Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Normans

IV Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Normans

The new arrivals from northern Germany and the Low Countries who entered the area in the fifth and sixth centuries found in the Wash and Humber estuaries reminiscent of their homeland coastlines; but the process of invasion and settlement is far from clear. When the region emerged from the obscurity of the migration period,it was divided into two parts. In the north was Lindsey, a small kingdom whose origin may even be pre-Saxon; its name indicates an early connection with Lincoln and there are signs of British survival in the names of its earliest kings. Lindsey had a considerable measure of organisation, based on Lincoln, Stow or some more rural centre;it had its own bishop recognised by 677 as independent of the neighbouring bishops of Northumbria (York) and Mercia (Lichfield) .The southern half of the county formed part of the kingdom of the Middle Angles probably centred on Leicester; it too had its bishop. The Fens, inundated again during the fifth and sixth centuries, appear as a more or less untamed frontier land between the kingdoms of Lindsey, East Anglia and Middle Anglia.

Neither Lindsey nor Middle Anglia was large enough to survive in the troubled days of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, though Lindsey did better than most of the smaller kingdoms. The Middle Angles were absorbed by pagan Mercia which under Penda, one of its greatest kings, was waging war against the Christian British in the west and the Christian Northumbrians in the north and east. Some of his battles with the Northumbrians probably took place in Lindsey which changed hands between Mercian and Northumbrian overlords many times before Mercia established a predominance in 678. Throughout this time how­ever Lindsey preserved its own identity; it is mentioned as a separate political unit up to about 800, and the names of its kings were cherished for many centuries. It probably ceased to exist as an independent entity before the Danish invasions destroyed most of the remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but the struggle between Mercia and Northumbria for control over this area left its mark on the later history of the region in the separate identity of medieval Lindsey and in the quarrels between the bishops of Lincoln and the archbishops of York who claimed Lindsey as a part of the northern province of the Church.

The Danes

The Danes began to make seasonal raids on the shrines and religious houses, the main centres of wealth and culture along the coast of England, in the last years of the eighth and early ninth centuries; but when about 850 their aim changed from the gathering of plunder to permanent conquest, the Humber and its tributaries were once again an important point of entry for the invaders.

The main Danish attack was concentrated on the kingdoms of East Anglia and Northumbria. The Lincolnshire region was thus heavily involved. Danish armies passed between Yorkshire and East Anglia, destroying monasteries such as Bardney and Crowland and establishing temporary forts at Maxey, Gainsborough and elsewhere. From their winter headquarters at Torksey on the Trent, they launched an attack on Mercia in 874, set up a puppet king and established the territory known from their main strongholds as the land of the ‘Five Boroughs’. Whether this territory covered the whole of the later Lincolnshire is not certain; in 886 when Alfred king of Wessex made the Treaty of Wedmore with the Danes of East Anglia recognising the southern Danelaw, it is not clear whether any part of the lands north of the Welland was included in that new unit.

Two of the Five Boroughs, Lincoln and Stamford, lay in the area which later became Lincolnshire. Almost nothing is known of Saxon Lincoln before the Danish conquests apart from the fact that Bede indicated that it had a ‘prefect’ in charge in 627, but the invaders quickly recognised its strategic value and although it was defended against the Danes they twice stormed and garrisoned it. Even less is known of Stamford, but under the Danes, like Lincoln, it engaged in minting, pottery making and trade with Scandinavia. All the Five Boroughs were fortified by the Danes and served as centres for the muster of troops. Thus when soon after the death of Alfred in 899 the conquest of Danish England began in earnest, particular attention was paid to these towns. In 917 Derby was captured by the English king and in the following year Leicester, Stamford and Nottingham fell. Within a short time Lincoln too had submitted.

The last conquests

7. Map of The Danelaw
7. The Danelaw

For a time the Lincolnshire area lay on the frontier between the new kingdom of England and the new pagan Norse kingdom of York. War was endemic; in 940 the lands of the Five Boroughs were acknowledged as part of the kingdom of York, and Scandinavian sagas indicate that north Lincolnshire at least was regarded as being under the control of the York kings. Coin evidence suggests that this rule extended south to Stamford where a sub-king with his own currency may have been set up. But political domination over the area changed several times until in 954 the York king was killed in battle and the threat from the Norse at York was removed.

But Norsemen from overseas continued to harass the shores of England and Lincolnshire saw a good deal of the fighting. Gainsborough with its riverside camp became the headquarters for the conquest of England by king Swein of Denmark and his sons in 1023-16,and it was there that Cnut was chosen to succeed his father as king of Denmark and England:

After Swein’s death, Cnut stayed with his host in Gainsborough…and an agreement was made between him and the people of Lindsey to supply him with horses and then set out together and harry. The king Aethelred came with levies at full strength into Lindsey before they were prepared, and they made raids and burned and slew every human being they could find.

Resistance in Lincolnshire to these raids was led in turn by the earl of Northumbria and (in the first years of the 11th century) the ‘ealdorman’ of Mercia; there was apparently an ealdorman of Lindsey for a short time but in May 1066 it was the earl of Mercia rather than the earl of Northumbria Morcar who called out the men of Lindsey to resist Tostig the rebel brother of king Harold when he invaded.

After Tostig, a Danish army under Harold Hardrada entered the Humber and moved into Yorkshire where Hardrada was killed at Stamford Bridge by Harold. Immediately after the battle news came of the invasion of William duke of Normandy and Harold hurried south, leaving the sheriff of Lindsey to restore order in the north. The Normans of course won at Hastings, and in 1068 William- himself came north to suppress revolts. He entered Lincolnshire after ravaging Yorkshire but in general the county was peaceful. Although resistance smouldered north of the Humber and in the south where the dispossessed Hereward led a rising in the fens around Ely in 1070, the Norman occupation of Lincolnshire was not on the whole accompanied by violence.

Social fabric

Lincolnshire is a county of villages. They lie along the edges and in the valleys of the limestone belt, on the floors of the clay basins, throughout the marshlands and along the coast. There are scattered homesteads and areas of dispersed settlement in the fenlands and on the upper heaths and north Wolds, but even in these regions villages exist, often with quasi-urban, characteristics because they serve a larger population in the area around. Places like Kirton, Pinchbeck, Billing‑borough and Swineshead which elsewhere would be regarded as large villages have the feeling of small rural towns because of the range of services they offer.

Many of these villages may have had a prehistoric origin even if they now possess an Anglo-Saxon or Danish name. Some continuity from Roman and pre-Roman periods is clear.The Anglo-Saxon principalities and the later county divisions may go back to pre-Roman groupings among the Coritani tribes, just as the name of Lincoln incorporates pre-Saxon elements. Village names like Walesby and Waltham indicate the survival of some ‘Welsh’ (Romano-British) peoples, and the element -scot in Scotter and Scotton – shows that the so-called Scottish peoples were also present; more of these people no doubt continued to live in the region under new landlords and hidden from view under new placenames.

The evidence then suggests that in Lincolnshire the Anglo-Saxon migrations in the fifth and sixth centuries were relatively peaceful. But it is well to remember that less is known about the history of these years than about any other period. Finds are few and difficult to interpret, and the study of placenames is not yet complete. Known occupation sites are rare, probably because they lie under the present towns and villages of the county. Old Sleaford is thus important: the centre of settle­ment moved to the north and west of the early site, and excavations, in the 1960s revealed a more or less unbroken sequence of occupation from the Iron Age through the Roman period into the early Anglo-Saxon years. Dragonby and Kirmington have not yet revealed such continuity and at Ancaster where once again pre-Roman, Roman and Anglo-Saxon material has been found, there are signs of a period of depopulation or migration to a new site nearby before the medieval village grew up on the earlier site. We do not know which pattern was the more common, continuous occupation or dispossession and settlement on new sites.

8. Villages and roads of north Lincolnshire
8. Villages and roads of north Lincolnshire

But on the whole the pattern of villages and towns of today reflects the handiwork of the Anglo-Saxons and their successors the Danes. Members of all the races which took part in the invasions, except the Jutes, appar­ently settled in Lincolnshire. There are signs of Saxons as early as about 450, and the Frisians left their mark in names like Frieston. But the majority of settlers were Angles. Some early cemeteries have been found, the most important being at Sleaford, Elkington in the Wolds and Loveden Hill north of Grantham containing pagan cremation and inhumation burials. The metalwork among the grave goods shows some influence of the earlier Celtic work for which the region is noted, perhaps another indication of the survival of Romano-British people.

After the conversion of the new settlers to Christianity, the archaeological material be­comes less useful. The basic evidence for the history of the settlement consists of place-names and the pattern of villages. A large number of placenames end in -ingas, an Anglo-Saxon element made up from the name of people who settled there or variant forms of it, like the Deepings or Folkingham; although these may not represent the earliest waves of invasion as was once thought, they show the strength of Anglo-Saxon colonisation in the sixth century in this area. The settlers seem to have entered along the rivers Welland, Witham, Slea and Ancholme and then along the Roman roads, especially Ermine Street and King Street. A few of their villages lie in the Fens between Boston and Spalding but rather more cluster along both sides of the limestone heath; there are several on the Wolds.

The pattern created by these Anglo-Saxon colonists persists today. Villages lie on the springline along the edges of both the limestone and the chalk uplands where porous rocks overlie heavier clays. Such a location gave access to the areas of heath on the higher lands and to the meadows and pastures below. This pattern is most clearly seen just north of Lincoln. Here the Roman road runs directly northwards across the limestone belt, ignoring all settlements. A second road, one lane of the earlier prehistoric ridgeway, clings closer to the cliff edge and below it lie villages with early Anglo-Saxon names, Cammeringham, Fillingham, etc. So regular is the pattern that it has been suggested that this is an area of planned settlement, but this seems unlikely. Each village is connected to the cliff-top road by a lane running down the hillside and on into the low pastures. On the other side of the limestone belt lies a second north-south line of villages connected by a road which is clearly later, winding from village to village through the open fields.

9. Cross-section of Lincolnshire Cliff (not to scale).
9. Cross-section of Lincolnshire Cliff (not to scale).

Further south much the same pattern is visible: Along both edges of the limestone heath, villages grew up on the spring line. In the clays of the Witham,Belvoir and Trent valleys, a number of ridges and little hills capped with gravel provided dry sites for rows of villages such as Blankney and Billinghay or more isolated settlements like Bassingham. Along the eastern edge of the limestone facing the Fens were low islands of gravel, each of which attracted early occupation (Heckington, Helpringham, Horbling, Billingborough). There was virtually no settle­ment on the limestone plateau and little on the top of the Wolds. The boulder clay edge of the Marsh received some early sites (Alvingham, Cockerington) but in general the marshlands were left until the pressure of population and the demand for land grew. Few settlements were made on the coastal silt belt or on islands in the Fens which were a home for refugees like St Guthlac at Crowland; flooding in this area in the fifth and sixth centuries seems to have deterred occupation though not, of course, exploitation.

Scandinavian in-filling

Between 600 and 800 population grew, more land was cultivated and new villages were formed, sometimes as subsidiary settlements from the main villages. In the low lands of the Trent valley west of the Cliff and in the forest areas of south Kesteven, sites which were occupied season­ally or occasionally – summer pastures, meadows, or forest clearances -. became the homes of permanent settlements with names including -ing, -feld or -ley. The Danish incursions ranging over nearly a century added to this population. Although some historians have suggested that the conquest was not accompanied or followed by the settlement of large numbers of new inhabitants, that the armies were relatively small and that the intrusive cultural features of placenames, linguistic elements and customs were the result of conquest rather than colonisation, the signs of a substantial Danish immigration into Lincolnshire, the heaviest in England, seem unanswerable. More than 250 placenames ending in the Danish -by (village or homestead) are known, and ‘hybrid’ forms combining Anglo-Saxon and Danish elements are on the whole rare. Other characteristics of this region in the later Anglo-Saxon period suggest that we are here dealing with a folk movement, a migration of land-hungry people who settled side by side with the English rather than a conquering aristocracy ruling over a subject people. The routes followed seem to have been once more the rivers and the Roman roads. The Wolds show signs of heavy Danish occupation, especially in the Horncastle area, the most strongly Scandinavian part of Lincolnshire, and indeed of the whole Danelaw’. There were extensive settlements in south Kesteven, but the Fens were not densely occupied until later.

The original Danish settlement in small consolidated groups for military purposes expanded as the Scandinavian population grew rap­idly. New villages were established, often on poorer soils. The pattern created by these later settlers is not always clear. In some areas, especially in the more congenial river valleys, they appear to have filled gaps with villages of their own; in other places they established hamlets in outlying parts of the lands belonging to the original settlement, often to be seen in the element -thorpe, a subordinate or secondary settlement, as at Thuriby by Bourne with its Northorpe, Southorpe and Obthorpe, or at West Ashby with Midthorpe and Farthorpe.

During the years before the Norman Conquest, a small Norse element (Normanby, Normanton) appeared among the settlers. But the coming of the Normans after 1066 brought little in the way of new population; they came as a conquering aristocracy taking over and altering existing estates. There may have been some settlements in the Fens but elsewhere the Norman elements were small. Nevertheless names such as Norton may reveal some pockets of French settlement, and some of the towns saw Norman influence as at Stamford (Portland) and Lincoln (Newport).