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Danelaw Years: An Introduction to a Ten Part Series on an Era of War, Trade & Prosperity in England From AD865-1042

Updated on June 25, 2020

Vengeance was the motivation for crossing the sea...

When King Aelle's men brought the Dane to him, and had Ragnar thrown into the snake pit he could not have known what lay ahead...
When King Aelle's men brought the Dane to him, and had Ragnar thrown into the snake pit he could not have known what lay ahead...
The Great Heathen Army, 'Micel Here' crossed to East Anglia first before moving on north to seize Aelle. The Bernician king was prosaically dealt with whilst Osberht of Deira was held hostage
The Great Heathen Army, 'Micel Here' crossed to East Anglia first before moving on north to seize Aelle. The Bernician king was prosaically dealt with whilst Osberht of Deira was held hostage

Dark days dawned for the Anglian kingdoms of Bernicia, Deira, Mercia and East Anglia when King Aelle made his fatal mistake

There was no warning when hundreds of ships put into East Aengla (Anglia) in the spring/summer of AD 865. Led by the sons of Ragnar 'Lothbrok' the 'Great Heathen Army' according to the Chronicle the 'Micel Here', (no mention of 'Heathen') had arrived! Ivar 'the Boneless' as eldest son and able warrior was overall leader, with brothers Ubbi. Sigurd 'Snake-eye', Bjorn 'Ironside' and Halvdan as under-commanders.

From Thetford in Norfolk in AD 866 they progressed overland to Eoferwic (Anglian York) and took the burh. The Northanhymbrans (Northumbrians) had ousted King Osberht, giving the throne to the usurper Aelle of the northernmost Aengle kingdom Beornica (Bernicia). Not even of the royal bloodline of either part of the kingdom, Aelle used brute force to achieve his aims. In a pitched battle on the southern fringes of Eoferwic Aelle and Osberht cast aside their differences and - too late! - joined forces to attack the Danes. Luck was not with them. The Danes won the day and Osberht was held for ransom. Aelle would not be so lucky, according to the sagas. As the one answerable for their father's death, chained in the snake-pit at Baebbanburh (Bamburgh), a gruesome end awaited him. He would be tethered like a sacrificial sheep for the folk of Eoferwic to witness,.his punishment known as the 'Blod Erne' ('Blood Eagle'). Whether it actually took place or not is unconfirmed, a legend, put about by whom is anyone's guess.

The Danish army overwintered in Snotingaham (the old Aengle name for Nottingham) at the end of the campaigning season AD 867 to return to Eoferwic, renamed Jorvik by them. They would be based here for the next four years whilst making forays into other regions such as East Anglia under Ivar and Ubbi. At Hoxne (near Bury, Suffolk) in AD 869 King Eadmund of East Anglia was defeated.

Eoferwic would become Jorvik. In AD 872 the Army turned south to Torksey in eastern Mercia where they overwintered, and on to Repton near the River Trent to overwinter in AD 873. In AD 874 the Army split into two, one half returning to Jorvik and on to the Tina (Tyne), the other south to Grantaceaster (Cambridge). In AD 875 that part of the Army with the war-band leader Guthrum pressed on to Wareham in Wessex (in the part then known as Thornsaetan or Dorset), Exanceaster (Exeter) the year after and Glaewaceaster (Gloucester) by AD 877.

Guthrum's target was the West Seaxan (Saxon) king Aelfred. The Seaxne (Saxons) would have been nervous at Guthrum's close presence but at Cipanham (Chippenham) Aelfred celebrated Christmas in AD 878, his ealdormen and thegns forgetting their worries for the time being. They allowed themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security. There would be no drunken ribaldry at the Yulefeast for Guthrum's men, for between Christmas and the New Year Guthrum had crossed the breadth of the frost-hardened land into West Seaxe and struck at the royal burh. Aelfred was lucky to get away with some of his men. Read the episode on Aelfred in this series to see how he fared in the Danelaw Years episode -3: "All I Smell is Burning Cakes!" (would have been oatmeal cakes, like bread, as many could not afford grain for grinding)].

Guthrum, the self-styled king of East Aengla, would be defeated at Ethandun before he and Aelfred agreed a treaty to divide the land along the old Roman road known then as Watling Straet from London to Chester. Eastern Mercia would be part of the Danelagen (Danelaw), and much of the land east of London beyond the River Lea. Deira would become the Danish Kingdom of Jorvik which stretched from the Irish Sea shore in the west to the North Sea shore in the east. With Halvdan Ragnarsson as its king the kingdom flourished in trade with her overseas neighbours. He was not above farming the land himself and became a wealthy landowner. See elsewhere about the three 'Ridings'.

There's much more to read through the series that concludes with the story behind the legend of Hrolf Kraki, and leads to the eponymous series, "The Saga of Hrolf Kraki"

God lykke! (Good luck)

War with Aelfred

On the rampage - to ensure those they mastered knew they had been, the Danes burned and looted in Wessex. As it turned out, they would never master Wessex itself but nor was Aelfred able to master them
On the rampage - to ensure those they mastered knew they had been, the Danes burned and looted in Wessex. As it turned out, they would never master Wessex itself but nor was Aelfred able to master them
Michael York as Guthrum. He assumed kingship of  East Anglia after Eadmund's death for cowardice by the Danes at Bury in Suffolk. Eadmund fled to the church, leaving his men to fight for him (still from the film 'Alfred the Great' with David Hemmings
Michael York as Guthrum. He assumed kingship of East Anglia after Eadmund's death for cowardice by the Danes at Bury in Suffolk. Eadmund fled to the church, leaving his men to fight for him (still from the film 'Alfred the Great' with David Hemmings
It was the Danes who gave the pious Aelfred the epithet 'the Great'. He had taken them on on their terms and held them at arm's length. His son Eadward 'the Elder' had less luck
It was the Danes who gave the pious Aelfred the epithet 'the Great'. He had taken them on on their terms and held them at arm's length. His son Eadward 'the Elder' had less luck
Following Guthrum's conversion and naming as Aethelstan - not to be confused with Aelfred's grandson - the land east and north of the old Roman road, Watling Street was parcelled out to the Danes. Guthrum had East Anglia, Halvdan Ragnarsson Yorvik
Following Guthrum's conversion and naming as Aethelstan - not to be confused with Aelfred's grandson - the land east and north of the old Roman road, Watling Street was parcelled out to the Danes. Guthrum had East Anglia, Halvdan Ragnarsson Yorvik

Although much shorter than (a quarter of its length) the VIKING series, the DANELAW YEARS series promises to equal its effect.

If you or your forebears have roots in Eastern England between the River Wear, the Tees and the Thames, as far west as the Irish Sea coast south of Ribblesdale and along the Pennineamountain chain there may be a hint of Danish blood coursing through your veins. There was in King Harold, and there is in the Windsor family from different eras.

Cast your eyes down this list of pages and see what attracts, I can promise it will not be dull:

01. LEGENDARY 'LEATHER BREEKS' - Ragnar 'Lothbrok', Viking Leader Above Others;

02. NJORD'S SILVERY PATH, Danes Cross The Sea, Aiming For Wessex;

03. "ALL I SMELL IS BURNING CAKES!" Aelfred's Domestic Skills Tested;

04. AETHELRED II, 'UNRAED' TO EADWARD, Slow Fuse To Crisis, 11th Century Politics;

05. KNUT, A Great Dane, No Ransacking Viking But An Empire Builder;

06. HUSCARL, Household Servant Turned Professional Warrior;

07. DANES AT HOME, Viking Age Kingdom Over The Waves;

08. DENMARK [O.E. 'Denemearce'], Heroes, Kings, Legends;

09. JORVIK, Home To Kings, Traders, Warmakers;

10. HROLF 'KRAKI', Feted And Fated Warrior King - Origins Of The Saga (This in itself is an 'overture' to the SAGA OF HROLF 'KRAKI' in nine parts)

An Aengla Land fragmented between warring kingdoms stood no chance against a concerted invasion... Step up Aethelstan

Weaponry unearthed - these swords, spear and axe heads were well crafted, lasting perhaps ten centuries in the soil
Weaponry unearthed - these swords, spear and axe heads were well crafted, lasting perhaps ten centuries in the soil
After Aethelstan died AD 939, his half-brother Eadmund held the kingship of a more fragmented England
After Aethelstan died AD 939, his half-brother Eadmund held the kingship of a more fragmented England
It would be Aethelred II, 'Unraed' who next paid the penalty for a weakened, disunited kingdom
It would be Aethelred II, 'Unraed' who next paid the penalty for a weakened, disunited kingdom
St Brice's Day, November 13th, AD 1002 proved to be Aethelred's undoing. Of the Danes in Oxford who were murdered by his men, one was Gunnhild - sister of Svein Haraldsson, 'Fork beard', king of Denmark
St Brice's Day, November 13th, AD 1002 proved to be Aethelred's undoing. Of the Danes in Oxford who were murdered by his men, one was Gunnhild - sister of Svein Haraldsson, 'Fork beard', king of Denmark

AD 1013: After squeezing Danegeld from Aethelred's coffers, Svein brought his younger son Knut and a great fleet

Svein Haraldsson, 'Forkbeard' had ousted his father before turning to bleeding Aethelred's coffers. A desire for the kingship brought him to land in the old Danelaw in AD 1013
Svein Haraldsson, 'Forkbeard' had ousted his father before turning to bleeding Aethelred's coffers. A desire for the kingship brought him to land in the old Danelaw in AD 1013
With Svein came his younger son Knut, who would become king of Aengla Land in November, AD 1016. Two years later his brother Harald died in Denmark without an heir, so Knut succeeded to an extended kingdom
With Svein came his younger son Knut, who would become king of Aengla Land in November, AD 1016. Two years later his brother Harald died in Denmark without an heir, so Knut succeeded to an extended kingdom
... With whom he had another son, Harthaknut. His son Harold by Aelfgifu - whom he had not repudiated - would be regent in England for Harthaknut until deciding to take the crown for himself. His younger brother Svein was regent in Norway for Knut
... With whom he had another son, Harthaknut. His son Harold by Aelfgifu - whom he had not repudiated - would be regent in England for Harthaknut until deciding to take the crown for himself. His younger brother Svein was regent in Norway for Knut

An empire his heirs could not hold on to

Knut's own kingdoms and dependencies are shown in red. Vassal states are orange and allies yellow (Normandy and the kingdom of the Wends - or Poland)
Knut's own kingdoms and dependencies are shown in red. Vassal states are orange and allies yellow (Normandy and the kingdom of the Wends - or Poland)
The fastest mode of transport was the ship, for warfare, trade and discovery
The fastest mode of transport was the ship, for warfare, trade and discovery
Trade was important and brought untold riches to a peaceful Aengla Land after years of warfare and unrest
Trade was important and brought untold riches to a peaceful Aengla Land after years of warfare and unrest

Despite Aethelstan's achievements successive weak West Seaxan kings brought the new state of Aengland to its knees...

From when Aelfred died AD 899, succeeded by his son Eadward 'the Elder' and in turn the 'caretaker' reign of Aethelstan the new state prospered. However, all hopes would be shattered by the time Aethelred II, 'Unraed' came to the throne. Follow the 'Danelaw Years' series to learn of the perfidy of successive weak kings until a strong Knut (Cnut or Canute) Sveinsson took the throne AD 1016 following the death of Eadmund 'Ironside' from wounds sustained in battle at Esandun (Ashingdon) east of London. In losing the kingship of Eadmund the kingdom lost a strong ruler. However it gained another strong ruler in Knut until his premature death AD 1035 and another struggle for power ensued before the all too short reign of Harthaknut Knutsson ended. The twenty-four year long rule Aethelred II's son Eadward by Emma of Normandy would prove a stepping stone for another strong, ruthless king after the all-too-short reign of the popular Harold II....

Good news for Jorvik Viking Centre fans and newcomers

In December 2015 York was inundated once again, the River Ouse flooded, its banks burst and the Jorvik Viking Centre had to close its doors... for the duration, some thought pessimistically. The Centre opened its doors once more on April 8th, 2017 after extensive repairs and prevention work undertaken to ensure a repeat will not happen.

Use the link below to see what's been done, and how this 'keyhole' into the Viking Age has changed (mustn't spoil the pleasant surprise for you):

Not so much pillagers as colonists, overlords, traders, craftsmen and military strategists based at Jorvik (York)
Not so much pillagers as colonists, overlords, traders, craftsmen and military strategists based at Jorvik (York) | Source

VIKING AGE ENGLAND, Julian D Richards, Tempus Publ., ISBN 0-7524-2888-8

The kingdoms that became England were rich, Christian and ripe for plunder. It would be for plunder that initially brought the Norsemen, the monasteries and churches located perilously close to the sea. Mistakes made by kings - or usurpers in the case of Aelle of Bernicia - cost them their kingdoms, and in some instances their lives. The base execution of Ragnar 'Lothbrok' at the hands of Aelle brought his sons with their combined fleets in AD 865. The 'Micel Here' wrought punishment and wreaked havoc, eventually settling, farming, trading and spreading out north-westward towards their Norse neighbours in Cumbria. The Danes settled largely in the lower-lying lands and river valleys of the East, North and West 'Thridjungar', the Ridings and as far as the Irish Sea (the area now marked as Lancashire, Manchester and Merseyside). The native Aengle (Angles) occupied the higher ground and Norsemen settled on the coast around Whitby and Scarborough (Hviteby and Skarthiburh), plying a trade in fishing. Halvdan, one of the sons of Ragnar 'Lothbrok' took the kingship. In the east the warband leader Guthrum took the kingship of East Anglia and the area between, the Danelaw comprised the Five Boroughs, Deoraby, Leagerceaster, Lindcylne, Snotingaham and Staenford (Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford), who owed loyalty to their own community chieftains and leaders. Several kings succeeded in Jorvik, Sigtrygg 'Caech' ('Squinty') came from Dublin, another Danish centre in the British Isles. Aethelstan crushed him after marrying a sister to the Dane, but when Aethelstan died the Danes established themselves again. Later in the 10th Century Eirik Haraldsson, 'Blood-axe' took over the rule in Jorvik, coming back to reign again after being thrown out before being ambushed on Stainmore Common on the border with Cumbria, Aenglish rule was imposed again. Then Aethelred had Danes in Oxford murdered and a new kingdom would result, under Knut.

DANELAW YEARS, how was it for you?

Will you follow the ten parts of the series?

See results

© 2016 Alan R Lancaster

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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

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

      LO again Lawrence. You might be right in assuming it was down the road from you. Others say it was on the River Thames (it's tidal up to Brentford Lock, maybe further before that was built). The story itself has grown out of proportion but its whereabouts never seemed to be as important to record. I'll have a look in my copy of the Chronicles to see if there's a mention or a clue.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Alan

      Just down the road from where I grew up was Kingsford that was supposedly the place where Knut (or Canute as we used to say) sat on the beach and ordered the Sea to retreat, if it was then even the Sea obeyed him as it's now forty miles inland!

      There are other places in England that claim it too so we may never know the actual location, but still great kids stories to be told.

      Lawrence

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

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

      Hello Lawrence, just thought I'd do an intro to the DANELAW YEARS as I did for VIKING. This is from the mid-9th to late 10th C.

      A thousand years ago abou this time Knut Sveinsson became king, first of England and then two years later king of the Danes. He's interred with Aerhelred's widow Emma and their son Harthaknut in the Old Minster at Winchester. Although he only reigned nineteen years he was one of our best kings. We had prosperity and a strong king. Then it all went 'pear-shaped' after he died, a mess from Harold 'Harefoot' (Knut's son by Aelfgifu of Northampton) to Henry I.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Alan

      The series continues, and a very interesting one at that!

      The time of the 'Danelaw' has always fascinated me, then again just about any historical period fascinates me!

      Great information here.

      Lawrence

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

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

      Hello Blossom,

      The Saxons achieved conquest of Celtic territory as far as the Tamar. That was the extent of Wessex, back to Hampshire and north-east from Exeter to Somerset (where Glastonbury's situated at the edge of the Levels). When the Danes went down to Exeter their aim was not to conquer beyond the Tamar, but to outflank Aelfred. At that time Cornwall was known to Saxon and English chroniclers as 'West Wealas' or West Wales,(Welsh being the Saxon word for 'foreigners') being linked to Wales by its Gallic connection. It was not made part of England until the time of Henry II, 'Anjou', when he also subdued some of Ireland as it was seen by Rome as 'non-Christian' (Celtic church). 'Cornuaille' was the Norman/Anjou reference to Cornwall. There's a separatist movement in Cornwall, as in Wales.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      You have done a lot of research for this and it shows, however, you have omitted the fact that the places they did not conquer were populated by Celts - including Cornwall. I see in one of your maps that they got as far as Exeter, yet Cornwall is not green. Sorry! It's really a great hub.

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