Saturday, 27 June 2020

Viking Age Yorkshire

There is a degree of exceptionalism about the part of the country I have the honour to dwell in. It is quite hard to view the television schedules today (indeed, I suspect since the 1970s) without dropping across something about ‘Yorkshire’. The scare quotes are deliberate – the Yorkshire portrayed may have little to do with the Yorkshire that is here in reality.

Exceptionalism is not, of course, and exclusively Yorkshire concern. British exceptionalism is also rife (c.f. B****t), although that smug assumption that the ‘British are best’ should have been undermined by the recent health crisis and fair criticism from the foreign press about a slow response from an incompetent government and a chronically underfunded and overly bureaucratic health service, albeit staffed by heroes (have we been applauding them every week to salve our consciences over not paying them a decent wage, I wonder.)

Anyway, this blog is decidedly non-political, and I want to talk a bit about a book which explains why Yorkshire might be considered as a bit different from the rest of the country, or at least parts thereof:

Townend, M., Viking Age Yorkshire (Pickering: Blackthorn, 2014).

This is an academic tome which has a mix of narrative chapters involving the fall of York to the Vikings in 866, the conquering of the Viking kingdom by the Wessex Saxons a hundred years later or so, and finishing up with the last gasp of the Vikings around the time of the Norman Conquest. There is a lot to say, although often exactly what happened is lost in the mists (or perhaps myths) of time.

The overall narrative is fairly clear, except for the details of who ruled and what happened. The Saxon kingdom of Deria ruled roughly from the Humber to the Tees and was more or less taken over directly (insofar as any political entity could be said to rule directly at the time) by the Vikings. Norse influence, however, does not seem to have crossed the Tees in any significant quantity. There are a few Viking influenced bits of sculpture north of the Tees, but not very far north.

Once here, the Vikings seem to have rather given up on the idea of extracting money by violence – perhaps they had already extracted what they could – and started to settle down to farming. After a lapse of about thirty years coins started to be produced again in York and there are, inevitably, arguments over how much Viking / Norse culture displaced Anglo-Saxon, how much synthesis there was and whether an Anglo-Scandinavian culture emerged.

From reading the book (and my memory of reading it, it has taken a few weeks to get around to this post) mostly the answers to those questions are unclear. The Norse seem to have become Christians fairly quickly, so there are relatively few pagan Viking burials in Yorkshire. But there are a few, most spectacularly at Kildale, where about fiver warriors were found in mid-Victorian times. The bones and artefacts are, alas, lost, but there is some evidence for pagan Vikings running around the place.

More evidence comes from place-names. The density of names, for example, starting with Kirkby (or, equivalently, Kirby) is high: Kirkbymoorside, Misperton and so on. These are Old Norse names. There are also a lot of Norse personal names around, as well as others, many and various, referring to places and geographical features. Of course, this adds grist to the mill of the assimilation or replacement arguments: does a place name represent a new landlord declaring their arrival, a simple renaming of a local place or feature so everyone around understands it or new settlements in the landscape? I doubt if that question will ever be definitively answered.

Still, there are many features of the Yorkshire landscape which have landed up as being Norse influenced. There is a fair bit of sculpture, particularly in churches, around the place which show Norse influence, if not Norse cultural symbols, some of them possibly Christianised, some of them in juxtaposition with Christian symbols. Part of the point seems to be that even if the leaders (and, indeed, many followers, subjects etc.) were baptised, the old stories and (possibly) beliefs carried on. A sculpture of an ancient Norse tale does not entail belief in that tale, any more than a figure of Christ on a cross entails wholehearted Christianity by either the sculptor or the person who erected it.

Still, it has to be admitted that Christianity did come back to Yorkshire and the Scandinavians were baptised. Indeed, the Scandinavians in Scandinavia were baptised and Christianity became the official creed and, so far as most people went, the only game in time. The Norman Conquest, after all, was a fight between three Christian kingdoms, not between the forces of Christ and pagans. William seems to have been pious as well as having been a violent power politician.

So far as the Harrying of the North goes, Townend has a paragraph or two towards the end of the book. His view is that while William’s army could and did carry out a great deal of destruction in the winter of 1069-70 there was a limit to exactly how much they could do in winter. Many Yorkshire estates declined in value between 1066 and 1086, but there were a variety of reasons why that might be the case. Domesday Book records of ‘waste’ could be ‘destroyed by the Normans in 1070’, or simply mean ‘untenanted’ or ‘unknown by the commissioners’ (p. 216). On the other hand, there was enough destruction and hardship for the twelfth-century chroniclers to note it, record it and, possibly, exaggerate it.

The post-Conquest settlement in Yorkshire did lead, albeit a bit slowly, to changes in society. Thegns were addressed as both French and English. Lands were redistributed, although as Townend notes, estates were not formed geographically but transferred piecemeal as they were held before, so an estate was formed of bits and pieces of land across a region or even, in the case of some of William’s own retainers, across the country.

A good read and a good book, I think. I certainly will not be looking at the places where I live, or at least their names, in quite the same way again. And the Cleveland dialect, I believe, contains still some Old Norse-isms, if not the actual words themselves.


  1. Fascinating. Being largely ignorant of the topic I was surprised to read that there was not much (evidence of) Viking influence north of the Tees. Could this be related to it being easy to get up to a major city like York via the Humber and Ouse and spread out from those watercourses?

    1. Almost certainly river access mattered, and the fact that York was a political centre while further north there was little worth conquering. But the AS kingdom of Bernicia seems to have had some continuity and resisted Norse invasion. Possibly there just were not sufficient Norse to go (or need to go) and further.

  2. Agreed. I enjoyed a particular history course all about just this subject as an undergraduate. The professor was Finnish, so he had his own axe to grind about the eastward expansion of the Swedes. Fascinating stuff!

    Best Regards,


    1. Funnily enough that subject came up today in my Finnish lesson. One of the other students mentioned the legend of Lalli.

    2. Heavens above! Finnish is, I believe, one of the more difficult language to learn. I did find out however, recently, that in Icelandic all the verbs are irregular. I have enough trouble with English.

      Anyway, one of the things I often forget is that the rest of the world continues while England meanders on its way, and significant things happen in which the English were not involved. Just imagine....

    3. It is a bit different. The things you do for love eh!

      It does have things going for it, like the verbs are very regular, spelling is phonetic and regular. And there’s a few bluffer’s tricks you can use 😉