From the early 9th century to the late 11th century, these parts of what is now England were ruled by Vikings and subject to the "law of the Danes." Comprising roughly 15 modern-day English counties, the Danelaw became not only a proto-Viking colony but has left a deep imprint on this part of England to this day.

A divided country made easy pickings for the Vikings

The Northern half of England plays a great role in what historians and academics have dubbed "The Viking Age." This "age" is traditionally given a start date when a Viking raid occurred on the island of Lindisfarne, off the far northeast coast of England, in 793 CE. This would be the first, but definitely not the last, record of Viking invasion, war, and pillage on English soil.

When the Vikings arrived in England, they found the country divided into four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms – East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex (occasionally Essex, Kent, and Sussex are included in this list, but they are not regarded as being "major" kingdoms). The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had replaced the authority and social structure of the Roman Empire, which had begun its slow withdrawal from the island starting in the late 4th / early 5th century CE. These kingdoms had little interest in uniting to defeat Viking invaders and raiders. They saw each other as just as much of an existential threat as these men from the North.

Over the course of the next seven decades, Viking raids became commonplace throughout the British Isles and Ireland. Yet, in 865 CE, a coalition of Scandinavian warriors (many from Denmark) banded together to invade England.

The Great Heathen Army

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle paints a vivid and bloody picture of these invading Viking warriors in the mid-9th century CE. Any real historical truth found in this chronicle concerning the Vikings should, of course, be viewed with skepticism; however, it has given us the name for which these Viking warriors would be remembered: the Great Heathen Army. To add an even more mystical and mythical quality to this army, later sources added that its leadership was led by 3 of the 5 sons of a legendary Viking warrior, Ragnar Lothbrok. Still, there is little contemporary evidence to support this added bit of historical color.

Nonetheless, the invasion of England by these armies would see England plunge into a 14-year-long period of war and conquest from Exeter in the south to Tyne in the North and everywhere in between. Arriving on the coast of the Kingdom of East Anglia, they soon dispatched and conquered the first of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms with ease. Marching north, they laid waste to the Kingdom of Northumbria and captured its capital, Jórvik (modern-day York), and placed a puppet ruler on the throne. The next decade saw a slow, relentless march of Viking conquest of all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with only Wessex holding out.

King Alfred the Great, of Wessex, would eventually go on to defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in May 878 CE. The following Treaty of Wedmore would see a cessation of hostilities between the two forces (this would only prove momentarily), and Alfred became the baptismal godfather of Guthrum, now christened Athelstan.

However, it would be another six years before a post-war treaty would go on to define the division between Viking and Anglo-Saxon England.

The invasion of England by Viking armies would see England plunge into a 14-year-long period of war. Photo: Michael Li / Pixabay

The Danelaw and the division of England

Despite their military defeat at Edington, the Vikings still held a huge swathe of territory in the English Midlands and North. However, there was still some resistance from Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that the Vikings thought had been subjugated. Following Guthrum's decision to lay waste to Kent, he was eventually defeated by the Anglo-Saxons and forced to sign the "Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum." 

It was this treaty that would define the geographical boundaries between the Kingdom of Wessex (and its dependencies) and what the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers have called "Danelaw" – that is, the areas of England where Danish (Viking) law is subject, i.e., the areas of Anglo-Saxon England conquered by the Vikings. The treaty not only defined the various social classes of the two peoples but also tried to provide an avenue to reduce conflict and increase trade between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings.

With the boundaries cemented by the 9th century, this was just the first stage of Viking overseas expansion and colonization. By the 10th century, the Vikings had expanded, from their Scandinavian heartland, to settle areas as diverse as Ireland and Iceland, the steppes of Eurasia to the North American coastline.

Did the "Danelaw" revitalize Anglo-Saxon culture?

Following the establishment of the "Danelaw," Viking warriors, and their brethren, would soon replace, though work with, local Anglo-Saxon elites. Yet it appears that this existential threat to Anglo-Saxon culture had a revitalizing effect. A new Anglo-Saxon identity was established – one only has to look at the amazing court of King Alfred of Wessex to see a thriving culture, not in the least bit burdened with existential angst or woe.

The Danelaw soon became a region of cultural mixing and flowering. People from Viking societies, and the Scandinavian homeland, flocked to these new areas, mixing with the local Anglo-Saxon population. Viking rulers soon began to mint their own coins, reorganize social structures, and set about governing and ruling parts of this new country, society, and people.

Yet the 10th century would see events outside England influence the structure and existence of the Danelaw.

An illustration of Alfred's father, Æthelwulf of Wessex, from the 14th-century Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England. Source: Unknown author / Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England / Public Domain

Anglo-Saxon fight back and the North Sea Empire

By the late 9th century, King Alfred of Wessex was a leading figure in the Anglo-Saxon resistance against the Danelaw. In 886 CE, Alfred marched on London, then part of the Danelaw, took it, and was crowned "King of the Anglo-Saxons."  Successful legal, political, and military reorganization of the Anglo-Saxon forces, by Alfred, would see them finally start to successfully wage war against the Viking forces.

Yet, it was his grandson, Æthelstan, who finished the job his grandfather started by roundly defeating a trifecta of forces (including the Vikings) at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 CE.

With the Viking military dominance finally broken, Æthelstan soon marched on Jórvik and managed to capture it – though it was retaken following his death. Nonetheless, regardless of what some historians have called a "pyrrhic victory" at Brunabruh, the Anglo-Saxon hegemony of England was more or less complete by the middle of the 10th century with pockets of Viking resistance.

King of Denmark and Norway, Sweyn Forkbeard, however, had other plans. Like the "Great Heathen Army" 150 years before, he led a huge force to invade England. His force was the culmination of Viking raids following their military defeats by the Anglo-Saxons. In the summer of 1013 CE, Forkbeard, along with his son Cnut, managed to defeat the Anglo-Saxon forces and be crowned King of England, uniting the three kingdoms of Denmark, England, and Norway.

Forkbeard's death, just months after his coronation, would see a battle for the crowns of 3 kingdoms which his son, Cnut, would eventually reunite. Following victory in his ancestral homeland, Cnut would sail to England and, by 1016 CE, subdue all English forces united against him. He would be crowned in 1017 and re-establish the trifecta of crowns in what historians have called the "North Sea Empire."

Decline and fall of Viking presence in England

The North Sea Empire proved to be the fading star of Viking rule in England, turning supernova. Cnut managed to rule this empire, including a huge slice of the British Isles, all of Norway, Denmark, and parts of Sweden, for more than two decades. However, his death in 1035 CE marked the decline and fall of a Viking presence in England. Yet the Vikings still had a huge part to play in the formation of what would become England.

The perceived broken dynastic promises made by an Anglo-Saxon king to the new Duke of Normandy, William, in the mid-11th century, would signal the final nail in the Danelaw. 1066 CE is rightly held up as a pivotal year in English history. In January, the Anglo-Saxon King Edward died childless, and was succeeded not by the Duke of Normandy but by his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson. 

An invading force led by Norwegian King Harald Hardråde was swatted away and defeated at Stamford Bridge in late September by Godwinson. However, he then had to march his exhausted army the length of England to wage battle against the Duke of Normandy, who had sailed across the English Channel to claim what he saw as his throne.

Godwinson was defeated at the Battle of Hastings – famously with an arrow to the eye, if we are to believe the Bayeux Tapestry – and his death sparked the end of an era. The Norman conquest of England had begun.

The end of the Danelaw…?

The Danelaw has left a legacy in England that is felt even to this day. Much of the areas of England that fell under Danelaw have place names heavily influenced by the Old Norse language. There is a myriad of places in England ending with "by" (from the old Norse word meaning "village" or "farm"), some of which include Derby, Rugby, and Grimsby. Furthermore, the Old Norse language heavily influenced the new burgeoning language of English spoken by the end of the Danelaw throughout parts of England.

It should be noted that though William the Conqueror replaced the Anglo-Norse with a new Norman yoke, the Normans were Vikings… sort of. William's ancestors had been raiding the northwest areas of the Frankish Empire so much that Charles III ceded this territory to William's ancestor, Rollo, in 911 CE. So, one might even argue that although the Anglo-Norse were replaced, the law of the Danes would be followed for centuries to come…

To read a very recent Smithsonian Magazine article looking at the buried Viking legacy in the Danelaw, click here.

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