Athena Review Vol.2, no.3

Viking York

Of all the Viking centers established in the British Isles between the 8th and 11th centuries AD, York is historically the best known. As a result of an ongoing study of British Viking settlements by archaeologists, York has provided a treasure of details from the relatively little-known 9th and 10th centuries. It is also a unique example of long-term urban continuity.

Called Eberacum by the Romans who in AD 78 turned the town into one of three legionary headquarters in Britain, York was second only to London (Londinium) as an important military and administrative post, and remained so until the end of Roman rule almost 350 years later. The emperor Septimius Severus died in York in AD 211, and the city was also the scene, in AD 306, of the death of Emperor Constantinus I Chlorus and the proclamation of Chlorus' son, Constantine the Great as his successor. Substantial remains of 4th century AD Roman administrative buildings may be seen today underlying York Cathedral (see AR 1,1 and 1,2).

In about AD 400, shortly before the Romans finally abandoned Britain, the Anglo-Saxons, after raiding eastern England for 200 years, seized control of York and turned it into a major royal, ecclesiastical, and trading center named Eoforwic. Anglo-Saxon York lasted 450 years, and during that time, the English scholar Alcuin (AD 735-804), advisor to Charlemagne, made it a center of learning famous throughout the Christian world. In this period of AD 400-850, early stages of the church and monastery later to become Yorkminster or the cathedral were built over the old Roman legionary fortress.

York thus had a long-term urban history prior to the unsettled times of the early 9th century AD, when Vikings from Scandanavia established a foothold in Ireland at a new settlement they called Dyflin (later Dublin), initially as base for piracy (ca. AD 840), afterwards as a town (AD 917). In AD 865 the Vikings reached Northumbria and marched on York at what happened to be a fortunate time (for them). The Anglo-Saxon Northumbrians were engaged in civil war, having overthrown one king, Osbert, and given allegiance to another, Aelle. With Northumbria in political disarray, it was comparatively easy for the Vikings, led by Ivarr the Boneless, King of Dyflin, to overrun the city in AD 866.

[Fig 1: Silver Penny from St. Peter Coinage under the Danish kings of York (AD 905-910)(CNG 1998).]

Falling into the hands of the Vikings was the worst nightmare of the time. They first appeared off the east coast of England on in AD 793, when they sacked the monastery on Lindisfarne, two miles off the coast. Returning again and again, they burned and pillaged and despoiled churches and villages alike before carrying off as slaves those they did not kill. For a time, the Vikings took the ransom, called Danegeld (Dane's gold), which was paid them to go away. Before long, though, environmental and other pressures meant that the Vikings came not simply to raid, but to stay.

Their most dazzling single prize was York, whose successive Roman and Anglo-Saxon occupations as a military, ecclesiastical, and trading center provided the Vikings with a number of ready-made urban features. These began with the massive Roman-built fortress walls, over 3m high, remaining solid enough after four centuries for the Vikings to use them as part of the defenses for their own York, or Jorvik, as they named it.

The layout of Jorvik set a standard of street planning and domestic building which later appeared across the Irish Channel in Dyflin. Both Jorvik and Dyflin had irregular street plans, partly prompted in each case by the local geography. Other comparisons, however, suggest a common cultural tradition which contrasted markedly with the old Roman grid plan.

House construction in Jorvik was rather more standardized than it was in Dyflin. The plots were a regular 18 ft or so in width, suggesting, perhaps, that official rules were laid down in such matters, and also, perhaps, long-term continuity of ownership. Within these plots, rectangular houses with earth floors were built measuring 14.5 ft wide by about 27 ft in length. In Dyflin, individual houses varied greatly in size and position, with the only consistent feature apparently that the main axis of a house paralleled the length of the plot. House sizes there measured an average 28 by 15.6 ft in size, slightly larger than in Jorvik.

Along the walls in some Jorvik houses were wattle-lined, soil-filled benches whose seats were covered with soft plants, and in the center, a clay hearth measuring about 6 by 4 ft lined in stone. In some houses, its central position was indicated by the traces of ash and areas burned red. Others, though, have been found surrounded by old Roman tiles or limestone rubble. The wood and thatch structure of houses inevitably made the hearth a fire hazard, but a presumed lack of windows meant that it also served as a principle source of indoor lighting.

The earlier Viking houses in Jorvik had only one story (the wattlework walls were not strong enough for an upper floor), and there was probably a thatched roof whose weight was supported by the more substantial uprights. However, four houses excavated at Coppergate and dating from the late 10th century revealed an extra storey underground. This new feature consisted of a basement at a depth of about 6 ft (1.8 m), approached by a stone-lined corridor and furnished with strong oak beams, posts and planks. Excavations in Dyflin have shown that similar buildings were constructed there, though at a rather later date.

Local manufactures as well as imports were on sale. Industry in Jorvik was well enough established for individual streets to be identified with certain trades. Coppergate was the center of carpentry, as Skeldergate was the street of the shield-makers, and among them were the makers of decorative metalwork as well as a glass bead-making industry. Blue soda glass and high-lead green or black glass were used in the manufacture of beads. The soda glass was most probably gleaned from small quantities of scrap left behind in Roman times. Melted down on rough ceramic disks, it appears to have been scraped off, then formed into beads. High-lead glass has been less conclusively traced, but it may have been used as a form of iron, to smooth off linen.

As Jorvik, York had a surprisingly short life. Control of the city was continually disputed with the Anglo-Saxons who finally prevailed, after some ninety years, when the last Viking leader, the flamboyantly-named Eric Bloodaxe, was driven out in AD 954. Bloodaxe, who had a gory reputation as a fratricide seven times over, was more typical of the Vikings in their earlier, marauding guise. However, the great value of the excavations in York has been to show another, less familiar image of the Vikings as civic organisers, planners, architects, roadmakers, artisans, artists, traders and just ordinary people, leading ordinary lives.

by Brenda Ralph Lewis

[For the complete, illustrated article, see the printed edition of Athena Review, 2,3.]

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