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The Danegeld ("Danish tax") was a tax raised to pay tribute to the Viking raiders to save a land from being ravaged. It was called the geld or gafol in eleventh-century sources; the term Danegeld did not appear until the early twelfth century. It was characteristic of royal policy in both Englandmarker and Francia during the ninth through eleventh centuries, collected both as tributary, to buy off the attackers, and as stipendiary, to pay the defensive forces.

Danegeld in England

The Viking expeditions to England were usually led by the Danish kings, but they were composed of warriors from all over Scandinavia, and they eventually brought home more than 100 tonnes of silver.

Anglo-Saxon era

The first payment of the Danegeld to the Vikings took place in 845 when they tried to attack Paris. The Viking army was bought off from destroying the city by a massive payment of nearly six tons of silver and gold bullion. English payment, of 10,000 Roman pounds (3,300 kg) of silver, was also made in 991 following the Viking victory at the Battle of Maldonmarker in Essex, when King Aethelred "The Unready" was advised by Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury and the aldermen of the south-western provinces to buy off the Vikings rather than continue the armed struggle.

In 994 the Danes, under King Sweyn Forkbeard and Olaf Trygvason, returned and laid siege to London. They were once more bought off, and the amount of silver paid impressed the Danes with the idea that it was more profitable to extort payments from the English than to take whatever booty they could plunder.

Further payments were made in 1002, and especially in 1007 when Aethelred bought two years peace with the Danes for 36,000 troy pounds (13,400 kg) of silver. In 1012, following the capture and murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the sack of Canterburymarker, the Danes were bought off with another 48,000 troy pounds (17,900 kg) of silver.

In 1016 Sweyn Forkbeard's son, Canute, became King of England. After two years he felt sufficiently in control of his new kingdom to the extent of being able to pay off all but 40 ships of his invasion fleet, which were retained as a personal bodyguard, with a huge Danegeld of 72,000 troy pounds (26,900 kg) of silver collected nationally, plus a further 10,500 pounds (3,900 kg) of silver collected from London.

This kind of extorted tribute was not unique to England: according to Snorri Sturluson and Rimbert, Finlandmarker and the Baltic states (see also Grobinmarker) paid the same kind of tribute to the Swedes. In fact, the Primary Chronicle relates that the regions paying protection money extended east towards Moscowmarker, until the Finnish and Slavic tribes rebelled and drove the Varangians overseas. Similarly, the Sami peoples were frequently forced to pay tribute in the form of pelts. A similar procedure also existed in Iberiamarker, where the contemporary Christian states were largely supported on tribute gold from the taifa kingdoms.

It is estimated that the total amount of money paid by the Anglo-Saxons amounted to some sixty million pence. More Anglo-Saxon pence of this period have been found in Sweden than in England, and at the farm where the runestone Sö 260 talks of a voyage in the West, a hoard of several hundred English coins was found.

Geld in England after the Norman Conquest

In southern England the Danegeld was based on hidages, an area of agricultural land sufficient to support a family, save in Kent, where the unit was a sulung of four yokes, the amount of land that could be ploughed in a season by a team of oxen; in the north the typical unit was the carucate, or ploughland, equivalent of Kent's sulung, and East Anglia was assessed by the hundred. Everywhere the tax was farmed by local sheriffs. Records of assessment and income pre-date the Norman conquest, indicating a system which James Campbell describes as "old, but not unchanging". According to David Bates, it was "a national tax of a kind unknown in western Europe;" indeed, J.A. Green asserts that the national system of land taxation developed to raise the Danegeld was the first to reappear in Western Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. It was used by William the Conqueror as a principal tool for underwriting continental wars, as well as providing for royal appetites and the costs of conquest, rather than for buying-off the Viking menace. He and his successors levied the geld more frequently than the Anglo-Saxon kings, and at higher rates; the six-shilling geld of 1084 is famous, and the geld in Ely of 1096, for example, was double its normal rate. Judith Green states that from 1110, war and the White Ship calamity led to further increases in taxation efforts. By 1130 Henry was taxing the danegeld annually, at two shillings on the hide. That year, according to the chronicle of John of Worcester the king promised to suspend the danegeld for seven years, a promise renewed by Stephen at his coronation but afterwards broken. Henry II revived the danegeld in 1155-56, but 1161-62 mark the last year the danegeld was recorded on a pipe roll, and the tax fell into disuse.

The importance of the danegeld to the Exchequer may be assessed by its return of about £2400 in 1129-30, which was about ten per cent of the total (about £23,000) paid in that year.

Judged by an absolute rather than a contemporary standard, there was much to criticise in the collection of the danegeld by the early 12th century: it was based on ancient assessments of land productivity, and there were numerous privileged reductions or exemptions, granted as marks of favour that by contrast cast an "unfavoured" light on those paying it.

Current British usage

In the United Kingdommarker, the term "Danegeld" has come to be used as a warning and a criticism of any coercive payment, whether in money or kind. For example as mentioned in the British House of Commonsmarker during the debate on the Belfast Agreement:

To emphasise the point, people often quote two or more lines from "Dane Geld" by Rudyard Kipling as did Tony Parsons in The Daily Mirror, when criticising the Rome daily La Repubblica for writing "Ransom was paid and that is nothing to be ashamed of," in response to the announcement that the Italian government paid $1 million for the release of two hostages in Iraq in October 2004.

In Britain the phrase is often coupled with the experience of Chamberlain's Appeasement of Hitler.

Danegeld in Francia

In 862 two groups of Vikings—one the larger of two fleets recently forced out of the Seinemarker by Charles the Bald, the other a fleet returning from a Mediterraneanmarker expedition—converged on Brittany, where one (the Mediterranean group) was hired by the Breton duke Salomon to ravage the Loire valleymarker. Robert the Strong, Margrave of Neustria, captured twelve of their ships, killing all on board save a few who fled. He then opened negotiations with the former Seine Vikings, and hired them against Salomon for 6,000 pounds of silver. The purpose of this was doubtless to prevent them from entering the service of Salomon. Probably Robert had to collect a large amount in taxes to finance what was effectively a non-tributary Danegeld designed to keep the Vikings out of Neustria. The treaty between the Franks and the Vikings did not last more than a year: in 863 Salomon made peace and the Vikings, deprived of an enemy, ravaged Neustria.

In literature

William Shakespeare made reference to Danish tribute in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act 3, scene 1 (King Claudius is talking of Prince Hamlet's insanity):
...he shall with speed to England,
For the demand of our neglected tribute

Danegeld is the subject of a poem by Rudyard Kipling. It ends in the following words:

See also



  1. Gafol, gyld and in one instance heregild appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
  2. J. A. Green, "The Last Century of Danegeld", The English Historical Review 96 No. 379 (April 1981:241-258) p. 241.
  3. Runriket Täby-Vallentuna – en handledning, by Rune Edberg.
  4. The taifa kingdoms paid parias, a tribute in lieu of raids (razzias).
  5. Jansson 1980:35
  6. The former Kingdom of Kent maintained many endemic traditions.
  7. See Hide .
  8. J. Campbell, "The Anglo Norman State in administrative History", in Essays in Anglo-Saxon History, Hambledon, London, 1986, pp 172-174
  9. D. Bates, William the Conqueror, George Philip Ltd, London 1989, p. 58
  10. Green 1981:241.
  11. Green 1981:241; J. O. Prestwich, "War and Finance in the Anglo-Norman State", in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th Series, Vol 4, 1954, pp 19-43.
  12. J. Green, The Government of England under Henry I, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1986.
  13. Green 1981:242.
  14. Green 1981:254.
  15. "Exemptions were very much a matter of royal favour, and could be adjusted to meet changing circumstances," Judith Green notes, (Green 1981:252) "and in this way danegeld was a more flexible instrument of taxation that most historians have been prepared to allow."
  16. Tony Parsons "We'll all pay for ransom", The Daily Mirror 4 October2004.
  17. Mr Brady House of Commons Hansard Debates for 25 Jan 2000 (pt 30) Column 233: "There are many examples of appeasement in history, whether it be the danegeld or more recently, and we know that appeasement does not work."
  18. Einar Joranson (1923), The Danegeld in France (Augustana College), pp 59–61.
  19. Robert probably expected Salomon to hire them to replace the defeated Mediterranean Vikings, then to attack Neustria from two sides, with the Viking ships ascending the Loire and Breton troops invading by land.
  20. In 860–1 Charles the Bald had collected a general tax to pay a Danegeld of 5,000 pounds. The king had probably authorised Robert's payment.

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