Danelaw

Danelaw

Danelagen  (Danish)
Dena lagu  (Old English)
  • 865–954
Flag of Danelaw
England, 878
England, 878
StatusConfederacy under the Kingdom of Denmark
Common languagesOld Norse,
Old English
Religion
History 
• Formed
865
• Conquered
954
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Northumbria
Mercia
East Anglia
Essex
WessexWessex dragon.svg
North Sea EmpireRaven Banner.svg
Today part of England

The Danelaw (ɔː/, also known as the Danelagh; Old English: Dena lagu;[1] Danish: Danelagen), as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is a historical name given to the part of England in which the laws of the Danes held sway[2] and dominated those of the Anglo-Saxons. Danelaw contrasts with West Saxon law and Mercian law. The term is first recorded in the early 11th century as Dena lage.[3] Modern historians have extended the term to a geographical designation. The areas that constituted the Danelaw lie in northern and eastern England.

The Danelaw originated from the Viking expansion of the 9th century, although the term was not used to describe a geographic area until the 11th century. With the increase in population and productivity in Scandinavia, Viking warriors, having sought treasure and glory in the nearby British Isles, "proceeded to plough and support themselves", in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 876.[4]

Danelaw can describe the set of legal terms and definitions created in the treaties between the King of Wessex, Alfred the Great, and the Danish warlord, Guthrum, written following Guthrum's defeat at the Battle of Edington in 878.

In 886, the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum was formalised, defining the boundaries of their kingdoms, with provisions for peaceful relations between the English and the Vikings. The language spoken in England was also affected by this clash of cultures with the emergence of Anglo-Norse dialects.[5]

The Danelaw roughly comprised 15 shires: Leicester, York, Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northampton, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford, Middlesex, and Buckingham.[6][7][8]

Background

Map of England showing the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Danish districts – from Cassell's History of England, Vol. I – anonymous author and artists

Scandinavian York

From around 800, there had been waves of Danish raids on the coastlines of the British Isles. In 865, instead of raiding, the Danes landed a large army in East Anglia, with the intention of conquering the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. The armies of various Danish leaders had come together to provide one combined force under a leadership that included Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless, the sons of the legendary Viking leader Ragnar Lodbrok.[9] The combined army was described in the annals as the Great Heathen Army.[10] After making peace with the local East Anglian king in return for horses, the Great Heathen Army moved north. In 867, they captured Northumbria and its capital, York, defeating both the recently deposed King Osberht of Northumbria and the usurper Ælla of Northumbria. The Danes then placed an Englishman, Ecgberht I of Northumbria, on the throne of Northumbria as a puppet ruler.[11]

King Æthelred of Wessex and his brother, Alfred, led their army against the Danes at Nottingham, but the Danes refused to leave their fortifications. King Burgred of Mercia then negotiated peace with Ivar, with the Danes keeping Nottingham in exchange for leaving the rest of Mercia alone.

Under Ivar the Boneless, the Danes continued their invasion in 869 by defeating King Edmund of East Anglia at Hoxne and conquering East Anglia.[12] Once again, the brothers Æthelred and Alfred attempted to stop Ivar by attacking the Danes at Reading. They were repelled with heavy losses. The Danes pursued, and on 7 January 871, Æthelred and Alfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown. The Danes retreated to Basing (in Hampshire), where Æthelred attacked and was, in turn, defeated. Ivar was able to follow up this victory with another in March at Meretum (now Marton, Wiltshire).

On 23 April 871, King Æthelred died and Alfred succeeded him as King of Wessex. His army was weak and he was forced to pay tribute to Ivar in order to make peace with the Danes. During this peace, the Danes turned to the north and attacked Mercia, a campaign that lasted until 874. Both the Danish leader Ivar and the Mercian leader Burgred died during this campaign. Ivar was succeeded by Guthrum, who finished the campaign against Mercia. In ten years, the Danes had gained control over East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia, leaving just Wessex resisting.[13]

Guthrum and the Danes brokered peace with Wessex in 876, when they captured the fortresses of Wareham and Exeter. Alfred laid siege to the Danes, who were forced to surrender after reinforcements were lost in a storm. Two years later, Guthrum again attacked Alfred, surprising him by attacking his forces wintering in Chippenham. King Alfred was saved when the Danish army coming from his rear was destroyed by inferior forces at the Battle of Cynuit.[14][15] The modern location of Cynuit is disputed but suggestions include Countisbury Hill, near Lynmouth, Devon, or Kenwith Castle, Bideford, Devon, or Cannington, near Bridgwater, Somerset.[16] Alfred was forced into hiding for a time, before returning in the spring of 878 to gather an army and attack Guthrum at Edington. The Danes were defeated and retreated to Chippenham, where King Alfred laid siege and soon forced them to surrender. As a term of surrender, King Alfred demanded that Guthrum be baptised a Christian; King Alfred served as his godfather.[17]