8 July 2019


Eleanor Parker. Dragon Lords - The History and Legends of Viking England. I.B. Tauris, 2018.

Remember "1066 and All That"? If there is one date and event that we never forget from all of those history lessons in our schooldays it is the Norman invasion of 1066 and the victory of King William the Conqueror over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. We all know that it was a watershed year in history. But how much do most of us know about the history of England pre-1066 and the integral part that the Vikings played in its development?

Dragon Lords author, Eleanor Parker, is an academic and writer with a particular interest in the medieval literature and history of England and Scandinavia. She teaches Old and Middle English at Brasenose College, Oxford. Although she has written columns and articles for various publications, this is her first published book. First impressions are good, with an attractive cover featuring a finely carved dragon's head from a Viking longship and a compact format designed to appeal as much to the popular market as to a specialist readership. This impression continues with an accessible and concise history of the Vikings in England through the introduction and chapter one.

Thereafter the material becomes rather more academic in style as the author takes a scholarly approach to textual and historical analysis of Viking legends. These are the chapters on the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok and the various versions of their motives for invading England; narratives of the adventures of the Danish warrior Siward, earl of Northumbria; stories about the pious Norman knight Guy of Warwick, pilgrim and dragon-slayer; and stories about Havelok the Danish king popular in Lincolnshire, and his foster-father Grim, founder of Grimsby.

On the question posed right at the beginning – Why did the Vikings come to England? - the simple answer is that at first they came to destroy and plunder, not to rule. The Anglo-Norman chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, writing from the perspective of the early twelfth century, stated that the Danes "swooped and rushed upon the land from all directions very frequently over a long period, not aiming to possess it but rather to plunder it, and desiring not to govern but rather to destroy everything". He believed that they came as a divine punishment allowed by God to punish and chastise the English for their sins and waywardness.

The first recorded incident of the Vikings landing on English shores occurred in 787 at Portland on the Dorset coast, where the occupants of three longships arrived. When the king's reeve went out to meet them they killed him. In 793 they raided the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast, an event that sent shock-waves throughout Europe. Later Anglo-Saxon chroniclers reported that ominous fiery dragons had appeared in the sky just before the raid as a grave portent of the devastation to come. The Vikings destroyed the church of St Cuthbert, digging up altars and taking all the treasures they could find. Many brothers of the monastery were butchered, while others were drowned in the sea or taken away in fetters.

Intermittent waves of Viking attacks continued over the next few decades, but by the mid-ninth century they had escalated alarmingly. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that in 865 a 'great heathen raiding-army' of Vikings swept through the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England one by one. They proceeded to conquer the region north of the Humber, capturing the city of York with great slaughter and killing the Northumbrian kings Osberht and Aella. By 869 they had devastated East Anglia and viciously murdered its king, Edmund, later venerated as a martyr and saint. In 878 Alfred, king of Wessex, turned the tide by winning a decisive battle and by 886 had forged a treaty that led to the creation of the Danelaw, the Vikings' own kingdom with defined boundaries.

Evidence of Viking settlements in England is shown in Old Norse elements of place names ending in -by or -thorpe, such as Grimsby, Whitby, Derby and Scunthorpe, and other Norse words appear in Skegness, Ormskirk, Skipton, etc. The author describes a "complex picture of assimilation, cultural interaction, and religious and social change in the years after the settlement". Although the pagan settlers adopted Christianity, they brought with them the legends and stories which appeared in later collections of Norse literature. "In this period, poetry in Old Norse was being composed and performed in England, including skaldic verse, the intricate court poetry of Scandinavian kings..."

Legends and stories actually comprise the major part of this study of the legacy of the Vikings in England. Evidently, the author's core intention was to determine how medieval people perceived the Vikings in England. Of course in those days they were still referred to as 'the Danes', even if they came from other parts of Scandinavia, and the term 'Vikings' really only became general in the nineteenth century.


Inevitably, when stories have been re-told over several centuries they morph into different forms and sometimes the original meaning is corrupted. A good example of this is the famous story about Cnut, the king we used to know as Canute the Great, trying to hold back the incoming tide. Even until the present day it is sometimes used in lazy journalism as a reference to overweening arrogance. Almost certainly apocryphal, the legend first appeared in the twelfth century, long after his death. As told by Henry of Huntingdon and Gaimar, it was actually given as an illustration of Cnut's wisdom and piety, showing his courtiers that only God could control the tides. The whole point was that he demonstrated there are things in life that even a powerful king cannot control. As Parker says in her Epilogue, "it is an example of how enduring some of the medieval legends about the Danes have been".

Cnut was certainly the most successful Viking king in English history, winning the throne in 1016 and consolidating his rule over the whole of England in the following two decades. In 1027 he made a pilgrimage to Rome, while also being present for the accession of Conrad II as Holy Roman Emperor, proving his credentials as a Christian king. On his return he wrote a letter to his subjects proclaiming himself "king of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and some of the Swedes".

As Parker describes it, a "mixed Anglo-Scandinavian elite" was forged under his reign, with noble Danish families inter-marrying with English ones. "Perhaps the most interesting example is the family of Godwine, the young Englishman who rose rapidly under Cnut to become earl of Wessex." Godwine married Gytha, a Danish noblewoman with close family ties to Cnut. It was their son, Harold Godwinson, who briefly succeeded Edward the Confessor as king in January 1066.

The rest, as we often say, is history. In one of the "ironies of English history", King Harold, "often idolised in modern romantic interpretations of this period as the heroic English defender against the Norman invasion" was Anglo-Danish. Not only that, William the Conqueror, who was invading England to claim the throne, was himself a descendant of Rollo, a Viking who became the first ruler of Normandy.

All of this may help to throw some light on the complexity and diversity of the history of England and its people. The legacy of the Vikings who raided and invaded, then eventually settled and ruled, lives on in many forms.

Just to give two final examples from the Epilogue, in Shaftesbury Abbey there is a modern sculpted memorial to 'King Knut', showing the king demonstrating that he could not command the waves. And the Cheshire town of Knutsford claims that it was named after King Knut. There is a local legend that "the name arose when Cnut, with his army, forded the river that runs through the town." It is said that as he sat down to shake the sand from his shoes, just at that moment a wedding party passed by. He wished the couple joy and "as many children as there were grains of sand in his shoe".

The author helpfully explains that, as it was quite a common name, there were several Cnuts going about. That may be so, but, with my typical Magonian curiosity, it got me wondering why the name spelling was changed from Canute to Cnut and not Knut, as it is in the above two examples. We are used to words such as knee or knuckle, where the k is silent. It is not difficult to pronounce the k for his name. The author confirms that in Old Norse it was Knutr, so why is there this convention to spell it as Cnut? This form may easily cause embarrassment or unintended humour, especially with those students who suffer from dyslexia. I would say that Knut is much to be preferred, as well as being more authentic. I wonder what others think? It may be one of those subjects that arises for learned discussion at one of our lively Magonian meetings. Somebody usually has the answer. -- Kevin Murphy.

  • Editorial note. After just such a discussion at the last Magonia meeting I checked on the use of the letters ‘C’ and ‘K’ in Latin and Early English. Coins issued in the king’s reign clearly show the inscription ‘CNUT’. The letter ‘K’ is hardly used in Latin, and only for loan-words from Greek. English is the only Germanic language where the letter ‘C’ represents a ‘K’ sound. As the letter ‘K’ is silent when it appears before the letter ‘N’, in words like knot, knuckle and knife, the use of ‘C’ in Cnut indicates that the initial letter is vocalised in this case. For a full discussion of the complexities of the Cnut/Canute question, I don’t think you are going to find anything more comprehensive than this:

    I note that the £5 Crown piece [above] issued by the Royal Mint in 2017 to mark the thousandth anniversary of his reign, firmly declares the king's name to be Canute. – JR.

No comments: