Day the Vikings got their comeuppance

Discovery of 1,000-year-old mass grave in Dorset sheds light on brutal Anglo-Saxon victory over invaders

They were notorious for their ruthless attacks on England but the Vikings were also victims of Anglo-Saxon barbarism, new archaeological evidence from Dorset has revealed.

Detailed forensic examination of human remains found in a mass grave four miles north of Weymouth has found that 55 Viking warriors were executed and mutilated, almost certainly by an Anglo-Saxon death squad some time in the 10th or early 11th century. It is one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever unearthed in Britain and is of international importance.

The most likely date the find dates back to is 1002, when the English king, Ethelred the Unready, deliberately broke a peace agreement and ordered his troops to kill any Viking soldiers they could find, specifically in south-west England. The slaughter, known as the St Brice's Day Massacre, took place on 13 November of that year.

The archaeological and scientific investigation of the Dorset mass grave material, carried out by specialists from Oxford Archaeology on behalf of Dorset County Council, suggests that the Viking warriors were taken completely by surprise, were probably forced to strip (no trace of any buckles, pins or other clothing-related items have been found), and were then decapitated (from the front – so they could see their executioners).

Most of their faces and many of their right ears were violently mutilated, probably with the same swords they had been killed with, said Angela Boyle, the osteologist who examined the bones.

Their bodies were then thrown into an empty quarry pit and their severed heads placed in a pile near the side. The improvised mass grave was then sealed with a layer of earth.

The scientific examination of the material has revealed that all the victims were tall, well-fed young males, mostly aged 17 to 25, with a small number of slightly older individuals. Isotopic examination of their teeth suggests that they all came from Scandinavia and immediately adjacent areas. One may have been from Iceland.

The St Brice's Day executions took place against a complex political background. In the mid- to late 990s, groups of Scandinavian mercenaries settled in Devon with English government agreement. Some rebellions and invasions followed until 1002, when the English government signed a peace agreement with the rebel West Country Vikings – who were allowed to re-settle in south-west England.

But Ethelred issued orders in November 1002 to kill every Viking mercenary who could be found.

One of the victims of St Brice's Day (although not one of those found in the Dorset pit) was the probable half-sister of the Danish/Norwegian king, Swein Forkbeard, who sought revenge by launching multiple attacks. In 1013, he succeeded in conquering England, forcing Ethelred to flee, and made himself king. Apart from a gap of two years, England remained part of the Danish empire until 1042 and continuing Danish claims to England led to a Danish invasion of northern England in 1066, which fatally distracted the English and helped hand ultimate victory to William the Conqueror.

"The Dorset discovery is extremely important – not only from an archaeological perspective but also from a historical one. For the St Brice's Day Massacre triggered a series of events which not only led to the Danish conquest of England but also helped bring about the Norman Conquest many years later," said the historian Dr Ian Howard.

"Any mass grave is a relatively rare find, but to find one on this scale, from this period of history, is extremely unusual," said David Score of Oxford Archaeology.

Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines