The Danelaw: is the ‘realm’ of the Vikings in Anglo-Saxon-era England a place or an idea?

The Danelaw is a term used to describe both a region under Danish law and a physical place – but which is most accurate? Dr Ben Raffield of the University of Uppsala unpicks the myths surrounding this Viking ‘realm’ in England…

A sword/hammer type coin from the Danelaw

Today, the ‘Danelaw’ is a term used to refer to the area controlled by the Vikings encompassing the north and east of England, between the ninth and 11th centuries, but this hasn’t always been the case. Speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, Dr Ben Raffield explained what the Danelaw really was and what this meant for the Danes and Anglo-Saxons living on either side of its ‘boundary’.

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What do we mean by the term Danelaw?

The modern understanding of this term is that it’s an area of eastern and northern England, including York, East Anglia and the Midlands, that was conquered and settled by Scandinavian groups during the late ninth century.

It’s a term that has been used to define this area culturally since the 10th century, when the English king Edgar decreed that the Danes living in England could exercise their rights according to their own legal frameworks, unlike those living under English law.

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Later in the 11th century, this appears as the written term Dena lage, meaning “areas under Danish law”. But by the 12th century, it becomes an almost geopolitical term in that the Danelaw is perceived more generally as the northern and eastern part of England, which exists in contrast to Wessex and English Mercia in the south and west.

Over the course of a couple of centuries, what was originally a descriptive term used to describe a cultural and legal differentiation in England morphs into one used to denote a geographical place. This makes it quite difficult to define what the Danelaw actually is. Perhaps instead we should say that it’s a concept that reflects different ideas held by different people at different times.

How many people came to the Danelaw from Scandinavia?

The scale of Scandinavian invasions and settlements has been much debated. In the latter part of the 20th century, it was suggested that the so-called Viking Great Army, which established the first settlements during the late ninth century, might have numbered a few hundred people. But more recently, this idea has changed radically. We now mostly agree that this group comprised at least a low thousand people, which was a sizeable force.

There were also raiding fleets that continued to show up even in the 10th century, and they were clearly in dialogue with and living among already settled populations. In a recent study of the early settlement population, Jane Kershaw and Ellen Røyrvik have come up with a much more realistic estimate of 20,000 to 35,000 people arriving in core Danelaw counties – Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Suffolk and Norfolk – over the course of several generations.

But areas outside of this region, such as Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, and Cambridgeshire, were also being settled, so we could probably add more to that estimate. Ultimately it is very hard to tell, but it was probably a much larger settlement than we might have previously estimated.

Was there ever a formal border between the Danelaw and the early English kingdoms?

There was never anything physical like Hadrian’s Wall or Offa’s Dyke, but in the period following the Great Army’s settlement in the 870s there was a treaty agreed between Alfred the Great and Guthrum (one of the leading commanders of the Great Army and later king of East Anglia), which contained a description of their territory perimeters.

This boundary between them ran along the River Thames as far as the mouth of the River Lea, then up the Lea to its source, and from there along a straight line to Bedford and finally down the River Ouse to Watling Street. What this seems to suggest is that there was at least some attempt to establish a formal boundary between Guthrum’s kingdom and Alfred’s.

I don’t think this was necessarily a border, but more likely a frontier zone that people were free to move across. Decades after this treaty was agreed, Scandinavian elites were selling land in what is Bedfordshire back to the English kings, which implies that at some point was a movement of this boundary. It was certainly permeable and fluid.

Could people move in and out of the Danelaw?

As far as I can tell, there were no active attempts to stop people moving across between the Danelaw and the rest of Anglo-Saxon England. I presume people, at least regionally and locally, would have traded, so it’s likely there was at least some movement.

Even during periods where there was outright conflict between Viking raiding groups and the English kingdoms, there was nothing to prevent individuals from engaging in trade and commerce.

For example, in the 890s, we know that a Norwegian merchant named Ohthere visited the court of King Alfred and was able to hold an audience with him. There didn’t seem to be any kind of notion that people of Scandinavian origin were hostile.

Of course, at times, tension or violence would flare up between different polities, especially as the geopolitical map began to shift in the late ninth century and early 10th century. But for the average person, I don’t think much would have changed over time.

What was life like for Danes and Anglo-Saxons in the Danelaw?

It’s difficult to not generalise about the interaction between Scandinavian settlers and English populations. We know that the period when the Great Army was active in England, during the 860s and 870s, was a violent time. You might assume that Viking groups continued to exercise an element of coercive power as they were settling the landscape, but it’s important to remember that this process was taking place over generations.

Even though they may have started with a sense of opposition to each other, these communities would have eventually come together and coalesced. Through artefacts from the time, we see the creation of a more hybridised material culture that incorporates both Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon influences.

But, again, it’s important to stress that we have absolutely no idea how these processes played out. The limited information we get from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t tell us much about what’s happening in eastern and northern England, and there are very few other sources we can rely on to get a picture of the region during that time.

Did the Danelaw feel like a foreign place?

One thing scholars have largely drawn attention to is the relatively quick process of acculturation, which is the idea that incoming settlers would have quickly adopted English traditions, belief systems and assimilated into the structures of society.

But if you look past this then there are still going to be differences between these groups, such as language. Even though English and Norse dialects may have been mutually intelligible to some degree, these still would have been recognisably different languages with different dialects. You would probably notice that more than anything visual.

Should we still use the term Danelaw?

I think it’s important highlight the ambiguities associated with this term. If nothing else, for the point of being able to write concisely, these terms are incredibly useful. When you say the word Danelaw you generally have an idea what this region was and what events took place within its boundaries, even if the various nuances of the term have been heavily glossed over and homogenised.

It’s important to note that this term clearly did mean something to people in the medieval period. So even if it’s a term that we use just to highlight legal and cultural differentiation in different parts of England, I think there’s good reasons to retain that use.

Maybe we just have to be aware of these uncertainties and explain exactly what we mean when we when we use this term. Or, rather than thinking solely about the Danelaw, perhaps we need to think more about the many fluid and dynamic processes of social, political, and cultural change taking place at regional and local levels within communities. That’s where we can start to understand what’s happening during this period.

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Dr Ben Raffield is a researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History. He was speaking to Dr David Musgrove on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast: