Thursday, 19 January 2012

the Vikings of Sherwood Forest

During the 8th and 9th century England was subject to violent incursions by Vikings from Scandinavia- often portrayed as mindless berserkers. They rampaged around the coast of England laying waste in their tracks. They even found time to pop across the water and create Dublin in Ireland, and to visit North America on their travels.

The earliest reference to Nottingham in the written records comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and refers to an army of Vikings over-wintering there:

'In this year the (Danish) army went into Mercia to Nottingham and took up winter quarters there. And Burgred, the king of the Mercians, and his councillors asked Ethelred, the king of the West Saxons, and his brother Alfred to help him to fight against the army. They then went with the army of the West Saxons into Mercia to Nottingham, and came upon the enemy in that fortress, and besieged them there. There occurred no serious battle there, and the Mercians made peace with the enemy. In the following year the raiding army returned to York'.

The Vikings in the area were clearly considered hostile by the author of this account.

It seems that the initial phase of Viking contact was violent, but overtime their attention seems to have turned to settlement and farming.

Or at least there was a large assimilation of Viking culture in the area. Either way, the area that was and would become Nottinghamshire, and subsequently Sherwood Forest took on a distinctly ‘Viking’ or ‘Old Scandinavian’ flavour.

It seems probable with more modern research such as genetic sampling; that the Viking people were settling in areas which had some traditional ties to the Scandinavian world, having cultural links with the region dating back to prehistoric times.

They may not have had such a hostile reception from the locals.

By the 9th and 10th centuries this Viking cultural control of the area had become official with Nottingham being part of the Danelaw, an area of northern and eastern England under Danish rule. During this period Nottingham was one of five Boroughs which controlled the area of Northern Mercia, the former Saxon Kingdom now under Danish influence.

This entry is not about life in Viking times, it is more interested in the legacy of these people on the landscape, language and life of Medieval Sherwood Forest.

The Scandinavian cultural impact on the medieval landscape and people was immense.

The dialect used in medieval Sherwood Forest is preserved in the landscape as a legacy of this cultural link. Their presence can be seen at every level; from the names of the large districts to the smallest landscape feature.

The largest administrative level of society below that of the county was the ‘hundred’ a unit of authority which had its own jurisdiction and system of law courts. In Nottinghamshire in the area of the Danelaw, and subsequently in Sherwood Forest the ‘hundreds’ were known as Wapentakes.

The name Wapentake comes from the Old Norse ‘vapnatak’ which may to refer to the method of voting at a meeting by raising weapons.

Sherwood Forest stretched across three Wapentakes. These were Bassetlaw, Thurgarton and Broxtowe (more soon).

Picture: The Wapentakes of Nottinghamshire.

The use of Wapentakes instead of Hundred is a clear legacy of Viking influence down into the Medieval Forest.

Viking influence can also be seen in the Domesday Book of 1086 through the use of the terms such as ‘Carucate’. A Carucate was the unit of land that could be a ploughed by a team of 8 oxen in a season. Outside the Danelaw this area was known as a ‘Hide’.

Vikings can also be seen in the place names they left behind. Danish name endings such as ‘Thorpe’ as in Gunthorpe, and ‘by’ as in Linby are derived from Scandinavian words. The word ‘By’ still means ‘town’ in Danish today, the word ‘thorpe’ meant a settlement.

The Wapentake districts named above required meeting places.

One such site in Bassetlaw Wapentake has a name of Viking origin; Thynghowe.

The derivation of Thynghowe is þing haugr, meaning ‘hill of assembly or meeting place’, “þ” is the old letter ‘thorn’ pronounced “th”.

Thynghowe is mentioned in Medieval perambulations of the Kings Woods of Birklands and Bilhaugh most probably dating to 1334 (Boulton 1964)

It sits on the boundary of 3 parishes and may occupy an even older site than its Viking name suggests (see Thynghowe –ancient meeting place entry for more details).

A recent award of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to the Friends of Thynghowe group will enable further archaeological research into the site including a LIDAR survey of the surrounding landscape (see the Friends of Thynghowe website for more information).

The 'Friends of Thynghowe' have done a great amount of research into Thynghowe over the last few years looking at the history of the Danleaw and the development of the landscape around Thynghowe. They have also promoted the site internationally at conferences and increased understanding of the site by visiting related sites across the Scandinavin world. 

Some of their research can be seen at , and they can be followed at More of their research will doutbless emerge over the course of the project.

Viking language and culture also littered the landscape of medieval Sherwood Forest in the names of landscape features and field names.

Here are a few examples:

Bridges such as Trent Bridge, known in medieval times as ‘Hethbethbrigg’ used the Old Scandinavian word ‘Brigge’ which still survives in the word ‘Brygga’ for jetty or bridge in Swedish.

The vast areas of open heathland that characterised the forest were known as Lyngges meaning heather from the Danish word 'Lyng' (see there's Vikings in the Heather link).

Streams were often called ‘Becks’ such as Doverbeck from the word ‘bekkr’ for stream, or ‘Sik’ such as ‘Stanker Sike’ in the High Forest area of Sherwood, from the word for a small stream in Old Scandinavian.

Valleys were known as ‘Dales’ such as ‘Rydale’ and ‘Paddock Dale’ in Bestwood Park, from the Old Scandinavian word ‘dael’.

One of the areas of crown woodland in the High Forest area known as Birklands had a Scandinavian derivation.  Birklands comes from the Old Scandinavian for Birch tree ‘Birk’ and ‘Lund’ the word for wood.

The Old Scandinavian word ‘kjarr’ for marshy scrubland was used in the form ‘Carr’ such as ‘Nettleworth Carr’. It survives in the name Bycarrs Dike- (the canal in the marsh of the village) combining the Scandinavian words ‘by’ and ‘carr’ (see the waterways of Sherwood Forest entry for more details).

All of these uses for features in the landscape show the cultural impact of Viking people on the landscape of medieval Sherwood Forest. There are many more besides those listed. But there is enough here to give a flavour of the impact that Viking settlement in the 8th and 9th centuries had on the later landscape of Medieval Sherwood Forest from the 12th onwards.

The impact on the medieval landscape is clear but can we ever know much about the actual Viking people from the 8th and 9th centuries?

Unfortunately documentary evidence does not exist to give us much personal detail.

Archaeology can give us a window on these people’s lives, and can show us what they ate and the tools and weapons they carried, but unfortunately can never really put name to faces.

One way however is open to us where we can see the names of some of these people.

They gave their names to some of the villages that cover the landscape.

In Sherwood Forest there are place names with Old Scandinavian name endings, but there are also a handful of place names that contain the names of ‘Viking’ people:

These are Clipstone meaning ‘Klyppr’s Farm’, Gunthorpe meaning ‘Gunnhild’s settlement’, Thoresby meaning Thur’s town, and on the edge of the Forest: ‘Vlar’ at Walesby.

Scandinavian names from sometime before Domesday Book in 1089, showing again the presence of ‘Viking’ people or Scandinavian cultural influence in Sherwood Forest.

The Vikings of Sherwood Forest are there if you know where to look…

(More on the cultural landscape of Medieval Sherwood Forest, and the early Saxons of Sherwood Forest soon)

Place names all come from:

Morris, J. (ed) 1977. Domesday Book Nottinghamshire. Phillimore.
J. E. B. Gover J.E.B & Mawer, A & Stenton, F.M. 1940. Placenames of Nottinghamshire. English Place names Society XVII

1 comment:

  1. Having been born in PerleTHORPE, a village in ThoresBY Estate, this is a particularly interesting post.

    That region has gone relatively unchanged, decade after decade. Would that the Time Team might visit there someday.