What did the Vikings do for us?
PUBLISHED: 11:00 08 February 2019
As a major new exhibition arrives at Norwich Castle we find out about the legacy the Vikings left in our language, landscape and legends
If you had lived in Norfolk around 1,100 years ago you would have been ruled not from London, or anywhere else in modern-day Britain, but from Denmark. The King of Denmark (and Norway and parts of Sweden) was also the ruler of much of the east of England. And the ghosts of those Viking invaders are still with us - in everything from the words we use daily to the names of our villages and the treasures being unearthed across the county.
Our Viking legacy includes:
1 Place names. In the area of east Norfolk still known as the Isle of Flegg there are 13 villages ending with the tell-tale Viking “by” meaning “settlement of.” Places such as Hemsby, Scratby, Billockby, Filby, Mautby and Thrigby are evidence that the Norse language was being spoken widely enough to name or rename places. Elsewhere in Norfolk Grimston is a hybrid of the Viking name Grimmer (still common in the county) and the English Tun. Tim Pestell, senior curator of archaeology at Norfolk Museums Service, said: “The ‘by’ names might be evidence of an early settlement of a Viking army – in the present-day Netherlands an island was donated to the Vikings, who then protected the area from raids by other Vikings.”
2 Language. Around 200 words we still use today come from the Viking language, including sky and egg. Historians say that only a huge number of settlers could have had such an influence.
3 The days of the week. Monday was named for Mani, the Norse moon god; Tuesday for Tyr, the Norse one-handed god of war; Wednesday is Woden’s day, aka Odin god of wisdom, war, poetry, death and magic; Thursday is for Thor the god of strength and storms; Friday for Frigg, goddess of marriage. Saturday is our only non-Viking day and was named for the ancient Roman god Saturn, but on Sunday we return to our Viking ways and the goddess of the sun.
4 Treasure. Many of the remarkable exhibits on show at the new Norwich Castle exhibition have only been preserved for more than 1,000 years because they were hidden as Viking invaders rampaged across England. The fact that no-one returned to recover them might speak of the devastation wrought by the Vikings. The Hingham Hoard, on display for the first time, was unearthed in 2012 and its coins and jewellery date back to the reign of ninth century King Edmund. Another coin in the exhibition, found near Norwich and also on show for the first time, proved the existence of a previously unknown Anglo Saxon King.
5 St Edmund. King Edmund of East Anglia was made a saint after being killed by a Viking army, while fighting for his faith, his land and his people. After the failure of his attempts to make peace with the Vikings, and their leader Ivar the Boneless, he met them in battle at Hoxne in Suffolk, in 869. Stories of miracles surround his death and within a few years the Vikings themselves were honouring the king they had killed. Edmund was patron saint of England for several centuries and even now there are moves to oust St George and reinstate St Edmund. And it was Viking King Canute who turned Edmund’s shrine, in Bury St Edmunds, into an Abbey.
6 Thriving trading towns. By the time of the Norman Conquest Norwich and Thetford were two of the largest towns in England. Trade across the North Sea to Viking heartlands is likely to have played a big part in that – although the Vikings also rampaged and pillaged across the region so their legacy was by no means all positive. During the reign of Ethelred the Unready a new wave of Viking raiders struck along the vulnerable east coast. In 1002 Ethelred commanded that Danes throughout his kingdom should be killed. Victims included Sweyn Forkbeard’s sister and her husband, leading the Viking king to avenge the deaths. His fleet sailed into Norwich in 1004 and plundered and burned the settlement. Three weeks later Sweyn’s murderous army was in Thetford. In another 10 years Sweyn ruled much of England, with his son, Canute, became king in 1016.
7 St Benet’s Abbey. King Canute famously failed to hold back the tides, but he did find enough dry land to launch the only monastery in England to survive Henry VIII’s destruction. Canute founded St Benet’s Abbey, in marshland beside the River Bure, in 1020. The site was probably already a holy place once occupied by Christian hermits who had been expelled by previous Viking raiders. He also turned St Edmund’s shrine into an Abbey in Bury St Edmunds. Contrary to legend Canute was not foolishly insisting he could control the waves, but demonstrating how even he, King of Denmark, Norway, parts of Sweden and England, was subject to the laws of nature.
8 1066 and all that. Vikings invaded France too – and settled in the area which became known as Normandy. So William Duke of Normandy, aka William the Conqueror was of Viking stock and Norfolks Norman castles, cathedral and churches could all be said to have Viking influences.
Viking: Rediscover the Legend traces the story of the Vikings in England, from the first raids of the 700s, through invasion, slaughter, looting, and then settlement, right the way through to a new conquest in 1066.
Remarkably-preserved Viking weapons and jewellery are on show, alongside coins hidden from the raiders. See some of the great Viking treasures from the British Museum and the Yorkshire Museum, alongside recent finds from Norfolk.
It is the first chance to see the remarkable Hingham Hoard, a coin proving the existence of a previously unknown Anglo Saxon King, and a beautiful gold brooch found in Attleborough and the first of its kind to be unearthed in the country.
A linked events programme throughout the six month exhibition, begins with Invasion! on the opening day, Saturday, February 9. Meet Ordgar - the wild Vikings of ‘Norwic’ and get into Scandi costume for a fantastic photo opportunity, 10.30am-3.30pm.
Viking: Rediscover the Legend, Norwich Castle from February 9 to September 8.
Open Monday to Saturday 10am-4.30pm, Sunday 1-4.30pm.
Free with castle admission ticket.