‘Walking Roots’: Viking invasion

The Romans retreated from Britain at the beginning of the 5th century AD. Their abandonment of Cumbria may not have been exactly overnight – it’s possible that the Roman legions dropped back at first to the natural barrier formed by the Howgill Fells and the Northern Pennines, before finally heading off to deal with troubles at home. Our little valley may, for a short time, have sat at the outer edge of the Roman empire.

The ensuing few centuries have left little in the way of written history. But what have survived are the place names bestowed in this period, and there are plenty of them. Toponymy, the study of place names, can be hugely revealing, especially in rural areas where names stick rather get overlaid as populations, ways of life, and land use shift. In rural life everything moves more slowly, over centuries and indeed millennia. Names therefore persist, although sometimes in mutated forms.

From the 5th century onwards Angles migrated gradually into eastern Cumbria, filtering down north from Hadrian’s Wall and also crossing over the Pennines at Stainmore into the Eden Valley. True to its (more modern) name the Eden Valley proved highly attractive to these new settlers. They prospered and formed themselves into a kingdom. The kingdom of Rheged remained independent until the early 8th century, when it was annexed with the kingdom of Northumbria, and the language used by the local population then transformed into ‘Old English’.

This generation of Cumbrians left their mark on the names of many towns and villages but on remarkably few hills, mountains or other natural features, reflecting perhaps a lack of interest in the upland zones of their home environment. A notable exception is Stainmore itself (literally ‘stony moor’), which suggests that the old Roman road across the Pennines through Stainmore continued to be an important transport and communications route.

Everything changed from around 925AD onwards. ‘Vikings’ – more properly known as the Norse – arrived in the Eden Valley. Ferocious attacks by these ruthless adventurers on the North East coast, as at the abbey on Lindisfarne, have caught the imagination, but our Norse settlers more likely came across the north coast of Scotland to Ireland and the Isle of Man before discovering our fertile valley and deciding to make it their permanent home.

Unlike their predecessors the Norse settlers gave names to upland places and features. Words like ‘fell’, ‘beck’, ‘gill’, ‘force’, ‘pike’ and ‘tarn’ are all Norse. Within a few hundred metres of our house a host of features have names of Norse origin. The river that cuts through the valley is known as the Belah Beck, and upstream, where it is joined by other becks, it goes through Woofergill, near to Intake Force. Across the valley from us is Wrenside, ‘side’ being a Norse word for a farmstead or shieling. ‘Intake’, another Norse word, are the enclosed fields nearest to the fell.

Few choose to live at our elevation (around 370m or 1200 feet above sea level)  today and fewer still would have done so a millennium or more ago. Our remote dale (‘dale’ being another Norse word) almost certainly provided summer pasture and temporary habitation only, with paths to bring stock up from and down to the Eden Valley below, just as you find in mountainous regions across the world. In the summer months it must have been an idyllic and tranquil setting, the fellside criss-crossed with sheep tracks – much as it is today.

loki-stone-kirkby-stephenA small remnant of Norse mythology is to be found in Kirkby Stephen church, just a few miles away in the Upper Eden Valley. The Loki Stone depicts the reckless and mischevious Loki, Norse god, giant or sprite, depending on the tale. Loki was a shape-shifting trickster, usually male but sometimes female, and always getting into terrible trouble. In one legend Loki is bound up and it is with manacles on his hands and feet that he is represented on Kirkby Stephen’s Loki Stone. The stone is likely the shaft of a Christian cross, so the binding up of a pagan god at the base of a cross is no doubt an crucial part of the message.

Towards the end of the ‘Viking’ period Stainmore witnessed the bloody assassination of the memorably named Eric Bloodaxe. Eric was King for Norway and twice, for short periods, King of Northumbria (although some argue that these are two different individuals conflated into one). As King of Northumbria Eric reigned from 947-948AD and 952-954AD, being ousted twice by agents of the powerful English King Eadred. On the second occasion it seems he fled, or was being escorted, to the west over the Stainmore pass. Here, according to a history written in the early 13th century derived from a lost northern source…
“King Eric was treacherously killed by Earl Maccus in a certain lonely place which is called Stainmore, with his son Haeric and his brother Ragnald, betrayed by Earl Oswulf; and then afterwards King Eadred ruled in these districts.”

Rumours persist that Eric Bloodaxe is buried somewhere on Stainmore and will one day be found, perhaps with magnficent burial goods. The stump of a stone cross, Rey Cross, standing just off the A66 is sometimes said to have been the marker of his grave, but in truth it is more likely a simple county boundary stone. Wherever his bones lie, Eric Bloodaxe lives on in dozens of Norse sagas and the windswept pass of Stainmore seems a fitting place for his story to end.

2 Comments on “‘Walking Roots’: Viking invasion

  1. “it’s possible that the Roman legions dropped back at first to the natural barrier formed by the Howgill Fells and the Northern Pennines, before finally heading off to deal with troubles at home”

    It’s possible, but not always true. Most of us just have a hazy idea that the Romans were, err, Romans that arrived c.50AD, and then somehow stayed Roman for c.300 years, but then just got up and left Britain, c.400AD. This is an illusion, as most “Roman” troops in Britain were not Romans. At least, not when they started their military service. They were only granted Roman citizenship (to retiring soldiers) after twenty-five years of service. And many stayed here when their service was complete.

    It was normal practice for Roman army veterans to receive an honourable discharge after 25 years service, and receive a diplomata (documents issued to retiring soldiers). What happened next? Did they all leave Britain as well? Or did they decided to stay in Britain? Recent DNA profiling suggests that at least some Roman Auxiliary units decided they liked Britain well enough to stay, and spread their DNA in specific parts of Britain. The pioneer of this kind of DNA detective work, for British origins, has been Stephen Oppenheimer with his ground-breaking work “The Origins of the British” (2006).


  2. An example was found near Malpas in Cheshire (now in the British Museum, item no.1813.12‐11.1‐2 in the Department of Prehistory and Early Europe). The translation by Collingwood in 1990 specifically mentions many different units serving in Britain, from different sources.

    Found in 1812 in the parish of Malpas in Cheshire, on a farm belonging to Lord Kenyon’ (Lysons); ‘in a field on the Barhill (or Barrel) Farm, in Bickley about two miles E.S.E. of Malpas’

    The Emperor Caesar Nerva Traianus Augustus, conqueror of Germany, conqueror of Dacia, son of The Emperor Caesar Nerva Traianus Augustus, conqueror of Germany, conqueror of Dacia, son of the deified Nerva, pontifex maximus, in his seventh year of tribunician power, four times acclaimed Imperator, five times consul, father of his country, has granted to the cavalrymen and infantrymen who are serving in four alae and eleven cohorts called: (1) {ala} I Thracum and (2) I Pannoniorum Tampiana and (3) Gallorum Sebosiana and (4) Hispanorum Vettonum, Roman citizens; and (I) {cohor} I Hispanorum and (2) I Vangionum, a thousand strong, and (3) I Alpinorum and (4) I Morinorum and (5) I Cugernorum and (6) I Baetasiorum and (7) I Tungrorum, a thousand strong, and (8) II Thracum and (9) III Bracaraugustanorum and (10) III Lingonum and (11) IIII Delmatarum, and are stationed in Britain under Lucius Neratius Marcellus, who have served twenty-five or more years, whose names are written below, citizenship for themselves, their children and descendants, and the right of legal marriage with the wives they had when citizenship was granted to them, or, if any were unmarried, with those they later marry, but only a single one each. {Dated} 19 January, in the consulships of Manius Laberius Maximus and Quintus Glitius Atilius Agricola, both for the second time [CE 103]. To Reburrus, son of Severus, from Spain, decurion of ala I Pannoniorum Tampiana, commanded by Gaius Valerius Celsus.

    This is just one diplomata, and it mentions thousands of Roman army veterans settling in Britain. How many more diplomata were there, with how many more thousands of veterans? Frere et al., have stated that “less than 20% of diploma recipients moved out of the province in which they had served upon retirement.” (RIB,v.II,2401.5,p.12). This includes the famous Thracian cavalry units. A large majority stayed and became Native Brits. All well before 410AD when Britain ceased to be an official part of the Roman Empire and was left to its own devices. These Thracian cavalry units have a large part to play in the genesis of Arthurian legends as well, right up to the modern day. e.g. the 2004 film “King Arthur”.


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