The North-East of England – Anglo-Saxons to Vikings

A post by “The Husband”

So, I have been asked by the Travelling Surveyor to provide a guest blog entry, sort of a companion to the posts related to our trip to York, Whitby, and Edinburgh.

After a little bit of fake disinterest, I thought that this may be a good opportunity to indulge a little bit in my interest of the historical era we call the “Middle Ages” (or the less accurate “Dark Ages”). This will be boring for some, but I really enjoy travelling around whilst mapping whatever I know about the development of the English language, identity, and history.

A little background: the island we now call Great Britain was at some point part of the Western Roman Empire. From 47 CE (AD, if you wish) to 410 CE, a majority of the island was part of the Roman Empire (yes, I know), at some point split between north (Eboracum – now York) and south (Londinium – now London), after the Roman’s conversion to Christianity.

Roman Britain c. 150CE – (Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

We do have indications that Germanic peoples were in Britain from the 4th Century CE, acting as mercenaries for the Roman Empire, but after the exit of the Romans the biggest migrations from Europe, what the Germans call the “Völkerwanderung” (the Great People Migrations), were well on its way. From the 5th Century onwards, Britain became the prime destination for many Germanic tribes coming out of Denmark and Northern Germany (Angles, Jutes and Saxons).

Pesky details apart, lets travel as if we were those colonising peoples, specially from where we are (Anglian North Cambridgeshire[1]) to Edinburgh (part of the Kingdom of Northumbria) around the 9th Century.

East Anglia in the 9th Century (and indeed until the 17th Century) consisted of predominantly marshland, which imposed a considerable number of problems to mobility. Most coastal destinations would have been reached by boats, but otherwise, the Anglo Saxons would likely have travelled on horseback, if not on foot. Before crossing the Kingdom of Lindsey (now North Lincolnshire) to get to the Kingdom of Deira (North Yorkshire), there would be a lot of wetlands to cross. However, it’s more likely that travel would follow a route through modern day Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire (part of the Kingdom of Mercia at the time) before cutting across back east.

The Vikings of the Great Heathen Army new that very well, as exemplified by the following figure.


The routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878 CE (Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 License)

Then our hypothetical traveller would arrive at York. The city of York was previously known by its Roman name of Eboracum (the Anglo-Saxons called it Eoforwic). The name changed to Jórvik after the establishment of the Dane Law around 875 CE, right at the time our enterprising Anglian traveller got there…

By the late 9th Century, the city of York had seen a considerable number of events, including being totally abandoned after the Roman withdrawn, to its re-establishment as a centre of power by the Vikings following their invasion.

[1] Not all of Cambridgeshire was part of the East Anglian Kingdom, but the Isle of Ely and the City of Peterborough were, so I am considering Ramsey (another Fen Island in the region) to also be part of the kingdom.

Eboracum became Jórvik, and there’s plenty to be seen now, in and around the city, to give us an idea of how the Norse people reinvigorated the region. There are also plenty of nasty things to be learnt, such as what has been uncovered by archaeologists: the Vikings had plenty of gut worms (not that their Anglo-Saxon counterparts didn’t). That on itself is not remarkable, but the way that modern scientists are able to confirm such a fact certainly is.

For the modern traveller, search for the special photographic exhibition at the DIG, where you can look through the archaeologist’s camera lenses to understand the transition from Roman to Viking York.

The hardcore enthusiast would be advised a visit to the Coppergate Dig, (started in 1978) the Jórvik Centre (established in 1984), and the Time Machine Travels (2001), which are well worth a visit. Changes to the whole experience were also introduced by the New Norse (2010), The Jórvik Flood (2015) and the Return of the Vikings (2017) initiatives.

The Coppergate Dig revealed 9 metres of archaeological layers almost all dating to the Viking Age; organic remains have been preserved due to the layers consisting of mostly moist and peaty soil; the areas excavated preserved seeds, insect remains, animal bones, human parasite eggs (see above) and pollen. The amount of information we can gather from the site is astounding.

Have a look at the Jórvik Centre’s web site for more information

https://www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk

There are plenty of attractions to be seen in York, as detailed by the Travelling Surveyor, but for me, York is a non-stop source of learning for the history enthusiast.

Kingdom of Jórvik (Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 License)

Our intrepid traveller is on its way from York to Whitby now. Not an easy task even now, as Whitby is an isolated community with poor transport infrastructure.

The Venerable Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (An Ecclesiastical History of the English People) provides some important references to Whitby. The account of the Synod of Whitby in 664 CE, when the Roman and Irish traditions of calculating the dating of Easter (until then divergent) merged, is considered a major turning point in English history.

The settlement of Whitby dates to 656 CE, when king Oswy of the Kingdom of Northumbria (after the joining the Kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira), founded the first Whitby Abbey, under the abbess Hilda (later Saint Hilda).  Constant Viking raids, between 867 to 870 CE, effectively destroyed the original abbey.

It’s only after the Norman conquest in 1066 that a new monastery was instituted at the area, and funnily enough, the Old Norse based name Whitby started being used. Bede referred to Whitby by many different names – understandable when considering Old English had no standard spelling — but the name still used today for the town is based on its Old Norse name hvítr (white) and býr (village), the White Village.

By the way, there are plenty of village names around the old Dane Law region easily identified by the inclusion of the suffix “by” (“býr”). Examples: Derby, Ashby, Grimsby, etc.

As mentioned above, the current standing ruins date back to after the Norman conquest of 1066 (rebuilding of the Abbey started in 1078), before being dissolved in 1539 by Henry VIII.

Whitby Abbey – rebuilt 1078 – (Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 License)

Travelling between Whitby and Edinburgh (Brittonic Din Eidyn) was something else – it was hard. The word travel as well as travail were added to the English language in the 13th century. Both words have the same etymology, and both mean “hard work” to achieve anything. Our travellers would have used the Old Saxon word “fēran” (to travel, to go) tough.

As a well to do 9th Century traveller (as you had to be), it is likely that your journey (French, too) would involve a stop at Bamburgh Castle and Lindisfarne. However, we didn’t have the time to visit either this time around, but we’ve been there in another trip. It’s worth a brief mention here:

Bamburgh Castle is (obviously) a castle on the north-east coast of England, by the village of Bamburgh in Northumberland. Historical records indicate that the castle might have been the capital of the kingdom of Bernicia from its foundation circa 420 and 547 CE. The location of the castle was certainly occupied by a citadel captured by the Anglo-Saxon ruler Ida of Bernicia. Like many north-eastern locations, Bamburgh was destroyed by the Viking invaders around 993.

Bamburgh Castle from the north-east (Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 License)

Next on our way to Edinburgh would have been a stop at Lindisfarne. There are some disputes about the etymology, but both the Parker and Peterborough versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 793 record the Old English name Lindsfarena for the island.

Perhaps the most important historical facts are that the island became the base for Christian evangelism in the North of England (think Saint Cuthbert was a monk there), as well as the first target of major Viking raids around 793 CE. Think about that: monasteries at the time, for the Vikings, were like modern banks without any sort of security – a free for all.

If you are travelling around the region and have the time (or inclination) for adding some historic details, I would highly recommend a visit to both Bamburgh and Lindisfarne. Even if you have no interest in history, both places are just amazing to visit.

The Ruins Lindisfarne, by Thomas Girtin, 1789. (Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 License)

Back on topic, lets travel up north to Edinburgh…

The name of the city of Edinburgh changed as the language shifted to Northumbrian Old English, which evolved into Scots, the Brittonic “din” in Din Eidyn was replaced by the Anglo-Saxon “burh”, producing Edinburgh.

Northumbria and Lothian (Wikipedia – Public Domain)

While history records little about Northumbrian Edinburgh, the English chronicler Symeon of Durham, writing in c. 1130 and copying from earlier texts, mentioned a church at Edwinesburch (remember, Old English spelling was lousy) in AD 854 which came under the authority of the Bishop of Lindisfarne.

However, most of the verified historical developments of Edinburgh, including those of recent historical importance, hark back to the 11th Century when Edinburgh (and the whole of the Lothian) had already been granted back to Scottish Kings. Our 9th Century traveller would have been long gone by this time…

As a parting shot: this is not a scholarly article, and I haven’t provided citations for any of the above historical facts. The idea behind this article is to spur readers to complete further research on their own.

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