Vikings and the Danelaw by Richard Hall, James Graham-Campbell, and Judith Jesch by Richard Hall, James Graham-Campbell, and Judith Jesch - Read Online

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Chapter 1

Defining the Danelaw

Katherine Holman


The 1998 CD-ROM edition of Encyclopedia Britannica contains the following description of the Danelaw:


Also spelled DANELAGH, or DANELAGA, the northern, central, and eastern region of Anglo-Saxon England colonized by invading Danish armies in the late 9th century. In the 11th and 12th centuries, it was recognized that all of eastern England between the Rivers Tees and Thames formed a region in which a distinctive form of customary law prevailed in the local courts, differing from West Saxon law to the south and Mercian law to the west. The region derived its name from the Old English Dena lagu (Danes’ law) under the assumption that its unique legal practices were of Danish origin, an assumption borne out by modern scholarship.

The Danes did not settle the whole of this wide area intensively, but their powerful military aristocracy dominated for a sufficient period to leave its imprint on local custom. The area of the Danelaw is marked by the survival of Danish personal names and place-names. In local administration the hundred was generally called a wapentake, and the hide was generally replaced by the plowland. Its law was distinguished by procedural differences, severe fines for breach of peace, and the existence of an aristocratic jury of presentment to initiate the prosecution of criminal suspects. In the areas of intensive Danish settlement, there were an unusually high number of sokemen, a class of personally free peasants attached to a lord rather than to the land (Encyclopedia Britannica 1994–8).

While this provides a useful outline of some of the main features of the Danelaw – what it was, where it was, and how its law and administration differed from that of Wessex and Mercia – most, if not all, of the scholars contributing to this volume would agree that this description glosses over a number of key problems in its definition of the Danelaw. Indeed, the extent and impact of Scandinavian settlement that gave rise to the Danelaw has itself been the subject of intense and, as yet, unresolved scholarly debate (see Fellows Jensen 1975 and Hadley 1997 for summaries), to which this volume will constitute an important addition. In this brief introductory article, I shall discuss some of the difficulties in defining the Danelaw, in order to set the scene for the more detailed contributions that follow.

What was the Danelaw?: the primary sources

The term Danelaw first occurs in two legal compilations made by Archbishop Wulfstan of York during the reign of Æthelred II (978–1016). The so-called Laws of Edward and Guthrum, dated to between 1002 and 1008, refer to the compensation to be paid on Deone lage if a slave was compelled to work on a church festival (EGu 7.2; Liebermann 1903, 132; Attenborough 1922, 106–7), while the following is found in the law-code known as VI Æthelred:

And if anyone plots against the king’s life, he shall forfeit his life and all that he possesses, if it is proved against him; and if he seeks and is able to clear himself, he shall do so by means of the most solemn oath or by the triple ordeal in districts under English law, and in those under Danish law in accordance with their constitution [& on Dena lage be þam þe heora lagu sy] (VI Æthelred 37; Liebermann 1903, 256; Robertson 1925, 102–3).

This law-code was issued in 1008, some 130 years after the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the settlement of the Viking armies in Northumbria (876), Mercia (877) and East Anglia (880), and some 90 years after Edward of Wessex and Æthelflæd of Mercia had reasserted English control over these territories. English kings had, however, legislated for the Scandinavians within their kingdom before this date. The law-code known as IV Edgar, issued in the form of a letter from Edgar (959–75) to the rulers of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, does not refer to the Danelaw, but does stipulate that:

it is my will that secular rights be in force among the Danes (mid Denum) according to as good laws as they can best decide on (IV Edgar 2.1; Liebermann 1903, 210; EHD I, 435).

it is my will that there should be in force among the Danes (mid Denum) such good laws as they best decide on, and I have ever allowed this and will allow it as long as my life lasts, because of your loyalty, which you have always shown me (IV Edgar 12; Liebermann 1903, 212; EHD I, 436).

Although these clauses suggest that Edgar allowed the Danes a considerable degree of autonomy in their law-making, his laws also add:

Nevertheless, this measure is to be common to all the nation, whether Englishmen, Danes or Britons (ge Anglum ge Denum ge Bryttum), in every province of my dominion, to the end that the poor man and rich may possess what they rightly acquire (IV Edgar 2.2; Liebermann 1903, 210; EHD I, 435).

Now Earl (eorl) Oslac [of Northumbria] and all the host (here) who dwell in his aldormanry (ealdor[do]me) are to give their support that this may be enforced (IV Edgar 15; Liebermann 1903, 214; EHD I, 437).

Both Edgar’s and Æthelred’s laws testify to the legal distinctiveness of the areas settled by Scandinavians, but, more importantly, they also provide evidence of their integration into the kingdom of England. Edgar’s legal policy towards the Scandinavian settlers in England is certainly a move forward from the laws of Edward the Elder (II Edward), where the following clause regarding fugitives from the law is found:

If anyone subsequently harbours him, he shall pay such compensation as the written laws declare of him who harbours a fugitive, if the offence is committed in our own kingdom (gif hit sy herinne). If the offence is committed in the eastern or northern kingdoms (gif hit sy east inne, gif hit sy norð inne), compensation shall be paid in accordance with the provisions of the treaties (friðgewritu) (II Edward 5.2; Liebermann 1903, 144; Attenborough 1922, 120–21).

Here, northern and eastern England clearly stand outside the legislative authority of the king of Wessex, and legal relations with those areas are governed by special treaties.

The earliest evidence for the use of the term Danelaw thus clearly indicates that it was a legal province of the kingdom of England, in spite of the emphasis on ‘Danishness’ in the term itself. Indeed, there appears to have been some movement towards legal integration in the fifty years which separated Edgar’s and Æthelred’s law-codes, for while Edgar permitted the Danes their legal autonomy, in return for their support against his brother Eadwig, Æthelred had apparently extended English customs to the Dena lagu in his law-codes (Lund 1976, 194–5; Neff 1989, 287). For example, Neff’s assessment of III Æthelred, the so-called Wantage Code, that was apparently intended for circulation in the Five Boroughs, is that ‘the law of the Danes had to accord in principle with that of the English. Differences of procedure were acceptable. Different standards of justice, law and order were not’ (Neff 1989, 311).

When the term ‘Danelaw’ was next used by the king of England, in the law-codes issued by Cnut, England was ruled by a Danish king. However, Cnut’s laws were by no means inspired by Danish law: according to the 1018 entry of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (version D only), and to Cnut’s own proclamation of 1020 (EHD I, 453; Robertson 1925, 142–3), they were modelled on those of King Edgar. Yet Cnut’s laws also have much detail in common with the laws of Æthelred and were almost certainly drafted by the same man, Archbishop Wulfstan of York. The term Dena lagu occurs five times in these codes;¹ there are also four references to mid Denum,² as found in Edgar’s laws, and one further reference to Danish men (Denisc).³ Niels Lund has argued that Cnut’s policy towards the Danelaw, as seen in II Cnut, was in fact ‘much more like that of Æthelred than Edgar’ (Lund 1976, 195), and that while he was willing to permit regional variation in the fines which were paid in the Danelaw, he differed from Edgar, in that he did not ‘leave the maintenance of peace and justice to the Danes themselves’ (ibid.).

How Danish was the law of the Danelaw?

In his seminal work, Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton characterizes the Danelaw as ‘the sphere of a distinctive form of customary law...[that had] acquired a strong individuality from the Danish influences which had once prevailed there’ (Stenton 1971, 506–7). This apparently straightforward definition runs into problems when considered in detail, particularly given the suggestion that the Viking armies that settled England may have numbered in their hundreds rather than their thousands. There is as yet no agreement between scholars as to the nature, extent and impact of the Scandinavian settlement in northern and eastern England. How far then was Stenton right in attributing the ‘strong individuality’ of the customary law of the Danelaw to specifically Danish influences rather than to other social, economic and political factors that followed the Scandinavian conquest and settlement? More fundamentally, how distinct was the law of the Danelaw?

Significant Scandinavian influence on English legal terminology is generally recognised by scholars; even the word ‘law’ itself was borrowed from Old Norse (see Geipel 1971, 62; Loyn 1994, 91; Neff 1989, 278–88). Terms such as landcop,lahslit,⁵ and witword⁶ testify to the distinctive legal vocabulary of the Danelaw. However, the extent to which the law of the Danelaw was actually modelled on Scandinavian practice is something which is more problematic, especially given the lack of extant contemporary law-books from Scandinavia, and many of the Scandinavian legal terms found in the Danelaw are in fact not evidenced in Denmark (Geipel 1971, 62; Chadwick 1905, 245, n.1 on ‘wapentake’). Moreover, there are very few contemporary English sources for the legal customs observed in the Danelaw. The most important source is the Wantage Code, several customs of which are closely paralleled in Domesday Book, some eighty or ninety years later, but large parts of this code simply concern the extension of English practice to the Five Boroughs (Hart 1992, 4, 20–23; Neff 1989, 310).

While the laws of the English kings demonstrate that the Danelaw was characterized by much larger penalties than the rest of England, these probably reflect different conditions in the Danelaw rather than specifically Scandinavian practice (Neff 1989, 300– 308). Indeed, as Niels Lund has argued, they seem to indicate Æthelred’s attempt to extend royal control to the Danelaw (Lund 1976, 194). Differences in legal terminology may also mask similarities: for example, the wapentakes found in Yorkshire and the Five Boroughs apparently served the same function as the hundreds found elsewhere in England (Lund 1976, 193). There are, however, Scandinavian parallels for the Danelaw institution of twelve leading thegns, mentioned in the Wantage Code, although whether this institution can be equated with the later jury of presentment is controversial (Neff 1989, 293–300; Wormald 1978, 66–9).

While acknowledging the Scandinavian character of its legal terminology, Ole Fenger suggests that the Danelaw be redefined as ‘that part of England in which neither Danish nor English law and custom prevailed’ (Fenger 1972, 94). Fenger also emphasises the organic nature of the Danelaw, and how the rules and institutions associated with it must have been altered and applied in different ways in different places at different times, resulting in the gradual emergence of an Anglo-Scandinavian, rather than Danish, legal province (ibid.; Chadwick 1905, 198–201; Stenton 1971, 506).

Where was the Danelaw?

As can be seen from the Encyclopedia Britannica quotation above, modern definitions of the Danelaw often start with its geography. However, the first surviving attempt to delimit the extent of the Danelaw is found some forty or more years after the term first occurs in Æthelred’s laws.⁷ The Danelaw of Anglo-Norman England was an extensive region, consisting of some fifteen shires (as opposed to the nine shires of West-Saxon law and the eight of Mercian law): Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex, and Buckinghamshire. As Henry Loyn has pointed out, this huge territory constituted approximately one third of the total area of the English kingdom at that time (Loyn 1994, 89), and many scholars are sceptical about the accuracy of these boundaries (e.g. Richardson and Sayles 1966, 51), especially given that evidence for Danish influence in this region varies dramatically.

Geographical definition of the Danelaw thus runs into problems from the very beginning, and these problems have been compounded by linking the term Danelaw with other aspects of Scandinavian influence in England. As the Encyclopedia Britannica quotation makes clear, sometimes the Danelaw is simply identified with those areas that were settled by Scandinavians in the ninth century.⁸ Defining the scale and extent of this settlement is in itself problematic: the Scandinavian settlement of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia is described in just three terse sentences in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and while it tells us that the western part of Mercia was left under the control of a puppet king, Ceolwulf, it does not mention that the northern part of Northumbria, Bernicia, remained in the hands of the native Anglian earls. Although there are considerable methodological problems concerning the age and the significance of place-names (see Fellows-Jensen 1994 for a discussion), they are frequently the only, and therefore the best, source for the geographical extent of this settlement. The distribution of these names is, however, extremely uneven, with major concentrations in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire; other areas, such as East Anglia, have significantly fewer Scandinavian place-names, and the southern parts of Danelaw – Buckinghamshire, Middlesex, and Hertfordshire – have virtually no Scandinavian place-names. Therefore, to equate the Danelaw with the areas settled by Scandinavians in the ninth century, or with the distribution map of Scandinavian place-names, is too simplistic and thus misleading.

A further point of confusion is found in the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum, often called the Treaty of Wedmore.⁹ This is sometimes regarded as formally establishing the Danelaw, by defining Danish and English spheres of control, along the following boundaries:

First as to the boundaries between us: up¹⁰ the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, then up the Ouse to Watling Street (Liebermann 1903, 126; Attenborough 1922, 98–9).

However, while the old Roman road, Watling Street, is generally used by historians as a convenient border for delimiting the extent of ninth-century Danish settlement in England, and indeed, as the border between Danelaw and the rest of England (see, for example, Loyn 1984, 62), the treaty itself does not actually specify that the boundary ran along the whole length of Watling Street to Chester (see Davis 1982, 806–7; Dumville 1992, 22–3 for discussion of this problem). It is not until later on, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1013, that we have some contemporary evidence that Watling Street had come to be generally recognised as the dividing line between Anglo-Scandinavian and English England:¹¹

And then Earl Uhtred and all Northumbria immediately submitted to him [Svein Forkbeard], and all the people in Lindsey, and afterwards the people of the Five Boroughs, and quickly after, all the raiding-army [here]¹² to the north of Watling Street.¹³

Moreover, the Treaty of Wedmore itself was not, as is often implied, a treaty between the Danes and the English, it was:

[the] peace which King Alfred and King Guthrum, and the councillors of all the English nation and all the people who dwell in East Anglia, have all agreed upon and confirmed with oaths, on their own behalf and for their subjects (Liebermann 1903, 126; Attenborough 1922, 98–9).

By the time this treaty was signed, the Scandinavian settlement of Mercia and Northumbria had already taken place,¹⁴ and the terms agreed with Alfred were only applicable to the Scandinavians of East Anglia. And Wedmore was perhaps less significant than modern scholars have often considered, for there is evidence to suggest that it was only one of a number of agreements that were reached. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, talks of peace being broken by Viking armies in 893:

the Northumbrians and East Anglians (Norðanhymbre & Eastængle) had granted oaths to King Alfred, and the East Anglians 6 prime hostages, and yet, contrary to the pledge (ofer þa treowa), as often as the other raiding-armies went out in full force, then they went either with them or alone.

Similarly, in 905, terms are said to have been agreed by Edward the Elder and the East Anglians and Northumbrians at Tiddingford in Buckinghamshire (‘they confirmed the peace (frið) at Tiddingford...both with East Anglians and with Northumbrians’). Moreover, II Edward 5.2, mentions ‘treaties’ (friðgewritu) in reference to ‘the eastern or northern kingdoms’ (see above; Attenborough 1922, 120–21; Whitelock 1941, 18). Several scholars, such as Stenton, Davis and Dumville have argued convincingly that the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum was in fact of fairly short duration, perhaps lasting less than a few years (summarized in Dumville 1992). Certainly, by the first decade of the tenth century, there is some evidence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that Viking armies had in fact extended their territory into Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, where they were forced into submission and retreat by Edward the Elder between 911 and 914 (Dumville 1992, 10–12).

In summary, it seems extremely likely that the boundaries of the Danelaw were neither fixed nor clear-cut when referred to in Æthelred’s law of 1008. Moreover, there is no straightforward relationship between the area described as the Danelaw by Anglo-Norman writers and the fluctuating area under Scandinavian control in the Viking Age (Chadwick 1905, 198–201). A final reminder is also needed about the status of north-west England, which is sometimes included in modern definitions of the Danelaw. Cheshire, Lancashire, and Cumbria, which were settled by Norwegians from Ireland and Scotland in the tenth century, are not included in the historical Danelaw: the area – which is largely absent from Domesday Book – formed a contested border zone between English and Scots well into the post-Conquest period.

Danes, the Danelaw, and the English

While the terms Engla lagu and Dena lagu are used in opposition to each other in the laws of Æthelred, Cnut, and Edward the Confessor, there is no real evidence that the area under Danish law ever formed a single political counterpart to the English territories of Wessex and West Mercia, as is sometimes implied. Certainly, the Viking armies that settled in northern and eastern England co-operated with each other from time to time, but II Edward’s reference to ‘treaties’ testifies to the lack of political cohesion in the areas so often referred to under the convenient umbrella of the Danelaw. Edward and Æthelflæd’s campaigns in northern and eastern England demonstrate this political fragmentation very clearly: the southern part of the Danelaw had fallen to the English by 914; East Anglia was brought under English control in 917; the reconquest of the Five Boroughs of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford, and almost certainly Lincoln, was accomplished in the period 917–20; and the southern part of Northumbria, the old kingdom of Deira, remained intermittently independent until the death of the last Scandinavian king of York, Erik Blood-Axe, in 954 (controlling all of England north of Watling Street for a brief period). In spite of the disruption caused by the Scandinavian settlements, the vestiges of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria thus appear to have survived in some form. Indeed, when Cnut became king of England in 1017, he divided his kingdom up into the four traditional districts of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria.¹⁵

Other aspects of regional and ethnic identity complicate further the situation in northern England.¹⁶ The so-called ‘Dublin Norse’ were expelled from that town in 902, and subsequently turned their attention to north-west England at the beginning of the tenth century (Wainwright 1975). One of their number, Ragnald, established the joint kingdom of York and Dublin, which was a formidable force in the Irish Sea region and in northern Britain during the tenth century. When the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle triumphantly hails (in verse) further West-Saxon victories over Scandinavian armies in 942, it differentiates for the first time between Danes and Norsemen, and it is the Norsemen of York, rather than the Danes, that are now seen as the threat to England:

Earlier the Danes were

under Northmen, subjected by force

in heathens’ captive fetters,

for a long time until they were ransomed again,

to the honour of Edward’s son,

protector of warriors, King Edmund.

Later on, in the 990s, when Viking raids by both Danes and Norwegians were resumed, southern and eastern England bore the brunt of the attacks. Although scholars frequently lay stress on the existence of strong Danish sympathies in northern and eastern England (e.g. Lund 1976, 190–91; Whitelock 1959, 87–8), the evidence is in fact rather conflicting. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle certainly records that these areas were the first to submit to Svein in 1013 (see above).¹⁷ Furthermore, the murders of Ælfhelm, earl of Northumbria, in 1006, and Sigeferth and Morcar, leading thegns in northern England, in 1015, suggest that Æthelred was worried about the loyalty of the northern parts of his kingdom (Lund 1976, 189–92; Whitelock 1959, 81, 87–8). However, the areas of England that had been settled by Scandinavians in the ninth century were by no means exempt from attack: in 993 the Viking army ‘did great damage’ in Lindsey and Northumbria; and in 1004 Norwich was destroyed. Moreover, in 992, the East Anglians actually sent ships against the Danish army. Susan Reynolds has argued that when Æthelred II called for the massacre of all Danes on St Brice’s Day (13 November) in 1002, he can only have been referring to the newly-arrived Danes in his kingdom, suggesting that the people who settled in northern and eastern England in the ninth century were no longer viewed as ethnic Danes (Reynolds 1985, 412). She has also drawn attention to the fact that the Five Boroughs later submitted fairly rapidly to Edmund Ironside, and that Cnut’s invasion began in the English south, rather than the Anglo-Scandinavian north-east (Reynolds 1985, 411).

Cnut’s conquest of England gave the map of Scandinavian England a further dimension. As his laws and letters to the English people make clear, Cnut was concerned to be seen as a just and Christian king in the English tradition (EHD I, 452–4, 476–8; Lawson 1993, 133–8; 150–60). Charters and witness lists from the early years of his reign testify to the influx of new men – both Danish and English – at court (Keynes 1994, 79–80 [esp. n.206], 88), but by the 1030s Danish earls and thegns were rare: ‘The court of the 1030s was neither Danish nor Anglo-Danish, but English, yet composed of Englishmen few of whose families were important in the tenth century, or even the early eleventh’ (Stafford 1989, 74). Scandinavian nobles were given land in southern England and Scandinavian personal names became popular in the south, once more blurring the distinction between Danish and English. The first appearance of a third legal district, that of Mercia, in Cnut’s laws further suggests that regional identities were more important than national identities in late Anglo-Saxon England.


All modern scholarship acknowledges the huge contribution that Sir Frank Stenton made to the study of the Danelaw, and the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on the Danelaw owes much to Stenton’s theories. To Stenton, the ‘legal inviduality’ of the Danelaw was ‘chiefly interesting as the reflection of a society which was abnormal in structure and unique in racial composition’ (Stenton 1971, 513). However, Stenton’s belief in the large-scale settlement of northern and eastern England by the Scandinavian armies recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has since been rejected by most scholars (see Hadley 1997 for a survey of scholarship), and definitions of the Danelaw have also had to be changed as a result. It was Domesday scholar F.W. Maitland who first cautioned, ‘We must be careful how we use our Dane’ (Maitland 1897, 139); hopefully, this paper has demonstrated that it is equally important we use the term ‘Danelaw’ as carefully as possible.


1. II Cnut 15, 15.1a, 15.3, 62, 65 (Liebermann 1903, 318–20, 350–2; EHD I , 456–7, 464).

2. II Cnut 45.3, 46, 48, all concerning cases in which lahslit shall be paid mid Denum (Liebermann 1903, 344; EHD I , 462), and II Cnut 71.3 (Liebermann 1903, 358; EHD I , 465), concerning the heriot of a king’s thegn mid Denum .

3. II Cnut 83: ‘He who violates these laws which the king has now given to all men, whether he be Danish or English ( sy he Denisc, sy he Englisc ), is to forfeit his wergeld to the king’ (Liebermann 1903, 366; EHD I , 467).

4. ‘Purchase of land’ or a fine paid when land was purchased (see Neff 1989, 289–90).

5. A penalty for infringement of the law (Loyn 1994, 92).

6. Neff suggests that this term means ‘the right to prove one’s case’ rather than Dorothy Whitelock’s ‘agreement’ (Neff 1989, 292–3)

7. This document – which lists the shires belonging to the ‘laws’ of the West Saxons, Mercians and Danes – was dated to 1045 × 1109 by Liebermann (1903, 552n.; cf. Richardson and Sayles 1966, 51, n.4). It survives only in a later Middle English copy (printed by Morris 1872, 145– 6), but the text was known to Simeon of Durham and other post-Conquest writers.

8. Sir Frank Stenton himself was particularly careful to differentiate the Danelaw from the areas which were colonized by Danes: ‘The prevalence of Danish custom within a particular district does not mean that it had been colonized in force by Danish settlers. The establishment of a Danish aristocracy which controlled the course of business in the local courts would hardly be less effective than the settlement of an army in imprinting a Danish character on the law of a shire. The eleventh-century writers who described the greater part of eastern England as the Danelaw were not theorizing about the racial composition of its inhabitants’ (Stenton 1971, 506–7).

9. For a detailed discussion of the dating of this treaty, see Dumville 1992. Traditionally, the treaty is dated to between 886 (when Alfred was recognized as overlord of all the English according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) and 890 (when Guthrum died); Dumville argues that the treaty may be dated earlier than this, to 878.

10. ‘along’ in the second version of this treaty (Dumville 1992, 21).

11. Dumville (1992, 22, n.111) also refers to a remark in Historia Regum Anglorum ( s.a. 939) that Watling Street was designated as the political boundary between the English and Scandinavians, while noting that it only survives in twelfth-century versions.

12. Misleadingly translated as ‘Danish settlers’ by Dorothy Whitelock in EHD I , 245, although see her comment in n.11: ‘literally the army, used in the sense of the organised inhabitants of an area of Danish settlement’.

13. All modern English translations from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are taken from Swanton 1997; he is here following version E.

14. If we follow Dumville in redating the treaty to 878, East Anglia had not yet been settled according to the account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

15. When describing the treaty between Cnut and Edmund Ironside in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1016, all but one version of the Chronicle describes Edmund’s territory as consisting of Wessex and Cnut’s as Mercia. However, the exception, the D version, divides England up into Edmund’s Wessex, and Cnut’s ‘northern part’ ( norðdæl ).

16. Discussions of identity in the Danelaw can be found in Reynolds 1985 and Hadley 1997.

17. Interestingly, the chronicler differentiates between the people of Northumbria, Lindsey, and the Five Boroughs, on the one hand, and the army ( here ) north of Watling Street, on the other. Note that no mention is specifically made of Danes (nor of East Anglians).


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. and trans. M. Swanton, 1997.

Attenborough, F.L., 1922, The Laws of the Earliest English Kings.

Chadwick, H.M., 1905, Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions.

Davis, R.H.C., 1982, ‘Alfred and Guthrum’s Frontier’, English Historical Review, 97, 803–10.

Dumville, D.N., 1992, ‘The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum’, in his Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar, 1–27.

EHD I = Whitelock 1979.

Fellows Jensen, G., 1975, ‘The Vikings in England: a review’, Anglo-Saxon England, 4, 181– 206.

Fellows-Jensen, G., 1994, ‘Danish place-names and personal names in England: the influence of Cnut?’, in A. Rumble (ed.), The Reign of Cnut: King of England, Denmark and Norway, 125– 40.

Fenger, O., 1972, ‘The Danelaw and the Danish law: Anglo-Scandinavian legal relations during the Viking period’, Scandinavian Studies in Law, 16, 85–96.

Geipel, J., 1971, The Viking Legacy.

Hadley, D.M., 1997, ‘And they proceeded to plough and to support themselves: the Scandinavian settlement of England’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 19, 69–96.

Hart, C., 1992, The Danelaw.

Keynes, S., 1994, ‘Cnut’s earls’, in A. Rumble (ed.), The Reign of Cnut: King of England, Denmark and Norway, 43–88.

Lawson, M.K., 1993, Cnut: the Danes in England in the Early Eleventh Century.

Liebermann, F., 1903, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen: I. Text und Übersetzung, Halle.

Loyn, H., 1984, The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England 500–1087.

Loyn, H., 1994, The Vikings in Britain.

Lund, N., 1976, ‘King Edgar and the Danelaw’, Mediaeval Scandinavia, 9, 181–95.

Lund, N., 1981, ‘The settlers: where do we get them from – and do we need them?’, in H. Bekker Nielsen, P. Foote and O. Olsen (eds), Proceedings of the Eighth Viking Congress Århus 24–31 August 1977, Odense, 147–71.

Maitland, F. W., 1897, Domesday Book and Beyond.

Morris, R., 1872, An Old English Miscellany.

Neff, C., 1989, ‘Scandinavian elements in the Wantage Code of Æthelred II’, Journal of Legal History, 10, 285–316.

Reynolds, S., 1985, ‘What do we mean by Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Saxons?’, Journal of British Studies 24, 395–414.

Richards, J.D., 1991, Viking Age England.

Richardson, H.G., and Sayles, G.O., 1966, Law and Legislation from Æthelberht to Magna Carta.

Robertson, A.J. (ed. and trans.), 1925, The Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I.

Sawyer, P.H. et al., 1969, ‘The two Viking Ages of Britain: a discussion’, Mediaeval Scandinavia, 2, 163–207.

Stafford, P., 1989, Unification and Conquest: a Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries.

Swanton, M., 1997 = Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Stenton, F.M., 1927, ‘The Danes in England’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 13, 203–46.

Stenton, F.M., 1969, The Free Peasantry of the Northern Danelaw.

Stenton, F.M., 1971, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edition.

Wainwright, F.T., 1975, ‘Ingimund’s invasion’, in H.P.R. Finberg (ed.), Scandinavian England: Collected Papers by F.T. Wainwright, 131–61.

Whitelock, D., 1941, ‘Wulfstan and the so-called Laws of Edward and Guthrum’, English Historical Review, 56, 1–21; reprinted as Chapter IX in Whitelock 1981.

Whitelock, D., 1959, ‘The dealings of the kings of England with Northumbria in the tenth and eleventh centuries’, in P. Clemoes (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in some aspects of their history and culture presented to Bruce Dickins, 70–88; reprinted as Chapter III in Whitelock 1981.

Whitelock, D. (ed.), 1979, English Historical Documents c.500–1042, 2nd edition.

Whitelock, D., 1981, History, Law and Literature in 10th–11th Century England.

Wormald, P., 1978, ‘Æthelred the lawmaker’, in D. Hill (ed.), Ethelred the Unready, 47–80.

Chapter 2

In search of the vikings: the problems and the possibilities of interdisciplinary approaches

D. M. Hadley

With varying results, scholars have traditionally attempted to use documentary, linguistic and archaeological evidence to determine such issues as the scale of the Scandinavian settlement, its precise locations, the relative levels of continuity and change that followed the Scandinavian settlement, and the ‘Danishness’ of the Danelaw. The historiography of the study of the Scandinavian settlement requires little introduction: it has elicited some famously polarized views, and it is not the intention of this paper to rehearse those old arguments (for summaries see Lund 1981; Wormald 1982; C.D. Morris 1984; Hall 1994b). Rather, the following discussion highlights recent work that has the potential to form the basis of new and exciting interdisciplinary dialogue, and suggests that the premises underlying many previous discussions may need to be revised in order to gain new insights into the Scandinavian settlements in England. In particular, the paper concentrates on the ways in which the Scandinavians settled into the societies of northern and eastern England, the extent to which the settlers remained a distinctive group, and the impact that they had on indigenous society and culture. The paper takes each type of available evidence in turn and examines what the most recent research and newly emerging analytical frameworks permit us to say about these aspects of the Scandinavian settlement.


Broadly speaking, the distribution of Scandinavian place-names reveals the districts in which the Scandinavians settled in greatest numbers, but what does it reveal about the nature of that settlement? It is now widely accepted that we cannot use distribution maps of place-names to identify the routes taken by viking armies, to identify the precise locations of the Scandinavian settlements, to establish settlement chronologies, or to identify the extent to which they remained a distinctive element in the local population (Gelling 1978, 106–129; Reynolds 1985, 402; Hadley 1997, 69–75). The factors which determined the distribution of Scandinavian place-names are now recognised to include not only the density of that settlement but also complete and partial renaming of places and changes to estate structures (Sawyer 1982, 102–5; Fox 1989; Richards 1991, 35–6). We also have to be careful not to confuse the direct impact of Scandinavian settlers on the place-names of northern and eastern England with the factors that determined the recording of Scandinavian place-names (Townend 2000, 99–100). Lords who retained, or quickly re-acquired, their estates following the Scandinavian settlements and those whose estates remained intact may well have been more resistant to recording Scandinavian influence on the names of parts of their estates. It is clear that places often had more than one name, one English and the other Scandinavian (Fellows Jensen 1972), and that the final version by which a place came to be known owed much to the vagaries of record-keeping. The great length of time over which new names emerged (Fellows-Jensen 1994a and b) and the multiple contexts within which this occurred and in which new names were recorded mean that place-name distribution maps are really palimpsests of changes to the place-name corpus, and we have to be cautious about using them to identify specific periods of colonization and settlement (Fellows-Jensen 1995).

Who coined and used the Scandinavian place-names found in the Danelaw? Place-names were not normally deliberately coined and ‘registered’, except, perhaps, following the fragmentation of an estate, and they largely survived or disappeared according to common usage and, eventually, record-keeping. Place-names are a means by which people refer to the places around them, and the means by which they establish their social and geographical orientation. Thus, the transfer of topographical terms from Scandinavia to England must, in origin, have been the result of Scandinavian settlement, and it is a common practice of colonists when making a living in a new environment to create a familiar habitat by reference to the landscapes of the homeland (Nicolaisen 1987, 84). However, it is perfectly possible for speakers of one language to adopt and use place-names in another language; they do not necessarily have to speak the language from which the name was drawn or fully understand its etymology, they need only recognize that it was an appropriate name for the place to which it was applied (Brink 1996, 67–8). The connotations that go with a name may be as important as the etymological meaning of a name when naming places, and, for that matter, people (Brink 1996, 68; Ainiala 1997, 86). The desire to follow fashion, even unconsciously, cannot be discounted from our range of explanations of Scandinavian place-names in England, and the distribution of types of place-names reflects something of the changing cultural composition of the landscape in much the same way as the use of material culture using combinations of indigenous and Scandinavian motifs, as we shall see.

Place-names potentially have much to reveal about the nature of contacts between Scandinavian settlers and the indigenous population. Evidence for social interaction includes partial or complete renaming, the coining of new names within existing estates and their survival alongside indigenous place-names, and hybrid place-names containing an English and a Scandinavian element. In addition, the fact that Scandinavian place-names with the characteristic -by ending have a much higher percentage of personal-name specifics in England than in Denmark, suggests contact with people who had a different attitude to landholding, one which it was considered appropriate to identify through the attachment of a lord’s name to a particular estate (Lund 1976a; Hadley 1997, 71–5). Such issues may be more fruitful avenues for research than a continuing debate about what place-names have to reveal about the scale of the Scandinavian settlement. Admittedly, there may be some resistance to such approaches as the study of place-names has long been concerned with elucidating migrations and settlement development and chronology (Trafford 2000). Nonetheless, we need to grasp new ways of interpreting the place-name evidence in order to overcome the current academic impasse, and to alleviate the mutual suspicion between philologists on the one hand, and historians and archaeologists on the other.

Archaeological evidence

Archaeological evidence from the regions of Scandinavian settlement continues to accumulate, but what can it reveal about the nature and impact of that settlement? The distribution of artefacts of Scandinavian provenance or bearing Scandinavian-style ornamentation cannot easily be used as an index of the scale or locations of Scandinavian settlement, not least because trade and exchange, on the one hand, and the adoption of Scandinavian stylistic influence by the indigenous societies of the Danelaw, on the other, were equally important in determining the distribution of supposedly ‘Scandinavian’ artefacts. Archaeologists are now rightly suspicious of earlier attempts to identify the locations of groups of peoples through the sharply-delineated distribution of particular types of artefact, and it is clear that we cannot identify areas of Scandinavian settlement in this manner (Shennan 1989; Jones and Graves-Brown 1996; S. Jones 1997). In any case, it is notable that many of the artefacts commonly cited as evidence of Scandinavian settlement do not, in fact, derive from Scandinavia, although they may well have been brought into the country by Scandinavians. These include the steatite bowls and vessels from the Shetland Islands; jewellery and dress accessories from Scotland and Ireland; lava quernstones from the Mayen region (Germany); pottery vessels and jewellery from the Rhineland; twilled and dyed cloths of a type commonly found in Frisia; Islamic coins; and Byzantine silk all found at York; and the pottery, coinage and jewellery from the Danelaw which shows Carolingian influence (Roesdahl et al. 1981, 105–8, 121, 126–7; Hodges 1989, 160–2; Hall 1994a, 84–6). There is also notable mixing of Scandinavian and indigenous styles and forms on the stone sculpture, coinage and jewellery from the Danelaw. Moreover, sites commonly produce a mixture of types and styles of artefacts some of which are entirely indigenous in form and style, or are entirely Scandinavian (or from elsewhere), or display a combination of influences (Roesdahl et al. 1981, 105–8, 126– 7; Hall 1994a, 109–118; Hall 1994b, 33). The material culture from northern and eastern England suggests much about the interaction between the settlers and the indigenous inhabitants. It may also have much to reveal about the construction of new regional identities in the tenth century, which drew on a mixture of indigenous and Scandinavian motifs and forms of material culture, and which also saw the generation of new ones: for example, the hogback tombstones, and the metal bells found at a number of rural sites in the Danelaw (Lang 1983; Richards 2000, 305–6).

The identification of settlers on the basis of their burial customs has long been an archaeological pre-occupation, as have attempts to use this evidence to identify religious change. However, it is now clear that not only were burial practices in Scandinavia diverse in the ninth and tenth centuries – and included both inhumation and cremation, and burial in barrows and ships (Roesdahl 1987; Graham-Campbell 1994, 68–73) – but they were also diverse in contemporary England where churchyard burial was far from the norm, and burial with artefacts or in barrows, for example, was not unknown (Hadley 2000a; Halsall 2000). Hence, examples of burials accompanied by artefacts or outside churchyards need not have been those of Scandinavian settlers; equally, the many unaccompanied ninth- and tenth-century burials from the Danelaw that have not been considered in discussions of the Scandinavian settlement, since they do not contain what (according to a circular argument) are diagnostic signs of Scandinavian burial practice, might easily be the burials of settlers (see, for example, M. Adams 1996; Rodwell and Rodwell, 1982; K.A. Adams 1990; Hall and Whyman 1996; Rahtz and Watts 1998; Hadley 2000a, 212–13). The available evidence suggests that the settlers may have conducted a variety of types of burial practice and commemoration of the dead. These include: inhumation with or without grave goods, both in churchyards and elsewhere; cremation; burial within new or existing barrows; commemoration in the form of stone sculpture; and perhaps also votive offerings and ritual deposition, if this is how we may interpret the number of weapons and other artefacts found in rivers, including such finds as the skeletons of animals, Scandinavian metalwork and weapons excavated at Skerne, Lincs., and even hoards of coins and other valuable artefacts (Richards 1991, 116–17; Halsall 2000, 267–8). We also ought not to forget that the indigenous population had a range of burial practices and locations, although we are unclear about the limits, since any ‘unusual’ burial of the ninth or tenth centuries has tended to be labelled as Scandinavian. Yet, it is intriguing that of those known furnished burials, some do have distinctly ‘native’ items among their grave goods. For example, Anglo-Saxon coins and weapons are found in some of the burials at Repton, Derbs.; an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sword was interred with a body in the churchyard at Wensley, Yorks.; and ‘straightforward Anglo-Saxon products’, including a pendant and a strap-end, were found in a grave at Saffron Walden, Essex (Roesdahl et al. 1981, 77; Biddle and Kjølbye-Biddle 1992, 40–3).

Whoever was using grave goods at that time, we need to ask ‘why?’ A simple appeal to paganism will not do, if for no other reasons than that it is clearly the case that not all pagans use grave goods, and that there is nothing inherently un-Christian about burial with grave goods (Young 1977; Halsall 1995, 246–7). It is increasingly being argued that elaborate funerary displays are often associated with societies in which there was great competition for power (Hedeager 1992; Halsall 1995, 262–82). Such an explanation would certainly be apt for the societies of northern and eastern England in the ninth and tenth centuries. Yet, if so, the evidence may also suggest that such competition was relatively short-lived (Halsall 2000, 271), or that funerary display was soon diverted into above-ground markers in the form of stone sculpture (Hadley 2000a, 213–14; see also below).

It is difficult to continue to use the burial evidence as direct evidence for the responses of the settlers to Christianity and the Church (for a summary of earlier arguments, see Graham-Campbell 1986). It is, firstly, not entirely clear what being a good Christian would have entailed: baptism, attendance at church, adherence to ecclesiastical teaching and laws, and restraint from certain prohibited practices might be expected (see Abrams, this volume). However, there is little evidence concerning the attitude of the Church to burial and it is not certain that it was in any way concerned to proscribe the use of grave goods (Bullough 1983, 185–6). Thus, even if the burials of the ninth and tenth centuries which are accompanied by grave goods were those of Scandinavians, they are not necessarily a reliable guide to religious belief. Secondly, burial is not, even within a churchyard setting, solely concerned with religious belief: it is also central to expressions of social status and identity. Changes in social structure may have been more significant than the adoption of Christianity in explaining the relatively small numbers of burials accompanied by grave goods in northern and eastern England (Halsall 1995, 162–82). Burials near churches may represent the Scandinavian elite adopting aspects of the burial practices of the indigenous elite – as indeed they had adopted other aspects of their culture and forms of lordship – given that churchyard burial in the ninth century was not universal among the indigenous populations and recent studies have suggested that it was largely limited to the elite (Blair, forthcoming; Hadley 2000a, 215). Both burial location and above-ground markers, in the form of stone sculpture, may have provided alternative means to grave goods of displaying social status through burial. Burial remained a dynamic arena for social status through the later Anglo-Saxon centuries and it is mistaken to focus discussions of ‘Viking burials’ purely on cremations or on burials with grave goods (Hadley 2000a, 212–14).

Cremation is unlikely to have been a choice exercised by individuals and groups who had converted to Christianity. Therefore, the cremation cemetery at Heath Wood, Ingleby, Derbs., seems likely to be the burial ground of a group of pagan Scandinavian settlers. The cemetery comprised 59 barrows clustered into four distinct groups, which may have represented separate family or kinship groups. The barrows covered the site of a funeral pyre, upon which cremated human bones remained. Sacrificial offerings of cattle, sheep, dog and possibly pig have also been found. Two broken swords (possibly the result of ritual ‘killing’ of the swords), iron buckles, wire embroidery, a copper alloy strap-end, iron spade, and a ring-headed pin have also been found inside the barrows. Such a burial rite is virtually unknown in the ninth or tenth century in England. The only comparable examples (e.g. Hesket in the Forest in Cumbria, and Claughton Hall and, possibly, Inskip in Lancashire) are single burials, not cemeteries, and there is some doubt about the identification of the latter two as Viking Age cremations, as opposed to Viking Age inhumations in a place previously used for cremation. At Heath Wood the combination of ship symbolism, cremation and barrow burial is seemingly the most overt statement of ‘Scandinavianness’ found in a funerary context in England. Great effort was invested in the burials. The apparent use of ship strakes as funerary biers, the raising of mounds which will have shown up black against the surrounding red-coloured soil, and the digging of ditches around some of the barrows may be an expression of ‘instability and insecurity of some sort … a statement of religious, political and military affiliation in unfamiliar and inhospitable surroundings’ (Richards et al. 1995, 66).

The responses of Scandinavian settlers and the indigenous populations to each other in the ninth and tenth centuries may be explored further through an examination of the stone sculpture of northern England. The sculpture clearly belonged to a Christian milieu because of its association with churches and its Christian iconography, but there has been much debate about the significance of the supposedly ‘pagan’ and secular aspects of the sculpture, particularly those panels which display scenes apparently derived from Norse mythology, or depict figures involved in what may be regarded as non-ecclesiastical activities such as hunting or wearing armour (Bailey 1980, 83–4; Bailey 1997, 77–94). The sculpture needs to be considered within the context of early medieval elite behaviour and of the role of Christianity in society, because there has been a tendency to set up a false dichotomy between ‘secular’ and ‘Christian’ values and images. The Anglo-Saxon Church had long shown itself able to absorb the values of the nobility and their heroic ethos, and the ‘aristocratic environment of early English Christianity’ explains, for example, the generation and enjoyment of the poem Beowulf, with its mixture of pagan rites and secular subject matter as well as biblical citations (Wormald 1978, 57). Thus, the motifs and images depicted on the stone sculpture of the ninth and tenth centuries, although often new in that medium (for an early example of an apparently secular figure, see Biddle and Kjølbye-Biddle 1985), are not completely unusual within Christian contexts even if there was a strain of ecclesiastical thought that did not find such images acceptable. The display of such sculptures in churchyards arguably represents the Church adapting itself to new circumstances, and also reflects the importance of the Church in under-pinning lordship and displays of elite authority and status, and in fostering cultural assimilation.

The sculpture is a material manifestation of a period of contact and assimilation. It