Swede-ish

Stereotypes-on-Thames. A poster showing Hammersmith Bridge promoting the fact that King’s Mall, a tired 1970s shopping mall in Hammersmith, West London, has been remodelled around a new branch of the Swedish household store, IKEA, and renamed “Livat.” In Swedish, “(Ha) livat” means “Have a jolly good time”. I am not sure what the kayaks are there for.

23 February 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on an advertising poster that may be more accurate than most people would guess.

While the area of West London known as Fulham was first recorded as a name in 691, the London Borough of Fulham was only granted an official coat of arms in 1927. Atop of these new arms was a ship, supposedly a reference to the popular idea that there was a Viking settlement on the Fulham riverside between 878 and 879, probably around the site of what is now Bishop’s Park, opposite the Boat Race start. However, the image used was not the common idea of a Viking longboat, plus there was the incongruous addition of a Tudor Rose on the sail, recalling the importance of Fulham during the 16th-century but doing little for the craft’s Nordic credentials. When the neighbouring boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham were amalgamated in 1965, the ship was included in the new arms.

Arms of the former London Borough of Fulham.

Raids from Norway and Denmark on England, Scotland and Ireland started in 793 AD and Viking invasions of London became frequent from the 830s. Dr Robert Wynn Jones writing on lostcityoflondon.co.uk:

Early Anglo-Saxon London… became subject to increasingly frequent and savage raids by the Vikings by the ninth century.  According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 839, “… there was great slaughter in London … ”, and in 851, “ … came three-hundred-and-fifty ships into the mouth of the Thames, the crews of which went upon land, and stormed … London … ”. 

A 12th-century illumination of invading Vikings (note the hornless helmets). “Viking” is a modern name given to seafaring people primarily from present-day Norway, Denmark and Sweden who, from the late 8th to the late 11th centuries, raided and pirated but also traded and settled throughout Europe and beyond. Sadly, for IKEA, the Swedish Vikings mostly went east to today’s Russia and eastern Europe. The etymology is uncertain, but it was not seen as a reference to nationality.

By 865, the Vikings looked to conquer and stay – instead of just raiding and leaving – the four great Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. A large invasion force was raised from Norway, Denmark and southern Sweden and was commanded by, amongst others, the wonderfully named Ivar the Boneless. It was dubbed “The Great Heathen Army” by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle was an annual recording of events originally compiled around 890. It recounted a series of yearly records detailing where the Great Heathen Army moved and what battles it fought, and specifically where it spent its winters.

This particular campaign of invasion and conquest lasted for 14 years, 865 – 878. In AD 878, a Viking army led by Guthrum, King of the Danish Vikings by then occupying parts of northern and eastern England (“Danelaw”), invaded Wessex, the kingdom covering most of England south of London and by then the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom not under effective Viking control. It temporarily forced Alfred, King of Wessex, to flee to the Somerset Levels and there to earn fame for burning cakes, not for eventually returning to defeat Guthrum, forcing him to convert to Christianity, and becoming his Godfather.

The most common way to classify Viking longships is by the number of rowing positions on board. A Karve had 12 – 32 oarsmen, a Snekkja had 40, a Skeid 60 and a Drakkar upwards of 60. The Oseberg ship pictured above is a Karve with 30 rowing positions. Picture: Wikipedia/Petter Ulleland (CC BY-SA 4.0)

According to a brief record in the Chronicle, during the winter of 878 – 879, Viking longships went up the Thames towards what is now Hammersmith and encamped in neighbouring Fulham. Until recently, the assumption had long been that the Fulham Vikings were a major army that had formed to support Guthrum’s invasion of Wessex. 

However, recent studies and a new translation of the Chronicles suggest that the Vikings who encamped on the Middlesex bank were not a large army set on conquering land and people but were in fact a smaller group that had their own agenda. 

The Great Heathen Army was not a cohesive force, it was a loose association of different warrior groups that could have been related to individual ship’s companies and they likely gathered more warriors as they went. There was probably a lot of competition between the different leaders of the various war bands and some hold that the Fulham Vikings were really pirates or mercenaries. In 879, they departed Fulham for the Frankish lands around Ghent in modern Belgium, leaving as a much bigger group than when they arrived, suggesting that the purpose of their winter on the Thames was to rest, regroup and recruit.

For those wishing to know more on recent ideas on the Fulham Vikings, a 2012 academic paper by John Baker and Stuart Brookes titled Fulham 878-879: A New Consideration of Viking Manoeuvres from the journal Viking and Medieval Scandinavia is available online to download.

A Viking axe head found in the Thames at Hammersmith. This was clearly a self-assembly item from VIKEA as the handle has fallen off. Picture: © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Unfortunately, the axe pictured above was probably made after the Fulham Vikings left and there is no physical evidence of their brief stay. The British Museum states that the axe may have been from the The Second Viking Age, the time when the Vikings returned to southern England under the command of the Danish king Svend Tveskæg (Sweyn Forkbeard), during the unstable reign of Ethelred the Unready, 979-1016.

A nice joke based on the fact that the new “Livat” shopping mall is in King Street, Hammersmith – ignoring the fact that Swedish Vikings mostly left England, Scotland and Ireland to their Norwegian and Danish neighbours.

Whatever the exact facts about the Viking settlement at Fulham are, I like to think that they sometimes raced their boats from Putney to Mortlake. Crews such as those stroked by Cantab Longoar could have gone head-to-head with the men rowing behind Oxonian the Swift. If the Vikings were inspired by this, perhaps a governing body for boat racing was set up in Hammersmith by Ivar the Boneless. Possibly, Ivar inexplicably sent his greatest commander, Jürgen the Hun, into exile to the Kingdom of the Franks. Thankfully, if this was ever true, at least it is all in the past.

My thanks to Göran the Learned, descendent of Viking warriors (aka “Buckhorn Blood Axe”) for his suggestions and corrections. Not for nothing, Göran’s favourite Swedish novel is The Longships by Frans G Bengtsson.

One comment

  1. Wonderful! Thank you, Tim (and Goran) for another gem…..

    This has cheered my otherwise cheerless invasion day. (That and a bit of
    sunshine)

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