Blackheath

THE VIKINGS

 

After a few decades of relative calm and stability, the last part of the tenth century saw an increase in Viking activity in England. From the 980s onwards, we were being raided regularly by several Viking armies at once, whether they were working separately or together.

 

During the Viking Age, the word 'Dane' became synonymous with the Vikings that raided and invaded England. However, these pagan looting Vikings were a coalition of Norse warriors originating not only from Denmark but also Norway and Sweden.

 

The first recorded Viking attack in England was 789, in Dorset. The Reeve of Dorchester (a high-ranking official) went down to meet them on the beach, probably thinking they were traders. He was killed. 

Viking Ship Blackheath

In 793, the famous Lindisfarne monastery attack took place. The Vikings killed several monks, set buildings alight, and stole valuable items. 'Never before has such an atrocity been seen.'[1]

 

It's thought that the Vikings originally took the perilous journey across the seas just to steal all the treasures that England had within its monasteries and churches. We were a land rich with artefacts, gold, and silver. We know that when they came to raid, they also liked to fight and kill. Our ancestors lost many family members in the battles, along with a few of their kings.

 

In 867, the Vikings killed King Osberht and King Ælle, two rivals for the throne of Northumbria. 

 

In 869, Edmund, King of the East Angles, was beheaded. 

 

In 1016, King Edmund Ironside was killed by them while on the loo. 

Lindisfarne Holy Island

Much of the history we know from this time was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles from 889. A free copy can be accessed from the brilliant Project Gutenberg.

Kent, which Blackheath was part of, was first attacked in the late eighth century.[2] At this time, southern England was united under Alfred the Great but Kent was on the brink of disaster as the Vikings raided, pillaged and looked to conquer the lands around us. 

 

In 882, over 350 Viking ships sailed over from France and landed on the south coast of Kent. With them came between 5,000 and 10,000 men with their families and livestock.[3]

 

With so many Vikings moving into Kent, it was inevitable that they would follow the River Thames and discover Blackheath and Greenwich.

Viking Tombstone Found in St Paul's

VIKINGS IN BLACKHEATH

The most significant evidence that Vikings were in Blackheath comes from an event that would be recorded in history. 

 

In 1011, and a Danish fleet anchored in Greenwich after a two-week siege and raid in Kent. On the ships with them, were prisoners they had kidnapped for ransom. One of these was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Alphege (Ælfheah).

 

The Danes had sailed away from Canterbury with one of the most important men of England as their captive.

 

They headed to Greenwich because it was their headquarters and Blackheath was where they camped – up on the hill[4].  According to sources they camped in Blackheath for almost four years.[5] This makes a lot of sense as many places around Blackheath have combe or comb (meaning camp) in their name.

 

Also, 'on Blackheath, and within the walls of Greenwich Park, are several barrows, or tumuli, many of which are supposed to be the burial-places of some of the Danes, who died during their encampment here.'[6]

Aerial view of Viking camp in Blackheath

Back to Alphege, who is a familiar name to locals because (although it is now spelt Alfege) down the hill and in the centre of Greenwich is St Alfege Church – rebuilt in 1712–1714 to the designs of Nicholas Hawksmoor.

 

The Danes wanted a whacking £48,000 ransom for their prisoners and gave Christian England seven months to get the money together. It doesn't seem much to pay, but £48,000 in 1011 would have been over £3 million.[7] To put that into perspective, it meant the Danes could have bought (these are guestimates rather than facts):

 

  • 63,000 horses

  • 13,000 cows

  • 37,000 sheep

  • 300,000 quarters of wheat

  • 4,800,000 days of paid skilled labour

 

If that wasn't enough, the Vikings realised that Alphege was worth pushing the boundaries of their demands, and they upped the stakes – asking for another £3,000 (around £2 million) for Alphege alone. The archbishop refused to play the game and told the church not to pay.[8]

 

'The raiding-army became much stirred up against the bishop, because he did not want to offer them any money, and forbade that anything might be granted in return for him. Also they were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their "hustings" on the Saturday in the octave of Easter, and then pelted him there with bones and the heads of cattle; and one of them struck him on the head with the butt of an axe, so that with the blow he sank down and his holy blood fell on the earth, and sent forth his holy soul to God's kingdom,'[9]

 

St Alfege Church, Greenwich
St Alphege

So, the Blackheath-dwelling Vikings, with wine swilling in their drunken heathen veins, got angry and frustrated with the pious Alphege. They boned him (rather than stoned him) close to death before walloping him on the head with the butt of an axe. Not a particularly pleasant way to die.

 

The walloping on the head, however, was done with mercy rather than drunken anger. Thrum, a Dane who'd just discovered Christianity and liked Alphege, took mercy on him and brought his ordeal to an end.[10]  So vile was Alphege's death that 'the leader of the Danish Vikings, Thorkell, defected to the English, along with 45 ships.'[11]

Alphege was made into a saint and such was the fury and fever of Alphege's following that even the famous Cnut realised the situation needed to be sensitively dealt with. For this reason, Cnut had Alphege's body (all but one of his fingers), moved from London to Canterbury. Folklore has it that the one finger stayed in London as a gesture to Westminster.

 

St Alfege Church stands on the ground where the archbishop fell. 

Much of Viking history in Blackheath inevitably ties in with the Viking presence in Greenwich, and sometimes it is hard to separate the two. But we know from the burial mounds inside and outside of Greenwich Park that the Vikings were present in both areas, and it is more than likely that, with Blackheath being up on the hill, they would have used the heath as an area to camp strategically.

 

The last Viking raid on England has been dated as 1066, but that didn't mean life wouldn't change again in Blackheath. 

Citations

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/timeline/vikinganglosaxons_timeline_noflash.shtml

[2] Brookes, Stuart; Harrington, Sue (2010). The Kingdom and People of Kent, AD 400-1066: Their History and Archaeology. Stroud: The History Press. p.120

[3] ibid

[4] Mercer G. Alphege (954–1012): A Saint for His Time and for Our Time. The Downside Review. 2020;138(2):68-78. 

[5] England's Topographer, Or, A New and Complete History of the ..., Volume 4

By William Henry Ireland

[6] England's Topographer, Or, A New and Complete History of the ..., Volume 4

By William Henry Ireland

[7] https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/#currency-result

[8] Mercer G. Alphege (954–1012): A Saint for His Time and for Our Time. The Downside Review. 2020;138(2):68-78. 

[9] Swanton Anglo-Saxon Chronicle p. 142

[10] Mercer G. Alphege (954–1012): A Saint for His Time and for Our Time. The Downside Review. 2020;138(2):68-78. 

[11] ibid