Just a quick post today, mostly because I’m a bit freaked out by the slew of material on the ‘net yesterday and today claiming that this-that-or-the-other group is x% Viking, or that Penrith is 5% Viking (if you’re a man), or Yorkshire something more. The fact is that if you ask a scientific expert – for which I recommend Sense About Science for a quickie – they say that it’s not that straightforward. The DNA testing companies that offer you and me the chance to decide we’re Celtic or Viking or Egyptian or whatever are being massively simplistic. We’re all probably related to the Vikings somewhere along the line, never mind the million that the headlines were talking yesterday.
Having depressed you all nicely, I remind you of these rather wonderful, actual Viking things that were found in a field, traditionally known as Silver Field (hah!), near Newbiggin, Penrith. One brooch was found by a child in 1785, with a thistle decoration and a pin long enough to eviscerate your enemies/spit-roast a small animal/hold together the thickest fur cloak. A second large brooch was found at the same location in 1830. In 1989, archaeologists finally attacked the location seriously and came up with two groups of silver material, catalogued by the British Museum as Penrith Hoard 1 and Penrith Hoard 2. The first contains five brooches and a couple of bits; one of these has a fabulous futhark runic inscription, which I looked into in this post a good while back. The second hoard consisted of all sorts of bits of chopped-up coins, jewellery, and other silver.
As an aside, you know a theme of mine recently has been that people can get… carried away with the interpretation of historical artefacts? Well, when the first silver brooch was unearthed, someone went as far as to write a pamphlet claiming that it was decorated with the insignia of the Knights Templar. It isn’t, of course.
All of the Penrith Viking hoard bits from Newbiggin date to the first half of the 10th century. The style of the brooches, especially the ‘thistle’ decoration, was one that had long been popular with the ‘Celtic’ peoples who lives in Ireland and Scotland before the Vikings landed. The Vikings that settled in Dublin in the 9th century quickly picked up the style but made their versions in plain silver (but then, the Vikings had a good supply of silver. Some sources suggest that was because of their middle eastern connections). It’s always possible that these items were traded into Cumbria across the Irish Sea, but perhaps more likely that they came over with the formerly-Viking people who were booted out of Ireland in the early 10th century, settling heavily in western Cumbria in particular. We like to think that the word, ‘copeland’, as in Copeland Borough Council, comes from ‘kaupland’ or ‘bought land’, suggesting our Vikings were less into rapine and pillage and more into estate management… well, it’s a nice story, and it might just be true. The Dublin and Copeland Vikings are theoretically from Norse (Norwegian) stock originally (note added: this long-held assumption may now be in doubt), whereas the Vikings that walked over the Pennines from the Northeast were more likely to be of Danish Viking stock. So, the Penrith hoards, of Irish Viking design, are found squarely in the part of Cumbria usually associated with Danish Vikings.
There was certainly a lot of difficulty in this area in the early 10th century, some of which is alluded to in this post about the Treaty of Eamont Bridge in 927CE. Athelstan, the English king, was keen to persuade Owain of Strathclyde (and Cumbria), Constantine of the Scots, Hywel Da of Deheubarth (SE Wales) and Ealdred of Bamburgh to promise not to ally with the Viking Northumbrians. Were the Penrith hoards deposited in response to problems arising from this?
We just don’t know, of course. But I do know that most – or even all – of us probably have a Viking somewhere in our ancestry. And okay, perhaps a little more if you live right here.
1. I’m not going to post a link to the *coughs* Daily Mail on here, so if you want to see the article, google it!
2. I was going to add some more pictures of the hoard from the British Museum, but their website is having a funny turn. I’ll add them, should it stop turning some time soon.
3. British Museum entries: https://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/s/silver_thistle_brooch.aspx
4. Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum is to host a conference on the Cumwhitton Viking burials, found in 2004, this weekend. http://www.tulliehouse.co.uk/events/cumwhitton-vikings
5. The British Museum, which owns the Penrith Hoards (all pictures their copyright), is holding a Viking exhibition from now until 22nd June. https://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/vikings.aspx As they are using a picture of Penrith’s 1785 Viking brooch in the publicity material, my guess is that it will be prominently displayed there.
6. This is the Newbiggin west of Penrith. I couldn’t tell you how many ‘Newbiggins’ there are in Cumbria. Loads. Probably because it’s Norse (‘Viking’!) for ‘new building’…