Castle Corner: How did the Vikings take over East Anglia and what did they do while they were here?

Viking history in East Anglia on show at Norwich Castle

Kind Edmund of East Anglia was viciously killed by the Vikings and was the patron saint of England for 600 years. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

As Norwich Castle’s new transformation takes place through the Royal Palace Reborn Project, we take a gander at some of the pivotal moments in Norfolk’s history.   

In a series of weekly interviews, we chat with Lee Warden, project learning and engagement officer at Norwich Castle, to travel back in time and learn more about the people that once called Norwich home. 

This week we plunge into the history of the Vikings, discover their plans to take over England and find out how eventually their schemes were thwarted.

Q: What was happening in England at the time of the Vikings’ arrival?

A: For over 300 years, the Anglo-Saxons were the rulers of our country. England was split into four kingdoms – East Anglia, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria. While it wasn’t an entirely peaceful time, there was a general sense of established order.

Learn more about the Vikings in Norfolk at Norwich Castle

As well as being adept sailors and mercenaries, the Vikings were also talented farmers, skilled craftsmen, and shrewd tradespeople. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

It wasn’t until the late eighth century that Vikings began raiding England. The first attack was on the Lindisfarne monastery on the northeast coast in 793, where Vikings stole coins, food and jewellery to take back to their Scandinavian homelands. They then continued to raid coastal areas of England for the next 70 years.

Q: When did the Vikings first settle in Britain?

A: In the year 865, The Great Heathen Army, made up of over 10,000 Vikings and led by brothers Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Ragnarsson, travelled in longboats from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, to conquer England. They landed in East Anglia, where they began their invasion. King Edmund of East Anglia avoided battle, preferring to pay off the Vikings with silver and horses to prevent the takeover.

The Vikings then marched north where they succeeded in overthrowing Northumbria and Mercia. In 870, they returned to East Anglia. King Edmund refused to fight and instead attempted to negotiate peace. The Vikings responded by tying King Edmund to a tree, and repeatedly shot him with arrows in an attempt to get him to renounce Christianity. The Vikings were pagans and worshipped the old Norse gods such as Odin, Thor, and Loki. When King Edmund refused to convert, they beheaded him.

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For his sacrifice, the old King of East Anglia was made the patron saint of England from the ninth to the fifteenth century.

Q: How did the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings make peace?

A: After their victory, Guthrum, the new king of East Anglia, marched the Viking army to Wessex to defeat King Alfred. A series of cat and mouse raids began, with neither King Alfred nor Guthrum gaining the upper hand. That was until a violent storm at sea diminished the Viking army and Alfred was able to finally capture Guthrum.

King Alfred offered to release Guthrum if he could baptise him and convert to Christianity. With the choice of immediate execution or conversion, Guthrum agreed, and he and many other Vikings were baptised and retreated from Wessex. They agreed to the deal, mainly because many of the Vikings didn’t take the ceremony seriously and instead used it as an opportunity to steal free robes and other items.

The two Kings then worked together to establish peace, writing Danelaw, which split the country in half. Alfred retained control of Wessex and other areas of Western England, leaving the North and East of England to the Vikings. Danelaw remained in place for roughly 70 years.

Viking personal grooming set antiques at the Norwich Castle Museum and Gallery

A small decorated Viking ear scoop showing that the Vikings were surprisingly conscious about their hygiene and looks. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

Q: What did life in Britain look like under Danelaw?

A: During this time, the Norse and Anglo-Saxon cultures merged. Artefacts show the people lived harmoniously, adopting one another’s traditions.

Couples from each culture married and started families. The language they spoke changed, as Old English and Old Norse blended to form an Anglo-Norse dialect that closely resembles modern-day English. New towns also emerged. Place names ending in ‘-by’ and ‘-thorpe’ indicate a Viking settlement.

In 2016, we discovered an old Anglo-Saxon and Viking cemetery in Great Ryburgh. We found, laying side by side, Saxon gravesites with coffins, and hollowed out tree trunks where Vikings would bury their dead. It shows the people observed both Christian and pagan burial rituals.

Q: How were the Vikings defeated?

A: During Danelaw, King Alfred built an army to help defend his territory. By now, many of the Vikings had settled and worked as farmers. Gradually, King Alfred’s army recaptured much of the land taken by the Vikings, unifying England as an Anglo-Saxon governed country once more. He didn’t banish the Vikings, but they instead had to adapt to the new laws.

Many people regard the end of the Viking age in England as the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, where King of Norway, Harold Hardrada was defeated by the English, ending his attempt to reclaim control of Britain. 

Norwich Castle's exciting Royal Palace Reborn project

Norwich Castle's exciting Royal Palace Reborn project is making great progress. - Credit: Norwich Castle

Q: How can I learn more about the Vikings at Norwich Castle?

A: Norwich Castle is home to a rich collection of Viking artefacts gathered from across East Anglia and the rest of the country. At the moment, the Viking gallery at the Castle is closed due to the construction works for the Royal Palace Reborn project, but when it reopens in 2023, visitors will be able to enjoy some of the fascinating items we’ve collected. These include weapons, tools and framing equipment used back then, as well as jewellery and beautifully carved items. Though many think of the Vikings as warriors and adept sailors, they were also excellent farmers, shrewd tradespeople and skilled at crafts, carving intricate metal and woodwork pieces.

Norwich Castle Royal Palace Reborn Project is supported by local businesses

Local businesses, trusts and supporters of the Royal Palace Reborn Project. - Credit: Heritage Fund / Norwich Castle

Vikings were also very hygienic, for the time. They bathed once a week (which was frequent back then) and took great pride in their appearance. We’ve discovered beard and hair combs and personal hygiene sets that demonstrate how important personal grooming was to them.

We’ve also unearthed hordes of coins that show just how well-travelled the Vikings were. They didn’t have their own currency and coins were stolen in raids or paid to the Vikings to fight as mercenaries, or stay out of trouble. The coins acted as a passport, showing all the places a Viking had been. We’ve found coins from all over the globe, including Italy, Germany, Russia, and the Middle East.

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