Danegeld was essentially a form of extortion. Norsemen were offered a payment, usually in silver, if they agreed to leave England peaceably.

It is said that the first danegeld was paid in the tenth century, to Toste Skagul, a warrior chieftain from West Götaland. A part of Sweden which then belonged to Denmark. There is no record of how much silver he was paid, but we do have a record of later payments, these were truly large and increased over time.

The danegeld was initially paid in the form of coin. However, Norsemen were not concerned with the appearance of the silver, only the weight. Later, in desperation, the English king had to require the church to supply silver objects which could be cut up or melted down, to satisfy the demands of the extortionists.

The amounts of the payments are listed in ancient documents, in particular the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There, the weight of payments is denominated in “Troy” pounds, (a pound equivalent to 373 grammes).

The first danegeld specified, was paid by King Ethelred after an English army was defeated at the battle of Maldon, in 991. He paid 10,000 pounds of silver in coin minted with his image.

This amount equates to about 3,500 kilogrammes of silver! This was the beginning of a very expensive period for the English.

In 994, another Viking army was bought off for 16,000 pounds of silver. This army was also given permission to overwinter in Southampton, with provisions supplied by the English. In fact, they stayed in the town for over a year.

And so, it continued as Viking armies roamed the country ravaging and looting. In 1002 the amount increased to 24,000 pounds of silver.

And so, it continued as Viking armies roamed the country ravaging and looting. In 1002 the amount increased to 24,000 pounds of silver. By this time, the Norsemen had understood that if they arrived in sufficient force, they could expect to be bought off with little need for them to fight. In 1011 a chieftain, known as Thorkell the Tall, exacted 48,000 pounds and then, the following year, he tried for more. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who was acting as negotiator, refused to pay a second amount stating that he considered that the English people had suffered enough. For this refusal, he was murdered.

Even after the hapless King Ethelred had died, the blackmail continued. When his widow, Emma, was besieged in London for six months, she eventually sued for peace and agreed on the Danish warrior Canute’s demand for her to pay 15,000 pounds for her ransom, 12,000 pounds for two bishops and 24,000 for her men. Further, she agreed to hand over her two adult sons to the Danes for execution.

Ironically, it took a Dane to eventually put a stop to these payments, but he did so by first making the biggest one of all. When Canute became king of England in 1018, he no longer needed his Viking army. He had 6000 warriors with nothing to do except cause trouble. He persuaded them to leave the country with a tribute of 72,000 pounds of silver and a further 10,000 from the City of London.

Adding all these payments together, the total comes to over 180,000 Troy pounds of silver, or around 67,000 kgs.

There must have been practical difficulties for the commanders of successful armies in distributing the silver to their men. For example, King Ethelred’s first danegeld of 3500 kgs, had to be distributed around 3,000 men. The officers undoubtedly got a larger share, but still each fighter probably received half a kilo of silver. This would have to be carefully weighed out, but did the men stand patiently in a queue waiting for their share to be apportioned? They were warriors, trained to be violent. There must have been squabbles and fights over the share out. Even when each had a share, it must have been hazardous trying to get safely home to Denmark or Sweden carrying such wealth, travelling in the company of cut throats and merciless killers.

The problem of getting the silver home would have been at its worst when Canute paid off his warriors. Allowing for larger payments to officers, the men probably received ten kgs of silver each.

Where did all the silver go? There is no doubt that much of the wealth was buried for safety. This accounts for the fact that many hoards of silver have been found in Britain and Scandinavia. The only safe place was in the ground, but this required the person hiding the silver, to remember where he had put it. There are undoubtedly many silver hoards yet to be found!

In my Norse book, For The Want Of Silver, the story opens when tithe collectors come into conflict with villagers. The tax was paid in the form of produce from the sea – herring, smoked by the community.

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