Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The History of Belgrave Hall

One of Leicester’s treasures is the warm and inviting Belgrave Hall. It takes you away from the hustle and bustle of busy city life as you can simply sit and relax in the tranquil surroundings and enjoy the peace and serenity.

Belgrave Hall
It was built between 1709 and 1714 by Edmund Cradock, when Belgrave was still very much a small village. Edmund was a rich hosiery merchant who sadly died soon after the hall’s construction, but for more than 300 years the people of Leicester have enjoyed his brainchild. It’s funny to think that Belgrave Hall was not originally part of the city, but it was purposely built three miles from the old market town, in the corner of a quiet village to avoid hectic town life.

Up until 1936 the hall was a family residence, tucked away in the corner of the village, close to a beautiful medieval church. Edmund built a fine house and walled garden and on the rainwater heads you can still see the dates 1709 and 1713. But after his death Belgrave Hall was held in trust until 1721 when John and Helen Simons took ownership. The Simons family didn't just buy the house – they also bought land opposite the hall and created another park-like garden around it. The hall remained with the Simons for 46 years before its new owner was the High Sheriff of Leicestershire, William Vann. He, like Edmund Cradock, was in the hosiery trade and he ran a successful business from the hall, transforming the outbuildings into a framework knitting factory, employing many of the local craftspeople.

On William Vann’s death in 1772 the hall passed to his son Richard. His other son, William junior, built Belgrave House on the landscaped gardens built by the Simons family. Belgrave Hall stayed with the Vanns until 1844 when John Ellis MP took ownership. He has eleven children and like the hall's previous occupants, Ellis was a wealthy and successful businessman, involved in the building of Leicester’s first railway line – the Leicester and Swannington Railway. He eventually went on to become the first chairman of Midland Railway.

Belgrave hall from the rear
Ellis and his family kept the hall in fine condition adding a large bay window to the rear and improving the extensive gardens due to his great interest in horticulture. The garden was the main feature of the hall – exotic and rare floras were planted, finely-crafted statues were erected and he even built a ‘Dutch Garden’ within his private ‘park.’ Ellis died in 1862 and his son sold the hall to his seven sisters who continued to reside there. The sisters were involved in charitable and educational work in Belgrave, which by the time they took ownership of the hall, was no longer a small village, but a thriving Leicester suburb. Mrs Bernard Ellis, a lady who married into the Ellis family, gives a description of life in Belgrave Hall during the time of the seven sisters’ ownership. She said:

“They were in touch with all the best literature and the leading movements of the 19th Century; they exhibited a dignity, a distinction and a charm that set them, in a busy provincial town, in a class apart. They did not always see eye to eye… But they radiated affection to a large and ever-widening family circle, and maintained an unbroken front of benevolence toward the outer world. A book meeting at Belgrave was a festive occasion which usually came in the autumn. November was their month and as the front door opened from the chill outside air into the large hall with its blazing fire, we saw at the far end a great bank of tawny chrysanthemums. Year after year we womenfolk would mount the fine old staircase and lay our wraps in the spare room with another blazing fire to continue the sense of festivity and welcome.”

Belgrave Hall and Belgrave church, 1923

The last Ellis sister at Belgrave Hall was Margaret who died in 1923, although there is a well-known legend that says that she and her sister Charlotte still haunt the property, which I would take with a pinch of salt! Since Margaret’s death Belgave Hall has been associated with ghostly goings-on but it didn't stop its sale to Thomas Morley, yet another rich hosiery manufacturer. He didn't stay there long though (ghosts?) and he sold it in 1936 for £10,500 to Leicester City Council, who also bought Belgrave House. The hall was transformed into a museum and its stunning gardens were opened up to the public.

Belgrave Hall is one of Leicester’s most treasured possessions and if you've not been, I’d certainly urge you to pay it a visit. Belgrave Hall is located just off Loughborough Road near to Leicester's famous Golden Mile on Belgrave Road. On street parking is available, including a few places directly in front of the museum. Leicester City Council recommends contacting the museum in advance to reserve a parking place for Blue Badge holders, in particular on event days where demand for spaces can be high. For opening times, please visit

Enjoy the huge gardens of Belgrave Hall.

by Matthew Sibson

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Life and Times of Daniel Lambert

At the time of his death in the summer of 1809 Daniel Lambert, Leicester’s celebrated colossus weighed in at 52 stone and 11lb and was a wobbly wonder of the age. People paid good money to see the enormous man and he even achieved celebrity status because of his weight. What people of the time didn't know was that Daniel didn't enjoy being ogled for his size but all his life he swallowed his pride and took the money – it’s not like he could take an ordinary job anyway.

Daniel Lambert was known as 'Britain's fattest man'
Daniel Lambert was known as ‘Britain’s fattest man’ – a vulgar phrase but the 19th century wasn't know for being a politically correct period of history. Visitors to Daniel were obliged to remove their hats on meeting the man and were expected to engage in polite and intellectual conversation. Interestingly, Daniel wasn't taken to be a ‘freak’ like ‘The Elephant Man’ Joseph Merrick, he was a man that mixed with the top men In society – bankers, stockbrokers, businessmen and, on one occasion, King George III himself.

But although we are painting a nice picture of Daniel’s life, not everybody was quite so polite. One visitor angrily announced that the money he paid to see the ‘big man’ was to pay for Daniel’s oversized clothes and he wanted to know what it all cost: “Sir, if I knew what part of my next coat your shilling would pay for,” Lambert replied, “I can assure you I would cut out the piece.”

Old photograph of Daniel's breeches.
As you can tell from his reply, Daniel was an intelligent man. His suit cost him £20 in the early at the turn of the 19 century – that’s around £1,400 in today’s money. The money he made was of course used to pay for his clothes – his weight was his livelihood after all – but any extra cash that the big man made funded his passion. No, it wasn't art or music, but cockfighting, breeding hunting dogs and gambling. When Daniel died he was in Stamford but what brought him there was horseracing, on what was thought to be the big man’s final tour of the country. When a man from the Stamford Mercury arrived to see Lambert, he was already in bed, fatigued with life as a massively overweight man.

Fantastic picture of one of Leicester favourite son's
“The orders he gave upon that occasion were delivered without any presentiment that they were to be his last,” reported the paper, “and with his usual cheerfulness. He was in bed, one of large dimensions, fatigued with his journey but anxious that the bills might be quickly printed in order to his seeing company next morning.”

That night, Daniel Lambert drifted off to sleep, not knowing that that night would be his last.

Early Life
Daniel Lambert was born in Blue Boar Lane, Leicester, in 1770. He was a healthy child and nothing would suggest he’d become the colossal man that he was. A childhood friend, the Leicester composer William Gardiner, even recalled giving Lambert piggy-back rides to and from school. The following was printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1809: “From the extraordinary bulk to which Mr Lambert attained, the reader may naturally be disposed to enquire whether his parents were persons of remarkable dimensions. This was not the case nor were any of his family inclined to corpulence excepting an uncle and an aunt on the father’s side who were both very heavy.”

As Lambert grew older he ballooned and by the time he was 23 years old he was already 32 stone. It wasn't that he was an indulgent fellow either, it was thought to be due to a hormonal imbalance. Daniel never ate more than one dish at a meal after all and he didn't even drink alcohol.

Daniel’s father was a gaoler and Lambert followed in the family business, finding work at Leicester’s Bridewell Prison in 1791. It is reputed that Daniel was a well-liked man, especially by the prisoners as he spent time with those in the cells, giving them words of comfort instead of judgement for their crimes. It was due to his size that Daniel had to leave his job – the narrow passages were too small for him to traverse. Obviously he needed a source of income and although he had an initial idea, it left a bitter taste in his mouth.

A crude depiction of Daniel with an exaggerated thin lady.
The Gentleman’s Magazine commented: “Such were the feelings of Mr Lambert that no longer than four years ago he abhorred the very idea of exhibiting himself. Though he lived exceedingly retired at Leicester, the fame of his uncommon corpulence had spread over the adjacent country to such a degree that he frequently found himself not a little incommoded by the curiosity of the people which it was impossible to repress. Finding at length that he must either submit to be a close prisoner in his own house or endure all the inconvenience without receiving the profits of an exhibition, Mr Lambert wisely strove to overcome the repugnance and determined to visit the Metropolis for that purpose. As it was impossible to procure a carriage large enough to admit him, he had a vehicle constructed expressly to carry him to London.”

Daniel’s Death
Lambert toured the country and in 1809 he was in Stamford. At the Waggon and Horses, where Daniel stayed, Daniel Lambert woke up and had a shave but he began feeling short of breath and within minutes he collapsed. By 8.30am that morning, he died.

Daniel’s 52-stone body proved a problem. They couldn't carry him through the door so a wall and a window at the Waggon and Horses had to be demolished to remove his body. The undertaker had to build a custom –made coffin too - six feet four inches long, four feet four inches wide, looking almost like a square case. The Stamford Mercury described a box crafted from “112 superficial feet of elm, built upon two axle trees and four clog-wheels and upon these, the remains of the poor man were rolled into his grave in the new burial ground at the back of St Martin’s church. A regular descent was made by cutting away the earth slopingly for some distance. A large concourse attended his funeral and in the course of the day many hundred persons from the neighbourhood visited the grave.”

The landlord of the Waggon and Horses – Mr Berridge – kept two of Lambert’s suits as keepsakes for visitors to his establishment, one of which was later sold to the landlord of the pub opposite.

Well Remembered
At first, Lambert’s grave was unmarked but when the townspeople of Leicester learned of the demise of their local celebrity, his friends paid for a headstone to be erected on his grave in Stamford churchyard, with touching words etched on the stone:

In remembrance of that prodigy in nature Daniel Lambert.

A native of Leicester who was possessed of an exalted and convivial mind and, in personal greatness had no competitor.

Daniel's grave - his head and foot stones remain on display.

by Matthew Sibson

Monday, 26 November 2012

Vestiges of the Danelaw in Humberstone, Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of our study into the Vestiges of the Danelaw in Humberstone, Leicester. To read Part 1, click here. In this part we start by looking at the archaeological evidence that Humberstone was once a Viking Settlement, named after the Viking Prince, Hubba.

If the village was named after a powerful prince, and if the landscape was ceremonial to the Vikings, there should have been some sort of ceremonial structure, or centre of worship, in the village. Failing that there should surely be some kind of archaeological evidence for their existence. As I have already stated the archaeological record of the Viking invasion of Leicester is notoriously poor and Humberstone is no exception to this.

There has never been a major discovery of Danish archaeology in the village. There is arguably some pottery but as Leicester archaeologist Peter Liddle points out: “the lack of change of pottery types associated with Late Saxon and Norman occupation makes it difficult to separate occupation of the 10th to 12th century.”

Even though there are no archaeological finds, I believe that Humberstone village has some of the best examples of Viking art in the county, if not the country, and if my bold claim is correct, the reliefs in question have been in plain sight for hundreds of years.

They first received media attention in the Leicester Mercury newspaper on June 16, 1978. The headline Dragon on the Tower stole page 18, and the picture mirrored the headline, it was a photograph of the dragon on Humberstone church tower. A dragon is a highly unusual relief to find on a Leicestershire church, but it isn’t the only thing of interest here. There is a large collection of ancient stone art on the north, south and east sides of St. Mary’s church. On the south side there are two reliefs of human figures clearly not in-situ as they are lying on their sides. We can also see two cinquefoils, each surrounded by four stars.

The north side of the tower has three, more whimsical images. There is a hare chasing a dragon and a forest creature covering another depiction of the hare. The central relief appears to be a hunting scene – a man blowing a horn, leading a pack of dogs or wolves as they chase a wild boar. Separating each frieze is a small square of darker coloured stone, each displaying a bird of some description.

On the east side are more decorative freizes, separated again by two square, black stones, this time displaying the famous image of the star and crescent. For years these fanciful, rather non-Christian stone works have baffled me. For a start here is very little information to go on. Villagers and village history books say they are Christian. They say that the hare represents Christ who is chasing away the devil, who here is portrayed as a dragon. They say the two men lying sideways are St. Peter and St. Paul. These interpretations may well be true, but they are founded on no obvious knowledge (well none that I can find anyway) and the hunting scene has no viable Christian explanation.

The tower of Humberstone church, on which the carvings are incorporated, was built sometime in the mid-fourteenth century, and as the 1978 Leicester Mercury article suggests, the carvings appear somewhat older and could have possibly decorated the first church that was built on the site in the 12th century.

This was my starting point. The carvings must have been older as they are made from a very different stone to the actual tower. The two human figures have been placed on their sides, clearly not the way they were originally intended. Therefore the carvings clearly pre-date the 14th century and after much research I have concluded that they even pre-date the first 12th century Norman church.

Skilled stonemasons didn’t create beautiful works of art at random; everything in the ancient world, of this calibre at least, had a meaning. The Humberstone church reliefs have no obvious Norman connection so I delved further back in time – to the Viking era, a time when I believe the settlement at Humberstone was founded.

When the Vikings invaded Britain their myths and legends were promoted alongside Christianity (and sometimes together) just about all Viking art is centred on their belief system. Humberstone, it seems, is no exception to this.

1) The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is an ancient folk myth prevalent across Northern, Western and Central Europe. Most ancient cultures tell a variant of this legend but the one that fits perfectly with this relief at Humberstone is the Norse myth.

So why am I so sure the reliefs at Humberstone are Norse in origin? Well, after looking through Scandinavian myths and legends every relief can be interpreted. Some fit into Christian myths, some fit into Anglo-Saxon myths, some could be interpreted as Norman, but not all of them. When you wade through Norse mythology, each scene can be interpreted as an important Scandinavian myth.

The Wild Hunt on Humberstone Church tower
It was known as Odin’s Hunt. Odin is a major Norse god and leader of the Asgard – one of the nine worlds of the Norse religion and the country or capital city of the Norse gods. The ‘Poetic Edda’ is a collection of Old Norse poems, primarily collected in Iceland, which records Odin’s Hunt in fine detail.

According to Edda, Odin had two cherished wolves (sometimes interpreted as hounds) for pets and had a roasted boar for the daily piece de resistance of his table. With his two dogs Odin was primarily a lone hunter but when joined by his Valkyries, Odin was the leader of the hunt. The hunt begins on October 31 and doesn't end until May Eve (April 30) of the following year. These two nights were special, because lights go out on all Nine Worlds and the spirits and goblins are free to roam on the earth's surface. The height of the Wild Hunt falls on the night of midwinter festival, known as Yule (December 21), traditionally the shortest day of the year in Scandinavia. The Yule Boar was traditionally eaten on the sacred day.

The Norse god Freyr had a Golden Boar, which was a representation of the spring and summer sun. Therefore the traditional scene of hunting the boar was an Old Norse winter story – i.e. when the sun is at its lowest, the days shortest and temperature lowest and the sacrificed boar (sun) was eaten to mark the onset of winter. The rebirth or regeneration of the sun in many ancient cultures was May Day, the same date when, according to Norse legend, Odin’s Hunt came to an end.

2. Ragnarok

There is, however, an alternative theory to the hunting scene. In Norse mythology, the story of Ragnarok is a series of future events, including a great battle foretold to ultimately result in the death of a number of major gods including Odin, Thor, Freyr and Loki. It told of a series of natural disasters and the subsequent submersion of the world in water. Afterward, the world is said to resurface anew and fertile, the surviving and reborn gods will meet and the world will be repopulated.

Like Odin’s Hunt, Ragnarok is one of the most important events in the Norse canon. Ragnarok begins with god Heimdall blowing on his mighty horn, called the Gjallarhorn. The sound of the horn could be heard loud and clear throughout the nine worlds. Heimdall was to blow the horn when he saw the enemies arriving as Ragnarok approached. Ragnarok was the end of the world. When the gods of Asgard heard the sound of the Gjallarhorn they were warned to get ready for the final battle. So, the hunter in the scene could well be Odin from Odin’s Hunt or Heimdall from Ragnarok.

As Ragnarok begins, the wolf Sköll devours the sun, while his brother, Hati, eats the moon. These could be the two wolves in the carving seen chasing the wild boar, not least because in Norse mythology, the boar is also thought to be a symbol of the sun.

The god Freyr had a golden boar called Gullinbursti, who was made by the dwarves Brokk and Eitri. Gullinbursti was faster than any horse and travelled over water and through the air. He glowed with a golden light, had golden bristles that shone like rays of the sun and made plants grow. It could drive away any shadow and turn night to day. Many warriors wore the image of Freyr’s golden boar on their helmets and shields for protection and good luck.

The boar clearly has a solar connection. With Heimdall blowing the horn and with the wolves chasing the boar, this frieze on the church could well be a scene from Ragnarok. It is worth noting that there is a variety of crossover in Norse folklore where some, seemingly unrelated stories, may infer the same thing. Odin’s Hunt and destruction of the sun in Ragnarok may well be allegories for the same event, whether nightfall, winter and an apocalyptic event that wipes out the sun.

3. The Seed of Humanity

When the Earth is destroyed in Ragnarok, two characters, namely Lif and Lifthrasir, the future seed for all humanity, are protected by Hoddmimir’s Forest (or Holt) where they fall asleep under a protective tree, thought by scholars to be the World Tree of Old Norse mythology, known as Yggdrasil. Yggdrasil is thought to be the same as another Norse tree, called Mímameiðr (meaning “Mimi's Tree”). Mímameiðr had branches that stretched over every land and was unharmed by fire and bears fruit that assists pregnant women. Interestingly Hoddmimir’s forest was the only place on Earth that the evil fire god, Surtr, was unable to destroy in Ragnarok, which shows a direct connection between Hoddmimir’s Forest and Mímameiðr. Hoddmimir, Mímameiðr and Yggdrasil are all thought to be the same mythical place, or at the very least, are thought to be in the same locality.

The seed of humanity - the hare - protected
In this image from Humberstone church tower, Lif and Lifthrasir are represented by a fertility symbol – the most common fertility symbol found throughout European culture – a hare, and a sleeping hare at that. Hoddmimir’s Forest is personified as a tree creature protecting the hare which, as a fertility symbol, means that it is protecting the seed of humanity. As stated, Hoddmimir’s Forest is the same as (or contained) Mímameiðr, which assisted pregnant women, or in this case assisted the fertility symbol of the hare, which denotes the pregnant woman. It is worth noting that mythology says that the fruits of Mímameiðr were said to assure safe childbirth, or in other words, protected the seed of humanity (the hare).

As the hare was the universal symbol of fertility the artist who created this frieze used imagery that would be as identifiable with the Vikings as it would be with ancient British, which would have been of paramount importance. The people of Leicestershire were conquered by the Vikings so it would be easier to explain a story with already identifiable imagery, than to introduce two new characters in Lif and Lifthrasir.

In ancient Britain the hare had already been a fertility symbol for hundreds of years as it was associated with Easter, which in pagan times was a fertility festival named after the ancient British fertility god Eostre. Since hares give birth to large litters around Easter time, they became symbols of the rising fertility of the Earth. Hares symbolised the start of the spring, they symbolised the Vernal Equinox, the goddess Eostre, and then Easter, which always falls on the Sunday after the first full moon of spring. Interestingly the Old Norse fertility goddess, Freyr, shares many attributes with Eostre and both have relationships with hares.

There were numerous hare customs in ancient Britain too, the most so in Leicestershire. On Easter Monday the ‘Dane Hills Hare Hunt’ used to take place where a dead hare (and later a dead cat) was tied to a horse’s tail and huntsmen would chase it all the way to the Mayor’s door before a great feast would take place. In Hallaton, the ancient hare-pie scramble still continues to the present day, as does the famous bottle-kicking event.

4. Surtr

As mentioned above, Lif and Lifthrasir escaped the clutches of Surtr, a major figure in Ragnarok. In the myth he is said to carry an enormous, magical sword. He will raise his hand and breathe his flames over the earth to burn the entire world.

The carving of the swordsman on Humberstone church tower has been interpreted by various people as St. Peter due to the inclusion of the sword, but what has not been explained is his hand which is up by his mouth. Numerous characters in mythology and history have wielded a sword, but due to the Norse origins of the village, I have identified this character as Surtr.

Surtr breathing fire
In this depiction he is holding his mighty sword. He has his hand raised and his head even looks like it is leaning forward like he is about to breathe fire. On a closer look at the frieze, his mouth is missing, as is a chunk of stone below the hand. Maybe there was carved fire which has since eroded away.

The other possible identity of this character is the legendary Sigurd, who is often portrayed with his hand raised to his mouth sucking his thumb, and is also seen holding a sword. Examples of this can be seen on the Manx stones on the Isle of Man, on the famous Halton cross near Lancashire and also on stones in Norway. Sigurd shucks his thumb because he burns it whilst roasting a dragon’s heart. The juice from his thumb gives him the power to understand the speech of birds. Whether or not this is Sigurd in Humberstone is unknown, but it is another possible Viking interpretation that deserves further investigation.

5. The End of Ragnarok

Everything that begins must have an end. After the destruction of Ragnarok a new and idyllic world is said to arise from the sea and filled with abundant supplies. Some of the gods will survive, while others will be reborn. Wickedness and misery will no longer exist and the gods and men will live happily together. The descendants of Lif and Lifthrasir will inhabit the earth.

The third relief on Humberstone Church tower is the aftermath of Ragnarok where we see the rise of the hare which is seen chasing away a dragon. Dragons, as you may guess, are rife in ancient mythology and there is no exception to Scandinavian myths. As we have already stated the hare represents Lif and Lithrasir – the protected seed of humanity. The hare also represents spring and the rebirth of the sun and the earth after winter.

The end of ragnarok
In Ragnarok, the harsh winter that precedes the end of the world and puts an end to all life on Earth is called Fimbulwinter. Fimbulwinter is three successive winters where snow comes in from all directions, without any intervening summer.

The tree of life, as we have seen, protects the seed of man, but the tree has an enemy called Nidhogg.

In Norse myth, Nidhogg is the “tearer of corpses” – a monstrous serpent or dragon that hides in a pit and forever gnaws  almost  perpetually  at  the  deepest root of  the World Tree, Yggdrasil, threatening to destroy it. The tree is a place where the gods judge and by continually gnawing on it, Nidhogg is thought to be attempting to destroy the universe. Nidhogg represents the land of the dead. As it attempts to destroy the World Tree with other beastly creatures, it eats corpses to sustain itself.

In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland there are numerous dragon myths similar to the Scandinavian myths. One such myth speaks of a dragon that craves berries from ‘the Tree of Life,’ and haunts its roots, holding it captive. This, as you can see, is very similar to the Norse myth. In Indian cultures, there is a winter monster known as the “confiner” that holds captive the rivers and Indra is the spring or summer sun which frees them from the clutches of the winter dragon.

In ancient cultures, winter is known as a time when the sun has died. The world is colder, crops don’t grow and in Ancient Britain, winter started with the ‘Festival of the Dead’ known as Samhain, a similar version of which was seen throughout Europe in history. As Nidhogg is the ‘tearer of corpses’ he is therefore likely to represent the harsh winter as winter is the time when the land is infertile – the land of the dead, so to speak.

There is another Norse legend that backs this theory up – a theory that also associates dragons with winter. The dwarf Fafnir turned himself into a dragon to protect his gold (thought to represent the sun suring winter). Fáfnir breathed poison into the land around him so no one would go near him and his treasure, wreaking terror in the hearts of the people. It was up to Sigurd, interpreted by scholars as the sun god, to slay the dragon and hence end winter and bring forth spring.

The best piece of evidence for the Winter dragon comes from The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. It states:

“As Yuletime drew near, gloom settled over the men.  Bodvar asked Hott what caused their dejection. Hott told him that a huge, monstrous beast had come there the past two winters.  ‘The creature has wings on its back and it usually flies.  For two autumns now it has come here, causing much damage.  No weapon can bite into it, and the king’s champions, even the greatest among them, do not return home.”

Again we see a dragon with a more blatant association with winter that once again causes damage and destruction, as well as death.

Wyverns also feature heavily in Saxon mythology. Wyverns are like dragons and myths in Britain say they lived in dark caves and collected shiny objects and baubles and took them into the darkness of their caves – yet more winter symbolism with the sun (shiny object) taken into the darkness of the cave by the wyvern dragon.

The ‘winter dragon’ is a common character in world mythology. He is seen in the Indian Vritra, the ‘confiner’ that holds captive the rivers, while Indra is the spring or summer sun which frees them from the clutches of the winter dragon. Various Celtic myths talk of a monster swallowing the sun and in Chinese legends a dragon also swallows the sun. There are many dragons in the myths of Eastern Europe where some would try to swallow the sun and cause an eclipse. In Saxon and early-Christian history the dragon represents evil and darkness. The early Christian church used heroic tales of saints and dragon slayers to illustrate good conquering evil and light conquering the darkness.

There is a myth of Coed-y-Moch in Wales that speaks of ‘The curse of the Wyvern’ that lay like a pestilence upon the people. The monster hunted human being and beast alike, destroyed every living creature which it caught. Therefore it represented death like other winter fables.

The Humberstone carving is an early carving of the winter dragon being defeated, shown by the conqueror being a hare, not a saint. It is a clear depiction of the spring sun conquering the winter dragon, a pagan myth, which at the time of the carving was yet to be Christianised.

In Ragnarok, the world suffers an awful long winter, but the winter does end and Lif and Lithrasir become free to inhabit the world. They represent spring, they represent the land becoming fertile again and the universal symbol of the hare was used throughout the ancient world to represent spring. On the third frieze on Humberstone Church, the hare chasing away the dragon portrays end of winter and the onset of spring, as well as the end of Ragnarok and the rebirth of the world. Dragons and wyverns represented war, pestilence and viciousness and the hare chasing away the winged beast portrayed the end of the wars of Ragnarok.

To prove that this dragon is Nidhogg of Ragnarok, he has a leafy tail, showing his relationship to the World Tree. As stated, when Ragnarok ends suffering and misery also end - the evil dragon no longer gnaws away at the World Tree – he is banished from the forest. The seed of man is preserved and Lif and Lithrasir are free to re-populate the world. Fertility prevails and the dragon’s evil stranglehold on life ends shown by the hare chasing the dragon. Spring prevails, ending the awful long winter also shown by the hare chasing away the dragon.

6. The Crowing Cocks

On the north side of Humberstone church tower there are, what I believe to be, two cocks, both of which are highly weathered. They flank the central frieze of the Odin’s hunt scene, but, like all the reliefs on the church, I believe they are out of place.

The crowing cocks of Ragnarok
Cocks in Christianity represent resurrection, I’ve been told, but they aren’t a common symbol in Britain. Cocks feature heavily in Norse mythology. There are three crowing cocks/roosters that announce the start of Ragnarok, once of which is Gullinkambi (which translates to “Golden Comb”). The other two are called are Fjalar in the wood Gálgviðr, and there is reference to an unnamed rust-red rooster in Hel.

In the Poetic Edda poem, it says:

Then to the gods crowed Gollinkambi,
He wakes the heroes in Odin's hall;
And beneath the earth does another crow,
The rust-red bird at the bars of Hel.

The Överhogdal tapestries are a group of extraordinary well preserved textiles dating from the Viking Age that were discovered in Överhogdal, Sweden. One shows the world tree, Yggdrasil, on which is perched a rooster, thought to be either Gullinkambi or Fjalar.

The two carvings at Humberstone are different in that they are facing two different ways, but there are both clearly sat within a tree as there are branches above and below them. We can therefore infer that they are Gullinkambi and Fjalar, not the rust-red rooster of Hel as they are sitting on branches, most likely of the world tree.

Fjalar called upon the giants while Gullinkambi called upon the gods and fallen human heroes to the Ragnarok battle. The third, rust-red rooster, missing from the church carvings, summoned the spirits of the underworld – those that lived in Hel.

7. Star and moon

There are two almost identical images of the ancient star and crescent symbol on the eastern sideof the church tower. These, like the two cockerels/roosters, are almost square in shape and look to be made of the same, darker stone.

Star and Moon symbols on the church tower
The star of the symbol is eight-pointed, sitting above a crescent moon. The eight-points is an important observation as this is a common way the ancient people portrayed the planet Venus, one of the brightest stars in the night sky. Eight is the number of years it takes the planet to return to the exact same point in the zodiac on the exact same date and hence Venus has been portrayed as an eight-pointed star throughout history.

The symbol of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar was the eight-pointed star and crescent, and in time she became synonymous with the Roman goddess Venus, after whom the star was named.

So, the planet Venus, the brightest of the celestial bodies, is represented by an eight-pointed star, but is this star mentioned in Norse mythology? Well, it appears so.

There isn’t a known goddess like Ishtar, Aphrodite or Venus, who was associated with the planet (or star). There was the goddess Freya, the goddess of love and beauty, but there is no known celestial symbolism associated with her. Instead there is a legend of a toe. The Vikings liked to be different!

The myth of Aurvandil’s Toe is recorded by Snorri Sturluson in the Skáldskaparmál:

“Thórr went home to Thrúdvangar, and the hone remained sticking in his head. Then came the wise woman who was called Gróa, wife of Aurvandill the Valiant: she sang her spells over Thórr until the hone was loosened. But when Thórr knew that, and thought that there was hope that the hone might be removed, he desired to reward Gróa for her leech- craft and make her glad, and told her these things: that he had waded from the north over the river Élivága (Icy Stream) and had borne Aurvandill in a basket on his back from the north out of Jôtunheim. And he added for a token, that one of Aurvandill's toes had stuck out of the basket, and became frozen; wherefore Thórr broke it off and cast it up into the heavens, and made thereof the star called Aurvandill's Toe. Thórr said that it would not be long ere Aurvandill came home: but Gróa was so rejoiced that she forgot her incantations, and the hone was not loosened, and stands yet in Thórr's head. Therefore it is forbidden to cast a hone across the floor, for then the hone is stirred in Thórr's head.”

On Humberstone church, the eight-pointed star is above the crescent moon, which, due to this Old Norse myth, could well represent the boat that carries Aurvandill. The river could well represent the Milky Way, which looks like a river flowing across night sky. The Milky Way and has often been associated with rivers and oceans in world mythology. Whilst Aurvandil was inside the boat, Thorr broke off his frozen toe and cast it into the heavens, above the boat. Many scholars have associated Aurvandil’s toe with the planet Venus, and now, thanks to this carving on Humberstone church, we can now say that the boat represents the crescent moon in the myth. When in conjunction, the crescent moon and Venus is an utterly breathtaking sight and it is no wonder the Viking writers created a myth once this heavenly sight was viewed.

On his website on Norse Constellations, Timothy Stephany agrees, although he states that the moon of the Norse ‘star and crescent’ is a bear claw:

“Aurvandil’s Toe – Sometimes wrongly thought to be a Norse constellation is actually the Morning Star, the planet Venus. Venus is sometimes the brightest object in the evening after sunset or in the morning after sunrise (when the Moon is not out). Often paired with the crescent Moon, both were very early associated with bear claws, Aurvandil specifically equivalent to Grendel in this regard.”

Grendel is a character from the famous Norse poem Beowulf, and, as Timothy points out, is the same person as Aurvandil, who is sometimes known as Erundel or Orendil.

Grendel was the seminal god of the Morning Star, Venus, who was a beast or a bear and son of the Sun goddess. Timothy points out that the crescent moon is represented in the Beowulf myth, not as a boat, but as the bear hero - Beowulf himself. The pairing of the crescent Moon with the Morning Star is an iconic image that has been adopted on several modern national flags and was depicted as rock art by stone-age humans.  Whether as awe-inspiring for its beauty or its significance there seems good reason to suppose that people would ask what they were and how they were related, and tell their story.

6. Hubba-Stone?

So Humberstone was a miniature Danish landscape. Leicester’s only standing stone guarded the underworld; intricate reliefs told the great Scandinavian myths of old and the settlement was named after the conquering Prince Hubba, which brings us to the final church carving.

The badly weathered figure of a man lies alongside Surtr on the south side of the tower. Christian’s identify this, for reasons unknown, as St. Paul, but with high resolution photographs and digital enhancement, I now think that this may be Prince Hubba himself.

Could this be a badly-eroded Prince Hubba?
This is a bold statement, I know, but there is evidence behind this claim. The figure has an elongate head which protrudes out of the archway he is standing inside. Due to the shape of the elongation, the figure is clearly wearing a conical hat, very similar to a Viking helmet worn by the conquering warriors. You can see the shape of the figure quite clearly and you can easily trace his right arm and hand, which is holding a large sheet, or flag, that covers half of his upper body. The shape of this flag can also be traced and looks like a quarter of a circle, or triangle with a rounded outside edge, a bit like a traditional Spanish fan. So who had quarter-circle flags in the ancient world? Not the Spanish, but the Vikings!

The flag is known as the ‘Raven Banner,’ and bears a striking resemblance to the ornately carved "weather-vanes" used aboard Viking longships. Scholars conjecture that the raven flag was a symbol of Odin, who was often depicted accompanied by two ravens named Huginn and Muninn. Its intent may have been to strike fear in one's enemies by invoking the power of Odin.

What we do know is that it was the flag used by Prince Hubba and the first mention of a Viking force carrying a raven banner is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the year 878. It says:

“And in the winter of this same year the brother of Ivar and Halfdan landed in Wessex, in Devonshire, with 23 ships, and there was he slain, and 800 men with him, and 40 of his army. There also was taken the war-flag (guðfani), which they called "Raven".

So, on the south face of Hubba’s Stone church we have a relief of a helmeted Viking warrior holding the Raven Banner that was the same banner, or flag, carried by Prince Hubba. This could well be a carving of the god Odin, but it is just as likely, if not more likely, to be the man the village is named after – Prince Hubba himself.

7. Dedication to the Homeland

There are two more friezes on the south side of the tower that deserve our attention; one is positioned at the head of Hubba and the other at the feet of Surtr. Like the crescent and star and rooster carvings, they are made from dark-coloured stone. They each display a cinquefoil surrounded by four flowers. They have been interpreted as symbols of Leicester’s Norman earls, which is not inaccurate; the cinquefoil was adopted by Robert FitzParnell who reigned over Leicester from 1158 to 1205. With the tower of Humberstone church being constructed in the mid-thirteenth century, this would fit perfectly if indeed the carvings were the same age as the tower. The problem is that the carvings are clearly not the same age.

The earliest depiction of the cinquefoil in Leicester
If the Humberstone cinquefoils are Norman in origin, it would make them the oldest depictions of Leicester’s symbol in the county. What I am proposing is a new interpretation, that these cinquefoils pre-date the Norman era and have no direct association with the Norman earls who adopted it as their symbol. It is my thought that the Vikings Ingwar and Hubba were the first to bring the cinquefoil into the Leicester.

Even if my Viking interpretations of the other stone reliefs are accepted by historians and archaeologists, I believe it would be an almost impossible task to convince my learned scholars that the cinquefoil had entered Leicester with the Viking princes as opposed to the Norman earls. I make such a suggestion because I do believe that all of the carvings at Humberstone were made at the same time by the same artist. Stylistically they are the same and the cinquefoils are made from the same stone as four of the other reliefs. The cinquefoils also appear with four flowers, something which has never been seen in Leicester as the Norman earls displayed theirs as a solitary ermine cinquefoil.

This  evidence  may well be true  but if  I am  to allude to a  Viking origin, there needs to be some historical evidence that shows that the Danish princes adopted the cinquefoil before the Norman earls, and it seems there is.

Hedeby (meaning heathland) was once the most ancient town in Denmark until the site became part of Germany. It was the largest Nordic city during the Viking Age, an important trading settlement. It flourished between the 8th and 11th centuries but was abandoned after its destruction in 1066.

Researcher Michael Harris has explored the history of Hedeby and notes that “in the 9th century, the famous Viking Ragnar was ruler of Hedeby and was captured and killed in York.” Ragnar is a descendant of the Kings of Angle and, as we have already discussed, was Ingwar and Hubba’s father. Harris continues:

“The best known symbol of the Kings of Angle is the raven (Latin Corvus).  The corvus was symbolic of the curved (Latin curvus) fort at Hedeby.  The raven was carried into battle by the kings of Angle on the raven banner.  The raven is also found as a personal emblem of the Rus kings of Kiev.  The raven is also found on coinage minted by the Kievan Rus kings, including coins produced by Yaroslav "the Wise" and coins minted by Vladimir "the Great."

As we have already seen, the Raven Banner was carried into Britain by Ragnar’s son, Hubba, and the origin of the Raven Banner was Hedeby fort, of which Ragnar was once ruler. Hedeby’s importance to the Vikings is noted in history. It was as the most significant market town in ancient Scandinavia and many places in Normandy and England were named in honour of Hedeby, using various combinations of features by which Hedeby was known. Harcourt is no different. Har has the meaning of bristling, and Harcourt has the meaning of bristling defensive enclosure. Hedeby was once ringed with a high wall (still be seen today) topped by a thick Hawthorn hedgerow, which provided a significant layer of extra defense. Projecting from the southwest corner was a set of rays or limbs also topped with defensive hedges (also still seen today). This was a way of funnelling invaders into pockets where they would be unable to coordinate. As stated, the raven was a symbol of the curved fort, which is reflected so brilliantly in the Raven Banner.

Ingwar and Hubba raided Britain to avenge the death of their father and Hubba in particular carried the symbol of his homeland – the Raven Banner. There are numerous other symbols that are associated with Hedeby and one is the cinquefoil, the five-petalled rose that became so important to Leicester’s Norman earls. If Humberstone really was a settlement named after Hubba, then the cinquefoil on the church is likely to be a symbol of Hubba’s fatherland – Hedeby.

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by Matthew Sibson

Friday, 23 November 2012

Vestiges of the Danelaw in Humberstone, Part 1

The Vikings swarmed down the River Soar and invaded Leicester in 868, partly destroying the ancient Roman city walls and within the next ten years, Burhed, King of Mercia, was defeated. In 886, the losses of Anglo-Saxon territory in Mercia were clearly defined by a treaty that gave the Danes a permanent ‘country’ within England known as the Danelaw. Leicestershire fell within this territory and when the city’s Bishop retired to satefy at Dorchester-on-Thames, churches were destroyed and Christian rites trampled.

The Vikings swarmed down the River Soar to Leicester
Leicester, as a former Anglo-Saxon royal city, continued its importance under Danish rule. Although short-lived, the existence of the Danelaw left an everlasting mark on Leicestershire. Despite this, there aren’t many archaeological finds to be seen; visible remains of the Norsemen are hard to come by. Leicestershire’s archaeological record lacks burials, pottery and everyday implements. Finds that we do have are generally personal ornaments such as brooches, horse accessories, coinage and weaponry.

Place-names show the extent of Danish-occupied Leicestershire with 56 villages ending with –by, half of which contain a Danish personal name as their other element. The sounds of the Scandinavian invaders gives way to names of an older Mercian originwith names ending in -ton. Thrussington, Syston and Cossington all speak of an earlier period in Leicestershire’s settlement history. Even though the -ton element suggests the presence of a settlement that survived the impact of the Danish army, the first element in these names is frequently a Scandinavian personal name.

This article explores the history of the village of Humberstone and mounts evidence for its origin as a Danelaw settlement with new place-name interpretations and a fresh look at local legends. For the first time I also attempt to decipher the meaning of a collection of stone reliefs that, until now, have an unknown origin, an unknown meaning but clearly predate the Norman church they are incorporated into.

The Hel stone
To the north of Humberstone village, next to a roundabout and close to the Porsche Garage, is a standing stone – Leicestershire’s only ancient monolith known today as the Humber Stone. Throughout history the stone has gone by many names, Humber Stone being the most recent, named after the closest village. The village being named after the stone is a common misconception.

The Humber Stone was once known as the Hel Stone 
A hundred years ago the stone was called the Hoston Stone, but it has been called many things through antiquity, including the Holstone, the Holy Stone the Hell Stone but another ancient name for it is Hel Stone. Interestingly, about 100 yards to the north-east of the stone was a plot of land known as Hell Hole Furlong. Its exact location is recorded by Alice Dryden in her book Memorials of Old Leicestershire.

“It may be of some interest to know that the field on the south-west of the Thurmaston Lane, at the corner opposite the point at which the Barkby Thorpe bridle path leaves the lane, is and has been for many years, known as Hell Hole.”

So where does this reference to Hel and Hell come from?  Anybody with an understanding of Norse legends knows that Hel is the name of the mythological underworld, the land of the dead that was ruled by a goddess of the same name – Hel. Even the old Humberstone Reverend and antiquarian, John Dudley, made this connection when he wrote an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1813. He stated:

“No circumstance belonging at present to this spot seems likely to have given rise to this strange name; it leaves room, therefore, for the conjecture that in this quarter the sacrifices, too often human, were wont to be performed, and that from this it obtained the Saxon name of Hela.”

Dudley refers to Hela as Saxon, but Hela is a derivative of Hel, the name of the Norse underworld and also the name of the ruling goddess of the underworld. But why would the stone have this association? The key here is the name of the furlong – ‘Hell Hole,’ which would assume there was a hole, or cave, nearby. Hel is the perfect name for a cave discovered (or created) by the Vikings – a real life underworld in the conquered landscape.

19th Century depiction of the Norse Goddess, Hel
Sadly no underground cavern has ever been discovered but there is an old legend from the English Civil War that says that one did exist. The tale says a group of Royalists were captured by the Roundheads and imprisoned in St Mary’s church in Humberstone village. They escaped from the church via a secret passage to emerge in a field just by the Humber Stone. When the Roundheads finally discovered the stone, they levered it over the entrance to the passage to stop anybody from following them.

St Mary's Church, Humberstone
We actually know that Humberstone church had a passageway to the nearby (but now demolished) Monk’s Rest, but we don’t know if there’s a tunnel beneath the Humber Stone itself. But that’s not the only reference of a tunnel at the stone. Another legend speaks of a subterranean chamber that linked the Humber Stone with Leicester Abbey, but again such a tunnel has never been discovered. Humberstone’s Reverend Dudley was a real authority on village history and legends and in his article of 1813 he stated:

“There are, or rather were, about fifty years ago traditionary tales in the village that a Nunnery once stood on Hoston, and that steps had been found communicating subterraneously with the monks of Leicester Abbey, about two miles distant. But no religious house of this kind is to be traced here. The tale must have owed its origin to circumstances connected with the religion of earlier times, probably anterior to the introduction of Christianity into Britain, and therefore during the prevalence of idolatry of the Britons.”

Thirty-three years later, Reverend Dudley wrote about the stone’s subterranean legend once again. He states:

“It [the myth of the nunnery tunnel] may have been founded on a tradition that a Celtic cave was once extant at the place, perhaps beneath the stone on which the amber [Humber Stone] stood. In the ages of Christianity which followed the suppression of the Celtic religion, it seems to have been designated by the name of Hell Hole. This name is still retained by the lands forming the slope of the eminence on which the Holy [Humber] stone is situate, although the richness of the lands and their pleasant aspect seems to demand a less offensive name. These circumstances afford evidence which cannot be reasonably contravened, that the name of Hell Hole was given to a Celtic cave, which, from the tale of the nunnery, may be inferred to have been dedicated to a female divinity.”

The cave may well have had a Celtic origin but it is easy to assume that it was subsequently reused and renamed by the Viking invaders, as the underworld Hel. The fact that there was an ancient tunnel in the landscape would have been important to the Vikings who may have viewed the land as a possible representation of Hel for religious and ceremonial purposes, and therefore an important location to settle in.

There are a number of caves underneath the city of Nottingham but whether such a cave system exists in Leicester, or indeed Humberstone, is unknown. A geophysical survey may well clear this up. What we do know is that the nomenclature of Leicester’s only remaining monolith, and a patch of nearby land, was once named ‘Hel/Hell.’ After ‘Hel’ the stone became the Holy Stone (most likely after the re-Christianisation of the land), then Holstone, followed by Hoston and most recently the Humber Stone. The name Hel and Hell in Humberstone are likely to originate from the times of the Danelaw when a nearby Celtic cave was named after the Norse underworld, Hel. The stone, which stood close to the cave’s entrance, could have possibly been seen to represent the guardian of the underworld, the goddess Hel and the name remained preserved in village folklore.

What’s in a name?
If the standing stone and ancient cave were so important to the Vikings, you’d expect to find a settlement nearby. This brings me to Humberstone village. Humberstone has a long history; it is mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086 but present thought doesn’t take it back to the time of the Danelaw.

In the Domesday Survey the village name is spelt Humerstane, then Humberstane (1130), Humbrestein (1205), Humbrestain (1229), Humbreston (1299) and finally Humberstone. In ‘The Place-Names of Leicestershire’ Barrie Cox alludes to the origin of the name being Hunbeort’s Stone. He states:

“The township was named from a glacial erratic to the north of its site. It is uncertain whether the stone constituted a boundary marker for the Anglo-Saxon Hunbeorht.”

Even though the author is uncertain, he states that the origin of the village name is Hunbeorht’s Stone. Cox is an authority on Leicestershire place-names but where the evidence for Hunbeorht’s boundary stone theory comes from, I am unsure. Hunbeorht was the Bishop of Elmham who died around 856 but there is no known connection between him and the village in question. Therefore, the place-name can only be viewed with conjecture, not certainty.

I would suggest that the origin of the place-name is more likely to arise from the county’s Danelaw era. Due to the very few relics attributed to the Danish invasion in the archaeological record the bulk of the evidence for a substantial Danish settlement comes from place-names. Every village that ends in –by, -toft or –Thorpe, for example, have a Danish origin. Many villages also used a Scandinavian first element with the English habitat element –tun, for example Thurmaston. This would infer villages taken over by Danish newcomers and hence renamed.

Many Leicestershire villages were named after powerful gods and famous Danes. Oadby is named after Oadby and Thurnby comes from the god Thor. Two villages close to Humberstone, namely Hungerton and Ingarsby are named after a powerful Danish leader called Ingwar Ragnarsson (also known as Hingwar and Ivarr the Boneless). Ingarsby literally translates to Ingwar’s Village. Ingwar was a prince, son of Ragnar Lodbrok, ruler of an area probably comprising parts of modern-day Sweden and Denmark. Ingwar had a brother called Prince Hubba Ragnarsson (also known as Ubbe and Huber). Some scholars believe that the name Humerstane may originate from Hubba’s Stone.

King Ragnar Lodbrok as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle
Interestingly, the surname ‘Huber’ gave rise to many variants due to varying dialectal pronunciation, and one such variant is ‘Humer,’ Therefore Humberstone’s original name, Humerstane, literally means Hubba’s Stone (or Hubba’s boundary stone).

This association between Humberstone and Hubba was also observed by Kendall in his book Humberstone: A Brief History of the Church and the Manors. He states:

“Then there is the Danish derivation from Hubba. It is a fact that in 874 the town of Leicester was seized by the Danes under Hubba, and continued to be held by them from 925 to 940. Danish place names abound in the locality, and I have heard it stated on good authority that the ancient earthworks in Swan’s Orchard, a close at the extreme east end of the village on the right hand of the first footroad field to Scraptoft, is attributable to the Danish occupation of the eastern side of Leicestershire. Swan’s Orchard, by the way, doubtless owes its name to the yeoman family of Swan, who were living in the village at the beginning of the 17th century, and of whom, in 1614, John Swan desired to be buried in the north chapel of Humberstone Church, the chapel for some time afterwards being known by the name of Swan’s chapel. A Danish Chieftain, Inguar, son of Ragnar Lodbrok, King of Denmark, says Mr. Carter in his Danish place names of Leicestershire, with Hubba, headed an expedition against this country. His name appears in Ingarsby, and some people are inclined to trace it also in Hungerton (Inguarton). As a coincidence, it has been noticed that there is a Hunger Hill close to Humberstone on the Humber, in Lincolnshire, a Humberstone Gorse close to Hungerton, near Grantham, and thirdly, we have Hungerton, Humberstone and Ingarsby in close neighbourhood in Leicestershire. This is hardly convincing argument, but it is quite possible Humberstone may be derived from Hubba’s-ton.”

Hubba, like his brothers, was an extraordinary character who led the Viking warriors across England and Wales as they successfully won battle after battle against the Saxon defenders. To understand why Humberstone would be named after Prince Hubba, it is worth understanding his importance in Viking history.

It all began in the autumn of 866 when Hubba, with his brothers Halfdan and Ingwar led an enormous Viking army across the sea, landing in East Anglia to avenge the death of their father Ragnar. There they set up camp, fortified their position and waited for reinforcements. In February 867 they marched inland and seized York. Ingwar set up a king clearly showing that his goal was conquest, not plunder. From there, Ingwar and Hubba went south into the kingdom of Mercia, collecting huge swathes of land along the way. The Mercian King Edmund made a disastrous assault on their entrenchments at Thetford in November 870. Edmund and was captured and asked to forsake Christianity and serve as a vassal under Ingwar and Hubba in return for his life. He refused. He was then tied to a cross and used as an archery target.

In 872 the three brothers continued to ravage Mercia and by the end of 874 they totally controlled the kingdom. Leicester, Nottingham, Lichfield and Tamworth had fallen and the new Mercian king, Burhed, abandoned his country. The antiquarian William Kelly interpreted Ingarsby to be an encampment of Prince Ingwar and a place of considerable military importance. Therefore we can assume Humberstone offered the same level of importance for Prince Hubba as the two villages were in close proximity of one another. Kelly states:

“It is not improbable that about the time Prince Ingar established himself there [Ingarsby], and according to the usual custom, called the place after his own name.”

Leicester would have been the frontier fortress to the Saxon boundary is bordered and it is highly likely that Hubba’s famous flag, the Raven Banner, would have been hanging from the city walls to strike fear in their opponents. The banner was said to have been woven in one noon by the sisters of Ingwar and Hubba, when the warrior princes departed from their homeland to avenge their father’s death. The banner, which displayed a raven, was said to appear before every battle and fly like a living bird if the Danes were victorious, but hung down motionless is they were defeated.

After taking Leicester the brothers continued to ravish the country and they even joined up with their fourth brother, Guthrum, but in 878 things started to change for the worse. One night a Saxon army near Devon, led by Odda, their alderman, silently travelled to Hubba’s camp, slew him and many of his warriors. This became known as the Battle of the Raven Flag as Hubba’s famous Raven Banner was captured by the Saxons. The tide was beginning to turn and soon afterwards Ingwar was killed while invading Ireland. The slain princes’ successors, Halfdan and Guthrum made a credible stand against Alfred the Great but they too failed. Halfdan’s fate is unknown but Guthrum gave in to King Alfred and was even baptised into Christianity. Alfred even became Guthrum’s godfather and soon, a pact between the Vikings and the Saxons would be signed.

Hubba left many traces of his remarkable marches. His rapid and extensive movements across England and Wales, and his penchant for camping upon and fortifying high places, has been of great interest to archaeologists and historians. Hubba and his brothers were mighty leaders, Viking heroes, and settlements named after them appeared across England and Wales, probably in the places they had settled during their conquest. For Hubba in particular seven historic eminences have borne the name Hubba’s Hill and the town of Hubberston in Pembrokeshire was also named after him.

Like the seven Hubba’s Hill locations, the standing stone of Humberstone also stands on an eminence and has been a landmark in the East Leicestershire landscape for 440,000 years due to its origin as a glacial erratic rock, i.e. deposited from a glacier during the last ice age. When the Vikings invaded Britain, the landscape at Humberstone, with its very own underworld and stone guardian, would have been the perfect place to settle. If the subterranean tunnel was already ancient, as the Reverend John Dudley believed (Celtic), then it is plausible that the Viking settlement would have been built at the locality where the tunnel culminated – the present day Humberstone village. With such an important, almost ceremonial landscape, the settlement would certainly have been named after an important figure, and during the Viking invasion nobody was more important than the mighty conqueror, Prince Hubba. The ancient monolith may have been given the name of Hel after the goddess of the underworld, but the important, iconic landmark was claimed by Hubba; it was the Hel Stone, but it was Hubba’s Stone and so the ancient village took this name.

There is yet more place name evidence which alludes to a Norse origin in that in 1205 Humberstone was recorded as Humbrestein. Steinn is the Old Norse word for stone. As already stated Humberstone’s name at Domesday was Humerstane and therefore we could assume that the -stane element may well have been recorded phonetically by the Normans. -Stane and -stan appear as place name endings at various localities throughout Britain and are interpreted as late Saxon, but there is some body of thought that they originate from the Old Norse -steinn. Whatever the truth, during the 13th century, the village name seems to have retaken its original Scandinavian element of -stein. Interestingly there is an ancient meadow in Humberstone once known as Steine Meadow and this gave rise to the street name Steins Lane which remains to this day as a continuance of Main Street.

Don't miss Part 2 of this fantastic research, which focusses on some fantastic archaeological discoveries in the village. Click here.

by Matthew Sibson