In the eighth and ninth centuries, the area of East Anglia was particularly vulnerable to invasion from Vikings sailing across the North Sea. With fertile land conveniently located facing the southern part of Scandinavia, the invasion of East Anglia and Northumbria (what is now northern England and south-eastern Scotland) by the Great Heathen Army in 865AD saw the end of the independent Anglo Saxon kingdoms. The Vikings ended up settling around the east of England, eventually assimilating with the local population, which is why the area’s history from this time is intimately connected with that of Scandinavia. A current collaboration between the Norwich Castle Museum, the Yorkshire Museum, and the British Museum has resulted in the exhibition Viking: Rediscover the Legend at the Norwich Castle Museum, where some of the most important Viking treasures ever discovered in Britain are now on display.
The aim of the exhibition is to present the history of the Viking presence in England, from the raids in the late eighth century to the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066. The curators and organisers are keen to cultivate a more nuanced view of the Vikings as settlers, farmers, craftspeople and tradesmen, rather than just ‘pillaging marauders’ who overrode England’s way of life.
In the large, airy hall reserved for Norwich Castle’s special exhibitions, you can follow the trajectory of the Vikings’ settlement in England in themed sections, from the rough crossing from Scandinavia in their wooden ships, to the cultural background of the raiders and settlers, and the almost total assimilation that happened in some parts of the country. Hidden speakers whisper words of Old Norse (I picked up something about a ‘big ship’), and images of Viking armies at sea are projected high up onto the walls. In the different sections, famous items like the iron and brass Anglian York Helmet are displayed alongside some very recent finds (one of which was discovered just a couple of weeks before the opening of the exhibition) as well as highlights from Norwich Castle’s own collections.
Viking: Rediscover the Legend also provides context for when and how the Scandinavian Vikings invaded and settled in England. The first Vikings to arrive in Britain came from Norway (a ‘very long and very narrow’ land of ‘wild, mountainous wastelands’ according to Voyage of Othere) to the island of Lindisfarne on the northeast coast of England in 793AD. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle details how at this time there were ‘imminent flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.’ A relatively small group of northmen looted the church of St Cuthbert; there were no proper Viking armies at this point, and as little as ten men in one ship usually carried out the raids.
However, they soon became more organised and could muster entire armies from the middle of the ninth century onwards. It was also around this time that the Vikings began to settle in Britain and assimilate with the local population. Towns like Derby, Leicester, Stamford, Lincoln and Nottingham were founded as new centres of power, and York became the largest and most important town in the Viking world. It is interesting to hear from Andrew Woods, Senior Curator at the Yorkshire Museum, of how the way different parts of England assimilated with the Vikings still influence its citizens today: some view the Vikings as violent marauders, while others consider them to be distant ancestors.
There are also little textboxes in the different sections meant for young visitors. These contain facts (modern English words like ‘leg’, ‘sky’, ‘ransack’ and ‘slaughter’ come from Viking words), as well as fictitious statements from people who ‘lived’ during the Viking era. Woods tells me that this was included because real testimonies from the time would have exclusively been written down by learned, religious men. The child-friendly testimonies detailing the daily life of Vigdis, Arne, Ivar and Bjørn gives the exhibition a broader appeal and makes it easier for young visitors to engage with the history of that era.
The specific locations where objects were found plays an important part when it comes to contextualising the Vikings’ settlement and assimilation, and how the two cultures borrowed from each other. There are objects that show how some ‘heathens’ converted to Christianity after settling in England, as graves both in Britain and Scandinavia feature hacksilver inscribed with crosses. The exhibition also features a majestic neck ring that was made in England but clearly inspired by a design that existed in Scandinavia (proving that English people’s love of ‘Scandi chic’ is far from new).
One of the most important discoveries of objects from the Viking era ever made on British soil is the Vale of York Hoard, also on display at the Norwich Castle. In 2007, two metal detectorists found a gilded silver cup that contained 617 silver coins, dating from the ninth and tenth century, as well as 65 other items, including hacksilver, ornaments and a gold arm ring. Gareth Williams, Curator of Early Medieval Coins at the British Museum, was the one who examined the hoard when it was first found. He explains to us that because it included items that originated everywhere from North Africa, Afghanistan and Russia, it proved the vast scope of the Vikings’ travelling and trade connections.
The final room of the exhibition features a curious mixture of contemporary Viking-related items, such as a T-shirt advertising the rugby team North Walsham Vikings, plastic toys for the children (‘Help our little Vikings build a new settlement!’), and a picture wall displaying the cultural role the Viking saga has played in more modern times. To me, the most notable object is a Norwegian propaganda poster from 1942, produced by the Waffen SS during the German occupation of Norway. It features a young Norwegian soldier whose shadow is that of a sturdy Viking: ‘Norwegians – Fight for Norway’ it reads, with an address to go to for those who wished to join the Schutzstaffel.
With its ambitious scope, Viking: Rediscover the Legend should be interesting to all those curious about our distant past. However, if there end up being too many glass cases filled with old coins and worn pieces of Viking jewellery, you can always entertain yourself by tying knots, dressing up in full Viking gear, or taking the test ‘How Viking are you?’ on your way out – I got 70 percent.