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St John’s College to commemorate victims of medieval massacre

St John’s College is set to commemorate the Danish victims of the early medieval St Brice’s Day massacre with a programme of events on Sunday 12 and Monday 13 November.

The St Brice’s Day massacre took place on 13 November 1002 in which all Danes living in or around Oxford were killed on the orders of Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred the Unready. Danish families broke into St Frideswide’s Church on the site of the modern Christ Church Cathedral seeking sanctuary, but non-Danish local residents set fire to the church to force them out.

In 2008 the skeletons of over 30 young men, who were believed to have been victims of the massacre, were uncovered during excavations which took place while Kendrew Quad at St John’s was being constructed.

The arrival of Professor Dame Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist, as President of St John’s in 2022 renewed interest in the skeletons. Shortly after taking up her role, Professor Black was invited to give the 2022 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and focused her presentations around “deciphering secret messages hidden within the body”. She used the Kendrew Quad skeletons to show the variety of facts about a person’s life that can be deduced from examining their bones. The positive response from these lectures resulted in St John’s deciding to construct a programme commemorating the victims of the massacre on St Brice’s Day 2023.

Across two days, the college will host a variety of interdisciplinary talks in remembrance of the victims, including a walking tour of Anglo-Saxon Oxford and a lecture on Viking poetry.

The most significant event in the programme, however, is the talk by Professor Caroline Wilkinson, Director of the Forensic Research Institute at Liverpool John Moores University, titled ‘Depicting the Dead’. As part of the commemoration, St John’s commissioned Professor Wilkinson and the FaceLab at Liverpool John Moores, which she directs, to reconstruct the face of one of the skeletons to show what they might have looked like.

An exciting development to the proceedings came when a recent St John’s graduate, Thomas Shaw, was found to be distantly related to one of the Kendrew Quad skeletons through DNA testing on an ancestry website. Professor Black stated that there is an uncanny facial resemblance between Shaw and his reconstructed ancestor. The ‘Depicting the Dead’ talk will see Professor Wilkinson unveiling the reconstruction, which will be placed in the art collection of the college.

Professor Black said of the commemoration programme: “Beneath the grounds of the College, when preparing the ground for the building of Kendrew Quadrangle in 2008, we were shocked to uncover the remains of so many people. With the help of archaeologists, we were able to uncover who they were, how they lived and how they died. 

“As we mark St Brice’s Day this year with our series of events and lectures, we must stop and think about the lives of people who have been, and continue to be, the victims of conflict, and commemorate them. I’m very much looking forward to welcoming people to the College on 12 and 13 November to hear from our panel of experts and to learn more about Viking Oxford, and how we can bring people together through telling the stories of those who have come before us.”

Speaking to The Oxford Student, Professor Black stated that although the events are not an anniversary commemoration, it felt right to hold the programme around St Brice’s Day, especially at a time of year when many people are thinking about remembrance.

Dr Hannah Skoda, Fellow and Tutor in History at St John’s, noted that the massacre is of particular significance in the historical record because it was a rare case of Anglo-Saxon violence committed against Vikings, rather than the other way around. In a comment to The Oxford Student, she said: “This is a really fascinating (and appalling) episode. It seems that Æthelred the Unready became convinced of a Danish plot to assassinate him, and ordered a whole series of massacres like this one.

“This was following a devastating number of Viking raids, and widespread resentment about the impact of Danegeld – essentially a kind of protection money because of Viking depredations: so whilst apparently ordered by Æthelred, it’s also about popular reaction and fury. In 1004, Æthelred described it in a charter as ‘a most just extermination’ of Danes who had ‘been sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat’.

“The victims apparently tried to shelter in St Frideswide’s Church, but were driven out of there when the attackers set fire to it. The massacres took place in various different towns, including Oxford – which was effectively a frontier settlement in this period between English and Danish held territory. In many ways, the massacre provoked further Viking campaigns in the early eleventh century, culminating with the rule of Cnut the Great.”

Dr Skoda is hosting an event in conversation with art historian and author Dr Amy Jeffs as part of the programme on Monday 13 November at 12pm.

All of the programme’s events are open to the public and free to attend. Click here to book tickets.