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Barnby, Suffolk

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Barnby is a small town located to the west of Lowestoft in Suffolk.

One of the local churches, St Edmunds, was built in the 13th century. It still has some of the original wall paintings that were extensively uncovered and restored in the 1990's.

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Vikings and the new East Anglian towns

The Vikings arrived in force in East Anglia in 866, and in 870 they killed the East Anglian king, Edmund. However, it was not until after the Treaty of Wedmore in 878, agreed between Alfred the Great of Wessex and Guthrum of Denmark, that Viking settlement of East Anglia began in earnest. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it, Guthrum's Viking army proceeded to `share out' the land, which remained part of the Danelaw for the next 40 years.

Archaeological evidence from East Anglia over recent years shows that, Scandinavian-influenced artefacts achieved very wide circulation in the 9th-11th centuries. More remarkably, evidence from towns in the region shows that the arrival of Vikings provided a kick start to English urbanisation after the long Anglo-Saxon lull, mirroring evidence from elsewhere in eastern England.

With its rich soils and kind climate East Anglia had carried a large rural population in Roman times. After the drastic decline of the 5th century from the late Roman high point, a period of growth set in. By the 8th century Ipswich ware pottery, coins and metalwork once again enable us to see how widespread settlement had become. By the middle of the 9th century settlement had been established all over East Anglia in almost all the land units which were later to become parishes.

Rural settlements of the later 9th and 10th centuries most commonly overlie Middle Saxon predecessors, and differ only in that they are larger. The Anglo-Saxon population of East Anglia was so numerous and economically healthy immediately preceding the Viking period that it is hard to imagine large-scale displacements after 878.

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The Vikings' cultural impact, however, is indisputable. The main evidence comes from the evaluation of large numbers of metal-detector finds made in East Anglia. In contrast to sparse earlier finds which mostly comprised large items such as swords and stirrups, these recent discoveries dating from the late 9th, 10th and 11th centuries are predominantly small objects of personal adornment - brooches, buckles, pins, and the like - manufactured both in Scandinavia and locally in Scandinavian styles. Some are stray losses while others form an element in substantial assemblages of finds from settlement sites.

The status of the wearers of these objects was not high, to judge from the everyday nature of many pieces, and we are certainly not dealing with the trappings of a warrior elite, but rather a population of peasant farmers. Were they immigrants from Scandinavia or just Anglo-Saxons whose sense of dress was influenced by their new masters? If the latter, then we should regard this influence as significant, with the appearance of `Scandinavianness' being seen as an important consideration in the minds of indigenous East Anglians. The new fashions may not have seemed so very outlandish, for East Anglia already had a long history of close contact with Scandinavia, stretching back through the Anglo-Saxon ship burials at Sutton Hoo to the migration period itself.

More dramatic evidence for the impact of the Vikings can be found in the growth of towns, beginning in the late 9th and early 10th centuries. Whereas only one place, the international port and industrial centre of Ipswich, can make claims to urban status before 878, by the early years of the 10th century two more large towns had emerged, Norwich in Norfolk and Thetford on the border between the two shires.

There are no documentary references to the former at this period, Norwic appearing for the first time on coins of Athelstan (924-39), but Theodford had been named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the place where the Danish host had spent the winter of 869/70. Elsewhere in the Danelaw, other towns were developing in similar fashion, for example the `five boroughs' of Lincoln, Stamford, Leicester, Nottingham and Derby.

As work proceeds in Norwich and Thetford it becomes ever more apparent that both grew with enormous speed from modest Middle Saxon beginnings. In the 10th century Thetford covered some 75 hectares - a colossal size for the period - while by the time of Domesday, the population of Norwich had overtaken that of Thetford and the two towns ranked fifth and sixth in England, after London, York, Lincoln and Winchester.

Lesser towns were also to appear during the course of the 10th century - Sudbury, Dunwich and perhaps Bury St Edmunds, all in Suffolk. Norfolk was certainly less urbanised, and by 1066 only three places ranked as boroughs, Great Yarmouth being the addition. This small number may have been maintained by the restrictive economic power exerted by the other two.

The sudden appearance of new and vibrant towns in East Anglia cannot be explained simply as a result of settlement there by Scandinavians. It is more reasonable to assume that the increasing population across the region was already leading to the establishment of a market economy. However, this process appears to have been brought forward by the influx of new folk from across the North Sea. Interestingly, local and regional trade was far more important during the 10th century than international trade. Archaeological finds show that the three large East Anglian boroughs looked not so much to Scandinavia as to their flourishing native hinterlands in this period, and it was local economic strength that enabled all three to survive the batterings they received from renewed Viking attacks in the early 11th century, and for 1,485 settlements in the two counties - a relatively large number - to survive and be named in the Domesday Book.

Courtesy of Andrew Rogerson.

Fact file

  • Suffolk's Viking place-names are Ashby, Barnby, Eyke, Lound, and Risby. Norfolk's include Ormesby, Billockby, Felthorpe, Colkirk, and Topcroft, but mainly end in -by.
  • No Viking burials have been discovered in Suffolk. In Norfolk, a double burial of a man and woman was excavated in 1867 at Santon in Lynford parish, associated with a pair of oval brooches and a sword; and a male burial with knives, spur, buckles, whetstone and ear-scoop was excavated by the author in 1983 at Middle Harling.
  • Viking metal-detector finds from East Anglia easily outnumber those from other parts of the country. For example, Viking stirrup mounts are known from 109 sites in Norfolk and Suffolk, compared to 225 in the rest of England.
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