The Danelaw (English Danelaw, -lage or -lagh, Middle English Denelage, Old English Dena lagu or Danish Danelagen, "Danish law") was an area in early medieval England conquered by the Great Heathen Army, a massive Viking invasion, between 865 and 878.

The Danelaw was located in northeastern England and included parts of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, which was defeated in 867, East Anglia, which was defeated in 869, and Mercia, which fell into the hands of the Danes in 874.

Settlement by Scandinavians took place in the Danelaw. How extensive this Scandinavian settlement of the Danelaw actually was has not been conclusively determined. The five fortified towns of Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Stamford and Derby formed the military, administrative and economic centers of the Danelaw.

These five places are known as Five Towns or Five Castles ("Five Boroughs"). The term Danelaw for this area was not used until the mid-11th century to describe those areas of England that were socially and legally distinct from the Anglo-Saxon dominated ones. It contrasts with Engla lage, the English or Saxon law.

Emergence of the Danelaw

865 to 878: The Great Heathen Army

After various raids by Vikings in the first half of the 9th century on the British Isles, the attacks took on a new dimension from 850 onward.

While the raids had been a periodic phenomenon until then - fleets plundered in summer to return to Scandinavia in winter - in that year a Viking army wintered in England for the first time on the island of Thanet off the Thames estuary.

From lightning raids of small groups, the raids had changed to campaigns led by regular armies. The final turning point in this development was the arrival of the Great Army in East Anglia in 865.

Only King Alfred of Wessex managed to defy the great army. He concluded a peace treaty with the Viking leader Guthrum in 878, in which he recognized Danish rule in the northeast. In return, Guthrum was baptized and could rule over English territories as a Christian ruler.

The conquest of the Danelaw by the Kingdom of Wessex, finally completed in 954, led to the creation of England. The culture, language, legal norms and organizational forms of the Scandinavian settlers provided important impulses for the development of English society.

Under its leaders, the brothers Ivar and Halvdan,[5] the Viking army moved north across the Humber into throne-torn Northumbria that same year, capturing its capital, York, on November 1.

The rivals to the throne, Osberht and Ælle, then united their forces, but were defeated and killed by the Vikings on March 21, 867, along with their armies.

Northumbria with its capital York subsequently became a Scandinavian-dominated kingdom and a base for attacks on the rest of England. After the Vikings installed a tributary puppet king named Ecgberht I, the Great Army left Northumbria to invade Mercia.

The Vikings spent the winter of 867/868 in a fortified camp in Nottingham, which they had conquered, besieged by the Mercian king Burgred, who, despite military help from his brother-in-law King Æthelred of Wessex, was only able to rid himself of the Vikings by paying a ransom.

The Great Army left for York again the following year. In 869, the Danes continued their invasion with the occupation of East Anglia (winter quarters at Thetford), defeating King Edmund of East Anglia at Hoxne in November 869 and thus finally annexing his realm to their possessions.

Edmund was soon venerated as a martyr. The following year the army, under its leader Guthrum, occupied Reading, strategically located on the Thames, to conquer Wessex, and fought several battles with the West Saxons between 870 and 871, with varying results, at Englefield, at Reading itself, at Ashdown, Basing, and Merantūn (place unknown, perhaps Marton).

A new fleet, which entered the Thames in 871, reinforced the Great Army at Reading. Alfred, who had taken over the regency of Wessex from his brother Æthelred, who died in 871, failed to gain a decisive advantage despite nine more battles (including one at Wilton), and the exhausted opponents concluded a truce. The Vikings retreated to London.

Between 871 and 874, the Grand Army turned its focus to Mercia. Winter camps in London (871/872), Torksey (872/73) and finally Repton (873/874) in Derbyshire, seat and burial place of the Mercian kings, formed the cornerstones of the army's route through Mercia.

At Repton, extensive excavations made it possible to reconstruct the camp of the Great Army. Among other things, a mass grave with the bones of at least 249 members of the Viking army was discovered. After three years Mercia had fallen. King Burgred preferred exile overseas in 874 (he died soon after in Rome) and the Vikings installed the shadow king Ceolwulf in his place.

In the same year, the army divided in Repton. The leader of the army, Halvdan, moved with part of the army to Northumbria. After establishing secure borders there on the northern border river Tyne in battles against Picts and the Britons of Strathclyde, he divided the land among his followers in 876. In just ten years, East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia had fallen into Danish hands, with only Wessex still offering resistance.

The main army moved to Cambridge in 874. From there, in 875, another attempt was made to conquer the last remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Meeting no resistance, the army made it as far as Wareham on the Channel coast, where it spent the following winter.

In 876 it moved on to Exeter. After negotiations, the army left for Gloucester in Mercia in 877. The Vikings divided the country into an English West Mercia and a Danish East Mercia. They released the latter for settlement, reducing the strength of their army a second time.

In 878 they again invaded Wessex, using Chippenham as a base and bringing large parts of Wessex under their control. King Alfred retreated to the impassable marshlands of Somerset, where he launched attacks on the Vikings from the fortified island of Athelney.

In the spring of 878, Alfred and his now assembled army defeated the Vikings at Edington so effectively that, after the ensuing siege of their headquarters at Chippenham, they agreed to negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Wedmore.

The leader of the Vikings, Guthrum, was baptized with thirty of his followers, provided hostages, and left Wessex for Cirencester in Mercia later that year.

In 879 the army then moved permanently to East Anglia to divide the land among themselves. In 880 Guthrum left England with some of his men to plunder on the continent in the Carolingian Empire.

Attacks between 892 and 896

Until 884, Wessex had peace. In that year Guthrum landed at Rochester in Kent, where his army was reinforced by Vikings from East Anglia.

However, King Alfred, who had had time to build an effective defense in the preceding years, was able to repel the attack by 886 and also capture London.

The Treaty of Wedmore was renewed and a boundary line agreed upon: up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, then up the Ouse to Watling Street.

Major attacks did not take place again until 892, when the Great Army, which had formed on the Continent in 879 and had since plundered Frankish territories on the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, Somme, and Seine, sailed for England in two groups and established camps in Kent (Milten Regis, Appledore).

After uniting the groups, the army moved as far as Buttington in western Mercia in 893, and from there plundered Mercia and Wales. However, the Viking army was harassed by a Welsh-English army and moved out to the ruins of the abandoned Roman fortress of Chester in northern Mercia, where it received support from compatriots from the Danelaw.

At the same time, Exeter was attacked by another Viking group. After sacking Wales the following year, the army retreated from Chester to Mersea in Essex. A camp on an island in the Lea was successfully besieged by Alfred in 894.

Another Viking advance in 895 to Bridgnorth on the Severn was also unsuccessful, and the army disbanded in 896. Parts settled in the Danelaw. Those who did not have enough to buy land there moved to the Frankish Empire to gain wealth on the Seine with further plundering.

Against new attacks and plundering from the Danelaw in 896 against the south coast of Wessex, on Wight and in Devonshire, Alfred also used ships, which he had built according to his own plans.

However, their size - twice as large as the Danish, taller, wider, and with sixty or more oars - meant that they were ultimately not superior to the more maneuverable Viking ships at sea, so the success of the English fleet remained variable, especially since the Danes were also the more experienced sailors.

Conquest of the Danelaw by Wessex

When King Alfred of Wessex died in 899, he left behind a fortified kingdom. From the Burghal Hidage, a document recorded around 910, it appears that he had at least thirty places in Wessex fortified.

These included old Roman camps (such as Portchester) and towns (such as Exeter or Winchester), new towns (such as Wareham or Wallingford), and prehistoric rampart castles (Pilton).

These fortified places were financed by hoof taxes and manned by peasants. Alfred divided the army into two halves, one of which was always under arms.

These conditions enabled his son and successor Edward the Elder (king from 899 to 924) to begin the conquest of the Danelaw.

After the death of his brother-in-law Æthelred, Edward was given control of the Thames Valley, which served as a base for his conquests. Together with his sister Æthelflæd, who continued to rule Mercia, he conquered southeastern Mercia and East Anglia in the years leading up to 918 by gradually eliminating individual Viking groups.

A Northumbrian attack was repulsed at the Battle of Tettenhall in 910. The weakness of the Danelaw that followed as a result of the English victory favored Edward's conquests.

New burhs continued to be created to secure the territories falling under his control.

By 920, the territory of the Five Cities had also been conquered. Finally, in 919-920, the burhs of Thelwall, Manchester and Bakewell were established in the northern border area as a starting point for the conquest of the Kingdom of York.

As ruler over all of England, Edward thus additionally exercised a kind of suzerainty over the neighboring territories of his domain. Wessex had prevailed over the Danelaw as the only surviving of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

The unification of the various territories subsequently gave rise to the Kingdom of England, and Edward the Elder can thus be considered - without diminishing the achievements of Alfred the Great - the first all-English king.

At the beginning of the 10th century, the Danish-dominated Kingdom of York was involved in a defensive struggle against Norwegian Vikings from Dublin and was therefore unable to oppose the Anglo-Saxon advance with any decisive forces.

From 919/20, under the Norwegian Ragnvald, York became part of a Hiberno-Norwegian power bloc that extended to Dublin.

Edward's son and successor Æthelstan (king from 925 to 939) took possession of the kingdom of York in 927 after the expulsion of the Hiberno-Norwegian ruler Guthfrith, and that same year had the kings of Scotland, Strathclyde, West Wales (Cornwall), Gwent (in Wales), and the earldorman of the Anglo-Saxon-dominated northern part of Northumbria, ancient Bernicia, pay homage to him at Bamburgh.

An attempt by Olaf Guthfrithsson, the Irish-Norwegian ruler of Dublin, together with the kings of the Scots and of Strathclyde, to break Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the north of England and to reestablish the Dublin-York axis ended in 937 in the Battle of Brunanburh (place unknown, possibly near Bromborough in Cheshire) with the victory of the Anglo-Saxons under Æthelstan. It was not until after the latter's death in 939 that Norwegians again ruled York for a short time.

However, with the death of Erik Blutaxt in 954 at the Battle of Stainmore, Scandinavian rule in England or parts of it ended by the beginning of the 11th century.

Scandinavian settlement in Danelaw

Number of settlers and course of the settlement

Since there are almost no written sources for the evaluation of the Scandinavian settlement activity in the Danelaw, research has not yet reached a generally accepted consensus.

Even archaeological finds can only answer the open questions to a limited extent. As the only contemporary written source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes statements about Scandinavian settlements.

Similar indications are given by the Chronicle in 877, when another part of the Great Army divided eastern Mercia among itself. Finally, in 879, the last part of the Viking army settled in East Anglia after the Vikings had occupied and divided it.

For 892, the chronicle reports that the Great Army from the mainland embarked for England with horses, and in 893 it says that the English army laid hands on all the property of the Danes and on women and children in the attack on the camp of the Viking army at Benfleet at the mouth of the Thames.

The following year it is reported that the Danes took their women to safety in East Anglia, and in 896, when the Danish army disbanded, some went to Northumbria, some to East Anglia, and those who were destitute embarked for renewed depredations in the Frankish Empire.

When various Irish kings banded together to defeat and drive the Vikings from Dublin in 902, they settled in northwest England.

The size of the Great Army of 865 is now estimated at about 500 to 3000 men. However, with this seemingly small number, it must be remembered that the army was mostly fighting hastily called up peasant levies, which had little chance of victory against the militarily tightly managed and battle-hardened Vikings.

Even the Great Army, which according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle crossed from the continent in 892 in two groups of 250 and 80 ships, had far fewer than 10,000 fighters, according to modern estimates.

In order to explain the strongly Scandinavian character of the Danelaw, research has assumed a second wave of immigration that settled the land behind the military umbrella of the conquerors. However, the evidence for this assumption is difficult to provide.

Etymological evidence

As another clue according to the sparse written sources, the list of place names listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 serves to reconstruct settlement activity. The Domesday Book was used by King William the Conqueror (king from 1066 to 1087) to record the achievements of those lands that belonged to the crown. There are mainly three important different forms of place names of Scandinavian origin:
  • Place names of the so-called Grimston mixed type, consisting of an Old Norse personal name and the Old English suffix -tūn, meaning village or homestead. (Examples: Grimston, Barkston, Thurvaston).
  • Pure Scandinavian place names ending in -by (village, homestead). There are nearly 800 of these, 200 in Lincolnshire alone (examples: Derby, Selby, Danby, Thoresby).
  • Places whose names end in -thorpe, denoting a remote hamlet, a subordinate settlement. (Examples: Grimsthorpe (Odinsdorf), Scunthorpe, Swainthorpe, Weaverthorpe.)

In addition to these name components, various other less common suffixes of Old Norse origin are found in many place names. Examples are names on -ey, -bost, -dale, -gate, -kirk or -toft. For the territory of the Five Towns alone, the Domesday Book records more than five hundred village names of Danish origin.

Older research assumed that the Great Army under its leaders would have settled in broad masses in the Danelaw territories. The observed higher concentration of yeomen (socmen) in the Danelaw was also listed as an argument for a high number of settlers.

This, however, did not result directly from the different social and economic conditions that the Scandinavian settlers brought with them from their homeland, in contrast to Anglo-Saxon England.

Rather, in the Kingdom of Wessex, the defensive struggle against the Scandinavian conquerors led to a centralization of administration and a concentration of economic resources.

This included an increased formation of landed estates with unfree peasants and a resulting decrease in free peasants. In contrast, the Danelaw remained politically fragmented under local leaders, and independent peasants were more common.

And their status was not determined by origin, but by the type of taxes established: Only six of 74 yeomen mentioned in 11th-century documents bear Scandinavian names.

Considerations of settlement history also address the spatial distribution of the various types of names in comparison with agricultural conditions.

Places with village names of the Grimston type are mostly located on good arable land. These are existing Anglo-Saxon villages that were renamed by their new Scandinavian owner.

Villages of the -by type seem to indicate a second phase of settlement, in which previously fallow but usable land was recorded.

The villages are much less often located on good arable land. Places with the suffix -thorpe, on the other hand, are almost always located on marginal areas of cultivable land and thus seem to have originated last. This is also indicated by the use of the suffix -thorpe.

From these findings it was deduced that the Scandinavian settlement took place in two phases: After the conquest and military securing of the Danelaw in phase one, the land in the Danelaw was settled area-wide in the second phase by an influx of compatriots.

However, since this assumption has great uncertainties, it has not been able to gain final acceptance. Thus, it is not known whether and to what extent unused, cultivable land existed at all at the end of the 9th century.

Likewise, it is more likely that the new lords divided the land among themselves as they saw fit, instead of leaving the previous settlement and land distribution structure untouched and building new settlements away from the existing ones.

It was also considered certain for a long time that an influx of further settlers must have taken place, since according to today's estimates the Scandinavian armies comprised only a few thousand men.

Archaeological finds


Extensive excavations have provided insights into the urban culture of the Danelaw, particularly at York and Lincoln. The city of York was refortified soon after its capture by the Vikings in 866 by repairing the old Roman walls.

There appears to have been a large influx of new settlers, as the road network was rebuilt. The numerous roads with the suffix -gate still bear witness to this today.

Jetties were built on the banks of the Ouse. Between 1976 and 1981 excavations were carried out in various places in the old town. On the sites investigated in Coppergate were rectangular wooden buildings with their gable ends facing the street.

Often, another house used as a workshop adjoined behind it. There were remains of woodworking workshops, a jeweler's workshop, and one of the rare coin mints complete with dies and proofs.

Finds of textiles, combs, metal products made of bronze, gold, silver and lead, glass beads, wood and leather articles reflect the variety of craft activities carried out here.

The extensive trade connections show various goods originating from abroad, such as silk from Byzantium, wine jugs from the Rhineland, whetstones from Norway, amber from the Baltic Sea, and the shell of an exotic cowrie snail from the Red Sea.

The importance of York decreased only after the Norman conquest of England. On the one hand, trade was oriented more towards the areas around the English Channel, and on the other hand, William I incinerated the city as well as large parts of northern England after an anti-Norman uprising in 1069.

The excavation areas at Coppergate were conserved after the investigations were completed and opened to the public as the Jórvík Viking Centre.

Scandinavian settlers also laid out a new road network in Lincoln, excavations revealed. Around 900, they re-divided the space within the old Roman fortifications.

As in York, goods from various areas of Europe and the Near East were found here. Likewise, legacies of local craft production came to light during the excavations.

At Stamford, typically shaped pottery was produced on the wheel, which spread across the Five Castles area, marking its sphere of influence at the same time.

Pots, bowls, jugs, pitchers and dishes of this type were found during excavations. More valuable versions of this ware were glazed.

Rural settlements

Only a small number of rural settlements have been excavated in the Danelaw and the Kingdom of York. At Ribblehead in Yorkshire (♁54° 12′ 3.9″ N, 2° 21′ 38.1″ W), a longhouse similar to Norwegian buildings of the same period was found.

Similar structures were also found at other sites. Everywhere, a mixture of agriculture and craft activity seems to have been pursued.

Here and in other excavations of agricultural settlements, no clear Scandinavian attribution of the former inhabitants could be carried out.

In the Five Towns area, remains of longhouses surrounded by a fortified enclosure were found at Goltho near Lincoln and at Sulgrave.

Here, too, the settlements could not be clearly assigned to the Anglo-Saxon or the Danish part of the population.

Graves recognizable as pagan by grave goods were found only rarely. This can be seen as evidence for the quick Christian assimilation of the settlers.

Culture and religion

The influence of the Scandinavian settlers is also evident in various stone sculptures, which, due to their material, have been better preserved than other material evidence.

A special form of gravestones are the Hogback stones, which originated in the 10th century: Tombstones in the shape of a house with arched side walls and curved roof ridge.

The front sides are formed by bear heads facing each other in some specimens.

The sides are often decorated with pictorial representations or even knot patterns in the Borre style. Hogback stones catered to the tastes of Scandinavian settlers and are found primarily in Yorkshire (especially common in the Vale of Tea') and Cumbria as far north as Scotland.

Some examples survive today at over 30 sites, including Brompton, Ingleby Arncliffe (all Yorkshire), Gosforth (Cumbria), Heysham (Lancashire), West Kirby (Wirral), or Govan and Luss (all Scotland).

Stone crosses were set before the Scandinavian conquest, however, the workshops of the stonemasons adopted the Scandinavian design language.

Thus, depictions of Christian religious scenes were mixed with pagan motifs. The 10th-century cross at Gosforth in Cumbria, decorated with Borre patterns and combining a crucifixion scene with depictions from Ragnarok, is a good example.

The same cross also shows the Irish influence brought to the west coast of England by the Norwegian settlers: The ring-shaped cross head is a typical Irish stylistic feature.

The Gosforth cross is the largest surviving work of sculpture in England before the Norman Conquest. Other sculptures and crosses, such as those at Sockburn (Durham) and Middleton (Yorkshire), show the Scandinavian lords of the Danelaw as they liked to see themselves depicted: in armor and with weapons.

The emergence of all these tombs and crosses with Christian symbolism in the 10th century shows how quickly the cultural assimilation of the Scandinavians took place.

The readiness of the Scandinavian conquerors to accept the Christian faith had already been indicated by Guthrum's baptism at Wedmore in 878.

Coins minted by the Scandinavian-born kings of York also underscore this rapid change. By the turn of the 10th century, Christian crosses had already been used as coin symbols and circumscriptions such as Dominus deus omnipotens rex (Lord and God Almighty King).

In 905, pennies with the circumscription Sancti Petri moneti (Saint Peter's money) were minted in York. Around 895, a Scandinavian leader was buried in York Minster according to Christian ritual. And as early as 883, monks who had fled Lindisfarne just eight years earlier were able to settle back in Northumbria with peace of mind.

The attempts of the Hiberno-Norwegian kings to conquer Dublin marked a certain break. On coins of kings Ragnvald and Sigtrygg, besides the cross, pagan symbols such as the Thor's hammer are used again.

Olav Sigtryggsson's coins show, among other things, a raven banner. But this also remained only an episode. Olav died in seclusion in the monastery of Iona in 981.

And already with Oswald of York a grandson of one of the Scandinavians who had come to England at the time of the Great Army became Archbishop of York. He was venerated as a saint soon after his death in 992.


The Scandinavian settlers exerted a lasting effect on English society in many different areas of life. For example, the English language was strongly influenced by Danish.

The 600 or so Old Norse loan words preserved in modern English are found not only in certain domains or special fields of activity, but widely in every area of English.

These include such common words as call < kalla 'call', fellow < félagi 'comrade', loose < lauss 'loose', knife < knífr 'knife', take < taka 'take', window < vind-auga 'window', egg < egg 'egg', ill < íllr 'bad, evil, sick', law < *lagu 'law', give < giva 'give', which have replaced the Anglo-Saxon expressions originally present.

There was also a change in language structure by the Scandinavian settlers. The present personal pronoun for the third person plural they, them, their < þeir, þeim, þeirra and some prepositions such as from 'from' or til 'to' are also due to Scandinavian.

Loan words in English dialects number in the thousands, especially in agricultural settings. This indicates that many Scandinavian settlers cultivated their own land and kept their own livestock. The strong linguistic influence is also based on the similarity of many Old Norse and Old English words.

The English kings endeavored by various measures to consolidate the unity of the realm after the conquest of the Danelaw. This included the collection and standardization of legal texts.

However, the Scandinavian influence in the territories of the Danelaw was so strong that even after the reconquest by the Anglo-Saxons, the different legal traditions of Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons had to be taken into account.

A body of laws produced under King Edgar (king from 959 to 975) is the first of several collections of laws showing the differences between the legal customs of Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians.

Around the turn of the millennium, under Edgar's son and successor Æthelred (king from 978 to 1013 and 1014-1016), two separate codices were even published, one for the areas of English law, one for the areas of the Five Cities.

An identity of the Danelaw area different from that of the rest of England is thus detectable long after the English reconquest. Among the things that Dane Law knew, in contrast to English Law, was, for example, the use of twelve jurors, at least eight of whom had to reach a unanimous verdict.

The oath before the court also goes back to Scandinavian law. A fine called lahslit for breaking the law existed only in Danelaw territory. The position of the hide as the basis of assessment for land tax in Anglo-Saxon part of England was taken by the caracuta in the northern Danelaw.

Only recently have researchers at the University of Southern Denmark discovered that a legal work previously considered a forgery, kept as Codex Wetmorii in the private library of a Danish count, has significant textual similarities with later Jutish law.

The text, written by a Frater Ejnarius to regulate everyday life in the Danelaw, can thus be considered an early form of Scandinavian landscape law of later centuries.

The period of the Great Army was also received in later times in Scandinavia. The saga of Ragnar Lodbrok (Ragnars saga lodbrokar, 14th century) and even more so the Krákumál song (late 12th century), both of which originated in Iceland, recount in fable-like defamiliarization how the more legendary than historical Ragnar is killed in a snake pit by King Ælle in Northumbria. Ragnar's sons Halvdan, Ivar the Boneless and Ubbe then avenge him by invading England and killing the king.

The 1968 British feature film Alfred the Great - Conqueror of the Vikings, starring David Hemmings as King Alfred the Great and Michael York as Viking leader Guthrum, retells the story of the defensive struggle of Wessex against the Great Army between 870 and 878, but focuses on the king's (fictional) private life. Only the crowd scenes in the battles won critical acclaim.

The British writer Bernard Cornwell used the events surrounding the Danish attempts to conquer the Kingdom of Wessex as the basis for a series of historical novels, the Saxon Stories, which have been published since 2007. Since 2007, these novels have also been gradually translated into German.