The Vikings are here…

Silver thistle brooch from Flusco Pike, Penrith. British Museum.

Silver thistle brooch from Penrith. COPYRIGHT British Museum.

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.

Norse Brooch from Penrith, copyright British Museum

Norse Brooch from Penrith, COPYRIGHT British Museum

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.

Copyright D McIlmoyle 11.03.14


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:

4. Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum is to host a conference on the Cumwhitton Viking burials, found in 2004, this weekend.

5. The British Museum, which owns the Penrith Hoards (all pictures their copyright), is holding a Viking exhibition from now until 22nd June. 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’…





9 thoughts on “The Vikings are here…

  1. I think Newbigging is common enough in Cumbria to suggest it was Cumbrian for ‘New Building’… Symptomatic of the Norse-influenced culture of Cumbria really.

    And that is the thing that always mystifies me: why is there always an assumptiom things like the Penrith Brooch are Viking not Cumbrian. Contemporary sculpture shows there was an active and imaginitive culture where Norse influence was a major element. But Cumbria is always discussed as where Norweigians/Irish and Danes came to rather than a place where ideas merged and melded and a new culture was born.

    • Hello Allan, nice to see you. I like your perspective and would be very happy to go with it. You reminded me of the discussions that arise about Penrith’s Giant’s Grave. Historically/traditionally described as ‘viking’ but considered by those who do these details to look like anglian decoration on a norse shape… which is, perhaps, what Cumbrians did. Took the best of the influences around them and came up with their own style.
      Perhaps we’re as guilty as anybody as thinking of ourselves as the place at the end of the cul-de-sac, from whatever direction you’re coming!

    • A second reply for you, Allan! I attended a conference at Tullie House in Carlisle at the weekend. It was about the Cumwhitton ‘viking’ burials. The point was made that a) some of the artefacts, notable metal buckles, are seemingly very much Cumbrian in design (yay!) and b) that the five of the six graves had artefacts reminiscent of the Scots rather than the Irish. There’s a whole new story there, I think (at least to those of us who’ve had to buy the traditional stuff about the influence of the Dublin/Isle of Man vikings).

      Further on the local metalworking, one speaker, Sir David Wilson, was keen on the idea that Cumbria’s economy could have been driven by metalworking in this period. Perhaps no surprise, given all the mines…

      • Hi Esmerelda,

        Does anyone have evidence for mines working in ninth-eleventh century Cumbria? Not that it would be difficult to get iron or copper in relatively small quantities from surface outcrops mind you…

        David Wilson’s comments are significant (although there is the question of why the Scots were adopting Cumbrian culture, hee-hee) as he is very much a material-culture focussed archaeologist. From that point of view Cumbria as a distinct cultural area (or areas – Carlisle at least seems to have been very un-Norse in its culture) is easy to envisage. For historians and those archaeologists who use text as a guide Cumbria appears more as a backwater, as it does not appear to produce written sources prior to 1060 at the earliest. Yet even here it should be noted that there are a lot of unlocated (in terms of authorship and place of composition – we generally can find the manuscripts) texts in Old English and Latin which might possibly be Cumbrian, albeit the dialectual evidence may be against this in the case of the Old English texts. No-one considers Cumbria as a potential source because it has no known texts written there, a rather circular argument. That said, I would need some persuading to accept any text I’ve seen as Cumbrian, apart from maybe the non-Wulfstan northern law tracts. What is significant though is that the first certainly Cumbrian document in English (Gospatric’s writ: I prefer a later – c. 1085-90 – date, so some of the early Wetherall charters may predate it, but these are Latin) implies a thoroughly literate society; a writ, unlike a charter perhaps, is meant to be read by many people and tends to survive from cultures where written documents were common and presumably (to draw on continental analogies) widely used. But the lack of surviving written sources and our prediliction for viewing history through writing, not material culture means Ireland, southern England and York and the mainly later attested in written sources Scandinavian cultural zone and Scottish kingdom tend to get the attention. Cumbria may have been the seat of an innovative, possibly highly-literate, culture, but any non-physical trace of this has been lost. Or, as the evidence is not there to conclude, that culture may never have existed. It is probably best to have an open mind.

        • /Does anyone have evidence for mines working in ninth-eleventh century Cumbria?/

          Now there’s a good question. The ‘book of the show’ from the Tullie House conference (Shadows in the Sand, published OA North) has nothing on mining, funnily enough, which rather converges with the popular historian’s backstop, ‘mining for at least 2,000 years’. Yes, BUT continuously, or not? English Heritage/North Pennines AONB are allegedly doing a project on the mining up there at the moment, albeit it looks to me like their eyes might have somewhat been drawn by the formerly hidden gem that is the roman fort at Whitley Castle (which they now posit was there for the specific purpose of controlling the lead/silver mines).

          One suspects they will say that given that people – usually a guy who spent half his time farming – were still mining there in the ’50s using old techniques, how would we be able to tell, barring a runic inscription on a 1000-year-old lunch box?

          Just to be really annoying: there is of course a line of villages at the edge of the habitation level of the East Fellside (usually dictated by the first horizontal stream) which all end with -by. Yes, that old chestnut. Of course, they could be there because it was the first habitable land found by viking-types who were walking over the hills from Yorks/the NE… but perhaps Ulf, Melmor and Gamel were miners *stuffs fist in mouth*

          The first written record of those villages is, of course, 12th century like almost everything else up here that isn’t roman, as you say.

          But more importantly, “there is the question of why the Scots were adopting Cumbrian culture”, hee-hee 😀 WAY to hack off Alec Salmond 😀

          • I always liked (well, at least since I read it…) Charles Pythian-Adam’s linking of those villages with characters active during that late-eleventh-century threshold of surviving literacy period. Not a coincidence that – names of places change, but once fixed in documents they tend to be more stable. So if all surviving documents date from a certain period at the earliest (and we can hypothesise there being other extant documents now lost – Gospatric is not likely only to have issued the one writ for example) then the names of places in these documents form a kind of historical horizon, visible when the names fail to change to reflect new owners.

            What is interesting about those settlements that I had not previously appreciated is their potential access to mineral resources. As the eponymous owners were according to Pythian-Adams the local elite or the next level down (their retainers?) their possession of estates with this access is interesting. It may imply elite control of minerals, with either hereditary claims or simply members of the upper classes holding these key estates.

          • Yes, perhaps this could be one way that these named individuals became important enough to have their own settlement? Frankly, will we ever know… still, I’m looking forward to English Heritage/the AONB coming up with a story beyond the romans and before all those Cumbrian yeoman farmers adding a bit of mining alongside.

            Thanks for coming over, always much appreciated.

    • Hello Carol, and yes indeedy! By quick, I probably meant that this one came off the top of my head, rather than out of my hefty tomes of research. These pins are really quite spectacular, and huge. The pins are 20-something cms long!

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

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