ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 40, December 1998


Limits of Viking influence in Wales

Wales experienced sporadic raids, a few settlers and trade, writes Mark Redknap

Historical sources record a series of terrifying attacks by Viking marauders on the coasts of Britain, France, and Ireland from the last decade of the 8th century. Wales also suffered raids, but to judge from the Welsh annals, Welsh armies avoided yielding large tracts of land to the newcomers.

Archaeology seems broadly to confirm that the Vikings failed to colonise Wales to any significant extent. Recent excavations at Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey have produced evidence of cultural and trading links with the Viking world - and possible later Viking settlement. One or two other places have been claimed as sites of Viking occupation, while a few Viking burials and hoards around the coastline, and increasing numbers of stray Viking finds, suggest occasional contact. But there is little else.

The first recorded raid on Wales was in 852, and sporadic incursions occurred until about 919. Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great), ruler of Gwynedd from 844-77/8, led the initial resistance, his successes being noted in Ireland and at the court of Charles the Bald at Liège. In 903 Dublin Vikings led by Ingimund came to Anglesey after expulsion from Ireland. Expelled again by the Welsh, they sailed east to Chester, which marked an important development in the settlement of North-West England.

The second phase of raiding started about 950, following the death of Hywel Dda, king of Gwynedd and Deheubarth (South-West Wales). There were numerous raids on the coastal lowlands, and in particular on religious centres, such as Penmon and Caer Gybi (Anglesey), Clynnog Fawr (Caernarfonshire), Tywyn (Merionethshire), St David's, which was attacked 11 times between 967 and 1091, and St Dogmaels (Pembrokeshire), Llanbadarn Fawr (Cardiganshire), Llantwit Major and Llancarfan (Glamorgan). However, in comparison with the fate of churches in Ireland, Wales appears to have suffered lightly, which may in part be a reflection of poorer documentary records. Following another relatively peaceful period, a third phase of raiding commenced during the second half of the 11th century, linked to events leading up to the Norman Conquest.

At times, the Welsh and West Saxons co-operated against the Vikings. During the 890s, a large Viking army landed in England and, with reinforcements from the Danelaw, ravaged Mercia and approached the Welsh border. A West Saxon force overtook them and won a victory at Buttington in 893 - a disputed site but possibly the village of that name near Welshpool. According to the Saxon Chronicle of AEthelweard, the Saxons were supported by `some portion of the Welsh people'. Again in 914, a Viking fleet from Brittany ravaged the coast of South Wales and penetrated the Wye Valley, capturing the bishop of Llandaff, Cyfeiliog. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was Edward the Elder of Wessex who paid £40 ransom for him. Repulsed by the combined garrison forces of Hereford and Gloucester, the Vikings eventually fled to Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel, where many died of hunger. The Norse language has made a negligible impact on Welsh - a fact the chronicler Gerald of Wales noticed in the 1180s. Place-names also suggest minimal Viking settlement. Some prominent coastal features, used as navigational points, were given Scandinavian names. There are also some Scandinavian-style settlement names combined with personal names, though these probably reflect settlement after the Norman Conquest, as may some place-names derived from English bearing Scandinavian forenames. These cluster in Pembrokeshire, with outliers in Flintshire and South-East Wales.

Archaeology has provided only fleeting glimpses of a Scandinavian presence. Decorated stonework with Norse influence is rare, but includes a hogback at the pre-Norman church at Llanddewiaberarth, Cardiganshire (the only example of this Northumbrian form of monument identified in Wales), and Norse influence in the designs on some crosses, such as those at Penmon and Maen Achwyfan, near Dyserth in Flintshire.

Isolated finds are equally tantalising, such as a polychrome glass bead from the hillfort of Hen Gastell, at Briton Ferry near Swansea, an 11th century mount from Llanelen, Gower, and a Scandinavian ringed pin from the foreshore at Portskewett, Monmouthshire. A small Viking-age hoard of English coins was found in 1845 near the cathedral at Bangor, possibly representing a burial for safekeeping at a time of insecurity during the 960s. Viking silver hoards include a set of pristine armlets from Red Wharf Bay on Anglesey, and a Scandinavian coin hoard (which included some Arabic coins) buried at Bangor in about 925. Whether these hoards were loot, savings or capital intended for trading is not clear.

There are no Viking cemeteries known in Wales, but the sites of at least four possible 9th/10th century Scandinavian burials have been proposed, though they were not scientifically excavated. One, possibly 10th century and in a Christian cemetery at Caerwent, is interesting because it implies some form of assimilation. By contrast, the lone man buried on the beach near Llanbedrgoch with a bone comb was perhaps a Viking who had remained a pagan - either a settler who had chosen not to adopt Christianity or a trader, buried within sight of the sea, who happened to die during an expedition to Anglesey. The hunt for Viking settlements in Wales has been fascinating. Anglesey is probably one of the best places to look, as its geographical position brought it into the Hiberno-Norse world, lying a comfortable sailing distance from the Wirral, Man and Dublin. There are, in fact, also documentary references to a few high-status individuals who settled in Anglesey from Dublin.

One interesting site is the small coastal promontory fort at Castell, Porth Trefadog, which has been excavated by the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. The site bears a similarity to fortified Viking sites on Man, and has been associated by the Trust with 11th/12th century links between the kings of Gwynedd and the Vikings of Dublin and Man.

At Llanbedrgoch near Red Wharf Bay, excavations that I have directed for the National Museums & Galleries of Wales have allowed us to follow the development of a 7th century native settlement into a 10th century fortified centre, which perhaps served as the hub of a larger group of open, undefended settlements and has produced several examples of Norse culture. Whether this represents the adoption of Viking culture by native Welsh, or a Viking take-over of a native settlement, remains to be seen - but the possible Viking burial on the beach nearby, as well as a number of other non-Christian burials outside the settlement's walls which have not yet been dated, may suggest the latter (see BA, April 1998, February 1997 and December 1995).

At some point in the 9th century, the enclosure bank was upgraded into a defence system with a wall wide enough for a wall walk. The dramatic rebuilding coincides with unsettled times, and the imposing wall suggests the possession of considerable wealth - both to build and defend. The apogee of this settlement occurred in the second half of the 9th and during the 10th century, when the interior contained rectangular long-houses and halls. Evidence has been found for craft production, such as bronze casting, antler and leather working. These developments must be linked to changes in the political and economic fortunes of the area and contact with the trading networks of the Hiberno-Norse world. Some objects from the site bear the mark of the Hiberno-Norse style, such as hacksilver, merchants' weights, ringed pins and buckles.

The displacement of Viking leaders from Ireland in the early 10th century had repercussions around the Irish Sea, so that by the middle of the century its shores had become in some respects a single `Scandinavian' community of taste and culture. The extent of Viking political presence in Wales is more problematic. There is no evidence for an equivalent to the Scandinavian kingdom of Dublin, but some leaders had strong Welsh connections, and some (such as Olaf in the early 11th century) may have ruled in Anglesey and mainland Gwynedd for a period. The historian Wendy Davies has argued for Scandinavian political control and hegemony over North-West Wales, including Anglesey, in the later 10th century, although this remains highly controversial.

The archaeological evidence from North Wales thus suggests the existance of pockets of strong contact between the Welsh and Vikings of Dublin and Man, with the adoption of some Viking fashions. Some of the isolated burials, finds and Norse funerary sculpture may even suggest occasional intermarriage and individual Viking settlement. It remains to be seen if the same pattern holds for other parts of Wales.

Dr Mark Redknap is a medieval archaeologist at the National Museums & Galleries of Wales

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