VIKING - 5: WALES, Vikings Along the South-west Coast and Anglesey

"A true friend whom you trust well and wish for his good will, go with gifts and keep company with him".

Havamal

Mysteriously, when the Danes and Norsemen were so close in Ireland, why was Wales never colonised to the same extent as the rest of the British Isles?

Cable Bay near Aberffraw
Cable Bay near Aberffraw | Source

Norse and Danish name connections

The Great Orm's Head - the great serpent's head - reaches out to sea like a guardian dragon. Interesting, the fascination for dragons shared by the Welsh and Norsemen
The Great Orm's Head - the great serpent's head - reaches out to sea like a guardian dragon. Interesting, the fascination for dragons shared by the Welsh and Norsemen
Welsh coast near Haverfordwest - the name means Seafordwest; 'Hav' (pron. 'how') = Sea
Welsh coast near Haverfordwest - the name means Seafordwest; 'Hav' (pron. 'how') = Sea
Steepholm (a holm is a small island or eyot) in the Bristol Channel where many years later King Harold's family sheltered from the Normans after the siege of Exeter
Steepholm (a holm is a small island or eyot) in the Bristol Channel where many years later King Harold's family sheltered from the Normans after the siege of Exeter
Swansea Bay sunset - Svein's ship is known to have been damaged in the Bristol Channel and for safety he would have put in on the nearest island - Sveinsoe - to effect repair
Swansea Bay sunset - Svein's ship is known to have been damaged in the Bristol Channel and for safety he would have put in on the nearest island - Sveinsoe - to effect repair
Clashes with the Norsemen in Wales were a lot less frequent than those elsewhere in Britain, possibly because they and the Welsh were trading partners and supported the Welsh against the West Saxons (as at Brunanburh)
Clashes with the Norsemen in Wales were a lot less frequent than those elsewhere in Britain, possibly because they and the Welsh were trading partners and supported the Welsh against the West Saxons (as at Brunanburh)
Tenby's seafront - an ideal place to shelter away from prying eyes. The 'by' ending on the name means town in Danish and West Norse (Norwegian)
Tenby's seafront - an ideal place to shelter away from prying eyes. The 'by' ending on the name means town in Danish and West Norse (Norwegian)

Norse settlement of Wales was sparse

They settled in small numbers around St. Davids, Haverfordwest, Milford Haven and Tenby. The obvious names such as Skokholm, Skomer and Tenby reflect evidence of Norse settlement. Less obvious with its modern-sounding name is Swansea, which would have then read as: Sveins-ey, Swein's Island established in the early years of the 11th Century by Svein Haraldsson, 'Forkbeard' (Tveskegg in Danish, 'two-beards') ostensibly at a time when Svein met with ship trouble, i.e., either coming to grief on the skerries or storm damage. From there he followed the coast round to Chester during his campaign against Aethelred II, 'Unraed'.

Norse settlement was limited by the power of the Welsh princes. Following a successful Viking alliance with Brittany in AD865 the Britons (Cwmran) made peace with the Danes and a Danish-Welsh alliance defeated an Anglian army from Mercia in AD878. There were still skirmishes with the Welsh, however.

Svein 'Forkbeard' was by AD1013 accepted as king in parts of Aethelred's kingdom, albeit briefly, as well as Denmark and Norway. 'Sveins-ey' was at the estuary of the River Tawe. The Gower Peninsula had Norse place names such as the Great Orm's Head (Orm being the Norse reference for Serpent, or Dragon; it could also be a man's first name). Twenty miles west of Cardiff is Tusker Rock, from Toske, who settled the area with hos followers.

The first recorded raid on Welsh shores was recorded in AD852. Random attacks were made up until about AD919. Rhodri 'Mawr' (Rhodri 'the Great'), the ruler of Gwynedd from AD844 led the initial counter-attacks. In AD903 Dublin Danes led by Ingimund went on to Anglesey after being expelled from Ireland, only to be repulsed by the Welsh and sailing on east to Chester. The next stage of raiding came around AD950, after the death of Hywel Dda, the 'king' of Gwynedd, and Deheubarth in the south-west. There were numerous raids in coastal lowlands, and in particular on religious sites such as Penmon and Caer Gybi on Anglesey and Clynnog Fawr in Caernarfon (Caernarvonshire). St Davids was attacked eleven times between AD967 and AD1091. Yet Wales suffered lightly compared with Ireland - this may yet prove misleading due to poor documentary records. A third era of raids took place in the second half of the 11th Century linked to events leading up to the Norman invasion of England.

Sometimes the Welsh and West Saxons combined against the Danes, setting their differences aside. In the AD890's a large army landed in Wessex with reinforcements from the Danelaw, ravaged Mercia and headed for the Welsh border. A West Saxon army caught up with them, defeating them at Buttington in AD893 (near Welshpool, Gwent/Monmouthshire.). The Saxons were supported by a number of the Welsh. In AD914 again a Viking fleet from Brittany raided in southern Wales and entered the Wye Valley, taking captive Cyfeilog the Bishop of Llandaff. King Eadward 'the Elder' paid the £40 ransom on him. Thrown back by by the garrisons of Hereford and Gloucester, the Danes left for Steepholm in the Bristol Channel where many died of hunger.

The Norse tongue made little impact, if anything, on the Welsh. Some prominent coastal features, navigational points such as those already named above have Norse names but there are no 'linguistic incursions' on Welsh. There are burial sites - such as one by the shore on Anglesey. This is the best area for Viking finds, being an easy day's sailing from Dublin or the Wirral - or Man. A few high status burials are also located on Anglesey who migrated from Dublin. At Llanbedrgoch near Red Wharf Bay there was a 7th Century settlement built up into a 10th Century stockade or fortification which might have been the hub of several smaller Norse settlements. There is a Viking interment at the head of a beach nearby, and there are other non-Christian burials outside the settlement walls.

Displacement of Viking leaders from Ireland in the early 10th Century created 'ripples' around the Irish Sea. By the middle of that century its shores had been turned into a Scandinavian community of traders and craftsmen. No evidence for its equivalent in Wales of a Dublin-styled city exists, but some Norse leaders had Welsh connections and some - like Olaf Haraldsson (killed at Stiklestad in AD1030) in the early 11th Century - may have ruled for a short time on Anglesey and mainland Gwynedd. Some of the grave finds point to inter-marriage and scattered individual Norse settlement.

It seems that Wales was a 'closed shop' to the Norsemen, much better defended than much of England, Ireland and Scotland. However, there is also an 'ethnic' pointer in that Wales was not as open to the Danes - for example - as East Anglia, the East Midlands, Yorkshire and Kent. There the people already had a linguistic link and widespread Danish settlement was effected through trade, as was Ireland. Wessex and Wales did not enter into alliances with the Danes, and although trade was entered into with the Norsemen from Dublin and other Norse-Irish centres, these areas were more often attacked by Viking raiders.

In the 11th Century Gruffyth ap Llewellyn allied himself with Aelfgar, Earl Leofric's rebellious son. When Aelfgar went to ireland he came back with a Dublin-Danish fleet and raided the Wirral and Mersey coast with the aid of Gruffyth. Parts of the area were still recorded by Domesday in AD1086 as 'waste', even though they had been raided well over thirty years before.

Long afterward, in the late 15th Century Henry, Earl of Richmond landed at Milford Haven with an army from France and met Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485. Henry was later crowned King Henry VII.

Next - 6: Vikings in the pay of the Eastern Emperor

Where Danish and Norse settlement was felt in Wales

Swansea Bay at low tide. Svein  Haraldsson established a settlement on the island in the Tawy after his ship suffered damage in the Bristol Channel
Swansea Bay at low tide. Svein Haraldsson established a settlement on the island in the Tawy after his ship suffered damage in the Bristol Channel | Source
Further west, geographic naming is good evidence of earlier Viking settlement around Milford Haven and West Wales
Further west, geographic naming is good evidence of earlier Viking settlement around Milford Haven and West Wales
The far west of Wales, suitable for settlement with inlets similar to Sutherland in the far north of Scotland and the Isles where many had relocated from. Haverfordwest is a corruption of the Norse name that translates as 'Haven fjord west'
The far west of Wales, suitable for settlement with inlets similar to Sutherland in the far north of Scotland and the Isles where many had relocated from. Haverfordwest is a corruption of the Norse name that translates as 'Haven fjord west'
Wide, westward-facing strand - ideal landing for ships to trade, raid or take over territory
Wide, westward-facing strand - ideal landing for ships to trade, raid or take over territory | Source

More by this Author


Comments 2 comments

Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 4 years ago from The English Midlands

Hi :)

Another very interesting piece of history!

Great!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Thanks Trish. Have you read the ones on Scotland and Ireland? There was more interplay between the Norsemen in England, Ireland and Scotland than betwen any of them and Wales except for raiding, as you've seen. I'm in the process of charting them in Greenland and the 'New World' and the next one will look at the relationship between Norway, Orkney and Shetland in legend - the greater source of information on the colonisation of the islands.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working