though this has never been proven in any way, there are at least some indices that Harald did not voluntarily give up his crown for Sweyn.

11th century historian Adam of Bremen, whose Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum is strongly anti-Sweyn, claims that Sweyn Forkbeard was deposed by king Eric the Victorious of Sweden, who ruled Denmark until his death in 994 or 995. This has never been proven, but Adam can be cited as a secondary source. Adam's writings regarding Sweyn and his father may be 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, much of Scandinavia was pagan at the time, though there is no data, the 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 couldn't rule a Christian country. He only achieves success as a ruler once he accepts Christ as his saviour. There are several major problems with a fourteen year "exile" in Scotland. Primarily, if Sweyn was exiled for fourteen years from his father's death in 985, the would be about c.1000. By 1000 it is stated that Sweyn has been ruling Denmark for about Fourteen years and Norway had been subjugated into a vassal state. Secondly, Adam of Bremen claims "the Scottish king at this time was a heathen" however, in fourteen years from 995 there were many kings: the kings of Alba alone included Cináed mac Maíl Coluim, Olaf, Causantín mac Cuilén, Cináed mac Duib, perhaps Cináed mac Duib's son Giric, and Máel Coluim mac Cináeda; and there were sub-kings and chieftains throughout. It is unclear which king Adam meant, but the Scottish throne was constantly disputed, and the leading rival was Cináed mac Maíl Coluim, a man recognized as a Catholic and leading bureaucrat of his age who was certainly not a heathen murderer.

No other Western European source maintains Adam's suggestions, however, and while a conflict between Danes and Swedes almost certainly took place during Sweyn's reign, the idea of him being deposed has little foundation. And most historical sources agree that Sweyn subjugated Norway and created a vassal state, using both Danish and Norwegian forces in a combined Viking assault on England. Many sources consider Olaf Skötkuning as the first ruler of a modern state of Sweden, in which case Erik the victorious would not have ruled a nation state.

Whether King Sweyn was a heathen or not, he did enlist priests and bishops from England rather than from Hamburg, and this must 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 (Balkans) had all but been annexed by 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.

Following the death of Norway's king Olaf I Tryggvason in the Battle of Svolder, Sweyn established Danish control over most of Norway, with Erik Håkonsson, Earl as his vassal. Sweyn was almost certainly involved in the raids against England in 1003-1005, 1006-1007, and 1009-1012, following the St. Brice's Day massacre of England's Danish inhabitants in November 1002, recorded in the chronicles of John of Wallingford. Sweyn is thought to have had a personal interest in these due to his sister, Gunhilde, being amongst the victims. The massacre was seen as large-scale ethnic cleansing of the Danish in England by Ethelred II the Unready. Sweyn acquired massive sums of Danegeld, and in 1013 personally led the Danish fleet in a full-scale invasion.

The contemporary Laud Chronicle 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. Eorl Uhtred 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 in full force, and entrusted his ships and the hostages to his son Cnut. After he came over Watling Street, they worked the most evil that a force might do. They went to Oxford, and the town-dwellers soon bowed to him, and gave hostages. From there they went to Winchester, and 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 tell 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 3rd 1014, having ruled England unopposed for only five weeks. His body was subsequently returned to Denmark. He was succeeded as King of Denmark by his elder son, Harald II; the Danish fleet proclaimed his younger son Canute as King of England, but they and he returned to Denmark, with Æthelred being restored. Later, Canute ruled in Denmark, England, Norway and some parts of northern Germany.

Sweyn Forkbeard's nickname, which was probably used during his lifetime, refers to a long, pitchfork-like moustache, a "tjuge" in Old Norse, not to a full beard. Such a moustache was fashionable at the time, particularly in England.

Preceded by:
Harald I/ III
King of Denmark
Succeeded by:
Harald II
King of Norway
First Reign

(Håkon Jarl was de facto ruler)
Succeeded by:
Olaf Trygvasson
Preceded by:
Olaf Trygvasson
King of Norway
Second Reign

With Eiríkr Hákonarson and Sveinn Hákonarson
Succeeded by:
Olaf the Stout
Preceded by:
Ethelred II
King of England
Succeeded by:
Ethelred II

For literary sources see professor Niels Lund: "Harald Blåtands Død" [The Death of Harold Bluetooth], Roskilde Museum's publishing house, Denmark 1997. see:British Monarchs, Mike Ashley, Robinson Publishing, 1998

Monarchs of England
Alfred | Edward the Elder | Ethelweard | Athelstan | Edmund I | Edred | Edwy | Edgar I | Edward the Martyr | Ethelred | Sweyn I*† | Edmund II | Canute*† | Harthacanute* | Harold I | Edward the Confessor | Harold II | Edgar II | William I | William II | Henry I | Stephen | Matilda | Henry II | Richard I | John | Henry III | Edward I | Edward II | Edward III | Richard II | Henry IV | Henry V | Henry VI | Edward IV | Edward V | Richard III | Henry VII | Henry VIII‡ | Edward VI‡ | Jane‡ | Mary I‡ | Elizabeth I‡ | James I‡§ | Charles I‡§ | Interregnum | Charles II‡§ | James II‡§ | William III‡§¶ and Mary II‡§ | Anne‡§
* Also Monarch of Denmark | † Also Monarch of Norway | ‡Also Monarch of Ireland | § Also Monarch of Scotland | ¶ Also Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel and Drenthe

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