Thetford, chapter 7: Of the city under the the English monarchs

Pages 31-35

An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2. Originally published by W Miller, London, 1805.

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Edward the Elder having possession of this city, held it peaceably to his death, which happened in the year 925, (fn. 1) and then left it, with his kingdom, of which this was part, to

Ethelstane, or Adelstane, his son, who was a valiant and wise prince in all his actions; he brought this land into one entire monarchy, (fn. 2) and utterly expelled the Danes, and quieted the Welshmen. During his reign this city flourished in peace, having continually increased ever since its submission to his father Edward; he reigned about sixteen years, and dying in the year 941, (fn. 3) left his crown to

Edmund, his brother, a man of great virtue, and strict justice; in his days the peace and prosperity of this place continued; he died in 946. This King, to shew his love to God, and bounty to his church, first gave the town of St. Edmund's-Bury, with the liberty thereof wholly to that martyr, and to the monks that then served at his altars. (fn. 4) After his death,

Edred, or Eldrede, his brother, was crowned king of this realm, and immediately news was brought him, that the Northumbrian Danes revolted, whom he reduced again to their former obedience: after which, in the year 951, Wolstan Archbishop of York, who had encouraged this sedition, was committed to prison, because he had been often, and was now daily accused of commanding many citizens and burgesses of Thetford to be slain, in revenge of the Abbot Adelme, who was unjustly slain by them; (fn. 5) but a year after he was delivered, and restored to his see. Edred died in the year 955, and was succeeded by his nephew,

Edwin, or Edwy, the eldest son of Edmund, late King of England, who reigned four years, and was succeeded by

Edgar, his brother, in the year 959, who was so great a prince, that being feared of all men, he lived in peace his whole life, which got him the name of Edgar the Peaceable; he favoured the Danes (by means of Odo Archbishop of Canterbury, who was a Dane) more than was agreeable to the advantage of his subjects, (fn. 6) for there was scarce a street in England but Danes dwelt in it, among the Englishmen, who, by continual conversing with them, who were naturally great drinkers, habituated themselves so much to that vice, that the King was forced to make a law for setting nails in cups of a certain measure, marked for that purpose, that none should drink more than was assigned him. From the time that this city and the East-Anglian provinces had been under the English monarchs, they were governed by an Earl, appointed by the King; and at this time Alwyn, (fn. 7) or Edelwyn, the Alderman, kinsman to King Edgar, was Earl of EastEngland, and consequently governour of this place. It seems Edgar always favoured the Angles, (fn. 8) on account of Ethelfled the Fair, his first wife, who was the daughter of an East-Anglian duke named Ordmar, by whom he had Edward, who succeeded him at his death in 975. This

Edward was sirnamed the Martyr, (fn. 9) because he was barbarously slain, by procurement of his step-mother, and by reason of the many miracles (fn. 10) which, as Fabian tells us, were shewn at his grave. In his time there was a hard contest between Alpher, or Elpher, Earl of Mercia, who restored the secular priests that had been wrongfully expulsed in King Edgar's time, from their prebends and benefices, to make way for the monks whom that King favoured; for this Earl and the other temporal lords of Mercia destroyed the abbies that King Edgar had built in Mercia, and restored the priests, with their wives, to their monasteries. (fn. 11) But Edelwyn, or Alwyn, Earl of the East-Angles, and Alfred his brother, with Brighnode Earl of Essex, withstood this, and assembling an army, by force maintained all the monks in their monasteries, within the country of the East-Angles; upon this many councils were held, as at Winchester, at Kyrthling in East-England, &c. but by the craft of Dunstan and the monks, the priests, (fn. 12) notwithstanding the justice of their cause, had their suit dashed, and the monks held possession of their monasteries. This King being murdered in the year 978, (fn. 13) was succeeded by

Ethelred, (fn. 14) commonly called the Unready, his brother-in-law, for whose sake his mother Alfrede murdered King Edward, wherefore he never could get the good will of his people; in the third year of his reign, viz. 981, (fn. 15) the Danes who had lived as peaceable inmates with the English, finding the King slothful and unactive, began to stir, and inviting from home more forces, who arrived in seven ships upon the Kentish coast, they spoiled all that country, which success encouraged them so much, that, soon after, they landed at so many places at once, that the English could not tell where to encounter them first; however, Goda Earl of Devonshire attacked them in the west, and got the victory with the loss of his life; and in the year 991, Brightnod Earl of Essex met Justin and Guthmund, (who with their army had spoiled Ipswich,) and gave them battle at Maldon, but was overcome; and immediately after, the King, by the advice of his lords, agreed to pay them 10,000l. on condition they should quietly depart the realm; which money he levied upon his subjects, by assessing every hundred at a certain sum, and the hundreds raised their proportions according to the number of hides (fn. 16) contained in them; this was called Danegeld, or Danegylt, and was first 1s. on every hide, afterwards 2s. This, though it appeased them for the present, was only an encouragement to them to return again, and accordingly the next year they came with a greater force, against which the King prepared a navy, and made Edrick, or Alfride, Earl of Mercia, whom he had lately recalled from banishment,) admiral of it; but that old traitour could not prove true, for he not only sent word to the Danes, that they might escape, but soon after turned to their side, as indeed did the most part of those that the King employed, they being near allied in blood to them, by which means the Danes so far prevailed, that, in 994, the King was forced to give them 16,000l. more, as a composition for peace, upon which Anlaf (fn. 17) King of the Norwegians promised never after to make war in this land, and being baptized, the King stood godfather, after which he returned into his country, and kept his promise faithfully; but this was not an end of the Danish war, for others of that nation sprang up, and entered the land the year following, and forced the King to another composition of 20,000l. and so every year more and more, till it came at last to 40,000l. by which means the land was robbed of all its coin, and the English brought so low, that they were fain to till the ground, while the idle Danes eat the fruit of their labour, abusing the wives and daughters of their hosts where they lay; and yet in every place (out of fear) they were called by the natives Lord Danes, which afterwards became a word of derision, and as such is still continued in our language, a Lurdan signifying with us a lazy, lubberly fellow.

In this miserable condition the King, being too weak to attempt any thing by force, invented a desperate stratagem, which in the end proved the destruction of the Saxon royal blood, and conquest of the land to another nation, and for this purpose he sent secret commissions to every place in his realm, commanding that at an appointed time they should murder all the Danes that were among them; the time set was the 13th of November, in the year of our Lord 1002, being St. Bricius, or Brice's day; this was executed with such rigour, that in Oxford, where the frighted Danes took sanctuary, in St. Frideswide's church, the English regarding neither place nor person, set it on fire, and burnt it with the Danes therein. And now one would think that England had quite shook off the Danish yoke, but it happened the contrary, the doers of it soon after repenting it; for this news no sooner reached Denmark, but it added to their former ambition, the desire of revenge, and made them more inveterate against the English, than they had ever been heretofore; and the very next year, their King, Swain, (fn. 18) who had before been always a great friend to England, entered the land, razed Exeter to the ground, and did all the mischief that he possibly could, to revenge the deaths of Gunhild, his sister, and Palingus, a Danish earl, her husband, and their son, who were all Christians, and laid in hostage upon conditions of peace, and yet were slain in the Danish massacre. Upon this, the King raises an army, makes Edrick his favourite, whom he had created Duke of Mercia, and married to Edgyth his daughter, his chief general, who, for all his great favour, betrayed him to the Danes, who after this hearing that the King in person designed to give him battle, left the land, and took shipping again. But the next year, viz. 1004, Swain returned, and came with his fleet up to Norwich, to which city the sea at that time came, as the Saxon Chronicle (fn. 19) plainly proves, and burned and entirely destroyed the city, murdering its inhabitants, and wasting the adjacent country; upon this, Ulfketyl, Usketel, or Ulfketel, who was then Earl of the East-Angles, and resided at Thetford, (as the Earls generally did, called there a council of the East-Anglian nobles, who came to the resolution of buying their peace of the Danes, before they came thither, or did any damage to the neighbouring country, and their reason for so doing was, because they came upon them so much on a sudden, that they had not time to raise an army against them; upon this, they went and made peace with them, notwithstanding which, they left their ships privately, and bent their course directly to Thetford, wasting the country all the way. As soon as Ulfketel heard it, he sent to the men of the country, that they should burn their ships, but they either could not, or dare not, so that they came hither without any opposition, and burnt and destroyed this city also, and wasted the country hereabouts, slaying many, and committing all manner of villanies; (fn. 20) but to revenge such a breach of truce, and the destruction of his noble city, this valiant Earl got together what power he could, and assaulted the Danish host, as they returned to their ships, and slew a great number of them, (fn. 21) but could not maintain the fight, his enemies so much outmatching him in number of men, and so he was forced to retreat honourably, and the enemies kept on their way to their ships; and the year following Swain was forced to return to Denmark with all his fleet, by reason of the great famine that then sorely oppressed the land, so that he could not find sustenance for his army. The Saxon Chronicle speaking of this invasion, tells us, that after Swain had sacked Norwich, though he had made peace with Earl Ulfketel, yet without any regard to it, he marched to Theodford, which as soon as the Earl knew, he dispatched a messenger to order his ships to be burned, but the country neglected that advice; in the mean time, he got together what force he could, as quick and privately as possible, but in three weeks after they had sacked Norwich they entered this city, and staying one night in it, wasted and burnt it, but in the morning as they returned to their ships, Earl Ulfketel and his forces met them, and joined battle, in which there was great slaughter on both sides, and many of the East-Anglian nobles were slain; (fn. 22) but if all the forces of the Angles had been there, the Danes had never returned again, as was agreed by all that were there present. In the year 1005, Swain having increased his navy, recruited his men, and filled his ships with provision, returned again, and landed at Sandwich, wasted the country, and wintered in the Isle of Wight; and in Christmas time landed in Hampshire, and passed through it into Berkshire, &c. making clean work wherever he came, for what they could not carry away, they burnt, killing the owners; upon which, the west-country people got together, and gave them battle, in 1006, but being overcome, the King was obliged to make peace with them, on condition to pay them tribute and find them provision, to which they agreed, and so the English wholly maintained them; and the year after, the King paid them 30,000l. tribute, upon which they departed in seeming friendship with the English; but the next year, viz. 1009, in harvest time, a great fleet of their ships landed at Sandwich, conducted by three Danish princes, Turkil, or Turketel, Hening, and Anlaf, and went to Canterbury, and had sacked it, had not the citizens redeemed it for 1000l.; thence they went to the Isle of Wight, and after that, over-run Sussex and Hampshire; King Ethelred finding no truth in their promises, nor quiet in his land, was resolved to venture once for all, and commit his cause to God, and the chance of war: and having gathered together his power, and coming suddenly upon the unprepared Danes, he had made an end of the quarrel, and destroyed them all, had not Earl Edrick, his son-in-law, that wicked traitour, with many lies, (invented only to put him in fear,) persuaded him from fighting. Upon this, they made their escape, returned into Kent, and wintering upon the Thames, they refitted their fleet, and often vainly attempted the city of London. The next year, viz. 1010, after Easter, they sailed about the coast, and landed at Ipswich, which they plundered and burned, and marched to Rengmore or Ringmere, where they knew Earl Ulfketel was with his forces, and there, on Ascension day morning, being the 5th of May, joined battle; the men of Norfolk and Suffolk fled at the first onset, but Ethelstan, who married the King's eldest daughter, and the Cambridgeshire men whom he led, fought valiantly to their great honour, and had no thoughts of quitting the field, till one Turketel, sirnamed Myranheafor or Mireneheved, (fn. 23) whose father was a Dane, first began to fly, upon which the enemy got the advantage; in this battle were slain Ethelstane, the King's son-in-law, Oswi, his son, Wulfric, son of Leofwine, and many other noblemen, besides a great number of common people. After this, for three months together, they went up and down the country, wasting and destroying all wherever they came, in Norfolk, Suffolk, the borders of Huntingtonshire, Lincolnshire, and Cambridgeshire, and the Fens there, where they got exceeding riches, by the spoil of the great and wealthy abbies, such as Ely, &c. in those Fens, and after this they returned hither, and the third time destroyed and burned the city of Theodford, whence they went to Cambridge, which met with the same fate, and so passing through the pleasant mountain country of Balsham, they cruelly murdered the people, without respect to age, sex, or degree, and going through Essex, came again to their ships in the Thames; but they staid not long there, for in 1011, the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and thirteen more being wasted and destroyed, about the feast of St. Mathew they besieged Canterbury, which the citizens defended twenty days, and then it was betrayed to them; here they took Archbishop Elphege, whom they afterwards murdered, with another Bishop named Godwin, and Abbot Leofwyn, and Alfword, the King's Bailiff, and having got what riches they could, they burnt the city, after they had tithed the people by an inverted order, slaying all the nines, and saving the tenths only, so that of all the monks there were but four saved, and of the people 4800, whereby it appears there were killed 43,200 persons; such was the cruelty of the Danes and their leader Turkill, who became governour of this city.


  • 1. Sax. Chron. p. 110. Fabian, 211.
  • 2. Stow, 130, qo.
  • 3. Chron. Sax. p. 114. Hol. Stow, &c. say in 940.
  • 4. Speed, 383. Stow.
  • 5. Speed, fol. 334. Stow, qo. 132.
  • 6. Hol. fol. 231.
  • 7. He founded Ramsey abbey, Stow, qo. 133.
  • 8. Speed, fol. 389.
  • 9. Ibidem, 390.
  • 10. Ibid. fol. 274.
  • 11. Hol. vol. i. fol. 235.
  • 12. Ibidem, 206. Fabian, 234.
  • 13. Chron. Sax. p. 124, other historians say Ao 979.
  • 14. Eldrede, or Egeldrede.
  • 15. See Hol. Stow, Baker, Sax. Chron. Policron. &c.
  • 16. A hide or carucate of land is as much as one plough can cultivate in a year.
  • 17. In 993 he destroyed Ipswich the second time, and depopulated that part of the country.
  • 18. Sueno, or Sweyne.
  • 19. Page 133.
  • 20. Policron. 244, b.
  • 21. Holinsh. 244.
  • 22. I take it this battle was in East-Wrotham Fields, and that Ketel-Bridge, is so called from this Earl.
  • 23. That is, Ant's-Head.