It's fair to say the Vikings don’t enjoy the best reputation. They're often seen as bloodthirsty pirates who brought terror and devastation to early medieval Europe.
However, their enduring legacy has influenced our culture, language and sense of national identity. Derby's own story in the Dark Ages can help shed light on this defining period.
"The Anglo-Saxon settlement at Derby dates from the 7th century and was known as Northworthy," says Barbara Foster, Honorary Secretary at Derbyshire Archaeology Society.
"It was a minster town, so its ecclesiastical influencewould have been felt over a wide area. It was probably associated with a royal or church estate centre."
Derby was also a frontier town: "England as we know it didn't exist," adds Barbara. "It was divided into competing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that appear to have been constantly at war with each other and were internally unstable. Derby sat on the border between
Mercia [which had lands across the Midlands, including Derby] and Northumberland."
A murdered saint
The story of Alkmund, Derby's patron saint, shows just how divided England was at the time of the first Viking
raids in the 8th century.
Alkmund was a Northumbrian prince who fled to Derby in 774 to seek safety after his father was overthrown in a coup. He quickly gained a reputation for charity while in exile, but he couldn’t escape the bloody struggles of Anglo-Saxon politics.
"We don't know much of the truth of what happened but what we know is that Alkmund was killed while trying to reclaim his kingdom around the year 800," says Jonathan Wallis, Head of Museums at Derby Museum.
Whatever the exact circumstances were, he was proclaimed a saint shortly afterwards and a brief war broke out between Mercia and Northumberland.
At first, the Vikings seemed content with hit-and-run attacks on wealthy monasteries and extorting protection money (Danegeld) from the Anglo-Saxons. But the emphasis changed in the mid-9th century with the arrival of the 'mycel heathen here' – the Great Heathen
In 865 this army landed in East Anglia and began rampaging across the country. Over the next few years the independent English kingdoms were defeated one by one. By 873 the army had moved to Derbyshire, as Jonathan explains:
"They actually sailed up the River Trent in their longboats as far as Repton, where they set up camp for the winter. Repton's only stone building at the time was its church, so they fortified this for protection.
"As they overwintered in Repton, around 250 people died from their battle wounds and they were buried in a mass grave."
The burials were first discovered by a labourer called Thomas Walker in 1686, who described finding 'a Skeleton of a Humane Body Nine Foot long' in a coffin surrounded by 'One Hundred Humane Skeletons, with their Feet pointing to the Stone Coffin'.
Although the remains of the tall individual have been lost, the archaeologists who rediscovered the site in the 20th century believed he may have been an important Viking leader who was known to have died around this time: the rather intriguingly named Ivar the Boneless.
The army moved on from Repton the following spring and by 878, Wessex, the last independent English kingdom, had been overrun and their king was in hiding. Yet in a remarkable reversal of fortunes, the king managed to raise an army and defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Edington. That king would later become known as Alfred the Great.
In the peace that followed, England was divided between the Anglo-Saxon and the Viking – two cultures with competing visions of the future. Derby now found itself in the Danelaw, the area ruled by the Vikings.
But the Anglo-Saxons weren't going to let the invaders get comfortable, so they quickly set about trying to reclaim their lost lands. One of the driving forces behind this ambition was Æthelflæd, the daughter of Alfred the Great.
Æthelflæd had been married to the ruler of Mercia but became the sole ruler following her husband's death in 911. There she ruled for the next eight years, personally leading military expeditions against the Vikings.
In 917, she turned her attention to Derby, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes:
'In this year… Æthelflæd, the 'Lady of the Mercians', won the borough called Derby with God's help, together with all the region which it controlled: four of her thanes, who were dear to her, were slain there within the gates.'
"Æthelflæd was an outstanding woman," says Barbara. "She was able to think on her feet and must also have possessed considerable charm and charisma to be accepted as the ruler of Mercia and respected by the Danes.
"We must remember that women were treated as chattel at the time and yet her achievements would have been seen as remarkable even for a man."
The Viking legacy
So what kind of impact did the Vikings have on Derby? Jonathan explains:
"When the Vikings came to Derby it was likely that nothing much changed. There weren't thousands
of settlers and those that arrived quickly assimilated with the natives.
"Yet the Viking settlement did leave its mark on Derby. The fact that we have 'gates' and 'wicks' – such
as Sadler Gate or the Wardwick – shows their influence. Not to mention that the name 'Derby' itself was
given by the settlers."
However, the idea of 'England', which was only a concept at the start of the Viking age, soon became a cause that could unite the rival Anglo-Saxon factions. Perhaps by threatening the Anglo-Saxon way of life and Christian faith, the invaders acted as a catalyst in the creation of England.
In turn, they influenced the nature of what 'English' means: an identity that draws upon a rich mix of ethnic, linguistic and cultural influences. In fact, many of the words used in the modern English language originate from Old Norse: 'beserk', 'muck', 'knife' and 'happy', to name a few.
So perhaps history has been unkind to the Vikings. Without them England as we know it wouldn't exist and, perhaps more importantly, none of us would be happy.
Writer: Jeremy Swan
*Our thanks to the Vikings of Middle England, who modelled for this feature.
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