DNA clues that could prove pirate links to modern Yorkshire

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In the latest in a series tracing Yorkshire’s DNA, Alistair Moffat 
asks whether we are all really descended from pirates?

FORMER pirates make up a substantial proportion of the male population of Yorkshire – or so many Yorkshiremen would like to believe. The Anglo-Saxon word for a pirate was Viking, and such is the sustained and powerful perception of the legacy of these adventurers in the modern county that it is no wonder so many identify with it.

However, traditional identity is one thing; what the scientific process of DNA testing can show up is quite another. One of the aims of our new project to discover Yorkshire’s DNA is to disentangle myth from history. If the county is full of former pirates living quietly under assumed names, DNA will find them and probably glorify them.

As the sea lords roared at their oarsmen to pull hard for the shore of the holy island of Lindisfarne on a September day in 793, the watching monks turned and raced for the church to bar the doors. The slaughter and pillage that followed shocked western Christianity to its core and one of its greatest scholars, Alcuin of York, wrote that somehow God’s wrath had been deserved, that He had brought the savagery of these blood-soaked pagans as a punishment.

Probably pushed out by over-population and sailing seas calmed by the beginning of the long period of good weather known as the medieval climatic optimum, Vikings had sailed out of their home fjords in search of adventure, plunder and land. The Swedes mostly turned east to make their way through the Baltic and the Russian river system to found the state of Kievan Rus, the forerunner of Russia (reputedly named after the red hair of the Scandinavians). Danes raided south into what is now Germany and then crossed to Eastern England, while the Norwegians set a course for what they called westoversea to Northern Scotland, Ireland and the Atlantic coasts.

DNA testing can track these voyages and where different groups made land fall. The precision of the latest analytical techniques has found differences between Norwegian Vikings and those of Norwegian descent born in Orkney or the Hebrides. It can distinguish between Danes and Norwegians and the occasional Swede.

In the middle of the 9th century the Danes turned their attention to England, a strategy that would have profound effects in Yorkshire. A ‘Great Heathen Army’ was carried in hundreds of ships and in 866 they conquered the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of York. In 870, they seized East Anglia after episodes of extraordinary violence. The native King Edmund was tied face-first to a stake and sacrificed to Odin in the appalling ritual of blood-eagling when an axeman hacked open his rib-cage before pulling out his lungs.

By the time the Great Army had taken York, it was beginning to splinter and at least half of the invading Danes decided to settle. Their characteristic suffixes for place-names, such as ‘by’, ‘thorpe’, ‘thwaite’ and ‘dale’, trace a pattern of land seizure. But this was an army of men, and although large, it would have seemed much less so against the background of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic farmers. As before, the top tier of society will have been decapitated, leaving the peasants to keep the land productive.

As pagans, the Danes still practised polygamy and the sudden, forcible immigration of an overwhelmingly male population to Yorkshire after 866 meant that Danish DNA and that of native women soon mixed. But testing by YorkshiresDNA can still find the men of the Great Army. Men pass on Y chromosome DNA to their sons and, as a means of tracking heredity, it is very reliable.

In 915, after a battle at Corbridge, more genetic mixing began. The Norwegian army of the King of Dublin, Sygtrygg the Squint-Eyed (Viking nicknames pull no punches) and Ragnvald seized control of the Danish kingdom of Jorvik. These Irish Norsemen’s rule was cut short by the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan. The last Norwegian episode at York was the brief reign of one of the most notorious Vikings of all, Erik Bloodaxe, a son of King Harald Fine-Hair. By 954, he had been deposed.


The first results of testing will be revealed on November 1 at West Yorkhire Playhouse along with a guest lecture. Tickets: 0113 213 7700.