Leicestershire History | News and Features: The Viking Invasion of Leicestershire

We know exactly when the Viking Age
began in England – it was more than 1,200 years ago – on June 8, 793. That was
the day when invading Norsemen destroyed the Abbey church on the island of
Lindisfarne, off the north-east coast of England. Lindisfarne was a centre of
learning famous across the continent – but that meant nothing to these fierce

The Vikings arrived in England in 793 AD

Monks were either killed in the abbey,
thrown into the sea to drown or carried away as slaves – along with the church’s
treasures. The devastation of Northumbria’s Holy Island shocked Europe. “Never
before has such an atrocity been seen”, declared the Northumbrian scholar,
Alcuin of York. The Vikings had announced themselves in a devastating way. This
was just a warning of what was to come.

Over the next 300 years, more and more
invaders would flood into England, and Leicestershire would be full of Vikings.

Divided country

At the
time, England was not one united country – it was divided up into Anglo-Saxon
Leicester was
included within Mercia, and was known as Legreceastre. It was the principal
city in that kingdom. Even a thousand years ago and more, Legreceastre was a
bit of a melting pot.
was a meeting point of several different cultures – the Angles from the Wash
and the Humber, Saxons from Warwickshire, Mercians from the Trent, and Celts
from the hills of Charnwood. In Leicester, they met, traded and eventually
What increasingly
united these peoples was Christianity.

Mercia was Christian – the “new” religion reached Leicester in the
year 658. A church was said to have stood from the 7th century on the current
St Margaret’s site.
as we know it, was in the heart of the Mercian kingdom and is thought to have
been the capital for political and ecclesiastical affairs. It was far enough
away from the frontiers to avoid changing hands as the unstable boundaries of
the mini-kingdom advanced and receded.

But what the Anglo-Saxons had worked so hard to build in
Leicestershire, was about to come to an end. The Scandinavian enemy was at the
gates and Mercia would never be the same again.

Ruthlessly pillaged

In 10 short years, between 865 and 874,
the whole structure of life in Mercia collapsed. A huge Scandinavian army
marched and pillaged up and down England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has
preserved a glimpse of these years of chaos in its records of “a great heathen
army” that pillaged East Anglia in the year 865. Between 865 and 868 the
Northmen widened their field for plunder and tribute to East Mercia. Leicester
was attacked in 868, partly destroying the ancient Roman city walls.

Thousands of Danes swarmed down the
River Soar in their small, easily-managed boats, penetrating the very heart of
the country, carrying fire and sword among the simple and terrified population,
whom they ruthlessly pillaged and massacred. In the winter of 874 to 5, after
defeating Burhed, King of Mercia in battle, the raiders established their
quarters at Repton on the River Trent. Monasteries, the repositories of rich
and beautiful objects in gold, silver and jewellery, formed particular targets
for the pagan invaders. The monastery that had been founded at Breedon in
Leicestershire was reputedly sacked. But these Danes didn’t just hit and run,
like the early invaders on Lindisfarne.

The Vikings swarmed down the River Soar

In its records of the year 877, the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests a permanent settlement of the land. The Danish
army it says “went into the land of the Mercians, and shared out some of it,
and gave some to Ceolwulf”. Ceolwulf was the puppet king whom the Danes placed
on the Mercian throne. It seems Mercia was now divided in half.

Large parts of its eastern territories
had passed into the hands of the Scandinavian invaders and were open to
settlement. Within the next decade, in 886, the losses of Anglo-Saxon territory
in Mercia were clearly defined by a treaty that King Alfred the Great concluded
with Guthrum, the leader of the Danes, after his Wessex Saxons had recaptured

A permanent “country of Danes” was now
established within England, known as the Danelaw. This Danish part of England
comprised the greater part of eastern England from East Anglia to North
Yorkshire, incorporating most of Leicestershire. You could say that Leicester
was part of Denmark.

Leicestershire was close to the Danelaw
boundary though, and it is believed that some of the wealthier inhabitants
migrated with as many possessions as they could carry. As the churches were
destroyed and Christian rites trampled, the Bishop of Leicester retired to
safety at Dorchester-on-Thames. It would be more than a thousand years before
there would again be a Diocese of Leicester. Leicester, with Derby, Nottingham,
Lincoln and Stamford, became one of the “Five Boroughs” of the Danelaw. Leicester,
as a former Anglo-Saxon royal city, continued its importance under Danish rule.
Danish forms of taxation and local government took root in Leicester.

Danish Leicester

Although the Danelaw’s existence was
relatively short-lived, it left an everlasting mark on the history of
Leicestershire. The Scandinavians left an indelible impression on the language
of the East Midlands.
grammatical structures and the very tones of local dialect were deeply affected
by the contact with Scandinavia. Despite this, there aren’t many archeological
finds to be seen; visible remains of the Norsemen are hard to come by. Leicestershire’s
archaeological record lacks burials, pottery and everyday implements.

Finds that we do have are generally
personal ornaments such as brooches, horse accessories, coinage and weaponry. There
are also some distinctly Irish objects found in Leicestershire that were
probably plundered by Vikings during raids, and transported back to the Danelaw
lands. Such finds include a “shrine mount” from Breedon and belt buckles from

Our understanding of Danish settlement
and the geography of the Danelaw depends largely on the evidence of
Scandinavian place-names. The place-name ending of by, which means a farm or
more usually a settlement, is seen throughout Denmark. That same ending is
common in England too. In Leicestershire alone, 56 villages end in by (such as Oadby)
and of these, half the number contain a Danish personal name as their other
element. But towards Leicester, on the broad gravel spreads where the River
Wreake empties into the Soar, the character of place-names changes. The sounds
of the Scandinavian invaders gives way to names of an older Mercian origin with
names ending in -ton. Thrussington, Syston and Cossington all speak of an
earlier period in Leicestershire’s settlement history. Even though the ton
element suggests the presence of a settlement that survived the impact of the
Danish army, the first element in these names is frequently a Scandinavian
personal name. Many Leicestershire villages were named after powerful Danes.
Ingarsby is named after the Danish Prince Ingar and it is now believed that
Humberstone may be named after Ingar’s brother, Hubba.
 Both Princes entered Leicester during the
Danish invasion and could have settled in the villages named after themselves.

Some think the Viking princes are on the tower of Humberstone church

But as well as being named after actual
people, many villages were named after the gods. Thurmaston, Thurcaston,
Thurlaston and Thurnby all owe their name to one of the principal pagan gods of
the Scandinavian culture – Thor, who together with Odin, were the most commonly
worshipped gods. An archaeological find from Leicestershire of a miniature
“Thor’s Hammer”, the god’s famous magical weapon, is on display in the Jewry
Wall Museum.

Miniature Thor’s Hammer  found in Leicestershire

Names are clues

With invading forces, you may assume
that they would settle on the broad and fertile river terraces of the Soar. But
settlements already existed here and new areas of land were needed to house the
large band of men who came to dwell in Leicestershire. By the study of
place-names, it appears that they turned towards the emptier and perhaps less
rewarding river terraces that flank the narrow valley of the Wreake. Along that
river we find Frisby, Hoby, Rotherby, Brooksby and Rearsby. The word “Wreake”
is also derived from Scandinavia, being the Old Norse word for “twisted”. So,
Wreake is both a description and the new name for the river once known as the
River Eye. Historian Sir Frank Stenton said the Wreake settlement was occupied
by a large body of the Danish army who took permanent occupation of the land
some time around 877.

The army would have been stationed here
so it could spring to the defence of Leicester if the town was ever threatened
by invaders from the west. Another Danish encampment is thought to have stood
on the area of Leicester known as Dane Hills. The creation of the Danelaw made
as great an impression on Leicester as in the surrounding countryside. The
colonising Danes, soldiers and farmers, turned the Mercian cathedral city into
a garrison town. The term “gate,” descended from the Old Norse, “gata,” meaning
a street, occurs in a handful of streets in the heart of Leicester. All in the
same part of town we find Gallowtree Gate, Humberstone Gate, Church Gate,
Belgrave Gate and Sanvey Gate. They lie outside the line of the former Roman
and medieval wall, beyond the bounds of the Anglo-Saxon town. As we all know,
the first four streets converge at the Clock Tower where High Street passed
through the former East Gate out of the walled enclosure of the medieval town. Thus,
the presence of the “gata” element in modern street names of Leicester suggests
that the Danes, when they made Leicester one of their strongholds, established
a new town outside the wall of the Mercian city. By the early years of the 10th
century, Leicester may have been like a town of two halves, sharply divided
into Anglo-Saxon and Danish quarters.

Fresh conquests

But Leicester wasn’t to remain in
Danish hands. In 918, after taking the town of Derby, King Alfred the Great’s
daughter, Ethelfleda collected a large army and captured Leicester from the
Danes. Shortly afterwards, the Danes of York made peace with this powerful
princess, and bound themselves by oath to obedience.

Ethelfleda was known as “the Lady of
the Mercians”, and she is credited with strengthening the fortifications of
Leicester, building the first castle and founding a church on the site of St
Mary de Castro, probably levelled during the Norman Conquest. By building this
church, she re-established Christian worship in Leicester. But not long after
taking Leicester, Ethelfleda died at her palace in Tamworth on June 12, 918.

Statue of Ethelfleda in the courtyard of Leicester Guildhall

She is said to have been wise, just and
righteous, and to have walked in the ways of her father. After the re-conquest
of Mercia, a mint was established in Leicester near the North Bridge, which
continued until the reign of King Henry II. Coins with a local stamp from the
reign of Edgar (959-975), Ethelred II (978-1016) and Canute (1016-1035) have
all been discovered locally. The recapture of Mercia was, on the face of it, a
temporary deliverance. It was followed by more Danish and Norse raids and, in
1013, the Five Boroughs made submission to Sweyn, King of Denmark. Leicester
was sacked by Edmund Ironside in 1016, the year of the decisive Battle of
Assandun, which made Canute master and ruler of all England.

Shortlived peace

Gradually the Danish invaders became
absorbed into English society. By the start of the 11th century, the men of the
Danelaw, though they kept their own customs and language, had become more or
less Christian and more or less Englishmen, after amalgamating with the
Anglo-Saxons for well over a hundred years. Canute was a foreign ruler, but he
did not, like William the Conqueror, impose domination by a foreign race.

After the Battle of Assandun and until
the Norman Conquest, the town of Leicester was free from ravages of conflicting
armies, and was “well-peopled”. But the peace would not last long. In another
half a century, the Normans would arrive and the town would again face the
brute force of a powerful army.

by Matthew Sibson

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