In 866AD a ‘Great Heathen Army’ arrived in Norfolk. It was the beginning of East Anglia’s Viking Age.

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Fire, sword and plunder?

No doubt the original Viking invaders, most of them from Denmark, engaged in plenty of the above. They came close to capturing the whole of the country in the ninth century, only Englands hero Alfred the Great preventing them. But modern historians and archaeologists are unearthing a far more complex tale of the Viking invasions. This modern version paints a picture of a far more harmonious relationship between Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian, one that influenced the future of the county in general and the city of Norwich in particular.

Surely it wasnt as pleasant as that!

Certainly not for those who opposed the Danes. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recalls that the irresistible force which had already ravaged Northumbria arrived in 866 and took up winter quarters in East Anglia, and there they were supplied with horses and the East Angles made peace with them. This did not last. Three years later the last independent East Anglian king, Edmund, fought them at Thetford. Defeated, he was executed in a cruel and barbarous manner, probably at Hoxne in Suffolk, although a persistent legend has the killing done at Hellesdon, near Norwich. But then a strange thing happened. Within a few years the Danes themselves were revering the fallen king as a saint.

What happened?

The fierce Danish invaders settled down and became peaceful, if independent-minded, farmers and traders. Their leader, Guthrum, was defeated in battle in Wessex by Alfred in 878. Realising the Scandinavians were too numerous to be defeated outright, Alfred made a treaty with Guthrum. The Dane became a Christian and retreated to the east where he ruled Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and parts of the midlands. And the odd thing was that the Vikings, those wild rovers of legend, took to their new religion and began to get on rather well with their English neighbours. There may be many reasons for this; they were not that numerous, only a few thousands, perhaps, so had to get on with the people they ruled. But perhaps more telling was that they had a lot in common with the English. Most were farming folk, not well off or sophisticated, but they quickly settled down to farm the rich English soil, so much better than their barren homeland.

What do we know about them?

No buildings survive from the Viking era. It seems their influence was more cultural and economic. Norwich was no Jorvik (York), a trading centre where the Vikings left a rich legacy for archaeologists just beneath the surface of the modern city. Here and there a fragment is unearthed. In Norwich, a small timber Scandinavian church was found behind the Anglia TV studios. A Viking sword was discovered in the River Wensum; it had been bent in order to kill it after its owners death, then thrown into the water. At Norwich Castle an elaborate Scandinavian brooch emerged, proof that Viking artisans were at work. In Rose Lane a 10th century Scandinavian burial cross has been found on the site of a former church. Perhaps more telling are the place names they left behind. In the Flegg area around Yarmouth a preponderance of -by endings signify Viking settlement, as do a number of places elsewhere in the north and east of the county. At Thetford the pottery industry grew and the town expanded. But it is at Norwich that the Viking influence is felt most keenly.

Why?

Archaeologists have concentrated on the area on the north bank of the Wensum now known as Norwich Over the Water. Viking settlement in Norvic concentrated on a D-shaped area traversed by modern Magdalen Street and enclosed by an earth rampart. Here are names such as Colegate, Fishergate, Gildengate (now Calvert Street) Snaygate (now St Georges Street) and Finkelgate (possibly Cuddlegate, an early lovers lane). Gata is old Norse for street. Churches such as St Olave in King Street and Clement (Colegate) were named after Scandinavian saints. The economy prospered from the late ninth century. Norwich soon eclipsed Thetford, previously the dominant Norfolk town. Its proximity to the sea aided international trade. Did the Vikings kick-start this? They were canny traders, enjoying trade links as far as southern Russia and the Mediterranean. Certainly, after a generation of Viking settlement, Norwich was recognised as a borough or burgh a fortified town. By the mid-900s it had a mint supplying coins for the king of England.

What happened to the Vikings?

They assimilated. By the time Alfreds warrior successors reconquered East Anglia in 918 the kings armies included both English and Danes from East Anglia. This is best illustrated by what happened at the end of the 10th century. A new wave of Viking raiders attacked Englands vulnerable east coast during the disastrous reign of Ethelred the Unready. From the sack of Ipswich in 991 a new era of invasion began. In 1004 King Sweyn of Denmark struck north. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported: Sweyn came with his fleet to Norwich and completely ravaged and burnt the borough. Significantly, the ealdorman (earl) of Norfolk the nobleman charged with defending the county was of Danish descent. Ulfoetel the Valiant bought a truce with Sweyn after the sack of Norwich, but sneaky Sweyn cheated by sailing off to Thetford three weeks later, and putting the town to the sword. Ulfoetel followed and fought a battle in which the flower of the East Anglian people was killed,
but he gave the invaders a bloody nose. Sweyns son, Canute, was back 13 years later, but his raids of 1016 were among the last. After he inherited the crown of England he completed the friendship between the two peoples. By his death in 1035 the Viking age was over.

And Norwich?

On the eve of the Norman conquest it was a boom town. By 1066 the once-modest settlement had 25 churches and a population of between 5,000 and 10,000.

Further reading

The Vikings in Norfolk, Sue Margeson, 1997.

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