The Vikings And Their Victims: The Verdict Of The Names

Viking ship from the HISTORy channel programme, "Vikings"

Viking ship from the HISTORy channel programme, “Vikings”

The Vikings And Their Victims: The Verdict Of The Names

Gillian Fellows

Viking Society for Northern Research (1995)

Introduction: In the Dorothea Coke memorial lecture delivered in 1986, Professor R. I. Page, that silver-haired master of silvertongued vituperation, had to admit that he had been at a loss as to how to translate without resort to obscenity one of the many more or less obscene descriptions employed by the late tenthcentury English chronicler Æthelweard of the late ninth-century Viking invaders. The rather colourless result arrived at: A most vile people, was included in the title of his lecture on the radically differing views about the Vikings that were held by early historians. It is not, of course, surprising that the victims of Viking attacks considered their aggressors to be pagan barbarians, capable of every kind of deed of shame, nor that inscriptions on runestones in Scandinavia raised to the memory of Vikings who had died in action in the west praise the dead men as models of valour, liberality and loyalty.

Among the many inscriptions commemorating Swedes who died in England discussed by Professor Sven B. F. Jansson in his Dorothea Coke memorial lecture in 1965, for example, is that on the stone at Transjö in Småland, which was raised in the eleventh century by Gaut to his son Ketil, who is said to have been ‘among men the most un-dastard’. Ketil’s English enemies may not have shared the opinion of his father but there certainly were Englishmen in the eleventh century who could acknowledge the heroism and fidelity of the Vikings, even while describing the atrocities they had suffered at their hands.

The English must have been only too conscious of the Scandinavian element in the population of their country. They knew that new waves of invading Vikings had sometimes received support from their fellow-countrymen already resident in the Danelaw. An English defeat in East Anglia in 1009, for example, is ascribed to the fact that a man called Þurcytel Myran heafod – instigated the flight from the field of battle, leaving this in the possession of the Danes. Þurcytel is an anglicised form of a typically Scandinavian personal name, Þorketil, while Myran heafod – ‘mare’s head’ is an English by-name, perhaps a translation of Scandinavian *merarho≈fuð, and almost certainly derogatory. Eleventh-century Englishmen also knew, however, that men bearing Scandinavian personal names could remain true to the English cause even in the face of Danish attack. The East Anglian levies whose defeat was brought about by Þurcytel’s infamous flight were actually under the command of a man with the Scandinavian name Ulfcytel who had a long record of valiant behaviour in command of English forces and actually died fighting the Danes in yet another battle which was lost because of treachery among the English.

With the passage of the centuries, Englishmen would seem to have forgotten the Viking contribution to the population of the country. The early seventeenth-century English antiquarian Richard Verstegan, whose Dutch descent made him very conscious of the Saxon origin of the English and whose view of the procreative ability of the Danes was hardly flattering, was of the opinion that the Danes ‘had so little time of quiet settling themselves in England, that they could leave but few of their posterity there’. As access to early accounts of the Viking raids became more general with their publication in the nineteenth century in the Rolls Series and elsewhere, English historians began once again to pay more attention to the events of the Viking period and their significance for the composition of the population of England. I am convinced that it is the knowledge that many of the invaders became our ancestors that has caused twentieth-century English historians to temper their language when describing the onslaughts of the Vikings.

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