Viking York

views updated


York was already eight hundred years old when it was captured by the Scandinavian great army in a.d. 866 during the Vikings' attempted conquest of England. Thereafter known as Jorvik, the town remained under Scandinavian control for most of the next eighty-eight years, ruled either by English puppets or Danish or Norwegian kings. In these years it became one of the foremost towns in northern Europe and the central place for a large area of Scandinavian settlements in Northumbria, the northeast of England. After the expulsion of the last Viking king, Erik Bloodaxe, in a.d. 954, Northumbria was incorporated into the kingdom of England but continued to be ruled by earls based in York. The town retained a distinctive Anglo-Scandinavian culture and allegiance for more than a century.

The Roman Ninth legion that founded York had placed the fortress Eboracum where the navigable river Ouse cuts through moraines that give good routes across the broad low-lying Vale of York; the settlement was thus well positioned for good water and land communications. When captured by the Vikings, York was still very much a Roman place. The stone-built defenses, main gateways, and street layout of Eboracum and the nearby civil town Colonia Eboracensis, largely survived into the Viking era. Within the fortress an ecclesiastical enclave had grown up around the church of St. Peter, founded a.d. 627 and since a.d. 735 seat of the archbishop of York, probably with an establishment nearby for the kings of Northumbria. With other churches, domestic occupation, and riverside trading activity, York already had the aspects of a town, one of very few in England at the time. The Scandinavians, with huge input of effort and materials, transformed this over the next two generations to provide political, military, administrative, religious, industrial, and commercial and trading functions for what was in effect a separate Viking kingdom dependent on Jorvik.

To provide for Jorvik's defense the Roman fortifications were put in order, in some places being heightened with palisaded ramparts over the Roman walls and in others being extended to incorporate and defend a larger area. The town within the defenses was radically replanned to accommodate dwellings for a growing population and for commercial and industrial expansion. The Roman bridge across the river Ouse was replaced by another crossing downstream on the site of the present Ouse Bridge. New streets with Scandinavian names ran down to the crossing: Micklegate ("the great street") from one side and Ousegate ("the Ouse street") and its extension Pavement from the other. Similarly Walmgate led up to a crossing of the tributary river Foss and continued into the town as Fossgate. This concentrated commercial activity along the riversides and on the spur of land between the two rivers. A network of other new streets was laid out in relation to them.

The area is low-lying and has a drainage-impeding clay substrate. Organic debris from the new settlement rapidly caused anoxic (oxygen deficient) ground conditions to develop that preserved archaeological remains very well, especially the normally perishable organic components. The resultant great depths of stratification therefore contain a uniquely detailed record of life in the commercial heart of a Viking town, although, being under modern York, they are difficult for archaeologists to access.

Excavations along some of the new streets during modern redevelopment have shown that the frontages were divided up into individual properties. Houses were set gable end to the street front on long narrow plots running back into the block. Four such properties were excavated at 16–22 Coppergate between 1976 and 1981. The street and the land divisions here, established by about a.d. 900, have maintained their positions until the present. By a.d. 930 the plots contained post-and-wattle buildings for domestic occupation and industrial scale manufacturing. These were replaced in the 960s and 970s by semisunken two-story plank and post-built oak structures and again in some cases in the eleventh century by further surface-level oak-built structures. Excavations and observations during building developments show that similar Viking Age buildings and layouts exist in many other parts of central York.

People lived in the street-front buildings. Crafts and industries were carried out there and in buildings and open areas behind on the long narrow plots. Such activities at Coppergate included woodworking; production of iron objects; production of copper alloy, silver, and other nonferrous metal objects; craft working of amber and other jewelry, antler combs, and textiles (including spinning, weaving, dying, and the making up of garments); and leatherworking (including shoe manufacture). Die making for coin minting—or minting itself—may also have gone on, Jorvik having produced vast quantities of silver coinage in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The site also contained evidence for regional and international trade. Environmental archaeology has enabled researchers to deduce living conditions, diet, and disease, and cemetery excavations in various parts of Anglo-Scandinavian York have helped determine contemporary demography.

Paganism rapidly gave way to Christianity in Viking York. The former Anglo-Scandinavian cathedral was probably situated north of the present York Minster, whose site was occupied by a high-status Anglo-Scandinavian cemetery. Lesser churches known from documentary and archaeological evidence include one surviving structure, St. Mary Bishophill Junior. Together they imply an Anglo-Scandinavian precursor of the medieval parish system.

Stone sculpture dating to the ninth to eleventh centuries from the Minster and other churches shows that wealthy patrons stimulated a flourishing metropolitan art tradition—also seen on leather, wood and metal objects—reflecting both Anglo-Saxon and Viking traditions and styles. This, along with excavated musical instruments and documented literary works demonstrate cultural aspirations in Jorvik as well as administrative and commercial success.

The Domesday Book drawn up on the orders of the Norman conqueror William I shows that by 1086 Jorvik had become a city of some 1,800 households and perhaps 10,000 people, vast for northern Europe at the time. Repeated attacks or planned attacks by Norwegian armies between 1066 and 1085 suggest continuing Scandinavian links. Jorvik—The Viking City, an underground display on the Coppergate excavation site, provides a full-scale evidence-based simulation of Coppergate in the 970s. Other artifacts from Viking York can be seen in the Yorkshire Museum, York.

See alsoVikings (vol. 2, part 7).


Addyman, P. V., ed. The Archaeology of York. 20 vols. to date. Ongoing series issued in fascicles. York: Council for British Archaeology, 1976–.

Hall, Richard. Viking Age York. London: Batsford, 1994.

——. The Viking Dig: The Excavations at York. London: Bodley Head, 1984.

Additional information is available at the York Archaeological Trust's website at, especially under "Secrets Beneath Your Feet" and "Jorvik: The Viking City."

P. V. Addyman