Danelaw: When Vikings Ruled England

in Jan 13, 2023

In 865 a large Viking army invaded England, and it came to stay.

The Viking age was underway for almost one hundred years by then, having started - according to most historians - with the pillage of the Christian monastery of St Cuthbert, in Lindisfarne, 8 June 793.

The attack on Lindisfarne was by no means the first Viking raid on England, only the most famous one. It marked the beginning of a period in which Viking raids became more and more frequent in England. The Vikings would terrorize the Anglo-Saxons, steal riches and take slaves - but most of the time they returned home immediately afterwards. This was about to change with the coming of "Great Heathen Army".

Ferdinand Leeke, “Viking Raid”, 1901

The roots of the most massive invasion of England can be traced back to the tragic demise of the legendary king Ragnar Lothbrok

According to the Norse sagas, the legendary Viking warrior and king Ragnar Lothbrok met his end in a pit of snakes, thrown into the venomous depths by King Ælla of Northumbria. Ragnar sons swore vengeance and began assembling an army to invade England. Revenge was, however not the only reason for the invasion. During the raids in England the Vikings eventually learned a single fact that would spell doom for the common anglo-saxon peasant: the land in England was much better for farming than back in the north.

In 865, legendary warriors Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless, sons of the great Ragnar Lothbrok, amassed a large army ready for an invasion, an army immortalized in history as "Great Heathen Army".

No more looting and running: the Great Heathen Army planned to make England their new home.

Nice land, I will take it! (valley near Sedbergh in Yorkshire Dales National Park)

As one can imagine it, this could be potentially painful for the Anglo-Saxons who already lived in England.

When the Great Heathen Army landed in East Anglia in 865, England was divided into four kingdoms - Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria and East Anglia. The king of East Anglia quickly struck a deal with the invaders, providing them horses for their campaign in return for peace. Within a couple of years York, the capital of Northumbria had fallen to the Vikings and King Ælla had met a gruesome end. A puppet ruler was placed in charge and the Viking army marched on in search of more territory.

Over several years, the Anglo-Saxons fought battles against the Great Heathen Army. By 874, most Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, particularly those in the North and West of England, had fallen to the Vikings. All except for Wessex, in the South West, which was ruled over by Alfred the Great.

In 874 the Great Heathen Army split in two, with Halfdan leading one band north, to Northumbria and eventually Scotland.

The second group was led by Ivar the Boneless who, after his death in 874, was succeeded by the Guthrum the Old, who finished the campaign against Mercia. This group established a base at Cambridge for the winter of 874–875 and continued to attack Wessex. Alfred the Great fought and won many battles against the Vikings, but he was never able to push the Vikings out of England. After many years of fighting, Alfred claimed a decisive victory against Guthrum at the Battle of Edington in 878, which led to a peace agreement between the two known as the Treaty of Wedmore.

As part of the agreement, Guthrum was forced to accept baptism, with Alfred being declared his godfather. Guthrum’s forces were also required to leave the kingdom of Wessex. Not long later did Guthrum and Alfred come to another agreement. The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum looked to set out a lasting peace between the two, defining the boundaries of their territories and agreeing on peaceful trade.

England was to be divided with an imaginary line running from Chester in the North-West to London in the South East. More treaties followed, such as the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, and the two parties agreed that the Anglo-Saxons would live South-East of the line and the Vikings would live North-West of it. Further agreements also covered trade and the weregild value of their people. Weregild was a monetary value established for a person's life, to be paid as a fine or as compensatory damages to the person's family if that person was killed or injured by another, and that made clear for everyone that further violence was already expected in the near future.

England and Wales at the time of the Treaty of Chippenham, in 878

The area where the Vikings resided, North-West of the divide, was called the Danelaw. The people who lived in this area were ruled by the laws of the Danes (the Vikings) - hence the name Danelaw.

Whilst the Vikings did not intensively settle the entirety of this large area, five towns situated in the east of Danelaw became particularly important – Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford. These places started as the burhs (fortified settlements) of five Danish armies who had settled in the area. The towns would become known as the Five Boroughs and a different Viking Jarl ruled each of them. Whilst the boroughs operated independently, the Viking elite in Jorvik (York) would have held ultimate overall sway over them.

For the next 80 years, the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons lived side-by-side in England trading, intermingling and assimilating with each other, planting firm roots on England. Many Scandinavian settlements ended with the suffix “–by” such as Grimsby and Derby, which came from Old Norse meaning a farmstead or village. Other common Viking place names ended in “–thorpe” such as Scunthorpe, meaning ‘a new village’, whilst those ending in “–thwaite” meant ‘a meadow’ and those ending in “–dale” ‘a valley’.

Viking festival at York 2017

As time went on, conflicts began to escalate between the Vikings and their neighbors once more. Alfred used the peace to built his forces up and reinforce his land with multiple forts.

Over the years that followed, there were still many battles between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons. After King Alfred died, his descendants, such as King Edward (Alfred's son) and King Athelstan (Alfred's grandson), gradually captured more and more land back from the Vikings.

In 954 AD, the last Viking King, Eric Bloodaxe, was forced to flee from Jorvik. This is considered to be the end of Viking rule in England and the end of the Danelaw.

Although Danelaw was no more in England, the Vikings were far from done on English soil. They retreated, consolidated and successfully conquered the country in the early 11th century. In 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard became the first Danish King of England. His son, Cnut the Great, held the throne until he died in 1035. The Viking presence in England was finally ended in 1066 when an English army under King Harold defeated the last great Viking king, Harald Hardrada of Norway, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York, but that is a topic for the future.

Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1870, by Peter Nicolai Arbo




Abels, Richard. 1998. Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN 0-582-04047-7.

Biddulph, Joseph. 2003. Old Danish of the Old Danelaw. Pontypridd, ISBN 978-1-897999-48-6.

Forte, Angello. 2005. Viking Empires. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521829925.

Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. ISBN-10 0859915131

Jesse Byock. 2005. Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. 1st. edition. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN-13 978-0-140-44755-2

Rydberg, Viktor. 1828-1895. Teutonic Mythology. Translated by Anderson, Rasmus Björn, 1846-1936. ISBN-13‎ 978-1373142801

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