The Danes and the Making of the Kingdom of the English
‘The English, the English, the
English are best. I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest’. So sang
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.
first recorded raid in
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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.
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,
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
this context the Danish place-names begin to look less like evidence of a mass
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
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.
identities that were no more or less easy to incorporate into the kingdom of
England than any other. In the event successive kings of
seems to have been introduced into the Southern Danelaw at much the same time
as it was into east and central
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
In outline it
followed the principles apparent south of the
regional assembly, apparently paralleled in
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.
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
©David Roffe 2006