A Brief History Of The Danish Vikings And Of The Danelaw

The Viking Age in Denmark represented an eventful period of time that saw the rise of the Danish Vikings as an important military force in northwestern Europe. So it is that during the Early Middle Ages the Danish Vikings voyaged across the North Sea to Britain and established the Danelaw, a historical regional in eastern Britain where the laws of the Scandinavian settlers held sway over those of the Anglo-Saxons during the 9th century.

The Viking Age officially started in the late 8th century, specifically in the year 793, when a group of Norwegian Vikings attacked the Catholic abbey of Lindisfarne, located less than one mile off the northeastern coast of the Kingdom of Northumbria (however, a recent research suggested that it actually commenced in Ribe, Denmark approximately 70 years earlier). Since then, both the Norwegian and the Danish Vikings recurrently raided Britain in the upcoming three centuries. The Norse raided parts of Ireland, Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, and the Isle of Man, while the Danes attacked the Anglian kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia.

King Cnut the Great’s domains, c. 1028, in red. Vassals are denoted in orange, with other allied states in yellow. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The Danelaw was established as a result of King Alfred the Great’s efforts to avoid further Viking raids in the Anglian Kingdom of Wessex. He proceeded by ceding lands to the Danes who then engaged primarily in trade and built settlements. It is also known that the Danelaw consisted of fifteen shires. The territorial extent of the Danelaw comprised as such the modern day shires of York, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northampton, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford, Middlesex, and Buckingham.

Britain in 886, at the time of the Danish conquest. The Danelaw is highlighted in purple on the map. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In Danish, the Danelaw is known as ‘Danelagen’ and in Old English as ‘Dena lagu’, being described in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, a collection of annals recounting the history of the Anglo-Saxons which was written during the late part of the 9th century.

The term ‘Danelaw’ can also denote, aside from its geographical meaning, a set of terms and laws as defined in several treaties between the King of the West Saxons during the 9th century, namely Alfred the Great, and the Danish war lord, Guthrum. After nearly a decade from the Battle of Edington (one of the most significant battles of the Viking period which took place in 878), the Danish Vikings under Guthrum were given land by Alfred the Great and the boundaries of the Danelaw were drawn.

Between the 9th and 11th centuries, the Danish Vikings were also given the Danegeld (literally meaning ‘The Danish tax’) as a tribute for not waging war in either England or Francia. However, the term ‘Danegeld’ appears only starting from the 20th century in literary works, while the documents of the High Middle Ages describe the tax paid to the Danish Vikings as either ‘geld’ or ‘gafol’.

It was also the Danish Vikings and the Norwegian Vikings that gave the name of an important region situated in northern France, namely Normandy (stemming from the Old French word ‘normanz’, referring to ‘Northmen’).

Rollo (or Göngu Hrólfr, as he was known in Old Norse) was a Norse chieftain who raided present-day France during the late 9th century. In the early 10th century he alongside his men were given land by the then King of Western Francia, Charles III the Simple, in exchange for their protection against subsequent incursions of other Viking war waging bands. Thus, Rollo became the Count of Rouen (his reign lasting from 911 to 927), and far more important than that, the ancestor of William the Conqueror who had subsequently conquered England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Aside from contemporary northern France and eastern England, the Danes were also interested in settling parts of Wales and Ireland. In Ireland, the Danish Vikings were referred to as ‘Dubhgall’ and came to settle there after the Norwegian Vikings did (who were referred to as ‘Fingall’). Eventually, centuries of cohabitation between the Norsemen and the local Gaels made possible the rise of the Norse-Gaels as the predominant military and political force in early medieval Ireland and Scotland.

Aside from being renowned warriors, the Danish Vikings were also skilled blacksmiths, excellent seafarers, good traders and are also reputed for having built the ring-shaped fortresses in Denmark. These fortifications are believed to have been used as military bases for the invasion of England in the 11th century, being associated with either King Sweyn Forkbeard or King Harald Bluetooth. Another theory has it that they were used as trading posts that handled goods in and outside Scandinavia.

The historical legacy of the Danish Vikings is still noticeable today in many aspects of the English culture, from the English language itself (which was significantly influenced by Old Norse, the mother tongue of all modern North Germanic languages), to place names, genetics, and even the sarcastic humour (stated by the Danish ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mr Claus Grube). Thus, there is clearly a common cultural heritage between the English and the Danes which dates back to more than one thousand years.

Below you can watch a short video about the Danes celebrating 1,000 years from the conquest of London which took place in 1013:

Documentation sources and external links:

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18 Responses to A Brief History Of The Danish Vikings And Of The Danelaw

  1. Clifford Johnston says:

    Excellent article!

  2. Ben says:

    Why hasn’t Iceland and Greenland been cited?

  3. Ko Tin Moe says:

    I like this page.

  4. Dan says:

    Scotland didn’t exist in 886 this was before the Irish invasion.

  5. Pål påt says:

    Viking times neither did not end until the black death killed between 60 – 80% of Norwegians. The Normandy army was mainly the same army that retreated after Haardrades death in a freak accident at York, no big battle took place there at those times. They instead brought the army and ships to support next in line, Wilhelm. Also the Norwegian crusades liberating Jerusalem from muslims was done in the viking style.

    • The best says:

      No… the Norman army was in the process of invading when Hardrada’s forces were stamped out at Stamford Bridge. The vikings that survived returned to Norway in a few ships while the Normans were entering England from the South are roughly the same time. The battles were like a month away from each other at different ends of England.

      • Victor Rouă says:

        Exactly, ‘The best’ is right. The Battle of Stamford Bridge and the Battle of Hastings occurred in a very short amount of time one from another, one month difference, between October and November 1066 if I’m not mistaken. That being said, the Black Death occurred during the High Middle Ages, a period in medieval European historiography prior to which the Viking Age already concluded. It is widely agreed by consensus among many historians that the Viking Age ended along with the battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings. I hope this reply will find both of you well and safe. Also, thank you very much for your readership! 🙂

  6. It is highly contestable that Danish in Ireland were referred to as Dubhgall (Dubgail) and Norwegians Fingall (and Fingail), since they themselves did not identify with these national titles. These people were fiercely regional i.e. identified with the area they came from (Rogaland / Mæri / Vik etc), they saw all “danish” speakers as Danes, whether they came from what is now Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Faeroe islands or Norway. — At a certain time in Irish history South Uist and North Uist feuded fiercely. The Danes living in Ireland became embroiled on both sides depending on their allegiances. Those that resided in Dublin may have been referred to as Dubgails whereas those who sided with North-Uist which then was led by Aed Finn may have been referred to as Finngails. This is much more likely than the much repeated dogma that is held in this article.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Very interesting. Thank you very much Magnus for this insightful comment. Can you please reference some sources for further reading when you have time in this thread? I would very much appreciate that. 🙂

  7. Geary says:

    Good article however some errors eg Leicestershire was also part of the Danelaw with Leicester being 1 of the 5 Boroughs.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Thank you very much, Geary. I will also add Leicestershire, but prior to that I would like to do my research and see if it was indeed incorporated within the Danelaw. I hope this reply finds you well. 🙂

  8. adelaidde says:

    very good

  9. SAm Nite says:

    The Culture? of the Vikings? Rape,pillage,murder,? Destroying.centers with wealth, instead of keeping them intact for trade or taxation. It was truly a barbarous age. It was a Dark Age. The Great Viking Army was a few thousand men. Compared to the Classical Age it was a laughably backward time.

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