The Vikings and the City of York

I was looking for some inspiration to write about and my grandson mentioned that he was playing a video game about Vikings.  He wanted to know if Vikings played any part in the culture of England.  Well, there it was, the inspiration I was looking for.  Vikings and the city of York.

I’m sure you’re saying to yourself, ‘I have no interest in Vikings’.  And when you think of Great Britain, you might think of Queen Elizabeth, Buckingham Palace, Cornish Pasties, Afternoon Tea, even Harry Potter, but Vikings?  I doubt it.  In fact, I’d be quite certain Vikings don’t  come to mind at all.  But they were a critical part of the creation and the culture of Great Britain.

Vikings, also known as Norsemen, came from Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark, around 800 A.D.  Why they came to Britain, no one is really sure.  They had all the rich land they needed for their growing population in these Scandinavian countries.  But they came, nonetheless.  Some historians believe it was because of overpopulation in their country.  Others think it was to acquire wealth and power, all of which was happening throughout Asia and Europe.  Britain had already established a very lucrative trade with other countries and the Vikings knew this.  Britain was also within a reasonable journey by sea, and, as an island, could be easily conquered.  The attraction to conquer this wealthy and powerful land and leave the threat of their overreaching local chieftains could possibly have been the driving force.

The Vikings did not come peaceably.  They came to conquer and control, which, according to world history, was apparently the thing to do at that time.  Charlemagne had conquered Germany.  The Muslims took control of Spain.  Now the Norsemen were coming across the sea to take over Britain.

The first raid was in 793 A.D. where they plundered a monastery on the tiny island of Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland. (The Lindisfarne monastery will be a topic of discussion on another day.)  The Vikings quickly learned that monasteries were an easy target.  Most of the monasteries lined the coastline  and were manned by unarmed, unprotected monks who chose to live in remote, isolated areas.  Also, monasteries were keepers of great wealth, from silver plates and bowls to gold chalices and crucifixes, to elaborate manuscripts and bibles, not to mention stores of wine and fine textiles.  The Vikings hit the jackpot!  And so began the siege of monasteries by the Vikings throughout Scotland, Ireland and northern England.

Setting up a vast trade network from Dublin to Istanbul, the Vikings devised a scheme where, after plundering the monasteries of their priceless goods, they would sell these irreplaceable items back to the church.  In effect, creating up a very profitable blackmail operation.  Over the next hundred years, their massive fleets began arriving along the coast of Britain.  Now known as the Great Heathen Army, under the leadership of the fearless Halfdane and ruthless Ivar the Boneless, they marched across the land taking every city and defeating every force used against them.

With their newly-gained wealth, the Vikings or Norsemen continued the takeover and started to send for their families. They saw potential in colonizing this land, and established settlements.  It is estimated that, at this time, around 200,000 people left Scandinavia and settled in, not only Great Britain, but also parts of Russia, Iceland, Newfoundland and even France and Italy.  These Scandinavians were not learned men.  They were warriors, explorers, skilled craftsmen, boat-builders and traders, farmers and fishermen. They were not historiographers and left very little in written form of their activities.  Thankfully, other countries documented their arrival, take over and unrelenting tyranny.

Over the next three hundred years, the armies continued to raid and loot, destroying the large regions of the country and forced the English lords to begin collecting money for them.  This became, in fact, the first known universal tax in England.  The Vikings settled in Ireland as well as England establishing colonies throughout each country, but when they captured York in 867 A.D. (Viking name of Yorvik), they decided to make that city their capital, thus beginning the Viking Age.

Let’s fast forward a thousand years to 1972.  That was the year when Lloyds Bank in York decided to excavate.  It was a small dig led by the York Archaeological Trust.  Findings from this dig showed layer upon layer of organic remains from clothing and shoes to preserved seeds and plants, to human and animal bones and building materials.  All undeniable proof that an ancient civilization lay below the surface.

Over the next five years, the excavation site grew and grew.  With the help of students from all over the world, and even inmates on day release, professional and local archaeologists uncovered the most remarkable discoveries about the Viking Age.  From this site, we learned how the Viking people lived … what they ate, what they did for a living, what goods they sold.  Over 40,000 artefacts were found and catalogued.

What we learned from these important findings was how much the Vikings contributed to the culture of Britain … things we take for granted even today.  The most notable was with language.  Many names, towns, roads, etc. originated from the Norse language.  But it was more than names, commonplace words that we all use today are full of Norse words.  (See below).

Of course, the Vikings weren’t all warriors … although quite a few were.  Most were actually just ordinary people, like you and me, who spent their days taking care of their farms and families.  Quite a few intermarried with the British and eventually assimilated within the culture.  All of this we learned from this incredible excavation.

But now the question was ‘what to do with all this information and these historic objects’.  The obvious answer was to create a museum, but the York Archaeological Trust wanted something more.  They wanted a heritage site where visitors could interact with their findings.  What they came up with has been a masterful way of showcasing the Viking story.  They created a ‘Disneyland-like’ attraction where visitors would sit in moveable cars which would then travel around a reenactment of a Viking village, giving the visitor an up-close example of Viking life.  I know … I know … it sounds as if it could be a tacky, childish amusement park ride.  But …

… after three years, utilizing the experienced talents of designers, architects, sculptors, taxidermists, leather workers, silversmiths, and construction experts, The Jorvik Viking Center opened.  This is a world-class interactive museum experience, which I highly recommend.  However, it didn’t stop there.  Research continued and has fueled an expansion of the Viking Center.  With state-of-the-art technology, you can now travel back in time to a more authentic experience, and then fast forward to the excavation site as it was found in 1976.  This experience, in addition to a new gallery displaying the artefacts found at that excavation, putting them in context to how they would have been used, makes for a total immersion in the Viking way of life.

And to think this Viking experience is available to you in the medieval city of York is a real treat.  From the many medieval carvings, to The Shambles, the City Walls, and the Micklegate Bar, I believe the 2,000 year old city of York is the most photographed city in all of Great Britain.  It has won so many awards … in 2007 York was voted European Tourism “City of the Year”.  In 2010 York was voted ‘safest place to visit’ and in 2018 it earned the title “Best Place to Live” in Britain.  When you combine the city’s heritage, architecture, hi-tech and lo-tech experiences, destination restaurants, and, of course, combine that with the Jorvik Viking experience, I have no doubt you’ll agree that this city is worth visiting.

And, maybe the next time you think of Great Britain, you might actually think of Vikings!

Some Viking words we use today:
Arm: Arm    Bag: Bagg  Cake: Kaka  Child: Bairn  Club: Klubba  Die: Deyja  Egg: Egg  Fellow: Félagi  Freckle: Freknur  Guest: Gestr  Husband: Húsbónd  Knife: Knifr  Knot: Knutr  Lad: Ladd  Law: Lagu  Loose: Lauss  Mistake: Mistaka  Plow: Plogr  Race: Rás  Raise: Reisa  Rot: Rót  Saga: Saga  Same: same  Scarf: Skarfr  Sky: Ský  Slaughter: Slahtr  Steak: Steik  Sick: Syk  Sister: Systir  Take: Taka  Troll: Troll  Trust: Traust  Ugly: Uggligr  Valkyrie: Valkyrja  Viking: Vikingr  Want: Vanta  Weak: Veikr  Window: Vindauga

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References:  HistoryHit, Jorvik Viking Centre, About History, History.org, Wikipedia, Nordic Culture, Trip Savvy,
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