Danelaw (/ˈdeɪnˌlɔː/, also known as the Danelagh; Old
English: Dena lagu; Danish: Danelagen), as recorded in the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is a historical name given to the part of
England in which the laws of the Danes held sway and dominated
those of the Anglo-Saxons.
Danelaw contrasts West Saxon law and
Mercian law. The term is first recorded in the early eleventh century
as Dena lage.
Modern historians have extended the term to a geographical
designation. The areas that constituted the
Danelaw lie in northern
and eastern England.
Danelaw originated from the
Viking expansion of the 9th century
AD, although the term was not used to describe a geographic area until
the 11th century AD. With the increase in population and productivity
Viking warriors, having sought treasure and glory in
the nearby British Isles, "proceeded to plough and support
themselves", in the words of the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year
Danelaw can describe the set of legal terms and definitions created in
the treaties between the West-Saxon king, Alfred the Great, and the
Danish warlord, Guthrum, written following Guthrum's defeat at the
Battle of Edington
Battle of Edington in 878.
In 886, the Treaty of Alfred and
Guthrum was formalised, defining the
boundaries of their kingdoms, with provisions for peaceful relations
between the English and the Vikings. The language spoken in England
was also affected by this clash of cultures with the emergence of
Danelaw roughly comprised 14 shires: York, Nottingham, Derby,
Lincoln, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northampton, Huntingdon,
Middlesex and Buckingham.
2 Establishment of Danish self-rule
3 Cnut and his successors
4 Danish–Norwegian conflict in the North Sea
7 Legal concepts
9 Genetic heritage
11 See also
13 Further reading
14 External links
England showing the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Danish districts
– from Cassell's History of England, Vol. I – anonymous author and
From around 800, there had been waves of Danish raids on the
coastlines of the British Isles. In 865, instead of raiding, the Danes
landed a large army in East Anglia, with the intention of conquering
the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. The armies of various Danish
leaders had come together to provide one combined force under a
leadership that included
Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless, the
sons of the legendary
Viking leader Ragnar Lodbrok. The combined
army was described in the annals as the Great Heathen Army. After
making peace with the local East Anglian king in return for horses,
Great Heathen Army
Great Heathen Army moved north. In 867, they captured Northumbria
and its capital, York, defeating both the recently deposed King
Osberht of Northumbria
Osberht of Northumbria and the usurper Ælla of Northumbria. The Danes
then placed an Englishman, Ecgberht I of Northumbria, on the throne of
Northumbria as a puppet ruler.
Æthelred of Wessex
Æthelred of Wessex and his brother, Alfred, led their army
against the Danes at Nottingham, but the Danes refused to leave their
Burgred of Mercia
Burgred of Mercia then negotiated peace with
Ivar, with the Danes keeping
Nottingham in exchange for leaving the
rest of Mercia alone.
Under Ivar the Boneless, the Danes continued their invasion in 869 by
defeating King Edmund of
East Anglia at
Hoxne and conquering East
Anglia. Once again, the brothers Æthelred and Alfred attempted to
stop Ivar by attacking the Danes at Reading. They were repelled with
heavy losses. The Danes pursued, and on 7 January 871, Æthelred and
Alfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown. The Danes
retreated to Basing (in Hampshire), where Æthelred attacked and was,
in turn, defeated. Ivar was able to follow up this victory with
another in March at Meretum (now Marton, Wiltshire).
On 23 April 871, King Æthelred died and Alfred succeeded him as King
of Wessex. His army was weak and he was forced to pay tribute to Ivar
in order to make peace with the Danes. During this peace, the Danes
turned to the north and attacked Mercia, a campaign that lasted until
874. Both the Danish leader Ivar and the Mercian leader Burgred died
during this campaign. Ivar was succeeded by Guthrum, who finished the
campaign against Mercia. In ten years, the Danes had gained control
over East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia, leaving just Wessex
Guthrum and the Danes brokered peace with Wessex in 876, when they
captured the fortresses of Wareham and Exeter. Alfred laid siege to
the Danes, who were forced to surrender after reinforcements were lost
in a storm. Two years later,
Guthrum again attacked Alfred, surprising
him by attacking his forces wintering in Chippenham. King Alfred was
saved when the Danish army coming from his rear was destroyed by
inferior forces at the Battle of Cynuit. The modern location
of Cynuit is disputed but suggestions include Countisbury Hill, near
Lynmouth, Devon, or Kenwith Castle, Bideford, Devon, or Cannington,
near Bridgwater, Somerset. Alfred was forced into hiding for a
time, before returning in the spring of 878 to gather an army and
Guthrum at Edington. The Danes were defeated and retreated to
Chippenham, where King Alfred laid siege and soon forced them to
surrender. As a term of surrender, King Alfred demanded that Guthrum
be baptised a Christian; King Alfred served as his godfather.
Establishment of Danish self-rule
Edward the Elder
Edward the Elder and his sister, Æthelflæd, the Lady of the
Mercians, conquered Danish territories in the Midlands and East Anglia
in a series of campaigns in the 910s, and some Danish jarls who
submitted were allowed to keep their lands.
Viking rule ended when
Eric Bloodaxe was driven out of Northumbria in 954.
The reasons for the waves of immigration were complex and bound to the
political situation in
Scandinavia at that time; moreover, they
Viking settlers were also establishing their presence in
the Hebrides, Orkney, the Faroe Islands, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland,
France (Normandy), the Balticum,
Ukraine (see Kievan
Cnut and his successors
Cnut the Great's domains
The Danes did not give up their designs on England. From 1016 to 1035,
Cnut the Great
Cnut the Great ruled over a unified English kingdom, itself the
product of a resurgent Wessex, as part of his North Sea Empire,
together with Denmark,
Norway and part of Sweden. Cnut was succeeded
England on his death by his son Harold Harefoot, until he died in
1040, after which another of Cnut's sons, Harthacnut, took the throne.
Harthacnut was already on the Danish throne, this reunited the
North Sea Empire.
Harthacnut lived only another two years, and from
his death in 1042 until 1066 the monarchy reverted to the English line
in the form of Edward the Confessor.
Edward died in January 1066 without an obvious successor, and an
English nobleman, Harold Godwinson, took the throne. In the autumn of
that same year, two rival claimants to the throne led invasions of
England in short succession. First,
Harald Hardrada of
York in September, but was defeated by Harold at the Battle of
Stamford Bridge, in Yorkshire. Then, three weeks later, William of
Normandy defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings, in
Sussex and in
December he accepted the submission of Edgar the Ætheling, last in
the line of Anglo-Saxon kings, at Berkhamsted.
Danelaw appeared in legislation as late as the early 12th century
with the Leges Henrici Primi, where it is referred to as one of the
laws together with those of Wessex and Mercia into which
Danish–Norwegian conflict in the North Sea
In the 11th century, when King Magnus I had freed
Norway from Cnut the
Great, the terms of the peace treaty provided that the first of the
two kings Magnus (Norway) and
Harthacnut (Denmark) to die would leave
their dominion as an inheritance to the other. When Edward the
Confessor ascended the throne of a united Dano-Saxon England, a Norse
army was raised from every Norwegian colony in the
British Isles and
England in support of Magnus', and after his death,
his brother Harald Hardrada's, claim to the English throne. On the
Harold Godwinson after the death of Edward the Confessor,
Hardrada invaded Northumbria with the support of Harold's brother
Tostig Godwinson, and was defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge,
three weeks before William I's victory at the Battle of Hastings.
800 − Waves of Danish assaults on the coastlines of the British
865 − Danish raiders first began to settle in England. Led by the
brothers Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless, they wintered in East Anglia,
where they demanded and received tribute in exchange for a temporary
peace. From there, they moved north and attacked Northumbria, which
was in the midst of a civil war between the deposed king Osberht and a
usurper Ælla. The Danes used the civil turmoil as an opportunity to
capture York, which they sacked and burned.
867 − Following the loss of York, Osberht and Ælla formed an
alliance against the Danes. They launched a counter-attack, but the
Danes killed both Osberht and Ælla and set up a puppet king on
Northumbrian throne. In response, King Æthelred of Wessex, along with
his brother Alfred marched against the Danes, who were positioned
behind fortifications in Nottingham, but were unable to draw them into
battle. In order to establish peace, King Burhred of Mercia ceded
Nottingham to the Danes in exchange for leaving the rest of Mercia
868 − Danes capture Nottingham
Ivar the Boneless
Ivar the Boneless returned and demanded tribute from King
Edmund of East Anglia.
870 − King Edmund refused,
Ivar the Boneless
Ivar the Boneless defeated and captured
him at Hoxne, adding
East Anglia to the area controlled by the
invading Danes. King Æthelred and Alfred attacked the Danes at
Reading, but were repulsed with heavy losses. The Danes pursued them.
871 − On 7 January, they made their stand at Ashdown (on what is the
Berkshire/North Wessex Downs now in Oxfordshire). Æthelred could not
be found at the start of battle, as he was busy praying in his tent,
so Alfred led the army into battle. Æthelred and Alfred defeated the
Danes, who counted among their losses five jarls (nobles). The Danes
retreated and set up fortifications at Basing (Basingstoke) in
Hampshire, a mere 14 miles (23 km) from Reading. Æthelred
attacked the Danish fortifications and was routed. Danes followed up
victory with another victory in March at Meretum (now Marton,
King Æthelred died on 23 April 871 and Alfred took the throne of
Wessex, but not before seriously considering abdicating the throne in
light of the desperate circumstances, which were further worsened by
the arrival in Reading of a second Danish army from Europe. For the
rest of the year Alfred concentrated on attacking with small bands
against isolated groups of Danes. He was moderately successful in this
endeavour and was able to score minor victories against the Danes, but
his army was on the verge of collapse. Alfred responded by paying off
the Danes in order for a promise of peace. During the peace, the Danes
turned north and attacked Mercia, which they finished off in short
order, and captured
London in the process. King Burgred of Mercia
fought in vain against the
Ivar the Boneless
Ivar the Boneless and his Danish invaders
for three years until 874, when he fled to Europe. During Ivar's
campaign against Mercia he died and was succeeded by
Guthrum the Old
as the main protagonist in the Danes' drive to conquer England.
Guthrum quickly defeated Burgred and placed a puppet on the throne of
Mercia. The Danes now controlled East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia,
with only Wessex continuing to resist.
875 − The Danes settled in Dorset, well inside of Alfred's Kingdom
of Wessex, but Alfred quickly made peace with them.
876 − The Danes broke the peace when they captured the fortress of
Wareham, followed by a similar capture of
Exeter in 877.
877 − Alfred laid siege, while the Danes waited for reinforcements
from Scandinavia. Unfortunately for the Danes, the fleet of
reinforcements encountered a storm and lost more than 100 ships, and
the Danes were forced to return to East Mercia in the north.
878 − In January,
Guthrum led an attack against Wessex that sought
to capture Alfred while he wintered in Chippenham. Another Danish army
landed in south Wales and moved south with the intent of intercepting
Alfred should he flee from Guthrum's forces. However, they stopped
during their march to capture a small fortress at Countisbury Hill,
held by a Wessex ealdorman named Odda. The Saxons, led by Odda,
attacked the Danes while they slept and defeated the superior Danish
forces, saving Alfred from being trapped between the two armies.
Alfred was forced to go into hiding for the rest of the winter and
spring of 878 in the
Somerset marshes in order to avoid the superior
Danish forces. In the spring, Alfred was able to gather an army and
Guthrum and the Danes at Edington. The Danes were defeated
and retreated to Chippenham, where the English pursued and laid siege
to Guthrum's forces. The Danes were unable to hold out without relief
and soon surrendered. Alfred demanded as a term of the surrender that
Guthrum become baptised as a Christian, which
Guthrum agreed to do,
with Alfred acting as his Godfather.
Guthrum was true to his word and
settled in East Anglia, at least for a while.
Guthrum attacked Kent, but was defeated by the English. This
led to the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, which established the
boundaries of the
Danelaw and allowed for Danish self-rule in the
Essex submits to Æthelwald.
903 − Æthelwald incites the East Anglian Danes into breaking the
peace. They ravage Mercia before winning a pyrrhic victory that saw
the death of Æthelwald and the Danish King Eohric; this allows Edward
the Elder to consolidate power.
911 − The English defeat the Danes at the Battle of Tettenhall. The
Northumbrians ravage Mercia but are trapped by Edward and forced to
917 − In return for peace and protection, the Kingdoms of
East Anglia accept
Edward the Elder
Edward the Elder as their suzerain overlord.
Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, takes the borough of Derby.
918 − The borough of Leicester submits peaceably to Æthelflæd's
rule. The people of York promise to accept her as their overlord, but
she dies before this could come to fruition. She is succeeded by her
brother, the Kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex united in the person of
919 − Norwegian
Vikings under King Ragnvald Sygtryggsson of Dublin
920 − Edward is accepted as father and lord by the King of the
Scots, by Rægnold, the sons of Eadulf, the English, Norwegians, Danes
and others all of whom dwell in Northumbria and the King and people of
the Strathclyde Welsh.
954 − King Eric is driven out of Northumbria, his death marking the
end of the prospect of a Northern
Viking Kingdom stretching from York
Dublin and the Isles.
Harald Hardrada lands with an army, hoping to take control of
York and the English crown. He is defeated and killed at the Battle of
Stamford Bridge. This event is often cited as the end of the Viking
era. The same year, William the Conqueror, himself a descendant of
Norwegian Vikings, successfully took the English throne and became the
first Norman king of England.
Sweyn II of Denmark
Sweyn II of Denmark lands with an army, in much the same way
as Harald Hardrada. He took control of York after defeating the Norman
garrison and inciting a local uprising. King William eventually
defeated his forces and devastated the region in the Harrying of the
1075 − One of Sweyn's sons, Knut, set sail for
England to support an
English rebellion, but it had been crushed before he arrived, so he
settled for plundering the city of York and surrounding area, before
1085 − Knut, now king, planned a major invasion against
the assembled fleet never sailed. There were no serious invasions or
England by the Danes after this.
See also: Five Boroughs of the Danelaw
The Five Boroughs and the English Midlands in the early 10th
The area occupied by the
Danelaw was roughly the area to the north of
a line drawn between
London and Chester, excluding the portion of
Northumbria to the east of the Pennines.
Five fortified towns became particularly important in the Danelaw:
Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford and Lincoln, broadly
delineating the area now called the East Midlands. These strongholds
became known as the Five Boroughs.
Borough derives from the Old
English word burh (cognate with German Burg, meaning castle), meaning
a fortified and walled enclosure containing several households,
anything from a large stockade to a fortified town. The meaning has
since developed further.
Danelaw was an important factor in the establishment of a civilian
peace in the neighbouring Anglo-Saxon and
Viking communities. It
established, for example, equivalences in areas of legal
contentiousness, such as the amount of reparation that should be
payable in wergild.
Many of the legalistic concepts were compatible; for example, the
Viking wapentake, the standard for land division in the Danelaw, was
effectively interchangeable with the hundred. The use of the execution
site and cemetery at Walkington Wold in east
Yorkshire suggests a
continuity of judicial practice.
Toponymy within the Southern Kingdom of Jorvik, showing the lasting
legacy of Danish settlement
The influence of this period of Scandinavian settlement can still be
seen in the North of
England and the East Midlands, and is
particularly evident in place-names: name endings such as -howe, -by
(meaning "village") or -thorp ("hamlet") having Norse origins. There
seems to be a remarkable number of Kirby/Kirkby names, some with
remains of Anglo-Saxon building indicating both a Norse origin and
early church building. Scandinavian names blended with the English
-ton give rise to typical hybrid place-names.
Old East Norse
Old East Norse and
Old English were still somewhat mutually
comprehensible. The contact between these languages in the Danelaw
caused the incorporation of many Norse words into the English
language, including the word law itself, sky and window, and the third
person pronouns they, them and their. Many
Old Norse words still
survive in the dialects of Northern England.
Four of the five boroughs became county towns—of the counties of
Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. However,
Stamford failed to gain such status—perhaps because of the nearby
autonomous territory of Rutland.
See also: Genetic history of the
British Isles and Scandinavian
migration to the United Kingdom
In 2000, the
BBC commissioned a genetic survey of the
British Isles by
a team from University College
London led by Professor David Goldstein
for its programme 'Blood of the Vikings'. It concluded that Norse
invaders settled sporadically throughout the
British Isles with a
particular concentration in certain areas, such as
Shetland. In this finding, the
Vikings refers to Norwegian Vikings
only, as the study did not set out to genetically distinguish
descendants of Danish
Vikings from descendants of Anglo-Saxon
settlers. That was decided on the basis that the latter two groups
originated from areas that overlap each other on the continental North
Sea coast (ranging from the
Jutland Peninsula to Belgium) and were
therefore deemed inconvenient or difficult to genetically
distinguish. A further genetic study in 2015 found some evidence
that, after the
Vikings began settling, the communities had lived side
by side and not intermingled for the first hundred years before going
on to become a homogenous genetic group, it also found no evidence
of the introduction of
Viking genes during the earlier raiding period
suggesting that the raiders did not participate in rape or at least no
children were produced from such actions.
Major archaeological sites that bear testimony to the
Danelaw are few.
The most famous is the site at York. Another
Danelaw site is the
cremation site at Heath Wood, Ingleby, Derbyshire.
Archaeological sites do not bear out the historically defined area as
being a real demographic or trade boundary. This could be due to
misallocation of the items and features on which this judgement is
based as being indicative of either Anglo-Saxon or Norse presence.
Otherwise, it could indicate that there was considerable population
movement between the areas, or simply that after the treaty was made,
it was ignored by one or both sides.
Thynghowe was an important
Danelaw meeting place, today located in
Sherwood Forest, in Nottinghamshire. The word "howe" often indicates a
prehistoric burial mound. Howe is derived from the
Old Norse word
Haugr meaning mound. The site's rediscovery was made by Lynda
Mallett, Stuart Reddish and John Wood. The site had vanished from
modern maps and was essentially lost to history until the local
history enthusiasts made their discoveries. Experts think the
rediscovered site, which lies amidst the old oaks of an area known as
the Birklands in Sherwood Forest, may also yield clues as to the
boundary of the ancient
Anglo Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and
English Heritage recently inspected the site and believes
it is a national rarity. Thynghowe was a place where people came
to resolve disputes and settle issues. It is a Norse word, although
the site may be older still, perhaps even from the Bronze Age.
List of generic forms in British place names
Subpoena ad testificandum
List of monarchs of Northumbria
Kingdom of Dublin
Kingdom of the Isles
English language in Northern England
^ M. Pons-Sanz (2007). Norse-derived Vocabulary in late Old English
Texts: Wulfstan's Works. A Case Study. Amsterdam: John Benjamins
Publishing Company. p. 71. ISBN 87-7674-196-6.
Old English word Dene 'Danes' usually refers to Scandinavians
of any kind; most of the invaders were indeed Danish (East Norse
speakers), but there were Norwegians (West Norse [speakers]) among
them as well." —Lass, Roger, Old English: A Historical
Linguistic Companion, p. 187, n. 12. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
^ Abrams, Lesley (2001). "Edward the Elder's Danelaw". In Higham, N.
J.; Hill, D. H.
Edward the Elder
Edward the Elder 899–924. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
p. 128. ISBN 0-415-21497-1.
^ Quoted by Richard Hall,
Viking Age Archaeology (series Shire
Archaeology), 2010:22; Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings. Revised
ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984: 221.
Danelaw Heritage". The
Viking Network. Retrieved 25 September
^ K. Holman, The Northern Conquest:
Vikings in Britain and Ireland, p.
^ S. Thomason, T. Kaufman, Language Contact, Creolisation and Genetic
Linguistics, p. 362
^ The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael
Lapidge (2008), p. 136
^ Sawyer. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. pp. 52–55
^ ASC 865 – English translation at project Gutenberg. Retrieved
16 January 2013
^ Flores Historiarum: Rogeri de Wendover, Chronica sive flores
historiarum, pp. 298–99. ed. H. Coxe, Rolls Series, 84 (4 vols,
^ Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, p. 62.
Penguin Books. 1995.
^ Carr, Michael. "
Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great Strikes Back", p. 65. Military
History Journal. June 2001.
^ Abels, Richard (1998). Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture
in Anglo-Saxon England. Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 153–54.
^ ASC 878 – English translation at project Gutenberg. Retrieved
9 June 2014
^ Kendrick, T.D. (1930). A History of the Vikings. New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons. p. 238.
^ Hadley, D. M. The Northern Danelaw: Its Social Structure, c.
800–1100. p. 310. Leicester University Press. ©2000.
^ Lesley Abrams, 'Edward the Elder's Danelaw', in N. J. Higham &
D. H. Hill eds,
Edward the Elder
Edward the Elder 899–924, Routledge, 2001, pp.
Viking expansion". hgo.se. Retrieved 27 March 2018.
^ Attenborough, F.L. Tr., ed. (1922). The laws of the earliest English
kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 96–101.
Retrieved 31 July 2013.
^ a b Sawyer, Peter (2001). The Oxford Illustrated History of the
Vikings (3rd ed.). Oxford: OUP. pp. 17–18.
^ Falkus & Gillingham and Hill
^ J.L. Buckberry & D.M. Hadley, "An Anglo-Saxon Execution Cemetery
at Walkington Wold, Yorkshire", Oxford Journal of Archaeology 26(3)
^ Taylor, H.M. & Taylor, Joan, Anglo-Saxon Architecture.
^ introduction, Biddulph, Joseph Old Danish of the Old Danelaw.
Pontypridd, 2003. ISBN 978-1-897999-48-6.
^ The "Grimston hybrids", noted by Richard Hall,
Shire Archaeology) 2010:22.
^ Henry Loyn, The
Vikings in Britain (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers,
^ Joan Beal, "English Dialects in the North of England: Morphology and
Syntax," in A Handbook of Varieties of English vol. 2, ed. Bernd
Kortmann et al. (New York: Martin De Gruyter, 2004) 137.
^ Katie Wales, Northern English: A Social and Cultural History
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006),55.
^ G.H. Cowling, The Dialect of Hackness:Northeast Yorkshire
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915), xxi–xxii.
Viking blood still flowing".
BBC News. 2001-12-03.
^ "Blood of the Vikings". Genetic Archaeology. 2014. Retrieved 7
^ Ghosh, Pallab (18 March 2015). "DNA study: Celts not a single
group". Retrieved 27 March 2018 – via www.bbc.co.uk.
^ Stahl, Anke-Beate (May 2004). "Guide to Scandinavian origins of
place names in Britain" (PDF). Ordnance Survey. Retrieved 7 August
^ "Detailed Result: THYNGHOWE". Pastscape. 2007-11-22. Archived from
the original on 2011-07-27. Retrieved 2010-04-23.
Abrams, Lesley (2001). "Edward the Elder's Danelaw". In Higham, N. J.;
Hill, D. H.
Edward the Elder
Edward the Elder 899–924. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
pp. 128–43. ISBN 0-415-21497-1. Discusses
definitions of "Danelaw".
Types of Manorial Structure in the Northern Danelaw, Frank M. Stenton,
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Tiger Books International version
translated and collated by Anne Savage,1995.
Community archaeology at Thynghowe, Birklands,
Sherwood Forest by
Lynda Mallett, Stuart Reddish, John Baker, Stuart Brookes and Andy
Gaunt; Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire, Volume
Mawer, Allen (1911). "Danelagh". In Chisholm, Hugh.
Encyclopædia Britannica. 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
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