Recovering The Danelaw

For fifty years after the Treaty of Wedmore, The Danelaw was an important and separate part of England. In some ways it was a ‘country’ in its own right, where Scandinavian laws, customs, culture and, to some extent language, prevailed, though it was perhaps never a true political entity. While Vikings were prepared to be led by respected warriors in battle, they were not noted for submitting readily to overlordship or rule of any kind in a peace-time context. They cherished the rights of the individual freeman and it would not have been easy to exert any tight administrative control or rule over them.

The English rulers of Wessex, though, were trying to achieve something which had never properly been achieved before: sovereignty over the whole of a united England. This policy was pursued by the, Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred the Great, then by his son Edward. The Danelaw was gradually brought back under English rule.

By 918 the part of The Danelaw south of the Humber had been reconquered. The only independent Viking province left in Scandinavian hands was the kingdom of York (Jorvik). In 920 the Northumbrians and the Scots submitted to Edward. Scandinavian power in the north collapsed after the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, where Edward’s successor, Aethelstan, won a hard-fought victory over a combined Norse-Celtic force. But much of the Yorkshire part of The Danelaw continued to be a Viking ‘thorn in the side’ of the English rulers until Erik Bloodaxe was expelled from York in 954. Even then, this region was so ‘Scandinavianised’ that the English rulers could never be certain of the population’s loyalty when further Viking invasions occurred in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.

Aethelred, the then English king ordered the massacre of all ‘Danish’ men in The Danelaw in 1002. It is difficult to see how, by this time, it would be possible to identify those of Scandianavian extraction, after so many generations of intermingling of Vikings and English and with families who had lived in the country for a long time. Nevertheless, many people did lose their lives, including the sister and brother-in-law of Svein Forkbeard. This prompted another series of Viking raids, led by Svein Forkbeard, who had an eye on the English throne. He plundered large areas of south and east England and extracted huge amounts of Danegeld.

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