What Was the Danelaw and How Long Did It Last?

Paul Levitt

5 mins

16 Sep 2019

Between AD 865 and 878, a force more savage, brutal and warlike than had ever been seen before would invade Britain’s shores.

The Danes, Northmen, or Vikings were never at peace and depended wholly on war and plunder, visiting every part of the island with fire and sword. The nightmare facing the country was summed up by one author when he wrote,

The miseries and horrors, which the English or Saxons brought upon the British, these the Danes now brought in threefold upon the English. The same terrible sights that had burst upon the panic-stricken eyes of the British, three hundred years before, now amazed the English.

The same line of blazing homesteads and corn-ricks against the midnight sky, the same slaughter of priests, women and infants.”

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The Vikings seize York

The Vikings originally left Scandinavia due to overcrowding, but later on perceived the English to be weak. Viking chieftains thought they had as much right to rule as the Anglo-Saxons and the Viking presence in Yorkshire reached a crucial stage when a heathen force that had been bought-off in the south made its way north.

It arrived in York on 1 November AD 866 and captured the city in March of the following year. A Northumbrian relief army was no match for the Vikings, who were now permanently settled in the country as the new masters.

They built a large community within the old Roman walls of York and would eventually occupy the surrounding countryside and farm the land.

The creation of Danelaw

With the exception of Wessex they had become masters of all England, but there were signs of change.

A large part of the Viking army under Halfdan Ragnarsson returned to Yorkshire in AD 874 but despite a famous victory over the Danes at the Battle of Edington in AD 878, King Alfred of Wessex was unable to expel them from Britain and was forced to cede even more land to them.

Today’s Yorkshire became part of their territory, which was called ‘Danelaw’ and covered half of England. York was the capital of this new Danish kingdom, which remained independent of England until AD 954.

Map of England in 878 showing the territory of Danelaw. Image credit: Hel-hama / Commons.

A brief history of the Danelaw

Upon the death of Halfdan Ragnarsson, a Norwegian Viking from Dublin called Ragnald held sway in York. He had accepted Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder, as his overlord in AD 920, but his successor refused to follow suit and there was more unrest when the king of the Dublin Vikings sought unsuccessfully to capture York.

However, Aethelstan (AD 924-940) would soon stamp his authority on Northumbria and the kingdoms beyond, including the kingdoms of the Scots, the West Welsh, and of Gwent. All was then relatively quiet until AD 934 when Aethelstan was in East Yorkshire facing an impending invasion of the Scots.

The invasion finally came in AD 937, when Aethelstan defeated the Scots and their allies, including Irish Vikings. This decisive battle took place at a place called Brunanburh, the whereabouts of which remains a mystery to this day.

The Gesta Regum account of Brunanburh suggests that the Viking forces had come a good way into Aethelstan’s territory before the battle, hinting that it may have been somewhere south of York.

Changing hands

Aethelstan’s death only two years after his famous victory triggered a collapse of the English hold on York, which once again fell into Viking hands.

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But this situation was reversed in AD 944 when king Edmund overcame the Vikings throughout Northumbria and retook York. Two years later Edmund was assassinated and the city elders chose the Viking, Eric Bloodaxe, as their king.

However, he would be abandoned by the Northumbrians and meet his end in AD 954 in a treacherous ambush in the Pennines at Stainmore near the remote border of North Yorkshire with Cumbria. It marked the end of Viking domination in Northumbria and was followed by a quarter of a century of peace.

Invasions from Norway

Eric was destined to be York’s last Viking king, but another invasion was looming from across the North Sea.

A strong Scandinavian force was gathering under King Harald of Denmark or ‘Bluetooth’ as he was nicknamed. He had successfully united his kingdom with that of Norway and had assembled a fearsome army led by his son, Swein.

Aethelred bought off the threats with ‘Danegeld’, but in the third year of his reign the Viking raids restarted. In AD 993 a Viking force entered the mouth of the Humber and according to the Chronicles ‘did much evil’ in Northumbria and Lindsey [Lincolnshire].

It was the same again the following year when Swein, accompanied by Olave, King of Norway, attacked London with 94 ships. Soon everywhere north of Watling Street was under his control and Swein was effectively in charge of all England. But he would only live for another year.

When he died, his son Cnut (or Canute) became the first Danish king of all England.

The North Sea Empire of Cnut the Great, c. 1030. (Note that the Norwegian lands of Jemtland, Herjedalen, Idre and Særna are not included in this map). Image Credit: Hel-hama / Commons.

The other side of Viking history

As the English scholar, Alcuin of York (AD 735-804), pointed out, the like of the Vikings had never been seen before in Britain. Such ferocity, such terror, such bringers of doom. Yet there was clearly another side to them that no one outside their homelands had ever seen.

They were navigators and explorers who travelled widely throughout and beyond Europe, exploring Russia, and Persia, and reaching America. They were traders: Arabic and even eastern coins have been found in Scandinavia showing that they must have traded far and wide.

An Arabic dirham brought to England by Viking traders. Image Credit: Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Perhaps most surprising of all is that despite being pagans with a fearsome reputation, they would embrace Christianity and contribute to Britain’s cultural development.

Born into a military family in the historic market town of Beverley, East Yorkshire, Paul C. Levitt has always been intrigued by the past. He has written professionally on a wide range of subjects for the past 25 years. Yorkshire: A Story of Invasion, Uprising and Conflict is his latest release, and was published in paperback edition on 4 September 2019, by Pen and Sword.