History of the Danelaw

AKA the Danelagh, Seven Burroughs, Five Burghs, Seven Towns

The “Danelaw,” a term referring to the areas of ancient England in which the Danes ordained the law, originated near the year 880 A.D. During this time, King Alfred of the West Saxons and King Guthrum of the Vikings fought until both sides experienced severe losses. Most notably, Alfred defeated Gurthrum in the 878 Battle of Ethandun. But by then, many Danes had already settled throughout northeastern England.

The two Kings attempted to reach some semblance of peace with one another. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states in its entry for 880 A.D.: “This year went the army from Cirencester into East-Anglia, where they settled, and divided the land.” The year the actual treaty took place is a matter of debate, but Kevin Crossley-Holland states it thus:

“… after he had beaten them at Edington, Alfred seems to have regained the initiative to such a degree that the Danes decided to make peace with him. As part of the new understanding between Alfred and Guthrum, the leader of the Danes agreed to be christened. In 886, the two men drew up a momentous treaty dividing England into two parts – Wessex and Danelaw.”

–Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Anglo-Saxon World, pg. 36

The treaty written between Alfred and Guthrum is a document that survives to this day. Here is the opening and first statute of five:

“This is the peace that King Alfred and King Guthrum, and the witan of all the English nation, and all the people that are in East Anglia, have all ordained and with oaths confirmed, for themselves and for their descendants, as well for born as for unborn, who reck of God’s mercy or of ours.

1. Concerning our land boundaries: Up on the Thames, and then up on the Lea, and along the Lea unto its source, then straight to Bedford, then up on the Ouse unto Watling Street.”

–Alfred and Guthrum’s Peace, available in full at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/guthrum.html

Some people consider the “land boundaries” to constitute the first definition of the geographical region that came to be known as the Danelaw. However, this isn’t necessarily stated in the document. Whatever the case, the Danes took control of Northumbria, East Anglia, and the lands of the “Five Boroughs,” which were located in eastern Mercia. These burroughs or burghs were Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford and Lincoln. Therefore the Danelaw was sometimes referred to instead as the Five Burroughs or Seven Towns (including York and Chester).

Lappenburg has this to say about the Danelaw:

“A part of the land had now for some time been occupied by the Danes, who took possession of several of the larger towns, in which they formed permanent settlements. These places long continued to be distinguished by the name of the Danish Burghs … The Five-burghers had a court of justice and many other institutions in common, though they may not have originated, like the civic confederations of the continent, in a similarity of circumstances, but are rather perhaps to be attributed to a relationship of race and blood.”

–Lappenberg, Johann Martin: A History of England Under the Anglo-Saxon Kings: 800 to 1066, pg. 47-48

Because the Danes were also expert craftsmen and traders when they were not raiding across the seas, the Danelaw soon flourished and became independently wealthy. Before the institution of the Danelaw, England had a unified currency amongst the primary mints of Canterbury and London or Rochester. According to D.M. Metcalf and James Campbell, “The creation of the Danelaw destroyed the political framework within which a national currency had functioned, but it could not as easily destroy the monetary and economic realities of inter-regional trade” (Campbell, James pg. 130). By the tenth century, most coins were struck from the Seven Burghs, along with the Mercian towns of Tamworth, Stafford, and Shrewsbury.

“The creation of the Danelaw destroyed the political framework within which a national currency had functioned, but it could not as easily destroy the monetary and economic realities of inter-regional trade.”

–Campbell, James. The Anglo-Saxons, pg. 131

Ironically, this would make them a target of their own Viking kinsmen eventually. By the eleventh century, there seems to be a common pattern of the Vikings attacking the Danelaw but then quickly acquiring allies there. This is why, in “Alfgifu the Orphan,” Canute and his army sit comfortably in Gainsborough (which is very close to Lincoln) for such a long time. It is also an interesting concept in the next short story, “Hastings the Hearth Companion,” in which Ulfcytel of East Anglia—a Dane—chooses to support his Anglo-Saxon King and fight back against Sweyn Forkbeard.

Tuesday, July 27th:

A royal hearth companion named Hastings fights on the front lines of battle for duty and the Golden Cross, but he entertains unrealistic notions of how he might be rewarded for doing so.


Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Translation by James Henry Ingram

Campbell, James et al. The Anglo-Saxons. Phaidon Press Limited, 1982.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. Oxford University Press, 1982.

Lappenberg, Johann Martin and Benjamin Thorpe. History of England under the Anglo-Saxon Kings, Volume 2. 1845.

White, Albert Beebe and Notestein, Wallace, eds., Source Problems in English History. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1915. View the full document at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/guthrum.html

Published in: on July 20, 2010 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I feel so smart after reading this stuff. I knew nothing about this place and time period.

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