The Rise of Lincoln Under the Vikings

By Joe Broderick Level 3 History Undergraduate

Lincoln has seen many peaks and troughs in its fortunes, yet, these have led us to the present: where Lincoln seems to be on the rise once more. Here, however, Lincoln’s fate under the Vikings will be examined, when Lincoln went from being a town whose fortunes had slightly improved under the Anglo-Saxons following the post-Roman desertion, to being one of the foremost towns in the country at the time of Norman Conquest in 1066.

‘The Great Heathen Army’ of Vikings arrived in England (after numerous small-scale raids in previous years) in 865, gradually defeating and taking over the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, including the area known as Lindsey, where modern-day Lincoln is located. Eventually, peace was made, and Lincoln became one of the chief strongholds known as the ‘Five Boroughs’ along with Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, and Stamford. What attracted these Vikings to Lincolnshire is unknown, although one could point to the abundance of sparsely settled arable land, along with its location being relatively close to Denmark. Lincoln itself still contained some of the old Roman walls, providing a ready-made defendable town for the Vikings to control. It also stood at the junction of two major Roman roads, the Foss Way and Ermine Street, with waterway links via the Foss Dyke and River Witham to the Humber and the east coast, making it ideally situated for local, national and international trade. While this international trade had already been established, the wide-ranging network of new Viking trade routes allowed many places, such as Lincoln, to flourish. This laid the foundations for the future prosperity of Lincoln into the High Middle Ages and beyond.

Recently, archaeologists from the University of Sheffield excavated a Viking camp found in Torksey, a small village ten miles outside of Lincoln. Evidence for thousands of Viking men, women and children living in temporary accommodation was found, with the site being chosen for its defensive and strategic position during the winter months. Excavations at Flaxengate unearthed evidence of successive workshops, including a copper-smith and textile shops with signs of extensive use. We also find the increased influence of Lincoln as a trading hub with fragments of pottery vessels found to come from places such as France, the Low Countries, and even as far as China. The Vikings were here to stay.

Viking Longboat on ‘The Viking Way’, a 147mile trail located in Lincolnshire that goes through Lincoln. Photo taken by Andy Stephenson.

Lincoln had been a thriving trading community before the Vikings’ arrival, which was added to when new streets such as Flaxengate and Grantham Street were built and improved housing and other structures on High Street and Silver Street were carried out. The goods manufactured at the workshops would most likely have been sold or traded for much needed agricultural produce. By about AD 900 Lincoln was a small trading settlement with the population concentrated primarily in the south-eastern corner of the lower part of the Roman city (near where The Collection museum is located today), numbering around 600. By the mid-10th century a new suburb, Wigford, was laid out south of the river and the overall population probably reached about 1600. Further downstream from the Brayford, the north riverbank was also converted so larger boats could tie up and unload goods for trade. We also see evidence of Vikings in the villages surrounding Lincoln seen specifically in their names. Places such as Whisby, Bransby, Wragby, and Skellingthorpe take their names from the Viking language, as -by meant farmstead and -thorpe meant hamlet.

Lincoln’s growing importance as a town while under the rule of the Vikings can also be seen through coinage. Commerce was sought to be regulated and controlled by the mid-tenth century, with the powers-that-be anxious to remain so and to profit from this boom. A law from the time of King Edgar helps illustrate this: ‘no goods over 20 pence are to be brought outside a town…there is to be one coinage over all the king’s dominion and no-one is to mint money except in a town’. This regulation of coinage, along with Lincoln’s rise in importance, led to it having not only its own mint but in terms of number of moneyers present, Lincoln was only second to London. The coins excavated at the Flaxengate site come from mints all over the country, including York, Chester, and Hereford, highlighting Lincoln’s importance as a trading centre.

As we can see, these Vikings were no stereotypical band of marauders who were here to pillage and plunder. These people were no doubt fighters and may have displaced certain groups of people, but they were also farmers like the Anglo-Saxons and the advantages of staying in Lincoln and the surrounding areas were clearly too tempting to pass up.

When we think back to Lincoln under the Vikings, we can see a town whose fortunes rapidly improved, gaining increased prestige and standing in England, right through to the Norman Conquest, where Lincoln had a population of around 6,000 and was one of the foremost towns in the country. Of course, Lincoln had been improving as a town under the Anglo-Saxons, but nothing like the acceleration we see under the Vikings. If Lincoln did not have the reputation it did, it is unlikely the Normans would have seen it as worthwhile to begin construction on the famous cathedral – which would have dramatically altered Lincoln’s landscape from how it looks today.

Further Reading

Richards, Julian D. Viking Age England (London, 1991).

Wickham, Chris. The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (London, 2009).

Edited by Samantha Ann Rose Brinded