Saxons & Vikings


Archaeologists assure us that the post-Roman period was not as dark as was once thought. We are now told that the material ‘decline, which resulted from the collapse of Roman commerce, was accompanied by a religious revival, as Christianity – not always of an orthodox kind – became a force which helped to unite the British against the Saxon invaders. At the same time, the conversion of the Irish by British missionaries helped to create a new Celtic culture centred round the Irish Sea, characterized by superlative metal­work and a revival in trade with the continent.

The stories of Arthur also suggest that the northwest was not entirely abandoned to either Picts, Scots or Saxons. This is hardly surprising, because the north-west lay, between such major centres of British survival as the kingdom of Elmet in the Yorkshire dales and the kingdom of Maelgwn in north Wales. Arthur is supposed to have won a battle near Chester (the City of the Legion in Arthurian tales). Although William Camden’s claim in Britannia (1582) that the river Douglas was the site of several other British victories is not upheld by modern scholars, other battles with the invaders are thought to have been fought in the neighbourhood of Carlisle and the Scottish lowlands. If so, British predominance in the north-west was probably maintained, in spite of some Angle and Saxon penetration, until the end of the sixth century.

Anglian Settlement of Lancashire

West of the Pennines was territory disputed between the British kingdoms which emerged from the wreck of the Roman Empire. For a time it belonged to a north Welsh kingdom called Teyrnllwg. British hegemony, however, was destroyed at the battle of Chester, circa 615, when an alliance of the Christian Celts was broken by the pagan Saxon, Etheifrith, king of Northumbria, who drove the British back into the fastnesses of north Wales. Thereafter, the area sub­sequently known as Lancashire was disputed between the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, to the east, and Mercia, to the south. Ecclesiastical boundaries suggest that the river Ribble became the dividing line between their two spheres of influence. This division of the north-west is thought to have lasted from the seventh to the ninth centuries, when both Mercia and Northumbria fell victim, along with East Anglia, to the campaign of ‘the Great Army’ of the Danes in the years 865-80. Mercia recovered under the leadership of the kings of Wessex after 900, but Northumbria, like East Anglia, remained under the Danelaw of Danish rule, as established by the treaty of Wedmore between Alfred, king of Wessex, and the Danish leader, Guthrum, in 878.

The Angles and Saxons seem first to have penetrated into Lancashire in the late sixth century. Anglo-Saxon place-names ending with ‘-ingas’ and ‘-inghaham’ (‘-‘s people’ and ‘-‘s people’s home’) are the principal evidence for this. Such place endings are rare in Lanchashire compared to the south and east of England, and the origins of such places as Whittingham (Hwita’s people’s home) and Padiham (Pada’s people’s home) seem to lie in the migration of small groups of Angles and Saxons across the Pennine valleys in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Men like Hwita and Pada would have been chiefs or leaders, who broke off from the main bands of settlers on the east coast and moved inland as a kind of advance party or pioneer group.

We can only guess at their way of life from scattered pieces of archaeological evidence from Lancashire itself and what we know of their better documented and researched contemporaries of eastern England. There is no reason to suppose that they were very different from the men described in the epic poem Beowulf, even though their route into Lancashire took them a long way from the sea. if Beowulf described much of what was found at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1939, it must not be forgotten that the river Douglas also yielded an early Saxon barrow during excavations by navvies in 1770. Described as ‘British’ the finds were probably Saxon:

In the knoll there were found numerous fragments of iron, various military weapons, such as our ancestors buried in the graves of their heroes, and, under all, a cavity of seven feet in length, filled with black earth and the decomposed remains of one of the fallen chieftains.

Most of the Saxon settlers seem to have reached the north-west overland, but possibly some came by sea, and some certainly settled by the coast, even though much of the Lancashire coastal plain was still either swamp or sandy waste. It has been pointed out that the earliest arrivals seem to have settled the higher land, while later ones had to make do with marshier ground. Among latecomers we may include the Norse settlers of the tenth century. The Saxons avoided both the peatmosses and the barren fells. From evidence of place-names and the Domesday Book, their settlements were con­centrated at altitudes between 100 feet (30 m) and 800 feet (245 m) above sea level.

The fate of the existing Romano-British inhabitants of Lancashire is difficult to ascertain. Place-names can only tell us so much. Absorp­tion of the natives by the newcomers seems to have been the typical pattern, though the process may have taken centuries to complete. The area was sparsely populated, and Saxon migrants could easily find uninhabited parts in which to settle. The gradual spread of technical improvements such as the iron plough share, which had been introduced to Britain in Roman times, enabled a more extensive cultivation of valley land and the clearance of forests where wolves, boars and wild cats still roamed. By the seventh century, some cul­tivation of new land was being undertaken by the monasteries. Whalley, for example, belonged to a cell of Celtic monks, who perhaps formed part of that Irish-dominated culture mentioned above. About 660 they were driven out by the Northumbrians, who gave their lands to the monastery at Ripon, newly founded according to the Benedictine Rule by St Wilfrid. That some British settlements survived undisturbed is suggested by the number of places still called by the Saxon name of Walton, meaning ‘the settle­ment of the British’.

Town life, which had been introduced by the Romans and was largely concentrated around their forts, probably died out after the Roman withdrawal. At Manchester, the Roman fort and the early Saxon fortifications, known later as the Hanging Ditch, are not on the same site, suggesting no continuity of settlement. As Dr J.D. Bu’lock has written in Jones and Grealey, Roman Manchester (1974):

For post-Roman Manchester the local resources were the woods, with wild game and domestic pigs, the river for fishing, and a very modest area of tillage. The most permanent vestiges of Roman Manchester were to be the line of highway which is modern Deansgate and the location of the river crossings which it defines, by Knott Mill on the Medlock and at Hunts Bank, under Victoria Station, on the Irk.

The disturbed border with its thin population discouraged town life. The Saxons of Mercia and Northumbria regarded the north-west as a no-man’s-land to be colonized only by the hardiest of settlers.

In the tenth century, it was the Saxons of Wessex, following King Alfred’s victories over the Danes, who made the greatest impact on the north-west. When Edward the Elder, son of King Alfred and King of Wessex 901-25, was securing his position against the Danes, he set up a line of forts, in conjunction with his sister Aethelflaed, to guard the line of the Mersey. The fortifications of Chester were repaired in 907, and new forts were built at Eddisbury (914), Runcorn (915) and Thelwall (919). (In Warrington and the Mid-Mersey Valley (1971), Mr G.A. Carter suggests that this fort may have commanded the river-crossing, in which case the site of modern Warrington is more likely than that of modern Thelwall.) Manchester’s earlier Saxon earthworks were restored in 922, thus completing the line from Chester to the Pennines and defending north-west Mercia from attack.

Norse & Danish Settlements

There was no such strong power to defend the lands north of the Mersey, and they may well have been a battleground for the Norse­men, the Danes and the men of Strathclyde. The insecurity of the north-west is indicated only by one or two snippets of information available from charters, chronicles and archaeological finds, which tend to pose more questions than they answer. Why did Tilred, abbot of Heversham, transfer to the abbey of Norham-on-Tweed in the early tenth century? Who buried the Cuerdale (Preston) and Harkirke (Crosby) hoards of the same period and why? In this period of disturbance and confusion there is little reassurance in the submissions which Wessex kings, Edward the Elder, Atheistan and Edgar received from the kings of Strathclyde and from Danish leaders periodically throughout the tenth century, in their efforts to establish hegemony over all England. The very need for such sub­missions suggests political upheaval and instability in the north-west.

The most famous battle between the Saxons and their enemies in this period was that fought at Brunanburh in 937, when Atheistan, King of Wessex, defeated a coalition of Scots and Norsemen. One theory claims that Brunanburh was fought at Saxifield, near Burnley, but others argue for sites as far distant as Beverley or on the Solway. There is no conclusive evidence for any site, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the kind of battle that must have been fought on north-western soil in this period. Brunanburh was such a massacre that ‘the field grew dark with the blood of men’.

…Five young kings,

Stretched lifeless by the swords,

Lay on the field, likewise seven

Of Anlaf’s jarls and a countless host

Of seamen and Scots.

Anlaf, King of the Norsemen, and Constantine, King of the Scots, were both put to flight, while Athelstan and his brother Edmund returned to Wessex leaving behind:

The horn-beaked raven with dusky plumage,

And the hungry hawk of battle, the dun-coated

Eagle, who with white-tipped tail shared

The feast with the wolf, grey beast of the forest.

The result of the battle was that Athelstan became the undisputed overlord of the English and moved his northern frontier from the Mersey to the Ribble, keeping the intervening land under his own control.

Scandinavian settlement in the north-west, both north and south of the Ribble, was already a fait accompli by the time of Athelstan’s victory. The Scandinavians approached the area from two directions: the Danes from the east Midlands, the Norwegians from Ireland and the Isle of Man. Danish settlement of places like Oldham, Hulme and Urmston, in south-east Lancashire, was the result of the inroads made by the Great Army in the late ninth century. Norse coloniza­tion was rather different. Their arrival in the early tenth century has been described as infiltration rather than invasion. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that the Norsemen were driven from Dublin in 902 (the year after King Alfred’s death) and settled on the Wirral, near Chester, soon afterwards. This first appearance of Norsemen as settlers was followed by many others further up the coast, for the Lancashire seaboard from Aigburth on the Mersey to Flookburgh in Furness is thick with place-names of Norse origin. Many of these are found on the low-lying land which the Saxons had apparently rejected.

Norsemen and Danes alike founded a great number of island settlements, such as Ormskirk and Burscough in south-west Lancashire and the ‘-hulme’ settlements to the east. Oldham, according to Ekwall, was situated in the old district of Kaskenmoor (the moor of sedge grass), and in its original form of Aldholm or Aidhuim, referred to ‘a piece of dry land in mossland’. Both Norsemen and Danes spread along the river-valleys where they had first settled. The former’s place-names occur in the valleys of the rivers Douglas, Wyre, Lune and Leven.

Mention of this infiltration is rare in contemporary documents. One twelfth century charter makes passing reference to the Norse settlers of Amounderness (headland of Agmund) in that about 930, King Atheistan granted to the church of York: ‘all of Agmunderness, which he had bought from the heathen’.

By the mid-tenth century Lancashire had become a great hotch­potch of different peoples, languages and religious traditions. The agricultural system continued to be based primarily on cattle in the upland areas, but on the plain, among the peatmosses, considerable progress in arable cultivation was made. The family remained the principal social unit, even though a good deal of the settlement of Saxons, Danes and Norsemen was in groups of families, often forming small nucleated communities. Large areas of the north-west still remained bleak and intractable, but the framework for future settle­ment had been laid.

In spite of political uncertainty and social confusion, the north­west underwent a steady, although not always permanent, conversion to Christianity. Archaeological remains of the Roman period show that Lancashire was already touched by the Christian religion. It is easier to measure the extent of Christian influence in post-Roman times when Celtic monasteries flourished at Bangor-on-Dee and at Whalley. Place-names incorporating ‘eccles’ (from the Latin ecciesia, a church) such as Eccles and Eccieston indicate the whereabouts of some Celtic churches.

The Coming of Christianity

The territorial expansion of the Saxons in the late sixth century, and their official conversion to Christianity in the early seventh century, ended the separate life of the Celtic Church in the north­west. The region was first designated part of Paulinus’s diocese in 625, and later came under the missionary influence of the North­umbrians – hence the dedication of churches to St Oswald at Winwick, St Chad at Poulton-le-Fylde, St Cuthbert at Lytham, and St Wilfrid at Preston and Halton. Although it is doubtful whether, as tradition has it, these were actually founded by their patron saints, Wilfrid’s abbey at Ripon did acquire land west of the Pennines, and mission­ary activities by Wilfrid and Cuthbert cannot be ruled out. In spite of the Danish and Norse attacks of the late ninth and early tenth cen­turies, the links with Northumbria continued, and when the bound­aries of the dioceses were decided, land north of the Ribble went to York, while that to the south became the responsibility of the Mercian diocese of Lichfield.

Lancashire churchyard crosses show the mingled influences of Northumbria and Norse folk-lore, perhaps indicating that the Saxon and Norse communities were settling down together. Scholars have identified a similarity between Lancashire crosses and those of the schools of sculpture of Hexham and Ripon. The assimilation of Norse folk-lore into the dominant Saxon Christian tradition can be seen at Halton and Heysham. The shaft of the Halton cross shows both the Crucifixion and the Sigurd Saga, while at Heysham a hog­back tombstone bears on one side the victory of Christ over death and on the other, a representation of Ragnarok or the destruction of the Norse heaven. Cultural fusion was already well under way by the time the Norman invasion of 1066 brought to the north­west a new ruling class and unified, for administrative purposes, lands north and south of the Ribble.