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We’re a little bit Saxon and a little bit Viking

Historian Mike Ingram delves into Northampton’s distant past and finds it once again at the centre of history-making events

Throughout its early history, what would eventually be known as Northamptonshire became a centre for royal administration and home to Kings and Queens. It would also be devastated first by Saxons and then by Vikings. Although much of the physical evidence of this important part of our past is now lost, we can still see glimpses in our stunning churches or from archaeology.

Exactly why and when the Anglo-Saxons first arrived in Britain has been hotly debated for many years. However, by the fifth century, what would eventually become Northamptonshire was part of a Saxon territory known as Cynwidion. There were many small settlements scattered all over the area. One such settlement was established on the top of a hill above the confluence of two branches of the River Nene. The site seems to have been occupied since the early Mesolithic Period and 3,000 flints dating from the bronze age were found in a hollow near Chalk Lane in Northampton.  Roman artefacts were also discovered on the castle site. However, it was probably around the old Roman crossroads of what is today Gold Street/Marefair and Horsemarket (A508) that the Saxon settlement was established. It would be known as Hamtune (home farm in Old English). And, over time, this settlement would become known as Northampton and the county town for fledgling Northamptonshire.

In the late 570’s it is recorded that the Welsh King Catocus, also known as St. Cadog the Wise, one of the most important Welsh Saints came to Beneventum (Bannaventa) in Calchwynedd. Beneventum was a small Romano-British fortified town, 1 mile (1.6 km) northeast of the modern village of Norton on the old Roman road of Watling Street.  Although the town was in ruins, there seems to have been a substantial monastery with a large body of monks. Catocus was elected Abbot and inspired the inhabitants to set about rebuilding the town. In thanks, they created him their first Bishop. On 24th January AD 580, Bannaventa was raided by Saxons. Catocus was run through with a spear and killed in his own church. For many years the invaders would not let the British claim his body, but eventually he was transferred to Llancarfan near Cowbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan, Wales where he now lies buried. Within a hundred years Northamptonshire had become an undifferentiated part of the Saxon kingdom of Mercia.

Mercian Northamptonshire seems to have been divided into three provinces centred on the major estates of King’s Sutton in the south, Northampton in the centre and Oundle in the north. Oundle is probably the site of the monastery where St Wilfrid died in 709. Archbishop of York Wulfstan, who died in 956 was also buried there. The site may have been abandoned or destroyed in a Viking raid at the end of the ninth century. To date, no remains of the monastery or the administrative centre have been found. In 655 a monastery was founded by Peada, son of King Penda of Mercia, and completed by Peada’s brother King Wulfhere at a place called Medehamstede on the north bank of the River Nene. It would be later renamed as Peterborough.

Sometime before the death of King Wulfhere in 675 Sexwulf, bishop of Mercia founded Brixworth Abbey. It would become the Brixworth Church that now stands on the site and many elements from the original building are still visible today. Beginning in 742 and for the next 150 years, a series of important synods attended by Anglo-Saxon kings, bishops, abbots and nobles were held at a place called ‘Clofeshoch.’ It was the first parliamentary system known to have operated in the British Isles and it is generally thought that Brixworth was the site they were held. Over time Brixworth church was modified and in the 10th century, the iconic tower and stair turret were built.  It is one of only four surviving Anglo-Saxon stair turrets in England. Another can also be found in Northants at Barnack.

Another nationally important Saxon Tower was built in Earls Barton probably sometime between 930 and 970. A local story tells that after the rebuilding of the Abbey of St. Peter, Medeshamstede (Peterborough) in 959, the workmen came to Barton. Standing 19m tall, up to the later battlements and supported on foundations of rubble only 20-30 cm thick, it is the most complete example of a late Saxon church tower in the country. Directly behind the church is an earthwork known today as Berry Mount. This may have been a Saxon burh – a defensible centre of population. Another suggestion is that it is an earlier pagan burial site. One local legend says that there is a whole army buried beneath it! Other fine examples of Saxon Churches can be found in the county at Geddington, Greens Norton, Nassington, Pattishall and Stowe Nine Churches.

In March 1997 at Wollaston, near Wellingborough, the grave of a high-status, late seventh century Saxon warrior of around 25 years old was discovered in a gravel-quarry. In the shallow grave, possibly laid on a bed was a pattern welded sword, a small knife, a hanging bowl, three iron buckles and a copper alloy clothes hook. With them were fragments of a helmet with a boar crest. It is one of only three of its type to be discovered in England.

It was in the year 793 that the Danes came. It began with a major raid on the Northumbrian monastery at Lindisfarne (although there is evidence of a small raid four years earlier in Devon). The next decade saw major raids along most of the southern and eastern coasts of England. The first part of the ninth century saw the Vikings concentrating on Ireland and the north and west of England and Scotland. Then in 835 “The great heathen army” led by Ivar the Boneless arrived and began a series of major raids on the whole of England. Instead of raiders they became settlers and in 866, the Danes captured York.  Three years later the Great Army marched south and Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba sacked Peterborough. Only a young boy survived who they kept as a pet. With the ever-present threat of Viking raids, the old iron age hillfort of Borough Hill at Daventry was brought back into use and in the 10th century, a Saxon charter describes it as a burh. Two or three Saxon burials were found on the hill and, unusually, some Viking weapons which may suggest that it was attacked at some point.

By this time Hamtune had probably become both a Minster and a centre for administration with a royal palace. In the late 700’s a large rectangular timber hall 30 meters long and 8.5 metres wide with 6.35 metre square annexes at each end was built. The design was sophisticated for its time with the hall possibly divided into nine bays and opposing doors on the long sides. To the immediate west was another large timber building 16 metres long by 8.75 metres wide.

At the beginning of the eighth century, the hall was replaced by a larger stone hall 37.5 metres long and 11.5 metres wide with plastered walls 1.2 metres thick and a mortar floor. It is without parallel in England and closely resembles Carolingian palace complexes in Germany. Next to it and now mostly under the current St. Peter’s Church was another stone building which may have been an earlier church or Minster.

In November 869, the Great Heathen Army advanced on East Anglia where they defeated and executed King Edmund (later to become St. Edmund) at Hoxne in Suffolk. According to one account, his nephew Ragner was executed with him. Almost all we know about Ragner comes from a short Latin text, surviving in two late-medieval manuscripts, which describes how his relics were supposedly discovered at St Peter’s Church in Northampton in the 11th century. It says that Ragner died alongside St. Edmund and was therefore a martyr and saint.  There is a reference to Ragner in a 12th-century text from Peterborough but no other source mentions him. The current St Peter’s church was probably built between 1130 and 1140 by Simon Senlis II, sometimes the fourth Earl of Northampton. It has some of the finest early Norman carvings in England and reminiscent of the church of St Mary and St. David at Kilpeck in Herefordshire including a beautiful Saxon grave-cover or part of a stone cross which has been suggested as being associated with St Ragner’s shrine. Whilst little else is known about St. Ragnar, it is recorded that in the 15th century the feast of St Ragner was still being celebrated at St Peter’s on 21 November, the day after St Edmund’s.

In 871 Alfred became King of Wessex and Ivar the Boneless was succeeded by Guthrum. After a number of years of fighting, the two agreed to a peace treaty in 878, known as the Peace of Wedmore. Guthrum converted to Christianity and all the lands to the north of Watling Street (the modern A5) were to become Viking lands and known as Danelaw. All the lands south of Watling Street were claimed as Saxon.  Exactly when Northampton came under Danish control or whether it was taken by force is unclear. But after the Peace of Wedmore it became a Viking frontier town and an inland port with its own army.

Considering its importance, the Saxon town must have been fortified by the Saxons, although archaeological evidence points towards the Danes building a Burh around the town. It has been estimated to have ramparts 3,000 ft (0.9 km) in length with an earthen or clay rampart, faced with wood or stone and topped with a wooden palisade. and surrounded by an 8 metre wide and 2 metre deep ditch. The burh ramparts seem to have extended as far north as Bath Street and to College Street to the west and Black Lion Hill in the east, where numerous artefacts have been discovered. The earliest All Saints church seems to have been built outside the east gate.

After the death of Alfred in 899, his eldest son Edward was proclaimed king. Ten years later he began a campaign to recapture the Midlands and East Anglia. In 913 it is recorded that the Northampton Danes invaded Mercian territories. They were initially very successful. However, as they returned, they were defeated by local Mercian forces near Luton, losing many horses and weapons.  The following year their strength was further depleted when a number of Northampton Danes submitted to Edward at Bedford. A truce between the Northampton Danes and King Edward followed. It lasted until soon after Easter 917, when an army from Northampton and Leicester commanded by Thurferth slew many men at Hookerton (Hook Norton) and thereabout.

King Edward began a programme of building Burhs along the Danelaw border and in early 921 ordered his men to go to Towcester, then part of the royal manor of Greens Norton, and to rebuild it. That summer, the Northampton and Leicester Danes shattered the peace once more and attacked Towcester. The fighting lasted all day until King Edward with the whole West-Saxon army arrived and forced the Danes to retreat. To ensure that the Danes would not try again, Edward and his army camped at Passenham whilst Towcester was refortified with a stone wall.  It was at this point that Thurferth and his captains, and all the army that belonged to Northampton and northward to the Welland, submitted to Edward.

The bury (burh) element, combined with the personal name Witela, in Whittlebury may suggest the presence of a hillfort (now occupied by the parish church) held by a Saxon nobleman. According to one of his law-codes, Edward’s son, Æthelstan, held a council at Whittlebury in about 930.

When Edward died in July 924, Æthelstan was accepted by the Mercians as king. Æthelstan encountered resistance in Wessex for several months and was not crowned until September 925. In 927 he conquered the last remaining Viking kingdom, York, making him the first Anglo-Saxon ruler of the whole of England. In 934 Northampton was incorporated into the enlarged Earldom of East Anglia. When Wessex annexed Mercia in the 10th century, it subdivided the area into various shires of roughly equal size and tax-raising potential or hidage. These generally took the name of the main town (the county town) of the county, along with “-shire”. It is possible that Northamptonshire had already been created by this time and represented a 9th-century division of the Danelaw between units of the Danish army.

In 941, then in the hands of the Mercians, Northampton faced an unsuccessful siege by King Olaf of York. A massed grave of warriors complete with armour, weapons and horses found outside the burh during the late 1800’s in St. John’s Street may relate to the battle. The ‘army’ of Northampton was still in existence in 984 when they were recorded witnessing the sale of land. Northampton and Towcester were not the only places to suffer as in 975 it was recorded that Leofsi son of Bixi, ‘an enemy of God,’ captured Kettering. However, two years later Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester negotiated its return to Peterborough’s control.

During the reign of Æthelred (978 -1016) the Viking attacks on England started again. In the 980’s Viking raids along the Welsh coast were extended to include south-west England. At the same time attacks on London and the south-east began from the North Sea and Scandinavia. Sweyn Forkbeard campaigned in Wessex and East Anglia in 1003–1004, and during 1009–1012 Thorkell the Tall led a Viking invasion into England. Thorkell was a warlord of the ferocious Jomvikings, an order of Viking mercenaries. They were staunchly Pagan and dedicated to the worship of such deities as Odin and Thor. In late 1010 Thorkell arrived outside the walls of Northampton. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in Peterborough, tells how he burned the town down and took much spoils before burning his way across Wessex.

In August 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard returned, leading a full-scale invasion. On Christmas Day 1013 Sweyn was declared King of England. It is probable that at this time his son Cnut (or Canute) married Ælfgifu of Northampton. Ælfgifu was a daughter of Ælfhelm, ealdorman of southern Northumbria, who was from an important Mercian noble family. Ælfhelm was murdered in 1006, probably at the command of King Æthelred the Unready, and Ælfgifu’s brothers, Ufegeat and Wulfheah, were blinded. It was probably at this time Ælfgifu came to live at the palace complex in Northampton.

After ruling for only five weeks, Sweyn died. His younger son, Cnut, was proclaimed King of England by the people of the Danelaw. However, Æthelred forced Cnut to flee back to Denmark leaving his wife and their baby son, Svein, the future King of Norway, behind with her family probably in Northampton. Cnut returned with another army defeating Æthelred’s forces and in 1016 to become king of all England. In 1015 or 1016 Ælfgifu became pregnant again and she gave birth to Harold, later known as Harefoot (the name probably refers to his speed). Her two sons were to figure prominently in the empire which their father built in northern Europe, though not without opposition. Sometime after his conquest of England, Cnut married Emma of Normandy, the widow of King Æthelred. It was then regarded as acceptable to put aside one wife and take another, a practice which might be described as “serial monogamy.” The two had a son together named Harthacnut.

Sometime after 1017 it is recorded that King Cnut visited the Royal palace at Nassington in the north of the county, now Prebenal Manor, the oldest surviving house in Northamptonshire. In 2003 a ‘Time Team’ excavation found evidence of a timber hall inside and outside the current medieval manor. Cnut was accompanied by Aetheric, the bishop of Dorchester on Thames and large entourage and it is recorded that they engaged in a game of chess after a banquet. The hall was too small to accommodate everyone and many of his retinue were forced to find lodgings in neighbouring settlements. According to the Ramsey Chronicles, Aetheric stayed in the nearby Dane’s house in Elton.

Cnut extended the grouping of shires under a single ealdorman, dividing the country into four large administrative units. The officials responsible for these provinces were designated earls and Thuri Ulfson was styled “earl of the Midlanders.”

In 1030, Cnut sent Ælfgifu with their eldest son Svein to rule Norway, in 1030. Their rule was, however, so harsh that in 1034 or 1035 the Norwegians rebelled against them.  Svein was killed and Ælfgifu was driven out. Upon the death of Cnut on 12 November 1035, Harthacnut, the son of Cnut and his queen Emma of Normandy, was the legitimate heir to the thrones of both the Danes and the English. However, he could not return to England because his Danish kingdom was under threat of invasion by King Magnus I of Norway. So, England’s magnates installed Harold Harefoot, Cnut’s son with Ælfgifu, as king of England instead.

Like so many before him, Harold I’s reign was short as he died at Oxford on 17 March 1040 aged 24. He was buried at Westminster Abbey, but when Harthacnut assumed the throne in June 1040, Harold’s body was exhumed, beheaded, and thrown into a fen bordering the Thames.  The body was subsequently recovered by fishermen, and resident Danes reportedly had it reburied at their local cemetery in London. The body was eventually reburied in St. Clement Danes church in the City of Westminster. Another source says he was buried in Winchester with his father.

Northamptonshire’s first earl was Siward. He was one of the many Scandinavians who came to England with Cnut and rose to become sub-ruler of most of northern England. In 1040, Siward was created the Earl of Northampton and in 1050, Earl of Huntingdon.  In 1054, he fought Mac Bethad mac Findlaích near the Firth of Forth. The encounter was immortalised by Shakespeare in his play Macbeth which has Siward as the leader of the English army, some ten thousand strong which defeats Macbeth at the end of the play. Siward died in 1055, leaving one son, Waltheof but as he was too young to inherit his father’s titles, the Earldom of Northumbria was given to Tostig Godwinson – brother of Harold.

Waltheof finally became Earl of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire in 1065. However, a rebellion against Tostig started in Northumbria. Led by Morcar, the rebels marched southwards gathering the men of Nottingham, Derby, and Lincoln as they went. At Northampton, Morcar met his brother Ēadwine Earl of Mercia, who was at the head of another large army.

A helmet design based on one discovered at Wollaston

They were met at Northampton by Harold Godwinson (the future King Harold) who took their demands to Edward the Confessor who was king at the time. It was eventually agreed that Tostig should be replaced by Morcar.  Whilst Harold was gone, Northampton was burned and pillaged by the rebels. They took took many hundred prisoners northward with them when they returned north, “so that not only that shire, but others near it were the worse for many winters.” The Northamptonshire Geld Roll (c.1070) records 900 hides, about a third of the county, was waste before they left.

Tostig went to Norway where he raised an army with Harald Hardrada, King of Norway. In 1066, they landed in the north of England and fought Morcar two miles (3 km) south of York at the Battle of Fulford on 20 September. The battle was a decisive victory for Harald and Tostig. Harold Godwinson, who was king by this point, rushed his army north to deal with the invaders, defeating them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. It was at this point that Harold discovered William the Conqueror and his Normans had invaded England from the south, which meant he had to march south at great speed to face the threat. The two armies met at Hastings and the rest as they say, is history.  Now, here is one of the great what if’s. If events in Northampton in 1065 had a different outcome and Tostig had not gone to Norway, Harold would not have had to march north. He would have been in the south with a full-strength army when William arrived. Would he have won?

Waltheof, Earl of Northampton, was the only Saxon earl to retain his position under William the Conqueror’s new regime. However, in 1075 Waltheof joined the Revolt of the Earls against William and was arrested and sentenced to death. He then spent almost a year in confinement before being beheaded on 31 May 1076 at St. Giles’s Hill, near Winchester. He was buried in the chapter house of Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire and for many years’, miracles were reported at his tomb. Waltheof had married Judith of Lens, William’s niece and they had three children together. Their eldest, Maud, first married Simon Senlis I, who became the third Earl of Northampton. On Simon’s death, she married King David I of Scotland who obtained the earldom and Judith’s extensive lands throughout the county, but not the county town and castle. Simon’s son Simon II was also recognized as earl in about 1141 and the title was contested for many years to come.


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