Vikings In The Wirral: Part 1
We all know the stories of King Alfred of Wessex fighting off the “Great Heathen Army” and of the Vikings as raiders in Britain. Although a lot has been written about the general history of the formation of Angle-Land under its West Saxon king, the deeds of Alfred were only the start of the fight rather than the great victory that we are taught about in schools.
King Alfred's Tower in Bruton was erected on the site where he supposedly raised his army before defeating the great viking army. Built much later and bloody cold...
In fact, the “Vikings” still occupied much of Northumbria and Mercia at the time of Alfred’s death and it was his grandson Aethelstan who would become the first king of England following victory at the cataclysmic battle of Brunanburgh.
Depiction of the battle by Sacred Knot. The original painting is available here and there will be prints coming soon!
Little is known about this battle other than what is presented in the Anglo Saxon chronicle and its whereabouts still remains a mystery today. However, the most widely accepted hypothesis is that the battle took place on the Wirral in North Western England, which is conveniently located between my house in Manchester and the Northern Fire shop in Llandudno! I thought rather than tell my version of events you already know, it would be interesting to talk to experts about this fascinating region and the areas local to the Northern Fire collective.
The River Mersey at Sale where Duncan grew up
The Settlement Of The Wirral
Whilst the battles of Alfred were generally against the invading Danes from the East, it is likely that the settlements that began to develop in the North West of England and North Wales came by a different route. Whilst the Danes seemed to have focused their attacks on the East coast of England and fought many battles in the south.
Following unification of Norway by Harold Harfagre (Harald Finehair) there was an exodus of Norwegians or Norse from around 880 AD who eventually formed settlements in Iceland as well as the Scottish isles then down the Irish Sea where they took over an existing settlement at Dubh Linn (modern day Dublin) and the Isle of Man.
The settlement along the Wirral peninsula was formed by a group of settlers let by Ingimund who were driven out of Dublin following a major defeat in Dublin by the king of Leinster Caerbhal Mac Muirecáin. They had originally attempted to settle in Anglesey but were driven out by the local Welsh before eventually being given permission to settle on the Wirral by Aethelflead, the Lady of Mercia, in around 902AD. Allowing the Norse to settle in this area may seem strange given the enmity between Saxon and Viking. However, it has been suggested that the Lady of the Mercians allowed this to offer some protection to the strategically important city of Chester. By having this colony of traders and settlers on the lucrative trade route from Chester across the Irish sea, the hope was they would discourage raiders in a similar way the Normans did in France.
It was around this time that settlements sprung up across the north west of England in Merseyside and even as far as the Lake District. Many place names common in the Lake District come from the Norse settlers in the tenth century for example: such as beck (stream), dale (valley), gill (gorge), tarn (lake) and thwaite (clearing). Likewise, we can still see evidence of the Norse through place names on and around the Wirral such as Skelmesdale (Skjaldmarr's valley), Birkenhead (Headland of Birch trees) and possibly most importantly, Thingwall (Assembly Field).
Stock Ghyll Force Waterfall in Ambleside, Cumbria. Ghyll comes from the Old Norse word for "narrow water filled ravine"
This name is particularly important as it would suggest that the region was self governed by the settling Norse. This would tally with the general history that has been recorded as Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred, agreed to allow some of the Norsemen from Dublin to settle in this region after 902AD.
“Things” can be found in many areas of Viking settlements although there are relatively few found in the British Isles (Dingwall In Scotland and Tynwald in the Isle of Man being among the few that remain today). A “Thing” was in effect, a meeting of the general populace in which disputes would be settled, decisions made and laws upheld. They would be held by the ruler of the area and would have a law speaker (or judge) who would be able to recite laws. Although not every decision would be made by the general population, it is known that votes did take place around this time.
It is unclear exactly where the “Thing” would take place in the area but as there was often a mound/elevation at such sites for the speaker, it is thought by some historians that it was located at Cross Hill.
Whilst I have talked in the previous blog about the Norse influence on the Wirral, it is also worth noting that there are a number of Danish place names found in the Wirral as well suggesting that many Danes were settling there. These are generally ending in “by” meaning town or village (such as West Kirby: West village of the church) and although it is likely these were formed after the initial settlement, we don’t specifically know for certain how and why they arrived. With an increasing population of both Norsemen and Danes on the Wirral, it is ominous that nearby Chester was refortified by Aethelflaed only 5 years later in 907AD.
Despite this, and a subsequent attack on the city in which the English defenders threw both boiling ale and bee hives on the attackers, it appears that things settled down and Chester became a major trading city. The archaeological record shows us Hiberno Norse metalwork and Saxon pottery from this same period and we know that there was a mint at Chester producing coins which suggests its importance at the time.
The battle for Chester reimagined by Sean Parry of Sacred Knot
Despite being thrown out of Dublin in the years before, it also appears that there were strong links with the Irish and especially Dublin in the years following the attack on Chester and it isn’t hard to imagine that the affluent city on the banks of the river Dee would have been a melting pot of Norse, Danes, Saxons, Welsh, Irish and most likely Scottish as well, all of which would have to travel through the Wirral by land or river (through the port at Meols).
This is possibly a significant clue to the location of the battle of Brunanburgh 30 years later, which featured fighting men from at least 5 different regions. But we will discuss this again soon…
Written by Duncan Reed