Posts Tagged ‘Battle of Brunanburh’

Court-centered history is not an adequate medium for recovering the past, even in England – William Kapelle[1]

So foreigners grew wealthy with the spoils of England, whilst her own sons were either shamefully slain or driven as exiles to wander hopelessly through foreign kingdom – Orderic Vitalis [2]

In King William’s twenty-first year (1087) there was scarcely a noble of English descent in England, but all had been reduced to servitude and lamentation – Henry of Huntingdon [3]

If the succession runs in the line of the conqueror the nation runs in the line of being conquered and ought to rescue itself – Thomas Paine ‘The Rights of Man’

After the Normans and other Frenchmen arrived in England in 1066, the chronicler of Evesham Abbey called them ‘ravening wolves’.[4] The near contemporary Shropshire-born Anglo-Norman monk and historian Orderic Vitalis said that they ‘mercilessly slaughtered the native people, like the scourge of God smiting them for their sin’.[5] In 1776 Thomas Paine wrote in ‘Common Sense’ that the invaders were a group of ‘armed banditti’ and that the ‘French bastard’ William was ‘the principal ruffian of some restless gang’. The Norman-French were and did all of these things. In this article I want to examine how and when these French ravening wolves arrived in what is now Lancashire, but was called then the ‘land between Ribble and Mersey’. It wasn’t until some years after the invasion of 1066, but still earlier than their arrival further north in Cumbria, which only happened in 1092.[6] Later I will provide a numeric analysis of south-west Lancashire, both before and after the Conquest, using the data and other evidence in Domesday Book. But to start with I’ll recap a little about the Norman Conquest and say something about Lancashire in the century or so before the French came to the area, and took it.

Hundred_of_West_Derby

West Derby Hundred

You will notice that the title of this essay is ‘The French hostile take-over of Lancashire’ and not ‘The Norman hostile take-over of Lancashire’. At the time of the invasion and for centuries afterwards the new masters of the country always described themselves as French and saw themselves as being almost a separate species to the English, who they despised. Marc Morris tells us that in 1194 Richard the Lion Heart (Coeur de Lion) chastised some of his English troops saying: ‘You English are too timid’. Implying, says Morris, that ‘he himself was neither’.[7]

richard the lionheart

The Frenchman King Richard the Lionheart

In reading popular versions of English history, and even quite regularly more scholarly and learned works too, it is all too easy to forget a very significant fact: The armed Norman banditti who invaded England were French and they spoke French. Of course the Normans were originally North-men (Normands), they were Norse Vikings, but by the time of the conquest, while still retaining the brutal martial qualities of their Viking ancestors, they were thoroughly French and spoke one version of the many regional varieties of French in use at that time: Norman French. As more and more French men and women from other parts of France arrived in England throughout the late Middle Ages, the language spoken by the royal  court, by the barons, by the local knights and in the courts of law slowly evolved and morphed – away from ‘Anglo-Norman’ and towards a more Parisian French. But let’s be quite clear: the conquerors continued to speak French as their primary language for a long time to come.

The English and their language were much despised, as indeed later on would be the Welsh, Irish and Scots as well. At the end of the thirteenth century, Robert of Gloucester could write:

And the Normans could not then speak any speech but their own; and they spoke French as they did at home, and had their children taught the same. So that the high men of this land, that came of their blood, all retain the same speech which they brought from their home. For unless a man know French, people regard him little; but the low men hold to English, and to their own speech still. I ween there be no countries in all the world that do not hold to their own speech, except England only. But undoubtedly it is well to know both; for the more a man knows, the more worth he is.

complete-canterbury-tales-geoffrey-chaucer-john-h-fisherOf course there was a need for some sort of communication between the conquerors and the conquered. The native English needed to know some French if they had to serve and appease their new lords in their manors, work on the lords’ home farms or understand the lawyers and judges in the courts. Slowly but surely Old English or Anglo-Saxon evolved and morphed into Middle English, the language of Chaucer. Although French remained the principal language of the rulers, one by one, and at first very reluctantly, they started to be able to understand and then speak Middle English as well.

In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English and the Statute of Pleading was adopted, which made English the language of the courts, though this statute was still written in French! French was still the mother tongue of Henry IV (1399-1413), but he was the first to take the oath in English. That most ‘English’ of Kings Henry V (1413–1422) was the first to write in English but he still preferred to use French.

It is interesting to note that it was not until the days of Henry VII in the late fifteenth century that an English king married a woman born in England (Elizabeth of York), as well as the fact that Law French was not banished from the common law courts until as late as 1731.

When we read history books or watch television programmes about the exploits of ‘English’ kings such as Henry II, his sons Richard ‘Coeur de Lion’ and King John, or later about Edward I ‘Hammer of the Scots’ or indeed about the countless English barons and knights fighting each other as well as fighting the kings of England and France, it is advisable to remember that these people weren’t yet English in any real sense of the word and didn’t yet see themselves as such. Whether we call them ‘Anglo-Norman’ or something else, and whether or not they were born in England, these were all French aristocratic thugs.

I want to stress this linguistic and cultural point not because I have anything against the French, nor because there were only French thugs. Thugs in fact appear everywhere and their arrival on the historical stage is, rather sadly, one of the defining characteristics of our civilization itself. Rather, knowing what type of people these really were can help clear some of the mist from popular English history as it is too often presented, particularly about the ‘Norman Conquest’.

The Conquest

In the years immediately after the arrival in England of William the Bastard and his band of armed banditti, the part of north-west England that is today called Lancashire was of little concern to the invaders. It was quite literally beyond the edge of their known world. During the first five years of the occupation and colonization of England, William and his followers were fully occupied with dispossessing the English ealdormen and thanes of their land and divvying up the spoils between themselves.[8] They also had their hands full mercilessly putting down various English rebellions against their still shaky rule.[9] Some years later over in the Norman monastery of Saint-Evroult  Orderic Vitalis wrote:

The English were groaning under the Norman yoke, and suffering oppressions from the proud lords who ignored the king’s injunctions. The petty lords who were guarding the castles oppressed all the native inhabitants of high and low degree, and heaped shameful burdens on them. For Bishop Odo and William fitz Osbern, the king’s vice-regents, were so swollen with pride that they would not deign to hear the reasonable pleas of the English or give them impartial judgement. When their men-at-arms were guilty of plunder and rape they protected them by force, and wreaked their wrath all the more violently upon those who complained of the cruel wrongs they suffered.

hastings

The Battle of Hastings

The dispossession of the English was, in the words of historian Robin Fleming in her magisterial and authoritative ‘Kings and Lords in Conquest England’, ‘a terrible slide towards annihilation’.[10] The whole process took many years and happened in a variety of ways. In a minority of cases Frenchmen were granted the estates of individual pre-Conquest English thanes, called antecessors. In many cases the king doled out whole tracts of territory bearing no relationship whatsoever to the holdings of particular pre-Conquest English ealdormen or thegns. In other cases the French just grabbed what they wanted without any authority from the king – they were exercising the rights of the conqueror, even if they were only among the ‘legions…. who were rushing across the channel to join in the scramble for worldly goods and riches’.[11]

Referring to England, Fleming comments:

The fields and copses, the livestock and peasants had all, before the Conquest, been controlled by an extensive aristocracy composed of perhaps four or five thousand thegns. The almost complete transference of all these lands, men and beasts in less than twenty years is astonishing… within twenty years of Hastings the overwhelming majority of land, with its vineyards, beekeepers and swine pastures, had been transferred from one lord to another.[12]

thegn's house

By the time the Domesday survey was taken in 1086, almost all of England was in French hands. The king had ordered the survey more to find out what his vassals actually held than for tax purposes, but it was certainly of use for that too.[13] The English aristocracy and most of the class of thegns had been completely destroyed. Some had died at Hastings in 1066, others during the rebellions in the north,[14] on the Welsh border or in the eastern fenlands,[15] while thousands more eventually despaired and left for Constantinople to join the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian Guard.[16] Orderic wrote:

And so the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed. Some sent to Swegn, King of Denmark, and urged him to lay claim to the kingdom of England which his ancestors Swegn and Cnut had won by the sword. Others fled into voluntary exile so they might either find in banishment freedom from the Normans or secure foreign help and come back to fight a war of vengeance. Some of them who were still in the flower of youth travelled into remote lands and bravely offered their arms to Alexius, Emperor of Constantinople, a man of great wisdom and nobility.

morrisIn ‘The Norman Conquest’, which I believe is the most balanced and thorough recent work on the Conquest, Marc Morris summed up the extent of the dispossession:

Of Domesday’s 1,000 tenants-in-chief, a mere thirteen are English… Whereas in 1066 there had been several thousand middling English thegns, by 1086 half of the land in England was held by just 200 Norman barons…  but half of that half – i.e. a quarter of all the land in England – was held by just ten magnates.[17]

There were a few exceptions. Some thegns managed to hold on to bits of their former land for a while; although by now they were invariably mere tenants of new French barons and knights. We find examples all over the country in Domesday Book (DB). But when we catch sad glimpses of these pre-Conquest English landowners, still precariously hanging on as debased tenants, they are the exceptions to the rule. In the years following Domesday most of these survivors also lost what little land they had still clung on to in 1086. When we do find a case where a local pre-Conquest lord or thegn who actually prospered, as for example with the Norse named Forne Sigulfson in Cumbria – we are interested precisely because such things were so rare.[18]

The Norman Conquest had certainly brought about a ‘tenurial revolution’, in that the post-Conquest pattern of land ownership didn’t match that seen pre-Conquest. But much more importantly it had brought about a complete foreign occupation and colonization of the country, whose effects, it can be argued, are still to be felt today.

Tenth-century Lancashire

Our concern here is with Lancashire, which was called at the time ‘the Land between Ribble and Mersey’ – referring to the two rivers of that name.

The boundaries of this interesting and unique region were clearly defined by physical objects, the Mersey on the south, the Ribble on the north, and the Pennine range on the east, a western spur of this range which divides the watershed of the river Aire from the western Calder constituting a natural boundary on the north-east.[19]

The first time we find use of the term between Ribble and Mersey was in 1002 in the will of a powerful Mercian English thegn (or perhaps he was an ealdorman) called Wulfric Spot. Wulfric held extensive estates throughout Mercia. His mother was Lady Wulfrun, who gave her name to Wolverhampton. In Wulfic’s will in 1002 he gave his lands betwux Ribbel & Maerse and on Wirhalum (Wirral) to Aelfhelm and Wulfheah. It has been suggested that Wulfric’s mother Wulfrun was the daughter of Wulfsige the Black, to whom King Edmund granted lands in Mercia in the early 940s.[20] It’s possible that Wulfsige the Black had also been given lands on the Wirral and across the Mersey by King Æthelstan after the pivotal Battle of Brunanburh, on or near the Wirral, in 937, or slightly later by his son King Edmund, who was reconquering the north in the early 940s. Perhaps these land grants north of the Mersey to Wulfric’s ancestor were part of the English kings’ attempts to take firmer control of these former Northumbrian lands now so heavily settled by Irish-Norse? It’s a subject worthy of more investigation.

statue wulfrun

Statue of Wolverhampton’s founder Lady Wulfrun

What type of land and society was the land between Ribble and Mersey in the tenth and eleventh centuries, before the Conquest and the French ravening wolves arrived in Lancashire? Unfortunately the whole history of north-west England during this period is obscure in the extreme. Yet we can say something.

From the seventh century, Lancashire and Cumbria had been under the rule of the Northumbrian English.[21] In the eleventh century the population was still very sparse, but consisted of a considerable remnant of the Celtic British (the ‘Cumbrians’), many Northumbrian English settlers, plus, as Northumbrian power dwindled in the face of viking raids and Scots incursions in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, a heavy settlement of Irish-Norse.[22] In the early tenth century it is also likely that the Strathclyde Britons (called ‘the Cumbrians’ in English sources) started to reassert some of their former power south of the Solway Firth into northern Cumberland.[23]

scandi-lancs

A few Norse place-names in West Derby Hundred, Lancashire

To restrict ourselves to Lancashire, the evidence clearly shows that sometime in the tenth century the whole of the Lancashire coast from the Wirral and the River Mersey in the south all the way up to Morecambe Bay in the north, was very heavily settled by Scandinavians who had originally come from Ireland following their temporary expulsion from Dublin in 902.[24] As the decades progressed, what were at first just a few coastal defensive bases for Viking fleets and warbands became permanent settlements and the Norsemen started to venture further inland – leaving their names in the landscape everywhere. Most, though by no means all, of our evidence for the Scandinavian settlement of north-west England, including Lancashire, comes from place-names, toponyms and other minor and field names. These have been extensively studied by generations of scholars, including Robert Ferguson, J. Worsaae, Eilert Ekwall and Frederick T. Wainwright, to name just four.[25] 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.[26]

This much is beyond any doubt. The timing of the settlement and whether it was peaceful or not are other matters.[27] The Norsemen in north-west England still spoke a Norse language well into the eleventh and even into the twelfth and maybe thirteenth centuries, although as time went on their language merged with the English of their neighbours in specific locals.

Just because a particular clearing in the woods (a ‘thwaite’ in Norse, hence Thornythwaite, Dowthwaite, Crosthwaite etc) was clearly the work of Norsemen it doesn’t mean it was cut in the tenth century. It could have happened even centuries later. Nevertheless, even if a place or field name was coined later (particularly if it still shows correct Norse case endings, as for example in Litherland which preserves the Scandinavian genitive in ar) it still shows that the people of the area were speaking a form of Old Norse at the time.[28]

Putting these questions to one side, in my view the turning of the Scandinavians from raiding to settlement, farming and fishing probably really only got underway after the Battle of Corbridge on the River Tyne in 918 and after 920 when the Northumbrians, Danes, Norse and Welsh had recognized the authority of King Edward the Elder, possibly in Bakewell.[29]

battle_of_brunanburh

The Battle of Brunanburh in 937

The grant of the whole of the northern Lancastrian district of Amounderness to the diocese of York by King Athelstan in 930, which we know he bought at a ‘high price’ (from the ‘pagans’ in one source), might suggest that the Scandinavians had already heavily settled this region by this time.[30] 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.[31]

Northumbrian power had by now completely vanished in the north-west and the Lancashire region was drawn more and more into the orbit and influence of the southern English kings. The possible history of Wulfric Spot’s holdings between the Ribble and Mersey might be one indication of this power shift – as undoubtedly is King Æthelstan’s grant of the whole of Amounderness in northern Lancashire to the diocese of York just mentioned.

Throughout the rest of the tenth century, and into the eleventh century, the racially mixed population of Lancashire settled down to eke out an existence from the soil and the sea, interrupted only rarely by larger events happening elsewhere.

The return of the Danes

King Canute Defies the Waves

King Cnut

The turn of the new millennium brought great new upheavals to England. These were precipitated by the return of the Danes late in the tenth century and, after much early rape and pillage reminiscent of earlier days, the eventual coming to the English throne of Danish king Cnut in 1028. I won’t retell the long and sordid history of this period.[32] Rather I would just like to highlight one upshot of the years leading up to the unexpected coronation of King Edward the Confessor in 1043. Robin Fleming, in ‘Kings and Lords in Conquest England’, has shown, among many other things, that during the later years of King Æthelred (‘the ‘Ill-counselled’ not the ‘Unready’), during the reign of King Cnut and during all the subsequent complicated and bloody fights between their sons and the Godwines, English aristocratic society was decimated to almost the same extent as was to happen again after the Norman Conquest. Vast numbers of English ealdormen and powerful thegns were slain; more were debased to become vassals of Godwine and the two other new Cnut-appointed earls, Leofric and Siward, and later the vassals of their sons and successors. During the reign of King Edward the Confessor the Godwinesons held more land than the king and far more than Leofric’s sons in the Midlands and the Siwardsons in the north.[33]

The original English aristocracy had been decapitated, a thing that without much doubt contributed to William the Bastard’s ability to subdue and colonize England so swiftly and so successfully after winning just one major battle.

Yet below these three powerful families and the king himself, there were still thousands of smaller English thegns occupying and working their lands with their ox-teams, villeins, bordars and slaves.

Pre-Conquest Lancashire

In Lancashire the families of Godwine, Leofric and Siward held no lands at all just before the conquest. In the ‘time of King Edward’ (TRE) i.e. in the years leading up to 1066, Domesday tells us quite a lot about what it lists as the ‘land between Ribble and Mersey’ (Inter Ripam et Mersam). There were six hundreds included in this region: West Derby, Warrington, Newton in Makerfield, Salford, Blackburn and Leyland.  I’ll concentrate of the most south-western of the six hundreds lying between Ribble and Mersey: that is the hundred of West Derby. This is an area stretching up the coast from present-day Liverpool on the Mersey to Penwortham, just south of Preston on the River Ribble, and some way inland too. The caput, or capital manor, of the hundred was situated at West Derby itself. The reason I choose to highlight West Derby is in the first instance because it is both the best documented hundred in Domesday Book as well as being the most heavily populated hundred in Lancashire. In addition, one of my concerns here, as elsewhere, is to explore the history of the Norse settlement of north-west England. It is in West Derby Hundred that the Irish-Norse settled in the greatest numbers.[34]

victoriahistoryo01farruoft_0358

victoriahistoryo01farruoft_0359

Let me draw attention to one peculiarity of the Domesday entries for Lancashire (which are included under Cheshire). In 1899 William Farrer wrote in ‘Notes on the Domesday Survey of the land between Ribble and Mersey’:[35]

One feature to be here noticed is that the six hundreds into which this district was divided were treated as manors, having their respective mansiones or manor-houses at West Derby, Warrington, Newton, Salford, Blackburn, and Leyland… The explanation is to be found in the fact that this district fell into the hands of the Crown by conquest, and was populated by a class of half-free tenants, called thanes and drenghs, whose status was, with few exceptions, little above that of the villeins. Now the collectors of Danegeld did not care to deal with many half-free taxpayers, especially when the taxpayers owed suit and service to some lord of high estate. In this district in Saxon times that lord was the king, and so the geld was charged against his great manor-houses of West Derby, Warrington, Newton, Salford, Blackburn, and Leyland, and the men whose berewicks or sub-manors lay in  their lord’s greater or capital manor had to bring thither their rent, to resort thither for legal redress, and also to bring thither their contribution to the Danegeld, and the lord was held responsible to the collectors for the whole… [36]

Now the dependency of the berewicks and sub-manors between Ribble and Mersey upon six great manors, and the obligations of suit and service to be performed by the tenants at the six capital manor-houses, explains the scantiness and bareness of the details collected by the Domesday commissioners within this district. The king himself being lord of the whole, no more details than those recorded were required.

Actually there was another reason for the scantiness of the information collected. Elsewhere Farrer suggested that the Domesday commissioners had never visited the areas of northern Lancashire and the Pennines, included under Yorkshire. I would strongly concur. When we look at the Domesday entries for between Ribble and Mersey it looks to me that the commissioners had possibly only visited the capital manor of West Derby, it being only a short ride from the Norman earldom of Cheshire. I tend to agree with Andrew Gray, who in ‘The Domesday Record of the Land Between Ribble and Mersey’ wrote:[37]

Judging from the scantiness of the information, it would certainly seem as if the Domesday Commissioners had contented themselves with crossing over from Chester to the king’s manor of Derby, and there had gathered sworn information about that Hundred, and gleaned further pieces of knowledge about the five other Hundreds (especially about the king’s land in them), without troubling themselves to penetrate into a part of the country so wild and desolate, and inhabited by people full of a sturdy independence.

I would like to draw attention to one other feature of the Lancashire Domesday. Unlike in the rest of Cheshire and much of the rest of the country, in the entries for between the Ribble and the Mersey, and most noticeably in West Derby Hundred, more detail is given about the ownership of the various manors before the Conquest than about the situation in 1086. Just by way of example, we might compare the entry for Halsall in Lancashire with Newton in Cheshire. The entry for Halsall reads:

Ketil held Halsall. There are 2 carucates of land. It was worth 8s.[38]

In Cheshire the entry for Newton (in Middlewich Hundred) reads:

Joscelin holds of Earl Hugh Newton. Gruffydd held it and was a free man. There is 1 hide paying geld. There is land for 3 ploughs. In demesne is 1 (plough) and a oxman. A priest with 1 bordar has 1 plough. There is an acre of meadow. TRE it was worth 4s, now 10s.

In West Derby Hundred we know that in 1086 Roger de Poitou had until recently held everything (as he did the rest of Lancashire), and we find the names of some of his French henchmen holding of him. But which lands his French vassals held is nowhere stated – although attempts can be and are made to find out.

Pre-Conquest land and manors in West Derby Hundred

I will try to summarize the situation in the hundred of West Derby in the run up to the Conquest. As we have seen, the region was settled by a mixture of Norse and English. There were no doubt some genetic descendants of the original British still there too, but by this time they would be culturally and linguistically indistinguishable from their Germanic neighbours. The area was, as we will see, very sparsely populated, but following the upheavals and settlements of the tenth century, West Derby was by 1066 a rather peaceful, though poor, backwater.

Anglo-Saxon hoard found in Staffordshire

An ‘Anglo-Saxon’ village

In an ‘Introduction to the Lancashire Domesday’ in the ‘Victoria County History of Lancashire’,[39] and also in the earlier article I referred to before, William Farrer undertook some numerical analysis based on the Domesday entries. Rather than use these I decided to do my own statistical analysis, and thus unless otherwise stated all the numbers I use below are my own. They differ only slightly from Farrer’s but address different questions.

According to my calculations there were 113 ploughlands (carucates) in West Derby Hundred in the time of King Edward. They were spread over 60 manors – if we include the capital manor of West Derby itself, held by the king. On average about two ploughlands per manor. In Lancashire an ‘oxgang’ (1/8th of a ploughland) averaged fifteen statute acres, and thus the pre-Conquest hundred of West Derby comprised 13,560 statute acres of arable land. This equates to 21.18 square miles or 54.64 square kilometres. To put his in perspective this total is only about one half of the present surface area of the city of Liverpool (112 square kilometres). Of course not all the land being cultivated would have made it into Domesday, particularly many smaller or remote plots falling ‘below the radar’. There was, no doubt, some unrecorded upland sheep farming as well. Other economic activity would have included fishing in the Irish Sea and in the rivers and meres of the area. Nevertheless, West Derby Hundred wasn’t very heavily farmed in the times around the Conquest.

Distribution of land ownership

Although the average arable land per manor was around two, the distribution was highly skewed.

The king’s caput manor of West Derby and its six satellite berewicks[40] totalled 24 ploughlands i.e. 21% of the total in the hundred. He had woodland and hawk eyries as well, if he ever wanted to go hunting – although it is doubtful that the king ever visited. There is only one other major local landowner called Uhtraed (Uchtred in DB). Uhtraed held 17 of the 60 manors in the hundred, with 30.25 ploughlands – more than the King’s capital manor and 26% of the total in the hundred. So the King and Uhtraed combined held nearly one half of all the land in West Derby Hundred before the Conquest.

No pre-Conquest names are given for thegns in 28 of the 60 manors in the hundred. For example for Allerton we read: ‘Three thegns held Allerton as 3 manors…’ After the King and Uhtraed only 13 other thegns are named: Beornwulf, Stenulf, Dot, Æthelmund, Wynstan, Almaer, Aski, Wulfbert, Lyfing, Wigbeort, Godgifu, Teos and Ketil.

These 13 named minor thegns held 14 (23%) of the 60 manors (only Stenulf held 2), with 1, 2 or 3 ploughlands each. Dot exceptionally holding 6 in Huyton and Tarbock. They held 30.4 of the total 113 ploughlands in the hundred, or 26%, with an average of 2.33 ploughlands each. These men were still quite minor thegns, but they were at least significant enough to be recalled by the jurors twenty years after the Conquest. Some of them might even have been jurors.

Finally, we come to the 37 unnamed thegns (including 4 radmen). If we assume that they were all separate people (which might not be so unreasonable a suggestion given their geographic distribution), then these 37 unnamed small thegns held 28 manors. As we see in Domesday many single manors were farmed by several thegns. They held 28 ploughlands between them, i.e. on average one ploughland each and 25% of the total farmed arable land in West Derby Hundred.

While it is clear that pre-Conquest landholding in this part of Lancashire was highly concentrated in the hands of King Edward and one powerful local English lord called Uhtraed, we might make a couple of additional observations. Over one half of the land was still farmed by small independent Anglo-Norse farmers; 79% if we include Uhtraed. The King was, of course, an absentee landowner and his important desmesne of West Derby with its six berewicks would also have been farmed by some people who would have amounted to small local thegns in their own right.

As we will see later this situation would change radically after the Conquest.

Geographic spread of the manors

The next thing worthy of comment is that the vast bulk of the manors in West Derby, both before and after the Conquest, were in or extremely close to the modern city of Liverpool. These manors included not only King Edward’s capital manor of West Derby and its six berewicks[41] but also the majority of Uhtraed’s manors too, as well as the holdings of most of the lesser thegns. There were just a few manors lying to the north along the coast towards the Ribble and some slightly inland: in places in and around Ainsdale, Formby, North Meols, Skelmerdale, Halsall, Lathom and Scarisbrick.

saxton1577-2

Norse settlement was particularly dense around North Meols (Southport)

Identity and ethnicity of the pre-Conquest thegns

It has already been notes that if we exclude the king there were 51 thegns in pre-Conquest West Derby Hundred, but only fourteen of these are named: Uhtraed, Dot, Stenulf, Beornwulf, Wynstan, Almaer, Aski, Æthelmund, Wulfbert, Lyfing, Godgifu, Teos, Ketil and Wigbeorht.

They were obviously a mixed bunch with both English and Norse heritage. William Farrer wrote:

The combination in this county of Northumbrian, Mercian, and Danish place names, to which so long ago as 1801 the historian, Dr. Whitaker, called attention, bears witness to the intermixture of languages; of the confusion of customs and tenure, such features as the overlapping of the hide and the carucate, the simultaneous use of such terms as wapentake, shire, and hundred, and the incidence of thegnage, drengage, and cornage tenure side by side, are eloquent.[42]

The greatest landowner was Uhtraed, Uchtred in Domeday Book, whose name is clearly reminiscent of the Northumbrian lords of Bamburgh. In 1887, Andrew Gray in a highly entertaining essay called ‘The Domesday Record of the Land Between Ribble and Mersey’ wrote:

We would gladly identify him, if we could, with one of the Uhtreds of the great House of Eadwulf…. such identification, however, would be mere guesswork.[43]

a-norse-dublin-shipNevertheless, Uhtraed or Uchtred does look like a Northumbrian English name. Other clearly English names, whether Mercian or Northumbrian, are Æthelmund, Almaer, Wulfbert, Wynstan and Godgifu (the only named woman). We also find the Scandinavian names Beornwulf, Stenulf, Aski and Ketil. The ethnicity of the remaining names Dot, Lyfing and Teos is less clear. But we find a Dot holding large estates in Cheshire, so he might have been Mercian English too.

Of course all these people might be called ‘English’ by the time of the Conquest, although the general scholarly consensus is that in the eleventh century the descendants of the Irish-Norse settlers in north-west England still spoke a version of Old Norse, which would, however, have already started to merge with Northumbrian and Mercian English  by this time.[44]  An older man at the time of the Conquest could easily have had a great great grandfather who had been one of the very first Irish-Norse settlers in Lancashire about a century and a half before.

The Normans arrive in Lancashire

In the five years immediately following the Conquest the new Norman-French king and his newly enriched barons didn’t seem to have given much attention to the region that would become Lancashire. During the winter of 1069 – 1070, when William and his men were committing regional genocide in the so-called the Harrying of the North, it’s quite possible, likely even, that some parts of the Lancashire Pennines and the region north of the River Ribble called Amounderness (including Preston) were wasted too. In Domesday, of the 59 vills listed under Preston only 19 were said to been ‘inhabited by a few people.., the rest is waste’. But there is no evidence that the ‘ravening wolves’ ever wasted the land between the Ribble and Mersey, and certainly not West Derby Hundred. It had, as Farrer said, escaped ‘the fire and sword of the Conqueror, laying waste the neighbouring shires’.[45]

I have discussed the Harrying of the North elsewhere.[46] William’s men ‘spread out… over more than a hundred miles of territory, slaying many men and destroying the liars of others’.[47] Suffice it to add here, to use just a few more words of the Anglo-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis:

In his (William’s) anger, he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance…. As a consequence, so serious a scarcity was felt in England, and so terrible a famine fell upon the humble and defenceless people, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger.

The harrying of the north

The Harrying of the North

Following the Harrying of the North and the rebellion of Eadric the Wild in the Welsh borderlands, and the defeat of earl Eadwin, William granted a huge marcher territory and earldom to Hugh d’Avranches, based on Chester – Cheshire. After cowing and dispossessing the local English population and granting most of the county to his men, Earl Hugh spent much of his time slaughtering the Welsh. Orderic wrote: ‘He went about surrounded by an army instead of a household … and ‘wrought great slaughter among the Welsh.’[48]

Majorie Chibnall said in ‘The World of Orderic Vitalis’:[49]

Ruthlessness and insensitivity were qualities necessary for beating down the resolute defence of the princes of North Wales, and Earl Hugh had them in abundance. His huge household had the character of an army, only half held in control. He himself was a great mountain of a man, given over to feasting, hunting, and sexual lust; always in the forefront in battle, and lavish to the point of prodigality.

Slightly further south William granted the earldom of Shrewsbury (Shropshire) to Roger de Montgomerie in about 1071.[50] Like Earl Hugh in Cheshire, Roger quickly divided up the county between his armed knights and household and created powerful border warlords such as Corbet (followed by his sons Roger and Robert), Reinaud de Bailleul-en-Gouffern (who had succeeded Warin ‘the Bald’) and Picot de Sai. As Roger’s biographer John Mason has said, by 1086 ‘of 230 hides held by the earl in the Shropshire border hundreds, 196 were held by these three vassals, whose descendants or representatives were dominant in western Shropshire for some centuries’.[51]

Carte_Normandie_Hiemois

The Norman homeland of Roger de Montgomerie and his son Roger de Poitou

When Roger had first come to England the year after the Battle of Hastings he had left behind his wife Mabel de Bellême (William the Conqueror’s daughter), a woman who, evidently, was ‘violent and aggressive’ and certainly brutally vindictive.[52] He left various sons and daughters behind too, including his eldest son, the ‘notoriously savage’ Robert de Bellême, who would inherit his mothers vast Bellême estates and took the side of William the Conqueror’s oldest son Robert ‘Curthose’ in his revolt against the king in 1077. Second son Hugues (Hugh) de Montgomerie would follow his father as the second earl of Shrewsbury on his father’s death in 1094. But, as we will see, probably sometime in the early 1080s Roger’s third son, also called Roger, who I will refer by his later name of Roger de Poitou (after he married Almodis, daughter of count Aldebert II of La Marche in Poitou, sometime before 1086 ), probably persuaded his father to ask the king to grant him his own territories. King William certainly agreed and gave Roger all the land between the Ribble and Mersey, as well as the wasted lands north of the Ribble called Amounderness, i.e. all of Lancashire, plus vast estates elsewhere in Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Essex, and Suffolk. According to Orderic:

The prudent old earl obtained earldoms for his two remaining sons, Roger and Arnulph, who, after his death, lost them both for their treasonable practices in the reign of King Henry.

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Painting of Roger de Poitou as he might have looked when older back in France

Domesday Book of 1086 is the first time we here about him and Lancashire. It is said that he used to hold it all. But by 1086 Roger had already been stripped of Lancashire and his other holdings. Before I discuss what had possibly happened, let’s ask when Roger had first come to Lancashire? Nothing is certain but let’s start with his likely date of birth. Roger’s father, Roger de Montgomerie, had married Duke William’s daughter Mabel de Bellême in about 1050.[53] They had five surviving sons, Roger de Poitou was the third -a first Roger died young before about 1060-1062. They also had four daughters. John Mason writes:

Orderic’s list of four daughters of Roger and Mabel follows that of their brothers, in an order which is probably that of their birth: Emma (d. 1113), a nun at and later (perhaps as early as c.1074, when she was probably in her early twenties) abbess of her father’s foundation at Alménêches; Matilda (d. 1082×4), who married before 1066 the Conqueror’s half-brother Robert de Mortain; Mabel, who married Hugues de Châteauneuf-en-Thymerais; and Sybil, who married Robert fitz Hamon from south Wales.[54]

Given that at least Emma and Matilda were probably born in the 1050s, this led Mason, among others, to suggest that Roger was born in the mid 1060s. Others, less convincingly, give his date of birth as 1058. The point of this is that if Mason is at all right about Roger’s date of birth then he would have been only about 21 or 22 in 1086, by which time he had been granted all of Lancashire by King William, established his men-at-arms in the manors there, started to build Penwortham castle on the River Ribble and then forfeited his lands for some reason. I can’t help but concurring entirely with John Mason:

The Domesday entries for his (Roger’s) large honour present problems. In five counties (Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Essex, and Suffolk) he is entered as a normal tenant-in-chief; but in four others (the land between the Ribble and the Mersey, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Norfolk) his tenure is entered as a thing of the past: thus at the end of his Derbyshire fee is a note that Roger used to hold the lands, but they are now in the hand of the king. This and other entries suggest that Roger’s lands were all ordered to be taken into the king’s hand late in 1086, but that in some cases the order was not known locally in time to be recorded in Domesday, or recorded in full. In view of his age, Roger cannot have held this honour for long; why he should so soon have lost it, at a time when as far as is known he and his father were loyal to the Conqueror, is not stated.[55]

I would particularly stress the view that Roger ‘cannot have held this honour for long’ and that he had probably only recently forfeited his estates when Domesday was taken in 1086. Roger would be regranted these lands in 1088 by William’s son William Rufus, only to lose them finally again in 1102 after he had joined his eldest brother’s rebellion against King Henry. ‘In consequence he was expelled from England, which he visited again only in 1109. The rest of his life was spent in the politics of La Marche.’[56] But these later French family feuds will not concern us here.

So when Roger arrived in Lancashire in the early 1080s with his men-at-arms and household, no doubt given to him by his father, he would have still been a youth. Knowing how the Norman-French tended to move around in heavily armed, armoured and mounted groups – to protect themselves from attacks by the resentful English and to engage in a little rape and pillage[57] – we can perhaps imagine the scene as they arrived in West Derby, previously the caput of King Edward.

n cavalry (1)

Norman knights

Leading his mounted troops and armed household into the manor of West Derby, Roger was probably full of youthful swagger and scorn for these strange Englishmen with their even stranger language. Ensconcing themselves in the best houses that West Derby had to offer, having no doubt summarily ejected whatever English thegns or other English tenants they found there. And, if they were true Norman warriors, after having first feasted, drunk and maybe whored a bit, Roger and his men would have started to set about finding out what spoils they had been given by right of the conquerors.

Roger was probably helped in this by all his more important men-at-arms. As mentioned, in West Derby Hundred most of the farms (or manors as the French now called them) were in and around present Liverpool, with just a few more up the coast to the north, in places such as Ainsdale, Formby, North Meols, Scarisbrick, Halsall and Skelmersdale. It wouldn’t have taken Roger and his men long to survey the hundred and even to travel to the other five more sparsely settled hundreds in the land between the Ribble and Mersey, or even across the Ribble to Amounderness. When they arrived at each farmstead they would have been met by the fearful pre-Conquest English thegns and some of the farm workers, probably including the formerly powerful Uhtraed if he were still alive. In short order Roger would have doled out (or sub-infeudated to use the legal French term) manor after manor to his men-at-arms and other members of his personal household, telling the resident English in no uncertain terms that they were their new masters and that they had better put up or shut up. By this time the English knew that there was no point in resistance. All they could expect from that was death. Either they would have to accept becoming the Frenchmen’s serfs or they would have to flee and find exile abroad.

Although this is just imagination, from all we know of the Norman colonization of England it probably gets pretty near the truth. Chris Lewis of King College put it this way:

We should probably imagine the point of transition on the ground as the hour when the new landowner turned up at a house and declared, ‘This is mine now, the king has given it to me and the shire court has acknowledged it. I’m going to live here now, Bring me my dinner.’Or,perhaps, ‘The king has given me your land. I’ll be living somewhere else, and you can still live here, but you’ll have to pay me rent from today.’ [57b]

Roger of Poitou’s men

Domesday Book tells us this about what Roger’s men got in West Derby:

These men now hold land of this manor (i.e. West Derby Hundred) by gift of Roger de Poitou: Geoffrey 2 hides and a half carucate, Roger 1 ½ hides, William 1 ½ hides, Warin half a hide, Geoffrey 1 hide, Theobald 1 ½ hides, Robert 2 carucates of land, Gilbert 1 carucate of land.

Their woodland (is) 3 ½ leagues long and 1 ½ leagues and 40 perches broad, and there are 3 eyries of hawks. The whole is worth £8 12s. In each hide are 6 carucates of land.

The desmesne of this manor which Roger held is worth £8. There are in desmesne 3 ploughs and six oxmen, and 1 radman and 7 villans.

Some of these men were given land in the other five hundreds as well, where there are also a few other Frenchmen named.

norman manor

A Norman manor house

From all the entries in West Derby and the other Lancashire hundreds we can, if we try, get a reasonably good idea of which manors these eight Frenchmen got. We can also try to identify some of them. But these matters would lead us outside the scope of this article. For those interested in these things I would suggest consulting William Farrer’s work and deductions in the ‘Victoria County History of Lancashire’.

But how much land had these eight been given in West Derby? In total they held 48 hides and 3½ carucates. As stated in Domesday Book, one hide in Lancashire was equal to six ploughlands (carucates), so all told these seven men received 51.5 ploughlands, which equates to 57% of the 89 ploughlands (excluding the caput of West Derby held pre-Conquest by King Edward, then by Roger de Poitou and by 1086 by King William) listed for before the Conquest. All the rest of the land in West Derby Hundred had been held by Roger of Poitou and was now held by King William. Very soon most of this royal land would revert to Roger of Poitou and then into the hands of more Frenchmen.

Regarding the other five hundreds in Lancashire south of the Ribble, I won’t here present any statistical analysis, but Domesday says that in all six hundreds in 1086 there were in 188 manors ‘less one’ in which there are 80 hides (480 ploughlands) of arable land. If we subtract the manors and hides in West Derby (60 and 18.8) we get 127 manors and 61.2 hides for the other five hundreds. But I think without a full analysis I won’t look further at these ‘remote’ districts, interesting though they are. But we can say that although in these unattractive areas there were more English left on their barren land than in West Derby, the most attractive land everywhere had already be given to Roger’s followers.

Roger’s first forfeiture

We don’t know how long all this land-grab took, and there was certainly still much more to do by 1086. But given that Roger had for some reason been stripped of his land not long before 1086, and that he had probably arrived in Lancashire only in the first years of the 1080s, it can’t have taken very long. For what reason had Roger’s lands been taken from him prior to 1086?

Earlier historians tended to date Roger forfeiture to 1077 and link it with the first quarrels of William the Conqueror with his son Robert Curthose, but given Roger’s probable age this can’t have been the case. Others have suggested that Roger had made a ‘voluntary surrender or exchange of these estates’.[58] I find this unlikely, but, as John Mason said, why Roger should have lost his rich spoils ‘at a time when as far as is known he and his father were loyal to the Conqueror, is not stated’, and ultimately unknown.

robert

Robert Curthose, rebellious son of William the Conqueror

Lancashire after 1086

It is outside the scope of this essay to look further into the history of the Norman-French take-over and colonization of Lancashire after the Domesday survey. I have restricted our view to events leading up to 1086 and particularly to events in the important hundred of West Derby. Domesday also tells us much about tax and the customary dues of the tenants of the new lords. But this too I will leave to one side for the time being.

Although, evidently, the people of the land between the Ribble and the Mersey hadn’t suffered the slaughter and starvation meted out elsewhere in northern England, they certainly were invaded and colonized, and were set to suffer the ‘oppressions from the proud lords’ and ‘groan under the Norman yoke’  for centuries to come. While I admire the work of William Farrer, I think he erred when he wrote about Lancashire: ‘Very many of the descendants of the Saxon and Danish thanes living at the Conquest possessed their ancestral estates for generations after the Conquest, and if others fell to the position of villeins, they really underwent no great change of status.’[59] In fact there is hardly any evidence at all that the pre-Conquest ‘Saxon and Danish’ thegns ‘possessed their ancestral estates for generations after the Conquest’.

‘Normanist’ historians such as R. Allen Brown could still suggest in recent times say that the Norman take-over of England was not only relatively restrained and civilized but also beneficial to England, as it gave ‘a new lease of life in focusing its attention on Continental Europe’. This I’m afraid is blatant nonsense and flies in the face of all the available evidence, including the evidence presented by Brown himself. But that’s a matter for another time.

The words of the twelfth-century English historian Henry of Huntingdon are certainly applicable to Lancashire:

In King William’s twenty-first year (1087) there was scarcely a noble of English descent in England, but all had been reduced to servitude and lamentation.[60]

ordericPerhaps we should leave the last word with Orderic. Remember this was a man born in Shropshire whose father was a loyal clerical servant of Roger de Montgomery, one of Duke William’s most powerful followers and one of the most powerful men in post-Conquest England. He was also a man who went to Normandy in 1085 to become a monk at the Norman monastery of St. Evroult, and knew many of the Normans involved in the Conquest and their sons.

They (the Normans) arrogantly abused their authority and mercilessly slaughtered the native people, like the scourge of God smiting them for their sin… Noble maidens were exposed to the insults of the low-born soldiers and lamented their dishonouring (i.e. rape) by the scum of the earth… Ignorant parasites, made almost mad with pride, they were astonished that such great power had come to them and imagined that they were a law unto themselves. Oh fools and sinners! Why did they not ponder contritely in their hearts that they had conquered not by their own strength but by the will of almighty God, and had subdued a people that was greater and more wealthy than they were, with a longer history?

It is rather ironic that the descendants of a group of Scandinavian Vikings, a people whose leader Rollo had once reputedly told the French king that they were Norsemen and would bend their knee to no man,[61] who would now (though by now thoroughly drenched in French culture and feudal attitudes) make a whole nation bend their knees to them for centuries to come.

In ‘The Rights of Man’ the great English and American radical Thomas Paine said:

If the succession runs in the line of the conqueror the nation runs in the line of being conquered and ought to rescue itself.

And here’s a nice rhyme:

When all England is alofte

Hale are they that are in Christis Crofte;

And where should Christis Crofte be

But between Ribble and Mersey.[62]

rollo

The Norseman ‘Rollo’, founder of Normandy and direct ancestor of William the Conqueror

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FARRER, William, ‘Notes on the Domesday Survey of the land between Ribble and Mersey’ in Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, vol. 16, pp. 1-38 (1899)

FARRER, William, A History of the Parish of North Meols (Liverpool, 1903)

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FERGUSON, Robert, The Northmen of Cumberland and Westmorland (London, 1856)

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NOTES AND REFERENCES

[1] Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North, p. 231

[2] Orderic Vitalis, quoted in Fleming, Kings and Lords, p. 107

[3]  Greenway, Henry of Huntingdon, p. 31

[4] See Fleming, Kings and Lords, p. 205

[5] All quotes from the works of Orderic Vitalis can be found either in Chibnall, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis , or Forester, The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis

[6] See Lewis, The Normans come to Cumbria and  Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North

[7] Morris, The Norman Conquest, p. 352

[8] See Fleming, Kings and Lords for a full analysis of this divvying up.

[9] See Morris, The Norman Conquest and Rex, The English Resistance

[10] Fleming, Kings and Lords,

[11] Morris,  The Norman Conquest, p. 287

[12] Fleming, Kings and Lords, pp. 108-109

[13] See Morris The Norman Conquest for a discussion on the reasons for Domesday survey

[14] See Kapelle The Norman Conquest of the North, Morris, The Norman Conquest

[15] See Rex, The English Resistance, Morris, The Norman Conquest

[16] See Lewis, Exile rather than servitude

[17] Morris, The Norman Conquest, pp.320-321

[18] Lewis, Forne Sigulfson- the ‘first’ lord of Greystoke in Cumbria

[19] Farrer, Introduction to the Lancashire Domesday

[20] Sawyer, Wulfic Spot

[21] See Higham, The Kingdom of Northumbria ; Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North; Clarkson, The Men of the North

[22] For example see articles in Wainwright, Scandinavian England

[23] See Clarkson, The Men of the North

[24] Downham, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland; Woolf, From Pictland to Alba; Livingston, The Battle of Brunaburh,  Wainwright, Scandinavian England

[25] See references to their work in the Bibliography

[26] Wainwright, ‘The Scandinavians in Lancashire’ in Scandinavian England, p. 226

[27] See discussions in Wainwright, ‘The Scandinavians in Lancashire’ in Scandinavian England

[28] Wainwright, ‘The Scandinavians in Lancashire’ in Scandinavian England, p. 184, gives other examples

[29] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) in Whitelock, English Historical Documents; Clarkson, The Men of the North; Higham, Edward the Elder; Downham,  Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland

[30] See articles on Amounderness in Wainwright, Scandinavian England and Farrer, The Victoria County History of Lancashire, vol. 3

[31] See Foot, Æthelstan: the first king of England; Livingston, The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook

[32] See Morris, The Norman Conquest; Fleming, Kings and Lords; Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England

[33] Fleming, Kings and Lords, pp. 22-103

[34] See Wainwright, ‘The Scandinavians in Lancashire’ in Scandinavian England

[35] Farrer, Notes on the Domesday Survey

[36] Some of this interpretation is debatable.

[37] Gray, The Domesday Record

[38] Throughout I will use Ann Morris’s edition of Domesday Book – A Complete Translation, second edition 2002, including her ‘translated’ spellings of names. Unless otherwise stated any reference to an entry in DB will be to this edition.

[39] Farrer, Introduction to the Lancashire Domesday

[40] Probably Hale, Garston, Liverpool, Everton, Crosby and perhaps Thingwall and Aintree.

[41] These are not stated but likely were:

[42] Farrer, Notes on the Domesday Survey

[43] Gray, The Domesday Record

[44] See discussion and references in Wainwright, Scandinavian England.

[45] Farrer, Notes on the Domesday Survey

[46] See Lewis, The Normans Come to Cumbria.

[47] Morris, The Norman Conquest , p. 229

[48] Quotede in Morris, The Norman Conquest, p. 292

[49] Chibnall, The World of Orderic Vitalis, p. 15

[50] Other dates have been suggested, see C. P. Lewis, the king and Eye for example

[51] Mason, Montgomery, Roger de, first earl of Shrewsbury

[52] Thompson, Bellême

[53] Mason, Montgomery, Roger de, first earl of Shrewsbury

[54] Mason, Montgomery, Roger de, first earl of Shrewsbury

[55] Mason, Montgomery, Roger de, first earl of Shrewsbury

[56] Mason, Montgomery, Roger de, first earl of Shrewsbury

[57] There is ample evidence in Orderic Vitalis and elsewhere that the Normans were wont to rape and pillage

[57b] Lewis, ‘The Invention of the Manor’, p. 147

[58] Farrer, Introduction to the Lancashire Domesday

[59] Farrer, Notes on the Domesday Survey

[60] Greenway, Henry of Huntingdon, p.31

[61] See Vogel, Die Normannen und das Frankische Reich

[62] Harland & Wilkinson, Lancashire Legends, p.184

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In the early tenth century there was a powerful Irish-Norse viking warlord called Óttar.[1] He was a jarl (or earl). He and his family contested with the descendants of King Ívarr ‘the Boneless’[2] – the co-founder of the most important and long-lasting Irish-Norse dynasty[3] – for the leadership of the Northmen of the diaspora after they had been temporarily expelled from Dublin by the Irish in 902. He spent time raiding in Brittany and then, rather less successfully, in England and Wales, before returning to Ireland where he established the town of Waterford.[4] Having had to accept the overlordship of Ívarr’s grandson Rögnvaldr, Óttar died fighting at Rögnvald’s [5] side against the Scots and English Northumbrians on the banks of the River Tyne in 918.[6] Here I will try to piece together Óttar’s story from the meagre sources we have. In so doing I think we can join together a few historical dots. This can tell us something of Norse Ireland and the fate of Northumbria, whilst also shedding some light on the very earliest Scandinavian settlements in the north-west of what is now England, i.e. Lancashire and Cumbria.

The dearth of records can be viewed purely as a gap in the tradition, brought about through a nadir in the writing of history, rather than due to an absence of events.[7]

When Walther Vogel,  the great historian of the Northmen in France, wrote this in 1906 he was talking about events in the Frankish kingdoms in the first decade or so of the tenth century. But the same applies to the history of north-west England at the same time. It was during this period that the first viking bases appeared on the coasts of Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. Over the coming decades these Scandinavians eventually spread out, stopped raiding, and settled down to farm and fish.

As F. W. Wainwright, perhaps the greatest historian of the Scandinavian arrival in north-west England, wrote:

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.[8]

Óttar’s story can tell us just a little about the nature and timing of all this.

Óttar’s return to England

The twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester tells that in 914:[9]

The Severn Estuary

The Pagan pirates, who nearly nineteen years before had crossed over to France, returned to England from the province called Lydwiccum (Brittany), under two chiefs:[10] Ochter and Hroald, and sailing round the coast of Wessex and Cornwall at length entered the mouth of the river Severn. Without any loss of time they fell upon the country of the Northern Britons[11], and carried off almost every thing they could find on the banks of the river. Having laid hands on Cymelgeac[12], a British bishop, on a plain called Yrcenefeld,[13] they dragged him, with no little joy, to their ships. King Edward redeemed him shortly afterwards for forty pounds of silver.

Before long, the whole army landed, and made for the plain before mentioned, in search of plunder; but the men of Hereford and Gloucester, with numerous bands from the neighbouring towns, suddenly fell on them, and a battle was fought in which Hroald,[14] one of the enemy’s chiefs, and the brother of Ochter, the other chief, and great part of the army were slain. The rest fled, and were driven by the Christians into an enclosure, where they were beset until they delivered hostages for their departure as quickly as possible from king Edward’s dominions.

The king, therefore, stationed detachments of his army in suitable positions on the south side of the Severn, from Cornwall to the mouth of the river Avon, to prevent the pirates from ravaging those districts. But leaving their ships on the shore, they prowled by night about the country, plundering it to the eastward of Weced (Watchet), and another time at a place called Porlock.[15] However, on both occasions, the king’s troops slew all of them except such as made a disgraceful retreat to their ships. The latter, dispirited by their defeat, took refuge in an island called Reoric (Flat Holm),[16] where they harboured till many of them perished from hunger, and, driven by necessity, the survivors sailed first to Deomed,[17] and afterward in the autumn to Ireland.

John of Worcester took his information from the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, all versions of which tell much the same story.[18]

Island of Flat Holm in the Britol Channel where Ottar’s vikings took temporary sanctuary

The days when vikings could raid with any success in Wessex were over. The West Saxon king, Edward the Elder,[19] who was by now king of Mercia as well, was well on the way to creating a unified and centralized England, although he and his son King Æthelstan still had more fighting to do before this end was achieved, especially in the north. But our concern here is with the Norse jarl Óttar.

View of sea from Landevennec Abbey in Brittany

We know a little about what Óttar’s vikings were doing in Brittany immediately prior to their appearance in the Severn from Breton and French sources. Northmen had been actively raiding and occasionally trying to settle along the coasts of France, Brittany and Aquitaine during the previous century. But in the late ninth century Alan the Great, the duke of Brittany, had inflicted several reverses on the vikings, after which until his death in 907 we are told that the ‘Northmen hadn’t even dared to look towards Brittany from afar’.[20] But following Alan’s death factional strife broke out and Brittany was weakened. The Northmen ‘stirred themselves again and in front of their face the ground trembled’.[21] In the ‘Chronicle of Nantes’ during the episcopate of Bishop Adelard (i.e. after 912) we read that the rage of the Northmen began to re-erupt as never before.[22] One viking target was the Breton monastery of Landevennec. In one of the abbey’s computes we find a two line note in the margin next to the year 914, it reads: ‘In this year the Northmen destroyed the monastery of Landevennec’.[23] These Northmen were probably those of Óttar and Haraldr.

Who was Óttar?

Before turning to look at what became of Óttar in Ireland, who was he and where had he originally come from? There is little doubt that jarl Óttar was Irish-Norse; that is he was a powerful leader of the Northmen who had come to Dublin in the 850s – called the ‘dark foreigners’ by the Irish – who subsequently went on to create the Scandinavian kingdom of York after 866. Some historians have equated him with a certain Ottir mac Iargni (i.e. Óttar son of Iarnkné),[24] who had killed ‘a son of Ásl’ in Ireland in 883.[25] Asl was one of the brothers of Ívarr I and Óláfr, the co-founders of the Danish Dublin dynasty in the 850s.[26] Óttar was in league with Muirgel, a daughter of the Irish king Mael Sechlainn, who was one of Ívarr’s bitterest enemies. As Clare Downham suggests in ‘Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland – The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014’:

Óttar’s family may have briefly come to the fore as rivals of the sons of Ívarr due to the weakness of Sigfrøðr who was killed by a kinsman in 888.’[27]

This Óttar’s father was probably the Iarnkné who had been beheaded in 852 after being on the losing side of a battle in Ireland between two opposing viking groups.[28] This would mean that Óttar would have been at the very least thirty years of age in 883, and quite likely even older. When we find a jarl called Óttar in the Severn estuary in 914, if he were the same man he’d have been over sixty or yet older still. While possible, I don’t find this at all credible, particularly because, as we will see, the Óttar on the Severn in 914 went on to be one of the main Norse leaders in important events and battles in Ireland and England up until his death in 918.  Viking warlords leading their troops into battle were never seventy years old! It is more likely that ‘our’ Óttar was perhaps either a son or nephew of Óttar son of Iarnkné.

Viking Dublin

The idea that Óttar came from a family of Dublin-based viking leaders who had from time to time tried to challenge the rule of Ívarr’s sons and grandsons, gains more support from an entry in the generally reliable ‘Annals of Ulster’. Under the year 914 it reads:

A naval battle at Manu (the Isle of Man) between Barid son of Oitir and Ragnall grandson of Ímar, in which Barid and almost all his army were destroyed.[29]

Ragnall is the Gaelic name for Rögnvaldr, who was a grandson of Ívarr  ‘the Boneless’. Here, as elsewhere, Ívarr is named Ímar in Irish sources; while Barid is Norse Bárðr. Was this naval fight part of an attempt by Rögnvaldr and his brother or cousin Sigtryggr to assert or reassert their supreme leadership of the Dublin Norse of the diaspora? It looks that way.

Viking Dublin

As I have mentioned, in 902 the Northmen had been expelled from Dublin, their king at the time was probably Ívarr’s grandson Ívarr.

The heathens were driven from Ireland, that is from the longphort of Ath Cliath (Dublin), by Mael Finnia son of Flannacan with the men of Brega and by Cerball son of Muirecan with the Leinster men…  and they abandoned a good number of their ships, and escaped half dead after they had been wounded and broken.[30]

Perhaps Óttar had been one of the ‘heathens’ who ‘half dead’ had desperately fled for their lives? I believe it quite likely.

Maybe Óttar had fled with Óttar son of Iarnkné – who might conceivably have been his father? I’ll leave this conjecture aside for the moment, but will return to it later.

Different groups of exiled Scandinavians went to the Wirral, to Lancashire, to Scotland, probably to Cumbria, and to France.  Ívarr grandson of Ívarr was killed by the Scots in Pictland in 904:

Ímar grandson of Ímar, was slain by the men of Fortriu, and there was a great slaughter about him.[31]

alfred

King Alfred the Great fights the Vikings

The story told by John of Worcester I started with said that ‘the Pagan pirates, who nearly nineteen years before had crossed over to France, returned to England from… Brittany’. What does John of Worcester mean by this? Is he saying that Óttar and his warband moved from England in around 896? Or does the comment refer to events after the expulsion of the Norse from Dublin in 902? In fact I think that it refers to neither. I believe John of Worcester’s comment is not specifically concerned with Óttar’s vikings, but rather refers to the year 896, when a small remnant of an army of vikings, which had come back to England 893 after fourteen years ravaging the coasts of France and Brittany, were finally defeated by Alfred the Great after nearly four years fighting and went back to the kingdom of the Franks, where some of them would soon establish the dukedom of Normandy in 912.[32] Thus 896 was the last time the kingdom of Wessex had been troubled by vikings – nineteen years before Óttar  appeared on the River Severn.[33]

In the years between 902 and 914 there are only a few of mentions of the Dublin Norse exiles. Most extensively there is the story of Ingimundr, whose people settled on the Wirral and tried (in league with others of the diaspora) to take Chester from the Mercians in about 910.[34] There is also the death of Ívarr grandson of Ívarr in 904 in ‘Pictland’ referred to earlier.

Ímar grandson of Ímar, was slain by the men of Fortriu and there was a great slaughter of them.[35]

We also find various named Scandinavians being killed by the English West Saxons and Mercians at the Battle of Tettenhall in 910 – including confusingly a jarl called Óttar. The English

slew many thousands of them; and there was king Eowils slain and king Halfdan, and Ottar jarl, and Skurfa jarl, and Othulf hold[36], and Benesing hold, and Olaf the Black, and Thurferth hold, and Osferth Hlytte, and Guthferth hold, and Agmund hold, and Guthferth.[37]

Viking York

These Scandinavians were the Danes of Northumbrian York. They were on their way home from raiding deep into English territory when they were caught and beaten by King Edward’s army in Staffordshire.[38] Yet I think there is room to believe that at least a few in this Scandinavian army must have been from the Irish-Norse coastal bases in north-west Britain.[39] The Yorkshire/Northumbrian ‘Danes’ were relatives of those expelled from Dublin. For example, King Hálfdan, who was killed at Tettenhall, was descended from an earlier chieftain called Hálfdan who had started the Scandinavian settlement of Yorkshire following his capture of York in 866, and who was also likely the brother of the co-founders of the Dublin Norse dynasty: Ívarr and Óláfr.[40] We don’t know who the jarl Óttar killed at Tettenhall was. The name is common enough, but the fact that he was a jarl and was named in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ immediately after King Hálfdan and King Eowils shows he was an important man. He could well have been a jarl of York who was not in any way connected with the jarl Óttar who came back from Brittany in 914, but given his name and position he just might have been related. Perhaps he could even have been one of the vikings expelled from Dublin in 902 who had landed on the coast of north-west Britain and made his way to York to seek help or refuge with his York cousins?[41] Most historians suggest that one of the main objectives of the expelled vikings would have been to do just this, and that the huge silver-hoard found in 1840 at Cuerdale on the Ribble estuary in Lancashire, which is conventionally dated to around 905.[42] might be the war-chest of a viking leader collected both from raiding and from the Danes of York to finance an attempt to retake Dublin.[43]

The whole question of other Óttars is made even more difficult because we hear of another Óttar in the ‘Fragmentary Annals of Ireland’. In the part in which Óttar is mentioned the compiler is telling the story of Ingimund’s coming from Dublin to the Wirral and later attacking Chester, events dated between 904 and 910. He then tells:

Almost at the same time the men of Foirtriu[44] and the Norwegians fought a battle…. The men of Alba fought this battle steadfastly… this battle was fought hard and fiercely; the men of Alba won victory and triumph, and many of the Norwegians were killed after their defeat, and their king was killed there, namely Oittir son of Iarngna. For a long time after that neither the Danes nor the Norwegians attacked them, and they enjoyed peace and tranquillity… [45]

Edward - the Elder

King Edward the Elder

So here we find an Óttar son of Iarnkné (here styled king) being killed in a battle against the men of Alba (the Scots). I mentioned earlier that Óttar son of Iarnkné might well have been the father of the Óttar who was defeated and driven off by the English in 914. Was the ‘king’ Óttar son of Iarnkné reputedly killed by the Albans sometime around 910 a different person to the jarl Óttar killed by the English at Tettenhall in 910? Or were they one and the same? We will never know, although the coincidence is worthy of note.[46]

There is also the intriguing thought proposed by Sir Henry Howorth in 1911 and supported by F. W. Wainwright[47] that the death of Óttar son of Iarnkné mentioned in the ‘Fragmentary Annals’ actually referred to jarl Óttar who, as will be discussed below, died fighting the Scots and Northumbrian English at the Battle of Corbridge in 918. On the whole I tend to think that this interpolated story in the ‘Fragmentary Annals’ is probably highly confused, mixing up different Óttars and different battles – a thing that is quite easy to do – so I’ll not place much reliance on it here.[48]

One final thought regarding Óttar and his family might be added. We know the names of some of Ívarr  I’s sons: Bárðr who was Ívarr’s successor as King of Dublin after Ívarr’s death in 873 and died in 881; Sigfrøðr who then ruled Dublin until he was killed by a ‘kinsman’ in 888; and Sigtryggr who ruled till killed by other vikings in 893.[49] Does not the fact that one of Ívarr’s sons was called Bárðr coupled with the fact that a Bárðr son of Óttar was killed in a naval engagement off the Isle of Man in 914 suggest that sometime in the early history of the these Dublin vikings Óttar’s family and Ívarr’s family were related?

Óttar comes to Waterford

Here I think we can return to our story.

We left jarl Óttar departing the area of the Severn estuary in 914 and making his way, with the survivors of his defeat at the hands of the English, via South Wales to Ireland. His destination was the harbour of Waterford. The ‘Annals of Ulster’ tell us that in 914:

A great new fleet of the heathens on Loch dá Caech.[50]

Waterford Harbour

Loch dá Caech is the Gaelic name for Waterford harbour or bay. Waterford town had yet to be founded; in fact it was Óttar’s arrival that led to the creation of Waterford.[51] This notice comes immediately after the entry mentioned before which reads:

A naval battle at Manu between Barid son of Oitir and Ragnall grandson of Ímar, in which Barid and almost all his army were destroyed.[52]

‘Basilica’ of Tours on the Loire

This report is of great interest because it tells of a Bárðr, who was a son of an Óttar, being killed by Rögnvaldr in 914. It is most likely that this Bárðr was the same viking leader who was in league with another leader called Erikr and who had attacked the important town of Tours on the River Loire in 903.[53] In addition, most historians think that Bárðr and Erikr’s fleet in the Loire was most likely a contingent of the Dublin Norse expelled the year before. If all this is the case, then it suggests that Óttar and Bárðr could have been brothers and not father and son – both possibly being sons of Óttar son of Iarnkné. They had both spent time raiding in France and Brittany after 902, before returning to Britain in 914 when Bárðr was killed by Rögnvaldr while Óttar arrived on the River Severn.

As mentioned above, after Óttar had left England he and his fleet sailed via South Wales and then on to Waterford Harbour. Over the next twelve months more vikings arrived to join him at Waterford. The ‘Annals of Ulster’ for 915 continue:

A great and frequent increase in the number of heathens arriving at Loch dá Chaech, and the laity and clergy of Mumu[54] were plundered by them.[55]

In 916 ‘the foreigners of Loch dá Chaech continued to harry Mumu and Laigin’.[56]

What is clearly happening here is that Óttar’s returning forces are trying to re-establish themselves in Ireland, but they don’t yet feel strong enough to attack Dublin, held by the Irish since 902.

Ottar’s rival Rögnvaldr

But jarl Óttar was not the only viking leader wanting to return to Ireland. The other main force in the Irish Sea at the time was led by Rögnvaldr and his brother or cousin Sigtryggr, both the ‘grandsons of Ívarr’. As we have seen, Rögnvaldr had defeated and killed Bárðr son of Óttar in a naval engagement off the Isle of Man in 914, and I have already suggested that Óttar and Bárðr might have been brothers. The next we hear of Rögnvaldr is in 917, three years after Óttar’s arrival in Waterford:

Sitriuc, grandson of Ímar, landed with his fleet at Cenn Fuait on the coast of Laigin. Ragnall, grandson of Ímar, with his second fleet moved against the foreigners of Loch dá Chaech. A slaughter of the foreigners at Neimlid in Muma. The Eóganacht and the Ciarraige made another slaughter.[57]

Ívarr’s grandson Rögnvaldr came to Waterford with his fleet with the express intention of challenging Óttar’s viking force now established there. His brother, or cousin, Sigtryggr had landed at Cenn Fuait.[58] We don’t know exactly what transpired when Rögnvaldr ‘came against’ Óttar at Waterford, but I think we can imply from later events that Óttar had accepted or reaccepted Rögnvald’s supreme leadership of the Dublin Norse exiles operating in and around the Irish Sea at this time.

Under 917 the ‘Annals of Ulster’ report:

Irish and Norse fight

Niall son of Aed, king of Ireland, led an army of the southern and northern Uí Néill to Munster to make war on the heathens. He halted on the 22nd day of the month of August at Topar Glethrach in Mag Feimin. The heathens had come into the district on the same day. The Irish attacked them between the hour of tierce and midday and they fought until eventide, and about a hundred men, the majority foreigners, fell between them. Reinforcements came from the camp of the foreigners to aid their fellows. The Irish turned back to their camp in face of the last reinforcement, i.e. Ragnall, king of the dark foreigners, accompanied by a large force of foreigners. Niall son of Aed proceeded with a small number against the heathens, so that God prevented a great slaughter of the others through him. After that Niall remained twenty nights encamped against the heathens. He sent word to the Laigin that they should lay siege to the encampment from a distance. They were routed by Sitriuc grandson of Ímar in the battle of Cenn Fuait, where five hundred, or somewhat more, fell. And there fell too Ugaire son of Ailill, king of Laigin, Mael Mórda son of Muirecán, king of eastern Life, Mael Maedóc son of Diarmait, a scholar and bishop of Laigin, Ugrán son of Cennéitig, king of Laíges, and other leaders and nobles.[59]

The ‘Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gael’ reported that:

The whole of Mumhain (Munster) became filled with ships, and boats, and fleets, so that there was not a harbour, nor a landing port, nor a Dun, noir a fortress, nor a fastness, in all Mumhain, without fleets of Danes and pirates.[60]

These various battles fought in 917 against the Irish by the ‘dark foreigners’ of Rögnvaldr and Sigtryggr, with jarl Óttar’s forces now most probably forming a part of the viking army, were fought to re-establish their presence in Ireland and to try to retake Dublin. The Irish wanted to prevent this happening. The Battle of Cenn Fuait referred to in the annals (now called the Battle of Confey), which the vikings won, opened the road to retake Dublin and Sigtryggr recaptured the town in the same year:

Sitriuc grandson of Ímar entered Áth Cliath (i.e. Dublin).[61]

The ‘Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gael’ describes the taking of Dublin thus:

There came after that the immense royal fleet of Sitriuc and the family of Ímar, i.e. Sitriuc the Blind, the grandson of Ímar; and they forced a landing at Dublin of Áth Cliath, and made an encampment there.[62]

The Northmen were back as masters of Dublin after an exile of about fifteen years. They would remain contested masters there into the twelfth century.

Where had Rögnvaldr and Sigtryggr been?

Following the expulsion of 902, Óttar had been raiding in Brittany, and maybe in areas of the Frankish lands too, although for how long is not clear. But what of Ívarr’s two grandsons, Rögnvaldr and Sigtryggr? Where were they in the years between the expulsion from Dublin and their return to Ireland in 917?

Viking-king-Olaf-Guthfrithsson

An Irish-Norse King

As I have previously mentioned, another grandson of the first Ívarr was also called Ívarr. He was most probably the leader of the Irish-Norse when they were kicked out of Dublin in 902.[63] In 904, the same time that fellow exile Ingimundr was first settling on the Wirral near Chester, this Ívarr was killed by the Scots in ‘the land of the Picts’, while either raiding or trying to establish a base there. At the time of Ívarr’s death in 904, Rögnvaldr was probably a young man and Sigtryggr possibly still a boy.[64] So the question arises: Where were the bases of the fleets and warbands of the ‘grandsons of Ívarr’ before the naval battle in 914 and their return to Ireland in 917?[65] Although the annals and chronicles are silent on the matter, all the circumstantial evidence suggests that their base or bases were probably along the coasts of Lancashire and Cumbria. Most probably there was one on the River Ribble in Lancashire where an immense viking silver-hoard was found at Cuerdale in 1840 which is conventionally dated to around 905-910. Another may have been further north around Morecambe Bay or in the area of the later heavily Norse area of Armounderness in Lancashire.[66] It’s even possible that at this early date some vikings already had a base somewhere on the banks of the Solway Firth – the present border between Cumberland and Scotland.

Alex Woolf says:

The heathen refugees from Ireland seem to have settled along the eastern shores of the Irish sea.[67]

viking wirral

Scandinavian Wirral

One of the clearest indications that the refugees from Dublin had already made other bases along the coast and not just on the Wirral comes from the ‘Fragmentary Annals of Ireland’. Having told of Ingimund’s arrival on the Wirral in 903/4, it continues:

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.[68]

So Ingimund brought together other ‘chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes’ for his plan to seize Chester. These other chieftains must have been in large part other groups of Dublin exiles based along the coasts north of the Wirral. When ‘Ingimund returned home after that’ he arranged for the viking ‘host’ to follow him.

Given that Rögnvaldr fought a naval engagement off the Isle of Man in 914 before he returned to Ireland, it might also be suggested (as it has been) that the ‘grandsons of Ívarr’ had a fortified base there too.[69]

First Scandinavian bases in Lancashire and Cumbria

What I am suggesting here is not just that the earliest Scandinavian bases along the coasts of north-west ‘England’ were established by the Dublin exiles in the early years of the tenth century, which is pretty much accepted by all historians, but also that in all likelihood many of these early bases and embryonic settlements were founded by the forces of ‘the grandsons of Ívarr’: Rögnvaldr and Sigtryggr.

heversham

Heversham, Westmorland

From these first bases the vikings continued their habitual habits and raided the lands of the western Northumbrian English. In this very obscure period we can catch glimpses of some of the raids they 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.[70] In all likelihood Tilred was fleeing from the Vikings too.

We can probably date these flights to between the expulsion of the vikings from Dublin in 902 and the death of Bishop Cutheard in 915. I prefer later in this period.[71] If these events were not caused by ‘the grandsons of Ívarr’ then who else was precipitating these Northumbrians to flee?

These early Norse bases and embryonic settlements along the north-west coast of what is now England were essentially defensive land bases for the viking fleets. No doubt some of the Norse farmed a little too, but the very extensive Scandinavian settlement of western Lancashire and much of Cumbria was a long drawn-out process that probably only really got underway after 920/930 and took many decades, indeed probably more than a hundred years, to complete.[72]

What the great historian Walther Vogel wrote about the vikings in the western and eastern Frankish kingdoms in the early years of the tenth century is most likely also true of the situation in north-west England in the same period:

The ‘army’ as such still existed… the warriors had not yet dissolved their warband 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.[73]

For the early Norse in Lancashire and Cumbria I believe the same would have been true. Not until the possibility of being completely annihilated and driven back into the sea by the English – whether Northumbrian, Mercian or West Saxon – or by the British (the Cumbrians/Strathclyde Britons) had receded, would the Norse risk dividing the land, spreading out and settling as individual colonists throughout much of Cumbria and Lancashire, as they eventually assuredly did.[74] And this dispersal, in my view, would not start in earnest for quite a number of years after the Battle of Corbridge in 918.

If all the forgoing is correct, then what we are catching a glimpse of in the records is that once Óttar returned to Ireland in 914 Ivarr’s descendants, who were most probably based along the coasts of Lancashire and Cumbria (and possibly also in the Isle of Man), decided that they too should return to Ireland. Here they soon managed to reassert their family’s former authority over Óttar and his men based at Waterford, before, after several fights with the Irish, recapturing Dublin in 917.

scandi-lancs

Scandinavian Lancashire

Óttar goes with Rögnvaldr to Northumbria

Let us now continue with Óttar’s story as best we can. Once the vikings were back in Dublin, Sigtryggr was left in charge there. His brother or cousin Rögnvaldr, together with jarl Óttar, decided to leave Waterford and return to Britain, where in the next year (918) they fought an important battle with the Scots of Alba and the Northumbrian English on the banks of the River Tyne: the Battle of Corbridge. Several English and Irish sources tell us something of what happened. The fullest account is given in the ‘Annals of Ulster’:

The foreigners of Loch dá Chaech, i.e. Ragnall, king of the dark foreigners, and the two jarls, Oitir and Gragabai,[75] forsook Ireland and proceeded afterwards against the men of Scotland. The men of Scotland, moreover, moved against them and they met on the bank of the Tyne in northern Saxonland. The heathens formed themselves into four battalions: a battalion with Gothfrith grandson of Ímar, a battalion with the two jarls, and a battalion with the young lords. There was also a battalion in ambush with Ragnall, which the men of Scotland did not see. The Scotsmen routed the three battalions which they saw, and made a very great slaughter of the heathens, including Oitir and Gragabai. Ragnall, however, then attacked in the rear of the Scotsmen, and made a slaughter of them, although none of their kings or earls was cut off. Nightfall caused the battle to be broken off.[76]

Vikings land

Vikings come ashore

The Historia de Sancto Cuthberto provides some of the background to the battle.[77] Having told of the flight of the English Northumbrian thegn Alfred son of Brihtwulf fleeing a Viking raid, which was discussed earlier and can be dated to the years prior to 915, the Historia then says that Alfred was given land by the Northumbrian Bishop Cutheard in return for services, and that:

These he performed faithfully until king Raegnald (Rögnvaldr) came with a great multitude of ships and occupied the territory of Ealdred son of Eadwulf, who was a friend of King Edward, just as his father Eadwulf had been a favourite of King Alfred. Ealdred, having been driven off, went therefore to Scotia, seeking aid from king Constantin, and brought him into battle against Raegnald at Corbridge. In this battle, I know not what sin being the cause, the pagan king vanquished Constantin, routed the Scots, put Elfred the faithful man of St Cuthbert to flight and killed all the English nobles save Ealdred and his brother Uhtred.

‘The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba’ says that the ‘battle of Tinemore’ happened in 918, and that King Constantin fought Ragnall, but adds that ‘the Scotti had the victory’.[78] However the general view is that the Battle of Corbridge was indecisive. Whichever side could rightfully claim the victory, and both did, as Alex Woolf says

The immediate result of the battle was that Ragnall, who had previously dominated the western regions of Northumbria since at least 914, became undisputed leader in the east also.[79]

viking york

Viking York

I won’t delve further here into the Battle of Corbridge, it has been, and remains, a subject of academic debate – for example was there one or more battles?[80] I would just like to make three points. First, jarl Óttar, who was by now a staunch supporter or at least a subordinate of King Rögnvaldr, is said to have died fighting the Scots and the English at Corbridge in 918. This brings to an end the very interesting Viking life. Second, after Corbridge the ‘Historia Regum Anglorum’  tells us that Rögnvaldr soon reconquered York.[81] Lastly, we might ask the question: Where had the Vikings’ ‘great multitude of ships’ landed before they defeated the Scots and the Northumbrian English at Corbridge? It could be that they left Waterford and sailed all the way round the north of Britain and then landed either near the Tyne or possibly even in the River Humber. However I believe it more probable that Rögnvald’s fleet first landed at one of their bases on the north-west coast of England and from there used one of the established direct routes across to Pennines to reach eastern Northumbria.[82]  Clare Downham writes:

The location of Corbridge can reveal something of the circumstances of the motives behind the battle. Corbridge is located by a crossing point of the River Tyne. The site also had strategic significance as a fort near to Hadrian’s Wall. It presided over the ‘Stanegate’ a Roman road which ran west to east across Britain, and the road which ran north to south from Inveresk on the Firth of Forth to York. Rögnvaldr and his troops may have travelled overland from the Solway Firth or used the Clyde-Forth route across Alba to reach Northumbria. It may be supposed that they were planning to reach York but they found themselves being intercepted and confronted by enemy-forces.[83]

Given that the undoubted aim of Rögnvald’s army was to recapture York from the Northumbrians, I think it unlikely that it would have ventured to take the more northerly route through hostile Scottish territory. The more southerly ‘Stanegate’ is more likely, or even the quicker west-east route over the Pennines starting from the River Ribble in Lancashire. We’ll probably never know for sure.[84]

eric bloodaxe

Eric Bloodaxe

Following the collapse of Northumbrian English power, the West Saxon English under King Æthelstan and his successors were set to take control of present-day Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland. The last Norse king of York was Eric ‘Bloodaxe’, who was treacherously killed by a fellow Northman in 954 at Stainmore in Cumberland while fleeing from York across the Pennines – he was probably trying to find safety with his Norse brethren on the west coast or in Ireland.

In what is now Cumberland, the Strathclyde Britons (referred to in English sources at the Cumbrians – hence the English term Cumberland) used the opportunity of the decline of Northumbria and the incursions of the Irish-Norse to try to re-establish some sort or rule south of the Solway Firth – which they seem to have done to some extent.[85] But that’s another story.

What became of King Rögnvaldr?

What became of King Rögnvaldr, the conquering descendant of Ívarr the Boneless? Although after the Battle of Corbridge he had been successful in gaining control of York, he was not immune to the raising power of the English under King Edward the Elder. In 919 and 920, King Edward built new fortresses at Thelwall and Manchester on the River Mersey and at Nottingham, thus ‘blocking off the approach over the moors from the southern portion of Northumbria around modern Sheffield’.[86] Edward forced a submission of his enemies, possibly at Bakewell. The ‘A’ manuscript of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ reported this event in 920:

And then the king of the Scottas and all the people of the Scottas and Raegnald, and the sons of Eadwulf, and all who live in Northumbria, both English and Danish and Northmen and others, and also the king of the Strathclyde welsh and all the Strathclyde welsh, chose him (Edward) as father and lord.[87]

And then under the year 921 the Annals of Ulster’ report the death of Ragnall h. Imair ri Finngall 7 Dubgall, i.e. of ‘Ragnall grandson of Ímar, king of the fair foreigners and the dark foreigners’.[88]

This seems to be the end of Rögnvald’s story – his death in 921. But is it? Several historians have suggested that Rögnvaldr didn’t die in northern England in 921 but actually went on the take the leadership of the Northmen of the Loire in the kingdom of the western Franks, where a certain viking leader called Ragenold is reported in French sources as being active between 921 and his death in 925. Sir Henry Howorth wrote in ‘Ragnall Ivarson and Jarl Otir’ in 1911:

As a matter of fact, he (Ragenold or Rögnvaldr) no doubt soon after this (i.e. his reported death in 921) left the British isles to resume his career in the west of France, where he was probably ambitious to rival the successful doings of Rolf the Ganger, who had founded a new state in Neustria.[89]

Rolf the Ganger means the viking (‘Normand’) the French called Rollo, who became the first Norse duke of Normandy in 912.

Rollo’s tomb in Rouen

 

References and other relevant works

ARNOLD, Thomas, ed., Symeonis Monachi Opera Omnia, Reum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores 75, 2 vols (London, 1882-85)

CAMPBELL, Alistair, ed. and trans., Chronicon Athelweardi: The Chronicle of Aethelweard, Nelson’s Medieval Texts (Edinburgh, 1962)

CLARKSON, Tim, The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010)

DE LA BORDERIE, Arthur Le Moyne, Histoire de Bretagne, Vol 2, Second Edition, (Rennes, 1896-1914)

DOWNHAM, Claire, ‘The Historical Importance of Viking-Age Waterford’, Journal of Celtic Studies, 4 (2005), 71-96.

DOWNHAM, Claire, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland. The Dynasty of Ivarr to A.D. 1014 (Edinburgh, 2007)

DUMVILLE, David N., ed. and trans., Annales Cambriae, A.D. 682-954: Texts A-C in Parallel, Basic Texts for Brittonic History 1 (Cambridge, 2002)

EKWALL, Eilert, Scandinavian and Celts in the North-West of England (Lund, 1918)

EKWALL, Eilert, The Place-Names of Lancashire (Manchester, 1922)

FERGUSON, Robert, The Northmen of Cumberland and Westmorland (London, 1856),

Forester, Thomas, ed. and trans., The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester with the two Continuations (London, 1854)

GRAHAM-CAMPBELL, James, ‘The Northern Hoards’, in Edward the Elder, 899-924, edited by N. J. Higham and D. H. Hill (London, 2011), pp. 212-29

GRAHAM-CAMPBELL, James, Viking Treasure from the North-West, the Cuerdale Hoard in its Context, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (Liverpool, 1992)

GRIFFITHS, David, Vikings of the Irish Sea: Conflict and Assimilation A.D. 790-1050 (Stroud, 2010)

HENNESSY, William M, ed. and trans., Chronicum Scotorum: A Chronicle of Irish Affairs, from the Earliest Times to A.D. 1135, with a Supplement containing the Events from A.D. 1114 to A.D. 1150, Rerum Brittannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores 46 (London, 1866)

HIGHAM, Nick, ‘The Scandinavians in North Cumbria: Raids and Settlements in the Later Ninth to Mid Tenth Centuries’, in The Scandinavians in Cumbria, edited by John R. Baldwin and Ian D. Whyte, Scottish Society for Northern Studies 3 (Edinburgh, 1985), pp. 37-51

HIGHAM, Nichols, ‘The Viking-Age Settlement in the North-Western Countryside: Lifting the Veil?’ in Land, Sea and Home: proceedings of a Conference on Viking-Period Settlement, at Cardiff, July 2001, edited by John Hines et al. (Leeds, 2004), pp. 297-311

HINDE,  John Hodgson, ed., Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea (Durham, 1868)

HOWTON, Sir Henry H., ‘Ragnall Ivarson and Jarl Otir’, in The English Historical Review, Vol 16 (London, 1911), pp. 1-19

HUDSON, Benjamin, Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty, Religion, and Empire in the North Atlantic (New York, 2005)

JESCH, Judith, ‘Scandinavian Wirral’, in Wirral and its Viking Heritage, edited by Paul Cavill et al (Nottingham, 2000), pp.1-10

JOHNSON-SOUTH, Ted, ed. and trans., Historia de Sancto Cuthberto. A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of his Patrimony, Anglo-Saxon Texts 3 (Cambridge, 2002)

LEWIS, Stephen M., The first Scandinavian settlers of England – the Frisian Connection (Bayonne, 2014)

LEWIS, Stephen M., The first Scandinavian settlers in North West England (Bayonne, 2014)

LEWIS, Stephen M., North Meols and the Scandinavian settlement of Lancashire (Bayonne, 2014)

LEWIS, Stephen M., Grisdale 1332 (Bayonne, 2014)

LIVINGSTON, Michael, ed., The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook (Exeter, 2011)

MAC AIRT Sean, and Gearoid MAC NIOCAILL, ed. and trans., The Annals of Ulster (to A.D. 1131), 1 (Dublin, 1983)

MURPHY, Denis, ed., The Annals of Clonmacnoise, being Annals of Ireland from the Earliest Times to A. D. 1408, Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, (Dublin , 1896)

O’DONOVAN, John, ed. and trans., Annala Rioghachta Eireann, Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, from the Earliest Period to the year 1616, second edition, & vols (Dublin, 1856)

O’DONOVAN, John, ed. and trans., Annals of Ireland: three Fragments copied from Ancient sources by Dubhaltach Mac Firbisigh, Publications of the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society 4 (Dublin, 1860)

MERLET, René, La Chronique de Nantes, (Paris, 1896)

RADNER, Joan Nelson, ed. and trans., Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, (Dublin 1978)

SALMON, André, ed. and trans., Recueil de Chroniques de Touraine. (Supplément aux Chroniques de Touraine), Published by the Société Archéologique de Touraine (Tours, 1854)

SKENE, William F., Chronicles of the Picts and Scots: And Other Memorials of Scottish History (Edinburgh, 1867

STEENSTRUP, Johannes, Normannerne, Vol 1 (Copenhagen, 1876)

STEVENSON, Joseph, trans., Church Historians of England, 8 vols: vol. 3 (part 2: The Historical Works of Simeon of Durham) (London, 1858)

STORM, Gustav, Kritiske Bidrag til Vikingetidens Historie (Oslo, 1878)

THORPE, Benjamin, ed. and trans., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle According to the Several Original Authorities, Vol 2 (London, 1861)

TODD, James Henthorn, ed. and trans., Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh: The War of the Gaedhill with the Gaill; or, The Invasions of Ireland by Danes and Other Norsemen, Reum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores 48 (London, 1867)

VOGEL, Walther, Die Normannen und das Frankische Reich bis zur Grundung der Normandie (799-911) (Heidelberg, 1906)

WAINWRIGHT, F. T., Scandinavian England: Collected Papers (Chichester, 1975)

WHITELOCK, Dorothy, ed., English Historical Documents, Vol 1, Ad 500-1042 (London, 1955)

WOOLF, Alex, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007)

NOTES:

[1] In this article I will use the Norse spelling of personal names except when quoting from an annal or other source when I will use the spellings given there.

[2] He was only called ‘the Boneless’ in much later Icelandic Sagas. In this article I will generally refer to him as Ívarr I.

[3]  See Downham, Viking Kings for the full story of this dynasty..

[4]  See Downham, The Historical Importance of Viking-Age Waterford.

[5] In Norse names such as Rögnvaldr the final r is dropped in cases other than the nominative, hence the genitive Rögnvald’s.

[6] The Battle of Corbridge. I assume with most modern historians that there was only one battle which took place in 918.

[7] Vogel, Die Normannen, p. 384.

[8] Wainwright, Scandinavian England, p. 226

[9] Forester, The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, p. 90. John gives the date as 915 but all the other evidence points to 914.

[10] Thorpe, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC),  ‘In this year there came a great naval force over hither from the south, from the Lidwiccas.’

[11] The Welsh, as opposed to the British of Cornwall.

[12] Probably a British bishop of Llandaff called Cyfeiliog.

[13] Archenfield, historically a British area centred on the River Wye, now mostly in Herefordshire.

[14] Here Haorld is wrongly spelt Hroald. The Norse name was probably Haraldr

[15] In Somerset.

[16] The island of Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel.

[17] Dyfed in South Wales.

[18] The ‘A’ text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives a date of 918 which is clearly wrong. The other texts give dates of 914 or 915.

[19] The son of Alfred the Great.

[20] De La Borderie, Histoire de Bretagne p. 349

[21] Ibid. p. 349

[22] Merlet, Chronique de Nantes, p. 80 : ‘Postea vero ordinates est Adalardus, cujus temporibus coepit ebullire rables Normannourum’.

[23] ‘Eodem anno destr(uctu est) monasterium sci (winga) loci a Normannis.’ Referenced in Vogel, Die Normannen.

[24] Iarnkné probably means ‘Iron-Knee’ in Norse.

[25] For example Joan Radnor, Fragmentary Annals.

[26] See Lewis, The first Scandinavian settlers of England – the Frisian Connection

[27] Downham, Viking Kings, p 31. Sigfrøðr was a son of Ívarr I.

[28] The Chronicum Scotorum gives his name as Iercne and the year as 852. The Annals of Ulster call him Eircne and give the date as 851. See Hennessy, Chronicum Scotorum; Mac Airt, Annals of Ulster.

[29] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 914.

[30] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 902

[31] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 914.

[32] When they had arrived in 892 they came with 250 ships and perhaps 12,000 men. Most decided to remain in East Anglia or Northumbria and settle down to farm. Those who returned to France were said to number only 100 men, led by  Huncdeus. See Vogel, Die Normannen, p. 371 for a full discussion.

[33] Note that John of Worcester and some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle date Óttar’s coming to 915, although all the evidence suggests it was 914.

[34] See Lewis, The first Scandinavian settlers in North West England. Also see Livingston, The Battle of Brunanbugh.

[35] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 904.

[36] ‘Hold’ is short for Holdr, a Scandinavian term introduced into England by the Danes and meaning something like ‘freeholder’.

[37] Hálfdan and Eowils were probably joint kings of Danish York. The Mercian Æthelweard names a third Danish king called Inguuar as being killed at Tettenhall, see Campbell, Chronicon. John of Worcester says that kings Hálfdan and Eowils were the brothers of King Hinguar, Forester, The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester. Inguuar/Hinguuar is probably Ívarr showing, if these reports hold any truth, the typical naming patterns within the family of Ívarr 1.

[38] The battle took place somewhere near Tettenhall and Wednesfield, near present day Wolverhampton.

[39] I will return to this idea at a later date.

[40] Downham, Viking Kings, p. 28.

[41] The Mercians refortified and garrisoned Chester in 907, but there was certainly some delay before Ingimundr and his Norse allies tried to take the city.

[42] Although there is a strong case to be made for a later date – perhaps even after the Battle of Brunanburh in 937.

[43] See for example Graham-Campbell, Viking Treasure.

[44] Foirtriu was the land of the Gaelic Picts.

[45] Radner, Fragmentary Annals.

[46] See discussion in Howorth, Ragnall Ivarson.

[47] Howorth, Ragnall Ivarson; Wainwright, Scandinavian England, pp. 174-176.

[48] Although I tend to the view that this interpolated story probably does refer to Corbridge and not Tettenhall.

[49] Downham, Viking Kings, pp. 26-27.

[50] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 914.

[51] See Downham, The Historical Importance of Viking Age Waterford.

[52] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 914.

[53] See Gustav Storm, Kritiske Bidrag til Vikingetidens Historie, p. 136; Vogel, Die Normannen, p. 391.

[54] Munster.

[55] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 915.

[56] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 916.

[57] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 917

[58] In Leinster. For the location of Cenn Fuait see Downham, Viking Kings, p. 31.

[59] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 917.

[60] Todd, Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gael, p. 41.

[61] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 917

[62] Todd, Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gael, p. cc.

[63] This is not stated anywhere in the sources but is likely as we know of the death of three of Ívarr the Boneless’s sons in Ireland prior to the expulsion.

[64] John of Worcester says that Sigtryggr died in 927 ‘at an immature age’. If we take this literally it implies that he was a relatively young man or possibly unmarried.

[65] Another question is who was (were) the father(s) of Rögnvaldr and Sigtryggr, and indeed of the younger Ívarr and the other grandsons of Ívarr: Óláfr and Guðdrøðr. Each could have been a  son of any of the three known sons of Ívarr ‘the Boneless’, or perhaps, as has been suggested, Rögnvaldr and Sigtryggr were the sons of one of Ívarr’s daughters. We simply don’t know. See Downham, Viking Kings, pp. 28-29.

[66] See the chapters on Armounderness in Wainwright, Scandinavian England.

[67] Woolf, From Pictland, p. 131.

[68] Radner, Fragmentary Annals, p. 169.

[69] For example see Woolf, From Pictland, p. 133.

[70] Woolf, From Pictland, p. 132; Johnson-South, Historia de Sancto Cuthberto,  paragraphs 21 and 22

[71] Alex Woolf suggests in From Pictland (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.

[72] Ferguson,  The  Northmen in  Cumberland and  Westmorland, p. 11, suggests that in Cumberland the main Norse settlements only really started after 945.  See also Wainwright, Scandinavian England, pp. 218-220. I will return to this question in a future article.

[73] Vogel, Die Normannen, p. 386.

[74] See as a start Wainwright, Scandinavian England and Ekwall, Scandinavians and Celts in the North-west of England and Place-names of Lancashire.

[75] Krakabeinn, which is usually taken to mean Crowfoot but as an epithet Bone Breaker would do just as well.

[76] Mac Airr and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 918.

[77] See Johnson-South, ed., Historia de Sancto Cuthberto.

[78] See Skene, The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba

[79] Woolf, From Pictland, p.144.

[80] For the view that there were see F. W. Wainwright The Battles at Corbridge in Scandinavian England.

[81] Stevenson, The Church Historians, 111, pt 2, p.68; Arnold, Historia Regum Anglorum, Part 1 (Symeonis Monarchi Opera),  2, 93.

[82] We should add here that under the year 912 the Historia Regum tells of a King Ivarr and jarl Ottar plundering ‘Dunbline’. Most historians suggest the year referred to in 918. This could be Dunblane in Perthshire or Dublin in Ireland. I tend to agree with Downham that this entry most probably suggests that the ‘army of Waterford assisted in the capture of Dublin in 917 and overwintered there before proceeding to England’. See Downham, Viking Kings, p.143.

[83] Downham, Viking Kings, p. 92.

[84] This reminds me of the on-going debate regarding the location of the important Battle of Brunanburh in 937. See for example the discussions in The Battle of Brunanburh – A Casebook, ed. Livingston.

[85] Clarkson, The Men of the North; Woolf, From Pictland, pp. 152-57

[86] Woolf, From Pictland, p. 146.

[87] Arnold, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

[88] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 921.

[89] Howorth, Ragnall Ivarson,

‘Her Aethelstan cyning laedde fyrde to Brunanbyrig’ – 937 Anglo Saxon Chronicle ‘E’

Most historians of England maintain that the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 was a decisive event in the creation of England. The battle pitted Æthelstan, the English king of Wessex and Mercia, supported by some Norse mercenaries, against a temporary coalition of Scandinavians, Cumbrians (the Strathclyde British) and Scots. The victory that the English achieved ‘led to‘ the  England we know today, at least geographically, and hence Æthelstan is often called the first ‘King of England’.

Brunburgh Bromborough on the Wirral

Brunburgh Bromborough on the Wirral

I don’t want to go into the context of the battle, its course or its location here. Suffice it to say that most of the evidence, place names, topography and the political and military context, points to it being fought near to Bromborough on the Wirral peninsula, in what is now Cheshire.

Embedded within the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 937 is an Old English poem usually known not surprisingly as ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’. I reproduce this wonderful poem below, followed by two modern translations: one by Alfred Lord Tennyson (he of ‘into the valley of death… ‘), plus another rather free (but good) rendition of more recent date.

But first like all poems it should be heard. Click here (or see below) to hear the original Old English poem, with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s words as subtitles. Please note this is only part of the poem. Please note too that the commentary of the inimitable Brian Blessed hosts an horrendous hoard of heinous historical howlers.

Or try this version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfaEGU45lKA

Even though it helps that I understand German as well as English, if any native English speaker listens to this poem a few times I think they will find much of it becomes clear.

Much as I love our modern English language – its wonderful variety, its mixture of Germanic roots, Norse words, French imports and much more – when I listen to this poem I can’t help wishing we English still spoke like this. No highfalutin French frippery, no repressive legal mumbo jumbo, just earthy, no-nonsense speech and poetry.

Battle of Brunanburh by Skworus

Battle of Brunanburh by Skworus

If the Battle of Brunanburh in some way helped to ‘make England’, it was unmade little more than a hundred years later at another battle: Hastings in 1066. Some rather benighted historians used to portray the Norman conquest of England as an ultimately positive event for England and even the rest of Britain once the ‘initial’ horrors were over. It was of course nothing of the sort. The Norman French destroyed much of what was England, its language, its culture, and replaced it with a brutal centuries-long feudalism under which the people of England became serfs in the service of French masters. It’s a heritage we still live with today.

If King Harold Godwinson hadn’t rather rashly immediately engaged the Norman duke William the Bastard when tired and depleted after seeing off the Norse of Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, or if the English had won at Hastings (it was a close-run thing), then just maybe we’d still talk like the poem.

I am of Welsh, English and Norse ancestry, but one can but dream. It’s enough to make me want to go and live in Scandinavia.

bruneburg 

The Battle of Brunanburh – in Old English/Anglo-Saxon

Her Aethelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,

beorna beag-giefa, and his brothor eac,

Eadmund aetheling, ealdor-langetir

geslogon aet saecce sweorda ecgum

ymbe Brunanburh. Bord-weall clufon,

heowon heathu-linde hamora lafum

eaforan Eadweardes, swa him ge-aethele waes

fram cneo-magum thaet hie aet campe oft

with lathra gehwone land ealgodon,

hord and hamas. Hettend crungon,

Scotta leode and scip-flotan,

faege feollon. Feld dennode

secga swate siththan sunne upp

on morgen-tid, maere tungol,

glad ofer grundas, Godes candel beorht,

eces Dryhtnes, oth seo aethele gesceaft

sag to setle. Thaer laeg secg manig

garum agieted, guma Northerna

ofer scield scoten, swelce Scyttisc eac,

werig, wiges saed.

 

West-Seaxe forth

andlange daeg eorod-cystum

on last legdon lathum theodum,

heowon here-flieman hindan thearle

mecum mylen-scearpum. Mierce ne wierndon

heardes hand-plegan haeletha nanum

thara-the mid Anlafe ofer ear-gebland

on lides bosme land gesohton,

faege to gefeohte. Fife lagon

on tham camp-stede cyningas geonge,

sweordum answefede, swelce seofone eac

eorlas Anlafes, unrim herges,

flotena and Scotta. Thaere gefliemed wearth

North-manna brego, niede gebaeded,

to lides stefne lytle weorode;

cread cnear on flot, cyning ut gewat

on fealone flod, feorh generede.

Swelce thaere eac se froda mid fleame com

on his cyththe north, Constantinus,

har hilde-rinc. Hreman ne thorfte

meca gemanan; he waes his maga sceard,

freonda gefielled on folc-stede,

beslaegen aet saecce, and his sunu forlet

on wael-stowe wundum forgrunden,

geongne aet guthe. Gielpan ne thorfte

beorn blanden-feax bill-gesliehtes,

eald inwitta, ne Anlaf thy ma;

mid hira here-lafum hliehhan ne thorfton

thaet hie beadu-weorca beteran wurdon

on camp-stede cumbol-gehnastes,

gar-mittunge, gumena gemotes,

waepen-gewrixles, thaes hie on wael-felda

with Eadweardes eaforan plegodon.

 

Gewiton him tha North-menn naegled-cnearrum,

dreorig darotha laf, on Dinges mere

ofer deop waeter Dyflin secan,

eft Ira lang aewisc-mode.

Swelce tha gebrothor begen aetsamne,

cyning and aetheling, cyththe sohton,

West Seaxna lang, wiges hremge.

Leton him behindan hraew bryttian

sealwig-padan, thone sweartan hraefn

hyrned-nebban, and thone hasu-padan,

earn aeftan hwit, aeses brucan,–

graedigne guth-hafoc, and thaet graege deor,

wulf on wealda.

 

Ne wearth wael mare

on thys ig-lande aefre gieta

folces gefielled beforan thissum

sweordes ecgum, thaes-the us secgath bec,

eald uthwitan, siththan eastan hider

Engle and Seaxe upp becomon,

ofer brad brimu Britene sohton,

wlance wig-smithas, Wealas ofercomon,

eorlas ar-hwaete eard begeaton.

 

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Battle of Brunanburh

ATHELSTAN King,
Lord among Earls,
Bracelet-bestower and
Baron of Barons,
He with his brother,
Edmund Atheling,
Gaining a lifelong
Glory in battle,
Slew with the sword-edge
There by Brunanburh,
Brake the shield-wall,
Hew’d the lindenwood,
Hack’d the battleshield,
Sons of Edward with hammer’d brands.

Theirs was a greatness
Got from their Grandsires—
Theirs that so often in
Strife with their enemies
Struck for their hoards and their hearths and their homes.

Bow’d the spoiler,
Bent the Scotsman,
Fell the shipcrews
Doom’d to the death.
All the field with blood of the fighters
Flow’d, from when first the great
Sun-star of morningtide,
Lamp of the Lord God
Lord everlasting,
Glode over earth till the glorious creature
Sank to his setting.

There lay many a man
Marr’d by the javelin,
Men of the Northland
Shot over shield.
There was the Scotsman
Weary of war.

We the West-Saxons,
Long as the daylight
Lasted, in companies
Troubled the track of the host that we hated,
Grimly with swords that were sharp from the grindstone,
Fiercely we hack’d at the flyers before us.

Mighty the Mercian,
Hard was his hand-play,
Sparing not any of
Those that with Anlaf,
Warriors over the
Weltering waters
Borne in the bark’s-bosom,
Drew to this island:
Doom’d to the death.

Five young kings put asleep by the sword-stroke,
Seven strong Earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers,
Shipmen and Scotsmen.

Then the Norse leader.
Dire was his need of it,
Few were his following,
Fled to his warship
Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it.
Saving his life on the fallow flood.

Also the crafty one,
Constantinus,
Crept to his North again,
Hoar-headed hero!

Slender warrant had
He to be proud of
The welcome of war-knives—
He that was reft of his
Folk and his friends that had
Fallen in conflict,
Leaving his son too
Lost in the carnage,
Mangled to morsels,
A youngster in war!

Slender reason had
He to be glad of
The clash of the war-glaive—
Traitor and trickster
And spurner of treaties—
He nor had Anlaf
With armies so broken
A reason for bragging
That they had the better
In perils of battle
On places of slaughter—
The struggle of standards,
The rush of the javelins,
The crash of the charges,
The wielding of weapons—
The play that they play’d with
The children of Edward.

Then with their nail’d prows
Parted the Norsemen, a
Blood-redden’d relic of
Javelins over
The jarring breaker, the deep-sea billow,
Shaping their way toward Dyflen again,
Shamed in their souls.

Also the brethren,
King and Atheling,
Each in his glory,
Went to his own in his own West-Saxonland,
Glad of the war.

Many a carcase they left to be carrion,
Many a livid one, many a sallow-skin—
Left for the white-tail’d eagle to tear it, and
Left for the horny-nibb’d raven to rend it, and
Gave to the garbaging war-hawk to gorge it, and
That gray beast, the wolf of the weald.

Never had huger
Slaughter of heroes
Slain by the sword-edge—
Such as old writers
Have writ of in histories—
Hapt in this isle, since
Up from the East hither
Saxon and Angle from
Over the broad billow
Broke into Britain with
Haughty war-workers who
Harried the Welshman, when
Earls that were lured by the
Hunger of glory gat
Hold of the land.

 

The Battle of Brunanburh – translated by John Osbourne

Then Aethelstan, king, Thane of eorls,

ring-bestower to men, and his brother also,

the atheling Edmund, lifelong honour

struck in battle with sword’s edge

at Brunanburh. Broke the shieldwall,

split shields with swords.

Edward’s sons, the issue of princes

from kingly kin, oft on campaign

their fatherland from foes defended,

hoard and home. Crushed the hated ones,

Scots-folk and ship-men

fated fell. The field flowed with blood,

I have heard said, from sun-rise

in morningtime, as mighty star

glided up overground, God’s bright candle,

– the eternal Lord’s – till that noble work

sank to its setting. There lay scores of men

destroyed by darts, Danish warrior

shot over shield. So Scots also

wearied of war. West-Saxons went forth

from morn till night the mounted warriors

pursued enemy people,

the fleeing forces were felled from behind

with swords new-sharpened. The Mercians spurned not

hard hand-play with heroes

that accompanied Anlaf over sea’s surge,

in ship’s shelter sought land,

came fated to fight. Five lay dead

on the killing field, young kings

put to sleep with the sword; so also seven

of Anlaf’s eorls, and unnumbered slain

among sea-men and Scots. So was routed

the Northmen’s lord, by need forced

to take ship with few troops.

compelled to sea , the king set out

on fallow flood, saved his life.

So also the wise one fled away

to his northern country, Constantine,

hoary battle-man; he need not boast

of that meeting of swords. He was severed from kin,

forfeiting friends on that field,

slain at war, and his son left

on the death-ground, destroyed by his wounds,

young warrior. He need not brag,

the white-haired warrior, about sword-wielding,

the artful one, nor Anlaf either;

With their army smashed they need not sneer

that their battle-work was better

on the battlefield where banners crashed

and spears clashed in that meeting of men,

that weapon-wrestle, when on the death-field

they played with Edward’s offspring.

The Northmen went off in nail-bound ships,

sad survivors of spears, on Ding’s mere,

over deep water seeking Dublin,

Ireland again, ashamed in their hearts.

So both brothers together,

king and atheling, their country sought,

the land of Wessex, in war exulting.

They left behind them sharing the lifeless

the dusk-dressed one, the dark raven,

with hard beak of horn, and the hoar-coated one,

white-tailed eagle, enjoying the carrion,

greedy war-hawk, and that grey beast,

the wolf of the wood. Nor was more slaughter

on this isle ever yet,

so many folk felled, before this

sword battle, as say the books,

the old wise men, since from the east

Angle and Saxon arrived together

over broad briny seeking Britain,

proud warriors who worsted the Welsh,

eager for glory, and gained a land.