Archaeology and Documentary Sources
It is fair to say that, at least in the Anglophone world, the history of the Vikings and their activities is looked at primarily through the lens of their actions in Britain and Ireland. This phenomenon can be seen even in the dates used to define the period; with the start of the Viking Age often dated to 793, the date of the raid on Lindisfarne, and its ending dated to 1066 when Harald Hadrada meets his end at Stamford Bridge.
Even if we accept the focus on what is a very small stage in the history of Early Medieval Europe these dates are not, by themselves, overly helpful even in understanding Scandinavian influence in the British Isles. There is growing evidence that long-range trading networks were active in Scandinavia and the North Sea at the start of the 8th century, if not earlier still [Ashby and Sindbæk 2015] and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that Lindisfarne was not the first hostile raid by Vikings in Britain:
“787. This year king Beohtric took to wife Eadburga, king Offa’s daughter; and in his days first came three ships of Northmen, out of Hæretha-land. And then the reeve rode to the place, and would have driven them to the king’s town, because he knew not who they were: and they there slew him. These were the first ships of Danishmen which sought the land of the English nation.”
The continued use of these dates then, even within Britain, is not based on any strict dating of events but because of their long traditional use. They form part of the essential narrative of English history. In brief: the Vikings arrive from the North and drive all before them until Alfred and the House of Wessex counterattack and, over the course of three generations, create a new and United Kingdom of England.
This narrative neatly divides England into the Southern and Western parts, which are Saxon, and the Northern and Eastern parts, which become Viking. Even the revised date of 787 may be a later ploy by scribes in Wessex to re-site the emergence of the Viking threat as something Wessex initially confronts [Downham 2017].
Unfortunately, this simplistic division hides a range of complicated identities and blurred national, linguistic and genetic borders; one of which is the focus of my article today.
Cornwall in the 9th century
Cornwall is a region of Britain at the far SW tip of the islands. In the Early Medieval period the inhabitants were largely native Romano-Britons, similar to the Welsh, and in the wake of Roman withdrawal they had re-established a Kingdom, Dumnonia, based on the pre-Roman Tribal lands and presumably identity of the Dumnonii.
The people of South Western Britain had always been intimately linked to international trade. Tin is a vital component in the production of Bronze and its limited geological range meant that significant amounts of the metal were mined and distributed from Cornwall and SW Britain from the Bronze Age [Berger et al. 2019] into the Early Medieval period.
More locally they had strong trading links with the other nations on the Irish Sea, and we can see evidence of incoming Irish settlers from a range of stones inscribed with Ogham script. Interestingly these often combine Ogham and Latin inscriptions or use Ogham to form a Latinised memorial format. This suggests that the incoming Irish became quickly integrated into the native culture, rather than supplanting it as later folklore such as Tristan and Isolde might lead us to assume.
Fig. 1 (left): The Lewannick Stone. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 2 (right): Diagram of the Lewannick inscription. Image from Thomas 1994.
To the East, the Dumnonians/Cornish were under increasing pressure from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The two polities had been in conflict from the 7th century and during the intervening centuries the border had moved from the edge of the Somerset Levels to somewhere in Mid-Devon, though that line probably fluctuated back and forth even in the 9th century [Fletcher 2022].
By the time larger Viking fleets started appearing around the South West coast, in the first half of the 9th century, Dumnonia had fallen out of use and the Kingdom of Kernow, or Cernyw, remained in its place.
Documentary Evidence for Viking Cornwall
We have only a handful of texts that deal with Early Medieval Cornwall, and fewer still that deal directly with Vikings in the region. Of these, the principal source we have to rely on is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The first entry of note for our purposes comes in 833 when the chronicle records:
“833. This year king Egbert fought against the men of thirty-five ships at Charmouth, and there was great slaughter made, and the Danish-men maintained possession of the field. And Herefrith and Wigthun, two bishops, died; and Dudda and Osmod, two ealdorman, died.”
For Egbert, a King of Wessex with no small ability as a war leader, this defeat is unusual. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the Cornish, still amid their long running conflict with Wessex, would seek to enlist Viking aid against Wessex and the King.
In 835 (usually corrected to 838) the Cornish attempt to do just that and the combined army attacks Egberts territory in modern-day Devon:
“835. This year a great hostile fleet came to the West-Welsh, and they united together, and made war upon Egbert, king of the West-Saxons. As soon as he heard of it he went thither with an army, and fought against them at Hengeston, and there he put to flight both the Welsh and the Danish-men.”
The Alliance is ultimately unsuccessful, and this date (838) is usually given as the end of an independent Cornish kingdom. However, like with the dating of the Viking Age, the date in this case has more to do with an emerging narrative of English history than it has to do with pure historical fact.
Following Hingston Down we have a conspicuous lack of documents dealing with Cornwall. We do not have any Charters issued by English kings in Cornwall until the 10th century. Additionally, the Burghal Hidage, a tally of all the defensive Burghs raised by Alfred and his son Edward against the Vikings, shows no such work undertaken in Cornwall despite its long history of maritime links. Indeed, the furthest West of these constructions is at Lydford in Devon. This site sits close to the modern-day border of the River Tamar and roughly in the centre of the landscape. If, as Haslam  suggests, the hidage which maintained the Burghs was set firmly within the shire of their construction then this further reinforces a Western border of Alfred’s domain at the Tamar.
Fig. 3: Map showing the position of the thirty-one burhs in Wessex and their order of citation.
Image from Haslam 2016.
Given the lack of evidence for English Control, and the example of at least a single alliance between the Cornish and the incoming Vikings it is therefore possible that the purpose of Lydford was not just to guard against Viking ships on the river, but also to keep a watch on the Western border for fear of a return to conflict there. Certainly, Archaeology supports continued Viking presence in the region, as we will discuss shortly. There are also parallels to be found in Wales where Viking forces became frequent features of conflict both between the Welsh Princes themselves but also with the English. For example in 992 Maredudd ab Owain of Gwynedd recruited Vikings to aid him in his battles with Glamorgan, this despite Gwynedd suffering multiple raids itself during his rule.
By the late 10th century it seems that the largely friendly relations the Cornish had enjoyed with Viking fleets and Scandinavian settlers suffers a setback as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:
“981. In this year St. Petroc’s-stowe [Padstow] was ravaged; and that same year was much harm done everywhere by the sea-coast, as well among the men of Devon as among the Welsh.”
Interestingly, we may even have an idea of who that raider was. According to the saga of Olaf Trygvasson, the part-legendary King of Norway, he went raiding in the 980s following the death of his Wendish wife Geira. There is a disconnect in the dating of these two instances, with Olaf having supposedly met Geira in 982 and stayed with her three years prior to raiding. However, as we have seen with the Hingston Down entry, Early Medieval dates are not always set down perfectly in the sources so it is not impossible that Olaf may have been behind the serious raiding. It certainly seems he was extremely active in the Irish Sea during this period as his saga records [Whaley 2012]:
“The young, overwhelming king proceeded to contend against the English; that nourisher of the missile-shower determined the killing of the Northumbrians. The prince beat the inhabitants of the British land and cut down the Cumbric peoples; hunger diminished for the osprey of the storm of spears
The diminisher of gold made sword-sport in Man; the battle-glad feeder of wolves destroyed the Scots widely with the sword. The terrifier of the bow-string caused the army from the Isles and the Irish to die; the Tyr of precious spears was eager for glory.”
The British Land mentioned here is ‘Bretland’ or ‘Land of the Britons’ which does not exclude raids in Cornwall as well as modern Wales. That being said, the mention of Cumbric peoples; that is those dwelling in Cumbria on the NW coast of Britain, implies it was likely Gwynedd in northern Wales that Olaf was raiding. Still, by the end of this period of raiding, Olaf appears to be close to Cornwall as he supposedly lands on the Isles of Scilly.
The story goes that it’s in the Scilly Isles that he converts to Christianity, one of the key features of his later reign and conflicts in Norway. The fact that this happened in a rather obscure corner of the Western British Isles is fascinating on its own.
The story is fairly fantastical, involving a hermit who sees the future and a mutiny by Olaf’s crew but it is noteworthy in its terminology, drawing a clear distinction between the people living in Scilly, themselves closely linked to the Cornish on the mainland, and those living in England where Olaf heads next. This suggests an ongoing cultural differentiation between the groups and, importantly for our context, that it was still one known in Scandinavia.
There is one final documentary source of note when looking at Viking and Scandinavian presence in Cornwall during the early mediaeval period. It is a collection of manuscripts known as the Codex Oxoniensis Posterior, which was compiled together in Winchester in the 11th or 12th century. However several of the component manuscripts appear to be much earlier in date, including a selection that appear to originate in Cornwall [Charles-Edwards 2013].
The potentially Cornish section begins with ‘De Raris Fabulis’ or ‘on Uncommon Tales’ which is a colloquy or text for the instruction of Latin to new monks. There are several interesting conversations recorded within it, all written in a way to encourage a variety of answers and thus proficiency in the language, including mention of a victory of the Britons over the Saxons which may relate to some of the early conflicts in the 9th century.
Where this interacts with Scandinavian activity in Cornwall is that the preceding page, overleaf from the beginning of ‘De Raris Fabulis’, contains the following runic inscription:
Fig. 4: Runic inscription within the Codex Oxoniensis Posterior.
The inscription appears to use the long-branch form of Younger Futhark. However they are also altered to deliberately conceal their meaning, resulting in what are known as ‘cryptic runes’. However, many of the rune forms remain visible enough to confirm that the writer, presumably at a monastery in Cornwall, was familiar enough with the runes to not only write them clearly but also to use them in a code or cipher.
Unfortunately we have no way of knowing who the scribe in this case was, but it raises the intriguing possibility (given the likely 9th century date) of someone connected, either directly or through descent, to one of the Vikings who had engaged in the battle of Hingston Down.
Archaeological Evidence for Viking/Scandinavians in Cornwall
While the documentary evidence for Scandinavian activity in Cornwall is somewhat sparse and under-studied, it had long been the case that the situation in Archaeology was even worse. This is partly due to the same factors that impact the documentary sources; i.e bias in interpretation and a lack of investment and interest, and partly because the South West of Britain possesses acidic soils generally unfavourable to the survival of material and organic goods.
Fig. 5: Topsoil PH map from Rawlins et al. 2017.
Additionally, the native Briton population of the SW had practised non-furnished burial from the post Roman period, meaning far fewer goods ended up in the ground for excavation in the first place.
However, recent years have seen increasing numbers of Early Medieval and Viking Age finds thanks to metal detectorists and active engagement by the local Finds Liaison Officer from the UK Portable Antiquities Scheme. Additionally, there had previously been a handful of treasure finds around Cornwall and West Devon. The most spectacular of these, and the one most interesting to discuss when looking at Viking activity in Cornwall, is the Trewhiddle Hoard.
Fig. 6: The Trewhiddle Hoard. Photo courtesy of the British Museum.
The Trewhiddle Hoard is a collection of silver objects, found buried and covered by loose stones in what may have been an old Tin-mine (the discovery was made by workmen expanding an existing Tin works). It contained 114 coins from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, as well as dozens of silver decorative items including strap ends, mounts from drinking horns, cloak pins and an enigmatic length of braided silver wire that ends in four separate tails; the purpose of which is still debated today.
Many of the Trewhiddle objects were decorated with niello inlay and complex animal patterns; a style of decoration which would come to be known as ‘Trewhiddle Style’ and which is now known as a prominent Anglo-Saxon decorative style.
Much of the hoard was contained within a silver chalice which most closely matches Irish examples of the period and a small penannular brooch is also considered to have come from the Irish Sea region.
The coins date the hoard to around 868 [Rashleigh 1867], a period when the Great Heathen Army is actively engaged in conflict with both Wessex and the remnants of Mercia, who have recently aligned together to resist them. Interestingly, it also marks a period of Irish resurgence when the Danes are being forced from Ireland and were no doubt looking for opportunities elsewhere.
This context has led to a traditional explanation for the hoard’s deposition; namely that it was hidden by locals to avoid Viking raiders.
However, the majority of the deposited goods appear to originate outside of Cornwall. Certainly; all the coins are from Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. While it’s possible the Wessex coins may have come into circulation in Cornwall after 836, we certainly don’t see large numbers of stray finds that might suggest this to be the case.
The silver objects which cannot be firmly geographically sited, largely those bearing the ‘Trewhiddle’ decorative motifs, are also likely to have come from elsewhere in Britain. Despite a village in Cornwall giving the style its name, finds of Trewhiddle decoration are much more common in England itself than in the far SW. This can be seen by looking at the distribution of strap ends bearing Trewhiddle decoration, as set out in the below map.
Fig. 7: Distribution Map of Class A1 (‘Trewhiddle Style’) Strap-Ends. Haldenby and Hadley 2022.
So if the goods in the hoard all appear to originate from outside their depositional setting then they must have been brought there by someone who had access to goods from those areas. That is, someone who had presumably recently been active in Central and Southern England and, potentially, also in the Irish Sea. Viewed in this way, the most likely candidate for the hoard’s owner may well have been a Viking raider [Kershaw 2016] who was depositing accrued wealth with the intention of coming back to collect it later. If the coin dating is correct, this would tie the deposition date close to the capture of Exeter by the Great Heathen Army in 876 although this dating is not certain and is questioned by some writers [Graham-Campbell 2004].
Regardless, the hoard’s location suggests that the depositor viewed Cornwall as a safe port of call, or at least somewhere where they were unlikely to be disturbed while coming and going from the shore.
We have already seen at least one example of a Cornish-Viking alliance in the documentary record, and a dearth of evidence for Anglo-Saxon Royal control in the period following Hingston Down. This, combined with the archaeological evidence, perhaps suggests that Cornwall still maintained at least non-hostile relations with the Viking fleets passing between the Irish Sea and the Southern English coastline, perhaps going so far as to provide safe harbour and settlements for incoming Scandinavians even if they did not directly join in the wars against Alfred’s Wessex. Some of the stray finds added to the PAS archive do support Scandinavian presence from the 9th century onwards, including a pair of Borre-Style belt buckles, as shown below:
There may be a natural inclination to assume that the Scandinavian incomers were asserting themselves militarily, in a similar fashion to what would occur in Brittany during the 10th century, however the latest series of excavations at Tintagel castle, best known as a luxurious elite site in the 5th and 6th centuries, shows ongoing occupation from this period into the 11th century.
While none of the later period finds can match the lavish displays of the earliest occupation there are still signs that it retains an elite-site status. There are refurbishments undertaken to the paved terrace, and new buildings are appearing as late as the 11th Century. There has also now been a find of distinctly Cornish bar-lug pottery in the excavation site which has provided a tight date of the mid 8th to mid 9th Century [Nowakowski 2023].
Fig. 10: Tracie and the bar-lug pottery [Nowakowski and Gossip 2020].
If the Vikings were attempting to militarily assert themselves they would almost certainly have had to deal with Tintagel as it remained a formidable strategic point on the North Cornwall coast. Given what appears to be an unbroken occupation from the 5th to 11th centuries this does not seem to be the case. While the recent excavations make clear there is much more to discover on Tintagel, at present the evidence seems to support (alongside the lack of additional large Western conflicts post Hingston Down) a more pragmatic approach which was actively undertaken by the Cornish elite who sought to not take sides between Wessex and the Vikings.
As for the Vikings and Scandinavian settlers, it’s likely they sought to take advantage of Cornwall’s offering in the Irish Sea Market. The Cornish and their close cousins the Bretons had access to by far the largest deposits of Tin in North West Europe. While no longer as strategically vital a metal as it had been in the Bronze Age, Tin remained an important component in the creation of Bronze objects as well as a decorative metal in it’s own right, such as on Tating Ware pottery or the decorative rim of this shield boss from Birka:
Fig. 11: Shield boss decorated with tin sheet from grave Bj 544 in Birka.
Arbman 1940, Taf. 18.1; SHM catalog; reconstruction made by the group White Lynx.
While not all such tin would have come from Cornwall or linked cultures, certainly tin mining seems to increase in the period from 800 CE onwards, as evidenced by the deep cores taken from an ancient tin mine on Western Dartmoor, in the hazy borderlands between Wessex and Cornwall.
Fig. 12: Lead, copper and tin concentrations plotted against a calendar year timescale.
Meharg et al. 2012.
Recent analysis of pewter fittings from the Gokstad ship burial, undertaken by Professor Pedersen from the University of Oslo  highlighted that at least some of the component lead within the fittings appears likely to have originated in Devon or Cornwall. This reinforces a potential trading link from Cornish mines through to the Scandinavian homelands. Although the possibility of this being repurposed Roman lead, mined during the Romano-British period, should not be discounted.
We can see further evidence of a potential Scandinavian-Cornish trade route through exports of Cornish pottery however, notably the ‘Bar-Lug’ type which we have already seen present at Tintagel. Emerging sometime before the 9th Century [Hutchinson 1979] Cornish Bar-Lug pottery has a distinctive shape, given by its large ‘ears’ which would protect a rope or thong when the pot was suspended over a fire. Most vessels are also ‘Grass Marked’, another typical feature of Cornish pottery which results from still-wet clay items being placed on a bed of cut grass or straw and then fired so that the impression of the grass stems remains in the bottom of the clay.
Fig. 13: Bar-lug vessel and Grass-Marked fragment on display in the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro.
Photos by Author.
Bar-lug pottery is also found outside Cornwall, often in areas of Scandinavian settlement or activity. For example, a near-complete set of Bar Lug pottery was found in the Hiberno-Norse settlement of Waterford in a post-Conquest (11th/12th century) context. This seems to reinforce a trading network which reached the North Sea via Ireland, as we will touch on with the Slave trade further on. It is interesting to note that there are similar vessels in the North Sea world, including some at Hedeby, which Hübener  interpreted as being the results of what he termed ‘English’ influence but which may well, in this case, represent a Cornish influence through the extended trade network.
Fig. 14: Comparison of a Waterford Bar-lug vessel with a Cornish example [Wood 2014].
Additionally, evidence seems to indicate the Cornish were intimately involved in the Irish Sea slave trade which came to be dominated by the Hiberno-Norse. Eventually Dublin would become the largest slave market in Western Europe, with slaves taken in Viking raids shipped as far afield as Iceland and Anatolia [Holm 1986].
By some estimates the average percentage of slaves in England was 10% of the population, rising to 12% in some instances. In Cornwall this figure is 21% at the time of the Domesday Book [Pelteret 2001, 229-231]. This high figure suggests slave labour was much more widely used than elsewhere in the country. It has been suggested in the past that this represents the oppressive regime of Wessex on the Cornish, however this does not seem to fit with the evidence emerging from research into the Bodmin Manumissions and other period documents [Picken 1986].
There are also clues in Anglo-Saxon sources that may tie the Cornish to the Slave Trade, notably from the 10th Century Exeter Book which includes the following riddles:
I saw two prisoners,
borne into the building
beneath the roof of the hall,
both of them stiff—
they were of a kind,
clasped close together
with binding chains—
one of them held close
by a dark Welsh girl
She wielded them both,
fixed in fetters.
I was little…
[a few fragmentary lines intervene]
My sister fed me… often I tugged
at my four dearest brothers, each of them
uninjured gave me drink once per day
heavily through a hole. I thrived with a thrill,
until I was older and lonely left that
to a swarthy herdsman, journeying farther,
treading paths of the Welsh frontier,
cutting across the moors
bound under a beam.
I had a ring round my neck,
suffering works of woe
along the way,
my portion of hardship.Often the iron harmed
me, sorely in my sides—
I kept silent, never
speaking out to any man,
even if the pricking
was painful to me.
Welsh here almost certainly relates to the Cornish given the geographical proximity of Exeter, so the inclusion of a Welsh element (and the description of a journey over moors) seems to again tie the Cornish into the slave trade, and thus forming an important part of Hiberno-Norse trade networks.
As we move on from the 9th and early 10th century into the later 10th and 11th, the evidence changes from potential evidence of Viking activity along the coastline to some form of a settled Scandinavian or Anglo-Scandinavian population in Cornwall. This is most clearly seen in monumental stone work, of which Cornwall has a significant corpus. One prominent example is the large memorial cross at Cardinham.
Fig. 15: Cardinham 1 C-D (St Meubred’s church) oblique in evening sunshine.
Copyright: Ann Preston-Jones.
The cross is richly decorated with complex knotwork and tightly scrolling ring-chain elements which are more commonly associated with Manx and Cumbrian Viking-Age traditions than they are with the far SW of Britain [Kershaw 2016]. This suggests either an incoming artist who was familiar with these styles or else a patron who commissioned them to his personal taste.
Interestingly, there is some confusion about the existence of a church at Cardinham in the 10th century when the cross is likely to be commissioned. It has been suggested that the cross either represents the continuation of a Post-Roman Christian site or that Cardinham, which would become a powerful fiefdom in the Norman period, was already the centre of a significant estate and as such the grand cross may represent a local powerful patron. If this patron was familiar with art styles in the wider Irish Sea, it’s possible they were themselves of Scandinavian origin.
As we approach the 11th century and onwards there are still significant finds in Anglo-Scandinavian styles, suggesting a continued presence of at least some elite figures influenced by this culture.
Significantly, there are five coped stone or ‘Hogback’ graves found within Cornwall, this makes for one of the larger concentrations outside of the North of England and Scotland where they are traditionally located in areas of significant Scandinavian settlement.
Fig. 16: Distribution of Hogbacks in Britain. Taken from Bailey 1980, 93.
Please note this map only shows the Lanivet example.
The most typical of the five examples is located in Lanivet, a small village in the middle of Cornwall. It was buried sometime in the mediaeval period before being excavated and placed beside the church in the early modern period. It contains many of the typical features of a hogback grave, including gripping beasts on either end and a decorative ridgeline on its curved surfaces that evokes the image of a great hall’s roofline. One end panel also features a triquetra knot which is also found on the end panel of the second example from St. Tudy.
Fig. 17: Reconstruction of a potential Scandinavian grave beside the Lanivet Hogback.
Photo by Author.
The St Tudy stone is less typical, although it maintains the Coped Stone shape and the ridgeline dividing its top panels. The sides are decorated with a plant design and, as mentioned, a triquetra appears in the end panel on one side. While not as typical as the Lanivet example, the proximity between St Tudy and Lanivet as well as the matching placement and choice of the triquetra symbol suggest a commonality in origin. Given that Lanivet is accepted as a hogback it therefore seems odd to discount the St Tudy stone.
Fig. 18: The St Tudy Hogback. Photo from The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture.
The final most complete example is in Western Cornwall, at St. Buryan. This is only a partial stone, damaged at both ends, but appears to show similar design elements to both the Lanivet and St Tudy stone. It was damaged at some point during the renovation of the church and left outside as a decorative stone, leading to a delay in its identification and classification.
Fig. 19: The St Buryan fragment. Photo from The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture.
Interestingly, St Buryan also is the location of a stray find of metalwork, a Jelling style brooch. This typically Scandinavian style combined with the presence of a hogback may provide further evidence for a local population of Scandinavians within this region of Cornwall. The remaining two stones are either severely damaged (an example from Padstow was mortared into a gate post and only discovered in the 2010s) or else could have been a later mediaeval coped grave.
Fig. 20: The Jelling style fragment from St Buryan. Photo courtesy of PAS archive.
We began this article by criticising the traditional dates for the Viking Age, as they exist in Britain, and their root as an integral part of an English national story. Hopefully over the course of our discussion we have highlighted that not only do these dates put an unnecessary emphasis on Britain’s interactions with the Vikings over other areas of Europe and the World but also that the simplified view they are born from: Saxons in the South and West, Vikings in the North and East, due a disservice even to British history and the complexities integral to it.
We have shown how the limited documentary record shows an early pattern of cooperation between Viking raiders and Scandinavian settlers in Cornwall and the far SW and how this seems to continue even after the end of fighting between Wessex and Cornwall in 836/8.
We have hopefully also demonstrated that the Archaeology suggests continued settlement and cooperation even after the 10th century integration of Cornwall into the wider English political establishment.
Lastly I would like to take a moment to thank Tomáš for the opportunity to create this article for the blog, and of course for those of you who made it this far into what is a very niche aspect of Early Medieval history.
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