[In Our Time] The Danelaw

The Danelaw

28/03/2019 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: http://podplayer.net/?id=66484144
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/5/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p074tct5.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the effective partition of England in the 880s after a century of Viking raids, invasions and settlements. Alfred of Wessex, the surviving Anglo-Saxon king and Guthrum, a Danish ruler, had fought each other to a stalemate and came to terms, with Guthrum controlling the land to the east (once he had agreed to convert to Christianity). The key strategic advantage the invaders had was the Viking ships which were far superior and enabled them to raid from the sea and up rivers very rapidly. Their Great Army had arrived in the 870s, conquering the kingdom of Northumbria and occupying York. They defeated the king of Mercia and seized part of his land. They killed the Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia and gained control of his territory. It was only when a smaller force failed to defeat Wessex that the Danelaw came into being, leaving a lasting impact on the people and customs of that area.


Judith Jesch
Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham

John Hines
Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University


Jane Kershaw
ERC Principal Investigator in Archaeology at the University of Oxford

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Listen Date: 2019-05-04


  • I heard this episode while driving through Hosur and Bangalore traffic; and though that should stereotypically turn me off things, I ended up really loving it.
  • I’ve been complaining that recently In Our Time has been too heavily focused on topics that have no relevance outside the UK (Is this is Brexit subtext like last year’s anti-Trump subtext?) and this episode came close to that without going all the way there.
  • I think it assumes prior knowledge of what the kingdom of Wessex and the Danish conquest of England were, and I didn’t have that, but for a change they were interesting enough topics that I didn’t mind.
  • York being a Danish town for almost a century was fascinating to me.
  • They had a bit about the Channel Islands being practically Scandinavian which made me remember about that proposal that Scotland join Scandinavia.
  • Hack silver, which I had read about in Peter Brown’s books, came up here too.
  • Also very interesting was learning that Arabian Islamic silver dinars of the 9th century made it up to Scandinavia, which had no silver whatsoever, and triggered a love of bullion and possibly, a trading economy – especially in York.
  • The detailed discussion of place names and given names; and how they showed Scandinavian origin, was amazing.
  • Conversion of the king versus Christianisation of the population as two different things was also an interesting insight.
  • It was horrible hearing about the description of the fleas and lice in York; brought about by people living in cramped spaces and working with sheep wool. The price of progress when it came right after the description of how York exploded in population and wealth.
  • Also interesting: that elite Scandinavians would get made crosses with embellishments out of Norse mythology in this period
  • Also very interesting: the discussion on the waves of population movement, and how many of the Scandinavians came as an army, and how many came as settlers. Bonus info nugget: that Scandinavians were bringing over Irish slave girls to start families.
  • A final interesting thing: that the Danelaw led to a flatter hierarchy than the feudal one which the Saxon kings had set up.


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