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

1 comment:

  1. What are the chances of investigating your theories? Geophys would be interesting!