Looking back at the year 1003 – reviewing the important events, people, and accomplishments that took place. This particular year saw the death of a pope, a miraculous battle at a monastery, and the first rumblings of war in China.
Pope Sylvester II dies
On May 12th, Pope Sylvester II died in Rome. Before becoming Pope in the year 999, Gerbert of Aurillac was regarded as a leading scholar in Europe, especially in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. Nancy Marie Brown writes:
Brilliant, curious, systematic, and high-minded, Gerbert was less successful in politics. Though he climbed to spectacular heights— abbot, archbishop, tutor and counselor to emperors and kings, even pope—his progress was erratic. Twice he was accused of treason, each time to be rescued by the sudden, suspicious death of his king. Twice he was forced to flee for his life, once under sentence of excommunication.
After Sylvester’s death, John Crescentius, the ruler of Rome, selected Giovanni Sicco to be the next pope. Sicco took the name Pope John XVII, but his reign was brief, as he died on November 6th.
Sweyn of Denmark raids England
In this year King Sweyn of Denmark led a naval force to attack parts of southern England. The town of Exeter was captured and looted. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the blame for this loss was focused on a French official named Hugh, who had just been named reeve of Exeter by Queen Emma. The chronicler then goes on to castigate Ælfric, Ealdorman of Hampshire, for other English losses:
Then a very great army was gathered from Wiltshire and from Hampshire, and were very resolutely going towards the raiding-army; then Ealdorman Ælfric should have led the army, but he took to his old tricks: as soon as they wer so close at hand that each of them looked on the other, then he pretended to be ill, and began to retch so as to vomit, and said that he was taken ill, and thus deceived the people that he should have led. As the saying goes: ‘When the commander weakens then the whole raiding army is greatly hindered’. Then when Sweyn saw that they were not resolute, and all dispersed, he led his raiding-army into Wilton and raided and burned down the town, and then went to Salisbury and from there back to the sea, travelled to where he knew his ‘wave-stallions’ (ships) were.
Chroniclers from the later eleventh and twelfth centuries comment that King Sweyn began raiding England in revenge for the St. Brice’s Day massacre, which happened the previous year. However, the Danish ruler may have carried out this campaign because he had secured his territory within Scandinavia.
The attack on the Abbey of Saint-Germain d’Auxerre
The conflict between Robert II, King of France, and Otto-William, Count of Mâcon and Nevers, over the Duchy of Burgundy erupted into warfare. The French king, along with troops supplied by Duke Richard II of Normandy, laid siege to the city of Auxerre, According to the chronicler Rodulfus Glaber, there were repeated assaults on the city, but the king failed to capture it. He then moved his forces to the nearby Abbey of Saint-Germain d’Auxerre, which had been fortified by Landri, Count of Nevers, an ally of Otto-William. After a failed attempt to bring about a peaceful resolution, King Robert ordered a siege against the monastery, which was guarded by some soldiers along with eight monks.
On the sixth day of the siege, the king demanded an assault on the abbey. Rodulfus writes:
The one with the other, they fought a long and bitter struggle; suddenly God came to the aid of those defending HIs house. At the hour of engagement the whole monastery was covered by a black fog, so that none of the enemy outside could see his way to cast a spear, while they saw that they were being cut down with great slaughter by the defenders within. After heavy losses, especially amongst the Norman contingent, they withdrew leaving the abbey unharmed. The repented, though late in the day, for having attacked such a distinguished place.
After this failure, Robert continued to campaign in parts of Burgundy, “burning everything along his route except cities and fortified towns.”
Events in Eastern Europe
Henry II continued to consolidate his power in the Holy Roman Empire but was faced with opponents. This included his former ally, Henry of Schweinfurt, who revolted after claiming that he was supposed to be given the Duchy of Bavaria. While this revolt was quickly defeated, Duke Bolesław I of Poland continued to exert his power in Eastern Europe. When Vladivoj, Duke of Bohemia, died in January, the Polish ruler marched into Prague and installed its previous duke, Boleslaus III, back into power on February 9th.
However, soon after his return to the duchy, Boleslaus ordered a massacre of Czech nobles, and even personally killed his own son-in-law. This angered Bolesław I, and after having Boleslaus come back to Poland, he had Czech duke blinded and imprisoned. By the end of the year, Bolesław had returned to Prague, where he claimed the Duchy of Bohemia for himself. Meanwhile, Jaromír, the son of Duke Boleslaus II (972-999), went to Henry II’s court and made a deal with the German king to get military support to retake Bohemia in exchange for becoming Henry’s vassal.
Also in this year, King Stephen of Hungary invaded Transylvania, which was ruled by Duke Gyula III. The Hungarians were victorious, and Gyula was captured and imprisoned for the rest of his life. The Chronicle of the Deeds of the Hungarians offers this justification for the invasion:
This he did, because Gyula, though admonished many times by the blessed King Stephen, neither would convert to the Christian faith nor would he rest from doing injury to the Hungarians. His entire realm, which was most wide and rich, was now joined to the kingdom of Hungary. This realm is called in Hungarian Erdély; it is watered by many streams, in whose sands gold is found, and the gold from that land is the best.
Interreligious troubles in Egypt
Caliph al-Hakim of the Fatimid Dynasty ordered that the Church of St. Mark in Fustat be converted into a mosque, but compensated the local Christian community by allowing them to build three new churches in the city. Also in that year, al-Hakim’s sister Sitt al-Mulk learned that two corrupt Muslim government officials had falsely implicated a Christian official as part of their scheme, leading to the latter’s execution. She reported the matter to her brother, and the two corrupt officials were also executed.
A new Christian official was appointed as their replacement, but this led to objections from Muslim residents in Fustat and Cairo, which resulted in riots against the local Christian community. After the riots were suppressed, al-Hakim had parts of the Christian and Jewish communities in the two cities moved into walled quarters for their own safety and reduced tensions with the Muslim population.
Tough times in Armenia
According to the chronicler Matthew of Edessa, this was a particularly difficult year for Armenians. He writes how a:
certain star, appearing in the form of fire, arose in the heavens, an omen of the wrath of God towards all living creatures and also a sign of the end of the world. There was a violent earthquake throughout the whole land, to such an extent that many thought that the day of the end of the world had arrived. Like the time of the flood all living creatures shook and trembled, and many fell down and died from fear of the intensity of this wrath. After this outpouring of God’s wrath a plague, called khovik, came upon the area and, spreading through many regions, reached Sebastia. This plague clearly manifested itself on men’s bodies and, because of its harshness, many had no time to make their confession or take communion. Man and beast diminished from the land, and those remaining quadrupeds roamed about the countryside without anyone to take care of them.
Other events from the year 1003
On February 25th a battle took place in Albesa, a village in present-day Catalonia. Little is known about the battle except that Berengar, Bishop of Elna, was killed in the fighting. It seems to have been a victory for Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar, the new chamberlain of the Caliphate of Cordoba, against Catalonian nobles, as by the end of year his campaign had resulted in the capture of six castles and taken 5,570 prisoners.
The tepid relations between the Song and Liao dynasties broke down this year, and the one market border post was closed. Song officials, believing the Liao were planning an invasion, began military preparations.
Thorvald Eriksson continued the exploration of North America with his brother Lief’s ship and a crew of thirty. According to the Greenlander’s Saga, sailed westwards and came across more lands. “They found no traces of human habitation or animals except on one westerly island,” the saga notes, “where they found a wooden stack cover.”
See also the years 1000, 1001, 1002
The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brough the Light of Science to the Dark Ages, by Nancy Marie Brown (Basic Books, 2010)
A Chronology of Early Medieval Western Europe 450–1066, by Timothy Venning (Routledge, 2018)
The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (Penguin, 1965)
The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China, by Dieter Kuhn (Belknap Press, 2009)
Armenia and the Crusades. Tenth to Twelfth Centuries: The Chronicle of Matthew of Edessa, translated by Ara Edmond Dostourian (University Press of America, 1993)
Chronicle of the Deeds of the Hungarians from the Fourteenth-Century Illuminated Codex, edited and translated by Janos M. Bak and Laszlo Veszpremy (Central European University Press, 2018)
From the shadows into the light: the disappearance of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim, by Edlyn Suzanne Richards (Master’s Thesis, San Jose State University, 2002)
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