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Sven Forkbeard and new Yuletide Taxes (11thC)

The Icelandic historian Snorre Sturlason (1179 – 1241) in his history of the Norse Kings describes how King Sven Forkbeard (960-1014), king of Denmark, Norway, and England, imposed numerous taxes on the people in order to fund his conquests. These included a sizeable number of new taxes which were imposed at Yuletide (Christmas), prompting the usual murmurings of discontent and threats of revolt:

King Svein introduced new laws in many respects into the country, partly after those which were in Denmark, and in part much more severe. No man must leave the country without the king’s permission; or if he did, his property fell to the king. Whoever killed a man outright, should forfeit all his land and movables. If any one was banished the country, and an heritage fell to him, the king took his inheritance. At Yule every man should pay the king a meal of malt from every harvest steading, and a leg of a three-year old ox, which was called a friendly gift, together with a spand of butter; and every house-wife a rock full of unspun lint, as thick as one could span with the longest fingers of the hand. The bondes were bound to build all the houses the king required upon his farms. Of every seven males one should be taken for the service of war, and reckoning from the fifth year of age; and the outfit of ships should be reckoned in the same proportion. Every man who rowed upon the sea to fish should pay the king five fish as a tax, for the land defence, wherever he might come from. Every ship that went out of the country should have stowage reserved open for the king in the middle of the ship. Every man, foreigner or native, who went to Iceland, should pay a tax to the king.

Of King Svein’s laws.

King Svein introduced new laws in many respects into the country, partly after those which were in Denmark, and in part much more severe. No man must leave the country without the king’s permission; or if he did, his property fell to the king. Whoever killed a man outright, should forfeit all his land and movables. If any one was banished the country, and an heritage fell to him, the king took his inheritance. At Yule every man should pay the king a meal of malt from every harvest steading, and a leg of a three-year old ox, which was called a friendly gift, together with a spand of butter; and every house-wife a rock full of unspun lint, as thick as one could span with the longest fingers of the hand. The bondes were bound to build all the houses the king required upon his farms. Of every seven males one should be taken for the service of war, and reckoning from the fifth year of age; and the outfit of ships should be reckoned in the same proportion. Every man who rowed upon the sea to fish should pay the king five fish as a tax, for the land defence, wherever he might come from. Every ship that went out of the country should have stowage reserved open for the king in the middle of the ship. Every man, foreigner or native, who went to Iceland, should pay a tax to the king. And to all this was added, that Danes should enjoy so much consideration in Norway, that one witness of them should invalidate ten of Northmen.

When these laws were promulgated the minds of the people were instantly raised against them, and murmurs were heard among them. They who had not taken part against King Olaf said, “Now take your reward and friendship from the Canute race, ye men of the interior Throndhjem who fought against King Olaf, and deprived him of his kingdom. Ye were promised peace and justice, and now ye have got oppression and slavery for your great treachery and crime.” Nor was it very easy to contradict them, as all men saw how miserable the change had been. But people had not the boldness to make an insurrection against King Svein, principally because many had given King Canute their sons or other near relations as hostages; and also because no one appeared as leader of an insurrection. They very soon, however, complained of King Svein; and his mother Alfifa got much of the blame of all that was against their desire. Then the truth, with regard to Olaf, became evident to many.

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One has to wonder what it is about the winter solstice that links it to increases in taxation. The founding story of the Christian religion has Joseph and Mary being forced to return to the place of their birth in order to participate in a census by the Roman Imperial state for taxation purposes (Luke 2: 1-7). Here we have an account in a 13thC history of the Norse kings, the Heimskringla, of King Sven Forkbeard who imposes a slew of new taxes on the people at Yuletide, such as “a meal of malt from every harvest, a leg of a three-year old ox, a spand of butter; a rock full of unspun lint”. This was at a time of the year when ordinary people faced their greatest hardship. Food produced in the summer had to be stored and preserved in order to tide them over the winter, livestock were killed because feed was in short supply over the winter months, and there was often fear that the family might not survive until the first harvest of the summer. Thus it was doubly harsh that a king or an emperor would impose additional taxes at this time of the year. What is especially interesting is that the chronicler Sturlason takes the trouble to tell the reader that these new taxes caused murmurings of resentment among those who had supported King Sven in his struggle against King Canute. He reminds them that “Ye were promised peace and justice, and now ye have got oppression and slavery.” T'was ever so.

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