England, land of the Angles, could easily have become Daneland. In this counterfactual history, the Viking victory against King Alfred ‘Lossland’ in 878, the ‘year of the battles’, saw the demise of the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. All of the Saxon kingdoms had now been swept away – Essex, Middlesex, Sussex and Wessex would never become embedded in the geography of southern England.

The strong link between Daneland and the Danish crown helped repel their wayward Norman cousins decades later. Britain instead became one of the key possessions in a Scandinavian cultural sphere that extended over much of northern Europe, the Atlantic islands and far beyond.

By 878, a vast swathe of England was under the control of Danish invaders. Their southern borders reached the banks of the Thames at London, tracing a line running southeast from Chester. In the north, they held sway as far as the river Tees and southern Cumbria. This was the Danelaw, the land where Danish law prevailed, and it covered a third of England.

Map of the Danelaw

In this territory, Danish customs, law and power had ousted that of the Anglo-Saxons. They brought immigrants from Scandinavia, slaves from across the Viking world and a linguistic legacy that is still noticeable in many English words, place names and regional dialects.

In 793 Viking raiders attacked the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Although sporadic raids had been undertaken in the years before the sack of Lindisfarne, the savage assault and destruction of the holy monastery sent shockwaves through Christian Britain. They were known variously as Danes, Norsemen, Vikings, barbarians, heathens and pirates and their arrival, quite literally out of nowhere and over the horizon, was terrifying to the settled people of the British Isles.

By the ninth century, the pattern and duration of raids had intensified significantly. What had started as opportunistic attacks on easy targets had developed into a more sophisticated assault on Anglo-Saxon power. This would find its most overt expression in the landing of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ in 865. This combination of Scandinavian power had a simple objective: conquest.

Lindisfarne Castle on Holy island By matthew Hunt (originally posted to Flickr as Holly Island 11) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

After an initial run of success that saw the Danes defeat three of the four Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of England. East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria fell in quick succession. It was only King Alfred of Wessex’s victory at the Battle of Edington in 878 that halted their advance and brought about a period of consolidation in their conquered territories. This was affirmed in the Treaty of Wedmore, formalising the Danish control of northern and eastern England.

Danish rule meant Danish customs and practices displaced their Anglo-Saxon equivalents. The basic administrative area (the hundred), method of assessing public duties and taxation (the hide and the virgate) of Mercia became the Wapentake, carucate and bovate of the Danelaw.

Norsemen making a landing

The Danish legacy is buried in both the geography of England and in the DNA of its people. Place names throughout the Danelaw are testament to the brief period of Danish rule. Cities, towns and villages ending in  -howe (e.g. Castle Howe), -by (e.g. Grimsby and Whitby) or -thorp (e.g. Scunthorp and Cleethorpes) have linguistic origns in old Norse.

The Danes also left a linguistic legacy, as Old Norse words easily entered the local vernacular. Some of the most prominent include anger, birth, cake, egg, hell, knife and outlaw.