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Sweyn I Forkbeard
King of Denmark, England, and Norway
Reign 986–3 February 1014 (Denmark)
999– 3 February 1014 (Norway)
1013–3 February 1014 (England)
Spouse Gunhild of Wenden
Sigrid the Haughty (?)[1]
Father Harald Bluetooth
Mother Gyrid Olafsdottir
Born c. 960
Died 3 February 1014[aged 53]
Burial Roskilde Cathedral

Sweyn I Forkbeard, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in English Sven the Dane, also known as Swegen and Tuck (Old Norse: Sveinn Tjúguskegg, Norwegian: Svein Tjugeskjegg, Swedish: Sven Tveskägg; Danish: Svend Tveskæg, originally Tjugeskæg or Tyvskæg) (c. 960 – 3 February 1014), was king of Denmark and England, as well as parts of Norway. He was a Viking leader and the father of Cnut the Great. On his father Harald Bluetooth's death in late 986 or early 987, he became King of Denmark; in 1000, with allegiance of the Trondejarl, Erik of Lade, he was ruler over most of Norway. After a long effort at conquest, and shortly before his death, in 1013 he is said to have founded Swansea (which is often said to come from "Sweyn's Ey"). He then became King of England. In the last months of his life, he was the Danish sovereign of a North Sea empire, which only his son Cnut was to rival in northern Europe.


Forkbeard's cognomen

Sweyn Forkbeard's nickname, which was probably used during his lifetime, unlike many royal nicknames, refers to a pitchfork-style moustache which was fashionable at the time, particularly in England, where Sweyn may have picked up the idea. Similar type moustaches can be seen depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.[citation needed]

The Church and currency

One of Sweyn's coins. The inscription reads, "ZVEN REX DAENOR", which translates as, "Sweyn, king of Danes"
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On the northern edges of the relatively recent Holy Roman Empire, with its roots in Charlemagne's conquests hundreds of years prior to Sweyn's time, Sweyn Forkbeard had coins made with an image in his likeness. The Latin inscription on the coins read, "ZVEN REX DAENOR", which translates as, "Sweyn, king of Danes".[2]

Sweyn's father, Harald Bluetooth, was the first of the Scandinavian kings to officially accept Christianity, in the early or mid-960s. According to Adam of Bremen, an 11th-century historian, Harald's son Sweyn was baptised Otto, in tribute to the German king Otto I,[3] who was the first Holy Roman Emperor. Forkbeard is never known to have officially made use of this Christian name. He did not use it on the coins he proudly sent forth, and when he was given the English crown by the Witenagemot of Anglo-Saxon nobles, in 1013, he took the crown as king Sweyn[citation needed].

Life and legacy

Many details about Sweyn's life are contested. Scholars disagree about the various, too often contradictory, accounts of his life given in sources from his era of history, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, and the Heimskringla, a 13th-century work by Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson.[4] Contrary accounts of Sweyn's later life also appear in the Encomium Emmae, an 11th-century Latin encomium in honour of his son king Cnut's queen Emma, of Normandy, along with Chronicle of World and English History by Florence of Worcester, another 11th-century author.

The Battle of Svolder. Painting by Otto Sinding (1842–1909).
The map shows the division of Norway after the Battle of Svolder according to Heimskringla. Eirik Hákonarson ruled the purple area as a fiefdom from Sweyn Forkbeard. The yellow area was under Sveinn Hákonarson, his half-brother, held as a fief of Olof Skötkonung, the Swedish king. The red area was under direct Danish control, with Sweyn's ruling it as a Danish extension.

Some historians, such as Lauritz Weibull, have argued that Sweyn's wife described in the sagas - Swedish dowager queen Sigrid the Haughty- is purely fictional, whereas others have accepted her existence on the evidence of the Norse sagas. Weibull's conclusion is shared by Den Store Danske Encyklopædi, which identifies the queen as Gunhild.[1] In some of the old sources, such as the Jómsvíkinga saga, Sweyn appears as an illegitimate son of Harald Bluetooth, raised by the legendary Jomsviking and jarl of Jomsborg, Palnatoke. Sweyn is also depicted as a rebellious son, who led an uprising against his father in 987, and chased him out of the court, forcing him to abandon his kingdom. Harald apparently spent the rest of his days with the Slavs in Wendland,[5] within modern-day Germany.

Many negative accounts build on Adam of Bremen's writings; Adam is said to have watched Sweyn and Scandinavia in general with an "unsympathetic and intolerant eye", according to some scholars.[6] Adam accused Forkbeard of being a rebellious pagan who persecuted Christians, betrayed his father and expelled German bishops from Scania and Zealand. According to Adam, Sweyn was sent into exile by his father's German friends and deposed in favor of king Eric the Victorious of Sweden, whom Adam wrote ruled Denmark until his death in 994 or 995.

Historians generally have found problems with Adam's claims, such as that Sweyn was driven into exile in Scotland for a period as long as fourteen years. As many scholars point out, he built churches in Denmark throughout this period, such as Lund and Roskilde, while he led Danish raids against England.[7]

Ruler of England

According to the chronicles of John of Wallingford, Sweyn was involved in raids against England during 1002–1005, 1006–1007, and 1009–1012, to revenge the St. Brice's Day massacre of England's Danish inhabitants in November 1002. Historians have considered the massacre as similar to a large-scale ethnic cleansing of the Danes in England orchestrated by Ethelred the Unready. Sweyn was believed to have had a personal interest in the atrocities due to his sister Gunhilde being amongst the victims.[8]

According to Michael Lapidge, in "Swein Forkbeard" (The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England), Sweyn was active in Wessex and East Anglia in 1003–1004, but a 1005 famine forced him to return home.[9]

Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Blatand

Some scholars have argued that Sweyn's participation may have been prompted by his state of impoverishment after having been forced to pay a hefty ransom. He needed revenue from the raids.[7] He acquired massive sums of Danegeld through the raids. In 1013, he is reported to have personally led his forces in a full-scale invasion.[10]

The contemporary Peterborough Chronicle (also called the Laud Manuscript), one of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, states, "before the month of August came king Sweyn with his fleet to Sandwich. He went very quickly about East Anglia into the Humber's mouth, and so upward along the Trent till he came to Gainsborough. Earl Uchtred and all Northumbria quickly bowed to him, as did all the people of Lindsey, then the people of the Five Boroughs. He was given hostages from each shire. When he understood that all the people had submitted to him, he bade that his force should be provisioned and horsed; he went south with the main part of the invasion force, while some of the invasion force, as well as the hostages, were with his son Cnut. After he came over Watling Street, they went to Oxford, and the town-dwellers soon bowed to him, and gave hostages. From there they went to Winchester, and the people did the same, then eastward to London."[11]

But the Londoners are said to have destroyed the bridges that spanned the river Thames , and Sweyn suffered heavy losses and had to withdraw. (This was the origin of the folksong "London Bridge is falling down".)[citation needed] The chronicles tell that "king Sweyn went from there to Wallingford, over the Thames to Bath, and stayed there with his troops; Ealdorman Aethelmaer came, and the western Thegns with him. They all bowed to Sweyn and gave hostages."

After withstanding the assault of the Danish army, the people of London were alone, isolated within a country which had completely surrendered to the Danes. Sweyn Forkbeard was accepted as King of England following King Ethelred the Unready's escape to Normandy in late 1013. With the acceptance of the Witan, London finally surrendered to him. On Christmas Day, Sweyn was declared king of England.

Based in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, Sweyn began to organize his vast new kingdom, but he died there on 3 February 1014, having ruled England unopposed for only five weeks. His embalmed body was returned to Denmark, to be buried in the church he built in Roskilde.[12] He was succeeded as King of Denmark by his elder son, Harald II, but the Danish fleet proclaimed his younger son Cnut king. In England, the councillors had sent for Æthelred, who upon his return from exile in Normandy in the spring of 1014 managed to drive Cnut out of England. But Cnut returned and became King of England in 1016, while also ruling Denmark, Norway, parts of Sweden, Pomerania, and Schleswig.

His son Cnut and grandsons Harold Harefoot and Harthacanute ruled England for 26 years. After Harthacanute's death, the English throne reverted to the House of Wessex. Sweyn's descendents through his daughter Estrid continue to rule Denmark to this day. One of his descendents Margaret of Denmark married James III of Scotland, introducing Sweyn's bloodline into the Scottish Royal blood line. After James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne in 1603, Sweyn's ancestry was introduced into the English royal bloodline as well. Therefore, from 1603 on, all English and British monarchs are descended from King Sweyn of England, among others.


Adam of Bremen's writings about Sweyn and his father may have been influenced by Adam's desire to emphasize Sweyn's father Harald as a candidate for sainthood. He claimed that Sweyn, who was baptized along with his father, was a heathen. This may have been true, as much of Scandinavia was pagan at the time, but there are no data to corroborate the assertion. German and French records support that Harald Bluetooth was baptized.

According to Adam, Sweyn was punished by God for leading the uprising which led to king Harald's death, and had to spend "fourteen years" abroad - perhaps a Biblical reference from an ecclesiastical writer, as it refers to the symbolic number seven. Adam purports that Sweyn was shunned by all those with whom he sought refuge, but was finally allowed to live for a while in Scotland. As the Scottish king at the time had a reputation in Europe as a heathen and a murderer, Adam's intention appeared to be to show that Sweyn belonged with heathens and was not fit to rule a Christian country. According to Adam, Sweyn only achieved success as a ruler after accepting Christianity.

Sweyn was tolerant of paganism while favoring Christianity, at least politically. By allowing English ecclesiastical influence in his kingdom, he was spurning the Hamburg-Bremen archbishop. Since German bishops were an integral part of the secular state, Sweyn's preference for the English church may have been a political move. He sought to preempt any threat against his independence posed by the German kings.[13] Contrary to Adam's writings, Sweyn did not appear to have reestablished paganism. There is no evidence of reversion to pagan burial practices during Sweyn's reign.[14] Whether King Sweyn was a heathen or not, he enlisted priests and bishops from England rather than from Hamburg.[13] This may have been another reason for Adam of Bremen's apparent hostility in his accounts. Numerous converted priests of a Danish origin from the Danelaw lived in England, while Sweyn had few connections to Germany or its priests.

Sweyn must have known that once the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen gained influence in Denmark, the German Emperor Otto II would not be far behind. His Slavic neighbours to the south-east had been all but annexed by Germany once Otto's father Otto I divided their lands into Bishoprics and put them under the "care" of the Holy Roman Emperor. Sweyn may have envisaged the same happening to his own territory.


By Gunhilda:

  1. Harold II of Denmark
  2. Cnut

By Sigrid:

  1. Gytha
  2. Gunhilda
  3. Santslaue
  4. Thyra
  5. Estrid Margarete Svendsdatter
  6. unknown daughter


  1. ^ a b Den Store Danske Encyklopædi identifies the consort of Sweyn I as Gunhild, and considers the Sigrid the Haughty of the sagas to be based on her, but predominantly a work of "complete fiction". She subsequently married Sweyn II, who later divorced her on orders from the church, since both of them were grandchildren of the Slavic consort of Eric the Victorious of Sweden. Source: Den Store Danske Encyklopædi, CD-ROM edition, entries Gunhild and Sigrid Storråde.
  2. ^ Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark (2006). Coinage in Denmark. Official web site. Retrieved 12 October 2006
  3. ^ Adam of Bremen Gesta II.3. Ed. Schmeidler, trans. Tschan, pg. 56
  4. ^ Howard, Ian, Swein Forkbeard's Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991– 1017. first edn., Woodbridge&Boydell (2003), ISBN 0-85115-928-1.
  5. ^ "Sweyn I" (2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 12 October 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  6. ^ Sørensen, M. P. (2001). "Religions Old and New", The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Ed. P. H. Sawyer. Oxford University Press (2001), pg. 202
  7. ^ a b Lund, Niels (2001). "The Danish Empire and the End of the Viking Age", The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Ed. P. H. Sawyer. Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 167–181. ISBN 0-19-285434-8.
  8. ^ Mike Ashley, British Monarchs; A complete genealogy, gazeteer and biographical Encyclopaedia of the Kings and Queens of Britain, Robinson Publishing (1998) p.483: "Probably his [Ethelred's] worst decision was the St. Brice's day massacre on 13 November 1002...he ordered the killing of every Dane who lived in England, except the Anglo-Danes in the Danelaw. The massacre brought back to English shores the Danish commander Swein, whose sister and brother-in-law had been killed in the massacre".
  9. ^ Lapidge considers it uncertain whether Sweyn actually supported the raid of 1006–1007 and the raid led by Thorkell the Tall in 1009–1012, commenting that "whatever the case, he was quick to exploit the disruption caused by Thorkell's army." (p.467).
  10. ^ Hunter Blair, Peter (2003). An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-521-53777-0.
  11. ^ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Everyman Press: London, 1912. Translation by James Ingram (London, 1823) and J.A. Giles (London, 1847). Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #17. Retrieved 12 October 2006.
  12. ^ Lapidge, Michael (2001). "Swein Forkbeard", The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Michael Lapidge, John Blair, et al. Blackwell Publishing: London, 2001, p.437. ISBN 0-631-15565-1.
  13. ^ a b Lund, Niels (1986). "The armies of Swein Forkbeard and Cnut: leding or li(th)" Anglo-Saxon England 15 (1986), p. 39–40.
  14. ^ Peter Sawyer (1987). "The process of Scandinavian Christianization in the tenth and eleventh centuries", The Christianization of Scandinavia, Birgit Sawyer, et al, ed. (Kungälv: Viktoria Bokforlag, 1987), p. 80.

In literature

  • Lund, Niels (1997). Harald Blåtands Død (The Death of Harold Bluetooth). Roskilde Museum's publishing house, Denmark 1997.
  • Ashley, Mike (1998). British Monarchs. Robinson Publishing, 1998.

Popular culture

External links

See also

Sweyn Forkbeard
Born: c. 960 Died: 3 February 1014
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Harald I/III
King of Denmark
Succeeded by
Harald II
King of Norway
with Håkon Jarl as de facto ruler
Succeeded by
Olaf Trygvasson
Preceded by
Olaf Trygvasson
King of Norway
with Eiríkr Hákonarson
and Sveinn Hákonarson
Succeeded by
Olaf the Saint
Preceded by
Æthelred the Unready
King of the English
Succeeded by
Æthelred the Unready


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