CheshireTrove Logo


Viking History

This is a starting attempt at the Viking history of the area. The content will be added to and adjusted as time goes by. Eventually, new releases will appear at intervals.

The history of Cheshire, and the Wirral peninsula in particular, is strongly connected to that of the Norwegian people. Norwegian Vikings arrived here at the end of the ninth century and recent DNA tests show that their offspring are still going strong in the Wirral today. Stephen Harding has done a lot to bring the Viking and Wirral connection to people's attention and his work has been honoured by the Norwegian government. Most of what follows comes from his works.

Nogbad the Bad

Nogbad the Bad

The Vikings were Scandinavians. They raided, traded, explored, and settled in much of the known world from about 800 to about 1050AD, the 'Viking Age'. They used lightweight wooden longships with wide, shallow-draft hulls which worked well everywhere. This was an age of Viking expansion. They went everywhere. They might have reached America. They certainly got as far as the north-west of what we now call France: we now know this area as Normandy, the land of the North Men. The Normans were descended from Danish and Norwegian Vikings who were given 'feudal overlordship' of areas in northern France (the Duchy of Normandy) in the 10th century... Popular conceptions of the Vikings often differ from the complex picture that emerges from archaeology and written sources. A romanticised picture of Vikings as noble savages began to take root in the 18th century, and this developed and became widely propagated during the 19th-century Viking revival. The received views of the Vikings as violent brutes or intrepid adventurers owe much to the modern Viking myth that had taken shape by the early 20th century. Current popular representations are typically highly clichéd, presenting the Vikings as familiar caricatures (see left). [Quoted from Wikipedia]. It is hard to believe, but it seems that they didn't even have horns on their helmets!

The word viking refers to an expedition overseas, and fara i viking means to go on an expedition. Later on, the word was applied to someone who went on such an expedition.

Descendants of the Vikings continued to have an influence in northern Europe. King Harold Godwinson, for instance, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, had Danish ancestors. This was the King Harold we all know and love, who was killed at the Battle of Hastings, 14th August 1066.


Gaels and Angles and Saxons

The first time Rome was sacked was in 387BC, by the Gauls, led by Brennus. I am proud to bring this fact to your attention.

The second time Rome was sacked was on 24th August 410AD, 800 years later, by an army of Visigoths and Ostrogoths from eastern Europe, led by Alaric. Britain had been abandoned by the Romans at this time. Someone stayed on but left 22 years later. He was a man called Patrick, a Brit (actually Romano-British). He went across the sea to Ireland in 432 to preach Christianity to the pagan Gaelic kings, whose headquarters were the deep ring-forts (raths) of the Hill of Tara. Patrick eventually became Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. A legend says he drove the snakes out of Ireland, which is well-known. What is not so well-known is what he said as he was driving the snakes out of Ireland... "Yeah a'right in the back there?". "It's the way I tell 'em", said St Patrick. In the same way that St Patrick was a Brit, St George, the patron saint of England, was Greco-Turkish and never set foot in England, but you'll find him in Majorca.

The Gaels had arrived in Ireland in about 100BC. They were cultured, artistic, wrote books, made fine jewellery and spoke the language that was spoken throughout Ireland until very recently indeed (the mid-nineteenth century). They came from the Iberian Peninsula, notably Asturias and Galicia. You can't help noticing that on the fringes of Europe - Greece, the Ballearic Islands, Portugal, Galicia, Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland - there is a love of dancing, flamboyant costumes, music and, in general, a great pride in the local, ancient traditions. One thing in particular appears in just about all these areas: Bagpipes. Bagpipes are important.

Britain 600AD

Britain in about 600AD

Returning to Cheshire, in 410AD, the Romans left Britain to fend for itself, the soldiers being required in a desperate attempt to defend Rome and the empire. The last to leave our area were those holding the crossing point of the Mersey at Wilderspool, Warrington, presumably burning their bridges behind them, to delay attack from the north.

The next two centuries are known as 'The Dark Ages' since very little is known of those times. We do know, however, that Britain was invaded by southern Scandinavians, who hit the country along its eastern coast. The invaders were Angles (Anglii to the Romans),from what is now southern Denmark, Saxons from Saxonia ('Old Saxony' in northern Germany), and Jutes (northern Denmark). The Saxons settled in the south of the island and became the West Saxons, East Saxons, Middle Saxons and South Saxons. These areas eventually became Wessex, Essex, Middlesex and Sussex. The Jutes had Kent and Hampshire. The Angles took East Anglia, where they became the North Folk and the South Folk (now Norfolk and Suffolk), and then ventured west and north to become the Mercians, south of the Humber, and Northumbrians north of it (surprisingly enough). They got as far as the Firth of Forth. My map here is adapted from a Wikipedia article and tries to show the state of affairs in about 600AD. Notice how the shape of the coastline has changed in these past 1400 years, especially in the east. Somerset, however, looks pretty much as it did around the time of the floods in January this year (2014). The original British tribes were shifted westwards to the less hospitable terrain of Cornwall, Wales and Cumbria. And also Cheshire and Lancashire. The map (quite detailed) used as a basis for this one seems to show the area of the Dee, Mersey and the coastal areas of Lancashire as boggy. One explanation of the name Mersey is that it derives from a Scandinavian word for 'Marshy' (the Marshy River), which is plausible. The surrounding land is well-drained now, but there were clearly marshes from up towards Altrincham and down past Warrington, Fiddler's Ferry power station, the Frodsham and Helsby marshes, Liverpool Airport and Speke Hall. Mersey has also been associated with the name Mercia, though which would have taken its name from which would be debatable.

Britain 800AD

Britain in about 800AD

By the 8th century, the country had become a number of separate kingdoms. These were

  • Mercia, the whole of central England, from the Mersey and Humber down to the Thames,
  • Northumbria, north of Mercia and stretching north-east to the Forth,
  • Wessex, to the south of Mercia (including present-day Somerset, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire),
  • Kent,
  • East Anglia,
  • Deira, which was a south-eastern part of Northumbria.
Cornwall was part of Wales. Cumbria was too, originally - it's Cymru with a 'b' added in the middle. In this map and the next, derived from Winston Churchill's book The Island Race, it is part of Strathclyde (which was also Welsh at one time).


Viking Invasions

Routes from Scandinavia

Routes to Britain and Ireland
A Rough Guide

In 795AD, Norwegian Vikings arrived on the eastern coast of Ireland and took Dublin, which became a kingdom in its own right, with a Norwegian king. The Kingdom of Dublin remained in this state for 200 years, until the celebrated Brian Boru removed the Norsemen (and their Irish allies) in 1014 at the battle of Clontarf, a battle in which he himself was killed, on 23rd April 1014 (Good Friday, apparently). So Norwegians arrived in Ireland in 795 and were removed in 1014. In the meantime, about the year 900, there was a mass exodus from Norway. Harald Halfdanarson was king of a region of Norway, Norway at the time being a collection of separate kingdoms. He fought other kings to gain a few other kingdoms and thought he had acquired enough to win the admiration of Gyda, the best looking girl around. She basically told him that he'd have to do better than that to win her hand in marriage, so turning away, tail between his legs, he vowed that he would unify Norway and become the King of All Norway. He vowed that he would not cut his hair until his goal had been achieved. It took him ten years, but he did it and was crowned King of Norway sometime in the 890s, presumably winning his woman in the process. The first thing he did was have a shampoo and a cut and blow-, er, dry, after which everybody thought he looked splendid and he acquired a nick-name: from now on he was Harald Harfagri (Harald Fine Head of Hair).

The brutal battles he waged against his own countrymen, of course, left him with a lot of frightened and powerless subjects. Rather than wait to see what would happen next, they left in droves, many opting to try their luck in Ireland. The route the Norwegians took to get to Ireland was westward from Norway, across the north of Scotland, some stopping in the northern Scottish islands and the Faroe Islands, then south to the east coast of Ireland. Instead of turning south, others carried on to Iceland, which seems to have been a base for further expeditions westward to Greenland and America. For whatever reason, maybe there just wasn't enough space, these fleeing Norse people were moved out of Ireland and headed for Wales, where they landed in Anglesey.

Britain 900AD

Britain in about 900AD

The Danish route to England, thirty years earlier, was simpler: straight across the North Sea to the east coast. The Danes had invaded Britain in 866AD, led by Ivar the Boneless (you couldn't make it up), which resulted, essentially, in the country being divided in two, the Danes taking the eastern side of the country, an area called Danelaw (where Danish law is in operation), and Saxons retaining the north-east part of Northumbria, south-west Mercia, Wessex and Kent. The dividing line ran fairly straight from the Thames estuary, north-west to a point that seems to be near Helsby on the River Mersey. The last part of the border with the Danish land is north to south along what looks (in the north, anyway) uncannily like the line of the River Gowy, while the western border with Wales is the River Dee, leaving a thin pan-handle through West Cheshire and North Shropshire from about Newport, through Whitchurch along the present-day A41 to Chester and the Wirral. The southern end of the Welsh border is along the River Wye (Gwy in Welsh). So Gwy, Gowy, Tarvin, Terfyn (see the section on the River Gowy), all meaning border. The plot thickens. Yes, I need to get out more.

This batch of Viking explorers arrived in Anglesey via Ireland and the Isle of Man. They were not welcome in Ireland and were strongly persuaded to leave. A verse in Dominic Behan's The Sea Around Us (which the Dubliners do to the tune of The Sea Around Us) suggests the Irish had about as much respect for the Scandinavians as they did for the English:

The Danes came to Ireland with nothing to do,
But dream of the plundered old Irish they slew,
'Yeh will in your Vikings' said Brian Boru,
And threw them back into the ocean.

The sea oh the sea is the gradh geal mo croide*,
Long may it stay between England and me,
It's a sure guarantee that some day we'll be free,
Thank God we're surrounded by water.

* Pronounced something like graw-gal-ma-cree
(Great joy of my heart, or My bright love,
or Love light my croide other [Google Translate]).

In fact, Brian Boru's campaigns against the northerners were a hundred years after they were kicked out in about 900, but those feelings about unwelcome visitors have always been there. There's not much love lost with the Scottish and Welsh either, or any foreign old monarchs:

Two foreign old monarchs in battle did join
Each wanting his head on the back of a coin
If the Irish had sense they'd drowned both in the Boyne
And partition throw into the ocean.

The people of Anglesey didn't think much of the Vikings either and forced them onto the mainland, where they were promptly moved eastwards along the Welsh coast. These people landed in the north part of the Wirral and it looks as though they had nowhere else to go. They were exiles from their homeland, they'd been booted out of Anglesey and North Wales, and they couldn't go any further east because that was Danish country. So I think they were a bit stuck.

They were led by Ingimund (or Hingamund to the Irish, as related in the Three Fragments of the Annals of Ireland). This document reports that they were removed from Ireland by the fasting and praying of Cele Dabhaill (or Caerbhaill), a 'saintly, devout man'. I suspect there was more to it than that. This must have been about 900AD or very shortly after. After being moved on so many times, they must have been relieved to receive permission from Ethelflaed, queen of Mercia/queen of the Saxons, to settle at the north end of the Wirral. [Ethelflaed's name is spelt in many different ways - Aethelfaed, Ethelfleda and Ethelfreda are three]. Maybe she felt sorry for these bedraggled souls and maybe she was under stress because her husband, Ethelred (Earldorman, i.e., basically, King, of the Mercians) was at death's door in Chester. Either way, she must have come to regret the decision not very long afterwards.


Vikings in the Wirral

Viking Wirral 1

'-by's and other Norse Settlements
and the Boundary

Once they had arrived in the Wirral, and having gained permission to stay, the Norse Vikings appear to have set up home, essentially, in the North-West of the peninsula. The Harding books delve into local place names and the names of local features and come to the conclusion that a possible Viking boundary was from south of modern-day Little Neston inland to the north of Willaston and around the old village of Hargrave (which exists nowadays only in the names of some farms and cottages and an old Roman road which runs alongside the M53: Hargrave Lane) and then turning north-west along Dibbinsdale and down to the Mersey between Bebbington and Tranmere. This suggested boundary separating the Norsemen and the Saxons sweeps noticeably around Bromborough and the strongly-fancied scene of a massive battle between them in the year 937. They built settlements in the area, many having names ending in the two letters -by, which is associated with Scandinavian settlements. Although the settlers were prominently Norse in origin, there was clearly some mixing in the area with Danes and Irish (the Irish were presumably allies from Dublin who had crossed the sea with them). So the Ir in Irby is 'Irish' and 'Irby' means the 'Irish village'. 'Denhall' near Little Neston was originally 'Danewell' or 'Danish Spring'. Other Irish names include Noctorum, Cnocc-Tirim (Dry Hill) and Liscard, part of Wallasey, Lios na Carraige (Hall on a Rock, according to Stephen Harding). The '-by's within Harding's Viking boundary are Frankby, Greasby, Irby, Kirby in Walleya (Wallasey), West Kirby, Pensby and Raby. Raby actually means Boundary, or Border Settlement, which ties in very nicely with its position close to the south-east corner of the supposed Viking lands. There were another six, but these no longer exist. After settling in the area, the Norsemen ventured further afield, to the Lancashire coast and the river Mersey, setting up home at Formby, Crosby, Whitby (next to Ellesmere Port), Helsby (and inland across the river to Roby?). There are, in fact, a large number of Scandinavian names in and around Liverpool and north towards Preston - Skelmersdale, Ormskirk, Aigburth, Kirkby, Croxteth, for example. In the middle of Wigan is 'Scholes' (presumably where Paul's ancestors came from), whose original name was the Old Norse Skali. The Skalis that didn't move east to join Manchester United went west to the Mersey estuary.

Two town names that crop up in both Lancashire and the Wirral are Meols (on the north Wirral coast) / North Meols near Southport, and Thingwall (one in present-day Liverpool, the other in the centre of the Wirral). The Thing thing in Thingwall means Parliament. The two Thingwalls were meeting-places of the Viking parliaments. It is the same name as is given to the Isle of Man parliament, the Tynwald, 'the Oldest Parliament in the World'. The position of the Wirral Thingwall lends credence to Stephen Harding's Viking area boundary map. It is as central as you could get to that area. 'Cross Hill' across the main road from the Thingwall reservoirs is thought to be the meeting site.

Meols (pronounced 'Mells') on the Wirral is from the Old Norse Melar, so where, when and why it received the o in the middle is a trifle baffling. The word means 'Sand Dunes'. It was an important port, maybe at one time the most important in the north-west of the country, a natural harbour, sheltered by a forested promontory jutting out into Liverpool Bay, and at the outlet of the river Mersey??!! Please treat the previous statement with great suspicion. It's an interesting thought, though, and not entirely implausible, given the geography and geology of the area. A look at a map shows a very likely path for the river from Birkenhead docks, between Wallasey and Bidston hills and on to the area between Leasowe lighthouse and Meols. The ground here is mudstone (about 4km wide by 5km long, reaching south to Upton) covered by clay - there is, or was, a brick factory, the chimney of which can be seen from the Meols-Moreton road. The whole of the rest of the Wirral is sandstone. The mud and clay points to there being a large area of water in the past. There was a port here in Roman times, trading with far-off places in Europe, as evidenced by finds of coins and other artifacts of Roman age. Under the name of Melar, or Meols, a port certainly existed here in Viking times, though the original is probably somewhere out in Liverpool Bay. Some thousands of objects of that age were found with the Roman artifacts on the Meols shoreline. Some of these may be seen at the Museum of Liverpool but the website points out that the full collection is spread over several museums. One thing that you won't see, however, is the Viking longboat which is reputedly sitting under the Railway pub by Meols station.

Viking Wirral 2

Concentration of Carrs and Rakes
and other Norse terms

Carrs and Rakes. These are two geographical terms that appear frequently in the northern part of the Wirral. There are several other similar terms that appear here and do not seem to be used so much in other parts of the world. There are two stations on the Birkenhead to Chester Merseyrail line that contain the word Rake: Eastham Rake and Bromborough Rake. There are Rake Lanes in Wallasey and Liverpool and elsewhere locally - having said Rake is a local name, I see that it occurs in Tyneside as well. The word Rake is from the Old Norse Rek, meaning 'Lane'. The name Carr is from the Old Norse kjarr, meaning 'Marsh'. There are so many Carr Lanes around Hoylake and in the vicinity of the rivers Birkett and Fender (which join and end in at the docks at Birkenhead), that you wonder how people manage to find their way around the place. The word creeps into other place names, like Carr Farm. The point is that these Old Norse names tie in so well with the supposed Viking enclave that it seems too much of a coincidence.

Ethelflaed's Cross

Ethelflaed's Cross at St Barnabas, Bromborough (dated c900AD)

Stephen Harding, in his book Ingimund's Saga, states that the Norsemen arrived in the Wirral in or soon after 902AD. He quotes exclusively from the Irish Annals, but says that the Welsh also kept records that correspond well. After settling in the Wirral, Ingimund and his compatriots began to grow restless and greedy over the following years and started making plans with the Danes and the Irish to take Chester. What the Irish were doing in this part of the world is not clear, but it seems possible that they might have been picked up along the way to fight as mercinaries. This seems to be the suggestion in an extract from a chronicle of the time. Ethelflaed was aware of the mounting danger, built a castle at Chester, and by 907 had made progress in refortifying the city and extending the walls to surround the new castle. The wall-building would not be completed until 1230 or so, but enough rebuilding seems to have been done by 907 to keep the attackers at bay in the bloody battle that followed. In fact, the chronicles show that they achieved success more by means of a cunning plan than by the strength of the fortification. As the Saxons in Chester saw the Norsemen and Danes, together with many Irish, approaching in great numbers, they warned the queen and her dying king (dying of an unspecified disease). [In fact, it now seems that Ethelred died in 911, three or four years after this action]. The queen told her men to fight them close by, outside the city, but to leave the gates wide open. She told them to pick a body of horsemen and conceal them inside the walls. Then the strongest of the men from the battle outside should run back through the gates, as though defeated, and when the bulk of the attackers had chased after them into the city, the gates should be slammed shut and no more admitted. The queen ordered that all attackers within the walls be killed, which is what happened. This did not, however, put off the rest of the attacking force outside. The Norwegians made 'hurdles' to cover their heads while they got up close to the walls and attempted to breach them. The king and queen sent messengers to the Irishmen among the attacking force, with a message to the effect of "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't", meaning "You've dealt with us before - you can trust us, we've paid up for your help in the past, but are you sure you can trust them, those pagans?" To cut a long story short, the Danes put down their arms to swear to the pay the Irish would receive, and, while unarmed, were promptly slaughtered. That's the way I read it, anyway. The Irish now joined in the attack from the walls on the Norsemen trying to pierce the walls under their hurdles. They threw rocks down on them, half destroying the hurdles, which were reinforced with 'large posts'. The Saxons then boiled up large cauldrons of ale and water and poured this boiling liquid over what remained of the hurdles. Of course, it went straight through so that their skins were stripped from them [the attackers]. They still didn't give up: they spread hides over the hurdles. What the Saxons did was to let loose on the attacking force all the beehives in the town, so that they could not move their legs or hands from the great numbers of bees stinging them. Afterwards they left the city and abandoned it. It was not long after that [before they came] to wage battle again. The italicised direct quote and the bulk of this paragraph are from a translation of the Three Fragments by the late Professor I.L.Foster of Jesus College, Oxford, and recorded in Ingimund's Saga.

Dummy Image

Ethelflaed in the Window at St Barnabas, Bromborough

Ethelflaed was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex and all England 871-899. She founded a monastery at Bromborough in the year 912, on a site next to the present-day church and this must be what she is holding in her hands in the window. The Cross by the entrance to the church was from this time. Alfred was succeeded by his eldest son Edward the Elder 899-925, Ethelflaed's younger brother. Ethelflaed died in 918 as Lady of Mercia. In other words, she kept her role as ruler after the death of her husband, which one would think would have been unusual for the time. Alfred the Great's line continued with Athelstan, King of Wessex and all England 925-939, the son of Edward the Elder and Alfred's grandson. Athelstan is famous in the Wirral not only for giving his name to Athelstan Close in Bromborough, but also for fighting the Battle of Bromborough (Brunenburh or Brunanburgh as it was previously known) in 937. The battle was won with 10,000 men against the combined forces of Welsh, Irish, Scots and Danes, a bit like playing the Rest of the World. The battle must have been pure savagery, with England at stake. You can read something about these times in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where Bromborough is called Brumby. The Annals of Ulster record that A huge war, lamentable and horrible, was cruelly waged between the Saxons and Norsemen. Many thousands of Norsemen beyond number died although King Anlaf escaped with a few men. While a great number of the Saxons also fell on the other side, Athelstan, king of the Saxons, was enriched by the great victory. The point is that in the first half of the 900s, Chester and the Wirral peninsula were important enough to be fought for in seriously bloody and brutal battles at very close quarters by the reigning kings and queens of Wessex (which was, really, England). I went looking for Athelstan in the stained-glass windows of St Barnabas' church in Bromborough. I didn't find him (I'd got the story wrong), but I did find his Auntie Ethelflaed and some useful information, thanks to the kind and enthusiastic help from some people who were there at the end of a service. One lady was a real expert on the period. I'll be back to find out more. states that the first church here was built in 928 next to a monastery which had probably been founded in 912 by Ethelflaed, that an Anglo-Viking preaching cross dating from around the same time stands in the churchyard and that the Saxon church was demolished and replaced in 1828. Other Saxon stones are kept in the parsonage garden.

The line of kings of England from Alfred the Great to the Norman Invasion is

  • Alfred the Great (ruled 871-899)
  • Edward the Elder (899-925), Alfred's son
  • Athelstan (925-939), Edward's son
  • Edmund I the Magnificent (939-946), Athelstan's half-brother
  • Edred (946-955), Edmund's brother
  • Edwy (955-959), Edmund's son
  • Edgar (959-975), Edwy's brother
  • Edward the Martyr (975-979), Edgar's son
  • Ethelred II the Unready (979-1013), Edward's half-brother
  • Sweyn Forkbeard (1013-1014), son of Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark *
  • Ethelred II the Unready (again) (1014-1016)
  • Edmund II Ironside, (1016), son of Ethelred the Unready
  • Canute I (1016-1035), Sweyn Forkbeard's son *
  • Harold I Harefoot (1035-1040), son of Canute *
  • Hardicanute (or Canute II) (1040-1042), Harold Harefoot's half-brother *
  • Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), son of Ethelred and half-brother of Edmund
  • Harold II Godwinson (1066)
* The 'starred' kings above are of outright Danish descent. There was clearly a lot of action in the first years of the 2nd millenium AD with Canute and the Danes winning out from 1016 to 1066 (if you count Edward's strong Danish connections via his mother-in-law Gytha.

Edmund Ironside: A Wikipedia article states Edmund Ironside or Edmund II (about 989 to 30th November 1016) was King of England from 23rd April to 18th October 1016, and of Wessex from 23rd April to 30th November 1016. His cognomen "Ironside" is not recorded until 1057, but may have been contemporary. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was given to him "because of his valour" in resisting the Danish invasion led by Cnut the Great. He fought five battles against the Danes, ending in defeat against Cnut on 18 October at the Battle of Assandun, after which they agreed to divide the kingdom, Edmund taking Wessex and Cnut the rest of the country. Edmund died shortly afterwards on 30 November, and Cnut became the king of all England. It is thought that Assandun may be Ashingdon near Rayleigh in south-east Essex, though Ashdon near Saffron Walden (north Essex) is a possible contender.

Edward the Confessor was the son of Ethelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, and he married Edith, daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and Gytha, a great-granddaughter of Harold Bluetooth, who, it has to be said, was clearly a man before his time. You can see from Edward's mixed associations how trouble was brewing.

King Harold (Godwinson) was the eldest son, as you might expect, of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and therefore the brother-in-law of Edward the Confessor and also the great-great-grandson of Harald Bluetooth. By grasping the throne of England when Edward died, he upset a lot of people, notably his brother Tostig and also William, Duke of Normandy. He had to fight them both in 1066, Tostig and the Danes at Stamford Bridge and then William at Hastings in Sussex. He won one but lost the other battle. However, that takes us into Mediaeval times and a notable absence of Viking warriors.

Peckforton Cows

Back to the History page

Back to the CheshireTrove home page