A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.
The sun is low, striking sharply against the earthen furrows, deepening them to chasms of peaty black between golden brown ribs of soil. The oxen have stopped at the edge of the water meadow; they stare listlessly ahead, snorting white clouds of spectral vapour into the frigid air. Steam rises from their great ruddy backs. The man stands by the plough, ready to move the animals and reharness them, ready for the return journey back up the next strip of land, back towards the village and a welcome fire. It is winter, and the river has flooded the water meadow, waterlogging it, leaving no trace of the rampaging cowslip and cranesbill that will saturate the field with colour in the spring. Now the silver water lies pale under skeleton trees, their roots breaking the surface like tentacles. Alder and goat-willow screen the water. Later in the winter the villagers will cut withies for poles and baskets, but for now the willow pollards march beside the river with their misshapen bodies and wild upright hair: a throng of trolls mustering on the river bank. Beyond them the sun is raising the ghost of a fog. There is a sudden plop, perhaps an otter taking to the water, then a sudden rush of wings – a thrush startled into flight, the clumsy crash of a wood pigeon. There is something out there, a presence on the river. The man squints, trying to squeeze his vision between the withies, into the silver twilight between the trees. He sees nothing, just the gathering mist, but a sound comes. A gentle swish of oars and, buried in it, a low pulse like a muffled heartbeat. He can feel sweat beginning to bead at the back of his head, prickling on his top lip, like insects crawling at the roots of his hair. Something is coming – something big – real and tangible, gliding into the November sunlight: sightless eye, immobile jaws gaping, a monster of oak carving through the land. And then it is gone, back into the mist.
The image of the Viking ship in full sail on the open sea, emerging blackly on the wide horizon, is a reasonably familiar one. Less commonly pictured in the mind’s eye is the glimpse of the carved bestial prow glimpsed through the trees on a quiet river bank. Yet it was the exploitation of England’s river routes – made possible by their light and shallow-draughted ships – that provided Viking armies with a means of swift and efficient movement through Britain’s interior that vastly increased the range of their attacks and the extent to which they were able to destabilize Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the second half of the ninth century.
There are few places in Britain that are further from the sea than Repton in Derbyshire, a quiet, pretty village of smart Georgian and Victorian houses and shopfronts, running in a ribbon of red brick away from the southern bank of the River Trent. Repton is further now from the river than it was a thousand years ago when it lay at the heart of the kingdom of Mercia, but the Trent is still capable of flexing its muscles in the faces of the villagers. In 2012, flood waters swamped the fields that fill the plain to the north of the village, between the river’s old bed and its new route skirting the southern edge of neighbouring Willington. A wide band of English countryside, almost three-quarters of a mile across in places, was transformed into a gloomy dystopian landscape, spindly bare trees and bedraggled hedgerows standing proud of the brown and brackish water, watched over by bleak concrete ramparts – the monstrous cooling towers of Willington power station.
The rising water stopped mercifully short of Repton itself; although the sports fields of Repton School were submerged, the swollen river’s creep was checked at the perimeter of St Wystan’s churchyard by the banks of the stream – the Old Trent Water – that still follows the ninth-century course of the river. When Repton Abbey was founded as a double-monastery (a monastery with a twin community of monks and nuns) in the seventh century, the rising ground to the south had probably ensured that the community was safe from all but the most extreme flooding, despite the river running perilously close. It was here that a young, bellicose nobleman called Guthlac had come to take monastic vows in the late seventh century, before embarking on a new career as a spiritually obstinate, demon-defying fenland hermit. It was evidently a secure and amenable environment, allowing the monastery to become the recipient of considerable investment in subsequent centuries. The Church of St Wystan as it appears today is mostly the product of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but hidden beneath the high medieval gothic spires can be still be found the crypt of the Mercian church, built in the early eighth century.
It is quite extraordinary, the physicality of the atmosphere in this small and dingy subterranean cube. John Betjeman described the space as ‘holy air encased in stone’, a turn of phrase which perfectly encapsulates the curious sense of substance that one encounters on descending into the gloom, the shadowed vault supported on four candy-twist columns, like rustic Tudor chimney pots. It is a place rank with religion, the air thickened by the ineffable weight of antiquity and prayer, as though something has been trapped down here, entombed for centuries. This aura is compounded, perhaps conjured, by the knowledge that this crypt served as – may indeed have been built for – the bones of Mercian kings. The first of these (and the one for whom it may have been constructed) was King Æthelbald, who was interred in the crypt in 757. His bones were later joined by those of King Wiglaf (died c. 839) and Wiglaf’s grandson Wystan who, though he declined to take the crown in favour of a religious life, was nevertheless done in by his relations in 849.
As John of Worcester reported it, Wystan – or St Wystan as he became in death – ‘was carried to a monastery which was famous in that age called Repton, and buried in the tomb of his grandfather king Wiglaf. Miracles from heaven were not wanting in testimony of his martyrdom; for a column of light shot up to heaven from the spot where the innocent saint was murdered, and remained visible to the inhabitants of that place for thirty days.’1
Twenty-four years later, the men and women living in the precincts of the church that still bears his name may well have wished that Wystan’s left-over parts could have produced some new and impressive miracle – preferably, this time, something with a more practical application. For the river had finally proved a risk to the religious community and the relics of the saints and kings it curated; in the winter of 873/4, however, it was not the water that threatened to sweep Repton away, but the deadly flotsam that it bore.
When the Vikings left Wessex in 872 after making terms with Alfred, they first found their way to London where, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts, the Mercians ‘made peace with them’.2 The Viking army spent another winter there before moving on, travelling to Lindsey (a region within what is now Lincolnshire) in 873 and establishing a new camp at Torksey, 10 miles north-west of Lincoln. The Mercians, once again, ‘made peace’.3 If the Viking bayonet was probing for steel, it was finding little of it. When spring came, the micel here was on the move again. From Torksey the River Trent offered an inviting artery that led straight to the heart of the Mercian kingdom. The sources tell us very little – even by their own stingy standards – but the impression given is of a swift and surgical intervention that brought the once glorious kingdom to its knees at a single stroke: ‘the horde went from Lindsey to Repton and took winter-quarters there, and drove King Burhred across the sea […] and occupied that land’.4
In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Burhred comes across as a hapless king: thrice he had come to terms with the Viking great army (in 868, 871 and 872), only to find himself ejected from his kingdom, and his people subjugated with humiliating ease (he died in Rome, and was buried at St Mary’s Church in the city’s English Quarter).5 The contrast with the way that Viking progress in Wessex was described should be obvious: there the Viking army is depicted as encountering resistance at every step, suffering defeats at Englefield and Ashdown and grinding out hard-won victories elsewhere (although we should remember that Alfred had also, in 871, paid the Vikings to go away).
It is tempting to read the sources at face value, and to see the West Saxons as the defiant epitome of the bulldog mentality, a striking contrast to the flaccid appeasement practised by the Mercians: Alfred playing Churchill to Burhred’s Chamberlain. To do so, however, is to be corralled by channels of thought dug by Alfred’s own propagandists. There is simply no way of knowing how hard the Mercians fought to preserve their kingdom and eject the Viking menace. As we shall see, at least one Viking warrior came to grief on Mercian soil.
The subtle disparagement of their Mercian neighbours that we can perceive in the West Saxon sources served Alfred’s political ends. By the latter part of his reign, when these documents were compiled, Alfred was increasingly concerned with claiming a hegemony than extended far beyond Wessex. His own military reputation (which was patchy at best before the late 870s) was bolstered by having his contemporary monarchs painted as battle-shirking weaklings. More importantly, by painting the last independent kings of Mercia as weak, ineffective and lacking credibility, the claims of Alfred and those of his offspring to rule in Mercia appeared more legitimate than they otherwise might have done.
At some point, not long after Repton was taken under new management, a ditch and rampart were dug, closing off an area to the north of the church and forming a D-shape against the river bank – a space providing unimpeded access for ships to moor but offering landward protection, the direction from which danger was most likely to arrive. The church building itself was incorporated into the defensive circuit, a masonry gate-house through which access could be controlled. Instead of Mercian royalty, monks and devout pilgrims, Viking warriors now breathed the holy air of St Wystan’s crypt. At around the same time, the first of a number of graves were dug around the church, many of them decidedly unconventional for ninth-century Mercia.6 One man was buried with a gold ring on his finger and five silver pennies, all of which can be dated to the mid-870s; his grave, which lay adjacent to the church wall, was cut through a layer of burnt stone and charcoal – an indication that the church had been severely damaged, broken rubble and burnt timber strewn where they had fallen after the upper parts of the building had burned. As at Portmahomack, a monolithic stone cross was shattered and discarded, its fragments buried in a pit to the east of the chancel.
The most famous of these burials is Grave 511. Like several others, the man in this grave was buried with weapons – in this case a sword and knife. He had died, it would appear, unpleasantly. Following a blow to the head, he had suffered a deep cut to the left femur where it connected to the pelvis – probably from a sword or axe. The blow was administered when the victim was already on the ground, and it would have severed the femoral artery resulting in massive blood loss; it would also have deprived him of the soft parts that had once dangled between his legs. In an apparent attempt to compensate for this loss, those who buried him placed the tusk of a boar in the appropriate position. And, if any doubt were to remain about the cultural affiliations of the deceased, this man had been laid in the grave with, among other objects and pieces of metalwork, the hammer of Thor about his neck.
Odin and Thor were the most popular and powerful gods of the Norse pantheon, but in many ways they were diametrically opposed to each other in character. Where Odin was subtle and sinister, the patron of poets, sorcerers and kings, Thor presented a less complicated personality. He was a proponent of what we might call the direct approach – more action, fewer words; less brain, more fist. He is often (as we see him in the stories that survive of him) a bit of an oaf. Most of these tales features the god smashing things up, shouting, getting drunk, breaking things and hitting people. He is a ‘mannish’ god – a god of farmers, fishermen and fighters (as the runologist R. I. Page put it, ‘the everyday Viking […] the man-in-the-fiord’).7 He is precisely the sort of god we would expect to feel particularly embarrassed about a misplaced member, and whose devotees might have felt the need to make showy compensation for their comrade’s missing man-parts.
In the Prose Edda, a medieval primer on Norse mythology and one of the most valuable sources for pre-Christian belief in Scandinavia, Snorri provides a potted outline of the god’s key attributes:
Thor […] is the strongest of all gods and men […] [He] has two male goats called Tannigost [Tooth Gnasher] and Tannigrisnir [Snarl Tooth]. He also owns the chariot that they draw, and for this reason he is called Thor the Charioteer. He […] has three choice possessions. One is the hammer Mjollnir. Frost giants and mountain giants recognize it when it is raised in the air, which is not surprising as it has cracked many a skull among their fathers and kinsmen. His second great treasure is his Megingjard [Belt of Strength]. When he buckles it on, his divine strength doubles. His third possession, the gloves of iron, are also a great treasure. He cannot be without these when he grips the hammer’s shaft.8
The story that best sums up Thor’s character is recounted in the eddic poem Þrymskviða (‘the Song of Thrym’). Unlike the dark and difficult texts with which it was compiled in the Codex Regius (poems, for example, like Völuspá and Grímnismál), Þrymskviða is a fairly light-hearted romp. Nevertheless, like all good satire, it gets to the heart of the matter (in this case Thor’s character) with pointed efficiency. It runs thus: Thor woke up one morning to find his magical hammer, Mjölnir, missing. Loki, the trickster god, was deputed to find out where it was and flew to the hall of the giant, Thrym. Thrym admitted to having stolen it and claimed to have hidden it ‘eight leagues under the earth’, adding that ‘No one shall have it back again unless he brings me Freyja as bride.’9 On receiving this news, Thor was keen to take the giant up on the bargain (‘these were the first words he found to say: “Freyja, put on your bridal veil”’). Freyja, unsurprisingly, was less enthusiastic (‘Freyja was enraged, and gave a snort, so that the gods’ hall trembled, and the great Brísings’ neck-ring tumbled: “You’d think I’d become the maddest for men if I drove with you to Giants’ Domain [Jötunheimr]”’).
Eventually, the god Heimdall came up with a cunning plan:
‘Let us put Thor in the bridal veil,
let him wear the great Brísings’ neck-ring!
Let us have keys jangling beneath him,
And women’s clothes falling round his knees,
and broad gem-stones sitting on his chest,
let us top out his head with style.’
Then Thor spoke, the strapping god:
‘The gods will call me a cock-craver,
if I let myself be put in a bridal veil.’10
Thor’s protests notwithstanding, Heimdall’s scheme was put into action. Thrym, evidently not the brightest of characters, was easily bamboozled by the cunning disguise; nevertheless, his suspicions were eventually aroused by his bride-to-be’s table habits: ‘Freyja’ (Thor) packed away a whole ox, eight salmon, all the food laid out for the women and three casks of mead. Loki (in the guise of a maidservant) was forced to claim that the false bride had not eaten for eight days because of her excitement at the approaching nuptials (Loki, unlike Thor, apparently had no qualms about cross-dressing). Finally the moment of the wedding ceremony arrived, and Thrym called for the hammer Mjölnir to be brought forth to hallow the union. Thor needed no more encouragement than this: his heart ‘laughed in his chest’ as he grasped the hammer and set about venting his anger and humiliation:
Thrym, lord of ogres, was the first one he felled,
before battering all of the giant-race.11
Þrymskviða is a tale that, at least in its received form, postdates the Viking Age – possibly by some margin (the manuscript in which it is found – the Codex Regius – was compiled in the latter part of the thirteenth century). The poem may have been intended to parody the absurdities of past beliefs; perhaps transforming the mighty Thor into a berserk Widow Twanky was one way to tame the unsettling residue of a none-too-distant pagan heritage.12 Nevertheless, several themes in the poem resonate with much of what else we know or is implied about Viking attitudes to sexuality and Thor’s place in the pantheon.
The term which Andy Orchard, regius Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, provocatively translated as ‘cock-craver’ is the Old Norse word argr, which is normally (and euphemistically) rendered as ‘unmanly’.13 In reality, argr (and its cognate form ragr) was an insult which, when directed at both men and women, implied some sort of unusual enthusiasm for being penetrated. When directed at a woman, therefore, it suggested promiscuity; when directed at a man it ascribed a passive homosexuality. It was a particularly rude charge to level at one’s (male) counterparts, and to insult someone in these terms could constitute a potentially lethal slight. The earliest Icelandic law codes are clear that no intervention or recompense could be expected if those bandying unsubstantiated slanders came to violent grief as a result of their impertinences.
The Norwegian Gulathing law was specific about what constituted the worst sorts of insult:
Concerning terms of abuse or insult. There are words which are considered terms of abuse. Item one: if a man say of another man that he has borne a child. Item two: if a man say of another man that he has been homosexually used [sannsorðenn]. Item three: if a man compare another man to a mare, or call him a bitch or a harlot, or compare him to any animal which bears young.14
This, however, wasn’t a moral abhorrence of homosexuality in the sense that the Christian Church would later seek to formulate it, and the law codes and sagas – all of which date to the post-conversion epoch – have to be read carefully in this light. What, instead, the Vikings seemed to find upsetting was the feminized role of the ragr-mann (gently translated: ‘unmanly-man’). Indeed, using men for sex – particularly in a punitive way – seems to have incurred no moral judgement. To bugger one’s enemies was a manly way to humiliate a vanquished foe: the latter, by contrast, would then be considered argr/ragr, rassragr (‘arse-argr’), stroðinn or sorðinn (‘sodomized’) or sansorðinn (‘demonstrably sodomized’).15
The problem, it seems, was not so much being gay as being thought to be ‘unmanly’ in some way. Indeed, other typically female behaviour could also attract accusations of ergi (unmanliness), suggesting that it was the adoption of inappropriate gender roles that Vikings objected to, rather than homosexual liaisons per se.16 Even the gods could be susceptible to these imputations – Loki, in the most extreme example, gave birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir after an intimate moment with the frost-giant’s stallion Svaðilfari (‘Unlucky Traveller’); Loki was in the guise of a mare at the time. Odin too, though more indirectly, was labelled argr because he practised a form of sorcery – seiðr – that was explicitly considered the preserve of women. As Loki pointed out:
‘It’s said you played the witch on Sámsey,
beat the drum like a lady-prophet;
in the guise of a wizard you wandered the world:
that signals to me a cock-craver.’17
This, however, is a very specific image of effeminacy, and one to which we shall return. The picture it conjures (Loki’s crude insult aside) is an indefinably eerie one – another thread in the weft of Odin’s surpassing weirdness.
It is this fear of effeminacy (or, rather, the fear of being seen as effeminate) that Thor expresses in Þrymskviða. In the end, he is forced to erase the threat to his manhood in the only way a deity with limited subtlety of mind could manage: by beating all and sundry to a pulp. This image of Thor fits easily into our conception of this god of warriors and working men, an unreconstructed he-man who responded to danger, irritation and humiliation with brute force – problem-solving with a hammer. Certainly, the cult of Thor seems to have become extremely popular in the late Viking Age. By the time Adam of Bremen was describing the temple at Uppsala, Thor was regarded – from a Christian perspective anyway – as the major deity. Hundreds of Thor’s-hammer pendants and rings (from which small hammers and other amulets were suspended) have been found throughout the Viking world, from Iceland and Ireland to Poland and Russia – many, though by no means all, in graves.18
And yet, despite all this, when we start to probe the details of the cult of Thor a surprisingly complex picture begins to emerge. For one thing, the vast majority of individual Thor’s-hammer pendants found in graves (as opposed to the rings and the disassociated finds) are found in the graves of women.19 This fact alone is enough to suggest that there was more to the invocation of the god than the doom-brained muscle-cult we may have been led to expect by sources like Þrymskviða. Moreover, runic inscriptions invoking Thor’s blessing of monuments implies that his role could be imagined as a broader responsibility to preserve and protect those things that people held valuable.20 His hammer could even (if Þrymskviða can be trusted) be used symbolically to seal a marriage ceremony.21
Grave 511 at Repton, with its Thor’s-hammer pendant, is therefore a reminder of the heathenism of the Vikings who comprised the micel here, and allows us to begin to imagine the social mores and attitudes of the people who found themselves here in the winter of 873/4. But the presence of the boar’s tusk and the humerus of a jackdaw among the grave goods suggests that, woven into the machismo of the Viking way of life, were ideas and attitudes that remain alien to us, and whose significance is irrevocably lost. The part of the Repton excavations that makes this latter point most dramatically, however, is another grave – this time a mass grave – that remains as strange, unique and compelling as it was when it was first broken open in 1686. In an account given to the antiquarian researcher Dr Simon Degge in 1727, a man called Thomas Walker described how he had dug into a large mound that stood west of St Wystan’s Church:
About Forty Years since cutting Hillocks, near the Surface he met with an old Stone Wall, when clearing farther he found it to be a square Enclosure of Fifteen Foot: It had been covered, but the Top was decayed and fallen in, being only supported by wooden Joyces. In this he found a Stone Coffin, and with Difficulty removing the Cover, saw a Skeleton of a Humane Body Nine Foot long, and round it lay One Hundred Humane Skeletons, with their feet pointing to the Stone Coffin. They seem’d to be of the ordinary Size.22
Walker went on to confess that ‘The Head of the great Skeleton he gave to Mr. Bowers, Master of the Free-school.’ Dr Degge made further enquiries with the son of the aforementioned Mr Bowers, who said at the time that ‘he remembers the Skull in his Father’s Closet, and that he had often heard his Father mention this Gigantic Corps …’23
Wonderful as this all is, we would be right to be sceptical, and a later generation of fascinated antiquarians were determined to prove the case one way or another. Excavations in 1789 and 1914 followed, the former – despite finding the Gigantic Corps absent – confirmed the presence of ‘vast quantities of human bones’.24 It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that a systematic programme of excavation was undertaken. The results of that campaign revealed one of the most shocking and enigmatic burials ever excavated in the British Isles.
The mound had been constructed over a twin-celled stone building dated to the seventh or eighth century, undoubtedly part of the religious complex on the site. Prior to its final repurposing it had been used as a workshop, although it may originally have been built as a chapel or mortuary. To construct the mound, the walls of the building had been dismantled to ground level, leaving only the subterranean part of the building in situ. The floor of the eastern cell was covered with a layer of red marl, and a stone cist had been erected in the centre. All traces of the body which this contained, as described to Dr Degge, had disappeared – as had most evidence for the cist itself (unsurprising, given the repeated, and mostly inexpert, prior interventions). What did survive, however, were the other bones: 1,686 of them to be precise, the disarticulated remains of 264 people, strewn about in charnel chaos, a disordered landscape of death. Among the bones, objects were discovered – a Scandinavian-style axe-head, sword fragments, two long single-bladed knives (seaxes), a key and a range of decorative fragments of metalwork dating to the seventh or eighth centuries. Amid all this were five silver coins, four of them dated to 872, one of them to 873/4. These last artefacts were a critical, and astoundingly fortuitous, discovery, for they dated the construction of this extraordinary monument, with exceptional precision, to the period when Repton was under occupation by the Viking micel here.
Although the scene uncovered by the excavators was one of morbid disarray, this was all as a result of the rough treatment the burial had received at the hands of Thomas Walker and his ilk. It soon became apparent that the bones had originally been carefully sorted by length and stacked neatly around the central grave. Moreover, most of the small bones (hands, feet, vertebrae) were absent, suggesting that the skeletons had been moved, reinterred in the mound after an initial period of burial elsewhere – long enough, it would seem, to ensure that the remains were free from fleshy parts. Carbon dating of a small sample brought back a range of dates between the seventh and the ninth centuries, and the general absence of trauma to the bones complicates an interpretation of these skeletons as the remains of battle-damaged Vikings of the micel here or their victims.
Debate continues about who they were and why they were interred in this way, and ongoing analysis seeks to clarify their origins. It may be – as the excavators believed – that some of the bones are Scandinavian, the remains of the followers of some great lord gathered up to lay beside him in death. On the other hand, it may be that some of the disarticulated bones are the remains of Mercian monks, nuns and aristocrats whose bones were disturbed by the digging of the ditch and the clearing of the mausolea.25 It may even be the case that the bones of the Mercian kings – Æthelbald and Wiglaf – were jumbled in among them, as well as, perhaps, the holy remains of St Wystan himself:26 the carefully conserved relics of a proud nation, reduced to morbid trophies in a ghoulish heathen catacomb.
Who, then, was the missing occupant, the ‘Humane Body Nine Foot long’ who had once been laid in the central grave in such grim splendour? Although we can be pretty certain that his or her physical stature was exaggerated, this was clearly the grave of an important individual, afforded a rare and imposing memorial. We know with more certainty who it was not. The movements of the Viking leaders Halfdan and Ubbe are mentioned in the years following the over-wintering at Repton; other leaders of the army – Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend – led a part of the army to Cambridge in 874 and were also clearly still alive. Bacsecg was killed at Ashdown in 871, and it seems unlikely that even the most devoted of followers would have been prepared to carry a ripe corpse around England for three years. There is only one other Viking warlord active in England whose name we know, but whose fate and movements in the years after 870 are uncertain. The evidence is contradictory, but the excavators make a good case that the mound at Repton was raised for Ivar the Boneless.27
Two and a half miles west and slightly south of Repton, on high ground overlooking the valley of the Trent, yet more mounds were being raised to the dead in the years following 873. The cemetery at Heath Wood comprised fifty-nine barrows, hillocks of earth that once stood on open heathland – like the workings of an army of giant moles. These were monuments that marked the places where the ashen remnants of the dead had been interred, fifty-nine memorials to occasions when the earth of Derbyshire had been dug and reformed to cover the cremated fragments of human beings and animals, swords and shields, buckles and spurs, nails, pins and melted treasures. These were the graves of pagan people whose community practised a rite of burial long abandoned by the Christian English, laying out the dead upon a funeral pyre, draped with jewellery or girded with weapons, surrounded by sacrificial offerings, immolated.
Snorri explained that ‘Óðinn […] ordained that all dead people must be burned and that their possessions should be laid on a pyre with them. He said that everyone should come to Valhǫll with such wealth as he had on his pyre, and that each would also have the benefit of whatever he himself had buried in the earth. But the ashes were to be taken out to sea or buried down in the earth, and mounds were to be built as memorials to great men.’28 Although we would be right to be dubious of the specificity with which Snorri describes the thoughts and motivations of people who lived hundreds of years before his own time, his words nevertheless resonate not only with the archaeology, but with other more contemporary accounts. Here once more is ibn Fadlan, describing the funeral of a Rūs chieftain:
They dressed him [the dead man] in trousers, socks, boots, a tunic and a brocade caftan with gold buttons. On his head they placed a brocade cap covered with sable. Then they bore him into the pavilion on the boat and sat him on the mattress, supported by cushions. Then they brought nabīdh[alcoholic drink], fruits and basil which they placed near him. Next they carried in bread, meat and onions which they laid before him.
After that they brought in a dog, which they cut in two and threw into the boat. Then they placed his weapons beside him. Next they took two horses and made them run until they were in lather, before hacking them to pieces with swords and throwing their flesh on to the boat. Then they brought two cows, which they also cut into pieces and threw on to the boat. Finally they brought a cock and hen, killed them and threw them on to the boat as well.29
After a lengthy ritual, the slave-girl was finally killed, having been laid beside the dead man:
Then people came with wood and logs to burn, each holding a piece of wood alight at one end, which they threw on to the wood [that was piled below the boat]. The fire enveloped the wood, then the boat, then the tent, the man, the girl and all that there was on the boat. A violent and frightening wind began to blow, the flames grew in strength and the heat of the fire intensified.30
This was a grand funeral for a great man. The burning of boats, like their burial, was probably uncommon,31 but the broad outlines of the pomp and sacrifice – and their explanation – would have been familiar across the Viking world. As they stood on the banks of the river watching the burning, one of the Rūs party spoke to ibn Fadlan’s interpreter. ‘You Arabs are fools!’ he apparently exclaimed. ‘Why is that?’ ibn Fadlan politely enquired through his interlocutor. ‘Because you put the men you love most, and the most noble among you, into the earth, and the earth and the worms and insects eat them. But we burn them in the fire in an instant, so that at once and without delay they enter Paradise.’32
The rites practised at Heath Wood may have replicated – albeit on a smaller scale – the scenes witnessed by ibn Fadlan on the Volga; similar funerals are also known to have taken place in Scandinavia – Norway and Sweden especially – during the Viking Age.33 Nevertheless, in England, obviously ‘Viking’ burials are rare discoveries. Despite the development of new Scandinavian-inflected identities and socio-economic change that occurred in the decades following the 870s, the graves at Heath Wood and Repton remain the only places where good evidence exists for a whole community behaving in a way that was significantly divergent, obviously heathen. These were the people of the micel here, and here – for the first time – they were putting their roots into English soil. They would run deep: although their funerals would become less distinctive – less visible in the archaeological record – Viking sculpture, found at Repton, attests to a more than transient Scandinavian presence in this part of Britain. And, in time (or perhaps straight away), Old Norse names were bestowed on the neighbouring villages, names which speak eloquently of perceived ethnic difference in the first phases of Viking settlement. They are still the names these villages bear today: Ingleby – the ‘farm of the English’; Bretby – the ‘farm of the Britons’.
In 874, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the great Viking army that had first arrived in England in 865 broke apart, never again to operate as a unified force in England. (Perhaps the death of whoever lay in the Repton mound snapped the last thread of unifying authority binding together the confederation of chieftains and warlords that made up the micel here. Perhaps the raising of that mound to their fallen leader was a last symbolic act of triumph and remembrance – the interment of a Viking hero at the symbolic heart of England’s once mightiest realm, left to slumber on among the skulls of conquered kings.) Guthrum and the others went east. Halfdan, however, went back to Northumbria to assert some measure of authority in the northern part of that kingdom. He wasted no time in getting on with the traditional occupations of Northumbrian rulers by harassing the Picts and Strathclyde Britons ranged along his northern and western borders. What was recorded under the year 876, however, was much more significant. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in one of the most understated but consequential remarks in the recorded history of early medieval Britain, notes that ‘Halfdan divided up the land of Northumbria,’ and his people ‘were ploughing and supporting themselves’.34
By 875, the land was changing – utterly and irrevocably. And not merely in the terminal collapse of age-old kingdoms; the Vikings had insinuated themselves into the very marrow of England. The soil was being ploughed by Viking hands, and their dead were laid to rest in it. The earth was being worked and mounds raised; even the bones of the English dead, perhaps even their kings, were now being co-opted into the graves of warriors born in Denmark, Norway or beyond. In every part of these islands, the children of Viking men were being born to native mothers. And, perhaps most profound of all, the names of things had begun to change: places that had borne English names for 400 years or more were shedding them as a new lexicon established itself in the wake of settlement: Norse words, Viking words. This was no longer a harrying, nor even a simple conquest, the exchange of one ruling dynasty for another. This was colonization, with all the cultural, linguistic, geographical and political upheaval such a process brings in train. Its impact can still be felt today.