14 October 2008

Expansion & Invasion: Vikings in York

By Michelle Styles

When I first moved to Northumberland, my sister who speaks fluent Norwegian came out to visit. She was surprised to hear people speaking what she thought was Norwegian or another Scandinavian language but with a very bad accent. Suddenly, she realized they were speaking Geordie or the dialect of Northumberland.

Despite the defeat of King Harldur Sigurdson at Stamford Bridge in 1066, the traces of Viking occupation in Northumberland and Yorkshire live on--for example in place names such as Thorngrafton, Tyne, or any village ending in "by". "By" is simply the Viking word for farmstead. The suffix "thorpe" means outlying farm. Any street name ending in gate is also derived from the Viking--gata. It simply means street. So in Hexham you have Gilesgate, or in York, where the central streets are still fundamentally the same as when the Vikings were there, there is Coopersgate amongst of a host of other "gate"-named streets. Coopersgate literally means the street of the coopers or wood workers. Today, it is the site of the Jorvik Museum, where the sites, sounds and smells of Viking Britain are recreated.

How and when did it happen?

The earliest form of Viking activity started in 793 with the raid on Lindisfarne. During this phase, the Vikings simply raided and left, returning each winter to their homeland. However, as population pressure grew in Scandinavia due to good harvests and increased wealth, plus the consolidation of power, so the nature of the raids changed. While the Norwegians concentrated on consolidating their power bases in Northern Scotland, the Danes suddenly appeared to have realized how lucrative East Anglia could be. Armies began to build camps and overwinter. In 830, the Danes overwintered on the island of Thanet in the Thames. In 865, the Anglo Saxon Chronicles record the first payment of dane geld and then in the autumn, the Danes were back.

In 866, they moved north and on 1 November 866, as the citizens of Eboracum celebrated All Saints Day, the Vikings rode in and took the city unopposed.

Northumbria at the time was in the midst of a civil war--between Osbert and AElla--and they appeared to have completely missed the Viking threat. The Vikings set about fortifying the old Roman fort. On 21 March 867, Osbert and AElla laid seige to the Vikings and the Northumbrian army was soundly beaten. Eboracum became Jorvik and eventually that name was corrupted to York.

Under Viking rule, York doubled in size and became the largest trading city in England with a population of around 30,000. It was the main trading outlet and the archaeological evacuations undertaken mainly during the 1970s and 1980s have shed new light on the Vikings as traders, artists and craftsmen rather than just warriors. They have discovered a tannery for making boots, an ice skate manufacturer (the Vikings fashioned skates from bone), and workshops for combs and other household utensils. One very exciting find was a set of Viking pan pipes. Apparently, it is possible to produce music from the pipes.

It should be noted that Vikings, rather than insisting that the Church at York be sacked and disbanded, allowed the Church and the archbishop to continue their work...for the most part. In other words, the Vikings settled down and began to rule. And the third phase of the Viking Age began--settlement.

Direct Viking rule lasted until 954. The Earl of York was created in 960 and many of the early earls were Viking. It is not until William the Conqueror builds castles in York that its independence as a Viking trading centre is truly brought to an end.

Michelle Styles's next Viking romance will be published in North America in December: Viking Warrior, Unwilling Wife.