Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Settlement: Scandinavian Wirral

The Mercian Burhs: Chester Part IV

Facts and Fictions of the Viking Age
The account of Ingimund’s settlement on lands near Chester as found in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (also known as the “Three Fragments”), is generally considered a legendary, unreliable pseudo-historical account of the Viking settlement in the north-west of England.

The reconstructed Viking longship 'Dragon Harald Fairhair'
The Fragmentary Annals is an assemblage of narrative history, with additional fictional elements, from various Irish chronicles and annals. The original manuscript was lost but a later copy of unknown antiquity came into the possession of  “Dubhaltach" Duald MacFirbis. He copied this manuscript in 1643 which then also became lost, but another copy had been made which came in to the possession of the Irish language scholar John O’Donovan.

Shortly before O’Donovan published his edition of the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland in 1860, the concentration of place names with Scandinavian elements in Wirral was noted by the Danish archaeologist and historian Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae in the mid-19th century.

The Three Fragments describes Ingimund’s expulsion from Ireland and how they failed to gain a foothold in Wales. Then they sought permission from the English Queen Æthelflæd to settle in Mercia who granted them lands near Chester.

Ingimund’s settlement at Wirral is not corroborated by any other text. Studies of the Viking Age settlements in England tend to focus on the south and east of the country because this is where the documentary evidence leads us; the primary text of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the ‘A’ text or Winchester manuscript, concentrates on the fate of the Wessex kings, Alfred the Great, then his son Edward the Elder.

In Search of Wirral Vikings

Historian Frederick Threlfall Wainwright (1917–1961) identified the ‘land near Chester’ settled by the Irish Vikings following the expulsion from Dublin by studying place names of the Wirral Peninsula, the land mass between the rivers Dee and Mersey estuaries, whose border, according to the Domesday Book was "two arrow falls from Chester city walls." Wainwright concluded that “….in Wirral we are dealing with an alien population of mass migration proportions.

Wirral Old Norse place names (after Stephen Harding)
Further studies by Stephen Harding has identified over 600 place names in Wirral with surviving Scandinavian elements, such as; Tranmere, from the Old Norse (ON) elements ‘trana’ (crane) and ‘melr’ (sandbank); Great Meols, ‘melr’ (great sandbank); Kirby, ‘kirkja’ (church) and ‘byr’ (farm, settlement); Helsby, ‘hellir’ (cave) and ‘byr’ (farm, settlement).

In his comprehensive study of Cheshire place names, John McNeal Dodgson claimed that the old Wirral Scandinavian-English border could be traced from the river Dee to the Mersey by the survival of these Old Norse (ON) place names; Raby, ‘ra-byr’ (settlement at the boundary); Dibbinsdale, along the river Dibbin; Mickledale ‘Mikill-dalr’ (great valley), and so on toward Tranmere.

It is also on this peninsula that we find a high concentration of ‘carr’ place names, from ON ‘kjarr’ (marshland) clustered around the flood plains of the rivers Birket and Fender in north Wirral. There are also an unusually large number of ‘rake’ place names in Wirral; 96 being the highest density in the country. This comes from the ON root ‘rak’ literally meaning ‘stripe’, a word used to describe lanes and trackways. And of course there is ‘Thingwall’ (ON ‘ping-vollr’ = assembly field) at Crosshill were the Vikings held their governing assembly.

The occupation of Wirral began off the coast at Meols, now under the sea but marked by the remains of a submerged ancient forest off Dove Point, by Hoylake, where over 5,000 artefacts dating from the Neolithic to the medieval period have been found including Roman coins from Brittany, Carthage and Armenia indicating that Meols may have been a port trading with the Mediterranean during the Roman era.

It is thought that Ingimund’s Irish Vikings landed at Meols, or West Kirby, on the north west tip of the peninsula, where there is deep water anchorage, known as the Hyle Lake. This deep water channel, sheltered by sandbanks off Hoylake, held ships waiting to sail into Liverpool and was where King William III’s expedition embarked to Ireland in the late 17th century.

West Kirby hogback stone
At St Bridget’s Church at West Kirby is a rare 10th century hog-back tombstone of a Wirral Viking. A later inscription marks a dedication to St Olav, the Norwegian king declared a martyr and a saint in 1031. Every year since 2007 a pilgrimage walk has taken place on St Olav's Day, 29 July, between the two Norse churches at West Kirby (St Bridget’s) and Chester (St Olave’s) in commemoration of the Viking heritage of the area.

A little further south at the Church of St Mary and St Helen at Neston is a collection of five fragments from at least three Hiberno-Norse crosses and at St Barnabas Church at Bromborough is a reconstructed cross often claimed to be of Scandinavian origin but the church is outside the Wirral Viking boundary and in reality a wheel-head Saxon cross. The Wirral village of Bromborough is thought to have been the site of the battle of Brunanburh fought in 937 between Æthelstan, King of England, and an alliance of Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin; Owen, King of Strathclyde; and Constantine II, King of Alba. The battle was a resounding victory for the Anglo Saxons, unifying England.

Then there is the mystery of the Viking ship buried under the pub car park. In 1938 workmen laying the car park to the Railway Inn, Meols, noted the remains of a ship, thought to be a Viking trade vessel. Notes were taken and the car park backfilled. The report was found by a later publican who contacted Nottingham University who carried out a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey in 2007.
The GPR survey did indeed reveal a ‘boat-shaped anomaly’ in the underlying clay. However, the Nottingham team led by Stephen Harding has failed to raise sufficient funding for an evaluation excavation. Subsequently, the jury is still out on the so-called Viking ship, which may not be Viking at all, only excavation will reveal dating evidence.

A Fragment of Truth?
The account of Ingimund’s settlement on lands near Chester is found only in the “Three Fragments”, but fits perfectly with the expulsion of the Vikings from Dublin in 902 following an attack on the longphurt (Old Irish = ‘ship fortress’) by the armies of of Brega and Leinster in 902 as recorded in the Annals of Ulster and the medieval Irish chronicle known as Chronicum Scotorum. Thus, the Three Fragments supports the concept of Vikings driven from Dublin, dispersing throughout the Irish Sea toward the islands of Man, north-west England and the Hebrides.

Hiberno-Norse arm rings - Red Wharf Bay
Ingimund’s story would appear to be verified in the Welsh texts the Annales Cambriae and Brut y Tywysogyon which record the arrival of Vikings on Anglesey at Maes Osmeliaun or Maes Osfeilion respectively. This site has been identified as Maes Rosmeilon in eastern Anglesey, however archaeological evidence points to Llanbedrgoch were Viking influence has been identified at a pre-Viking settlement. Houses of Hiberno-Norse style have been excavated at the site along with evidence of 10th century manufacture and trade between York and Dublin. Five burials found at Llanbedrgoch in 1998 (two adolescents, two adult males and one woman) were initially thought to be victims of Viking raiding but analysis has found that the males were not local to Anglesey, but may have spent their early years in north west Scotland or Scandinavia. Nearby at Red Wharf Bay five Hiberno-Norse arm rings were discovered, believed to have been deposited in 905, within a few years of Ingimund’s journey from Ireland.

The Welsh texts tells us that the Vikings were driven out of Anglesey by a son of Cadell ap Rhodri. Then, the story goes, Ingimund appealed to Æthelflæd, Queen of the Saxons, for land to settle as he was tired of war. He was granted lands near Chester, recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle in 893-4 as a ‘deserted city’ but now cited as wealthy and coveted by Ingimund. The Vikings may have paid monies to the Saxon Queen in return for lands, or they may have come to an accord in which Ingimund and his forces where permitted to settle in return for military obligation, guarding the Dee and Mersey from further Viking encroachment.

Carolingian influence on Mercia during the reign of Offa may have been responsible for the construction of the earliest burhs in defence of Viking attacks. This was not the only military tactic common across both sides of the Channel.

The Vikings attacked Paris for the first time in 845, and returned several times in the 860's. In response the Frankish king Charles the Bald declared a series of military reforms; The Edict of Pistres included the fortification of bridges built at all towns on rivers to prevent the Viking longships from penetrating the interior, such as the Loire and the Seine. These fortified bridges fulfilled their intended purpose during the Viking Siege of Paris of 885–886 with the low-lying bridges blocking further passage upstream of the longships.

The construction of burhs in Mercia was not the only borrowing of military innovation against a common enemy. The settlement of Vikings on estuaries (such as Ingimund on Wirral) to guard against further Viking attacks is also paralleled in France. In 911 the French King Charles the Simple granted lands to the Viking chieftain Rollo at the mouth of the Seine in return for his allegiance and military support against further attacks by the Northmen. Rollo’s lands stretched to Rouen and he effectively became the first Duke of Normandy who’s descendants would conquer Anglo Saxon England in 1066.

It is likely that Æthelflæd had made a similar deal with Ingimund; like her father King Alfred before her, the Saxon Queen opted for diplomacy rather than conflict. However, it wasn’t long before the Viking settlers outgrew their enclave on Wirral and attacked Chester.

>> Part V: Chester Restored

FT Wainwright, Scandinavian England, Chichester, Phillimore,  1975.
Stephen Harding, Ingimund’s Saga: Viking Wirral, (2000), University of Chester,  2016 edition.
Paul Cavill, Stephen Harding and Judith Jesch (editors), Wirral and its Viking Heritage, Shaun Tyas, 2015.
Stephen Harding , David Griffiths and Elizabeth Royles (editors), In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England, CRC Press, 2014.
Clare Downham, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014, Dunedin, 2007.
David Griffiths, Vikings of the Irish Sea, History Press, 20,
Michael Livingston, The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, Liverpool University Press, 2011.

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