Danelaw and the Rise and Fall of England’s Viking Kingdom

Since the Vikings first arrived on the shores of Great Britain in the eighth century, they became a thorn in the side of the kingdoms of ancient England.

Sweeping across the countryside, the Vikings proved to be a formidable force, capturing important cities and areas and changing the very fabric of what England looked like at this volatile period of history.

In order to try to create and maintain some semblance of peace, treaties and agreements were made between Viking leaders and English kings. One such agreement was the formation of an area known as Danelaw. 

While the term was not specifically referenced until the eleventh century, Danelaw was created as part of the lasting impacts of the invasion of the Great Heathen Army of 865.

Viking encampment,
Viking encampment, part of the ‘Hever in History’ event. Credit: Peter Trimming

The Great Heathen Army was a combined force of Scandinavian invaders led by the sons of the Scandinavian King Ragnar Lodbrok. The army set out to conquer the kingdoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia.


While the army never succeeded in ruling over all of these kingdoms simultaneously, it did conquer and occupy large areas of England in an invasion that lasted for more than a decade. Danelaw was the term that denoted the area in which Viking rulers, known as the Danes, and their legal systems and cultural practices, held precedent over the laws of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Read More: The Mass Viking Burial Pit on the South Dorset Ridgeway

Danelaw provided a basis on which civilian peace could be built by providing a legal and cultural basis which civilians from Anglo-Saxon and Viking backgrounds were required to adhere to. 

Danelaw was created as a formal agreement between Anglo-Saxon and Viking leaders and constituted a vital part of the relationship between these two often hostile societies. 

Where Was Danelaw? 

Danelaw was no small and meek kingdom, it was instead comprised of a large swathe of land across historic England. While the borders of Danelaw did shift and change with unstable allegiances and unreliable relationships, the area was primarily in the eastern part of England.

England danelaw
England and Wales at the time of the Treaty of Chippenham (AD 878)

Overall, Danelaw was made up of an area equal to roughly the fifteen modern day shires of Suffolk, Essex, Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford, Buckingham, Middlesex, Leicester, Northampton, and York.

Read More: Ridgeways, our Prehistoric Road System Before Roman Roads

Important cities and strongholds, including York and Leicester, were a part of Danelaw, as was, at times, even London. Remnants of settlements in Danelaw form important archeological discoveries today. There are still some places known today that once held particular significance to the Norse population within the boundaries of Danelaw.

Thynghowe at Hanger Hill located in Sherwood Forest is a good example of this. Thynghowe is believed to have been an important meeting place for Viking populations within the Danelaw area. 

An Agreement Between Alfred and Guthrum

During the time of the Viking invasion, England was not the one country it is known as today. In fact, the first ruler that was formally known as the King of the English would not appear until 927 when King Athelstan, son of Edward the Elder, would come to bear this title.

Alfred the Great

Before this time, England was made up of a patchwork of individual kingdoms with their own rulers, own armies and own lines of succession. However, a kingdom that would emerge as one of the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms during the time of the Viking invasion was the Kingdom of Wessex.

Read More: A Trip Along Watling Street, The Longest Roman Road in Britain 

Wessex was also notably the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that overall had the greatest success in repelling the Viking forces. In 871, at the young age of just twenty-one, King Alfred the Great became the leader of Wessex.

It was seven years later in 878, in the aftermath of the Battle of Edington in which Alfred won victory, that agreements between Alfred and the warlord Guthrum formed the basis for Danelaw.

While Danelaw did have an impact on the relationship between Norse forces and English rulers in almost every kingdom, it was the agreements of the King of Wessex that arguably had the greatest impact in its creation.

Read More: Iron Age Roads: There’s no Such Thing as a Modern Road

Almost a decade after the Battle of Edington, the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum was formalised. This treaty cemented kingdom boundaries and set in place regulations to promote peaceful interactions and trade agreements between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

The treaty also outlined terms to try and limit discrimination and violence towards both Viking or Anglo-Saxon inhabitants, regardless of which kingdom they resided in. 

The Five Boroughs of Danelaw 

Danelaw constituted a large area, and as such, it was divided into five distinct areas that were known as the Five Boroughs. These five regions were independently ruled with leaders that had the power to govern as they saw fit. However, the leader of each borough still had to report to and obey the commands of the Viking rulers in Jorvik, now modern day York.

The Five Boroughs and the English Midlands in the early 10th century
The Five Boroughs and the English Midlands in the early 10th century

This system of individual ruling bodies that were still required to heed the commands of an overarching leader was not a new concept for the Vikings, but one known as Danish Jarldom that had been widely implemented throughout areas under Viking rule.

Read More: What Are The Anglo-Saxon Charters?

With the word borough originating with the German base word burg, meaning fortress or castle, it may come as no surprise that the five boroughs were based around  potentially fortifiable settlements.

Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, and Stamford formed the core towns around which the five boroughs were established. 

The End of England’s Viking Kingdom

While Danelaw was effective for brokering a semblance of peace between Viking warlords and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, it didn’t last forever.

Relations were continually uneasy, even during times of peace, between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Even Alfred the Great, who had been instrumental in the creation of Danelaw, consistently built and reinforced forts and other defence structures to protect against potential Viking hostilities.

viking helmets
A modern reenactment of a Viking battle

In the early part of the tenth century, Aethelflead, the daughter of Alfred the Great and leader of the kingdom of Mercia, started a campaign against the Vikings. In 917, almost twenty years after the death of Alfred, Aethelflead ordered an army to retake Derby.

Read More: Horses in Early Anglo-Saxon England

Throughout the 910s, Aethelflead and her brother Edward the Elder, had embarked on repairing and fortifying burhs, so the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were relatively well placed to engage in a campaign against the Viking forces.

Fighting as a combined force with Edward, Aethelflead’s forces proved highly successful, and in 918 Leicester surrendered. The Viking elite at Jorvik gave their loyalty to Aethelflead in the same year. However, she died in June 918 and Edward took control of Mercia. 

 954, when King Eric was driven from the Kingdom of Northumbria, is often considered to mark the final complete end to Danelaw.

However, while Danelaw may have come to an end close to a century after it first was established, it did not prove to be the end of Vikings in England, with other major invasions and conflicts occurring throughout the eleventh century. 

The Legacies of Danelaw 

While Danelaw may not have lasted forever, the Norse invasion and the establishment of Danelaw had a deep and long standing impact on Britain, with some of the legacies of the Vikings in Britain still visible today. 

Read More: The Story of our Prehistoric Woodland Clearances 

The establishment of Danelaw, and the overall presence of the Vikings, in British society had an impact on everything from language to place names to traditions and cultural customs.

Murton Park “Reconstructed” Viking settlement from around 900 AD. Credit: David Rogers

Places such as Grimsby and Derby, two settlements that were once located within the borders of Danelaw, still bear the suffix by.

This suffix was widely used in Scandinavian place names and referred to a farmstead or village in Old Norse. Similarly, the word-ending thorpe also has roots to Viking times, meaning new village, and can be seen in place names such as Scunthorpe. 

The wide use of Old Norse, spoken by the Vikings, also came to have an impact on the language spoken across England.

Read More: Uncovering the Fascinating Origins of Rural Place Names

Old Norse words began to integrate into Old English, and the remnants and adaptations of some of these words have influenced terms that are still commonly used today, words beginning with sk often have Old Norse influences, such as the word sky.

The adoption of Scandinavian customs, legal systems and cultural activities also integrated with and influenced Anglo-Saxon traditions that had been practised in the area prior to and during the Viking invasion. This created a unique combination of customs and a unique overall cultural landscape in Danelaw. 

An Age of Viking Invaders 

Danelaw represented an important agreement in the Viking Age of England and a vital part of creating an at least temporary peace in a land that had grown accustomed to war and invasion.

Read More: Gold, King Harold, & Other Mysteries Eluding Us

It gave a framework for laws and societal and cultural expectations for both Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon people living in communities across historic England, and created an agreement between powerful leaders to be able govern prosperous lands and facilitate important trade between settlements. 

Used by the Danelaw Living History group, particularly to show schoolchildren what Viking domestic life was like. Many places names in Yorkshire are of Viking origin. Credit: Christine Johnstone

Throughout the later part of the ninth and into the early tenth century, Danelaw covered a significant area of the English countryside. Composed of five boroughs constructed around important towns, some of which are still recognisable as counties and cities today.

The Viking invasion and the creation of Danelaw created a significant cultural impact on the UK, impacting everything from customs and traditions to language, with integrations of Old Norse words into the English language having endured into modern times. 

While Danelaw and the overall Viking Age of Britain did eventually come to an end, there is no doubt that the arrival of these Scandinavian warriors changed the very course of British history.