For several decades or more, people have speculated about whether a part of Norfolk known as the Isle of Flegg was once home to a Viking enclave.
Place names, jewelry, coins, Roman maps, and even DNA evidence have indicated the possible extended presence of the Norse in the area, but no definitive proof has yet emerged.
So are we dealing with countryside myth or historical fact? The Viking Herald investigates.
By the "-by"
When studying the map of Norfolk, England, anyone familiar with the conventions of Viking place names is likely to be struck by a cluster of towns and villages in the east of the county: Hemsby, Clippesby, Rollesby, Filby, Thrigby, Mautby, Stokesby, Herringby… even Ormesby St. Margaret.
See a pattern?
The suffix "-by," meaning farmstead, town, or village, is derived from Old Norse and is a strong suggestion that these lands were once settled by the Vikings.
This would be no surprise, given they are located on the east coast of England, where Northmen are known to have landed time and again during their period of exploration.
The Great Heathen Army is also known to have wintered at a site near Thetford in around 865, just a few miles down the road. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that the army later defeated and killed the local ruler, King Edmund of the Angles, before conquering his kingdom.
The whole of East Anglia was subsequently held under the Danelaw for nearly a century.
Was a portion of land apportioned to Norse settlers to make their own? It is certainly plausible.
The place-name evidence alone would suggest that there were Norse residents in the area for an extended period. Even the name Flegg comes from an old Danish word flaeg, used to describe a marsh plant.
Yet the archeological evidence is minor, at best.
The map reveals a pattern of place names that suggest a Norse heritage and influence in The Isle of Flegg. Source: Peter Dawson
An island that isn't an island
Local historian Peter Dawson runs a website that documents the history of the village of Martham, where he has spent much of his life.
Martham lies at the edge of Flegg, though its name is of Old English, not Old Norse origin.
Peter explains that though some maps indicate that Flegg really was a genuine island at the time of the Romans, by the Viking Age, it would have only been separated from the rest of the land by rivers and waterways.
He agrees that the area must have been attractive to Norse invaders.
There was some passable farming land, easy access to the North Sea, and connections to the larger settlements of Thetford and Norwich, not to mention Caister-on-Sea, an old Roman fort and coastal trading post.
Reason for doubt
At the same time, Peter is yet to be completely convinced that the Vikings settled in the area in large numbers and for a significant period of time.
Now retired, in the past, he spent many years trawling the fields and other areas on field walks and metal detecting trips in both Martham and the surrounding area.
Even today, many of his friends go out weekly or even daily, yet Viking artifacts are "remarkably absent."
The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, of course. Perhaps it simply indicates that many of the Norsemen who settled here were more likely peasants.
Rather than waging war and establishing significant trade routes – acts that tend to leave far more archeological remains – they may have achieved quiet integration with the local population.
The two ancient languages of Old English and Old Norse were mutually intelligible, after all.
Peter, though, remains skeptical, asserting that to be sure, "we would need to find a Viking ship or something similar in the peat."
Did Norse explorers trade swords for plows in the heart of Norfolk? Photo: LGieger / Shutterstock
Though the overall archeological record is undoubtedly scarce, there are still some minor indications of Norse settlers.
A selection of finds, including stirrup-strap mounts, strap-ends, pottery, and brooches, seem to have predominantly been produced by English artisans but also featured distinctive Norse patterns and motifs.
Peter also mentions some jewelry found in the Martham area that bears a distinct Viking influence.
One or two other clues also point toward a Viking presence.
Patricia Poussa, for example, made the argument in Writing in Nonstandard English that certain aspects of the Norfolk dialect spoken in the Flegg area contain traces of Norse.
For example, the fact that people tend to use "that" instead of "it" may well have been taken from Old Norse, while several local terms, such as "staith" (indicating a shore or riverbank), may also have come from the Vikings.
In addition, though sparsely populated in the sixth century, the lands are known to have been far more populous and more intensely farmed by the tenth century, a change that could easily indicate an influx of outsiders.
Finally, there are also claims of genetic tests that found many people in the Flegg area have a considerable proportion of Scandinavian DNA. However, these are yet to be independently verified.
In the meantime, the search goes on.
We may never truly be able to confirm the settlement of a large number of Vikings on the Isle of Flegg or know how long they stayed. We can only hope that there are more clues yet to be revealed.
For a deeper insight into the intricate dynamics of the region, check out the comprehensive overview on the subject by Paul Brooker here.
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