Viking age england, p.1

Viking Age England, page 1


Viking Age England

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Viking Age England






  First published by B.T. Batsford/English Heritage 1991

  First published by Tempus 2000

  This edition published 2007

  Reprinted in 2010 by

  The History Press

  The Mill, Brimscombe Port

  Stroud, Gloucestershire, GL5 2QG

  Reprinted 2012

  This ebook edition first published in 2013

  All rights reserved

  © Julian D. Richards, 1991, 2007, 2013

  The right of Julian D. Richards to be identified as the Author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights, and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

  EPUB ISBN 978 0 7509 5252 1

  Original typesetting by The History Press


  Preface and acknowledgements

  1 The Viking Age

  2 Viking raids

  3 Viking colonisation

  4 The growth of towns

  5 The built environment

  6 Feeding the people

  7 Craft and industry

  8 Trade and exchange

  9 Churches and monasteries

  10 Death and burial

  11 Monuments in stone

  Further reading



  This book is the substantially revised 2000 version of the volume first published in the Batsford/English Heritage series in 1991. In 2000 I took the opportunity to rewrite sections I was not happy with and to update the text in order to reflect new discoveries and shifting interpretations. This 2004 edition is unaltered apart from some changes to the format and layout.

  The present book still relies upon the often unacknowledged labours of large numbers of archaeologists and others. I am especially grateful, however, to a smaller number from whom I have benefited from specific discussion, including Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle, Justine Bayley, Martin Carver, Dawn Hadley, Richard Hall, James Graham-Campbell, the late Jim Lang, Neil Price, David Stocker and Steve Roskams. To each of them, and to all those I haven’t mentioned by name, thank you for your help. Where you have saved me from errors I am especially grateful, but where mistakes remain they are, of course, my own responsibility.

  Many people and organisations have generously allowed me to make use of drawings and photographs, and they also retain the copyright, as acknowledged in the captions. Many of the black and white line drawings for the first edition were prepared by Dawn Flower at the English Heritage Drawing Office. Additional drawings are by Chris Philo and Stephanie Wood.



  This book is about the development of Anglo-Saxon England from AD 800 until the Norman Conquest. For almost 250 years England was subject to attacks from Scandinavia. Contemporary chroniclers called the raiders by many names, including heathens and pagans, as well as Northmen and Danes, but one of the names used to refer to them by the English was ‘Viking’, and this is now used to describe not only the raiders, but also the period during which they carried out their attacks. These centuries, from the ninth to the eleventh, have become known, therefore, as the Viking Age.

  The Vikings themselves can be elusive. The introduction of Scandinavian art styles can be seen on jewellery and sculpture, but Scandinavian-style houses and graves are often difficult to identify. Indeed, the relationship between Scandinavian settlers and the existing population must be considered to see how far the newcomers adopted native customs or invented new ones, sometimes rendering themselves indistinguishable from the local people and invisible to the archaeologist; sometimes creating new identities. This story will focus, therefore, on the period rather than on the people, and will examine all the archaeological traces of Viking Age England. It will be concerned particularly with England where, as a result of major excavations conducted over the last 30 years in towns like York, Lincoln and London, and in the countryside at sites such as Goltho, Raunds and Wharram Percy, we may now be closer to understanding the nature of Scandinavian interaction with the local population. Scotland, the Northern Isles, and the areas bordering the Irish Sea were also subject to separate Scandinavian influence, but are outside the scope of this book. The Scottish Hebrides and the Isle of Man were settled as a Norse kingdom of Man and the Western Isles. They formed part of an important axis between the Hiberno-Norse of Dublin and the Anglo-Scandinavian kings of York. The Isle of Man maintains elements of its Norse heritage to the present day, including the tradition of meetings of the Viking assembly or Thing in an annual open-air meeting of the Manx Parliament, the Tynwald. Nonetheless both Scotland and the Isle of Man have been the subject of several recent books, and Scandinavian settlement there will only be considered in relation to developments in England.

  Two themes run through this book. Firstly, what was the Scandinavian contribution to the development of Late Saxon England? How far did the newcomers simply modify local developments already in progress? Was there anything distinctive about Scandinavian settlements? Were the major trading towns, such as Jorvik, already established before Scandinavian traders arrived? What was the Scandinavian influence on the formation of the English state?

  Secondly, we shall take up the question of Scandinavian and native interaction. What was the native response to Scandinavians in the areas settled? What was it about the Scandinavian character that meant that in some areas, such as the Danelaw, they disappeared, fusing with the local traditions; whilst in others, such as the Isle of Man, they preserved a distinctive culture. How did they adapt, both economically, and in social and religious terms, to local circumstances? We need to bear in mind that interaction between the two peoples would have been subject to a number of factors: the extent of social, economic and political dependence of one group on the other, the ability of people to talk with one another, the degree of intermarriage, or of cultural and religious assimilation. We must also bear in mind that this was a long and complex process, spanning three hundred years, with much local variation.


  The precise derivation of the term ‘Viking’ remains obscure. In Old Icelandic a vik was a bay or creek, and may have given its name to those sea-faring raiders who lurked in bays and estuaries. Vik is also the name of the area around the Oslofjord, and may have been used to describe anyone from that area of southern Norway. The Old Icelandic verb vikya, on the other hand, meant ‘to turn aside’ and may have been used to describe those away from home. In the Icelandic Sagas víkingr came to be used as a noun to refer to a warrior, or pirate, víking was used to refer to an expedition. The majority of Scandinavians, therefore, were not Vikings; only those who went a-viking could really qualify for the description.

  The first occurrence of wicing in Old English refers to Mediterranean pirates who may not even have been Scandinavians, centuries before the Viking Age. The term does not appear to have been used exclusively to refer to raiders from Scandinavia until the tenth century, under the influence of the Viking invasions. There are only five occurrences of wicings in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Fell 1986; 1987), and each time the word
seems to be used in connection with a small group of raiders, rather than an army. Its use appears to have died out during the Middle Ages, until it was reintroduced in the Romantic era and it was only during the nineteenth century that ‘Viking’ became the standard term for Scandinavian invaders.

  Three men popularised Vikings outside Scandinavia. Richard Wagner completed the Ring cycle in 1874, using stories derived from the Edda and Sagas to erect a pastiche of Germanic mythology. Wagner introduced a number of popular misconceptions including winged and horned helmets, which probably originated as theatrical costume design. In Britain Walter Scott developed an interest in the Norse history of Scotland, publishing his novel The Pirate in 1822, followed by a series of popular children’s adventure stories (Wilson 1996). Finally, William Morris and other members of the pre-Raphaelite movement were attracted by Scandinavian romanticism. Morris developed a passion for medieval Scandinavia whilst an undergraduate at Oxford. He went on to learn Old Icelandic and helped translate a number of sagas, travelling in Iceland in 1871 and 1873. One of the first to take an interest in the material evidence of the Viking Age in England was W.G. Collingwood, Ruskin’s secretary and biographer. Collingwood’s association with Morris stimulated his interest in Anglo-Saxons and Vikings; he devoted the last 30 years of his life to a study of stone sculpture, eventually published in 1927 as Northumbrian crosses of the pre-Norman Age.

  During the nineteenth century Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse were developed as university subjects on a par with the classical languages, but apparently maintained a class association: chairs of Scandinavian Studies were often founded by northern industrialists (Wawn 2000). In general, when Vikings were mentioned by English historians, they appeared as villainous barbarians, and as foils for the great hero King Ælfred. Although the Viking Age was equated with nobility of adventure and exploration, and it was quite acceptable for Viking settlers in Iceland to be seen as founders of democracy and respectable exponents of nationalism, in Victorian England it was the Anglo-Saxons who were seen as the ancestral English.

  For most English historians the Scandinavian settlement was largely discounted and ignored. Unlike the arrival of three boatloads of Anglo-Saxon mercenaries it could not be presented as the birth of the English race; unlike the Norman Conquest it could not be seen as a major constitutional change. Most significantly, the Vikings in England failed to produce their own historian; their deeds are known solely through the eyes of West Saxon chroniclers, and so long as modern commentators patriotically continued to echo the views of those chroniclers, the Vikings were guaranteed short shrift (Trafford 2000).

  In Nazi Germany the Vikings were put to a more sinister use (Müller-Wille 1996). The Nazis identified with the so-called Aryan people of Scandinavia. Vikings became part of the fair-haired, blue-eyed, clean-living ideal of the German National Socialist Party. At its most extreme Nazism intended to replace Christianity with the old paganism of the Germanic gods. During the 1930s, excavations of the early Schleswig town at Hedeby were backed by the German state apparatus, which wished to emphasise a unity with the people of Scandinavia which had little foundation in reality. The Norwegian National Socialist party used the barrow cemetery at Borre, Vestfold, in Norway, as a backdrop for its political rallies from 1935-44. The assembled throng was told that:

  We gather here because the people who united Norway in one kingdom were buried here. These people carried the name of Norway all over the world. It was these people who founded states in Russia and, in a certain sense, also the British Empire.

  English history since the Second World War has been dominated by an emphasis on the Germanic invasions of England. The influence of Scandinavians has been particularly prominent, supported by a reliance on place-name studies, although with few grave finds there has been little role for archaeology in traditional interpretations of Viking settlement. This interpretation was challenged by Peter Sawyer in The Age of the Vikings, which has struck a chord with archaeologists who now tend to downplay the role of population movement and emphasise local developments. More recently, scholars have argued that material culture and language should not be read as a passive reflection of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, but as tools to be used actively in the integration of settlers and indigenous inhabitants and in the construction of new identities (Hadley and Richards 2000). This is beginning to focus attention away from the irresolvable problem of numbers and onto issues of identity which may be explored with reference to linguistic and archaeological evidence.

  On the other hand, the popular vision remains loosely the same as it was in the late nineteenth century. In the popular press Vikings remain a stereotype for rape and pillage; at weekends people dress up in Viking costume and re-enact their battles; Vikings are a major crowd-puller.


  In general, contemporary western European texts referred to Vikings as Dani, or Danes, and Nordmanni, or Northmen, irrespective of their country of origin. No doubt to the English they all sounded the same, but it is also not clear that nationality was a meaningful distinction anyway, as the various Scandinavian states were only formed during the Viking Age. At first, the Scandinavians thought of themselves as inhabitants of particular regions, such as men of Jutland, Vestfold, Hordaland and so on. As a sense of national identity grew, so did the use of national names. Ohthere, a Scandinavian visitor to Ælfred’s court, distinguished between Norwegians, Swedes and Danes.

  Certainly, we know that Viking armies comprised warriors of various races, just as modern mercenary armies do. The armies that attacked England in the reign of Æthelstan included men from eastern Sweden as well as from Norway and Denmark, although the English identified them by their leaders, as armies of Olafr, Sveinn, Thorkel or Knutr, and thought of them all as Danes. The loyalty of Viking warriors would have been to their leaders, rather than to any national identity. In Ireland, Danes and Norwegians fought each other, and in 838 the Britons of Devon and Cornwall formed an alliance with the Danes against the West Saxons under King Ecgbryht.

  By their customs and appearance Viking settlers would initially have appeared foreign to native Anglo-Saxons. Scandinavian jewellery was unlike that of the Anglo-Saxons. Norse settlers imported the ring-headed pin from Celtic Ireland, and presumably the Irish style of cloak that went with it. They wore silver arm rings as symbols of their wealth. The men may have worn belted trousers, without covering tunics, unlike the Anglo-Saxons who wore leggings and tunics. When the Vikings first appeared their hair was worn shaved, short at the back and shaggy at the front; imitation of this style was condemned by the Church. By the time of the Domesday Book Viking-descended Normans still wore their hair shaved up the nape; the English wore their hair long, and were sneered at by the Normans for effeminacy.

  Some settlers must have brought their wives with them; when the Anglo-Saxons stormed Benfleet they captured goods, women and children. Viking women also followed fashions different from those of the Anglo-Saxons. They wore a bow brooch on each shoulder, for instance, and a trefoil brooch at the centre. Other Vikings presumably intermarried with native women. A later chronicler said that the success of Vikings with Anglo-Saxon women was due to the fact that they bathed on Saturdays, combed their hair, and wore fine clothing.

  For how long were the separate identities maintained? Certain laws of Æthelred and Edgar demonstrate that there was a distinction between Danes and Anglo-Saxons in the second half of the tenth century, but the term ‘Danelaw’ was not used until 1008. Knutr recognised or permitted differences between Danes and their customs, and the English and theirs. Because they had money to buy farms and settle, and because they remained ‘foreigners’, Danish families may have met with resentment and prejudice; Æthelred spoke of them as having ‘sprung up in this island, sprouting like poisonous weeds among the wheat’. But were Danish settlers preserving a strong sense of their identity? The Scandinavian settlement was not a single event. Throughout the tenth century there would have been continued contact with Scandina
via through trade, and arrivals of new groups of Scandinavian mercenaries. In 1016 there was a fresh influx of settlers under Knutr. There is no evidence for any feeling of Danish national identity which motivated local action and caused the Danes to act as a group in areas of dispute or in support of rival claimants to the throne. Epigraphical evidence suggests that in England at least, Scandinavian settlers quickly dropped their native language and spoke English.

  Tenth- and eleventh-century observers might speak of the Danelaw as a distinct political unit, but the definition of political boundaries was more complex than racial divisions. Political lordship and allegiance rather than Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Danish or Norse race were the determining factors (Hadley 1997; Innes 2000). Despite recent advances in DNA research, genetic evidence is of little help in trying to identify Vikings. It is impossible to say, on genetic grounds, whether an individual was from Scandinavia, although some genetic evidence can plausibly be interpreted as reflecting a general Scandinavian influx in areas such as north-east Derbyshire and Cumbria where the gene frequencies are close to those on parts of Scandinavia (Evison 2000).

  1 North-west Europe in the Viking Age


  It is possible to make some generalisations about the peoples involved in the Viking settlement in England, as their movements were inevitably determined by Scandinavian topography (1).

  The Norwegians have always been a sea-faring people. Thousands of offshore islands protect the west coast of Norway and provide a sheltered coastal sea route which gives the country its name, the Norvegur or North Way. Mountains rise steeply from the fjord-indented coastline, and the population is mostly confined to narrow ledges and small plains at the head of the fjords. There were no towns in Norway at the beginning of the Viking Age, although several had developed by its end. From the seventh century it has been suggested that the population of Norway was expanding; by the eighth century there is evidence for the emergence of petty kingdoms (Myhre 1998). The population grew first up the valleys and into the forest areas, but increasingly the Norse looked to the west. From the 980s the country entered an expansionist phase under Haraldr Fine-Hair, King of Vestfold; and from c.930 under his son, Erik Bloodaxe.

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