Danish Town

The British Museum is currently hosting a major exhibition of Viking art and culture. Exhibits include swords and axes, jewellery and coins, and the remains of a 37m longboat.

Long Boat, Oslo - photo: Karamell

Long Boat, Oslo – photo: Karamell

The Vikings were a dominant force in British life (if that is the word) for two and a half centuries – more, if you consider the Viking origins of the Normans who conquered England in 1066; in fact the conquest could realistically be regarded as a squabble between Viking warlords (William the Bastard, Harold Godwinson and Harald Hardrada).

After skirmishing and raiding along the coast, the Vikings came rapidly to settle large tracts of the country, predominantly in the north and east, and it was in that period that Cambridge, for a long time a trivial Saxon settlement lying on the border between Mercia and East Anglia, came to prominence as an administrative and military settlement. In 875 it was occupied by three Danish kings Godrum, Oscytel and Anwynd, who brought part of a great Danish army south from Repton for a year, and the town remained under Danish administration for forty years, before being reabsorbed by the English. It received a final visit from the Vikings in 1010, when the town was looted and burnt.

The Danish settlement – sometimes known as Danish Town – was centred on the crossing of the river at Magdalene Bridge, which on the west back is dominated by the strategic point of Castle mound; there is some suggestion in the chronicles of the presence there of Irish Viking merchants from Dublin settled on the East bank south of what is now Quayside.

There remain only some obscure traces of the Danish presence in Cambridge, notably the dedication of St. Clement’s on Bridge Street (but not the building itself, which dates from much later). It has also been claimed that Cambridge’s notorious aversion to outside influence is rooted in its Viking past, which is pleasing, if implausible.

 

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