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When Yorkshire was the capital of England: the history of York’s Viking past

JORVIK Viking Festival is the largest Norse celebration in Europe. Pictured Viking Warriors in their camp on Parliament Street, York, 2018. (Photo: James Hardisty)
JORVIK Viking Festival is the largest Norse celebration in Europe. Pictured Viking Warriors in their camp on Parliament Street, York, 2018. (Photo: James Hardisty)
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Many of those who hail from the white rose county will already see Yorkshire as the capital of England, but thousands of years ago Yorkshire was once the Viking capital the country.

The history of York’s Vikings

In 1984, the York Archaeological Trust opened the Jorvik Viking Centre

In 1984, the York Archaeological Trust opened the Jorvik Viking Centre

For the best part of a century large parts of the north and east of England were ruled by Viking kings, who were based in York.

However, on the other side of an unstable boundary, the south and west of the country were held by a succession of English kings.

York was originally a Roman town, which became known as ‘Eoferwic’ when Anglo-Saxon mercenaries settled in the 5th Century.

In 866, the Danes invaded, travelling up the Humber to the river Ouse. The Vikings changed the name of the city to ‘Jorvik’ and although this name did not survive the Viking period, the Viking legacy remained, particularly through the street names left behind.

Yorkshire was once the capital of England, when the Vikings made York the hub of the country thousands of years ago.

Yorkshire was once the capital of England, when the Vikings made York the hub of the country thousands of years ago.

The suffix ‘gate’ that attaches to many of York’s streets, for example Micklegate and Skeldergate, is based on the Viking ‘gata’, which simply means ‘street’.

York’s street names also give clues to the city's past, for example Swinegate refers to a place where pigs were kept, alluding to Vikings farming tendencies in and around the city.

Before the year 850, any Viking attacks that occurred had been short and sharp, but in that year for the very first time they stayed in Britain throughout the winter, located on the Isle of Thanet near to London.

By 866 the Vikings were well established and had gathered a great army, and in the same year they marched north and claimed their prize, this being York, the royal city at the heart of the kingdom of Northumbria.

In 870 the kingdom of East Anglia fell to the Vikings and Mercia followed in 874.

In the following years, the Vikings secured the land around York, settling in this area and farming it.

The city of York was now effectively the capital of a new Viking kingdom, this being known as Danelaw.

The borders were never entirely clear or secure and the Viking kings faced attacks from both the Saxons in the north and the English kings, particularly of Wessex, in the south.

One English king, Athelstan, took control of York in 927 and was the accepted ruler of most of the country until his death in 940.

After this, for the next 15 years, York was again ruled by a succession of Viking kings.

The last of these was the famous Eric Bloodaxe who was defeated in 954 and from then onwards York and Northumbria were always part of a united Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

Eric Bloodaxe

Eric Bloodaxe is one of the best-known names in Viking history, and played a huge part in Viking York.

He was the favoured son of Harald Finehair, and became king of western Norway after his father.

However, when his younger brother Hakon claimed the kingship with the support of Athelstan of Wessex, Eric moved to the British Isles, where it is believed he was made king of Northumbria and lived in a palace in York.

It is when Eric gains the kingship in Northumbria that he finally appears more firmly into historical limelight.

After Eric became King of the Vikings, the English King Eadred responded by invading Northumbria, burning down St Wilfrid’s minster at Ripon.

As the English then army headed south, Eadred threatened to destroy Northumbria in revenge, and the Northumbrians turned their back on Eric and made reparations to the English king.

However, after another change of mind they accepted Olaf Sihtricsson as their ruler, only for Eric to drive him out and take over again.

Finally, in 954 Eric Bloodaxe was expelled for the second and final time, and King Eadred of Wessex and England gained complete control.

Modern day Viking York

Like the street names suggest, York’s Viking past strongly remains throughout the city.

In 1984, the York Archaeological Trust opened the Jorvik Viking Centre, which is a museum and visitor attraction containing life-like mannequins and life-size dioramas depicting Viking life in the city.

Every year the city of York hosts a JORVIK Viking Festival, which will return for its 35th year in 2019.

Recognised as the largest event of its kind in Europe, this is a city-wide celebration of York’s rich Norse heritage and is a week-long celebration with a splendid programme of events, including living history encampments, walks, talks, tours and dramatic combat performance.