Friday, 26 October 2018

The Mercian Burhs: Chester

“In 1840 workmen repairing a stretch of the southern embankment of the River Ribble, near Preston, in Lancashire, discovered the largest known silver hoard from the western Viking world. Consisting of over eight thousand items including silver coins, jewellery, hacksilver and ingots, the Cuerdale Hoard weighed an incredible 42kg. The Ribble Valley had been an important Viking route between the Irish Sea and York; significantly the hoard was buried between 905 and 910, shortly after the Vikings had been expelled from Dublin in 902.”

Part I

Buttington: The Irish Connection
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 893 the Viking warlord Hasten and his great army raided along the Thames then up the river Severn. Hasten's force had arrived the year before as one of two fleets of Viking longships that arrived in Kent from the Continent. They finally settled at Shoebury in Essex by agreement with the English. The following year, reinforced by Vikings from Northumbria and East Anglia, Hasten's army set out raiding along the Thames valley and headed up the river Severn.

They dug in at Buttington, Montgomeryshire, where they were besieged by an English army of Mercians and West Saxons supported by the men of North Wales. Facing starvation, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us that the Vikings resorted to eating their horses. When the Vikings finally broke out of their encampment at Buttington they faced much slaughter, the survivors making their way back to their camp at Shoebury. The Annals of Ulster records, “The English won a battle against the Dark Foriegners in which countless multitudes fell”.

The following year the remnants of Hasten's army regrouped with Vikings from Northumbria and East Anglia and then set out marching day and night for "a deserted city on the Wirral called Chester". Historians have pondered the prospect of the old Roman city having stood as an empty ruin since Æthelfrith of Northumbria annihilated a combined Welsh force from Powys and Gwynedd in 616 in the Battle of Chester in which 2,000 unarmed monks from the monastery at Bangor-on-Dee were slaughtered. Welsh sources refer to the conflict of 'Perllan Fangor' (Bangor Orchard) which tends to indicate it was the monastery at Bangor that was destroyed and its monks murdered.

An earthwork enclosure backing on to the Dee at Heronbridge, just south of Chester, initially led to speculation that this was a classic riverside fortification constructed by Vikings. However, recent excavations have dated the site to the time of the battle of Chester, suggesting these burials may have been casualties from this Welsh-Northumbrian conflict. It may seem unlikely that the city would have been deserted since this battle, a period of nearly 300 years, yet archaeological evidence suggests this may have indeed been the case, apart from perhaps an ecclesiastical presence.1 However, the Vikings coveted the city; facing the Irish Sea it would be an ideal site for a major Norse settlement in the west, mirroring the former Roman walled-city of York to the east.

When the Mercians caught up with Hasten's Vikings at Chester they drove off all the cattle and burned the corn in an effort to starve them out. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle says this occurred about twelve-months since they first came “hither over sea”. After over-wintering at Chester, early in 895 the Vikings broke out of the old Roman city and headed into Wales, raiding and plundering. They returned to Essex by Northumbria, probably travelling north across the Mersey, avoiding further encounters with the Mercian army.

Clare Downham suggests that these two Viking raids along the Severn and toward Chester may have been motivated by events in Ireland. In 893 the Annals of Ulster report feuding Viking factions in Dublin resulting in the departure of two groups leaving the port; one led by a son of Ivarr and the other under Sigfrodr. Significantly the Viking fleet that attacked Wessex in 893 was led by a Northumbrian Viking also named Sigfrodr. Alfred Smyth suggested that Sigfrodr was a Northumbrian who, after his campaigns in Wessex, sailed to Dublin and attempted to take control of the Hiberno-Norse settlement there.2

In 896 the Vikings again attacked Mercia, again up the river Severn, but this time overland to "Quatbridge". Midway between Bridgnorth and Quatford is the settlement of Danesford which has been suggested as the place where the Vikings crossed the Severn, however Susan Laflin states that the name derives from 'derne-ford' meaning 'hidden ford'. Laflin claims there are shelves of rock about eighteen inches below the surface which would make it possible for local people with knowledge of this to ford the river at this point.3

Of course it is possible the Vikings, masters of the seas, identified this hidden ford and crossed the Severn here. On the otherhand, the region around modern Bridgnorth was known as 'Cwat' (meaning remains obscure); 9th century references to 'Cwatbrucge' indicate an early bridge stood here which would have been a major crossing point of the Severn.

Either way, having crossed the Severn the Vikings overwintered here, then in the following summer the army dispersed, some returning to Northumbria and East Anglia, others sailed south to the Seine. Three Years after Hasten's arrival it seems they gave up on Britain and what was left of the army returned to France. After this we hear no more of Hasten.  However, in 910 the Vikings would again come raiding up the Severn.

The Battle of Tettenhall
In 906 King Edward made peace both with the Scandinavians of East-Anglia and Northumbria. Three years later in 909 Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, took advantage of this treaty and travelled into Northumbria to recover the relics of St. Oswald from Bardney. St Oswald’s bones were interred at Gloucester in the new church the Æthelflæd and her husband Æthelred, Ealdorman of the Mercians, had commissioned as the new Royal Mercian mausoleum following the desecration of Repton by the Vikings. On his death, Æthelred was also buried there in 911, followed by Æthelflæd who passed away at Tamworth in 918.

In 910, the year after the recovery of St Oswald’s relics, the treaty with the Danes appears to have broken down as the Chronicle reports that Edward sent an army both from Wessex and Mercia and harassed the 'northern army' by their attacks on men and property of every kind. They slew many of the Danes, and remained in the country (presumably Northumbria) for five weeks.

The English chronicler Æthelweard states that Æthelred, Ealdorman of the Mercians, was ruler of both Northumbria and Mercia. Northumbria at this time stretched from sea to sea, east to west, and from the Mersey to the Humber in the south and beyond the Wall in the north. The Danish Vikings were centred on York in the east, which raises the possibility of western Northumbria being an extension to Mercia under the rule of Æthelred, perhaps as part of the treaty agreed in 906, which questions the northern boundary of the Danelaw at that time and may in part explain the speed of some of the Northumbrians rapid acceptance of Æthelflæd as ‘overlord’ in 918.

In the same year, Vikings again raided through Mercia, returning via the Severn, probably an act of revenge for Edward’s earlier harassment of the north. When they crossed the river and entered into Mercia the English army was waiting for them. The Battle of Tettenhall ensued, somewhere near modern day Wolverhampton in Staffordshire, with the Viking army taking many casualties among the slaughter; three Viking kings are named among the fallen; Halfdan and Asl, joint Kings of Northumbria. Æthelweard adds another, Ingwær (Ivar), their brother, who may have also ruled with them. Æthelweard states they were all despatched to the "halls of the infernal".

David Dumville identifies the names of these three Viking kings killed at the battle of Tettenhall as the same as three Viking leaders who were active in the British Isles in the 860’s and 870’s. Dumville argues that the three kings killed at Tettenhall were members of the dynasty of Ivarr (Uí (h)Ímair) who ruled in Dublin before 902, and later at York.4 Downham adds that this coincidence is too striking to be ignored.5

F T Wainwright also suggested that the substantial Cuerdale Hoard, discovered on the bank of the river Ribble in 1840, deposited between 905-910, was perhaps booty from the battle of Tettenhall. However, the Ribble lies on a direct route from the Viking colonies of Dublin and York and more likely associated with events in Ireland.

Another Viking leader who fell at Tettenhall was named ‘Agmund’ who is said to have given his name to Amounderness (Agemundernes) in Lancashire. Wainwright identified him with Ingimund who according to the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland was expelled from Dublin in 902 when the Irish drove the Scandinavians from the longphort. Many of the Vikings fled to north west England. Ingimund is said to have settled at Wirral, between the Dee and Mersey, north of Chester, on land granted by the ‘English Queen’ Æthelflæd.

>> Continued in Part II: The Dark Foreigners of Dublin

1. David Griffiths, The North-West Frontier, pp.167-187, in Edward the Elder: 899-924, edited by N.J. Higham and D.H.Hill, Routledge, 2001, p.169.
2. Clare Downham, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland, Dunedin, 2007, pp.72-73.
3. Susan Laflin, Shropshire Place-Names ending in "-ford",, 2015, p.18.
4. David Dumville, Old Dubliners and New Dubliners in Ireland and Britain: a Viking-Age Story, Medieval Dublin 6, 2004, pp.78–93.
5. Downham, op. cit, pp.84-87.

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