Danes and Norsemen

Danes and Norsemen

The seventh century was the golden age of Northumbria. Originally consisting of two independent kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira, it was united in 605 A.D., and during the reign of Edwin expanded into the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It stretched from the Humber to the Forth and the western coast and included the isle of Anglesey and Man. But in the following century Mercia replaced it as the most important English kingdom, although Northumbria continued for some time as a principle seat of learning and literary activity. In the ninth century the leadership of the English passed from the Mercia to the kingdom of Wessex.

Therefore on Wessex fell the heaviest burden of organizing resistance against the Danish invasions, which began with isolated raids on the east and south coasts of England in the later years of the eighth century, but which developed into damaging campaigns inland during the next hundred years. In 865 A.D., the Great Army of the Danes landed in East Anglia intent on beginning a permanent conquest of England. By 874 A.D., the king of Mercia – the present-day Derbyshire, Leicester and Northamptonshire – the Danes were already establishing settlements. Most of south-western Northumbria (i.e. Lancashire) escaped these devastating attacks, but place-names in the Manchester area, such as Hulme, Oldham (Aldhulme), Flixton, Urmston, and Hulme near Winwick, reveal the north-western fringe of Danish settlement. The track of this invasion can be traced back through eastern Cheshire in such place-names as Cheadle Hulme, Holmes Chapel, Hulme Walfield, Kettleshulme, Knutsford and Toft.

About 900 A.D., however, the western coast of Northumbria and the north-west of Mercia were invaded by many boatloads of Norsemen, who sailed from northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. The forefathers of these invaders had journeyed from Scandinavia round the north of Scotland to find new homes in the Western Isles and in Ireland. Many had become Christians. To Lancashire these Norsemen appear to have come as fairly peaceful settlers. The position of their homesteads and the evidence from ‘Domesday Book’ suggest that they were living as friendly neighbours with the Angles, and often were content to farm inferior land.

Undoubtedly there were occasional skirmishes especially in the early stages of the settlement, but the Norse filtered into Lancashire rather than invaded it. Their language came to be dominant in many districts of the area for several generations. For years after the French-Norman Conquest Lancashire men were measuring land not in Anglian hides and yardlands, but in Norse carucates (or ploughlands) and bovates (or oxgangs), and reckoning values not by the English silver penny but by the Norse ora. Even as late as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries many a Lancashire boy was christened Stainulf or Thurstan or Siward as his Norse ancestors had been.

Norse and Danish place-names often took alike. ‘Kir(k)by’ or ‘Ormskirk’ could be either Norse or Danish in origin. But so many place-names in western Lancashire have distinctive Norse characteristics that it is not difficult to show that this extensive Scandinavian settlement was Norse not Danish. There is no doubt about place-names such as Scarisbrick, Norbeck, Lowgill, Brinscall, Scales, Ashlack or Nettleslack, and some place-names, such as Goosnargh, Grimsargh, Anglezarke and Becconsall, are even partly Irish as well as partly Norse.

After the death of Alfred the Great the defence of England fell chiefly on the shoulders of two of Alfred’s children, Edward the Elder, the new king of Wessex, and AEthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. Brother and sister built a series of defensive forts. The fort at Runcorn, situated at the base of the present Runcorn railway bridge, itself called afterAEthelflaed, guarded the Mersey at one of its narrowest points. In 919 A.D., the year after AEthelflaed’s death, Edward built forts at Thelwall and at Manchester to strengthen the English position in the Mersey valley, and eventually forced the Norse army in Yorkshire to surrender. AEthelstan, his son, did even better. He carried the fight north of the Ribble, and in 937 A.D., at the battle of Brunanburgh, the site of which is still unknown, he defeated an important coalition of his enemies, and was everywhere acknowledged as king of the English. Brunanburgh marked the beginning of a most welcome period of peace, which lasted until 980 A.D. Then a new series of Danish attacks, which culminated in Canute’s conquest of England, renewed the struggle.

Until the days of Edward the Elder and AEthelstan, the Mersey had been the boundary between the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria. But in the general settlement after Brunanburgh, the Ribble became the new southern limit of Northumbria, and the land between the Ribble and the Mersey passed into the hands of the king. He kept it separate from Mercia, and in the following century it did not become part of the earldom of Mercia. It remained as a royal domain until after the French-Norman Conquest.