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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links