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The Danes attack Exeter - 1001 and 1002

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Exeter had been raided, along with other places in south west England by Vikings several times, during Saxon times. The last two times probably caused more death and damage than all the other times combined.

The Battle for Pinhoe

In 1001, a Viking force rowed up the river and laid siege to Exeter. The fortifications of Athelstan stood up well to the raiders and they turned their attention to pillaging the surrounding villages. A force comprising of men from Devon and Somerset engaged with the Danes at Pinhoe. The battle raged, but the defenders grew short of ammunition. The priest of Pinhoe, sneaked through the Danish lines and sped to Exeter to obtain more arrows and arms. He then returned to the defending Saxons with his haul. Unfortunately, the replenishment could not save the day and the Viking horde won the battle, and burnt Pinhoe. This was merely a warning to the citizens of Exeter.

For his bravery, the priest was awarded an annual payment of 16 shillings - it is said that this sum was still paid to the Vicar of Pinhoe in Victorian times.

The Vikings besiege Exeter

It was the next year, 1002, that King Ethelred (the Unready) ordered a massacre of the many Danish settlers, including the sister of the Danish King. He was concerned that the Vikings were to mount a major invasion of his kingdom, and the massacre was a move to prevent it. In the same year, Ethelred married Emma of Normandy, probably reinforcing his antagonism towards the Danes. He gave Exeter, as a wedding gift, to his new bride.

Perhaps, because of Exeter's connection with Queen Emma, the King of Denmark, Sweyne attacked and lay siege to the city during August of 1002. The citizens feared Sweyne and were determined not to give in. On 27 August, Sweyne and his raiders stormed the city. The siege had taken a heavy toll and many were already dead. Their fear was justified, as Sweyne ordered the survivors to be killed, burnt the houses and pulled down the churches, including the minster of St Peter. This was the supreme church in the city, although not yet a cathedral. They also broke down the city walls, making it harder to defend in the future.

Sweyne's son was King Canute, mostly remembered for the story that he ordered the tide to turn. He became King in 1016, after Ethelred's death in exile in Normandy. He atoned for the destruction and had the abbey church rebuilt. It took two generations for Exeter to recover from the 1002 siege. And then in 1068 they were under siege again, but that's a different story.

Sources - Two Thousand Years in Exeter by W G Hoskins, Exeter Past by Hazel Harvey, The Story of Exeter by A M Shorto and educational notes held in the West Country Studies Library.

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