Above: Map showing today’s Inner London boroughs with four known sites where the Vikings settled in London.
The Vikings did not have much effect on how London developed from an administrative point of view but it is important to realise where they settled in London.
The archetypal caricature of a Viking, in the minds of many people in England, is probably a rugged ‘hunk’ of a man with a fighting implement in one hand and some trophy slung over the other. Stories of Vikings setting fire to English villages, stealing gold from parish churches and raping the women in a community are commonplace. Sadly, that did take place but they were more sophisticated than that. Vikings is a generic name for the peoples from Norway and Denmark who were great adventurers. They sailed across the North Sea, attacking principally the east coast of Britain. A visit to York will make you aware of the Vikings – mainly from Norway – for which there is a museum called the Jorvik Viking Centre. The Vikings also attacked East Anglia and Kent. They were mainly from Denmark.
In Norfolk are two small sea-side resorts called Sidestrand and Overstrand. The last syllable ‘strand’ is, in fact, a Danish word and simply means ‘land beside water or the sea’. These are simple examples of how Vikings have affected the English language.
Above: The intimidating figurehead on a replica Viking long-boat now on display at Pegwell Bay, near Ramsgate in Kent.
Vikings attacked Britain even while the Romans were in occupation. In AD 449 they attacked Kent. To mark the 1500th anniversary of this event, a Danish museum built a replica long-boat and it was rowed to England, landing at the Main Bay, Broadstairs. The long-boat was put on show at Pegwell Bay, near Ramsgate, where it can still be seen.
Returning to the history of London, there is plenty of evidence for Vikings in the area. The clue to Vikings is long-boats and for them to be usable there has to be water. The places associated with Vikings were all beside the Thames or beside rivers that flowed into the Thames.
Hackney is one example. Its name derives from Old English ‘Hacan ieg’ meaning ‘Haca’s Isle’. It is believed that the name was an early form of Haakon a name still in use by the Norwegian royal family. The isle or island was a piece of land, surrounded by water somewhere along the River Lea. Viking long-boats could easily have navigated up the Lea from the Thames.
Greenwich was a place where the Vikings, in this case, the Danes had a camp by 1012. They had taken Alphege, the Archbishop of Canterbury hostage and were hoping a ransom would be paid. Alphege had left instructions that, if he were taken prisoner, a ransom should not be paid and in 1012 he was murdered at Greenwich by the Danes. There is a tradition that the parish church of St Aphege was built on the site of his martyrdom.
Tooley Street, near London Bridge, was another site which the Danes occupied. They established a church – called St Olave – which also stood near London Bridge. In fact, Tooley Street derives its name from a corruption of ‘St Olave’s Street’. Further evidence for the Danes was found when New Guy’s House, a large red-brick block in at Guy’s Hospital, was being built in the 1960s. While preparing the foundations, the remains of a long-boat were found in the ground on the site. It was concluded that, in the 9th and 10th centuries, the ground had been so marshy that the long-boat could be rowed to the place where it was found.
The Strand was another place where the Danes were encamped. We have already talked about the word ‘Strand’ and this street also ran close to the river. It ran even closer before the construction of the Victoria Embankment increased the land beside the Thames. A further reminder today is the parish church called St Clement Danes.
The City was another place where the Danes settled. They founded no less than four churches, all bearing the name St Olave. Only St Olave, Hart Street, on the east side of the City remains today. The Danes were driven out of the City in AD 886 by Alfred the Great and a Saxon population moved into it.
Just a few artefacts from Viking times are on show in the Museum of London but across Britain, there are numerous examples of their work.