Archaeology in East Oxford

Vikings in the Thames Valley

On Wednesday this week, Dr David Griffiths, Director of Studies in Archaeology in the Department for Continuing Education, as well as one of the leaders in the Archeox project, gave us a talk about the Vikings in the Thames Valley, especially East Oxford.

As an aside, David mentioned that though we did not win the British Archaeology Community Archaeology award this year, we did get a “Highly Recommended”, and on our first try – so we look forward to the next time round (I think it’s in two years time).

And so, on to the Vikings. David started by asking – Why did they come over here? A number of different reasons have been put forward for the sudden eruption of the Norsemen onto the English scene –

Environmental change – had the conditions in the Viking homelands changed, altering the population that the land could support?

Politics – both internal; it was a period in which power was being consolidated centrally, were certain factions moving/being moved on? and externally; there was a general weakening of authority in many of the kingdoms of Europe at the time, creating “opportunities”.

Younger sons – the perennial problem in a society which held to primogeniture, compounded by the Viking practice of polygamy, what to do with all the other sons?

Improved boat & ship technology – they came because they could.

The answer is most probably a combination of all these answers, with the mix varying over time as the conditions change, just as their behaviour changed; while the standard image is of shield-chewing berserkers, they were traders and settlers as well, depending on the situation – they way they acted was on a par with many other contemporary people.

The first time a violent confrontation is mentioned is in 789, in the Isle of Portland, Dorset, where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions that the Reeve of Wessex is killed by Norwegians. This is followed in 793 by the much more famous raid on the Priory of Lindisfarne.

“AD. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.”

Entry for the year 793 in the Anglo Saxon chronicle

These raids continued for the next 50 years or so, with the Vikings overwintering around 850 on the Isle of Thanet, raiding further and further up the Thames Valley – in 853 the men of Surrey fought “heathen hosts”, by 871 they were fighting at Reading, and in the 870’s they overwintered at Cirencester.

The tide turned in 878, when Alfred, King of Wessex, defeated the Vikings at Edington and the line defining the Danelaw was agreed on.

Map showing the rough boundary of the Danelaw, and place names showing Viking origins

Edward the Elder, Alfred’s successor, pushed the Vikings further North and East, confining them to York and Cumbria, and AEthelstan completed the task in 930, seizing York and razing its fortifications.

It was Alfred, though, who made the lasting changes upon which the reconquest was built; the introduction of fortified burhs – Oxford being one. These were fortified towns, with their own mints, to which the local population could retire – the Viking strength lay in the speed with which they could move their troops rather than any inherent superiority, and long-term sieges were not their forte.

The burghs established by Alfred (solid squares) and other Anglo-Saxon defences – from The Bughal Hidage approx 911-914

Alfred also set up a series of beacons to aid in communication, again a response to the speed with which the Vikings could move around.

There is still some uncertainty about the extent of Anglo-Saxon Oxford – we know where the north gate was, as the tower associated with it still exists (St Michael at Northgate in Cornmarket Street) and St George’s Tower in Oxford Castle is believed to be Saxon, though it has few actual features, and stone walls are not very datable. The southgate is generally believed have stood on the site of its medieval successor in St Aldates adjacent to the south-west tower of Christ Church. The west gate is the most problematical, whether there was a small burh with a wall roughly along School Street and Oriel Street, with the town being extended east at a later date, or if the original wall was at Longwall Street.

Though these burhs were set up as a response to Viking incursion, as time went by, the Vikings started to mingle with the local population – though west and south of the Danelaw there is now very little sign of their presence in place names (see map above) they were certainly here. As evidence, there is the famous quote by John of Wallingford (not far from Oxford):-

“the Danes, thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.”

Over sexed, over groomed and over here!

This led to a degree of resentment, which culminated in the infamous St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, when Æthelred the Unready (Unrede; it actually means ill-advised) ordered the massacre of all Vikings throughout his kingdom. As he himself wrote two years later : –

“a decree was sent out by me, with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle [weeds] amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination.”

Recently, evidence of this massacre may have been uncovered at an excavation by Thames Valley Archaeological Services at St John’s on St Giles – a number of skeletons were discovered which had been dumped (literally) in the remains of the surrounding ditch of an early Bronze Age henge. 34 to 38 young males, mainly between 16 and 35 years old, many showing stab wounds in the back and other signs of a violent death as well as signs of burning, were found but they had all been stripped, so no dating evidence was found. Radio-carbon dating gave a spread of dates earlier than the massacre, but when the isotope balance was investigated, it was apparent that these people had had a diet which was high in fish and seafood (pointing to a Scandinavian rather than Anglo-Saxon origin) – this has a well known effect of  altering the radio-carbon dating.

Other evidence of Viking occupation has been found in the bank of the Cherwell by Magdalen Bridge – couple of mis-matched high-status stirrups (now in the Ashmolean). David had asked Jenni to look into these and she reported that she did not think this was part of a burial, more like a votive offering – but David pointed out that the location was interesting; near to St Clements.

St Clement was popular saint in Viking culture when they converted to Christianity (originally by Saint Olaf, king of Norway, whose approach to evangelism was “convert or die”) – he was martyred in Russia by drowning – there is a St Clements Danes church in London and Barbara Crawford has pointed out that churches dedicated to St Clements are often located at one end of a bridge. The original location of  the church in St Clements was by the bridge (where the Plain is now; the roundabout is the old cemetery) which fits in with that idea, and David speculated that the curvature in the streets in St Clements near Magdalen Bridge might reflect the layout of an early Viking fortified settlement, rather than the curves of medieval strip farming.

David concluded by pointing out that as we know that there were Vikings in the area, all we now have to do is go out find some more evidence!



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