The Danelaw, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also known as the Danelagh (Old English: Dena lagu; Danish: Danelagen), is a name given to a part of Great Britain, now northern and eastern England, in which the laws of the "Danes" held predominance over those of the Anglo-Saxons. Its origins lie in the Viking expansion of the ninth century. With the increase in population and productivity in Scandinavia, Viking warriors sought treasure and glory in nearby Britain. Its name is also used to describe the set of legal terms and definitions created in the treatises between the English king Alfred the Great and the Norwegian warlord Guthrum the Old, written down following Guthrum's defeat at the Battle of Edington, in 878. Later, in 886, the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum was formalized, founding the boundaries of their kingdoms, with provisions for peaceful relations between the English and the Vikings.
The Danish laws held sway in the Kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia, and the lands of the Five Boroughs of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford, and Lincoln. Arguably, these kingdoms were at this time part of the Danish Empire. Ironically, the prosperity of the Danelaw, especially Jórvík (York), led it to be targeted by Viking raiders. Conflict with Wessex and Mercia sapped the strength of the Danelaw, and the waning of its military power together with the Viking onslaughts led to its submission to Edward the Elder in return for protection. It was to be part of his Kingdom of England—no longer a province of Denmark—as the English lay final claim on their land as distinct from, not a part of, Scandinavia.
From about 800 C.E., waves of Danish assaults on the coastlines of the British Isles were gradually followed by a succession of Danish settlers. Danish raiders first began to settle in England starting in 865, when brothers Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless wintered in East Anglia. They soon moved north and in 867, captured Northumbria and its capital, York, defeating both the recently deposed King Osberht of Northumbria, as well as the usurper Ælla. The Danes then placed an Englishman, Ecgberht, on the throne of Northumbria as a puppet.
In response to this Danish invasion, King Æthelred of Wessex and his brother, Alfred, led their army against the Danes at Nottingham, but the Danes refused to leave their fortifications. King Burgred of Mercia then negotiated peace with Ivar, with the Danes keeping Nottingham in exchange for leaving the rest of Mercia unmolested.
The Danes under Ivar the Boneless continued their invasion in 870, by defeating King Edmund at Hoxne and thereby conquering East Anglia. Once again, the brothers Æthelred and Alfred attempted to stop Ivar by attacking the Danes, this time at Reading. However, this time they were repulsed, with heavy losses. The Danes pursued, and on January 7, 871, Æthelred and Alfred defeated the Danes at Ashdown. The Danes retreated to Basing (in Hampshire), where Æthelred attacked and was, in turn, defeated. Ivar was able to follow up this victory with another in March at Meretum (now Marton, Wiltshire).
Shortly thereafter, on April 23, 871, King Æthelred died and Alfred succeeded him as King of Wessex. However, his army was weak and he was forced to pay tribute to Ivar in order to make peace with the Danes. During this peace, the Danes turned to the north and attacked Mercia, a campaign that would last until 874. The Danish leader, Ivar, and the Mercian leader, Burgred, would die during this campaign, with Ivar being succeeded by Guthrum the Old, who finished the campaign against Mercia. The Danes had, in ten years, gained control over East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia, leaving only Wessex to resist.
Guthrum and the Danes brokered peace with Wessex in 876, when they captured the fortresses of Wareham and Exeter the following year. Alfred laid siege to the Danes, who were forced to surrender after reinforcements were lost in a storm. Two years later, Guthrum once again attacked Alfred, this time gaining surprise by attacking him while he wintered in Chippenham. King Alfred was saved when the Danish army, coming from his rear, was miraculously destroyed by inferior forces at Countisbury Hill. Alfred was forced into hiding for a time, returning in the spring of 878 to gather an army and attack Guthrum at Edington. The Danes were defeated and retreated to Chippenham, where King Alfred laid siege and soon forced them to surrender. As a term of the surrender, King Alfred demanded that Guthrum be baptized a Christian, which he did (with King Alfred serving as his godfather).
This peace lasted until 884, when Guthrum once again attacked Wessex. He was defeated, with Guthrum and Alfred agreeing to peace through the aptly named Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum. The treaty outlined the boundaries of the Danelaw and allowed for Danish self-rule in the region. The Danelaw represented a consolidation of power for Alfred; the subsequent conversion of Guthrum to Christianity underlines the ideological significance of this shift in the balance of power.
The reasons for these waves of immigrations are complex and bound to the political situation in Scandinavia at that time; moreover, they occurred at a time when the Viking forces were also establishing their presence in the Hebrides, Orkney, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
The Danes were never to give up their ambitions on England. From 1016 to 1035, the whole of the English kingdom was ruled by Canute the Great as part of a North Sea Danish Empire. In 1066, two rival Viking factions led invasions of England. One under Harald Hardrada took York but was defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. The other, William of Normandy and his Normans, would defeat the Anglo-Saxon armies at the Battle of Hastings and accept the submission of the child Edgar, last in the line of Wessex kings at Berkhamsted.
The Danelaw was to appear in legislation as late as the early twelfth century with the Leges Henrici Prime, being referred to as one of the laws together with those of Wessex and Mercia into which England was divided.
Timeline of the Danelaw
800 Waves of Danish assaults on the coastlines of the British Isles were gradually followed by a succession of settlers.
865 Danish raiders first began to settle in England. Led by brothers Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless, they wintered in East Anglia, where they demanded and received tribute in exchange for a temporary peace. From there they moved north and attacked Northumbria, which was in the midst of a civil war between the deposed king Osberht and a usurper Ælla. The Danes used the civil turmoil as an opportunity to captured York, which they sacked and burned.
867 Following the loss of York, Osberht and Ælla formed an alliance against the Danes. They launched a counterattack, but the Danes killed both Osberht and Ælla and set up a puppet king on Northumbrian throne. In response, King Æthelred of Wessex, along with his brother, Alfred, marched against the Danes, who were positioned behind fortifications in Nottingham, but were unable to draw them into battle. In order to establish peace, King Burhred of Mercia ceded Nottingham to the Danes in exchange for leaving the rest of Mercia undisturbed.
869 Ivar the Boneless returned and demanded tribute from King Edmund of East Anglia.
870 King Edmund refused, Ivar the Boneless defeated and captured him at Hoxne and brutally sacrificed his heart to Odin in a so-called “blood eagle ritual,” in the process adding East Anglia to the area controlled by the invading Danes. King Æthelred and Alfred attacked the Danes at Reading, but were repulsed with heavy losses. The Danes pursued them.
871 On January 7, they made their stand at Ashdown (in what is now East Sussex). Æthelred could not be found at the start of battle, as he was busy praying in his tent, so Alfred led the army into battle. Æthelred and Alfred defeated the Danes, who counted among their losses five jarls (nobles). The Danes retreated and set up fortifications at Basing in Hampshire, a mere 14 miles from Reading. Æthelred attacked the Danish fortifications and was routed. Danes followed up victory with another in March at Meretum (now Marton, Wiltshire).
King Æthelred died on April 23, 871, and Alfred took the throne of Wessex, but not before he seriously considering abdicating the throne in light of the desperate circumstances, which were further worsened by the arrival in Reading of a second Danish army from Europe. For the rest of the year, Alfred concentrated on attacking with small bands against isolated groups of Danes. He was moderately successful in this endeavor and was able to score minor victories against the Danes, but his army was on the verge of collapse. Alfred responded by paying off the Danes in order for a promise of peace. During the peace, the Danes turned north and attacked Mercia, which they finished off in short order, and captured London in the process. King Burgred of Mercia fought in vain against the Ivar the Boneless and his Danish invaders for three years until 874, when he fled to Europe. During Ivar’s campaign against Mercia, he died and was succeeded by Guthrum the Old as the main protagonist in the Danes’ drive to conquer England. Guthrum quickly defeated Burgred and placed a puppet on the throne of Mercia. The Danes now controlled East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia, with only Wessex continuing to resist.
875 The Danes settled in Dorsetshire, well inside of Alfred’s Kingdom of Wessex, but Alfred quickly made peace with them.
876 The Danes broke the peace when they captured the fortress of Wareham, followed by a similar capture of Exeter in 877.
877 Alfred laid siege, while the Danes waited for reinforcements from Scandinavia. Unfortunately for the Danes, the fleet of reinforcements encountered a storm and lost more than 100 ships, and the Danes were forced to return to East Mercia in the north.
878 In January, Guthrum led an attack against Wessex that sought to capture Alfred while he wintered in Chippenham. Another Danish army landed in south Wales and moved south with the intent of intercepting Alfred should he flee from Guthrum’s forces. However, they stopped during their march to capture a small fortress at Countisbury Hill, held by a Wessex ealdorman named Odda. The Saxons, led by Odda, attacked the Danes while they slept and defeated the superior Danish forces, saving Alfred from being trapped between the two armies. Alfred was forced to go into hiding for the rest of the winter and spring of 878, in the Somerset marshes, in order to avoid the superior Danish forces. In the spring, Alfred was able to gather an army and attacked the Guthrum and the Danes at Edington. The Danes were defeated and retreated to Chippenham, where the English pursued and laid siege to Guthrum’s forces. The Danes were unable to hold out without relief and soon surrendered. Alfred demanded as a term of the surrender that Guthrum become baptized as a Christian, which Guthrum agreed to do, with Alfred acting as his Godfather. Guthrum was true to his word and settled in East Anglia, at least for a while.
884 Guthrum attacked Kent, but was defeated by the English. This led to the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, which established the boundaries of the Danelaw and allowed for Danish self-rule in the region.
902 Essex submits to Æthelwald.
903 Æthelwald incites the East Anglian Danes into breaking the peace. They ravage Mercia before winning a pyrrhic victory that saw the death of Æthelwald and the Danish King Eohric; this allows Edward the Elder to consolidate power.
911 The English defeat the Danes at the Battle of Tettenhall. The Northumbrians ravage Mercia but are trapped by Edward and forced to fight.
917 In return for peace and protection, The Kingdoms of Essex and East Anglia accept Edward the Elder as their suzerain overlord.
Æthelflæd (also known as Ethelfleda) Lady of the Mercians, takes the borough of Derby.
918 The borough of Leicester submits peaceably to Æthelflæd's rule. The people of York promise to accept her as their overlord, but she dies before this could come to fruition. She is succeeded by her brother, the Kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex united in the person of King Edward.
919 Norwegian Vikings under King Rægnold (Ragnald son of Sygtrygg) of Dublin take York.
920 Edward is accepted as father and lord by the King of the Scots, by Rægnold, the sons of Eadulf, the English, Norse, Danes and others all of whom dwell in Northumbria, and the King and people of the Strathclyde Welsh.
954 Eric Bloodaxe is driven out of Northumbria, his death marking the end of the prospect of a Northern Viking Kingdom stretching from York to Dublin and the Isles.
The area occupied by the Danelaw was roughly the area to the north of a line drawn between London and Chester, excluding the portion of Northumbria to the east of the Pennines.
Five fortified towns became particularly important in the Danelaw: Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford, and Lincoln, broadly delineating the area now called the East Midlands. These strongholds became known as the Five Boroughs. Borough derives from the Old English word burg, meaning a fortified and walled enclosure containing several households—anything from a large stockade to a fortified town. The meaning has since developed further.
Legal concepts of the Danelaw
The Danelaw was an important factor in the establishment of a civilian peace in the neighbouring Anglo-Saxon and Viking communities. It established, for example, equivalences in areas of legal contentiousness, such as the amount of reparation that should be payable in weregild.
Many of the legalistic concepts were very compatible; for example, the Viking wapentake, the standard for land division in the Danelaw, was effectively interchangeable with the hundred.
Enduring impact of the Danelaw
The influence of this period of Scandinavian settlement can still be seen in the North of England and the East Midlands, most evidently in placenames: Name endings, such as "by" or "thorp" being particular giveaways.
Old Norse and Old English were still mutually comprehensible to a small degree and the mixed language of the Danelaw caused the incorporation of many Norse words into the English language, including the word law itself, as well as the third person plural pronouns they, them, and their. Many Old Norse words still survive in the dialects of Northeastern England.
Four of the five boroughs became county towns—of the counties of Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire. However, Stamford failed to gain such status—perhaps because of the nearby autonomous territory of Rutland.
In 2000, the BBC conducted a genetic survey of the British Isles for its program, Blood of the Vikings, with the conclusion that the Norse invaders settled sporadically throughout the British isles with a particular concentration in certain areas, such as Orkney and Shetland.
Archaeological sites and the Danelaw
Major archaeological sites that bear testimony to the Danelaw are few, but perhaps the most famous is the site at York, which is often said to derive its name from the Old Norse, Jórvík, though that name is itself a borrowing of the Old English, Eoforwic (the Old English diphthong eo being cognate with the Norse diphthong jo, the Old English intervocalic f typically being pronounced softly as a modern v, and wic being the Old English version of the Norse vik), which in turn was derived from a preexisting name for the town, spelled Eboracum in Latin sources. Other sites include the cremation site at Ingoldsby.
When considering the Danelaw as agreed in the treaty with Alfred the Great, in general, archaeological sites do not bear out the historically defined area as being a real demographic or trade boundary. This could be due to misallocation of the items and features on which this judgment is based as being indicative of either Anglo-Saxon or Norse presence. Otherwise, it could indicate that there was considerable population movement between the areas, or simply that after the treaty was made, it was ignored by one or both sides.
The time of the Danelaw can be considered one of only two episodes in English history when all or part of England was under foreign domination, the other episode being the period of Roman rule. William the Conqueor, for his part, may have been considered foreign but he had a strong dynastic claim to the English throne. However, until the Norman invasion England could be considered as a much part of Scandinavia as Sweden or Denmark. Afterwards, England identified more closely with the French region of Western Europe, although ties with Scandinavia were never completely severed. The end of the Danelaw contributed to the development of a sense of distinctive English identity, although this would become complex during the early Norman period, when English and French culture intermingled. Increasingly, however, in order to strengthen their own position as English kings, William’s own heirs patronized English culture, helping to develop the English cult of Edward the Confessor and promoting the work of Geoffrey Chaucer.
- Lass, p. 187.
- H. Coxe, ed., Flores Historiarum: Rogeri de Wendover, Chronica sive flores historiarum (London: Sumptibus Societatis, 1841-42).
- Haywood, p.62.
- Carr, p. 65.
- Hadley, p. 310.
- Davis, p xlv-xlvi.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Carr, Michael. "Alfred the Great Strikes Back." Military History Journal (June 2001).
- Davis, R.H.C., ed. The Kalender of Abbot Samson of Bury St. Edmunds. London: Offices of the Royal Historical Societies, 1954.
- Hadley, D.M. The Northern Danelaw: Its Social Structure, c. 800-1100. London: Leicester University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0718500146
- Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. ISBN 0140513280
- Lass, Roger. Old English: A Historical Linguistic Companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0521430876
- Savage, Anne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Tiger Books International version, 1995. ISBN 978-0312037406
- Stenton, Frank M. Types of Manorial Structure in the Northern Danelaw. New York: Octagon Books, 1974. ISBN 978-0374961602
All links retrieved June 23, 2022.
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