When the Vikings ruled in Britain: A brief history of Danelaw

Guthrum's baptism
Guthrum's baptism in 878 | Illustration by James William Edmund Doyle, 1864 | Public Domain

On 8 June 793 AD, a group of seafaring Norse people from Scandinavia crossed the North Sea and landed on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, just off the northeast coast of England. They ransacked the important Christian monastery of St Cuthbert and in doing so heralded in the time of the Vikings, an age that would last for another 300 years.

In the decades that followed Lindisfarne, more Viking raids occurred on English, Scottish, Irish and French soil. Eventually, the Scandinavians decided to up the stakes and looked to conquer instead of just raid. Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless, sons of the legendary Viking warrior Ragnar Lothbrok, amassed a large army ready for an invasion. The collection of annals in Old English written during the late 9th century, known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, called this invading force the Great Heathen Army.

According to the Norse sagas, Ragnar met his end in a pit of snakes, thrown into the venomous depths by King Ælla of Northumbria. Now his sons wanted revenge.

When the Great Heathen Army landed in East Anglia in 865 AD, England was divided into four kingdoms - Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria and East Anglia. The king of East Anglia quickly struck a deal with the invaders, providing them horses for their campaign in return for peace. Within a couple of years York, the capital of Northumbria had fallen to the Vikings and King Ælla had met a gruesome end. A puppet ruler was placed in charge and the Viking army marched on in search of more territory.

Ten years of conflict ensued and by the mid 870s, all but the kingdom of Wessex had fallen to the Norsemen. The Danish warlord Guthrum the Old now led the Viking army whilst Alfred the Great was the King of Wessex. In 878 AD, Alfred claimed a decisive victory against Guthrum at the Battle of Edington, which led to a peace agreement between the two known as the Treaty of Wedmore.

As part of the agreement, Guthrum was forced to accept baptism with Alfred being declared his godfather. Guthrum’s forces were also required to leave the kingdom of Wessex. Not long later did Guthrum and Alfred come to another agreement. The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum looked to set out a lasting peace between the two, defining the boundaries of their territories and agreeing on peaceful trade.

Viking laws and customs now held sway in a territory that spanned from London in the south, through the Midlands and up to the north of the country. The area would later become known as Danelaw, deriving its name from the Old English Dena lagu meaning 'Danes’ law'.

Whilst the Vikings did not intensively settle the entirety of this large area, five towns situated in the east of Danelaw became particularly important – Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford. These places started as the burhs (fortified settlements) of five Danish armies who had settled in the area. The towns would become known as the Five Boroughs and a different Viking Jarl ruled each of them. Whilst the boroughs operated independently, the Viking elite in Jorvik (York) would have held ultimate overall sway over them.

Many Scandinavian settlements ended with the suffix –by such as Grimsby and Derby

For the next 80 years, the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons lived side-by-side in England trading, intermingling and assimilating with each other. The biggest legacies of Danelaw can be seen in our place names and our language.

Many Scandinavian settlements ended with the suffix –by such as Grimsby and Derby, which came from Old Norse meaning a ‘farmstead or ‘village’. Other common Viking place names ended in –thorpe such as Scunthorpe, meaning ‘a new village’, whilst those ending in –thwaite meant ‘a meadow’ and those ending in –dale ‘a valley’.

Words that have derived from Old Norse include those than begin with sk- such as 'sky' or 'skin' and we even have the Vikings to thank for the word 'law'. The presence of this word in our language, along with other legal terms such as 'wrong', demonstrates how important establishing a legal system in Danelaw was.

As time went on, conflicts began to escalate between the Vikings and their neighbours once more. Alfred used the peace to built his forces up and reinforce his land with multiple forts.

His eldest daughter, Æthelflæd, would lead the fight against the Vikings and lay the foundations for England. After her husband passed away in 911 AD, Æthelflæd took over the governing of the kingdom of Mercia, becoming the Lady of the Mercians. She went on the offensive against the Vikings and over the coming years played a significant role in the conquest of Danelaw.

The Five Boroughs would eventually fall and York would change ownership a couple of times during the early 10th century. In 954 AD, Eric Bloodaxe, one of the most famous Vikings in history and the then King of Northumbria, was finally driven out of the region. Danelaw had officially come to an end.

Although Danelaw was no more in England, the Vikings were far from done on English soil. They retreated, consolidated and successfully conquered the country in the early 11th century. In 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard became the first Danish King of England. His son, Cnut the Great, held the throne until he died in 1035. The Viking presence in England was finally ended in 1066 when an English army under King Harold defeated the last great Viking king, Harald Hardrada of Norway, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York.

Although they were gone, Viking customs and traditions long persisted in the region once known as Danelaw. Even today, traces of Scandinavian DNA can still be found in the local populace of the area.