One of England's greatest unanswered questions is where exactly "the North" begins. 

One definition includes the regions where people from Viking societies raided, conquered, and eventually settled, forming part of the Danelaw and the Anglo-Scandinavian Kingdom of Jorvik. 

After the withdrawal of the last Roman legions from the British Isles in 410 CE, the areas now considered "the North" of England experienced a series of successive Viking raids and invasions. 

The story of northern England during the early medieval period was one of Viking conquest and settlement. 

The so-called "Viking England" was divided into two parts for much of this period. 

A northern Viking kingdom centered at York (Jorvik) was bordered in the south by the Danelaw – an even larger swathe of England (most of the Midlands down to London) that followed the laws and customs of Viking societies. 

Without wading into any cultural quagmires, we can safely say that the North of England was an area of intense Viking activity – both peaceful and malign. 

The legacy of this Viking influence can be found not only in the locals' DNA – many have Nordic genes that were the direct result of these Scandinavians crossing the North Sea – but also in the names of the landscapes, towns, and villages

However, perhaps their most spectacular legacy was uncovered deep in the North in 1840. 

In 1840, while repairing the embankment of the River Ribble in Lancashire, a group of workers discovered the Cuerdale Hoard, one of the largest collections of Viking silver ever found. Photo: Ian Greig (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Digging in mud 

The River Ribble snakes its way through Lancashire, flowing westward into the Irish Sea. As it flows gently through this rural part of northern England, it passes the small parish of Cuerdale. 

This charming English parish lies in what was once the industrial heartland of England and the world. 

From the late 18th century, Lancashire became a powerhouse of textile production, particularly in cotton manufacturing. 

The region's abundant waterways – including the River Ribble – fueled the growth of factories and mills. 

This rapid industrialization transformed Lancashire into a key hub of England's economic might. 

Throughout this period, huge infrastructure projects were needed to transform the British Isles from medieval to modern. 

One of these projects was undertaken by a group of workers in 1840 in Cuerdale. 

Work was needed to repair part of the river's embankment as more and more vessels transported cotton and other merchandise westward to the wider world. 

Whilst digging in the mud, one of the workers' spades hit a lead box. 

Upon pulling it out of the buried earth, the workers discovered archeological, figurative, and literal treasure: they had discovered a Viking hoard. 

The Cuerdale Hoard, which was buried around 901, now has most of its artifacts, including Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian jewelry, on display at the British Museum. Photo: JMiall (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Cuerdale Hoard 

As the workers prized open the box, they soon saw that the Viking Age's treasure was more than just a few trinkets. 

According to Christopher Blunt in his article in the British Numismatic Journal, the hoard contained more than 7,000 items, making it the second-largest Viking hoard yet discovered, surpassed only by the Spillings Hoard

Among this hidden treasure was almost a Viking ship's worth of coins. 

Since its discovery, archeological analysis – which can be best read in Graham James Campbell's 2011 book, The Cuerdale Hoard (available to buy on Amazon here) – has found that the majority of coins were either minted or used in what was the Danelaw. 

Smaller portions came from the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, as well as from diverse locations such as North Africa, the Italian Peninsula, the Byzantine Empire, and the Frankish realms. 

Aside from these coins, there was a significant amount of both Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian jewelry, hacksilver (a sort of proto-currency especially favored by Viking traders and raiders), and ingots. 

This hoard is the largest ever uncovered in the British Isles and speaks of the trading importance and serious wealth that this area of England possessed throughout the early medieval period. 

Upon discovery, the workers alerted the relevant authorities, and it would wind its way into the hands of the British monarch, Queen Victoria, who, as one of her titles, was the Duke (yes, Duke) of Lancaster, thus the top dog. 

The men, however, were allowed to keep one coin each – not bad for a day's work plodding around in mud! 

Although the bulk of the hoard is showcased at the British Museum, this segment is held at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Photo: BabelStone (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Why would you bury a hoard? 

We will never know who buried the Cuerdale Hoard, but we do know, however, why they buried it. 

The early medieval period, during which people from Viking societies expanded outward (sometimes violently, sometimes peacefully) from their Scandinavian homeland, was one of the most violent and insecure periods in human history. 

People in Viking societies, whether in Norway or northern England, lived in communities where widespread violence was commonplace. 

There were no banks to deposit wealth, insurance to protect it, or police to stop it from being stolen. 

Burying treasure was seen as one of the most secure ways to safeguard immense wealth. 

Whether the contents of the Cuerdale Hoard were earned through honest commerce or taken by the sharp edge of a sword will remain a mystery. 

However, the fact it was buried probably meant that the owner or owners felt insecure enough to deposit such a huge treasure trove. 

This insecurity may have come from local or regional violence and battles, invading armies, or warriors cutting a swathe across this region of northern England. 

Alternatively, perhaps the owner was a wealthy merchant who just wanted to bury a significant portion of their treasure to be dug up and used at a later time. 

This was a great way to stop marauding armies from stealing hard-earned lucre. 

In a time when banks, insurance, and police protection were nonexistent, the Cuerdale Hoard could have represented the portable wealth of one of the Dublin-based Viking elites. Photo: Ethan Doyle White (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A rich archeological and cultural legacy 

The Cuerdale Hoard has continued to inspire a rich legacy since its discovery. 

Not only has it contributed to the cultural heritage and history of Cuerdale, but it speaks of how this small parish has been connected to the wider world since the early medieval period. 

Think of the extensive trading and raiding networks that saw treasure from the Islamic and Byzantine worlds and beyond winding its way to this tiny slice of northern England. 

Archeologists believe it was buried around 901, when the Vikings were kicked out of Dublin. Could this have been the portable wealth of one of the Dublin-based Viking elites? 

Another theory is that, though the wealth is from the Viking Age, it may have been buried centuries later, during the later medieval period, long after the last Viking ship ever sailed. 

Whoever was responsible for the accumulation and burial of the Cuerdale Hoard has bequeathed this part of northern England a rich treasure worth more than its weight in gold and silver. 

Some of the hoard is proudly displayed at various museums in England, including the British Museum. 

For more information on other Viking discoveries in the British Isles, visit BBC History Extra here

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