Vikings In The Wirral Part II: An Interview With Stephen Harding
Following on from the previous blog in which I gave a summary of the Viking settlement on the Wirral, we spoke with author and historian Stephen Harding for his expertise on the subject below. If you are interested in learning more, he has written a number of excellent books on the subject including Ingimund's Saga which you an view here
Stephen Harding Interview
Why did the attempted settlement of Anglesey by the Dublin Norse fail? Do we have any records to explain what happened?
Perhaps a combination of being surrounded by unfriendly people and also having arrived as exiles tired of fighting in Ireland. The Three Fragments report Ingimund and his forces being “weary of war”. Welsh Chronicles also report on the failure – the Annales Cambriae and Brut y Tywysogion both record the arrival under Ingimund and a battle atOsmeliaun or Ros Meilon, (the Britons led by ‘the son of Cadell, the son of Rhodri’) and these corroborate with the expulsion of Ingimund and the Norsemen after an un-named battle in the Three Fragments. The story in the Three Fragments then follows with the settlement in Wirral starting with the approach by Ingimund to Aethelflaed – an approach which was granted. Maybe Aethelflaed saw Ingimund’s lot as a friendly set of war-weary Vikings who were now ready to settle peacefully and once established could act as a buffer against more unfriendly groups.
Are there any other examples of land being granted to Norse settlers by Saxon rulers? Why would Aethelflaed choose to do this?
Not as far as I know. Maybe Aethelflaed saw Ingimund’s lot as a friendly set of Vikings who were weary of war and they could act as a buffer against more unfriendly groups. Maybe there was even some romance involved, we don’t know.
At the time of the attack on Chester in 907AD, do we know if the majority of Scandinavians in the Wirral were Norse or Danes and how did this affect the balance of power in this region?
The Three Fragments report on Ingimund leading Norse together with Danes and Irish in the attack on Chester. From the place-name & DNA evidence the majority were Norsemen.
There were Irishmen who came over with Ingimund & who threw their lot in with the Norsemen (and many of the Norsemen would have had Celtic wives or be 2ndgeneration Norse fathers and Celtic mothers): places like Irby, Noctorum and Liscard show the Irish presence was important. Denhall (Danir-wella, the Danes spring) may have been the main centre where the Danes on Wirral were based. They may have stayed behind after the Danish Army had wintered in Chester in AD893 but its unlikely they significantly affected the balance of power on Wirral.
From place names there are far fewer characteristic Danish –thorps in Wirral (there is a Calthorpe in Bidston and Winthrop in Claughton) compared with Eastern England. They were still sufficient in numbers though to earn a mention in the Story of Ingimund in the Three Fragments in connection with the attack on Chester. The Three Fragments do not give us the final result of the conflicts, and we are left with “it was not long before they came back again” but in the end it seems some amicable settlement was made to allow the Norsemen to become an important part of Chesters financial community.
Will the settlers on the Wirral have had much contact with other Scandinavian groups elsewhere in Britain?
Yes, and this would have been through the Thing Assembly at Thingwall, which would have met once or twice a year. The main purpose would have been to discuss local issues of government and law, but also to meet old friends and other Scandinavian groups are likely to have visited – from Ireland (after the Vikings had re-established themselves there), Isle of Man and North Wales coast where there is evidence of some Viking settlement (place names like Talacre in Mostyn and Priestholm - now Puffin Island - in Anglesey). Many coming by boat/ship would have arrived via Dingesmere “the waterway of wetland controlled or overlooked by the Thing” (see below), followed by a short horse ride to the Thing site.
Are there any alliances or agreements that we know of?
Not that I am aware of. And if the Battle of Brunanburh did take place on Wirral we don’t know who side the (by then) integrated Wirral Viking community would be on (with one source claiming Vikings fought on both sides). They probably kept their heads down and battened down the hatches until the battle was over.
Is it likely the people who settled in the Wirral would have continued up the Mersey and the Dee?
Based on place- name evidence seemed to stop around Helsby (hellirs-byr .. the settlement on a ledge) along the river Mersey, and with the Dee, they got as far as Chester, integrating with the local Anglian community contributing to a strong 10th and 11th century financial centre.
In Chester their community was focused in the southern part of the City – the parish of St. Olave’s, Olave or Olaf Haraldsson being the patron saint of Norway. The main settlement in Wirral was in the North & West, with a boundary at Raby (rá-byr: boundary settlement), and at the centre Thingwall (Þing-vollr: Assembly field) – where they had their Thing or parliament.
Did other areas also have Thing's in the UK?
One of only 2 definite examples of Thingwall place-names in England, the other across the Mersey in West Lancs where there was another substantial Norse Viking settlement, again with a boundary at a rá-byr, this one now modern Roby. Other Thingwall’s in the British Isles include Tynwald (IoM), Tinwald in Dumfriesshire, Tingwall in Shetlands and Dingwall in Ross-shire.
What are the main bodies of evidence / sources of the Wirral settlement?
Evidence of a strong Norse-Viking settlement on Wirral comes from: 1. Historical records (Irish Chronicles called the Three Fragments, generally accepted by Academics as authentic – and the deal between their Norse leader Ingimund or Ingimundr and the Queen of the Mercian English, Aethelflaed), place name evidence (~500 minor and major names in Wirral with Norse or Irish elements) – the minor names also attest to a surviving language/dialect through the centuries, as do Parish records (14th century names with –sson “son of” and –dottir “daughter of” suffixes), and links of the Stanleys of Storeton (stor-tún – the great farmstead) to the 14th century poem Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, full of Norse dialect words. And of course the DNA evidence where ~ 50% of the DNA admixture of men from old Wirral families (possessing surnames in the area prior to 1600) is Norse in origin (the same result was found for West Lancashire). And there’s the Archaeology in terms of stonework including hogback tombstones at West Kirby and Bidston, amazing cross fragments at Neston – including the reconstruction of the beautiful “Viking Lady” cross at Neston and further examples at Hilbre, Greasby, Woodchurch and Bromborough), together with substantial metalwork at Ness and Meols (including evidence of a Viking burial), and the possibility of a Viking Age boat under the Railway Inn pub at Meols – the subject of scientific investigation and, hopefully archaeological and further scientific- investigation.
Questions & Introduction by Duncan Reed