The Ulster annals, together with the sagas and DNA studies imply that the previously deserted Iceland was populated from about the year 800 AD onwards by Scandinavians and people from the British Isles, the latter being thought to have been mainly female slaves (Jon Vidur Sigurdsson, Oslo University, The Viking World, Routledge 2008). This pattern of behaviour knits well with the story of the ‘Great Army’ of Danes who entered East Anglia in 866. The AS Chronicle states that the ‘Great Army’ was provided with horses by the East Angles, implying that the ships were filled with unencumbered soldiers: without livestock, and therefore without wives and families.
So the Great Army, led by Ingwar, Halfdan and Ubbe, and which possibly also contained a young Guthrum, was a purposeful adventure by armed men who knew they could obtain women, horses and whatever they desired when they arrived. For these men to remain celibate longer than a few weeks would have been unnatural indeed, let alone for twelve years until Ethandune. Either they later imported their womenfolk from their homelands, or they won or stole affection from Angle women. And is it not likely that the Angle women would have found these mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know characters somewhat attractive? Therefore, if we are seeking to understand the culture of the women associated with the Danish army, should we not focus, not upon the expectations of pagan Danish women, but upon those East Anglian and Mercian women who became attached to it?
Saint Hild, the Abbess of Whitby was born in 614 and died in 680. She was a major force in the establishment of ‘Roman’ Christianity as the bedrock of the moral standards of the Anglo-Saxon kings. In this, monogamy became the normal marriage relationship, if it had not always been so in the preceding Germanic culture, and this had consequences for the lineage of children, property ownership, and laws of inheritance. It therefore follows that, when the Danes began to settle on the land, the familial structures would significantly gain in importance, inevitably promoting the powers of the wives and widows and daughters of Danish men.
And this progression would not have been contrary to Danish culture, where some women possessed the highest status. And quite rightly so, because it was women who spun the wool and wove the hi-tech sails which fundamentally supported the exploits of the vikings. The Oseberg ship burial, for example, dated to the first half of the ninth century, was of an older queen and a young woman, both richly adorned and accompanied. There is therefore no reason to doubt that the Angle women who married Danish men did not attain status and power, thereby setting the stage for their Anglo-Danish children to become literate and Christian as many of their mothers were.
Burdened as we are by the weight of Antiquarian prejudice and romantic nonsense, it is difficult to imagine hairy Dark-Age warriors in a domestic setting, but consider this: in Helen Jewell’s Women in the Dark Age and Early Medieval Europe, 2007, Palgrave Macmillan, she describes how, in 866, Pope Nicholas I described the Christian marriage process to the Bulgarian King Boris as starting with the giving of an engagement ring. It seems that a Christian Angle woman of 866 would have had similar expectations to those of today.
And what of the alleged sexual proclivity of Danish soldiers? The only reference to mass abduction of women I have found has been the attack by the Northman (Finnegail) Olaf Guðfriðsson in 869 reported in the Annals of Ulster, where 1000 were allegedly carried off from Armagh with much ‘rapine’. Otherwise, in East Anglia at Thetford and at York, and in the ‘Five Boroughs’ at Lincoln and Repton, where the ‘Great Army’ of Danes wintered, we have evidence of a burgeoning domestication. It is stated in the AS Chronicle that, in 876, ‘Halfdan divided up the land of Northumbria and they were ploughing and providing for themselves’ (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Michael Swanton).
In 1980 an excavation of a mound just outside the identified ramparts of the Danish fort at Repton contained 239 bodies which were dated contemporary with the 873/4 period of occupation. It is possible that these were victims of disease because there were no signs of traumatic injury in the remains. What is of interest in the context of this post is that, though 80% were ‘robust’ males of the 15 – 45 age range, 20% were female and of a slighter build. (From Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle (1992). Repton and the Vikings. Antiquity, 66, pp 36-51 doi:10.1017/S0003598X00081023). However, it would seem that these were pagan burials from the alignment of the bodies. Where were all the other women buried? Assuming that the men were sexually active and the disease was not selective.
Of course, it is possible that Danish women would have followed their menfolk after the wars in Northumbria and Wessex. At Repton, only one noticable high status grave of a woman has been found: with a gold ring and five silver pennies. But my reading upon the subject implied that the female skeletons were of a local origin. Whether forensic analysis has been undertaken to determine their birthplace, I do not know. Perhaps such work is unnecessary: it would seem unlikely that many Danish women would leave the safety of their kinfolk in Denmark for a long sea voyage to join adventurer ‘husbands’ who were so unsure of their own safety that they needed a well-defended fort and the capability of a quick exit via the River Trent.