In 1040, King Harold Harefoot of England died, and the English throne passed to his estranged half-brother, King Hardecanute of Denmark. There was no love lost between Hardecanute and his late half-brother. Hardecanute thought he, himself, should have been king of England from the beginning, and Harold Harefoot’s successful ascendance to the throne was deemed unforgivable by the new king. Hardecanute was such a wrathful and vindictive man that when he finally inherited England in 1040, one of his first actions was to dig up his half-brother’s body and unceremoniously throw it into a sewer, river or wetland. This king—impulsive, unforgiving, grave-exhuming Hardecanute—is the monarch from which the city of Worcester decided to withhold their taxes in 1041. Even worse, the city announced its taxation rebellion by killing two tax collectors who had come with Hardecanute from Denmark.
The monk and chronicler, Florence of Worcester (d. 1118), described this event in great detail, no doubt benefiting from his personal connection to the city. According to Florence, two Danish tax collectors, whom he named Feader and Thurstan, arrived in Worcester to collect taxes and tribute for King Hardecanute. As the story goes, on May 4, 1041, the Danes were lured into a tower of the local abbey, where they were ambushed and killed by a group of citizens who did not want to pay taxes to Hardecanute.
It did not take long for King Hardecanute to discover that two of his Danish comrades had been killed, and that the city of Worcester was responsible. The king quickly called on all the earls of England to mobilize their troops for a great punitive campaign against the audacious tax-evading city. Florence of Worcester described the scale of mobilization for the mission and the drastic orders that were given to the army:
“This [slaying of the tax collectors] so incensed the king , that to avenge their deaths he sent Thorold, earl of Middlesex, Leofric, earl of Mercia, Godwin, earl of Wessex, Siward, earl of Northumbria, Roni, earl of Hereford, and all the other English earls, with almost all his huscarls, and a large body of troops, to Worcester…with orders to put to death all the inhabitants they could find, to plunder and burn the city, and lay waste the whole province” (Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, AD 1041).
Hardecanute’s punitive army was on the march by November, 1041, but the city of Worcester was fortunate enough to receive prior warning of the incoming force. Thankfully, by the time the army reached Worcester on November 12, 1041, a great majority of the city’s population had been evacuated. Yet, as with natural disasters, there are always a few who try to ride out the storm.
Those who did flee the city limits spread out in multiple directions, but a huge portion of these refugees apparently grabbed weapons, boarded boats, and sailed out into the River Severn. They reportedly anchored at a small island in the river and set up camp there while Hardecanute’s army occupied the city of Worcester. The king’s troops reportedly pillaged the city for four days and, according to Florence of Worcester, they even set it on fire. While this rampage was ongoing, the marauding army discovered the island of refugees in the Severn. Yet, the army was content to quarantine the armed refugees to that island while Worcester was ravaged. Hardecanute’s army reportedly withdrew on the fifth day of the occupation, allowing the refugees from the island and elsewhere to return to their pillaged and burned city.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Siege of Jerusalem from BL Royal 1 E IX, f. 222 (c. 1400-1425, [Public Domain] via picryl.com and Creative Commons).
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.