1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Danelagh

DANELAGH, the name given to those districts in the north and north-east of England which were settled by Danes and other Scandinavian invaders during the period of the Viking invasions. The real settlement of England by Danes began in the year 866 with the appearance of a large army in East Anglia, which turned north in the following year. The Danes captured York and overthrew the Northumbrian kingdom, setting up a puppet king of their own. They encamped in Nottingham in 868, and Northern Mercia was soon in their hands; in 870 Edmund, king of the East Anglians, fell before them. During the next few years they maintained their hold on Mercia, and we have at this time coins minted in London with the inscription “Alfdene rex,” the name of the Danish leader. In the winter of 874–875 they advanced as far north as the Tyne, and at the same time Cambridge was occupied. In the meantime the great struggle with Alfred the Great was being carried on. This was terminated by the peace of Wedmore in 878, when the Danes withdrew from Wessex and settled finally in East Anglia under their king Guthrum. This peace was finally and definitely ratified in the document known as the peace of Alfred and Guthrum, which is probably to be referred to the year 880. The peace determined the boundary of Guthrum’s East Anglian kingdom. According to the terms of the agreement the boundary was to run along the Thames estuary to the mouth of the Lea (a few miles east of London), then up the Lea to its source near Leighton Buzzard, then due north to Bedford, then eastwards up the Ouse to Watling Street somewhere near Fenny or Stony Stratford. From this point the boundary is left undefined, perhaps because the kingdoms of Alfred and Guthrum ceased to be conterminous here, though if Northamptonshire was included in the kingdom of Guthrum, as seems likely, the boundary must be carried a few miles along Watling Street. Thus Northern Mercia, East Anglia, the greater part of Essex and Northumbria were handed over to the Danes and henceforth constitute the district known as the Danelagh.

The three chief divisions of the Danelagh were (1) the kingdom of Northumbria, (2) the kingdom of East Anglia, (3) the district of the Five (Danish) Boroughs—lands grouped round Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford and Lincoln, and forming a loose confederacy. Of the history of the two Danish kingdoms we know very little. Guthrum of East Anglia died in 890, and later we hear of a king Eric or Eohric who died in 902. Another Guthrum was ruling there in the days of Edward the Elder. The history of the Northumbrian kingdom is yet more obscure. After an interregnum consequent on the death of Healfdene the kingdom passed in 883 to one Guthred, son of Hardicanute, who ruled till 894, when his realm was taken over by King Alfred, though probably only under a very loose sovereignty. It may be noted here that Northumbria north of the Tyne, the old Bernicia, seems never to have passed under Danish authority and rule, but to have remained in independence until the general submission to Edward in 924.

More is known of the history of the five boroughs. From 907 onwards Edward the Elder, working together with Æthelred of Mercia and his wife, worked for the recovery of the Danelagh. In that year Chester was fortified. In 911–912 an advance on Essex and Hertfordshire was begun. In 914 Buckingham was fortified and the Danes of Bedfordshire submitted. In 917 Derby was the first of the five boroughs to fall, followed by Leicester a few months later. In the same year after a keen struggle all the Danes belonging to the “borough” of Northampton, as far north as the Welland (i.e. the border of modern Northamptonshire), submitted to Edward and at the same time Colchester was fortified; a large portion of Essex submitted and the whole of the East Anglian Danes came in. Stamford was the next to yield, soon followed by Nottingham, and in 920 there was a general submission on the part of the Danes and the reconquest of the Danelagh was now complete.

Though the independent occupation of the Danelagh by Viking invaders did not last for more than fifty years at the outside, the Danes left lasting marks of their presence in these territories.

The divisions of the land are foreign not native. The grouping of shires round a county town as distinct from the old national shires is probably of Scandinavian origin, and so certainly is the division of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire into “ridings.” In Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, part of Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutlandshire (of later formation) and Yorkshire we have the counties divided into “wapentakes” instead of “hundreds,” again a mark of Danish influence.

When we turn to the social divisions we find in Domesday and other documents classes of society in these districts bearing purely Norse names, dreng, karl, karlman, bonde, thrall, lysing, hold; in the system of taxation we have an assessment by carucates and not by hides and virgates, and the duodecimal rather than the decimal system of reckoning.

The highly developed Scandinavian legal system has also left abundant traces in this district. We may mention specially the institution of the “lawmen,” whom we find as a judicial body in several of the towns in or near the Danelagh. They are found at Cambridge, Stamford, Lincoln, York and Chester. There can be no doubt that these “lawmen,” who can be shown to form a close parallel to and indeed the ultimate source of our jury, were of Scandinavian origin. Many other legal terms can be definitely traced to Scandinavian sources, and they are first found in use in the district of the Danelagh.

The whole of the place nomenclature of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Northern Northamptonshire is Scandinavian rather than native English, and in the remaining districts of the Danelagh a goodly proportion of Danish place-names may be found. Their influence is also evident in the dialects spoken in these districts to the present day. It is probable that until the end of the 10th century Scandinavian dialects were almost the sole language spoken in the district of the Danelagh, and when English triumphed, after an intermediate bilingual state, large numbers of words were adopted from the earlier Scandinavian speech.

See The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, edited by Earle and Plummer (Oxford, 1892–1899); J. C. H. R. Steenstrup, Normannerne (4 vols., 1876–1882); and A. Bugge, Vikingerne (2 vols.).  (A. Mw.)