"Dane-geld"

Notes on the text


by Peter Keating




[July 8 2005]

[Title] Dane-Geld. The reign of King Ethelred ‘The Unready’ was beset by raids from Scandinavian pirates. Unable to fight them off, Ethelred, on the advice of his Witan (an assembly of counsellors), resorted to paying protection money which came to be called Dane-geld. According to the OED this was an Old English term adopted from the Old Norse Danagjeld meaning a tribute paid to Danes. Although the policy is now always associated with Ethelred, he was not the first English monarch to surrender to invaders in this way.

The raids by the Scandinavians are described in some detail in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Here is a key moment in the payment of Dane-geld from the year 994 when a joint Norwegian and Danish force invaded London:

‘Then the king and his counsellors advised that they be sent to, and tribute and provisions promised them, so that they would leave off harrying. Then they accepted that, and the whole force came to Southampton, and took winter quarters there.’
Fletcher offers a more lurid description and one that draws, with some over-heavy sarcasm, the necessary parallels with modern Britain. He also explains, as Kipling does so much more effectively in his poem, the degrading pointlessness of such a policy:

‘The “wise men” of unwise Ethelred were as useless as the House of Commons would be to-day if there were a big invasion. They talked but did nothing …Ethelred’s “wise men” could only recommend him to buy off the Danes with hard cash called ‘Danegold’ or ‘Danegeld.’ The Danes pocketed the silver pennies, laughed, and came back for more.’ A School History, p. 39.
[Sub-title]. A.D. 980-1016. The dates refer, inclusively, to the years when Ethelred ‘the Unready’ was King of England. There was a slight gap in his reign which is not acknowledged here, and nowadays his dates are usually given as 979-1013, and 1014-16. In the School History, Fletcher does give the date of Ethelred’s accession as 979.


[P. K.]

©Peter Keating 2004 All rights reserved