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Norse Nottingham: How the Vikings Impacted Our City

10 June 20 interview: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Raphael Achache

We’ve all been there. You’re abroad on holiday, and a taxi driver or barman asks where you’re from. ‘Ah, Nottingham? Robin Hood!’ While our city’s pairing with a figure whose existence hasn’t been proven is interesting, it’s often at the expense of the cultures that helped shape the landscape of Notts, including the enormous, lasting impact of the Vikings. We talk to the University of Nottingham’s Dr. Rebecca Gregory, author of Viking Nottinghamshire, about Nottingham’s Norse legacy…

Why do you think Nottingham’s Viking history isn’t as well known or discussed as other time periods?
I suppose you could say it’s dominated by Robin Hood, and how popular that story is worldwide – and I can understand why people identify with that story. In comparison to places like York and Lincoln, where the Viking presence is so strong, Nottingham has less to show in terms of archaeology. The Medieval town is now all under a big urban area, and there haven’t been any excavations since the seventies, so we haven’t had the opportunity to really see what’s there. 

What would classify as the Viking Age?
There are so many different definitions depending on where you are in the world and what your focus is. But in Nottinghamshire, and the wider East Midlands, we are looking at a period from the mid-9th century to the 11th century, when the Normans arrived. It started with a period of invading, which then turned to settling. It’s easy to forget that settling comes after an invasion, and people are looking for new homes and just getting back to the regular business of everyday life, but with the additional difference of new cultures and people. 

What were some of the key events at that time?
The first thing most people know about from an English context is the raid on Lindisfarne [Northumberland] in 793. That wouldn’t really have affected Nottinghamshire, or even been in people’s consciousness. It wasn’t until 865 that the Great Heathen Army, a mixture of warbands and their entourage from Scandinavia and elsewhere, landed in East Anglia and started to maraud around the country. We get the most concrete involvement of Nottingham in 868 when the army wintered here and the area came under Viking rule. Then in 878, King Alfred ‘The Great’ won a victory over Guthrum, one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army and the two sides agreed a treaty that saw the Vikings take control over much of Eastern England. The area later became known as the Danelaw, and stretched from London to the Mersey, including Nottinghamshire. 

What was the lasting impact of the Viking presence in Nottinghamshire?
It’s a difficult question to answer as a lot of the impact is not tangible. On a broader regional scale the impact is massive, but not necessarily dramatic, and ranges from patterns in religious expression and symbolism to place names and economic and trading practice. In Viking Nottinghamshire I tried to find the local things that a modern member of the public, who doesn’t necessarily have specialist training, can see for themselves and find interesting. 

From reading your book, it seems like a lot of that comes from street names?
Absolutely. One example would be street names that end in the word ‘gate’. Many of those would have originally come from the Old Norse word ‘gata’, meaning street. Some of the street names in Nottingham that end in ‘gate’ were named long after the Viking Age ended, which shows how the language continued to be influential. You can also see people’s names in place names, which gives you a very vivid snippet of ongoing settlement in the area. 

Has the popularity of shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom created an increased interest in the time period?
It’s hard to measure things like that, because it’s hard to know with certainty where interest comes from. But you can definitely say that Vikings are having a cultural moment, and that is coming not just from TV series, but from video games and books too. We’ve had a strong interest at the University of Nottingham since the eighties, and our undergraduate courses in English have lots of choices in Viking and medieval studies. Also, we’re currently offering a free trial of our new online MA programmes that are launching in September, including a taster of some Old Norse and some place-names. 

You can definitely say that Vikings are having a cultural moment

As an academic in the area, do you watch shows like that? Or do the historical inaccuracies make it too difficult?
I have colleagues at both ends of the spectrum: some love them, and some avoid them altogether. I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I haven’t seen The Last Kingdom, but that’s only because I haven’t had time, but I did watch the first two seasons of Vikings. I really like the fact that it’s gone back into the popular consciousness, especially from a teaching perspective as it gives you something to draw on. You have comparisons to talk about and, even if they’re not historically accurate, students still have a starting point of knowing something. 

Speaking of historical inaccuracies, what are some of the biggest misconceptions about Vikings that you come across? 
In general I think people tend to focus on the wrong aspects of the Viking Age rather than misunderstanding it. Like the raping and pillaging parts – there was certainly violence and ransacking of monasteries, but they weren’t the only things that happened. A lot of recent work has focused on everyday people rather than the big single events. Battles and individual figures are often the easiest parts to pin down from documentary sources. Part of it comes from how we view the period historically: the Victorians really liked the Vikings, they’re the ones who gave them horned helmets, so a lot of the modern ideas of Vikings actually come from the Victorian representations of them.

How did you begin the process of writing Viking Nottinghamshire?
The starting point was assembling what I thought I knew already, and then finding the evidence that speaks to the story. It’s one thing to write a narrative about what you think happened, but it’s another to actually show people how we know – I think that’s really important in history. So there were plenty of visits to churches and looking at stone sculptures, which was brilliant as I love an excuse for a field trip! I talked to a lot of people who had worked on the subject, and read and re-read, before working out how to weave everything into a narrative that is accurate and doesn’t play into stereotypes. Personally, I’d had enough of the war and conquest focus, and just wanted to write more about the Viking influence on Nottingham itself. 

The book is part of the wider East Midlands Viking Project. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
It started back in 2017 as the brainchild of two of my colleagues, Judith Jesch and Roderick Dale. They received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to create a project that brought the Vikings back to the East Midlands, with the aim of creating and embedding awareness of the Viking Age in the region. There was an accompanying exhibition at Lakeside that had actual artefacts, as well as information and interpretations of the Viking Age locally. 

There are a series of lectures on Viking areas, which are still available online along with loads of digital resources in what is essentially a virtual museum which is all free to access. Whether it’s teachers and universities, or just people interested in history, there are items from private collections, from other museums, from all over the place really. It’s a way of bringing lots of stuff together for people to access in their own time, on their own terms.

Is there anything else people interested in the era should know?
There have been ongoing excavations in the area that were the subject of a Channel 4 documentary called Britain’s Viking Graveyard, and there’s going to be an equivalent Viking Leicestershire book released later this year. Also, Judith is giving an online talk about Viking Invasions and Settlement in the East Midlands on Wednesday 3 June.

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