Tag Archives: Wiltshire Folk Tales

Vikings in Suffolk – part 1: who do they think they are?

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I know, it’s been ages since my last post – a legacy of mad hecticness in my other life as a museum curator that has lasted from June last year until now! But, celebrating the 1st anniversary of the publication of the book (well, nearly), off we go again! And back, eventually, to Hadleigh, from where the first photo comes, and where I went to school as a child, living as I did a few miles away in Lower Layham.

I visited the new Vikings exhibition at the British Museum this week, and although the exhibition itself wasn’t all that exciting, it did set me thinking about how we think about Anglo Saxons and Vikings. A slightly depressing 20 years ago this autumn I started an MA in Medieval Studies: the Early Medieval World 400-1100 at York, so you can see that I am a bit keen on this period, and have been for a very long time… Feeling old! But it was a treat to go back to those roots when looking at the Viking material in the exhibition, so I’ll be posting a few blogs about this topic over the next week or so.

There are two stories in Suffolk Folk Tales that directly involve Vikings: King Edmund and The Legend of the Holy Well. In both stories I hope I have painted an ambiguous picture of the Northmen. Certainly characters like Ivar the Boneless and his brothers Hubba and Halfdan are vicious and bent on revenge, but they have come to avenge the great wrong they believe Edmund has done to their father Ragnar Lothbrok. But in fact, in the story, Edmund welcomed and befriended the lost Viking, and their shared culture allows Ragnar to slip into life at Edmund’s East Anglian court with ease. In the Holy Well story things are more complex. The early 19th century poem on which this story is based is itself based on a real battle at Nacton, near Ipswich, in the year 1010 between Ulfketel the Earl of East Anglia, and Thorkill the Tall, a Swedish Jomsviking. This was at the time at Sweyn Forkbeard was making a play for the English throne – on which more in the next blog! – but the names of the protagonists give it away. Thorkill was from Scandinavia, but Ulfketel is a Scandinavian name. Was he a Viking too? And, by the 11th century, after a century of intermarrying among the nobility – and likely below as well! – could you tell who was who, even if you wanted to?

Viking settlement in East Anglia begins after Edmund’s death in 869, in theory. But in fact it was another Englishman – the West Saxon King Alfred – who starts it in earnest. After subjugating Northumbria (867), East Anglia (869) and Mercia (877-9) Wessex was the next prize on the Great Heathen Army’s list, but, so the story goes, Alfred the Great rose up and defeated the Dane, Guthram at the Battle of Edington in 878 and Guthram, defeated, became a Christian. Triumph to the Saxons! And if you’d like to read that story, then check out my other Folk Tales collection, Wiltshire Folk Tales. Triumph to the English? Well, yes and no, as my (Scottish) Grandad would say.

What happened to Guthram after that? It’s a Suffolk story, after all. Guthram, by becoming a Christian with the nice new English name Athelstan, was now Alfred’s ally. They divided up their joint spoils between them, Guthram taking East Anglia, Essex and Eastern Mercia. Guthram seems to have taken his oaths seriously (this time!) and lived and ruled in the region, dying in 890 and being buried in what was presumably a royal vill, Hadleigh. Interesting aside – the Hadleigh Historical Society say in their timeline that Guthram killed Edmund. If true, it would an ironic full circle, given how much Alfred admired Edmund…

In the Vikings exhibition there is one really shocking thing (well, apart from some of the way the exhibition is designed, but that’s another story!). By the longship there is an assemblage of skeletons, heads separated from bodies, clearly hacked about – one hand has been cut through as the man was resisting even as his head was cut off. Here we are in a Viking exhibition. Clearly this is an atrocity by Vikings against the innocent English, isn’t it? Well, no. This was war. These men’s DNA has been traced back to Scandinavia. They are Vikings. Raiders? Warriors attacking from the Danelaw during wars between Alfred’s son Edmund the Elder and the Vikings over Mercian land? We can’t know. But it illustrates that there wasn’t a hair between the English and the Vikings – both were warrior cultures, keen to defend their own self-interest.

I’ll be blogging next time about the remarkable woman who wrote the poem that inspired the Legend of the Holy Well, and also Ulfketel and Thorkill, and about Sweyn Forkbeard and Edmund’s revenge, hopefully providing a small window into a time that must have been unsettling and difficult for the ordinary folk who lived in East Anglia – whether English or Viking.

Images: © Kirsty Hartsiotis

1. St Edmund’s head held by the wolf – a bench-end in St Mary’s

2. St Mary’s Church, Hadleigh: Guthram was buried in an earlier church probably on this site

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