Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Viking Invasion of Leicestershire

We know exactly when the Viking Age began in England – it was more than 1,200 years ago – on June 8, 793. That was the day when invading Norsemen destroyed the Abbey church on the island of Lindisfarne, off the north-east coast of England. Lindisfarne was a centre of learning famous across the continent – but that meant nothing to these fierce invaders.

The Vikings arrived in England in 793 AD
Monks were either killed in the abbey, thrown into the sea to drown or carried away as slaves – along with the church’s treasures. The devastation of Northumbria’s Holy Island shocked Europe. “Never before has such an atrocity been seen”, declared the Northumbrian scholar, Alcuin of York. The Vikings had announced themselves in a devastating way. This was just a warning of what was to come.

Over the next 300 years, more and more invaders would flood into England, and Leicestershire would be full of Vikings.

Divided country
At the time, England was not one united country – it was divided up into Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Leicester was included within Mercia, and was known as Legreceastre. It was the principal city in that kingdom. Even a thousand years ago and more, Legreceastre was a bit of a melting pot. It was a meeting point of several different cultures – the Angles from the Wash and the Humber, Saxons from Warwickshire, Mercians from the Trent, and Celts from the hills of Charnwood. In Leicester, they met, traded and eventually settled. What increasingly united these peoples was Christianity. Mercia was Christian – the “new” religion reached Leicester in the year 658. A church was said to have stood from the 7th century on the current St Margaret’s site. Leicestershire, as we know it, was in the heart of the Mercian kingdom and is thought to have been the capital for political and ecclesiastical affairs. It was far enough away from the frontiers to avoid changing hands as the unstable boundaries of the mini-kingdom advanced and receded. But what the Anglo-Saxons had worked so hard to build in Leicestershire, was about to come to an end. The Scandinavian enemy was at the gates and Mercia would never be the same again.

Ruthlessly pillaged
In 10 short years, between 865 and 874, the whole structure of life in Mercia collapsed. A huge Scandinavian army marched and pillaged up and down England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has preserved a glimpse of these years of chaos in its records of “a great heathen army” that pillaged East Anglia in the year 865. Between 865 and 868 the Northmen widened their field for plunder and tribute to East Mercia. Leicester was attacked in 868, partly destroying the ancient Roman city walls.

Thousands of Danes swarmed down the River Soar in their small, easily-managed boats, penetrating the very heart of the country, carrying fire and sword among the simple and terrified population, whom they ruthlessly pillaged and massacred. In the winter of 874 to 5, after defeating Burhed, King of Mercia in battle, the raiders established their quarters at Repton on the River Trent. Monasteries, the repositories of rich and beautiful objects in gold, silver and jewellery, formed particular targets for the pagan invaders. The monastery that had been founded at Breedon in Leicestershire was reputedly sacked. But these Danes didn’t just hit and run, like the early invaders on Lindisfarne.

The Vikings swarmed down the River Soar
In its records of the year 877, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests a permanent settlement of the land. The Danish army it says “went into the land of the Mercians, and shared out some of it, and gave some to Ceolwulf”. Ceolwulf was the puppet king whom the Danes placed on the Mercian throne. It seems Mercia was now divided in half.

Large parts of its eastern territories had passed into the hands of the Scandinavian invaders and were open to settlement. Within the next decade, in 886, the losses of Anglo-Saxon territory in Mercia were clearly defined by a treaty that King Alfred the Great concluded with Guthrum, the leader of the Danes, after his Wessex Saxons had recaptured London.

A permanent “country of Danes” was now established within England, known as the Danelaw. This Danish part of England comprised the greater part of eastern England from East Anglia to North Yorkshire, incorporating most of Leicestershire. You could say that Leicester was part of Denmark.

Leicestershire was close to the Danelaw boundary though, and it is believed that some of the wealthier inhabitants migrated with as many possessions as they could carry. As the churches were destroyed and Christian rites trampled, the Bishop of Leicester retired to safety at Dorchester-on-Thames. It would be more than a thousand years before there would again be a Diocese of Leicester. Leicester, with Derby, Nottingham, Lincoln and Stamford, became one of the “Five Boroughs” of the Danelaw. Leicester, as a former Anglo-Saxon royal city, continued its importance under Danish rule. Danish forms of taxation and local government took root in Leicester.

Danish Leicester
Although the Danelaw’s existence was relatively short-lived, it left an everlasting mark on the history of Leicestershire. The Scandinavians left an indelible impression on the language of the East Midlands.  Vocabulary, grammatical structures and the very tones of local dialect were deeply affected by the contact with Scandinavia. Despite this, there aren’t many archeological 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. There are also some distinctly Irish objects found in Leicestershire that were probably plundered by Vikings during raids, and transported back to the Danelaw lands. Such finds include a “shrine mount” from Breedon and belt buckles from Melton.

Our understanding of Danish settlement and the geography of the Danelaw depends largely on the evidence of Scandinavian place-names. The place-name ending of by, which means a farm or more usually a settlement, is seen throughout Denmark. That same ending is common in England too. In Leicestershire alone, 56 villages end in by (such as Oadby) and of these, half the number contain a Danish personal name as their other element. But towards Leicester, on the broad gravel spreads where the River Wreake empties into the Soar, the character of place-names changes. The sounds of the Scandinavian invaders gives way to names of an older Mercian origin with 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. Many Leicestershire villages were named after powerful Danes. Ingarsby is named after the Danish Prince Ingar and it is now believed that Humberstone may be named after Ingar’s brother, Hubba.  Both Princes entered Leicester during the Danish invasion and could have settled in the villages named after themselves.

Some think the Viking princes are on the tower of Humberstone church
But as well as being named after actual people, many villages were named after the gods. Thurmaston, Thurcaston, Thurlaston and Thurnby all owe their name to one of the principal pagan gods of the Scandinavian culture – Thor, who together with Odin, were the most commonly worshipped gods. An archaeological find from Leicestershire of a miniature “Thor’s Hammer”, the god’s famous magical weapon, is on display in the Jewry Wall Museum.

Miniature Thor's Hammer  found in Leicestershire

Names are clues
With invading forces, you may assume that they would settle on the broad and fertile river terraces of the Soar. But settlements already existed here and new areas of land were needed to house the large band of men who came to dwell in Leicestershire. By the study of place-names, it appears that they turned towards the emptier and perhaps less rewarding river terraces that flank the narrow valley of the Wreake. Along that river we find Frisby, Hoby, Rotherby, Brooksby and Rearsby. The word “Wreake” is also derived from Scandinavia, being the Old Norse word for “twisted”. So, Wreake is both a description and the new name for the river once known as the River Eye. Historian Sir Frank Stenton said the Wreake settlement was occupied by a large body of the Danish army who took permanent occupation of the land some time around 877.

The army would have been stationed here so it could spring to the defence of Leicester if the town was ever threatened by invaders from the west. Another Danish encampment is thought to have stood on the area of Leicester known as Dane Hills. The creation of the Danelaw made as great an impression on Leicester as in the surrounding countryside. The colonising Danes, soldiers and farmers, turned the Mercian cathedral city into a garrison town. The term “gate,” descended from the Old Norse, “gata,” meaning a street, occurs in a handful of streets in the heart of Leicester. All in the same part of town we find Gallowtree Gate, Humberstone Gate, Church Gate, Belgrave Gate and Sanvey Gate. They lie outside the line of the former Roman and medieval wall, beyond the bounds of the Anglo-Saxon town. As we all know, the first four streets converge at the Clock Tower where High Street passed through the former East Gate out of the walled enclosure of the medieval town. Thus, the presence of the “gata” element in modern street names of Leicester suggests that the Danes, when they made Leicester one of their strongholds, established a new town outside the wall of the Mercian city. By the early years of the 10th century, Leicester may have been like a town of two halves, sharply divided into Anglo-Saxon and Danish quarters.

Fresh conquests
But Leicester wasn’t to remain in Danish hands. In 918, after taking the town of Derby, King Alfred the Great’s daughter, Ethelfleda collected a large army and captured Leicester from the Danes. Shortly afterwards, the Danes of York made peace with this powerful princess, and bound themselves by oath to obedience.

Ethelfleda was known as “the Lady of the Mercians”, and she is credited with strengthening the fortifications of Leicester, building the first castle and founding a church on the site of St Mary de Castro, probably levelled during the Norman Conquest. By building this church, she re-established Christian worship in Leicester. But not long after taking Leicester, Ethelfleda died at her palace in Tamworth on June 12, 918.

Statue of Ethelfleda in the courtyard of Leicester Guildhall
She is said to have been wise, just and righteous, and to have walked in the ways of her father. After the re-conquest of Mercia, a mint was established in Leicester near the North Bridge, which continued until the reign of King Henry II. Coins with a local stamp from the reign of Edgar (959-975), Ethelred II (978-1016) and Canute (1016-1035) have all been discovered locally. The recapture of Mercia was, on the face of it, a temporary deliverance. It was followed by more Danish and Norse raids and, in 1013, the Five Boroughs made submission to Sweyn, King of Denmark. Leicester was sacked by Edmund Ironside in 1016, the year of the decisive Battle of Assandun, which made Canute master and ruler of all England.

Shortlived peace
Gradually the Danish invaders became absorbed into English society. By the start of the 11th century, the men of the Danelaw, though they kept their own customs and language, had become more or less Christian and more or less Englishmen, after amalgamating with the Anglo-Saxons for well over a hundred years. Canute was a foreign ruler, but he did not, like William the Conqueror, impose domination by a foreign race.

After the Battle of Assandun and until the Norman Conquest, the town of Leicester was free from ravages of conflicting armies, and was “well-peopled”. But the peace would not last long. In another half a century, the Normans would arrive and the town would again face the brute force of a powerful army.

by Matthew Sibson

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