Out of the North they Came: Narratives of the Norsemen   Leave a comment

Introduction: Pirates or Merchant Adventurers?

021Out of the North they came, more warriors from the fringes of the Baltic. Norsemen, Vikings, Danes, many names, but one overriding characteristic – they came first to raid and plunder in tall-prowed sailing ships that had carried these sea-rovers to the Mediterranean and the coasts of a new world across the northern ocean. For fifty years their sporadic visits devastated small coastal areas as they probed the strengths and weaknesses of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In 793, they attacked the monastery on Lindisfarne, burial-place of St Cuthbert (634-686).  Alcuin of York heard of the catastrophe in France, and wrote anguished letters home. never before has such terror arrived in Britain… the church of St Cuthbert splattered with the blood of the priests of God. He was clear that the reason for the visitation was the wickedness of the English, the explanation Gildas had given three centuries earlier, except that then it was the Englische who had been the instrument of God’s wrath upon the British, and now, according to Bede’s prediction, it was the peaceful, Christian English who had, within one generation, laid aside their weapons, preferring… to take monastic vows rather than study the arts of war and whose pacifism, or lack of preparedness, was to be rewarded by northern sea pirates assailing them in the next generation. With the benefit of hindsight, later chroniclers expressed a similar view, as the raids spread all around the coasts of Britain, Ireland and France. This was the beginning of what has been called the Viking Age, which lasted from the end of the eighth century until well into the eleventh century.

013The popular image of the Vikings has followed that of the Christian chroniclers in painting them as wholly savage pagan marauders and murderers, whose only aims were slaughter and pillage, and whose path could be tracked and traced by the burning churches and the blood of martyred saints. These warriors fought without fear, since death in battle was their desired end, rewarded by eternal feasting in Valhalla. The familiar picture (above right) used to be of a giant axe-wielding Scandinavian, complete with winged helmet, blood dripping from his fulsome blonde moustache, with captive women slung over his shoulder, appearing suddenly out of the sea mist, then disappearing with equal speed to his wild northern homeland. The bias of the monastic commentators were even more biased than they had been about previous incursions and invasions, since they were naturally especially appalled by the pagan raiders’ totally indiscriminate violence at holy places. Of course, in this respect, and in their own terms, they were very discriminating, since these places were full of wonderfully undefended heaps of loot for the taking. Accounts of numbers of ships and men were often also exaggerated by the chroniclers, especially when recounting defeats of the defenders, which they made seem less ignominious by laying stress on the overwhelming odds against their faithful few. In Anglo-Saxon law, the definition of an army was more than thirty men, so the Danish armies which later began to invade eastern England and France probably numbered only hundreds, not thousands or tens of thousands, such as those mustered by the French-Norsemen, or Normans, at the end of the eleventh century. There is also the question as to how many warriors could fit into a ship, particularly relevant to the period of invasion and settlement, rather than that of the early raids. A ship bearing wives and property, bags and baggage, would not have had room for many warriors and their weaponry. Excavations of various Scandinavian towns and settlements have focused attention on domestic life, and the achievements of craftsmen and artists, while their travels have been redefined in terms of merchant adventure rather than piracy.

Chronicles, Legends and Other Narratives


In 865, they came to stay in East Anglia. Ivan the Boneless and his brother Halfdene landed on the Suffolk coast at the head of the great heathen army. The terrified Anglo-Saxons fell back before the invaders. King Edmund sought peace and by the terms of the treaty the Danes were allowed to winter in Suffolk and given horses to carry their baggage. Edmund’s speedy capitulation may have lacked valour, but it saved his people much suffering. For several months the Norsemen consolidated their position and prepared for the next campaigning season. In the Spring, Edmund and his subjects watched as their unwanted guests went westwards to attack Northumbria and Mercia. However, in 869 they returned laden with spoil, flushed with triumph and heedless of their former treaty with the East Anglians. They wintered at Thetford and used it as a base from which to ravage the monasteries and countryside of the region. Now Edmund could not honourably allow this rampage to go unchecked. He came forth to do battle and thus an insignificant king became a martyr, saint and a legend, achieving greater fame in death than life. According to Roger of Wendover, a great battle was fought near Thetford, lasting from dawn till dusk, till the stricken field was red with blood of the countless number who perished. Edmund, seemingly, won the day, but not long afterwards he and his bodyguard found themselves besieged in the Saxon fort at Framlingham, on top of the mound where the Norman stone-built castle now stands. He escaped northwards, and the rest is the stuff of legend, much of it confused. Some accounts portray him as a deliberate martyr, surrendering himself to save his people further suffering. Others recount how he escaped his enemies by cunning, but before long was caught, tortured and executed. Historians seem to agree that the site of his martyrdom was Hellesdon near Norwich. However, the people of Hoxne claim that their village was the scene of the sainted king’s last days. Apparently, he was hiding beneath a bridge when a bridal party happened to cross it, and the bride noticed a golden gleam in the water below, the king’s spurs. She exclaimed, and the king was taken by the Danish warriors guarding the bridge.

The details of Edmund’s death are clearer. The King’s standard-bearer was with him to the end and related the events to Bishop Dunstan, so that they were then incorporated into the tenth-century Passion of St Edmund, according to which, Edmund was brought to a tree in the neighbourhood, tied to it, and for a long while tortured with terrible lashes. Despite this brutal treatment, the Bishop relates that his constancy was unbroken, while without ceasing he called on Christ with a broken voice. This offended the pagan sensitivities of the Danes still further, apparently, and they began shooting arrows at various parts of his body, demanding that he renounce his faith. Know you not that I have the power to kill you?, demanded the Danish warlord, to which Edmund replied, know you not that I know how to die? At last they silenced him by cutting off his head, at which point legend takes over again. When the body was moved to Beodericsworth, or Bury St Edmund’s, in the tenth century, it was claimed that the head and body had somehow perfectly reunited themselves, neither showing any signs of decomposition. By then, Edmund had become a folk hero for all the ‘oppressed’ Anglo-Saxons. Churches were dedicated to him and King Alfred issued memorial coins bearing his image. These stories surrounding Edmund reveal the apparent barbarism and ferocity which accompanied the Danish invasion, a savagery made worse by the clash of religious cultures. Certainly, the two decades after 865 were truly terrible for the Christian English of eastern Britain. Churches and monasteries were razed to the ground all along the east coast; holy books were burned and torn (the recently discovered Lindisfarne gospel of John survived in Cuthbert’s grave); wayside altars were broken; monks, nuns and priests became fugitives; the Anglo-Saxons either abandoned their Christian faith or met in secret to celebrate the holy mysteries in what could still be made to look like pagan shrines from their pre-Christian period.

004005003However, there is another side to the Viking story. Quite naturally, modern Scandinavians have preferred to stress the more constructive aspect of their ancestors’ lives, and many British scholars have followed suit, especially the archaeologists who excavated the Viking settlement of Jorvik in York’s Coppergate in the 1970s. The excavations produced a sequence of buildings dating from the time when York was under Viking rule, from 866 to 954 (with a gap from 927 to 939). After the excavation, the York Archaeological Trust managed to persuade the developers to incorporate the imaginative Jorvik Museum in the basement of their new buildings. Visitors can experience a literal journey back in time into a recreation of part of the tenth century city, with its authentic houses, shops, pots and pans, people and clothes, animals and even part of a ship. There are even attempts to replicate sounds, speech in Old Norse, and smells of all kinds of rubbish, even human excreta. In the 1980s this kind of museum was an entirely new experience, and a remarkable one too.

It certainly changed our view of the Vikings. It also demystified the work of archaeologists for the general public, showing the exact processes of excavation and scientific analysis of finds.

024It was followed by Viking exhibitions in the British Museum and elsewhere which have pursued the same theme of the domestic Viking life with accounts of Scandinavian towns and trade, craft, industry and art. Excavations in Scandinavia itself, like those in Britain, have begun to show a much clearer picture of what life was like in the ninth and tenth centuries. The small populations of Sweden and Norway mostly lived in farmsteads scattered along the shores of lakes or fjords, communicating by boat rather than overland. In Denmark there were larger villages, neatly laid out along streets. There were also some more extensive settlements, which might even be described as towns. It is possible, therefore, to write books about the Vikings which concentrate on such things as their hoses, art, and skill in woodcarving, with foreign travel thrown in as mostly peaceful trade or exploration. However, we know that whole families migrated and settled in Britain and Ireland and that armies of various size, marauded across Britain and Europe for generations. Why did this happen and what was their impact on the countries they invaded and settled in?

There is no clear, agreed answer to the first question. Medieval Norse sagas tell of oppression by kings which drove men from their homes, and centralisation of authority under stronger royal dynasties might well have led to conflicts as a result of which the unsuccessful contestants could well have decided to make their fortunes elsewhere. There may also have been pressure on land, caused either by rising populations or fluctuations in climate. The realisation that there were richer and more fertile lands of the British Isles and France which could not just be raided for wealth, but taken over altogether, would have been a powerful motivating factor for the younger sons of farmers scratching for a living on a narrow strip of land on a fjord.

This would have been less true of Denmark, where the pressure might be better seen in terms of political or population pressure. In many cases, as with later great migrations, there was probably a complex of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors at work. Eventually, the invasion of eastern Britain became part of an expansionist, imperial exercise on the part of the Danish kings.


In 878 the Danish host, led by Guthrum, came face to face with the armies of Alfred of Wessex, and the Anglo-Saxons realised for the first time that the Danes were not an irresistible force when matched with an immovable obstacle. They had overrun  the kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia and were only prevented from engulfing the whole of England  by the heroics  of the west Saxon king.  Slowly the tide of battle turned. Alfred forced them into a truce in 880 by which the greater part of eastern and northern England was recognised as Viking land, the Danelaw. with an agreed frontier with Anglo-Saxon England along the Watling Street (see sources below). Then, a steady offensive under Alfred and his son, Edward, brought all England under one internal ruler for the first time, by 920.  Linguistic and place-name evidence suggests, nevertheless, that there was considerable Scandinavian settlement both in the north-east and, to a lesser extent, in the east Midlands/ East Anglia. However, this evidence is unclear, since even where Scandinavian place names survive, the numbers of settlers have been disputed and archaeological evidence is also inconclusive. During this period, those Danes who remained became settlers rather than raiders. Guthrum rewarded his followers with land, instead of booty, and the newcomers settled down beside the Anglo-Saxons to form common communities. Guthrum ruled from Hadleigh and kept for himself a territory which included most of Suffolk. Throughout the Danelaw the two cultures merged, with the Danish contribution to the English way of life stronger in some areas than in others. Place names like ‘Monks Kirkby’, just over the other side of the Danelaw in North Warwickshire suggest such a fusion in equal measure. In Suffolk, the Danish part seems to have been far less significant, despite Guthrum’s rule.


The Danes settled almost exclusively in areas bordering the coast and river estuaries. Throughout the whole county there are only about fifty place names which derive from Old Norse, many in the north-east corner of the county, whereas Norfolk has four times this number, such as Lowestoft. As part of the treaty of 880 Guthrum had agreed to receive Christian baptism, so that even in those Anglians who found themselves under new Danish landlords were able to practice their faith freely.


Elsewhere in Britain, settlers of Norwegian origin colonised the northern islands, the Shetlands, Orkneys and Hebrides and also the Isle of Man. They founded towns in Ireland, including Dublin, and settled in parts of northwestern Britain, including Cumbria, and round the Welsh coast to Swansea (Swain’s Isle). In the Orkneys, the archaeological evidence shows that the Norwegians integrated with the native Picts, although on the Hebridean island of Uist, however, the evidence shows that the natives were displaced or suppressed. In the north of England there is surprisingly little direct evidence of Viking violence in the later Saxon period. There are signs of burning on the Bishop’s Chair from North Elmham, and an ingot mould from Whitby might have been used in melting down loot. There is a stone from Lindisfarne which seems to commemorate a raid, and the monasteries at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth seem to have been burnt down at some stage. At Repton in Derbyshire, archaeologists  found evidence of a fortified gatehouse and fort with a great bank and ditch, possibly dug by the Danes who wintered there in 879, according to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, taking over the royal burial-place of the Mercian kings, including Wiglaf and Wystan. A Viking axe was also found in the churchyard, probably according to pagan burial-rite, and coins and other metal-work turned up nearby confirms the late-ninth century date for Danish occupation.

027There was little fighting on Suffolk soil for another century, though 884 witnessed the first major English naval victory, fought in the Stour estuary, when Alfred’s new fleet pursued homeward a party of Danish raiders. He caught up with them at the point where the Stour and the Orwell meet together to pour into the North Sea and captured sixteen long-ships. He slaughtered their crews while Guthrum’s men watched helplessly from the headland still known as Bloody Point. In 918, when the final confrontation between the two kingdoms began, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex surrendered to Edward without a battle. With peace came renewed prosperity and the chance to develop the economic potential of the county. Now that Suffolk was part of a unified kingdom it was no longer ruled by hereditary East Anglian kings but by viceroys or earldormen, who collected taxes and raised the local militia, the fyrd, when the king needed it. The shire was divided into hundreds, each with its own court. Each hundred was composed of approximately a hundred ‘carucates’, the equivalent to the unit of land called a ‘hide’ in other parts of the country, defined as the amount of land which could be cultivated with one plough in the course of the year. It was approximately 100-120 acres, enough land to keep a self-sufficient family, the number of which increased rapidly in the late Anglo-Saxon period.

All this was achieved at great cost in terms of population and prosperity, and it took a century until, in 973, Alfred’s grandson, Edgar, was crowned King of all England in Bath and received the submission of even the Welsh and Scottish kings. And even then, it was less than another forty years before his grandson, Edmund II (Ironside), was defeated in another battle, the final one, with the Danes, in 1016.  The Kingdom was then divided between Cnut and Edmund, but when he died the following winter, Cnut took over Wessex as well, sending Edmund’s two young sons into exile to the King of Sweden, to whom he sent a secret message asking for them to be killed. The King refused, and instead they were taken to Kiev, then a Viking settlement. From there they made they were taken to Hungary, where Edgar died (of natural causes), but Edward the Exile prospered, married Agatha, the daughter of the first Hungarian King, István and his Queen, Gizella. There he had a son and two daughters, Edgar, Margaret and Cristina. Returning to England following Edward the Confessor’s decision to receive him as heir in 1056 (The Confessor himself was childless and feared for the future of the Wessex dynasty), he was (probably) murdered almost as soon as he arrived. His son, Edgar Aetheling should have been proclaimed King after the Confessor’s death, but was too young to resist the power of Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex. He was proclaimed after Harold’s death at Senlac Hill, near Hastings, but was then forced into exile in Normandy by Duke William, to whom he was forced to do homage, not returning to England until 1086.

Edward the Exile’s daughter, (Saint) Margaret (of Scotland) married the Scottish King Malcolm III (Canmore), and their daughter, Matilda, married Henry I of England, becoming Queen in 1100, and ensuring the continuity of the Saxon (Wessex) line in the English monarchy (I have written in detail about this elsewhere on this website*)

028The church in Suffolk was a persecuted church for much of the ninth century, the ravages of which left it leaderless and put a permanent end to the Bishopric of Dunwich. Even after the treaty with Guthrum, the Christian faithful cannot have felt truly secure until they came under the control of the Christian kings of Wessex and the East Anglian diocese was recreated in 956. Even then, their troubles were far from over, as in 981 fresh Viking raids began. A decade later, ninety-three boat-loads of them landed in Suffolk, burned Ipswich to the ground and then marched to Maldon in Essex, where they metthe English forces in the most momentous battle  of the Anglo-Saxon period. In 1004 the invaders were back again and this time it was the turn of Thetford to be ruthlessly destroyed. However, before they could ravage further they were confronted by the Earldorman Ulfcytel and the East Anglian fyrd. After a bloody battle the Danes withdrew. Six years later they returned for a final encounter. Thorkell the Tall landed at Ipswich and marched across Suffolk to meet Ulfcytel’s force at Ringmere Heath near Thetford. The East Anglians stood little chance against Thorkell’s highly disciplined army. Both sides suffered heavy casualties in the battle, but during the following months Suffolk and the surrounding lands were totally devastated. Crops, herds and flocks were so ravaged that even the invaders couldn’t find food. They moved into Essex pursued by Ulfcytel. The last battle was fought at Ashingdown, at which the English were defeated and Ulfcytel was slain. East Anglia was then once more under Danish domination and was mercilessly harried by  the followers of King Swein Forkbeard. In 1016 the whole of England fell under the sway of his successor, Cnut, and was annexed to the Danish Kingdom. For a second time in a century and a half the Christian culture in East Anglia came under a determined Danish control, but this time not wholly pagan, as the following example shows.

Suffolk had England’s most important Christian shrine at this time, at Beodricsworth, or Bury St Edmunds. The remains of the saintly king were moved to the Abbey about 902 and remained there in a specially built shrine for many years. Thousands of pilgrims came to pray and make offerings at the tomb of the national martyr-hero. The community prospered and soon owned a great deal of land around the town. The cult of the saint had taken such a firm hold in the hearts of the English, that when Swein Forkbeard died suddenly, they believed that Edmund had struck him down. Cnut, who succeeded him and became the first Danish king of England, realised that he had to respect the feelings of his English subjects, and so lavished generosity he bestowed upon St. Edmund’s shrine. He contributed liberally to the construction of a new church and founded a new community of Benedictine monks to guard the shrine. He made reparation for the sins of his father at the altar when the new church was consecrated in 1032. Edward the Confessor also felt a great reverence for the Abbey. He exempted it from royal taxes and gave it eight hundreds of land, virtually the whole of western Suffolk.

018The one straightforward sign of Scandinavian settlers in the north of England is rather surprising. This is stone sculpture, usually in the form of crosses belonging to a Christian tradition dating back to Celtic times in Britain and Ireland. The form is Christian and derives from native traditions, but the crosses are decorated with Scandinavian animal figures from pagan mythology as well as Christian iconography. The armed warriors painted on some crosses, like the ones from Middleton in Teesdale, North Yorkshire, might be seen as a substitute for the deposition of weapons in a grave. Norse sagas of Odin and Thor may have been reinterpreted in terms of Christian beliefs. If the mythology of one culture could be explained as a symbolic representation of the religion of the other, this is a powerful indication of the integration of the two. In particular, the most characteristic monument of the Viking Age is perhaps the runic stone, a great stone boulder with a snake-like inscription running around it, written in the runic script Germanic peoples had devised for cutting messages in wood, all in straight lines. Some record the taking of Danegeld, the tribute paid to the Vikings. Ethelred the Unready is infamous for paying Danegeld, though he may have had little option but to pay up. The ornament, letters and language of the rune stones are Scandinavian, but some of their sentiments show Christian influence, and include references to the Christian God. The crosses of northern England lie firmly within the native traditions of both Denmark and the British Isles, but they also show signs of a relationship between the pagan Vikings and the Christian Saxons, a dynamic relationship which was able to breathe new life into old forms, and which must have been far more complicated than the simple overrunning of one people by another.

Interpreting the Evidence: Raiders into Traders?

014 (2)020In order to understand this more symbiotic relationship between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, we need to take a step back into the gap we left in the history of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy which had emerged by the time Bede was writing at the beginning of the eighth century. The seven main kingdoms were Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. Under the rule of King Offa, from 757 to 796, Mercia became very large, taking over the whole of East Anglia and Kent, and even threatening Wessex. According to Bishop Asser, writing his biography of Alfred a century later, Offa built a great dyke along the frontier between Mercia and Wales, from the Severn estuary to that of the Dee in the north.Offa was also important for the English economy. He issued coinage on a larger scale than his predecessors. The silver penny which he minted was to remain the standard unit of English currency for many centuries, until long after the Norman Conquest. Many of these coins have been found abroad, evidence of the increasing volume of trade with the continent.

019The political and economic power exercised by Offa was so great that the Emperor Charlemagne, who ruled a territory in Europe larger than that seen since the days of the Roman Empire, wrote to Offa about such matters as the length of cloaks exported from the Mercian overlordship, and the protection of traders from both countries.

British historians have usually seen London and York as the important trading ports in the eighth century, but archaeological evidence has recently challenged this view. The Roman walled circuits which later became the nuclei for the medieval cities of London and York were not where the merchants that Bede records were carrying out their trade. Most of the middle Saxon objects found in London have come from the district of Aldwich, ‘wich’ meaning a port, and excavations in 1985 confirmed its importance in the Kingdom of the East Saxons (Essex). In the days of King Offa, who had gained the overlordship of Essex together with East Anglia, ships were tying up along the Strand, outside the walled city of London. Similarly, excavations conducted in the same year outside the walled city, near the confluence of the Ouse and Foss, turned up more eighth-century material in a few weeks than has been found in the whole city during two centuries of excavation (below right).

017Archaeologically, until quite recently, we knew more about both Southampton and Ipswich as ports than about London. At Southampton the large eighth-century trading settlement again lay to the east of the later medieval city centre, around the church of St. Mary. Extensive excavations of Saxon pits there revealed a great deal of datable pottery, much of it imported from northern France, and some of it high quality table-ware, suggesting that foreign merchants had lived in the settlement. Hamwith, as it was named by the archaeologists, was shown, by 700, to have covered at least a hundred acres, or forty hectares, populated by thousands of inhabitants. The people living there were carrying on the usual food-producing and manufacturing activities, working bronze and iron, making bone combs and leather objects, as well as making glass, which was previously thought to have been all imported from the continent during this period. The presence of traders, both local and foreign, at Hamwith, is shown not only by pottery but also by finds of hundreds of early Saxon coins; sceattas. 


At Ipswich, it has also been shown that a large area was occupied in the eighth century. Fewer wooden houses and streets have been found than in Southampton, though recently some later Saxon houses have been excavated. Many sites have produced finds of the local pottery, known as Ipswich ware, and kilns have been found where this was made. Although not elegant, Ipswich ware does mark a transition from earlier hand-made, idiosyncratic pots, many of which had been made, on a small-scale, for use in burial, to something closer to specialised industrial production for everyday use.  This pottery has been found all over Suffolk and Norfolk, but only very occasionally elsewhere, suggesting that production and distribution was limited to the Kingdom of East Anglia, perhaps by the kings of Mercia who were overlords of the East Anglians, but keen to protect their immediate sources of revenue within their own kingdoms. At the same time, foreign goods were coming into Ipswich from the Rhineland, rather than from France, as were barrels of wine. The cloaks Offa was asked to ship to Charlemagne were probably made from English wool. Evidence of spinning and weaving comes from every Anglo-Saxon site. Spindle-whorls must have hung from every woman’s belt or girdle, and when not doing anything else with her hands, she was probably twisting  yarn.  Wool is known as the basis of English wealth in later medieval centuries, but this was probably already the case in the second half of the eighth century.

001The story of the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity has continued to be dominated by its skillful and diplomatic telling by Bede in 731. It may be that the coherence and persuasiveness of Bede’s account have led us to believe we have a complete picture of what happened than is in fact the case. Even though Cedd of Northumbria, whose biography he also wrote, baptised the King of the East Saxons at the Royal House of the East Anglian king, his sponsor, and went on to become Bishop of London, before returning to northern England, there are large gaps in our knowledge of a the continuity of Christianity in the east at a time when the Gregorian mission withdrew from London and Canterbury. Apart from the missions of the Celtic Northumbrian saints, neither was he interested in chronicling the survival of Christianity among the descendants of the Romano-British in other parts of England where the Anglo-Saxons came to predominate, such as Wessex. Perhaps he did not wish to admit that the Britons had any influence on the Anglo-Saxons before the mission of Augustine, since the relationship with Rome and Catholic Christendom seemed far more crucial to the survival of eighth-century Christianity in north-eastern England than it had in the middle of the previous century he was writing about. The detail of the conversion of ordinary people, as opposed to that of the ruling élite, is also not easy to establish from Bede. Either people followed their leaders with perfect docility into the new religion, or they remained very far from true believers, whatever their nominal faith. Or, as may well have been the case in large parts of Wessex, as well as Northumbria, the majority British population remained Christian in sympathy, if not in open worship and practice.

It is clear that by the end of the seventh century all of English Kingdoms had become officially and, as far as their kings could foresee, permanently Christian.  Odd pagan practices might have survived locally among ordinary people, as they still do in many rural parishes today, and in those places in the west where British culture remained strong, practices of the Celtic Rite may have survived, despite Bede’s representation of the Synod of Whitby as a complete capitulation by the British monks, or, in his terms, a victory for the Roman Church. The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity was marked by changes in burial ritual, new styles of art, fusing with the revival of old Celtic ones, the appearance of types of object not seen before, and the reappearance of stone architecture. The jewellery which survives from the eighth century shows how continental styles, deriving from Byzantium, replaced many of the older Germanic brooch types.

004 (2)There are also specifically Christian artefacts, including cross-shaped pendants. In addition, there are the illuminated manuscripts produced in Britain and Ireland during the late seventh and eighth centuries. All the skills which had gone into creating a piece of convoluted animal ornament on something like the golden buckle from Sutton Hoo were redeployed in the creation of these iluminations.  Gold and enamel-working techniques were used for making the fittings for the covers of books, and the leather was probably also ornamented. Looking at a carpet page from one of the Lindisfarne Gospels, it can be seen that the overall pattern is made up from many tiny, intertwined animals. The manuscripts represent a fusion of Celtic, Germanic and classical styles, with ornaments of beasts and spirals. Similarly, the sculptured stone crosses carry ornament of vine-scrolls, clearly Mediterranean, with Germanic beasts sitting in their branches. Churches of this period may have been built of timber, much like ordinary houses: traces of post-holes under later stone-built churches are all that remain of these. A handful of stone buildings remain from the period, mostly in Canterbury or Northumbria, though it’s difficult to be sure which parts of these can really be eighth-century.

By the end of that century, England had become a united, prosperous country, with towns and major ports, literature and liturgy, churches and abbeys, kings and bishops. If we ‘fast-forward’ to the tenth century, following the Viking raids, invasions and settlements, given that it is not possible to date with certainty much of the archaeological evidence precisely, it is clear that the ninth century was a period in which much was destroyed and lost.  What had emerged by the tenth century, however, was a whole network of defensible towns, across the south of England, into the Midlands and extending northwards. In many cases, Roman city walls were rebuilt, as in York, Winchester and Canterbury, and new hill-top fortified towns were built, known as ‘burghs’, by King Alfred and his successors, such as Shaftesbury (Dorset).  Tenth-century towns were forts, first and foremost, whereas larger eighth-century settlements had been largely undefended ports and market-places.

The conversion Alfred forced on the Danish leader Guthrum and his followers must have been reasonably effective for burial practices to have changed so completely . We have two changes of burial rite which seem to suggest different things: on the one hand, in the seventh century the pagan Anglo-Saxons became Christian and ceased to bury grave-goods. On the other, we have newcomers taking over the native burial-rite and becoming archaeologically indistinguishable from the local people. In addition, there are tenth-century wooden houses which have been found in excavations in towns conventionally described as ‘Viking’: York and Dublin, so the temptation is to describe everything found in these sites as ‘Viking’, including the houses. In fact, these towns are not very similar.

In Dublin, the type of house construction shows strong signs of native Irish carpentry, while the sunken houses of York might owe something to Anglo-Saxon sunken buildings. It is possible that the tenth-century houses of York owed something to indigenous traditions. The houses and the population were probably of more mixed origin than the Norse speech of the Jorvik Museum sound-track might suggest. Perhaps they should have been speaking Old (Northumbrian) English as well as Old Norse.

002If Offa had had an equally vigorous son and grandson, Mercia might have swallowed up the whole of England earlier than Wessex actually did. In fact, the idea of fortifying towns may have begun in Mercia, with towns like Hereford and Tamworth predating Alfred’s burghs. Taken alone, the Anglo-Saxon evidence might be interpreted simply as a demonstration of the strong and weak points of the Wessex dynasty over its century and a half fighting for hegemony over All England with the Danes. However, put in the context of the North Sea Empire which the Danes eventually created, the Viking threat becomes much clearer. It is interesting that a stronger political unit should have appeared in Denmark as well as England. It is worth speculating as to whether the English and Danish states would have developed anyway, without the stimulus of the need to organise, whether for attack or defence. Taken altogether, however, the nature of the archaeological evidence for the North Sea region from the eighth to the tenth centuries does show that it was a time of great insecurity, and that that threat came from Scandinavia and was directed against the relatively peaceful and wealthy lands of Britain and the Carolingian empire. However, the lack of direct evidence for settlement reflects the fact that there was not very much, although the historical and linguistic evidence does point to a notable influx in certain localities.

We also know, from both written and archaeological evidence, that under the latter Kings of Wessex and England, the whole country used the same coinage for the first time. It was of a standard quality, regularly recalled and re-minted, despite the fact that there were mints in almost every burgh. However, it had been under Offa that the coinage was reorganised. At the turn of the tenth-eleventh centuries, many more churches were built, some in stone, and there was a renewal of the eighth-century art associated with the Church.

Cnut, already nominally Christian before his takeover, made peace with the British Church by having all the churches destroyed or damaged in the Vikings’ ravages, rebuilt  or repaired.  Again, it can be seen that the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia and the appearance of Christian burials and churches were both the result and cause of a combination of foreign contacts and peaceful missions, like those which had converted other Germanic peoples, including some of the Anglo-Saxons. Perhaps, in becoming increasingly Christianised and controlled, the Vikings left less of a distinctive imprint upon the English landscape, at least until the next generation of Norsemen, or Normans, launched their successful invasion fifty years after that of Cnut.


Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British. London: Guild Publishing.

Jorvik Viking Centre (1992), Guide Book. York Archaeological Trust.

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