ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 35, June 1998


Vikings and the new East Anglian towns

The Vikings transformed culture and society in 9th-11th century East Anglia, writes Andrew Rogerson

The Vikings arrived in force in East Anglia in 866, and in 870 they killed the East Anglian king, Edmund. However, it was not until after the Treaty of Wedmore in 878, agreed between Alfred the Great of Wessex and Guthrum of Denmark, that Viking settlement of East Anglia began in earnest. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it, Guthrum's Viking army proceeded to `share out' the land, which remained part of the Danelaw for the next 40 years.

The great questions that have always been asked about this Viking settlement include how numerous the newcomers were, and how much of the land they `shared out'. Were new settlements established by wholesale migration of farmers, with indigenous agricultural communities displaced, or was an upper class of warriors and their families imposed on a densely populated land?

The likelihood, in my view, is that the actual number of settlers was relatively small, even though their cultural influence in the region was large. Archaeological evidence from East Anglia over recent years shows that, whatever the number of immigrants, Scandinavian-influenced artefacts achieved very wide circulation in the 9th-11th centuries. More remarkably, evidence from towns in the region shows that the arrival of Vikings provided a kick start to English urbanisation after the long Anglo-Saxon lull, mirroring evidence from elsewhere in eastern England.

The traditional methods used to determine numbers of immigrants, however, now seem to provide little or no help. The funerary record, for example, shows only how successfully the Vikings were assimilated into local groups. Only three Viking burials (that is, burials containing Scandinavian grave-goods) are known from Norfolk and Suffolk, and it seems that, following the conversion of Guthrum in 878, Scandinavian settlers were buried without grave-goods along with local populations in Christian cemeteries. DNA has yet to assist in distinguishing Anglo-Saxon from Danish skeletons.

Until recently place-names provided the main evidence used to assess the scale and distribution of Viking settlement, but these too are problematic. Only five major place-names in Suffolk of purely Danish origin contrast with a few dozen in Norfolk. No one has come up with a convincing explanation for the yawning inequalities in the location and density of these names, although Tom Williamson of the University of East Anglia has suggested that in Norfolk the concentrations of Danish names indicate places which achieved tenurial independence at a time, perhaps in the early 10th century, when Danish was spoken by the ruling class. Minor place-names - for roads, heaths, fields and the like - found in medieval documents show that Scandinavian elements continued to be used at a later date. The point, however, is that a Scandinavian place-name does not prove a population of Scandinavians - only a Scandinavian influence.

Some clues may be provided by the fact that the Vikings did not make their homes in an undeveloped and sparsely settled countryside, but in one where a rising population had already spread over much of the available area.

With its rich soils and kind climate East Anglia had carried a large rural population in Roman times. After the drastic decline of the 5th century from the late Roman high point, a period of growth set in. Although this is less easy to see in the 7th than the 6th century, because burial with grave goods was becoming less common, by the 8th century Ipswich ware pottery, coins and metalwork once again enable us to see how widespread settlement had become. By the middle of the 9th century settlement had been established all over East Anglia in almost all the land units which were later to become parishes.

Rural settlements of the later 9th and 10th centuries most commonly overlie Middle Saxon predecessors, and differ only in that they are larger. While Middle Saxon settlement evidence is ubiquitous, there is no unambiguous evidence to suggest that a single entirely new settlement was founded in the Viking period. The Anglo-Saxon population of East Anglia was so numerous and economically healthy immediately preceding the Viking period that it is hard to imagine large-scale displacements after 878.

The Vikings' cultural impact, however, is indisputable. The main evidence comes from the evaluation of large numbers of metal-detector finds made in East Anglia - an approach pioneered by the late Sue Margeson of Norwich Castle Museum since the later 1970s. In contrast to sparse earlier finds which mostly comprised large items such as swords and stirrups, these recent discoveries dating from the late 9th, 10th and 11th centuries are predominantly small objects of personal adornment - brooches, buckles, pins, and the like - manufactured both in Scandinavia and locally in Scandinavian styles. Some are stray losses while others form an element in substantial assemblages of finds from settlement sites. These objects have a fairly even distribution in Norfolk, and the pattern in Suffolk, although a little thinner, is no different.

The status of the wearers of these objects was not high, to judge from the everyday nature of many pieces, and we are certainly not dealing with the trappings of a warrior elite, but rather a population of peasant farmers. Were they immigrants from Scandinavia or just Anglo-Saxons whose sense of dress was influenced by their new masters? If the latter, then we should regard this influence as significant, with the appearance of `Scandinavianness' being seen as an important consideration in the minds of indigenous East Anglians. The new fashions may not have seemed so very outlandish, for East Anglia already had a long history of close contact with Scandinavia, stretching back through the Anglo-Saxon ship burials at Sutton Hoo to the migration period itself.

More dramatic evidence for the impact of the Vikings can be found in the growth of towns, beginning in the late 9th and early 10th centuries. Whereas only one place, the international port and industrial centre of Ipswich, can make claims to urban status before 878, by the early years of the 10th century two more large towns had emerged, Norwich in Norfolk and Thetford on the border between the two shires.

There are no documentary references to the former at this period, Norwic appearing for the first time on coins of Athelstan (924-39), but Theodford had been named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the place where the Danish host had spent the winter of 869/70. Elsewhere in the Danelaw, other towns were developing in similar fashion, for example the `five boroughs' of Lincoln, Stamford, Leicester, Nottingham and Derby.

As work proceeds in Norwich and Thetford it becomes ever more apparent that both grew with enormous speed from modest Middle Saxon beginnings. In the 10th century Thetford covered some 75 hectares - a colossal size for the period - while by the time of Domesday, the population of Norwich had overtaken that of Thetford and the two towns ranked fifth and sixth in England, after London, York, Lincoln and Winchester.

Ipswich itself did not increase in size after the late 9th century but Danish influence can certainly be discerned there, in its defences which were constructed in about 900, in its Scandinavian Thingstead or meeting place, in its ancient division into four administrative leats known from later records, and in the occurrence of artefacts, particularly combs, which are undoubtedly imports from Scandinavia.

Thetford and Norwich were also defended by ramparts and ditches around the turn of the 10th century, almost certainly during the period of Danish suzerainty rather than after Edward the Elder's reconquest of East Anglia in 918. The defences of Thetford and Ipswich both have the `rounded' appearance thought to be characteristic of the Danish period, compared to the more rectilinear defences found under Wessex rule. Thetford and Norwich have also produced finds - such as bone combs, Scandinavian metalwork and soapstone from Norway or Shetland - which would look at home in York, a place more routinely described as an Anglo-Scandinavian town.

Lesser towns were also to appear during the course of the 10th century - Sudbury, Dunwich and perhaps Bury St Edmunds, all in Suffolk. Norfolk was certainly less urbanised, and by 1066 only three places ranked as boroughs, Great Yarmouth being the addition. This small number may have been maintained by the restrictive economic power exerted by the other two.

The sudden appearance of new and vibrant towns in East Anglia cannot be explained simply as a result of settlement there by Scandinavians. It is more reasonable to assume that the increasing population across the region was already leading to the establishment of a market economy. However, this process appears to have been brought forward by the influx of new folk from across the North Sea. Interestingly, local and regional trade was far more important during the 10th century than international trade. Archaeological finds show that the three large East Anglian boroughs looked not so much to Scandinavia as to their flourishing native hinterlands in this period, and it was local economic strength that enabled all three to survive the batterings they received from renewed Viking attacks in the early 11th century, and for 1,485 settlements in the two counties - a relatively large number - to survive and be named in the Domesday Book.

Fact file

Dr Andrew Rogerson is Senior Archaeologist at Norfolk Landscape Archaeology. The Vikings in Norfolk, by Sue Margeson, was published by Norfolk Museums Service in 1997.

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