Cat Jarman led me through a dense tangle of forest called Heath Wood. We were in Derbyshire, close to the very heart of England. There was no path, and the forest floor was overgrown with bracken and bush. It was easy to lose your footing and even easier to lose your way. Jarman, a fit, cheery woman in her late 30s, plunged jauntily on as I tried to keep up. “See all these lumps and bumps?” she asked as we broke into a small clearing. She pointed to an array of 59 small, rounded hillocks, many two or so feet high and four or five feet in diameter. Humans, not nature, had clearly put these things here, and they gave off a spooky, supernatural energy.
“We are literally walking across a Viking cemetery—the only known Scandinavian cremation cemetery in the whole country,” says Jarman, an archaeologist, whose new book, River Kings, takes a fresh look at who the Vikings really were and what exactly they were up to here. She flashes me a broad smile. “It’s very good, isn’t it?”
Yes, it is good—simple, powerful and mysterious. For a ceremonial burial place, the Vikings picked a surprisingly unceremonial spot. The overgrown forest shrouds these tombs in anonymity. There is no visible sign of a Viking settlement nearby, just an expanse of open fields and beyond that, a hamlet with a church, school and a few houses. The Vikings used rivers to get around, but it’s an awfully long hike from here to where the River Trent flows today. Which raises a big question, says Jarman. “Why have you got these Scandinavian cremation mounds here in the middle of nowhere?”
Jarman thinks she finally found the answer, but only after new research techniques, changing attitudes and some good luck filled in numerous blanks. A thousand years ago, Heath Wood was likely bare of trees and could be seen from all around. The Trent flowed close by back then; lidar satellite imagery now reveals how dramatically the river has shifted its course in the past thousand years. And the empty fields around Foremark have been transformed by scholarship into the likely site of a Viking settlement. The men and women who lived there may have come with the Viking Great Army around A.D. 873, but they didn’t all leave when the army moved on. They stayed and sank roots in England.
In general, apart from stone sculptures and place names, the Vikings have left us little record of their 250-year moment on the stage of English history, roughly from the end of the 8th century to the middle of the 11th. Scholars are left to pick over some old bones, sometimes burnt and sometimes not, and the useful objects that accompanied their owners into the hereafter—what archaeologists call “grave goods.” The Vikings also left silver coins and jewelry, sometimes buried for later retrieval and known as a hoard, or, far more often, scattered haphazardly across the fields, where they await the amateur metal detectorist’s electromagnetic pulse.
That’s pretty much it. The Vikings left no contemporaneous written record, and later Icelandic sagas, while gripping, are uncertain guides. The Vikings likely did construct dwellings in England. “But most of the buildings in that period, other than churches, were built out of wood, like the timber halls with Scandinavian ornament depicted in the movies The Lord of the Rings. We don’t have them,” says Julian Richards, an archaeologist and co-author, with Dawn Hadley, of a 2021 book, The Viking Great Army and the Making of England. It draws new conclusions from findings at Torksey, where the Vikings spent the winter of 872 to 873 before marching south to Repton and likely Foremark and Heath Wood.
It seems Vikings are everywhere these past few years, and why not? Who doesn’t love these “hairy men, as huge as sin with horned heads,” as the Victorian poet G.K. Chesterton disparagingly called them. They teem through Bernard Cornwell’s best-selling book series The Saxon Tales, and the TV series based on the novels, “The Last Kingdom.” They swarm over the English countryside in 89 episodes of the History channel series “Vikings.” What you often get in these red-meat extravaganzas is a bunch of Thor-happy thugs. The shout goes up, “Shield wall!” and we see them prepare to slaughter the hapless Anglo-Saxons, who never seem to know what hit them.
But the Vikings are also coming back to a richer, more nuanced life in a surge of scholarship by people like Jarman and Richards. It has begun picking apart the classic narrative of the Vikings in England, the account that casts the Vikings as interlopers who strutted their noisy hour upon the stage and disappeared from English history without a trace. “I would say the change in perception is quite revolutionary,” says Richards.
Don’t expect to find Erik the Pussycat at the end of this new research. The Viking job description always included violent combat and pillaging. But the new-model Viking had considerably more on his mind than plunder. There was also trade and craft and urban development and language. Instead of waiting out the Vikings until they went away, the Anglo-Saxons reaped the myriad benefits of a broad cultural intermingling that many people still think never happened. “The world turned empty where they trod,” wrote Chesterton. Not so, say Jarman and Richards. The Northmen—and as we are coming to know, women—made as indelible and lasting a contribution to English identity as the Anglo-Saxons.
That’s a controversial position to stake out in these days of Brexit. The national myth of Alfred the Great and Anglo-Saxon triumphalism will not go away quietly. “All archaeological and historical interpretation is politicized in a sense. We are writing in the moment,” says Richards. “Dawn and I have always been keen in our work to say that we shouldn’t be oversimplifying identity. It pains to emphasize the contribution of racial mixing and movement.”
Starting in 1998, Richards was part of the team that opened some of the barrows in the Viking burial ground of Heath Wood. This wasn’t the first excavation of those mounds. A small number were dug up in the mid-19th century, and again in the mid-20th century. Those digs unearthed objects such as sword blades and sword fragments that pointed to the ninth or tenth century and suggested Scandinavian origins but couldn’t be confirmed. More was revealed when Richards and the other members of his team opened three additional mounds. One contained the charred ash and bone of two bodies: an adult, possibly a woman, and a youth, who might be a young warrior or even a child. It could be the case of a female slave buried with her young master; such grim ceremonies were recounted in the old annals. Or it could be a female warrior; recent finds in Scandinavia now make this a more plausible hypothesis. We just don’t know. A cow jaw was found as well: a remnant from a ritual feast? A sacrifice? We can’t say. But Richards and his colleagues established for the first time that these were indeed late ninth- or early tenth-century Vikings. Some were cremated on the spot where they were found, while others were cremated elsewhere and transported—both practices were common. Oh, they found horse bones, too—Viking horses, according to isotope analysis. Whoever these Vikings were, they brought their horses to England. That was an important discovery.
The story of the Vikings in England is generally held to start on June 8, 793, when a raiding party landed on the tidal island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a survey of English history written in the late ninth century, records: “The harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the Church of God on Holy Island, by plunder and slaughter.” Lindisfarne established a pattern of Viking hit-and-run raids in the summer months, but by the 850s, some of these raiders were choosing to overwinter in England.
And then everything changed—decidedly for the worse if you were an Anglo-Saxon. In 865 the Great Heathen Army—translated from micel haephen here in Old English—landed in East Anglia, the small Anglo-Saxon kingdom on England’s eastern coast. No one knows precisely how great it was or what kind of “army” was meant by the Old English word here. Those questions still puzzle archaeologists. But whatever its precise dimensions, this army was a new and terrifying force.
The Great Army spent the next ten years causing havoc up and down the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria. Its aim was conquest, not plunder. They entered treaties, deposed kings and installed puppets, and in general made life miserable for the people of what was to become England.
The village of Repton, some two and a half miles up the road from Heath Wood, is a leafy hamlet in what was once the powerful Kingdom of Mercia. The Repton School, founded in 1557, educated such pillars of Englishness as the actor Basil Rathbone and the Olympic sprinter Harold Abrahams (an inspiration for the film Chariots of Fire). The lovely Church of St. Wystan’s, with its simple spire, casts a medieval glow over the countryside. The crypt beneath the church goes back even further, to the eighth century. Here were buried the kings of Mercia, Aethelbald and Wiglaf, and also Wiglaf’s grandson, St. Wigstan (also spelled Wystan), who gave his name to the church. In the ninth century it was a place of pilgrimage and power.
In 1974, the archaeologists Martin Biddle and his wife, Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle, began digging around the old crypt of St. Wystan’s in search of the church’s Anglo-Saxon roots. Several years later, “we said, well why don’t we do some digging outside,” Martin Biddle told me. “There was this extraordinary mound in the vicar’s garden, and we thought we’d better have a look. That brought us face to face with the Viking presence. The rest is history.”
The entry for the year 874 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reads: “This year went the [Great Army] from Lindsey to Repton, and there took up winter quarters, drove the king, Burhred, over sea...and subdued all that land.” It looked to everyone like the Biddles had come across the Viking winter camp.
Around the church, they found a broad, semicircular ditch forming a D-shaped enclosure. There were similar defensive structures discovered in Scandinavia. In the vicarage garden, the Biddles found a shallow mound with the bones of 264 bodies.
The Biddles also discovered a double grave containing the skeletons of two men. The pair, labeled Warrior 511 and Warrior 295, have become the most celebrated dead Vikings in England, but nobody knew who they were. Warrior 511, recently determined to be between 35 and 45 years old, had met the kind of death in battle that Vikings are always saying they want. A battle-ax sliced through his left side, most likely lopping off his left testicle and penis before leaving a deep gash in his left femur. He may have been brought here from elsewhere—no one knows where exactly—and buried with everything he would need for a healthy Viking afterlife in Valhalla—a silver hammer-of-Thor pendant, a sword, two daggers, buckles and hasps for fastening clothing. A boar’s tusk lay near his pelvis, which archaeologists such as Jarman think may have stood in for 511’s missing penis.
Jarman first came on the scene in 2011 as an archaeology student, and she has been digging here off and on ever since. Years after the Biddles first found it, the Repton site has raised as many questions as it has answered. For starters: If the Great Army is so great—accounts from the period put its number in the thousands—how come the D-shaped enclosure is so small? You would be hard-pressed to house a street gang in it. Isotope dating studies of the bodies in the vicarage charnel mound found wide disparities. While many remains clearly dated to the period when the Great Army passed through, others seemed to come from much earlier. What were they doing there? And, perhaps less important to scholars but at least as intriguing to the likes of you and me, who might Warrior 511 and Warrior 295 have been, and what are they doing sharing a grave?
Jarman was showing me the place where the two warriors were found. The grass has grown back over their tomb in the shadow of St. Wystan’s. In the vicarage garden, the bodies in the charnel mound have gone back to sleep. But in new trenches in the garden, Jarman’s hunt for broader evidence of the Great Army’s presence here continues. Repton is still open for business. Jarman recently found weapon fragments and ship’s nails. “Martin Biddle is a fantastic archaeologist, but it’s a very complicated set of excavations, so work is still ongoing 40 years later,” says Jarman.
In 2018, Jarman published a study of the inconsistent radiocarbon dates among the old bones in the garden. Jarman argued that the discrepancy could be explained by the different diets of the people whose bones were radiocarbon-dated. Carbon from the sea circulates for 400 years on average before it enters the food chain—far longer than carbon from the atmosphere. As a result, the bones of people who eat primarily fish appear in tests to be considerably older than the bones of people who eat primarily meat, which absorbs its carbon from the atmosphere. After correcting for what is called the marine reservoir effect, Jarman found that all the bones dated from roughly the same period—the time when the Great Army wintered in Repton.
Jarman thinks she may have put names to the two warriors, too. Her isotope analysis of the warriors’ teeth had already told her they both came from somewhere in the south of Scandinavia, probably Denmark. She then collaborated with geneticists at the University of California, Santa Cruz to extract and analyze DNA extracted from teeth and bone. Using very recent techniques to investigate both maternal and paternal DNA, Jarman determined the pair were first-degree relatives, and most likely father and son.
From there, she combed the annals for references to Viking fathers and sons raiding in the British Isles around that time. Bingo! The Annals of Ulster tells of a Viking king named Amlaib, also known as Olaf, who raided in Ireland and Britain in the years after 853. Olaf was killed fighting the Picts in Scotland in 874, which jibes with a return to Repton for burial. Moreover, Olaf had a son named Eysteinn (or Oistín), who according to the Ulster Annals, was “deceitfully killed by Albann” (often identified as Halfdann). This Halfdann turns out to be one of the Great Army’s four leaders at Repton. It’s far from proof positive, but the two famous warriors are no longer just numbers. Jarman has managed to give them plausible names and back stories.
If the Great Army couldn’t all fit in St. Wystan’s churchyard, they must have gone somewhere else. Where did they go? The answer may lie down the road from Repton in Foremark, the area beside the isolated Viking cemetery in Heath Wood.
In 2017, Jarman was a guest on a BBC-TV broadcast called “Digging for Britain” (Jarman’s breezy, unpedantic manner has made her a popular interview subject). “When I was doing that program, I tweeted a picture of Foremark, and somebody tweeted me back and said, ‘Oh, my mate metal-detects around there and he’s always finding really brilliant Viking artifacts,’” Jarman recalls.
This was a windfall. Jarman had been trying for years to work with local metal detectorists and getting nowhere. “We know that people metal-detect around here, but nobody has ever reported anything Viking, which is bizarre,” says Jarman. “Nobody was willing to talk to me. It was really difficult.”
In general, there is little love between detectorists and archaeologists. Since the 1970s, England and Wales have seen an explosion in metal-detecting as a hobby. There are now about 20,000 amateur detectorists, who turn up all kinds of things, including much of what the Vikings dropped. The trouble is, many detectorists, instead of donating their finds to scholarship, would rather sell them on the sly. Archaeologists refer to such opportunists as “nighthawks.”
In 1996, England passed the Treasure Act, which makes it illegal to sell objects that are at least 300 years old with over 10 percent gold or silver content (the odd coin is exempt). A year later, England and Wales created a voluntary database called the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) to log disparate finds not covered by the Treasure Act—a brooch here, a pendant there.
These two mechanisms, the Treasure Act and the PAS, haven’t worked flawlessly—skulduggery persists. In 2019, two detectorists were sentenced to long prison terms for secretly trafficking the Leominster hoard, a dazzling trove of Viking jewelry and coins that they had found in a town near Hereford. Most of the hoard has vanished into private hands, a terrible loss to history.
But in the main, the carrot and stick of the PAS and Treasure Act have worked to coax out a profusion of Viking objects that otherwise might never have surfaced, particularly in the past five to ten years. Says Julian Richards: “The logging and recording of finds through the PAS has opened huge research avenues in the U.K., whereas previously a lot of archaeologists were very concerned about metal detecting.”
The detectorist who contacted Cat Jarman after her TV broadcast had not reported his finds to the PAS, but he was happy to show her what he had discovered in the fields of Foremark below Heath Wood. The heaps of coins, Thor-hammer pendants and lead gaming pieces were the link Jarman had been searching for.
“Here was all the missing stuff we didn’t have before,” says Jarman. Repton’s army came into focus. “I think some of the army were in Repton, possibly guarding the main site and the valuable bits and pieces. And then you have the general riffraff, all the normal people, up here. I think Foremark became a Viking settlement. We haven’t found it yet because I suspect it’s underneath a local school, which they haven’t let me dig up yet. I’m working on it.”
A crucial part of that Viking settlement, says Jarman, was the graveyard atop Heath Wood. “I think it’s staking a claim, as if to say ‘This landscape and the whole location belongs to us, the Vikings!’” “The standard narrative has been, the army comes, the army leaves, and that’s it—the end of the Repton story, 873 to 874,” Jarman goes on. “That is what I don’t agree with. This idea that the Vikings come and then they go is absolutely not the case. I think the Repton story is much longer than that.”
Jarman pointed me to an archaeologist named Jane Kershaw, whose recent work has given Jarman’s ideas a considerable boost. Richards cites Kershaw, too. For her PhD research, Kershaw surveyed the Scandinavian jewelry in the PAS database. As she did, she started noticing brooches and pendants that were identical to pieces she knew from Scandinavian museums, some with casting flaws indicating they came from the same master mold. For the most part, these were not finely crafted pieces made for a ruling elite; they were cheap, mass-produced ornaments for more common folk.
“The jewelry I found is being imported to England on the clothing of Scandinavian women. That means there will be children, too, and a whole family-based settlement structure,” says Kershaw. “I argue that what we have here are whole family groups migrating from Denmark to England” in the wake of the Great Army.
“It’s not a single blip, either. It starts in the late ninth century and continues for 50 to 75 years as the jewelry styles (in England) keep up with the changing fashions in Scandinavia. We tend to think of the Vikings as looting and taking treasure away with them. Actually, what they’re doing is bringing silver in as jewelry and coins. They’re bringing wealth into the country, which probably helps fuel the rise of towns.”
At Torksey, Julian Richards and Dawn Hadley arrived at the same inconvenient truth by a different path. Torksey, which was then part of Mercia, is where the Viking Great Army overwintered in 872 to 873 before moving down to Repton the next year. We know this from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. What Richards and Hadley found there convinced them that the Great Army was indeed great, possibly numbering as many as 5,000 people.
“Our work at Torksey suggests that the Great Army was akin to a town on the move,” they write in their new book. “The arrival of such a large population must have been the catalyst for urban development in numerous places.”
Back in the 1960s, an archaeologist named Maurice Barley had led students to Torksey on almost a decade of summer digs. They were looking for the town’s medieval ancestors. Among other things, they came across six ancient clay kilns and some pottery shards, perhaps produced by Torksey’s Anglo-Saxon residents. Richards, Hadley and a pottery specialist named Gareth Perry had their doubts. Perry took local clay samples, ran his own pottery-making experiments and figured out how and, more important, when the Torksey ware was made: It was sophisticated, produced on an industrial scale and bore no resemblance to Anglo-Saxon styles and methods.
The finds were eye-opening, Richards and Hadley say. For one thing, there were many more kilns in the area than Barley had found. Moreover, the initial dates of Torksey’s pottery production corresponded to the period when the Great Army passed through. And while Scandinavia itself produced nothing like Torksey ware, regions under Viking influence in northern Europe did. Richards and Hadley believe that the Great Army brought European potters with them to England; remnants of that army, including some of those potters, stayed on, assimilated and spurred the industrial growth of their adopted homeland. “Obviously, we present the impact of Vikings in England in the ninth century as a positive thing,” says Richards. “It leads to a lot of things that did have a lasting impact. Even if the Great Army weren’t directly responsible for it, they acted as a catalyst.”
After Torksey and Repton, the Great Army split up, never to regroup as a military unit. A Viking chieftain named Halfdann, the putative murderer of Warrior 295, led his warriors north into Northumbria, where they formed part of a larger Viking zone in England known as the Danelaw. Meanwhile, the chieftains Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend led their warriors to East Anglia and then into Wessex, the only one of the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to hold off the Vikings.
Here history collides with myth, and myth wins. As every English schoolchild knows, Alfred, King of Wessex, resists the Danes, gets whipped, regroups from his marshy redoubt, and unites Wessex to beat the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in 878. England’s origin myth starts here, with all its binary vigor: Anglo-Saxons good, Vikings bad. This is not the place to take potshots at the Alfred legend. There are good reasons Alfred is one of the only English kings with a “Great” after his name (it was attached to him in the 16th century). By all accounts, Alfred was a remarkable man and, yes, a great king.
It is not unimportant, however, that those accounts begin with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and The Life of Alfred, written by Alfred’s handpicked biographer, Bishop Asser. Objectivity is not their hallmark. “The Chronicle is written in a monastery in Wessex from the perspective of bigging up Alfred and his battle against these horrendous Vikings. That builds up his claim to the whole country,” says Cat Jarman. “Those accounts have been the bible for studying Vikings. A lot of people still use it as the rulebook instead of saying, ‘Okay, what’s literally on the ground? What does the archaeology say?’”
British screenwriter and producer Michael Hirst, who wrote the successful “Vikings” TV series, also spent time digging with Jarman in the Repton vicarage garden. “The whole subject of Vikings is one of those things you know something about and you realize you know absolutely nothing!” Hirst told me. “One of the things the series is doing is trying to overcome centuries of prejudice and ignorance about Vikings and their culture. Little Englanders and nationalists are my bête noires—I hate that! We are still Vikings, they’re embedded in our culture. It’s about time people woke up to that.”