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St. John's College, Oxford

St. John's College, Oxford

The St. Brice's Day Massacre at Oxford

28 October 2023

During an archaeological excavation in 2008, a gruesome discovery was made beneath St. John's College. A mass grave was found containing the skeletal remains of 37 people of Viking descent, all murdered over 1000 years previously.

The bodies are believe to be some of the victims of the St. Brice's Day massacre, which took place in Oxford on 13 November 1002. The massacre of the Danish population of Oxford was ordered by King Æthelred the Unready, who believed that the Danes represented a immediate and present threat to his life.

The lead up to the massacre

Danish forces had been raiding England regularly for the previous 50 years. The country had come dangerously close to falling to the Danish forces, and Alfred the Great had even resorted to paying large sums of money to the Danish crown in exchange for them calling off the raiding parties. Despite this, a number of the raiding Danes had remained and started lives for themselves in England, and mingled to a certain extent with the Anglo-Saxon population of England.

The Danelaw, formalised in 886, laid out the parts of Britain that were under the official control of Danish forces. These covered much of north-eastern England and East Anglia, and stretched as far south as the Thames. Oxford's position in English Mercia was worryingly close the the lands controlled by the Danes.

King Æthelred the Unready

Ethelred the Unready, circa 968-1016. Illuminated manuscript, The Chronicle of Abindon, c.1220. Credit: Public Domain.

King Æthelred orders a massacre

The situation came to a head in November 1002 when King Æthelred, fearing an imminent attack on his life, issued a royal charter calling for "a most just extermination" of all the Danes who had settled in his lands.

In response to the charter, the people of Oxford turned on the local Danish population in a violent fashion. Faced with an angry mob of Englishmen baying for their blood, a large number of the Danes sought sanctuary in St Frideswide’s Priory, which stood on the site now occupied by Christchurch Cathedral.

If the Danes thought that seeking sanctuary in this holiest of holy buildings would save them, they were mistaken. When the English mob found the doors of the priory locked, they torched the priory, burning it to the ground with the Danes inside it!

The aftermath of the St. Brice's Day massacre

One of those who died in the conflagration was Gunhilde, sister of the Danish King. You can probably imagine how this went over with the Danish King when news of the massacre reached him.

Any hopes from King Æthelred that the massacre he ordered would result in greater security for himself and his nation were soon dashed. Over the next few years, Danish attacks throughout English-controlled Britain quadrupled in their savagery as the Danes sought revenge for the massacre of their people.

In 1009 the Danes all but razed Oxford to the ground, and soon a Dane, Canute the Great, sat on the English throne.

St. John's College, Oxford

Lithograph of St. John's College by Nathaniel Whittock, 1791-1860. Credit: Image: Public Domain, via the Wellcome Collection.

The bodies found at St. John's College

Analysis of the bodies found at St. John's College paints a vivid picture of the ruthlessness and savagery with which the Danes were slaughtered. The bodies showed no signs of defensive wounds, but injuries to their backs indicated that the Danes were fleeing rather than fighting at the time they were killed.

This, combined with radiocarbon dating and the charring found on many of the bones is what has led scientist and historians to conclude that the bodies found at St. John's College were indeed the remnants of the St. Brice's Day massacre.