The Danish Vikings and the Danelaw

The Viking Age in Denmark was an eventful period that saw the rise of the Danish Vikings as an important military force in northwestern Europe. During the early Middle Ages, the Danish Vikings are known for having voyaged across the North Sea to Britain and establishing the Danelaw, a historical regional in Britain where the laws of the newly Scandinavian settlers held sway over those of the Anglo-Saxons.

The Viking Age officially started in the late 8th century, specifically in 793 when a group of Norwegian Vikings attacked the Catholic abbey of Lindisfarne, located less than one mile off the northeastern coast of the Kingdom of Northumbria.

Map of Europe highlighting the territorial extent of the Danish Vikings (red) in the time of King Cnut the Great. Image source:

Cnut the Great’s North Sea Empire, as shown in this map in red (during the early part of the 11th century). Green depicts the Norse settlements in Greenland and North America, purple is Iceland, pale red is Normandy and yellow is Sweden. Image source:

Since then, both the Norwegian and the Danish Vikings recurrently raided Britain in the upcoming three centuries. The Norse raided parts of Ireland, Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides and Isle of Man, while the Danes attacked Wessex and Mercia.

The Danelaw was established as a result of King Alfred the Great’s efforts to avoid further Viking raids in the Anglian Kingdom of Wessex. He ceded land to the Danes who then engaged primarily in trade and built settlements. It is also known that the Danelaw consisted of fifteen shires.

The territorial extent of the Danelaw comprised as such York, Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northampton, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford, Middlesex and Buckingham.

A map of Danelaw in circa 878. Image source:

A map of the Danelaw in circa 878. Image source:

In Danish, the Danelaw is known as ‘Danelagen’ and in Old English as ‘Dena lagu’, being described in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, a collection of annals recounting the history of the Anglo-Saxons which was written during the late part of the 9th century.

The term ‘Danelaw’ can also denote, aside from its geographical meaning, a set of terms and laws as defined in several treaties between the King of the West Saxons during the 9th century, namely Alfred the Great, and the Danish warlord, Guthrum. After nearly a decade from the Battle of Edington (which took place in 878), the Danish Vikings under Guthrum were given land by Alfred the Great and the boundaries of the Danelaw were established.

Between the 9th and 11th centuries, the Danish Vikings were also given the Danegeld (literally meaning ‘The Danish tax’) as a tribute for not waging war in either England or Francia. However, the term ‘Danegeld’ appears only commencing from 20th century in literary works, while the documents of the High Middle Ages describe the tax paid to the Danish Vikings as either ‘geld’ or ‘gafol’.

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Additional small note: Artistic licence was used for the horns designed on the helmets worn by these Vikings. The Vikings didn’t worn horned or winged helmets in reality. Image source:

It was also the Danish Vikings that gave the name of an important region situated in northern France, namely Normandy (stemming from the Old French word ‘normanz’, referring to ‘Northmen’). Rollo (or Göngu Hrólfr, as he was known in Old Norse) was a Viking chieftain who raided present day France during the late 9th century.

In early 10th century he alongside his men were given land by the then King of Western Francia, Charles III the Simple, in exchange for their protection against subsequent incursions of other Viking war bands. Thus, Rollo became the Count of Rouen (his reign lasted from 911 to 927), and far more important than that, the ancestor of William the Conqueror who had subsequently conquered England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The Danish Vikings were also interested in settling parts of Wales and Ireland. In Ireland, the Danish Vikings were referred to in Irish as ‘Dubhgall’, and came to settle there after the Norwegian Vikings who were referred to as ‘Fingall’.

The Danish Vikings clashing against a Frankish army. Image source:

The Danish Vikings clashing against a Frankish army. Image source:

Aside from being renowned warriors, the Danish Vikings were also skilled blacksmiths, excellent seafarers, good traders and are also reputed for having built the ring-shaped fortresses in Denmark. It is believed that they were used as military bases for the invasion of England in the 11th century, being associated with Sweyn Forkbeard or Harald Bluetooth. Another theory has it that they were used as trading posts that handled goods in Scandinavia.

The historical legacy of the Danish Vikings is still noticeable today in many aspects of the English culture, from the English language itself (which was significantly influenced by Old Norse, the mother tongue of all modern North Germanic languages), to place names, genetics and even the sarcastic humour (stated by the Danish ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mr. Claus Grube). Thus, there is clearly a common cultural heritage between the English and the Danes which dates back to more than one thousand years.

Below you can watch a short video about the Danes celebrating 1,000 years from the conquest of London which took place in 1013:

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One Response to The Danish Vikings and the Danelaw

  1. Clifford Johnston says:

    Excellent article!

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