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History of York
Viking Times

The Great Heathen Army of the Vikings (mainly from Denmark), under Princes Ivarr the Boneless and Halfdan Wide-Embrace of Sjaelland & Uppsala, captured York during a surprise attack on 1st November AD 866, just a year after arriving in Britain. The last Anglian Kings of Northumbria, the rival (though temporarily united) Aelle II and Osbert, were defeated at the Battle of York the following year. Legend has the former captured and 'Spread-Eagled' for complicity in the murder of the invaders' father, King Ragnarr Lothbrok. The Vikings quickly transformed Jorvik, as they called the city, into the capital of their Kingdom of York, which occupied an area roughly equal to the three Ridings of Yorkshire (England's largest county), though it later spread into Lancashire and Westmorland. They installed puppet Anglian monarchs to rule the area while York was used as the main base for the Viking armies which continued to sweep across Saxon England. This system of government continued in York for some twenty years. Eventually, however, the Great Heathen Army began to halt its long marches and settle down. The Great Summer Army under the war-leader, Guthrum, split off and headed for East Anglia, while Halfdan Wide-Embrace took the York throne in AD 876. He was followed by a variety of relatives who established their Royal Palace in and around the old Roman south-east gate into the city. The area was known as Konungsgarthr (now King's Square) as early as the 10th century. By AD 883, Christianity returned to the ruling classes in York, with the acceptance of King Guthfrith I Hardicnutson. Holy Trinity Church, in King's Square, was probably his Chapel Royal but he was buried in the Minster in AD 895. Viking style Christian memorials are in evidence throughout the city and, by AD 905, the Danish Kings were flaunting their alliance with the Church through religious mottoes on their upgraded coinage. In AD 956, a Viking even became Archbishop. There were short interregnums as governments rose and fell in these troubled times or when the Saxon Kings of Wessex managed to gain control of the city and the kingdom, but the Viking monarchs survived in York for almost a hundred years.

Under the watchful eye of its new masters, York grew into a substantial city: a commercial centre and a busy port, brought magical to life again today at the Jorvik Viking Centre. Using the old Roman fortress of Eboracum as part of Jorvik's defences, the Vikings constructed new streets lined by regular building plots for timber houses between AD 900 and 935. There was a new bridge over the River Ouse and up to twenty churches for a population estimated at up to 10,000 in the 10th century, perhaps 15,000 by 1066. Jorvik's many industries are evidenced not only by existing street names like Coppergate - the street of the wood turners - but also through excavated artifacts showing that the inhabitants were working in metal, wood, bone, antler, amber, jet, textiles and glass. Goods included everyday items and small mass-produced luxuries like cheap jewellery. It was a rich trading centre of international importance, with contacts across the British Isles, North-West Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It remained so even after the Viking kingdom was absorbed into England in AD 954 and also later, after the Normans invaded England in 1066 and made York their main administrative and judicial centre in northern England.

The growing power of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex in the south eventually overcame the Kingdom of York and it was re-absorbed into the rest of England after the last King, the outlandishly named Erik Bloodaxe, was defeated and killed in AD 954.

Article by Brenda Ralph Lewis & David Nash Ford

Next: Late Saxon Times


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