WE’RE used to seeing the occasional blood-spattered Viking wandering the streets of York. But for nine days you won’t be able to move for axe-wielding Norsemen, even when you are doing the weekly shop in Monks Cross.
Next weekend they will even be rampaging across the racecourse.
The annual Jorvik Viking Festival starts today and this year hundreds of warriors will descend on the city to commemorate King Ethelred’s battle to capture York.
It was 1014 AD, and Ethelred had returned from exile having struck a deal with Olaf Haraldsson, heir to the throne of Norway. When Olaf saw off Canute, the Danes began to evacuate England and the pair swept through the country leaving slain warriors in their wake.
Then they arrived at Jorvik and at the festival finale next Saturday, 200 Vikings re-enactors will stage the battle for York in a spectacular evening which will culminate in the burning of a longship and a firework display.
But Vikings are not only about shock and awe or blood and gore. Even the name is a derogatory Saxon term meaning pirates. In fact, the Norsemen were the world’s greatest seafaring merchants.
And the main thing they brought to York was trade and commerce.
Tolkir, or Andy Olney, one of the guides at the Jorvik Centre, says when the Vikings arrived the population was around 3,000. By the time they left it had trebled. “Jorvik was England’s second city and capital of the Danegeld. It was predominately Danes but the Norwegians still wanted to take over. However when it comes to trade they seem to be pretty much across the board.”
Ethelred’s relationship with Olaf Haraldsson was a good example of Viking compromise, a marriage of convenience. Restoring the English King would be more popular with the people and that would allow the Norsemen to concentrate on making money.
“It was a bit like today’s coalition government. At the end of the day people and cultures don’t change and Jorvik had been built up into this amazing rich city, so you can understand anyone wanting to take it,” says Tolkir.
“York was the jewel in the crown and down south of the Danelaw Kings must have been casting their eye at the city thinking ‘the hard work has already been done for us’.”
Gods and mythology may have been paramount to the Vikings but when it comes to business, a little thing like religion couldn’t possibly get in the way. Even the coins were instruments of propaganda; one at the Jorvik Centre clearly shows the god Thor’s hammer, but also a pair of Christian crosses and the Latin inscription of the See of St Peter’s – just in case.
“The traders were quite clever. They wanted to make sure their customers were happy. So if someone was a bit dubious about trading possibly with a non- Christian, they could point to the cross and say no, look at this here,” says Tolkir.
So what else did the Vikings do for us? Well apart from Saturday, they named all our days of the week. They gave us language, laws and culture and they improved old fashioned Saxon techniques with knowledge gained from travelling the world.
In the interest of cleanliness, they even insisted Saturday should be laundry day.
But the grizzled image of a bearded and ferocious warrior is only half the story; first and foremost, these were trading people who wore swords not for combat but status.
Much of the Viking’s savage reputation comes from contemporary accounts in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles – written by devout men.
“Some of the accounts will be factual but if you’re a monk and someone says can you write up what happened at Lindisfarne 150 years ago, well you’re not going to write something nice are you?”
On the other hand, Tolkir says they were happy to let people believe in the fearsome image; it certainly helped during the invading phase. But the Vikings settled here for 250 years and their most important legacy was how to do business.
Nobody really knows why the Vikings expanded from their own shores. One theory suggests it was the penetration of Christianity into Scandinavia, which divided Norway for almost a century. At the time Emperor Charlemagne was using force and terror to convert pagans to Christianity so was this an act of retaliation?
There could be a more innocent reason, as Tolkir explains. “I think when they first came, it was because of greed. They knew about the Christian monasteries and their wealth. They also knew the monks wouldn’t put up much of a fight.
“But at home they were running out of space and good pasture land. They had bad winters and animals were not surviving. So there are two distinct types of these people, from the bearded ferocious warriors to the second wave; the settlers.
“It must have been quite scary when the village elder tells you ‘if we stay here five more years we’ll all perish. So we’ve got to pack up, sail to wherever and start a new life’. Today it would be quite a thing, but taking your family across oceans and seas back then must have been really daunting.”
* THIS will be York’s 26th annual Viking Festival. It’s one of the largest in the UK and attracts more than 40,000 visitors to the city.
The festival is organised by York Archaeological Trust and one of this year’s highlights is sure to be a display of archaeological discoveries from the Hungate excavation, not to mention the best beard competition.
February is the Viking festival of Jolablot; a time for celebrations to herald the coming of spring and the survival of winter hardships. And you can join in the festivities today at the family fun weekend on the riverside at King’s Staith.
Through the week there will be Viking music on offer, spellbinding sagas, tenth-century traders and arts & crafts workshops.
You can paddle your own cardboard longboat from Marygate Landing, learn how to fight a duel and even join King Ethelred for an evening of music and poetry at The Minster.
If that’s not enough, there’s a treat in store at City Screen where Monty Python’s Holy Grail will have a rare showing on the big screen. Not only that, Neil Innes the seventh Python will be there in person.
And kids, don’t miss the chance to be a Viking for the day at Danelaw in Murton Park.
Some lucky youngsters will also get the chance to meet author Terry Deary at his sell out Teatime Terrors, where he will describe the seven most wicked people in York’s history.
A full programme of events happening at the 2011 JORVIK Viking Festival can be downloaded at jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk or pick up a programme from the JORVIK Viking Centre gift shop.