History--The Danelaw

[Although the Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida branch of Regia Anglorum is named “The Danelaw,” this article is about the historical geographic region in England known by that name]

The Danelaw is the historical name given to the northern part of Great Britain ruled by the laws of the Scandinavians. Originally, the term was used by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to describe the actual legal framework, but it became a regional name in the eleventh century. The word “Danelaw” (law of the Danes) has its origin in the Old English term Dena lagu, and the area and legal system were also known as Danelagh and Danelaga.

The culture we seek to emulate in Micel Folcland is that combination of Norse and Saxon cultures encompassed by the Danelaw. It is often called Anglo-Danish or, our preference, Anglo-Scandinavian. One of the reasons is this amalgamation (though by the time we seek to re-create there was a mixing in the cultures. Also, much is known of the era, and many artifacts of the time and the region have been recovered and classified in York. The York Archaeological Trust has been invaluable, and files may be accessed online at http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/piclib/photos.php or through a number of books and other media, available at http://www.jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk/acatalog/Books.html

The colonization of England by the Scandinavians started in the ninth century. A series of smash-and-grab raids that started with the Lindisfarne raid in 783 was followed by attempts to settle down on England lands. Around mid-century, Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless wintered in East Anglia. They soon moved north and in 867 captured Northumbria and its capital, York. The Danes then placed an Englishman, Ecgberht I of Northumbria, on the throne of Northumbria as a puppet. Building on this toenail, the Viking forces invaded and conquered more of the north. Some, such as Mercia, negotiated a Danegeld to be given the Danes for leaving Mercia unmolested.

Æthelred, the King of Wessex, and his brother, Alfred, attempted unsuccessfully to stop the Danish invasion until his death in 871. Alfred became king of Wessex was forced to pay Danegeld to buy peace with Ivar. During this peace, the Ivar attacked Mercia in a campaign that lasted until 874. During it, both Ivar and the Mercian king were killed. Ivar’s successor, Guthrun the Old, and continued the successful campaign. In the next decade, the Scandinavian invaders conquered East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia. Guthron broke the peace with Wessex in 876, though Alfred’s resistence was relatively successful, and the Scandinavians saw several defeats. In 878, Alfred defeated Guthron at chippenham. As a term of surrender, Alfred demanded that Guthrum be baptized a Christian and even served as godfather.

In 884, Guthron again broke the peace and attacked Wessex. Alfred defeated him. In the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, the boundaries of what was later termed the Danelaw were declared, and Guthrum received self-rule in the area. This was seen as a victory for Alfred and a shift in power since it ended the worst violence by the Scandinavians. The Great Army was disbanded, and
former members took over much of the regional government. There have been questions about how large the Great Army really was and how many Scandinavians actually settled in the area, but there could be little doubt about the influence of the Scandinavians in names, culture and law.

After the recognition of the Danelaw, it became so prosperous that new Danish raids came. During these invasions, the Danes in the Danelaw became rather assimilated with the English. There were some minor differences, and parts of the Norse legal system remains in effect today. For example, the idea of a jury is Norse.

In 920, troubles suffered by the Danegeld led to its absorption back into England in exchange for protection. The king was Edward I, a son of Alfred and called the Elder. In the terms of this decision, the laws of the Danegeld remained in effect. Except for a few years in the 950s when Eirik Bloodaxe as king of a semi-independent Danelaw, the Danelaw remained a part of England, even when England was itself a part of the Danish Empire. The Scandinavian, especially those of Denmark, never stopped trying to invade and to loot as well as to acquire land.

In the late tenth century, the english King, Aethelraed Unraed (a pun on his name referring to him being uncounseled rather than unready), tried to buy off the Danish invaders with no real success. Having counseling him to pay the Danegeld, these counselors then convinced Æthelraed that the Anglo-Scandinavians were plotting with the invader armies to assassinate him. In December 1001, on the Feast day of St. Brice, the king ordered that all the Scandinavians in england be killed. This does not seem to have been done in the Danelaw, and it certainly was not complete outside the Danegeld, but many were killed, even though they sought sanctuary in churches. Among these was in Oxford, where Gunhilde, the sister of King Sven Forkbeard of Denmark, and her family were burned alive, sparking a reprisal against Æthelraed by Danish forces starting in 1003.

Reportedly, the Danegeld was less than enthusiastic in supporting Æthelraed. Sven’s invasions continued on nd off across the next decade. In 1014, Æthelraed was forced to flee to Normandy, and Sven was crowned king of England, and England became part of the Danish empire. Within a few months, he died (apparently of natural causes), and his son, Canute was proclaimed king. A return by Aethelraed from exile forced Canute off the throne for a short while, but Canute’s new military actions forced a collapse of Æthelraed’s new reign. Canute reigned wisely until 1035, when he died and was succeeded by his son, Harold Harefoot. When Harold died in 1042, the Wessex dynasty returned to power in the form of Edward the Confessor. After Edward’s death in 1066, the legitimacy of his successor, Harold Godwinsson, was disputed violently by William, the Duke of Normany, and Anglo-Saxon reign of England and the Danelaw ended.

The Danelaw, howerver, remained legally separate from he rest of England even after the Norman invasion, and William even granted the danegeld special exceptions in his laws, and it was referred to as one of the legal sections of England in the early twelfth century.

Sources

“Danelaw,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danelaw (A good place to start; just don’t stop your research here!)
Holman, Katherine. The Northern Conquest: Vikings in Britain and Ireland. 2007.
Richard Lacey & Danny Danziger. The Year 1000: What Life Was like at the Turn of the First Millennium. 2000.
“St. Brice's Day Massacre,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Brice's_Day_massacre. (A good place to start; just don’t stop your research here!)

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