Mary Frances Giandrea

title.none: Howard, Swein Forkbeard's Invasions (Mary Frances Giandrea)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.013 04.12.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mary Frances Giandrea, George Mason University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Howard, Ian. Swein Forkbeard's Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017. Series: Warfare in History. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2003. Pp. xiv, 188. $75.00 0-85115-928-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.13

Howard, Ian. Swein Forkbeard's Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017. Series: Warfare in History. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2003. Pp. xiv, 188. $75.00 0-85115-928-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Mary Frances Giandrea
George Mason University

Ian Howard's Swein Forkbeard's Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017, seeks to clarify misunderstood aspects of Scandinavian military and political activity in later Anglo-Saxon England by focusing on the activities of Swein Forkbeard, his son Cnut, and his lieutenant Thorkell the Tall. Because the sources are primarily English, the premise is undermined somewhat from the outset, but Howard does deliver on the promise of a detailed chronological survey of events.

The first two chapters set the stage for a review of Viking activity in England in the later tenth and early eleventh centuries. The first chapter, a brief eight pages, is really an introduction to the sources for tenth and eleventh-century political and military history and their biases. These include the Encomium Emmae Reginae, the Chronicle of John of Worcester, and the northern recension of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which the author calls, for reasons that are not very clear, "The Æthelredian Exemplar." Howard also reconstitutes Swein Forkbeard's biography in this first chapter from later Scandinavian sources such as Olaf Tryggvason's saga. Because it is so brief, and engages very little current historiography, the chapter barely touches on the underlying biases of these sources, and gives very little sense of how the author will deal with these biases in the following chapters. At best, it introduces the general reader to the main sources.

Chapter Two provides the economic and military contexts of the invasions. Howard argues that the Viking invasions stimulated England's economy by forcing the kingdom's inhabitants to mobilize a great deal more silver than otherwise would have been necessary. The economy, he argues, was given a further boost when the Scandinavian soldiers spent their silver, and land values increased where they were billeted. Howard's arguments are based on records of tribute paid in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, so while the general economic theory makes sense, reliance on this source for such a purpose makes one uneasy. Howard's footnotes in this chapter offer little reassurance. In terms of England's military weakness, the author argues that England was a more attractive victim than continental kingdoms because it lacked trained mounted warriors, as did the Scandinavians.

The remainder of the book is a detailed chronology, in five chapters, of the series of invasions and political maneuverings undertaken by Swein Forkbeard and his lieutenants from c. 990 to c. 1017. Howard contends that the chronological details are key to understanding the English response, and that historians have misinterpreted important elements. Chapters three, four and five treat a series of invasions, payments of tribute, relative peace, and renewed conflict, which took place from c. 990 until 1005, and which were handled at a local level. In chapter six, Howard shows how the 1006 invasion engendered a national response, however ineffective, including the construction of a great fleet in 1008. In these chapters Howard mines the sources discussed in chapter one to reconstruct the itineraries of the Scandinavian armies. The reliability of his chronology is somewhat undermined by a discussion of key differences in the various recensions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 1001. Winchester additions to version "A" for this year not only provide a more detailed account but also suggest the English defended themselves far more valiantly than do the other versions, including the so-called "Æthelredian Exemplar," upon which the book largely relies. Howard concludes that "the contrast between the two accounts of events in 1001 is part of the evidence indicating the biased and misleading nature of ASC C D E, and, therefore of ÆE" (59).

In chapters six, seven, and the conclusion, Howard shows how the nature of Scandinavian interest and involvement in England evolved into political rather than strictly military control. To my mind, these are the most interesting chapters, as they convey the complexity of the situation on the ground. Howard's King Æthelred is a competent leader who made reasonable efforts to defend his kingdom and who was the victim of subsequent propaganda. Cnut's success in conquering England after his father's death was due in large part, Howard convincingly argues, to the support of a large number of Englishmen in the north and the Danelaw. The evidence for and the reasons that lay behind their support of a Scandinavian warlord over an English king are carefully laid out in Howard's discussion of the succession crisis that followed the death of Æthelred.

There is much to recommend in this book. It is a useful survey of the chronology of events, speculative to be sure, but generally reasonable. Howard's call for a new appraisal of Æthelred's reign is not new, but thought-provoking nonetheless, and his discussion of the role of internal politics in Cnut's eventual success reminds us that the sources rarely illuminate the complexities of politics in this period. A variety of maps and figures accompany the text, as well as appendices about the Heimskringla and the ASC entry for the year 1008. According to Howard, the strength of this book is that "it is based on a scientific analysis of the evidence" (145), and herein lies my central criticism. It is difficult to imagine how a reconstruction of Anglo-Saxon military history based primarily on the various versions of ASC can in any way be considered scientific. Moreover, the book simply doesn't flow as well as it could. Quotations are awkwardly integrated, and the over-use of subheadings disrupts any sense of thematic continuity. References to current scholarship are also quite uneven and the bibliography feels light.