Viking Yorkshire

Viking Yorkshire

In the ninth century the growth of all the Christian kingdoms of the English was disrupted by invaders from Scandinavia. Most of those who came to Yorkshire crossed the North Sea from Denmark, but others came from Norway, sailed round the Scottish coast and landed in Ireland, the Isle of Man and the west coasts of Scotland and England, some settling in the Yorkshire Pennines. Place-name evidence can sometimes identify the areas where the Scandinavians settled. For example, the endings -sett and -side in Burtersett and Gunnerside (Gunnar’s Saetr) are from the Norwegian ‘saetr’, an alpine pasture; whilst many names in the East Riding with the ending ‘-by’ are from the Danish language. Both groups of Scandinavian invaders are known as Vikings, ‘Vik’ meaning a creek or inlet from which the invaders set sail in their long boats.

The incursions of the Vikings had been taking place for many decades before the mid-ninth century, but usually the invaders were content to raid, loot and pillage coastal settlements, monasteries and farms, before setting off back to Scandinavia to avoid the onset of winter. The first description of a Viking raid dates from A.D. 793. By the middle of the ninth century expeditions of 300 ships were bringing armies to our shores. In A.D. 865, however, a Danish army wintered in East Anglia for the first time. From there Ivar the Boneless led an army against Deira. It is thought that another Danish army also came by sea into the mouth of the Humber and sailed up the river to York. York fell to the invaders in A.D. 866, and soon became the chief city of the area known as the Danelaw.

The Vikings were pagans when they first came to Yorkshire but they soon adopted the Christian faith of the Anglo-Saxons they had conquered. They also took over and developed the art of stone carving, and some of the most enduring memorials to the Viking Age in Yorkshire are to be found in the carved stone crosses with their characteristic ring heads (a circle of stone linking the arms of the cross); and the decorated hog-back tombs. The hog-backs at Brompton church, near Northallerton, are notable for the carvings of muzzled bears, which adorn the gable ends. The Viking art of Yorkshire shows a merging of styles, but there are characteristic Scandinavian motifs which can be identified.

As well as religious themes there were portraits of armed warriors, carvings of animals and scenes from Scandinavian mythology. A Viking cross discovered in Leeds depicts the legendary Wayland Smith surrounded by winged angels. The ring chain ornamentation, which is found at Burnsall, and some of the animal designs on ornaments found in York are in the so-called Borre style of declaration, after a place in southern Norway, where a rich find of grave goods was discovered. A fragment of a cross found at Weston church in Wharfedale during church restora­tion a century ago, and now kept in Weston Hall, suggests that the Viking sculptor had re-used an Anglian cross, preserving some of the original decorative carving, but adding figures of an armed warrior and a woman in Scandinavian style.

The boundaries of Yorkshire, which were settled during the Viking period and which remained until 1974, are roughly those of the Danish kingdom of York (Jorvik) which was ruled over by more than a dozen kings between A.D. 875, when Halfdan, the son of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, who founded the kingdom, ruled, and A.D. 954 when the kingdom was lost by Eric Bloodaxe. For the rest of the period until the Norman Conquest Yorkshire was re-absorbed into the English kingdom and the Danelaw ceased to exist.

However, as recent discoveries in York have abundantly shown, the life of the Anglo-Danish culture of Viking Age Yorkshire continued with vigour. A lively trade developed across the Irish Sea and crossed the North Sea, as the discovery of coins minted in York bears witness. The agricultural activity of the Anglo­Danish villages is shown by the discoveries at Wharram Percy, on the Wolds; and at Ribblehead in the Pennines. The use of words of Scandinavian origin in the dialect of Yorkshire (e.g. lathe, stack) suggests that the new arrivals settled down to farm alongside the Anglians—probably in reasonable amity once the first shock of the invasion and conquest was over.

Even in Yorkshire the number of Danes who settled was quite small in proportion to the English population which still remained. Moreover, in speech and customs and even in physical appearance the Danes were not very different from the, English themselves. So, after the fighting was over and the Danes had established their mastery, they seem to have settled down quite happily side by side with the English. They intermarried, they accepted Christianity and long before 1066, largely perhaps because of the wisdom of King Edgar (A.D. 959-979) who treated the English and Danes as being equal before the law, they had come to regard themselves as Englishmen. The mixture of Danish and English place-names in Yorkshire suggests that often a Danish settlement was established without any fighting, on the waste ground between two English villages. The Danes were absorbed into the English nation, quite unlike the Britons who had been slaugh­tered or driven out, or at best enslaved.

There are still some Yorkshire survivals from the days of the Danish settle­ment, and from the rule of the Danish Kings. Probably the three Ridings were established then. Each Riding was represented in the Thing—a kind of parliament, held at York. Within each there were (and are) smaller divisions—the wapentakes. These largely replaced the old Anglo-Saxon divisions, the hundreds. Yorkshire is one of the seven English counties, all largely of Danish settlement, in which we hear little of hundreds, but a great deal of wapentakes. Each wapentake had its own meeting of freemen to arrange for defence and to administer justice. Often the name of the wapentake still preserves a reference to the place where this assembly met. Thus the North Riding Wapentake of Hallikeld met at a holy spring. Skyrack (Shire Oak) Wapentake in the West Riding was so called from the oak where the freemen assembled. At the Original Oak Inn in Leeds a plaque, made from the wood of an ancient tree, records the fact that the inn stands exactly on the place of assembly of the Danish freemen of this part of Yorkshire, about 1,000 years ago.

In its later days the Kingdom of York became more and more dependent on the rest of England. The last of the English kings to reign before the arrival of the Normans in 1066 was Harold, son of Godwin, who was partly Danish. He lost his throne and his life after a reign of only 40 weeks, largely because he punished his brother, Tostig, for ill-treating the northern subjects into whose care Harold had placed them. Tostig’s offences included the murder of a local chieftain in Yorkshire, Gamel, in 1065. The names of Tostig and Garnel appear on an inscrip­tion on the sundial, which dates from 1055, which refers to the rebuilding of St Gregory’s Minster by ‘Orm the son of Gamel … in the days of King Edward and Earl Tostig’. Tostig formed an alliance with the Norwegian king, Harold Hardrada, and together they invaded Yorkshire in 1066. Having harried the coast from Cleveland to Spurn, they sailed up the Humber and the Ouse to Riccall, and from there marched on York. After defeating an English army under Edwin and Morcar at Fulford, they camped at Stamford Bridge and there awaited King Harold, on 25 September 1066.

There is a story told of how, when the battle went against Tostig and his allies, a brave Dane held the bridge alone in order to cover his friends’ retreat —until he was stabbed from below by an Englishman who had ventured out in a boat on the river. The battle was a crushing defeat for Tostig, who was slain, and for Harold Hardrada, who received, as the English king had promised him, his grant of land in England—seven feet—enough for a grave, or, ‘since he was a tall man, perhaps a little more’. It was a great success for the English Harold, who marched off to York with his army in triumph, to celebrate his great victory. However, the celebration in York was soon followed by disaster. In less than three weeks Harold lay dead on the field of Hastings. Around him in a circle lay the corpses of the comrades of his bodyguard who had revelled with him in York.

Although Harold was the last Anglo-Danish king of England, the Anglo­Danish strain in the ancestry of the people of Yorkshire remained, and indeed remains to this day. Traces of Danish speech are still to be found, especially in the dialect of the folk who live by the Yorkshire coast. The Yorkshire open ‘a’ is Danish; so is the Yorkshire name for a brook, beck; and the Yorkshire use of gate for street. Many Yorkshire village names are of Danish origin, the -thwaites; the -bys; and most of the -wicks, -kirks, and -thorpes. On the other hand, the -leys, and the -tons and the -hams are of Anglo-Saxon origin.

The Vikings on the whole avoided the Roman towns and fortresses which they found when they invaded, with the notable exception of York. Most of the others were in decay in any case, and were allowed to continue in this condition. They used parts of the Roman roads, but also developed their own system of trackways, to suit their different needs as traders and farmers. Roman roads were often used as boundary markers between parishes, and some straight line parish boundaries on today’s map are derived from these origins.

The tracks made by the Anglo-Saxons themselves—like those of the Britons before them—often tended to be of a cross or a star shape, radiating from a valley settlement, as the British ones had done from a hilltop village. Often one arm of the cross ran down to the river and the rich natural meadow, another went up the hillside through the common pasture to the unreclaimed woodland. The other two led more or less horizontally along the valley, through the open arable fields and the remaining wasteland, to link up with similar tracks stretching outwards from the next two neighbouring villages, up and down the valley. This explains why, to this day, many of the by-roads in Yorkshire zigzag through the countryside in a series of more or less right-angle bends. Many of these roads are following the tracks made by our ancestors through their acre strips. These made up the unfenced, open arable fields, gradually set out as the land was first taken into cultivation.

The strips themselves have, of course, disappeared long ago, many of them during the 18th century in the Agricultural Revolution and the enclosure movement which accompanied it. Often, however, the plan of the strips is to be seen in the ridge-and-furrow of fields now in grass, which long ago were under the plough.

In Yorkshire our typical ‘rolling English road’ sets out first along the boundary, between two neighbouring strips, and follows this for a furlong or so until it reaches’ the headland (the end of the strip, where the plough oxen turned). It turns here ati right angles, and follows the headland, perhaps for the breadth of only one strip,1 perhaps for that of a dozen or more. Then it turns again, and resumes, more or less,1 its original direction, along the boundary between another couple of strips.

Thus it can be seen that in Yorkshire our local government divisions, our speech, our place-names and even the very shape of our fields and roads, are, often an inheritance from our Anglo-Saxon ancestors and their Danish cousins.