Eleanor Parker, Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England (London: I. B. Tauris, 2018)
Reviewed by Felix Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
‘Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the north shall an evil break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land’ (Jeremiah 1:14). With this prophetic biblical verse early medieval writers were able to provide an authoritative explanation for the Viking invasions that were carried out from the late eight century onwards; the arrival of these barbarians signalled a form of divine retribution. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle flaming dragons, lightning, and whirlwinds were seen raging across the sky before what was probably the first planned Viking raid, on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in 793. ‘These signs were followed by great famine,’ the Chronicle continues, ‘and a little after those … the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church’. In Dragon Lords Eleanor Parker, Clerk of Oxford and medieval lecturer at Brasenose College, provides a detailed and entertaining overview of how the subsequent invasions of northern and eastern England were received, explained and at times justified by post-Conquest writers. The book is a well-balanced account that considers perspectives from both sides of the North Sea.
Much of the first half of Dragon Lords is concerned appropriately with the raids on the coast of East Anglia. Parker tackles the various representations of St. Edmund, once king of that south-easterly region until his most gruesome death in 869 at the hands of the men most of the texts refer to as Danes. Her job is made all the more difficult by the fact that almost no records survive of his life or reign, but what she does manage to capture is the general flavour of the subsequent narratives which later rose up around Edmund related by Abbo of Fleury and other writers of the early medieval period. According to one such tale the Danes shoot Edmund full of arrows and hide his severed head in a wood. The head is guarded by a wolf until Edmund’s men eventually find and re-attach it to their fallen king’s body. In later works it is said that the spirit of Edmund appeared to Svein Forkbeard and killed him; the Danish king had apparently raised taxes for unjust reasons and Edmund rightly defended his people. Geoffrey of Wells later venerates Edmund as a maker of miracles in his largely-fictional hagiography De Infantia S. Eadmundi in the twelfth century.
Possibly the most famous Viking still known today – and not simply because of his star turn in the History channel’s recent television series Vikings – is Ragnar ‘shaggy breeches’ Lothbrok. Parker dedicates an entire chapter to Ragnar’s reputation in England, as well as the characters and violent deaths of two of his (eight) sons Ivar and Ubbe. The name Ragnar never even appears in English sources, just ‘Lothbrok’, with the exception of an enigmatic St Ragner whose relics were discovered in Northampton, and occasionally his name is mistranslated as ‘loathsome brook’ (odiosus rivus). De Infantia depicts Ragnar and his ‘hateful progeny’ as inversions of Edmund, but in a bizarre account by Roger of Wendover Ragnar is an inquisitive, yet harmless Dane who desires to learn hunting and hawking at Edmund’s court. He is killed out of envy by a huntsman, thus providing a reason for Ivar and Ubbe to plot revenge.
Parker then turns her focus to Siward, the Danish warrior and politician who ruled Northumbria in the time of Cnut, and neatly ties off what is known about him as a historical figure before moving to the more spurious and fantastical accounts of his life. Like Cnut, Siward and his son Waltheof – later made a saint post-Conquest – sought to retain their Danish identity through poetry and the Norse byname ‘digri’ (the strong). Parker heads swiftly into dragon-slaying territory with Gesta antecessorum, Gesta Herwardi and the Anglo-Norman romance Roman de Waldef in which Siward boasts ursine ancestry and is given assistance by an Odinic old man on a Northumbrian mound.
What is most fascinating about Dragon Lords are the tales of almost-willing integration in various periods between the English and their heathen adversaries. According to the monk Byrhtferth, St Oswald, Archbishop of York and Bishop of Worcester, and his uncle Oda, Archbishop of Canterbury, were descended from the very same band of Danes who had hidden Edmund’s head in the woods. A young Oda ‘despite his father’s fierce opposition’ was accepted into the Christian church and later baptised, and it has even been suggested by Antonia Gransden that he may have encouraged St Edmund’s cult in atonement for his father’s actions. Cnut, however, at one time king over all England, Denmark, Norway, and some of Sweden, established himself as both Viking warlord and devout Christian ruler, providing patronage to both English monasteries and Old Norse poetry alike (see, for instance, Sigvatr Þórðarson’s Knútsdrapa). In an extraordinary episode recounted in the late tenth- or eleventh-century Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, after the Viking conquest of York St. Cuthbert materialises and marks out a young Danish slave-boy Guthred (presumably Guthfrith) as the newly-anointed king of the city. The location of the crowning ceremony is a burial mound, evoking Norse king-making customs, and serves to further complicate the event.
These instances and more provide a highly nuanced and de-polarising account of the Vikings in England. Through a combination of rigorous scholarship and a wise tendency to bring out the more entertaining and often supernatural aspects of the sources, Dragon Lords presents a much more complex and engaging view of Anglo-Danish relations and helps to dispel the popular invaders/invaded dualism that most would automatically assume. Religious and cultural integration ere surprisingly quick, and both the English and the Norse went on to provide their own accounts and justifications for the invasions, which in later centuries contributed to saint cults and the foundations myths of a Danish right to rule. Parker presents excerpts from primary texts in the original languages and provides her own translations: a blessing for the layman, and, like the book as a whole, suitably scholarly for the well-versed medievalist.
St Hugh's College, Oxford