Much of north-west England – particularly south-west Lancashire and Cumbria – was heavily settled by Scandinavians from Ireland in the early tenth century. But where were their initial winter-camps and the first ‘longphort’ settlements situated, before they started to spread out and settle further inland? Not one has yet been found, unlike in Ireland, other parts of England or over in Denmark, Frisia and France. This article is purely an educated guess that one such camp might well be found on the River Douglas, a tributary of the River Ribble, near Hesketh Bank and Becconsall. Unless the area is surveyed we’ll never know if this guess is right, but if not there then where else?
The whole of the coastal plain was dotted with shallow meres which were destined to acquire names like Gattern Mere, Barton Mere, White Otter and Black Otter Pool, but the greatest of these was Martin Mere. It measured over four miles from east to west and three miles from north to south, and at one point it came within a mile of the sea. In its time Martin mere was numbered amongst the greatest meres in England. Great flocks of wild geese flew over the waters. Pike, perch and bream swam beneath the surface and the osprey nested in the rushes of its hinterland. The waters would rise and fall with the seasons and after heavy rains the acres of bog and marshland were reclaimed by the waters, dried up creeks filled with water and became part of the mere until the next dry spell. After particularly heavy rains Martin Mere would sometimes manage to find an outlet to the coast and spill over into the great salt waters of the sea.
North of the mere was a river estuary, another habitat of geese and wild fowl, a land of mudflats, salt marshes and sea-washed – but to the south the coastal regions were of an entirely different nature. Here blown sand accumulated into a wide band of desolate sand hills with ever changing contours sculpted by the wind. Here the land was in perpetual conflict with the sea. On the slopes of the sand hills sparse clumps of marram grass struggled for a hold on the sandy inclines but in the valleys between the dunes the sand in some places gave way to carpets of local vegetation where, at the lowest points, lay dark shallow pools of water. Here grew the marsh marigold, reedmace, burr reed, water mint and bog bean. Millions of years of evolution had produced the sand lizard which scurried through the coarse grass, and in the spring could be heard the croaking, unlovely mating call of the natterjack toad.
Early Viking bases
When the Scandinavians turned to raiding the coasts of Europe in the late eighth century and the early decades of the ninth century (literally to ‘viking’), they were, at first, intent on getting booty in the form of gold and silver artefacts and coins, precious religious books, slaves and other valuable commodities such as salt, but pretty quickly they started to want to control land and, eventually, to settle down. In the Frankish realms and in Aquitaine during the first decades of the ninth century Scandinavian raiders regularly made their way along the coasts of the west Frankish kingdom, round Brittany, and down to the Loire and the Charente. In 844, having left Toulouse on the River Garonne, they raided in Muslim Portugal and Spain.
Throughout these early years the raiders usually returned home each winter, most probably to bases around the delta of the River Scheldt in Frisia and, more than likely, to their main base on the island of Walcheren, which had been given to the Danish leader Harald in 841 by the Frankish king Lothar. It wasn’t until after their sacking of Nantes in 843 that they stayed for longer. The Annals of St. Bertin reported:
Northmen pirates attacked Nantes, slew the bishop and many clergy and lay people of both sexes, and sacked the civitas. Then they attacked the western parts of Aquitaine to devastate them too. Finally they landed on a certain island, brought their households from the mainland and decided to winter there in something like a permanent settlement. 
This island was either Noirmoitier or on one of the several other islands along the coast – from southern Brittany down to the Ile de Ré?
In Britain and Ireland there were sporadic raids from the late eight century, for example on Lindisfarne in 793 and in 795 in Ireland. But here again it wasn’t until later that they over-wintered and established permanent or semi-permanent bases. In Ireland the first winter camps were established in the 830s, while the first permanent camps, called longphuirt (sing. longphort), are seen in the records in two locations in 841, at Duiblinn (Dublin) and Linn Duachaill (Louth). In England, after the early raids, viking appearances were rare until they returned again in force in 851. But the king of Wessex, Æthelwulf, together with his sons Æthelbald and Æthelstan, was able to secure rare victories. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported:
A.D. 851. This year Alderman Ceorl, with the men of Devonshire, fought the heathen army at Wemburg, and after making great slaughter obtained the victory. The same year King Æthelstan and Alderman Elchere (Ealhhere) fought in their ships, and slew a large army at Sandwich in Kent, taking nine ships and dispersing the rest. The heathens now for the first time remained over winter in the Isle of Thanet. The same year came three hundred and fifty ships into the mouth of the Thames; the crew of which went upon land, and stormed Canterbury and London; putting to flight Beorhtwulf, king of the Mercians, with his army; and then marched southward over the Thames into Surrey. Here Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald, at the head of the West-Saxon army, fought with them at Ockley, and made the greatest slaughter of the heathen army that we have ever heard reported to this present day. There also they obtained the victory.
The English naval victory at Sandwich was described by Sir Frank Stenton as ‘the first naval battle in recorded English history’.
Most likely these Scandinavians too had come from the Scheldt area of Frisia (most probably Walcheren). After their defeat in England some of them would then go on to Dublin, where they are recorded as arriving in 851, under the name Dubgenti/Dubgaill (Dark or New Heathens/Foreigners). Here they would join, and repeatedly fight with, the earlier Scandinavian arrivals, the Fair Foreigners, and (for a time) capturing the longphort of Dublin.
After the arrival of the primarily Danish Great Army in East Anglia in 865, while on campaign in the north of England these Scandinavians built winter-camps, at Torksey in Lincolnshire over the winter of 872/3 and, the next year, at Repton in Derbyshire.
If we move a little further forward, Frankish records show the viking forces who had returned to the continent from England in 896, after a four year stay, continually fighting in east and west Francia, but repeatedly returning to their defended winter camps each year, before eventually gaining control of what became known as Normandy in 911.
More examples could be given, but what is clear, and to a great extent obvious, is that the first thing these Scandinavians had to do when they wanted to stay longer than a few months in a particular area was find somewhere safe to over-winter – they had to build a ‘winter-camp’. Some of these camps became permanent settlements; Dublin even eventually became a city. Many others were used for only one or a few winters and then simply disappeared back into the earth. Others, without much doubt, formed the heart of later small and unimportant local Scandinavian communities.
Ivan Kaye as ‘Ivar the Boneless’
What I want to address here is: where are the vikings’ winter-camps and longphuirt in Lancashire? Given the extent of the Dublin Norse settlement of south-west Lancashire (as well as Cumbria), following their temporary expulsion from Dublin in 902- by a fleetingly united Irish, different groups tried their luck in different places. Some went to Brittany. A group under Ívarr grandson of Ívarr (termed ‘the Boneless’ in later Icelandic sagas) attacked Pictland in 904 but were repulsed and Ívarr was killed. Another group, under a leader called Ingimundr, were driven from Anglesey by the Welsh in 902, were then granted the right to settle near Chester (probably on the Wirral) by Æthelflaed, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, the daughter of King Alfred and wife of the Mercian Ealdorman Æthelred. But they became dissatisfied with the poor land they had been given:
Ingimund came then to the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes; he was complaining bitterly before them, and said that they were not well off unless they had good lands, and that they all ought to go and seize Chester and possess it with its wealth and lands. From that there resulted many great battles and wars. What he said was, ‘Let us entreat and implore them ourselves first, and if we do not get them good lands willingly like that, let us fight for them by force.’ All the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes consented to that.
In league with these other ‘Norwegians and Danes’, plus some Irish, Ingimundr attacked Chester in about 910, only to be defeated in colourful circumstances – or that at least is how the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland tell the story.
Subsequently some of these Northmen (rather than ‘Norwegians’) were to settle on the Wirral, while others of this combined force settled in south-west Lancashire and elsewhere.
The Scandinavian settlement of south-west Lancashire
From the point of view of documentary sources, events in the whole of north-west England during the tenth century are extremely obscure, but the fact of the Scandinavian settlement of west Lancashire is clear. The evidence is fourfold: place-names, genetic studies, archaeological finds and some skimpy written sources.
First, as generations of place-name scholars such as Ekwall, Wainwright and Fellows-Jensen have shown, northern and south-western Lancashire are riddled with Scandinavian place-names, intermingled with a surprising number of English names too. The Scandinavian names are seen not just in dozens of settlements, but also in an almost limitless number of minor topographical and field-names as well. A glance at the map below will illustrate the point for the land ‘between the Ribble and Mersey’ – as south-west Lancashire was known to the Mercian English.
Scandinavian place-names in south-west Lancashire
Every single one of these settlement-names is of Scandinavian origin. Certainly, as scholars have shown, many of these names would appear to be more ‘Norwegian’ in origin than ‘Danish. Others such as Formby, Kirkby, Crosby and West Derby, are usually seen as being Danish because by is seen as a Danish marker. It is generally well accepted that the Scandinavian settlers in some parts of eastern and south-eastern Lancashire came from the ‘Danish’ population in Yorkshire and Northumbria, while in the west and north they came from the so-called ‘Norse’ settlements in Ireland. The fact that many so-called Danish settlement names also appear in the land between the Ribble and the Mersey should make us a little bit wary of the usual ‘Norwegian’ and ‘Danish’ distinction.
Second, in recent years, advances in genetic science have allowed us to get a much more precise understanding of population movement and origins than was the case only a couple of decades ago. A recent genetic study that surveyed men who have surnames that were present in West Lancashire before 1700, undertaken by researchers from a number of British universities, and published in Viking DNA: the Wirral and West Lancashire Project showed that:
Statistical analysis of the Y chromosome distributions indicates around 50% Norse ancestry for both “medieval” populations, the same as modern Orkney. Although the estimate is subject to uncertainty, the results do appear to confirm the belief that Wirral and west Lancashire were both once heavily settled by Norse Vikings.
Some genetic results for Lancashire
Third, several major silver and coin-hoards, unanimously attributed to the Vikings, have been found in Lancashire that date from the early years of the tenth century. Most famously there is the huge Cuerdale hoard, found in 1840 on the banks of the River Ribble opposite present-day Preston. This is conventionally dated to around 905-910, but it just possible it could have been buried somewhat later. Both Nick Higham and James Graham-Campbell have suggested that this hoard might have been a war-chest collected by the Norsemen of the Dublin diaspora (possibly with the help of their compatriots in York) to finance an abortive plan to recapture Dublin.
Some of the Cuerdale hoard
The dating of the hoard and its location on one of the main routes of communication between York and the Irish sea point to a connection with the Vikings expelled from Dublin in 902 who were subsequently involved in struggles for the control of York and seem to have settled areas of the Wirral and Lancashire. The presence of a large number of apparently freshly minted coins from York in the hoard may suggest it was assembled in that city and was perhaps intended to pay or to recruit forces for an attempt to reconquer Dublin.
Then there were the Harkirke coins found in 1611 by William Blundell in Little Crosby, near present-day Liverpool. These were subsequently melted down, but Blundell left a description and drawings of the coins, and scholars have also dated it to around 905 – 915, i.e. not long after the expulsion from Dublin. In 2011 a silver-hoard was found further north – on the coast of Morecambe Bay in Silverdale – dated to around the same time, which just might have been related to the probable Scandinavian attack on Heversham Abbey and the flight of a powerful local Northumbrian thegn called Alfred, which I will discuss briefly below.
Fourth, in this very obscure period we can still catch a few documentary glimpses of some of the raids the vikings made, and their consequences. The Historia de Sancto Cuthberto tells of a powerful English thegn in western Northumbria called Alfred son of Brihtwulf ‘fleeing from pirates’. He ‘came over the mountains in the west and sought the mercy of St Cuthbert and bishop Cutheard so that they might present him with some lands’. In the same source we also hear that Abbot Tilred of Heversham (in Westmorland) came to St Cuthbert’s land and purchased the abbacy of Norham on Tweed during the episcopate of Cutheard. In all likelihood Tilred was fleeing from the Norsemen too. We can probably date these flights to between the expulsion of the Scandinavians from Dublin in 902 and the death of Bishop Cutheard in 915. I prefer later in this period.
Heversham and Morecambe Bay – maybe there’s a Viking camp here?
The grant of the whole of the northern Lancastrian district of Amounderness to the diocese of York by King Æthelstan in 930, which we know he bought at a ‘high price’ (from the ‘pagans’ in one source), suggests that the Scandinavians had already heavily settled this region by this time. Even so, Edward’s son King Æthelstan still had to reassert his authority or supremacy over the various peoples of the north of Britain at Eamont Bridge in Cumbria in 927 and on the Wirral at the important Battle of Brunanburh in 937.
To this we might add the evidence from the 1086 Domeday Book in Lancashire, with its Scandinavian nomenclature, such as carucate, and the vast number of pre-conquest Scandinavian thegns’ names. But this would take us too far away from the subject here. Suffice it to say that the abundant evidence leaves no doubt that sometime in the early decades of the tenth century, large groups of Scandinavian turned from raiding and settled down in numbers in western and northern Lancashire.
Frederick Wainwright wrote:
Finally, it should be remembered that the influence of the Norsemen was not limited to conditions and events in the tenth century. We have seen how the new settlers left their mark on the racial complex, the social structure, the place-names, the personal names, the language, and the art-forms of Lancashire and the north-west. Their influence long outlasted the tenth century. It was a dominant factor in the history of Lancashire throughout the Middle Ages and it persists even today. As a mere episode the Norse immigration must be considered outstanding. But it was not a mere episode. It was an event of permanent historical importance.
The nature of winter-camps and longphuirt
The Norse arrived by sea, along the coasts and up the rivers and estuaries. Their long-ships were perfectly capable of being beached, although the available evidence suggests that they tended to moor just off the coast in shallow water and then leap over the side, hoping that they had judged to depth of water correctly. Yet when it came to staying for the winter or for longer periods, leaving beached ships exposed to the coastal storms and tides was not a good idea. If they were to make bases on the coasts they would need to find places where there were sandy beaches, where they could embark or disembark regardless of whether the tide was high or low, which were protected from winter storms and which provided protection from hostile attacks from inland. There were, and are, no such places on the Lancashire Irish-Sea coast. What they invariably did was sail or row up the rivers. With a draught of only about three feet their ships could go a long way even up quite small rivers. The heavier ships of their adversaries in France or England couldn’t follow. They frequently used suitable islands as bases as well: in France, in Frisia, in Scotland, in England and, occasionally, in Ireland. But with the exception of the Isle of Man, there are no such islands, big or small, along the whole Lancashire seaboard. So here the Scandinavians would have had to have made their initial bases up estuaries and rivers.
The evidence of the nature of winter bases and longphuirt in Ireland is most instructive for this tentative exploration. Not only did the Scandinavians of Lancashire come from Ireland, but, thanks to the work many fine Irish scholars, our knowledge of where they were and what they were like is (with a few exceptions) much fuller than it is for England.
As mentioned before, the first winter-camps in Ireland date from the 830s, while the first so-called longphuirt date from about 841, but more were established during a second phase in the 920s and 930s, after the Scandinavians returned to Ireland in 917. Longphort is, as John Sheehan says, referring to the work of C. Doherty, ‘a compound based on two Latin loanwords that were borrowed into Irish at an earlier period, long from L. (navis) longa ‘ship’ and port from L. portus ‘port’, ‘landing place’, ‘shore’. It was ‘an earthen bank thrown up on the landward side to protect ships that had been drawn up on a beach or river-bank’. In his article ‘The Longphort in Viking Age Ireland’ Sheehan uses the term ‘only to refer only to Scandinavian or Hiberno-Scandinavian bases located in coastal, lacustrine (lake) or riverine contexts from the period encompassing the mid-ninth to the mid-tenth centuries; these were initially established for offensive or raiding purposes, though some developed trading and other economic functions’. I will do the same here.
Of course these bases could be shorter or longer-lived. But having surveyed all the known longphuirt in Ireland Sheehan suggests that there is a ‘fairly standardized site-type’. These sites usually had a ‘D-shaped, were open to the water, located at the confluence of a river and a tributary, adjacent to a pool, close to a fording point, and protected on the landward side by marshy ground… ’.  If this is how and where the Scandinavians in Ireland were establishing their bases, then we might look for similar places in Lancashire too, for it can’t be doubted that they did so, for they were after all the same people. In north-eastern England too, these same Dublin Norse, who comprised part of the Great Army, made winter-camps at Torksey 872/3 in Lincolnshire and then at Repton in Derbyshire the next winter. In terms of Torksey:
At its highest point, a near-vertical cliff edge plunging down to the river forms the camp’s edge. The surrounding land is still prone to flooding, and it is easy to see how it could have formed a natural island in the past, with the river on one side, and standing water or marsh on the other…
Why then did the Viking army choose Torksey for its winter camp? Clearly it is easily accessible from the River Trent, and boats could have been dragged out of the water onto the floodplain for repairs, while the higher ground would have offered protection from both winter floods and any Anglo-Saxon forces in the area. It is also strategically located at the junction of several land- and river-communication routes. The army must also have had an eye on the availability of winter food provisions if it was going to feed several thousand soldiers.
View of Torksey Viking Camp from the River Trent
At Repton the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 873:
Her for se here from Lindesse to Hreopedune, 7 þær wintersetl nam, 7 þone cyning Burgred ofer se adræfdon ymb .xxii. wintra þæs þe he rice hæfde, 7 þæt lond all geeodon.
This year went the army from Lindsey to Repton, and there took up their winter-quarters, drove the king, Burhred, over sea, when he had reigned about two and twenty winters, and subdued all that land.
Repton Viking Camp with Anglian Church
Regarding the Repton site:
Having taken over the church of St Wystan in Repton, which had achieved the status of a royal shrine because its crypt had been used for Mercian royal burials, the Vikings constructed a huge D-shaped enclosure.
One side of this enclosure was defended by the river Trent; the other sides were defended by earthworks. The tower of the Anglo-Saxon church was used as a gatehouse.
So all the winter camps and longphuirt in Ireland and the north of England seem to have had roughly the same components – as described by John Sheehan. These might help us pin down areas where one or more viking winter bases or longphuirt might be located on or near to the Lancashire coast.
The geography and landscape of Viking Age Lancashire
I am going to restrict attention here to the area of south-west Lancashire called by the Anglo-Saxons the ‘land between the Ribble and the Mersey’ (betwux Ribbel & Maerse), and, for reasons I will explain, give more attention to the Ribble than to the Mersey.
North Meols Mudflats
Anyone who has visited south-west Lancashire, north of the sprawling Liverpool conurbation, will have noticed that the land is extremely flat, with just occasional barely perceptible islands of slightly higher ground, where often some of the older settlements are situated: Halsall and Ormskirk to name just two. The coast, where it hasn’t been built on, consists of long stretches of beach and sand hills, plus the remaining salt-marshes in the north around modern Southport and into the Ribble estuary. But much of this landscape is the result of centuries of drainage, dyke building and pumping. The whole area is riddled with dykes, canals, sluices and coastal protection banks, but despite all this it is still highly liable to flooding today. Before this drainage, much of the area was water-logged swamp, moss-land or fen-land, with little habitable islands rising up here and there on which the earliest inhabitants lived. In the north of the region, there was an inland lake called Martin Mere that was once the largest stretch of inland water in England. This was drained in the seventeenth century, but constant work is needed to keep the waters from returning. The extent of the lake can be seen on Saxton’s map of 1579 and John Speed’s of 1611 (see below), but at the time of the Scandinavian arrival in Lancashire Martin mere was even bigger. It stretched from North Meols (now Churchtown in Southport) all the way east to near Hesketh Bank on the edge of the Ribble’s tributary the River Douglas. In the south it almost reached Scarisbrick. North Meols (itself a Norse name meaning sand hills) was just a strip of land between the lake and the tidal salt-marshes of the coast and along the Ribble estuary.
Saxton’s1579 map of the land between Ribble and Mersey clearing showing Martin Mere and Hesketh at the top
John Speed’s Map of 1611
It was this wet and swampy landscape that the Scandinavians coming from Dublin found. It was also a landscape that they were quite familiar with in Ireland, and from the past in Frisia and Denmark. It was an ideal place to try to find defendable camps for themselves and their ships. But there really weren’t many.
Frederick Wainwright had this to say about where and why the Scandinavians settled in the region:
The distribution of Scandinavian place-names in south Lancashire suggests very strongly that the Norsemen were willing to occupy the poorer lands along the coast, lands which the earlier English settlers had deliberately avoided.
We know that the Dublin Norse settled down in numbers on the Wirral and on the other side of the Mersey in what is now Liverpool. The Wirral later became a significant Scandinavian trading port, as described by Stephen Harding in Viking Mersey: Scandinavian Wirral, West Lancashire and Chester. For this reason I’ll confine attention in this article to the northern part of the land between the Ribble and the Mersey, in particular to the Ribble estuary itself.
Was there a longphort in the Ribble estuary?
As already mentioned, the discovery of the Cuerdale silver-hoard on the southern shore of the higher River Ribble, has led some to suggest that not only might it have been a war-chest gathered for a planned recapture of Dublin in around 905-910, but that it also might have been buried near to the Scandinavians’ winter-camps. As John Sheehan has shown, many such hoards found in Ireland were buried near to Irish longphuirt. The River Ribble is the easiest place along the Lancashire coast to start to make the journey over the hills to York, which was without much doubt one of the aims of the Hiberno-Scandinavian of the Dublin diaspora in the early years of the tenth century. It followed well-worn Roman roads. York was taken by the Dublin Norse king Rögnvaldr (Ragnald) in 919 after the Battle of Corbridge.
It could well be that there was some type of winter- camp at or near Cuerdale and that one day archaeologists will discover it. Nevertheless, I have to say that it would not have been a very good site for a more permanent longphort.
In A Short History of Maritime Activity on the River Douglas (or Asland) at Hesketh Bank and Tarleton, Graham Fairhurst puts it thus:
The Ribble Estuary has been used by seafarers, at least since the Vikings came to this part of the world. It is not an easy estuary for boats and shipping to navigate and to find safe anchorage, not least because of the shifting channels but also because the Estuary faces directly into the prevailing wind and has an extremely high tidal range. There is up to 26 feet (8m) between the levels of low tide and high tide in the outer Estuary although this reduces as one moves further up river.
The River Ribble and its tributary the River Douglas, looking towards the Irish Sea
In fact the estuary has a significant tidal bore and is on both sides mostly salt-marsh for a considerable distance inland. Cuerdale is further upstream and is barely navigable by ships at this point. In addition the only nearby tributary is the River Darwen on the north side of the Ribble, running through present-day Preston, and that was never a navigable rive at all.
Nearer the sea we find the only truly navigable tributary of the Ribble, the River Douglas, which joins the Ribble near Hesketh Bank.
The River Douglas has always been a good place where boats could lie with access to both navigable water and landfall and in the lee provided by the boulder clay ridge. As a result of this, Hesketh Bank and Becconsall have a long association with the sea. The name “Becconsall” itself is thought to be derived from “Beacons Hill” where in ancient times a beacon was kept on the high ground adjacent to the confluence of the rivers Ribble and Douglas to guide shipping.
An annual payment of £2.16s.5d has been paid by the Duchy of Lancaster since 1535 for prayers to be said in Hesketh-with-Becconsall chapel for mariners on the river Ribble. This payment is still made to the church today…
Boats today on the River Douglas at Hesketh Bank
I will refer to names such as Becconsall and Hesketh Bank later. But Fairhurst continues:
The ridge of boulder clay on which Hesketh Bank and Becconsall are situated formed an ancient north – south route, elevated above the land to the west which, in ancient times was a treacherous and impassable morass. With rivers to both the north and the east, it is understandable that guiding over the sands and ferrying over the rivers were important, historic roles for the settlement. At this point the Ribble could be crossed at low tide to Freckleton Naze (in a similar manner to the better known crossing of Morecambe Bay). This route is referred to at least as far back as the 12th century and although dangerous, the low tide crossing shortened the journey between Chester and Lancaster by 28 miles compared with the inland route which crossed the Ribble at Preston. As an indication of the dangers, William Tomlinson of Wharton, who had been a guide over this crossing for 40 years, petitioned in 1655 for a horse stating that in his years of service he had “lost above the number of ten to his great impoverishment”.
Viking longphort at Cork
Now according to John Sheehan the ‘standardised site-type’ for longphuirt in Ireland is ‘open to the water, located at the confluence of a river and a tributary, adjacent to a pool, close to a fording point, and protected on the landward side by marshy ground’.
The River Douglas around Hesketh Bank has every one of these features: it is open to the River Douglas which was, and still is, navigable even further upstream to Brotherton and Tarleton (it was later canalized in its upper reaches and one could travel by boat all the way to Wigan); it is at the confluence of the Ribble and its tributary the Douglas, it was adjacent to a huge ‘pool’ called Martin Mere, which was connected by a stream to the Douglas and was easily deep enough in viking times to take long-ships; in had a ‘fording point’ to Freckleton to the north of the Ribble, and it was protected on the landward side by ‘marshy ground’.
If the Hiberno-Scandinavians wanted to find a place for a camp they would be hard pressed to find anywhere better along the whole length of the Ribble to the Mersey.
A glance at any good topographic or elevation map of the area (see below) clearly shows what would have been the advantages in situating a camp or longphort along ‘the ridge of boulder clay on which Hesketh Bank and Becconsall are situated… ’. Surrounded, as it was ‘in ancient times’, by ‘a treacherous and impassable morass’. The ridge rose like a whale’s back out of the low-lying, but now drained, swamps.
Elevaion map of the area around Hesketh Bank
Boats on the Douglas at Hesketh Bank
Both Hesketh Bank and Becconsall are Scandinavian names. Hesketh seems to mean ‘horse race track’ and Ekwall suggested that horse racing occurred on ‘Hesketh Sands’ on the banks of the Ribble. The ‘Bank’ (an Anglo-Saxon word) probably refers to the natural ridge rather than to the embankments which give their names to ‘Banks’, a few miles away in North Meols on the Irish Sea coast. Many of the earliest records refer to Hesketh Bank purely as Bank, indicating perhaps that it was simply called that by the locals before the Scandinavians arrived. Thus Hesketh Bank seems literally to mean ‘the place of horse racing near the bank’. Becconsall it is suggested means Bekan’s Hill, perhaps named after an early Scandinavian settler called Bekan. In fact the whole area is riddled with of other Norse place and topographical-names, often related to water, mosses, swamps and marshes, clearly showing that it was heavily settled by a Scandinavian people.
The River Douglas remained a busy maritime route well into the nineteenth century ‘with over 400 ships using the port in one year (100 of them engaged in overseas trade)’. It also had a customs house based in Becconsall. There were fishing boats and boat building too.
The Douglas has been vital to the prosperity of Tarleton and Hesketh Bank. There are records from the 1500’s concerning iron, salt, oats, wheat, sacks of peas and herrings coming ashore from the banks of the Douglas.
The River Douglas at Hesketh Bank
Was there a Viking winter-camp or longphort at Hesketh Bank/Becconsall?
Could there be a typical D-shaped earthwork enclosure lying somewhere on the banks of the River Douglas around Hesketh Bank or Becconsall, a place where some of the earliest Scandinavian settlers in this part of Lancashire first made a camp for the protection of themselves and their ships, a place that though it never grew into a major place did become a significant local community and maritime trading centre? Unless archaeologists conduct a major survey and dig, we’ll probably never know. Archaeological effort in the area his hitherto been undirected and without result – except for some chance amateur finds. Just maybe a look at Hesketh cum Becconsall is worth a try?
Wherever the viking winter-camps and longphuirt in Lancashire were, and it is pretty certain they had some, one thing is clear: except for raiding and fighting, they wouldn’t have spread themselves out too far from their defended bases and settle to farming, fishing and trading before they felt secure enough that they wouldn’t be massacred by the remaining local Northumbrian English or by the Mercians from south of the Mersey. What Walther Vogel, the great historian of the Norsemen in the Frankish kingdoms, said about them in the early tenth century is, I suggest, likely to have been true of Lancashire and Cumbria at the same time:
The ‘army’ as such still existed… the warriors had not yet dissolved their war-band and divided up the land to settle down to farm as individual colonists…
They probably obtained the necessities of life from small plundering raids in the surrounding area; they also certainly received tribute from the remaining… farmers in the countryside; finally with the help of their serfs and their slaves captured in war, they may have grown a few crops and kept a few cows. That this intermediate situation was enough for them; that the conquered land remained for so long undivided, can only be explained because the threat of Frankish attacks didn’t yet permit dissolution of the army. 
But at some point, I would think by about 920, the leaders of these Scandinavians of the Dublin diaspora did start to ‘dissolve the army’ and grant lands to their followers in those areas they now controlled. South-west Lancashire was to become heavily Scandinavian until the rising power of the Mercian and West Saxons kings started to really make itself felt in the area a little later in the tenth century – and then the Norman French came!
An Irish-Norse king
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NOTES AND REFERENCES
 Peter Aughton, North Meols and Southport – A History, Lancaster, 1988, pp. 16-17.
 Scheen, ‘Viking raids on the Spanish peninsula’
 Nelson, AB 841; Coupland, From Poachers, p. 90
 Nelson, AB, 835, p. 56
 If like Simon Coupland we prefer an island ‘in more southerly Aquitaine’ rather than Noirmoutier for the place where the Vikings over-wintered after the attack on Nantes, then this island can only have been either the Ile de Ré or possibly the Ile d’Oléron, which were also both salt producing places. See Coupland, The Vikings on the Continent, p. 187.
 Sheehan, The Longphort
 Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England
 Downham, Viking Kings, pp. 67-73
 Vogel in Die Normannen provides a very detailed description.
 See for example Lewis, Ottar’s Story
 Dumville, Annales Cambriae
 See Radner, Fragmentary Annals of Ireland
 For a discussion of this whole Danish/Norwegian identity question see Downham ‘Viking Ethnicities’; ‘Viking identities in Ireland’; Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland; ‘Hiberno-Norwegians and Anglo-Danes’
 See Harding Viking Mersey and Wainwright ‘The Scandinavians in Lancashire’ in Scandinavian England.
 See Graham–Campbell, Viking Treasure
 Higham, The Anglo-Saxon World, p. 330
 Woolf, From Pictland, p. 132; Johnson-South, Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, paragraphs 21 and 22. He suggests (pp. 143-144) that Cutheard died in 918 not 915. But even if this is so we know from the Historia that Alfred had been settled on his new lands in eastern Northumbria for some time before Rögnvald’s army arrived there in 918. Tilred succeeded as bishop after Cutheard’s death.
 See Wainwright, Scandinavian England
 Livingston, The Battle of Brunanburh
 Williams, Domesday Book
 Wainwright, ‘The Scandinavians in Lancashire’ in Scandinavian England, pp. 181-182
 Sheehan, The Longphort
 Sheehan, The Longphort
 Sheehan, The Longphort
 ‘Viking Torksey: Inside the great Army’s winter camp’ in Current archaeology (July 2013),
 ASC s.a. 874 (873)
 David Beard, Archaeology in Europe
 For the whole history of Martin Mere see Coney and Hale’s excellent History of Martin Mere, Lancashire’s Lost Lake
 Wainwright, Scandinavian England, p. 192
 Higham, The Kingdom, pp. 185 -187 cc
 See Downham, Viking Kings, p. 93.
 See Collins, Lancashire Plain and Seaboard
 See Harding, Viking Mersey, p. 96
 See Harding, Viking Mersey, p. 92
 Fairhurst, A Short History
 Cotterall, From North Meols to South Ribble
 Vogel, Die Normannen
 See Lewis, Ravening Wolves