Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sweyn (d.1014)
SWEYN or SVEIN (d. 1014), king of England and Denmark, called Forkbeard, was son of Harold Blaatand, king of Denmark, probably by his queen Gunhild, though it was said that his mother was a Slav, a servant in the house of Palna-Toki, or Tokko, in Fünen. He was baptised in childhood along with his father and Gunhild, in fulfilment of the conditions of peace dictated by the Emperor Otto the Great in 965. The emperor was his godfather, and he received the baptismal name of Otto (Adam of Bremen, ii. c. 3). His life and deeds in the north are involved in much obscurity, and their dates can at best only be matters of inference. He is said to have been brought up by Palna-Toki, the heathen captain of the buccaneer settlement at Jomsburg on the Slavonic coast of the Baltic. He cast aside Christianity and became head of the heathen party among the Danes. He rebelled against his father and made war upon him, and there is some ground for thinking that he at one time expelled him from Denmark (William of Jumièges, iv. cc. 7, 9: though the chronology of the events there recorded does not fit Sweyn's life, the passage proves a tradition, adopted by Sven Aggeson ap. Langebek, i. 52). Harold was finally wounded in a battle with his son, and died at Jomsburg on 1 Nov. 986 (Adam, ii. 25, 26; Saga of Olaf Tryggvisson, c. 38). Sweyn was then accepted as king in Denmark, and persecuted his Christian subjects.
Eric the Victorious invaded Denmark in revenge for the help that Harold had given to his enemies, and after some fighting drove Sweyn out. He is said to have sought help in vain from Olaf Tryggvisson, who was at that time leading a viking's life, and of Ethelred or Æthelred II, the Unready [q. v.], king of England, and to have been received by the king of Scots. He evidently had a large following, and became a sea-rover. In conjunction with Olaf, he invaded England with a powerful fleet in 994. The two allies made an assault on London on 8 Sept. which was repulsed, and they then ravaged the south-east. They entered Hampshire, and were bought off by the English with a tribute of 16,000l. Their fleet lay at Southampton during the winter, the crews being supplied with food and pay by Wessex. Olaf made a lasting peace with Æthelred, received the rite of confirmation, and sailed to Norway in 995, where he was chosen king. Sweyn remained for a time, and that year appears to have ravaged the Isle of Man (Freeman, Norman Conquest, i. 319). At some time after his father's death he was engaged in war with the Jomsburgers, who were probably in alliance with the Swedes and the Wends, and was twice taken prisoner by his enemies and ransomed with large sums. There is a legend that he was taken captive a third time; that all the wealth of the country having been exhausted, the women gave their jewels and other ornaments for his ransom, and that in return he made a law that daughters as well as sons should share in the rights of inheritance (Saxo, p. 187). About 1000, apparently as a condition of peace, and perhaps of his liberation, he married the daughter of Miecislav, duke of Poland, sister of Boleslav, afterwards king of Poland, the widow of Eric of Sweden, and, it is said, the mother of his son Olaf Skotkonnung, or ‘the Swede.’ This marriage led to his restoration to Denmark after having, it is said, been fourteen years in exile; he made a close alliance with Olaf, which is said to have provided for the establishment of Christianity in Denmark and Sweden (Adam, ii. c. 37; Thietmar, vii. c. 28; Saga of Olaf Trygg. c. 38). His old ally, Olaf of Norway, was displeased at this alliance, and made war on the Danes; though it is also said that Sweyn began the quarrel, being stirred up by his wife Sigrid the Haughty, who is represented by the Icelandic writer as the widow of Eric the Victorious, though not the daughter of Miecislav (ib. c. 107). Sweyn was helped by Olaf the Swede, by Earls Eric and Sweyn, the sons of Hakon, the former ruler of Norway, and Sigwald, the leader of the Jomsburg pirates; and Olaf of Norway was defeated and drowned in the battle of Swold, 9 Sept. 1000. The victors divided Norway; Sweyn kept the southern part called the Wick, and assigned large dominion to the two sons of Hakon, giving Eric his daughter Gytha to wife.
When Sweyn heard of the massacre of the Danes on St. Brice's Day, 13 Nov. 1002, in which his sister Gunhild, her husband, and her son are said to have perished, he was greatly moved, and he and the Danish jarls swore to be revenged on Æthelred (Will. Malm. ii. c. 177; William of Jumièges, v. c. 6). Accordingly in 1003 he again invaded England, stormed Exeter, spoiled the city, and took great booty. He then ravaged Wiltshire, and, a local force which gathered to meet him having dispersed without a battle, sacked and burned Wilton and Salisbury (Old Sarum), and then returned to his ships. In 1004 he sailed to Norwich, which he plundered and burned. Ulfcytel [q. v.], the earl of East-Anglia, made peace with him and promised him tribute. In spite of this, however, he caused his men to leave their ships, and marched to Thetford, which he plundered and burned. When Ulfcytel heard of Sweyn's treachery, he ordered the men of the neighbourhood to break up the Danish ships, while he marched against the invaders. The country people did not carry out his orders, but he met the Danes on their way back to their fleet, and fought so manfully with them that they declared that they had ‘never met with worse hand-play in England.’ Finally, though with great difficulty, the Danes managed to return to their ships. Sweyn sailed back to Denmark in 1005. A few years later he is said to have made a perpetual alliance with Richard II of Normandy, the Norman duke promising that the Danes should be free to sell their spoils in Normandy, and that any that were sick or wounded should receive shelter there (ib. c. 7; Norman Conquest, i. 372). Sweyn does not appear to have had a personal share in the invasions of England in 1006–7 and 1009–12, during which the Danes crushed all spirit and hope in the people, and ravaged the land as they would. In 1012 the invaders suffered a serious loss in the defection of Thurkill or Thorkel [q. v.], who entered the service of the English king with his forty-five ships. Sweyn summoned Earl Eric, Hakon's son, to join him (Corpus Poeticum Boreale, ii. 98, 104), sailed with him and his own young son Canute [q. v.], and reached Sandwich in July 1013. Changing his course, he sailed into the Humber, and up the Trent to Gainsborough, where he encamped, and received the submission of all the country north of Watling Street, taking hostages for the obedience of each shire. Having made the people supply his army with horses and provisions, he marched southwards, leaving his fleet and the hostages in charge of Canute. He wasted the land, ordering that churches should be despoiled, towns burned, men slain, and women violated. At his coming Oxford and Winchester submitted to him and gave him hostages. He attacked London, where Æthelred and Thorkel were. Many of his men were drowned in the Thames in an attempt to cross the river, and he met with so stout a resistance that he drew off, and marched to Wallingford, and, having crossed the Thames there, advanced to Bath, where he stayed to refresh his army. While he was there the ealdormen of Devon and all the western thegns made peace with him and gave him hostages. This seems to have completed his conquest, and all the nation accepted him as ‘full king’ (A.-S. Chron. sub. an.). He marched north and returned to his ships. There the Londoners submitted to him and gave him hostages, and Æthelred took shelter in Thorkel's ships which lay at Greenwich. Sweyn ordered that a heavy tribute should be exacted from the people, and that his fleet should be provided for abundantly. He died at Gainsborough on 3 Feb. 1014. By a writer in the Danish interest he is represented as calling his son Canute to him when he felt the approach of death, and, exhorting him to rule well and promote Christianity, to have declared him his successor (Encomium Emmæ, i. c. 5). The English believed that his end was far different; he is said to have specially hated the memory of the martyred king, St. Edmund (841–870) [q. v.], and to have scoffed at his reputation for sanctity. He ordered the clerks of Edmundsbury to pay him a heavy tribute, often threatening that he would destroy their church and put them to death with torments. These threats he repeated at a general assembly that he held at Gainsborough. In the evening of that day, as he was on horseback, surrounded by his army, he beheld St. Edmund advancing towards him in full armour. He shouted for help, saying that the saint was coming to slay him. The saint pierced him with his spear; he fell from his horse, and died that night in torment (Flor. Wig. sub an.) He was buried in England; but a proposal having been made to cast his body out, an English lady, who heard of it, embalmed the body and sent it to Denmark, where it was buried in a tomb that he had prepared for himself in the minster of Roskild that he had built (Encomium Emmæ, ii. c. 3; Thietmar, vii. c. 28).
It is said that the troubles of Sweyn's early life brought him to repentance, and that after his restoration he was active in promoting the spread of Christianity in Denmark and Norway, and that he was assisted by Gotibald from England (whom he made bishop in Scania), by Poppo, Odinkar, and other bishops. In England, however, his Christianity did not keep him from cruelty and treachery. By his wife, the daughter of Miecislav of Poland, he had two sons, Harold being the elder, and Canute (Thietmar, vii. c. 28), and as Canute is described as the son of Eric's widow, the mother of Olaf (Adam, ii. c. 37, and Schol, p. 25), the German authorities make Eric's widow identical with Miecislav's daughter. She was in Slavonia at the time of Sweyn's death, having, it seems, been discarded by her husband, and she was fetched back to Denmark by her two sons (Encomium Emmæ, i. c. 2). German commentators (see notes to Adam, Encomium Emmæ, and Thietmar, ed. Pertz) call her Sigrid Storrada, or the Haughty. The sagas, however, say that Sweyn married first Gunhild, the daughter [sister] of Burislaf or Boleslav the Wend, and had by her Harold and Canute, and that on her death he married Sigrid the Haughty, the widow of Eric and mother of Olaf the Swede, and that Sigrid was a Swede by birth, and had been courted by Olaf Tryggvisson and insulted by him (Heimskringla, i. 212–13, 271, 348, transl. Morris; so too the editors of Scriptores Rerum Dan. ii. 205 n., stating that Canute was the son of Gunhild, and not, as Peter Olaus says of Syritha, the mother of Olaf). Amid these conflicting statements it will be well to remember that Thietmar of Merseberg, Adam of Bremen, and the writer of the ‘Encomium Emmæ’ are, so far as they go, the best authorities on the matter. It is unlikely that Sigrid was the daughter or sister of Burislav the Wend, or that she was the mother of Harold and Canute, and it seems certain that she was the mother of Olaf the Swede. Sweyn's daughters were Gytha, wife of Eric, son of Hakon, who became earl of the Northumbrians, and Estrith, wife first of the Danish earl Ulf, by whom she had Sweyn, called Estrithson, king of Denmark, and afterwards wife of Robert, duke of Normandy (Norman Conquest, i. 521–2). To Sweyn and Olaf Tryggvisson is ascribed the beginning of a native Scandinavian coinage, as opposed to Scandinavian coins minted in England. Two silver coins of Sweyn minted in Scandinavia are in existence, the obverse on each clearly being copied from a crux model of Æthelred II; one of them, in common with a coin of Olaf Tryggvisson, bears the name of Godwine as moneyer; this Godwine was no doubt an Englishman, and may have been taken to Scandinavia after the invasion of 994 (Schive, Norges Myntu in Middelalderen, tab. 1; Keary ap. Numismatic Chronicle, 3rd ser. vii. 223 sqq.)[Adam Brem., Thietmar, Enc. Emmæ (all SS. Rerum Germ. ed. Pertz); Sveno Agg.; Chron. Erici Regis; Chron. Roskild. (all SS. Rerum Danic. ed Langebek); Saxo Gramm, ed. 1644; Will. of Jumièges, ed. Duchesne; Heimskringla (Saga Library); Corpus Poet. Bor. ed. Vigfusson and Powell; Dahlmann's Gesch. von Dännemark, ed. Heeren; Stenstrup's Normannerni; Mallet's Hist. de Dannemarc (3rd edit.); A.-S. Chron. (ed. Plummer); Flor. Wig. (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Will. of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum, Hen. Hunt. (both Rolls Ser.); Freeman's Norm. Conq.]