Notably, one of its most dynamic periods was the early medieval era, when it was the Kingdom of Jórvík, a Viking outpost in northern England. 

Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and stereotypes 

The largest English county, Yorkshire, is nowadays synonymous with its cricket side, Leeds United football club, Tetley tea (and beer), and a certain type of parochial (some might say deluded) attitude whereby, according to the local joke, following the six days it took God to create the universe, "on the seventh day, God made Yorkshire." 

All jokes aside, Yorkshire is a wonderful place to visit not just for its natural beauty – a stroll on its northern moors is a must – but also because of the wealth of history figuratively and literally buried beneath (more on that later). 

Our first written record of York, its capital, was by the Roman historian Ptolemy in about 150 CE. Having invaded the British Isles in the first half of the first century, the Roman Empire established a garrison and a town named Eboracum. 

Well-fortified – you can still see the remains of the Roman walls today; things are not quite built to last as long nowadays – it became the center of Roman life in the northeast of this far-flung Roman province until the withdrawal of the Romans to the mainland in the early 5th century. 

A lack of political structure and security caused by Rome's withdrawal led to centuries of population migrations into the British Isles, especially by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes – all cultural ancestors of people in Viking societies. 

Throughout the 7th and 8th centuries, Yorkshire became part of several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to form the Kingdom of Northumbria. 

This new Anglo-Saxon elite still had Eboracum as its political and cultural heart but made some changes like all new tenants. 

Soon, it became a bustling trading port, connected to wider Anglo-Saxon England, christened with a new Anglo-Saxon name, Eoforwic.

By the mid-9th century, a new threat emerged from the sea and the south. The Vikings had arrived. 

The Shambles is one of York's best-preserved medieval streets, believed to have been established in the Viking era. Photo: Alexey Fedorenko / Shutterstock

Viking invasion and control 

From the late 8th century onwards, the British Isles suffered a series of Viking invasions, incursions, and attacks. 

For the next three centuries, the fate of these islands would be inextricably linked to the people from Viking societies. 

The traditional tale is that a Great Heathen Army first invaded the east of England in 866 and managed to conquer and subjugate all but one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms over the next few years. 

This invasion force was said to have been led by two of the sons, including Ivar the Boneless, of the legendary Viking military commander Ragnar Lothbrok, who had besieged Paris a generation before in 845. 

Lothbrok wound up as the prisoner of the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria, Aella, and met his end when he was thrown into a snake pit. 

His sons launched an invasion of England and worked their way to Northumbria to avenge their father. 

Modern historians have poured doubt on this traditional tale of the large-scale Viking invasions of England. 

It is true, however, that Viking invasions did take place from about the mid-9th century, and soon, the Norse were brought across the North Sea to colonize and settle in the areas captured by their warriors. 

By about 866/7, Eoforwic had fallen into Viking hands, and the town would now take pride in being the new epicenter of this Viking heartland. 

A new political elite meant, of course, a name change, and the town became Jórvík. 

Despite capturing the town in 867, the Vikings had bigger fish to fry. 

After installing a puppet ruler, an Anglo-Saxon, the next decade witnessed a series of revolts by the local population against their Viking overlords. 

Stability was only achieved when Guthred was installed as the first Christian King of Jórvík, with the support and blessing of the local archbishop and the religious community at nearby Lindisfarne

The Vikings used the river Ouse as a major navigational route to penetrate deep into England, including the seizure of York. Photo: Michael Warwick / Shutterstock

Anglo-Saxon fightback 

The beginning of the 10th century saw somewhat of an Anglo-Saxon fightback in Jórvík. 

A son of Aethelred, a nephew of Alfred the Great, Aethelwold was installed as the ruler. 

Despite the fact he was Anglo-Saxon, he appears to have had the blessing of the now sizable Norse population, showing how, though they came first as Vikings, these people were interested in the control and manipulation of local power. 

However, not content with his northern kingdom, Aethelwold marched southward to try and claim the Kingdom of Wessex but was killed in a battle in 903. 

Despite this brief Anglo-Saxon respite, Jórvík fell back into Viking control. The next noteworthy ruler was Ragnal I. 

According to the Irish annals, his grandfather was one of the Viking kings of Dublin, expelled at the beginning of the 10th century. 

His grandson became the King of Northumbria, but his reign was brief. Afterward, rule passed to another Norse-Irish exile, Sihtric (also known by his Norse name, Sigtrygg). 

However, it wasn't long before Jórvík returned to Anglo-Saxon control. 

Athelstan, one of the most renowned Anglo-Saxon kings, reportedly seized the Kingdom of Northumbria after Sihtric's death. 

Unlike his predecessors, Athelstan maintained control over the kingdom and famously defeated a significant Viking and Scottish force at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937. 

This victory is often highlighted as a pivotal moment in British history, marking a foundational point of English national identity despite the frustrating scarcity of accurate historical details about it. 

Situated on the historic Coppergate Street, the JORVIK Viking Centre in York offers an immersive journey into Viking heritage, featuring realistic animatronics and reconstructed Viking-era streets. Photo: Jeremy Bolwell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A final Viking blaze before the end of an era 

Following Athelstan's death, the Kingdom reverted to Viking control, experiencing a rapid succession of rulers who came and went over the next five years. 

Following a successful invasion of the Viking kingdom, Anglo-Saxon King Edmund granted Northumbria to Malcolm, Ruler of the Scots. 

Yet this Scottish influence was short-lived. In 947, Eric Bloodaxe, who was also King of Norway, took control of Northumbria. 

Bloodaxe is credited as the last Viking King of Northumbria, who fell in battle at Stainmore in 954 against a local Anglo-Saxon ruler. 

The Viking influence would last another century, however, with the Kingdom of Northumbria being downgraded to a mere earldom, with the earl appointed by the new English king. 

The 11th century was a period of devastating invasions including some by the greatest Viking warriors of their time like Cnut the Great, Sweyn Forkbeard, and Harald Hardrada

Eventually, the Norman invasion of 1066 – made somewhat possible by Hardrada falling in battle weeks before – was the end of the Viking period of English history. 

Jórvík would eventually become York, with William the Conqueror constructing the massive York Castle to dominate this former center of Viking activity in England. 

For more information on Viking era York, visit the world-famous Jorvik Viking Centre here

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