The Danes and the Making of the Kingdom of the English

Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan, 21 November 2006


‘The English, the English, the English are best. I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest’. So sang Flanders and Swan with, I must add, tongue in cheek in the 1950s. That truly was a time of warm beer, old maids cycling to communion on a Sunday morning, and fish and chips. What do we have now? Well, for a start you might get into big trouble for saying English when you might mean British; warm beer has given way to cold lager and alcopops; the old maid is as likely as not to be no such thing and to be off to yoga on a Sunday morning; and England’s national dish is the Indian takeaway.

            England, Britain, has changed. One of the most important agents of change has been the arrival of peoples from other parts of the world. It started in the late 1940s with emigration from the West Indies and Hong Kong and gathered pace with the exodus from the Indian subcontinent from the late 50s onwards. Our last census in 2001 showed that the numbers from ethnic minorities are still relatively small: no more than 7.9% of our total population. And yet the impact on our culture has been profound. The 1950s were an age of grey uniformity. We now have a vigorous multicultural society, admittedly not always at peace with itself, in which ethnic communities not only contribute to the commonweal but often provide its driving energy.

            This, of course, is not an entirely new experience. England has seen successive waves of immigration throughout its history and they have often, perhaps usually, served to invigorate its society. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw Jewish immigration from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Their progress from Whitechapel to Golders Green within two generations charts the rise of a new professional class. Before that there was the influx of Irish who provided the labour for the construction of the canals and railways which fuelled the Industrial Revolution. The seventeenth century saw the settlement of Huguenots who contributed so much to the Protestant ethic which created capitalism in the first place. Most famously of all there was the Norman colonization of England in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  

            Notions of ethnicity have changed in the last twenty year or so. It is now realized that the character of societies can radically change without massive folk migration. This is no more so than in the settlement of England by the Danes. They too, I shall argue, were few in overall numbers. But they too had a hand in creating what we think of as quintessential Englishness. The Danes or Vikings as they were known, are first recorded as raiders. However, they also came as merchants and traders: one of the possible origins of the name ‘viking’ is people of the wics, that is trading places. Their arrival in England was part of a wider European phenomenon. From their homelands in and around Denmark they sailed widely. To the east, they penetrated the Baltic through into Muscovy and down the Don, founding the kingdom of Kiev. From there they traded as far south as Constantinople. To the west, they followed the coast down into the Low Countries, France, Spain, and into the Mediterranean. To the north they went from Norway to the Northern and Western Isles, and then Man and Ireland. Iceland was colonized, and then Greenland, even with some penetration into North America.

            Their first recorded raid in England was in 793 with an attack on the community of St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne in Northumbria. The events of the next half century or so are largely unrecorded, but from the 865 it would seem that the nature of the Viking assault changed. In that year there arrived what the chronicler called ‘The Great Army’ under the command of Ivarr the boneless (inn beinlausi – I can help feeling that this should be translated as Ivarr the legless); the intention was apparently to settle. The army spent the winter in East Anglia and in the following year crossed the Humber, and taking advantage of an internal dispute, established itself at York. Raids into Mercia followed in 868, into East Anglia in 870, and then Wessex in 871. A second host, ‘the Great Summer Army’, arrived, and the combined force over-wintered in London in 872-3 and,  after the Mercian king Burgred had fled, in Repton in 873-4. In the following year the armies split and the northern contingent, now under the command of Halfdan, returned to York. In 876 Halfdan ‘shared out the land of the Northumbrians’ among his men and ‘they began to plough and support themselves’. The summer army under Guthrum, by contrast, launched an outright assault on Wessex, but after a rearguard defence by King Alfred, the army was defeated at Edington in 878. Guthrum retreated to East Anglia in 879 where he and his men ‘shared out the land’. Sometime between the battle of Edington and the treaty of Wedmore in 886 a boundary between the English and the Danes was drawn up running diagonally from London north-westwards to Derbyshire and Cheshire along the line of Watling Street. The area to the north was to become known as the Danelaw.

            Danish settlement saw a profound change in the economy and society of the region. Contacts with a wider Scandinavian world fostered a booming mercantile economy based upon renewed urban life. Although earlier an important trading centre, by the mid ninth century York was perhaps a city only in name. The king of Northumbria maintained a household there, as did the archbishop, but there was probably not much that was urban about it. Long-distance trade was limited, one suspects largely confined to the supply of the aristocrats settled there. Within its Roman walls to east and west of the Ouse, much of the city was not intensely developed. York would seem to have been little more than an administrative centre with a command economy. In 950, by contrast, it was a burgeoning international trading centre. Areas of the city had been re-planned and there was widespread development outside the walls where extensive industries of metal, wood, bone, antler, amber, jet, textiles and glass were established. Archaeological finds from throughout the City reveal wide-flung trading links with the Baltic and beyond.

            Lincoln experienced a similar explosion in its economy with the settlement of the Danes. Like York, the Upper City seems to have been given over to purely administrative functions up to 850 or so, while the Lower City, running down the hill towards the River Witham, may have been largely deserted. By 950, however, the banks of the Witham were newly developed with the Lower City being resettled and the suburb of Wigford quickly emerging as a major trading centre. Again, archaeological finds indicate widespread manufacturing and trade.

            York and Lincoln were pre-eminent, but other market centres were also developing. Stamford, for example, was transformed from a Middle Saxon estate centre into a major Danish borough. It produced pottery, initially made by potters imported from Beauvais in France, of a quality otherwise unprecedented since Roman times, and there is evidence of extensive metal working. In the early tenth century defences were laid out to define a new town on the north of the Welland. Derby, formerly known as Northworthig in English, seems to have developed at the same time at a crossing of the River Derwent away from the Roman defences of Little Chester.

            A similar picture was to be found in East Anglia. Norwich was stirring as a major mercantile centre and Ipswich, a Middle Saxon wic, was revitalized. The rural economy itself was booming with a lively land market. This was all by way of contrast with the south and west of England. There were no trading centres that could compare with those of the east except London and Winchester. The richness of the Danelaw was prodigious. The tenth century has been characterized as a period of reconquest of the area. But for Wessex, and to a great extent Mercia, it was a conquest. The wealth of the Danelaw was a great prize. The winning of it was to create England and then shape its distinctive institutions.

            In 886 this was all in the future. The Danes had looked like overrunning the whole of England. Edington was to prove a turning point. Alfred’s restructuring of English society was the key to a counter offensive against the Danes. Up to the ninth century military service had been an essentially personal affair, it depended on the bond between lord and man. It proved an inadequate means of defence against the hit-and-run tactics of the Danes, since local lords often preferred to come to term than stand and fight. Alfred introduced what was effectively a standing army by imposing military service on all land regardless of lordship. Drawing on continental models, he built a network of boroughs. To each was assigned a certain number of hides and the men who held them were responsible for the upkeep of the defences of the central borough and its garrisoning in times of need. The system provided bases for a standing army that could take to the field both defensibly and offensively.

            By the death of Alfred in 899 Wessex had been secured against further Danish expansion. The stage for conquest was set. The first major set-back for the Danes in its own backyard occurred in 910 when the army of the North was routed at Tettenhall in Staffordshire. With much of its leadership killed, the Danes at York were paralyzed and the Danes of the East Midlands were forced to look to their own defence. It was from this time that boroughs were fortified at Stamford, Leicester, and possibly Derby. Meanwhile, the Danish boroughs to the south – Huntingdon, Cambridge, Hertford, Northampton – were made ready. One by one Alfred’s son Edward the Elder picked them off between 912 and 918, building new boroughs where they were required. At the same time, Edward’s sister, Ćthelflaeda, Lady of the Mercians, attacked from the west, again founding boroughs to secure the northern boundary of Mercia and penetrate further east. On her death in 918, Edward succeeded to Mercia and by 920 was the undisputed king of England south of the Humber.

            East Anglia was never again to be independent. The East Midlands were briefly and reluctantly to succumb to the Norse kingdom of Dublin and York between 939 and 942, but thereafter remained an integral part of the kingdom. With the fall of York and Northumbria to Wessex rule in 954, the England of Domesday Book had come into existence. By and large it was to remain united there after. It was to be conquered by the Danish kings Swein and Cnut in 1016 after renewed Danish raids in the late tenth century. This, however, was far from the revenge of the Danelaw. By then it had long been ‘English’.

            The process of conquest was long interpreted by English historians in ethnic terms: it was assumed that it was the conquest of one race by another. The differences between the Danelaw and the rest of England are indeed pronounced. This is no more so than in its organization of land. The most cursory of glances at the Domesday account of the region shows just how far the Danelaw manor differed from what we conceive of as the norm. We think of a compact area, perhaps a village, over which the lord has more or less full rights. In the Danelaw generally none of this applies. Villages are divided and manors, more usually called ‘sokes’,  have lands scattered all over the place. Above all the peasants, known as sokemen, owned their own lands and had a high degree of freedom. Lordship was relatively weak: the Danelaw was predominantly a region of free communities of sokemen.  

            It was also a region with its own distinctive place-names. In some parts of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire as many as two third are Danish. Typically, they are formed from a Danish personal name compounded with Danish by, ‘village’ or torp, ‘hamlet’. Hence, Whitby, perhaps ‘Hviti’s village’ and Scunthorpe, ‘Skuma’s hamlet’. Land, moreover, was often measured in ploughlands, that is in terms of arable. Elsewhere in England the hide was more usual. It was, theoretically at least, a measure of the total land in arable, pasture, meadow and woodland, needed to support a family. All of this fostered the notion that the Danelaw was a more or less homogeneous area of Danish settlement and sensibilities. In the eleventh- and twelfth-century law codes the Danelaw is said to have had its own distinctive laws. To many historians the conclusion seemed clear: the pronounced freedom of the Danelaw was a direct result of colonization by the rank and file of the free Viking armies.

            The reality is at once more complex and interesting. The Danelaw undoubtedly had a Danish cultural identity. Danish was evidently spoken by many and the English of the area became Scandinavianized. Coins, personal jewellery, and monumental sculpture all exhibit distinctive Danish influences. They are some of the glories of pre-Conquest art in England. This, however, was but a veneer on a society that was still essentially English. Far from being specifically Danish, the hallmark tenurial forms and freedoms of the Danelaw were characteristic of pre-Viking English society in general. What are now called ‘multiple estates’ were a common feature of pre-Viking England. Villages were grouped together, usually in twelves, to provide food for the king. One village might supply ale, another barley, and so on. The peasants who made the renders might also be obliged to provide sundry other minor services, but were otherwise free and had full rights over their lands just like sokemen. Remnants of this tributary society survived into the post-Conquest period in non-Danish areas – notably in Northumbria and Cumbria in the far north – and are almost identical in form to the sokes of the Danelaw.

            In this context the Danish place-names begin to look less like evidence of a mass migration from Scandinavia. The Danish leaders, jarls, clearly took over the great sokes. Most of these have English names and had long been major centres of tribute. The Danish place-names within the sokes, the by and the torp names, indicate that the dues from some of the villages attached to them were granted to their men: the compounded personal names are a record of their identities. It was a small Danish aristocracy that took control in the Danelaw. In some areas of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire there may have been a degree of secondary immigration from Denmark after the initial settlement. But otherwise it was business as usual. English sokemen continued to render the same sorts of dues as they always had done.

With power goes sensibilities. Danish culture, language, and values inevitably became widespread. However, acculturation is never a one-sided affair. The Danish aristocracy soon began to put down local roots. The Danelaw had never been a social or political unity. In large measure the divisions of the original settlement in the late ninth century were to persist. Historians have traditionally made the distinction between the Northern and Southern Danelaw. The River Welland which divides the two areas was already an important boundary in the ninth century. The Midlands and East Anglia to the south were to continue through the tenth and eleventh centuries with their own political and social networks. The Northern Danelaw was divided by the Humber. Again, the boundary between the two areas was of long standing: it marked the divide between Northumbria on the one side and Lindsey and Mercia on the other. Yet again, each had its own networks of power. Even as late as 1066 these regions remained quite distinct. With the exception of a handful of figures of national standing, very few family interests crossed the Humber and Welland boundaries.

From the very beginning of the Danish settlement local identities were forged within these areas. In the late ninth century links were made with local English families. In 865 the Danes probably allied themselves with a local faction in York. In the mid 870s such an alliance with locals is all-but explicit. After the flight of Burgred of Mercia from Repton in 873, the Danes, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, installed Ceofwulf, ‘a foolish king’s thegn’, as king. The reality seems to be that Ceolwulf had executed a coup with the aid of the Danes, for he was a member of a rival Mercian dynasty. How common were these marriages of convenience in the early stages of the settlement is impossible to gauge, but one suspects that they must have been a significant factor in the settlement. In the 940s and 950s Archbishop Wulfstan and the men of York allied themselves with successive kings of York and Dublin in the cause of Northumbrian independence from Wessex.. Similar alliances were forged in the course of the second Danish conquest in the eleventh century.

The early tenth century saw further localization of loyalties in the newly-fortified boroughs. After the defeat of the army of the North at Tettenhall in 910 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle repeatedly refers to Danes of named boroughs. So, we hear of ‘all those who belong to Northampton’, ‘the men of Huntingdon’ and so on. Sometimes these armies or boroughs might act together against the English. In 916 the ‘army of Northampton and Leicester’ broke out and raided into Oxfordshire and then besieged Luton. However, although boroughs might cooperate with each other against the advancing English, there were no formal alliances. The borough had become the focus of loyalty and communal action.

Indeed, throughout the century loyalties to place seem to have been stronger than race. In 939 the men of the five boroughs of Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham, Leicester, and Derby may have welcomed the annexation of the East Midlands by Olaf Guthrithson, the king of York, but they soon repented of their decision when Olaf’s Norse army threatened their interests. They supported King Edmund in the ‘redemption of the five boroughs’. Later in the century the men of Lindsey were accused of not fighting King Swein of Denmark – again, it might be added in Wessex sources - because they were fellow Danes. It seems more likely, however, that they acted to minimize the wasting of their lands. They were similarly pragmatic in 1013 when faced with a similar threat. From early on, it would seem, the men of the Danelaw thought of themselves less as Danes than men of York, men of Lincoln, men of Nottingham, and so on. 

These were identities that were no more or less easy to incorporate into the kingdom of England than any other. In the event successive kings of Wessex had as many problems with English Mercia as the Danelaw. Most immediately in the aftermath of conquest, forfeited lands were probably granted to outsiders to bolster the crown’s influence in the Danelaw. The expedient was used in the northern Danelaw after 942. But wholesale confiscation was never an option. The region was integrated into the kingdom by reorganizing existing communities in a new system of local government, that of the shire.

  The system seems to have been introduced into the Southern Danelaw at much the same time as it was into east and central Mercia. Like Alfred’s burghal system, it was based upon boroughs. From the Thames to the Welland there was a reassessment of land in hides, here less a measure of land than of obligation to the king in payment of taxes, maintenance of the peace, and military service. From the start it was an assessment on communities rather than individuals. Five or ten hides were assessed on each village and the inhabitants acquitted the duties incumbent on them in common. A hundred hides, notionally ten or twenty villages, made up a hundred. Each hundred had its own court to which the free men of the hundred owed suit. It was the forum in which disputes between them might be settled. Again, it was the community at large that took responsibility for the business of maintaining the peace and organized military service. In their turn hundreds in groups of twelve, eighteen, twenty-four, or thirty-two, were assigned to central boroughs. The chief men of each hundred paid suit to its court. It too was a communal court: it was the men of the shire who decided the matters that came before it. However, it was the king’s representative, the shire reeve or sheriff, who presided, although the earl and bishop also sat with him.

In contrast to Wessex and East Anglia, each shire was named after its central borough. Hence, Cambridgeshire after Cambridge, Huntingdonshire after Huntingdon and so on. The system seems to have been in place c.950 when it is first described in the Hundred Ordinance. It may have been introduced in the early years of the century by Edward the Elder or his son Athelstan, but on balance a later date might be preferred. North of the Welland the process was more protracted. After the conquest of the area, a rudimentary burghal system seems to have been introduced in the area of the five boroughs. Mints were established in the reign of Athelstan, and the tolls boundaries of Nottingham and Derby suggest that defined territories were assigned to these boroughs. These, however, were very different from the later shires of Nottingham and Derby. Moreover, there appears to have been no reassessment at this time. Shiring on the Southern Danelaw model was a later tenth or early eleventh century phenomenon.

In outline it followed the principles apparent south of the Welland, but it took integration of local communities to a higher level. Here the basic unit of assessment was the carucate, that is the ploughland. Carucates were grouped in twelves, known locally and confusingly as hundreds, to form tithings, that is villages or groups of villages that were responsible for policing. The twelve-carucate hundreds were in their turn grouped into wapentakes and then groups of wapentakes were assigned to boroughs. The wapentake and boroughs had their own courts like the hundreds of hidated England, but the ultimate authority in the area was the meeting of the five boroughs. It probably met in Nottingham.

            The regional assembly, apparently paralleled in Mercia, was short-lived. It is not evidenced after 1016 and the Five Boroughs were re-organized into the four shires of Lincoln, Leicester, Nottingham and Derby that subsequently functioned in very much the same way as the shires south of the Welland. East Anglia seems to have been shired at much the same time, although its assessment in carucates and division into hundreds may be earlier.

            This elaborate structure of local administration has usually seen as a species of military government. It was the means, it is argued, by which kings of Wessex imposed their will on a conquered people. The notion has had credence not the least because the system undoubtedly had military functions. The local militia, the fyrd, was mustered through the hundred and, more widely, groups of shires can be seen to have had wider strategic roles. As we have seen, the Welland marks a pronounced cultural boundary between the Northern and Southern Danelaw. To the north there was a higher concentration of Danish settlement and the area to the south may well have been organized as some sort of march in the first half of the tenth century. Certainly, the Five Boroughs acted as such in the second half as a buffer against the still unstable Northumbria.

The shire system, however, was much more than just a muster list. It was no doubt efficient in defending the locality in times of war, but its primary role was the maintenance of the peace. At every level, from village to borough, it enlisted the support of the free communities of the shire to that end. Title to land, law-worthiness, and free status all depended on cooperation: if a free man failed in his obligations he was in danger of losing everything. In an age of rampant neo-conservatism it if is often forgotten that taxation is our subscription to a civil and civilized society. No less did the shire give as much as it took. Courts of hundred and shire preserved freedom and in so doing consolidated social cohesion. Patronage was, of course, part of the equation. The prospect of preferment in the shire court oiled the wheels. But, once instituted, the shire had its own dynamic. 

The outcome was a system of local government that was all-but unique in the Middle Ages. King and subject made common cause against disruptive forces, be they invaders, felons, or over-mighty lords. By tapping into local communities in this way, both in the Danelaw and beyond, successive kings prevented the privatization and  localization of power that was so characteristic of Western Europe after 1000. Thus it was that lordship was relatively weak and ancient forms of social organization more prevalent north of the Thames. ‘Feudalism’ never took a hold.

            Perfected in the Northern Danelaw, the shire became the model for the rest of England. It was introduced into Yorkshire, probably in the reign of Cnut in the early eleventh century. Elements were transplanted to the far North later in the same century and the next. It subsequently made its way with the Normans to Wales and Ireland. Less obviously, the model also influenced the organization of society in the heartlands of Wessex itself. The burghal system introduced by King Alfred is usually seen as the prototype of the shire. Clearly its military organization was an influence. However, it was little more than that. The network of boroughs in the south and west organized Wessex for war and not much else. The system became largely redundant in the tenth century. Many boroughs lost their status, some even slipped out of sight and are now lost. But militarization of the kingdom had inevitably led to strong lordship and local government devolved upon great estates, both royal and non-royal. The hundreds that are later found in Wessex, and western Mercia which came under the influence of Wessex at any early period, look very much as if they have been imposed upon these estates in an attempt to bring them into line with the Danelaw and Mercia. Wholesale reform was never to be attempted. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their subdivisions remained the units of administration at the shire level. But after the Norman Conquest changes in organization and procedure continued to be influenced by the structure of the shire north of the Thames.hen, of the Danes in the making of the kingdom of the English? England was not yet a nation in any modern sense in the pre-Conquest period. It was a collection of local communities with their own interests and identities. The communities of the Danelaw fitted neatly into this habitat. Danish settlers were never great in numbers and they had rapidly integrated themselves into English society. As with communities elsewhere in their expanding realm, the kings of Wessex incorporated them into an England by recognizing and reinforcing their local interests and identities. The process saw the emergence of what was to be the predominant character of the kingdom of the English throughout the medieval period. It is paradoxical that in becoming so English the Danes were instrumental in creating Englishness. Had Flanders and Swan been living in the Danelaw in the early eleventh century, they would still have been singing ‘The English, the English, the English are best’.


©David Roffe 2006