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Parshat Vaetchanan — Power shift

Royal sovereignty passes to a new family only when there was no heir or in the event of a coup by an outsider. This is not the Torah's approach (Vaetchanan)
Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral of his father Harald Bluetooth. Painting by Lorenz Frølich, c. 1883–86. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral of his father Harald Bluetooth. Painting by Lorenz Frølich, c. 1883–86. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, I wrote about the US president who served the shortest time in office. This week I want to cross the Atlantic and go back several centuries to write about the English king who reigned for the shortest length of time — only 40 days.

His was only the second-shortest reign of any British monarch because Lady Jane Grey ruled England for nine days while imprisoned in the Tower of London. But her reign was contested and she was never actually crowned.

Sweyn Forkbeard was the first Viking king of England. He was crowned on December 25th, 1013 in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, but died there only five weeks later, on February 3, 1014.

Though his rule over England was brief, his impact on British and European history was not insignificant. Since 986 he had been king of both Denmark and parts of Norway. Several times he sent longboats to attack England but they were bought off with gold (Daengold) and the marauders returned home, in what became a very lucrative business.

A coin of Sweyn Forkbeard, minted in 995; this is the earliest known coin with a Latin inscription minted in Scandinavia, based on Anglo-Saxon models and made by an English moneyer (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

However, King Æthelred the Unready was called “unready” (originally “unraed” meaning ill-advised) for a reason. He eventually figured he had paid too much Danegold to keep the Vikings out of the country. So on St. Brice’s Day, November 13, 1002 he and his men massacred every Dane they found. Among them was possibly Sweyn’s sister Gunhilde.

After this Sweyn could not be bought off with English money, and for the next decade one viking raid after another gradually weakened the English.

According to the Peterborough Chronicle (a historical record of those years), in 1013 Sweyn headed to England for his final assault.

In August Sweyn landed with his fleet of ships and took one city after another until he came to London. There, Æthelred allied himself with a former viking raider named Thorkell the Tall and managed to defend the city for a short while, but eventually that also fell to Sweyn and Æthelred and his family fled the country.

Sweyn Forkbeard’s conquest of England from: A short history of England and the British Empire Year: 1915 by Larson, Laurence Marcellus, (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Sweyn’s impact was also felt through his son, King Cnut (also known as Canute, Knut or Cnut the Great) who once famously described the futility of human action with the analogy of holding back the tide. This became, in popular memory, a story about Cnut actually trying to hold back the water.

After Sweyn’s death, Æthelred returned briefly as king, but then Cnut ruled England from 1016 until his death in 1035. He also ruled Denmark from 1018 and Norway from 1028. Cnut’s two sons, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut ruled after him, but then the crown returned to the Anglo-Saxons until the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Cnut the Great from Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, Royal MS 14 B V. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

After the deaths of Cnut’s sons, Sweyn’s line no longer ruled England, Denmark or Norway.

I want to look more at the idea of regal succession. How did Sweyn become king in the first place? Simple. He rebelled against his father, Harald Bluetooth, who was not only king of Denmark and later Norway, but also gave his name to one way our mobile phones communicate wirelessly. (Harald’s initials in runes are the origin of the modern symbol for bluetooth.)

In the mid-980s Sweyn ousted his father Harald, forcing him into exile where he died a few years later.

According to Adam of Bremen, a German, Christian medieval chronicler, the pagan Sweyn unseated his father because Harald had converted to Christianity. Or perhaps Sweyn seized on his father’s weakness, attacking him shortly after Harald had lost control of Norway. Either way, to paraphrase Simba, he just couldn’t wait to be king.

The baptism of Harald Bluetooth. Detail from baptismal font from circa 1100 in Tamdrup Kirke, Denmark. (CC BY-SA, Sven Rosborn/ Wikimedia Commons)

Throughout history the royal line has usually passed from father to son (or occasionally daughter and sometimes even to another relative when there were no children). Often, this was a peaceful transition. Occasionally, as in the case of Sweyn, there was a coup. The only times sovereignty ever passed to another family was when there were no close relatives, or if an outsider overthrew the monarch and seized power for himself.

I was unable to find a single case where the right to rule was passed peacefully and willingly to a non-relative if the king had children of his own.

Because we all grew up with the Bible stories, we fail to appreciate how unique the transition of power from Moses to Joshua actually was. Moses had two sons of his own who he had hoped would take over from him. Furthermore, not only was Joshua not related to Moses , but he was not even from the same tribe. Moses was a Levite, of the priestly class, a descendant of Levi, Jacob’s fourth son by Leah. Joshua was from the tribe of Ephraim, son of Jacob’s favorite — Joseph, Rachel’s son.

Only a few generations earlier, Jacob’s other sons had sold Joseph into slavery, claiming that he was trying to usurp the leadership from Leah’s son, Judah. Yet now Moses willingly handed the leadership over to Joshua at God’s command (Deuteronomy 3:28).

Command Joshua, strengthen and fortify him; for he will cross over before this people and he will conquer for them the land that you see.

Not only did he willingly hand over leadership to Joshua, but according to the Midrash (Devarim Rabba 2:4) Moses would have gladly become one of Joshua’s subjects if he could only enter the land of Israel. Has there ever been another leader in history who pleaded for the right to become an ordinary subject under the rule of a leader from a different tribe?

That’s what I wanted to write about: Leadership — the contrast between King Sweyn deposing his father, and Moses gladly handing over his reign to Joshua.

But there is another theme alluded to in the Torah reading which may also have a loose connection to Sweyn.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 90a) states that one who does not believe that the resurrection of the dead is written in the Torah will have no portion in the World to Come. One of the verses cited (Sanhedrin 90b) to prove the resurrection is from this week’s portion (Deuteronomy 4:4):

You who cling to the Lord, your God, are all of you alive today.

The Talmud interprets this to mean that just as you are alive today, so you shall be alive in the ultimate day of the World to Come.

How does this relate to King Sweyn Forkbeard? Well, nobody knows for sure how he died (though it was almost certainly according to natural causes).

Painting created c. 1220 of Sweyn Forkbeard being stabbed by the ghost of St. Edmund. (Public Domain./ Wikimedia Commons)

But according to Archdeacon Hermann’s Miracles of St. Edmund, written in 1069, Sweyn was stabbed in his bed by St Edmund. Edmund had died almost 150 years earlier, in 869. According to the legend, when Sweyn began attacking villages in England, the locals ran to Edmund’s tomb and asked him to intercede. The spirit of Edmund then appeared to Sweyn in a dream and warned him of the dire consequences that would follow if he continued his attacks. The ghost of the saint was then temporarily resurrected after the coronation to deliver the punishment.

Another way in which Sweyn prepared for the afterlife comes from Encomium Emmae, an 11th century text written in praise of Emma, consort of both Æthelred and Cnut. According to the text, before his death Sweyn asked his son to carry his body back to Denmark and bury him there.

Roskilde Cathedral, in Zealand, Denmark, claims to be the burial place of both Sweyn and his father Harald Bluetooth.

Statue of Queen Margaret, Scottish National Portrait Gallery. (CC BY-SA,
Stephencdickson/. Wikimedia Commons)

But the ultimate irony of this story is how Sweyn’s royal line actually lived on. Despite the fact that Danish rule over Britain ended with Harthacnut, the current British Royal Family are actually descended from Sweyn.

In the 15th century Margaret of Denmark married James III of Scotland. James’s great-great grandson was James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, and the ancestor of the British royal family.

So even after death we can live on through our children. And it is interesting to think that Queen Elizabeth II is a tiny bit Bluetooth.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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