The Vikings and Jorvik

The Vikings & Jorvik

About the Author

York resident and regular contributor. Fascinated by this historic city and always keen to promote local, independent businesses. The man taking the photographs and tweeting from @Jorvik

York Pass

The first Vikings to take York were Danes travelling north from East Anglia in 866. The Vikings turned around the dwindling Anglo-Saxon port of Eoforwic making it into a prosperous city with much significance within the Danish kingdom of Northumbria, and increased its local and international trade. They called it Jorvik.

Local efforts to oust the invaders failed and by March 867 Northumbria became a Danish stronghold.  In 872 after temporary success from a Northumbrian rebellion, Wulfhere, the Archbishop of York, was expelled from the city for arranging a personal truce with the invaders; he was later reinstated however, holding his seat until his death in the late 9th century. The Viking ruler of Northumbria Guthred who died in 895 was buried in York Minster, signifying that he and the archbishop had made a pact.

The Vikings, once the feared raiders, revealed a more cultured side and made Jorvik the capital of the Norse Kingdom of York. It had properly surfaced streets and Micklegate became the main route to a new major crossing over the River Ouse; Jorvik’s economic status within the kingdom was confirmed with all Viking coinage being minted in the city. Aided by new seafaring knowledge and trade links brought by the Vikings from their Scandinavian homelands the port of Jorvik flourished.

20th-century excavations in York revealed Jorvik’s10th-century trading network which encompassed the Byzantine Empire and further; finds include silk from China and coins from Samarkand, Baltic amber, and a cowrie shell from the Persian Gulf. Jorvik established strong trade links with Dublin.

Excavations of areas of Coppergate, Skeldergate, Walmgate and others reveal a sequence of building areas with backyard wells and cesspits. Jorvik’s early houses were single-storey post-and-wattle type with roof thatching and borders marked out by wattlework fences. However, four later Viking period houses excavated at Coppergate had an extra storey below ground. Internal floors were merely trampled earth while outside wattlework panels formed narrow pathways. These dwellings, incorporating workshops, were a high fire risk with central hearths creating warmth, subdued lighting, and a cooking source; the common burning of oil or fat lamps further enhanced this risk.

Between 900 and 935 the developing city required ever more dwellings bringing congested streets and squalid housing conditions.  Houses and their inhabitants hosted many parasites; backyard waste, a putrid mass which included human and animal excrement, increased the ground level by about 1cm a year.

This, along with the area’s damp environment, was ideal for preserving ancient, often vulnerable remains such as wood, leather and cloth. Remnants of seeds and pollen, plants and animals have emerged almost intact; from these, plus relics of resilient materials (stone, metal, bone and pottery) Coppergate’s Jorvik Centre has managed to construct a comprehensive representation of early medieval life.

The Jorvik community was productive, skilful and artistic, generally leading quite orderly lives. There were spinners, weavers, leather, bone and antler workers, blacksmiths, toolmakers, gold and silversmiths, fine jewellers and glass bead-makers, architects, as well as farmers and animal herders, bakers, and many other traders. Coppergate was the centre of carpentry and Skeldergate the street of the shield-makers. Many goods were made from local materials and sold within the region.

Villagers and merchants from Jorvik’s surrounding areas along the Ouse received merchandise from trading ships which they then sold in Jorvik’s markets. For entertainment the Vikings recited their great sagas and played games with dice, counters and pieces of bone and stone. Music came from instruments such as boxwood pan pipes and a flute fashioned out of the leg-bone of a swan. Jorvik’s citizens enjoyed a varied diet of grains, fruits, vegetables and eggs, as well as ever plentiful fish, and meat.

Viking beliefs stood somewhere between Christian and their own ancestral pagan; the latter continued for a century or more after their arrival. Notably the close proximity in which pagan and Christian artefacts were discovered signifies positions of authority were not commonly held by Christians.

In 927 an English king, Athelstan, took control of Jorvik; he was the accepted ruler of most of England until his death in 940.  For the next 15 years, Jorvik was ruled by Viking kings.

In 954 the Northumbrians expelled the last Viking king Eirik Bloodaxe who died in battle shortly after and the Kingdom of Jorvik recombined with Northumbria; the title ‘King of Jorvik’ was replaced by ‘Earl of York’ – a title created in 960.

Thanks to jrigol for the main photo

Harald III of Norway died at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066; thereafter occasional forays continued from Danish Vikings between 1070 and 1085 though they failed to recapture Jorvik.

Leave a Comment