Inside the Viking genealogy of Wirral
We're very fortunate to live on Wirral, a diverse peninsula of stunning coastline vistas and quaint homely villages. But one of the most overlooked benefits of calling Merseyside home is the intoxicating history attached to our roots. For instance, up to half of all Wirral residents can trace their DNA back to Norse origins, a lasting legacy of Viking occupation. Similarly, more than 600 place names throughout the borough have Scandinavian etymology, which makes for an intriguing identity replicated in few other locales around the country.
In the year AD 902, our humble slab of land was empty. Then, a group of Vikings, largely of Norwegian descent, settled on Wirral after being forced out of Dublin and Anglesey. Led by Ingimund, their ambitious leader, the Vikings sought additional room for farming and fishing, away from chronic overcrowding back home. Northern Wirral became their new abode, and a mass migration by longboat followed.
Before long, a large Viking community grew on Wirral, with its own language and even a parliament situated at Thingwall. The foreign tongue was similar to that spoken in modern day Iceland, and the parliament was possibly the very first established on British soil. Those arriving to help the enclave grow were traders, farmers and fishermen, eager to forge a better life and expand their plot. They even built churches, with religious values coursing through everyday life.
Initially, the Vikings were granted a specific lot of land on Wirral, with the boundary brushing past Neston, Raby, Thornton Hough, Prenton and Tranmere. The group tried to extrapolate this Viking mini state, with regular attacks on Chester, but Wirral was definitely home. They treated it as such by naming places and landmarks. For instance, Birkenhead means headland growing with birch trees in Old Norse, while Irby can be read as settlement of the Irish. Claughton translates to hamlet on a hillock, and Raby literally describes a village at a boundary.
Thingwall was the seat of power in Viking Wirral. As the parliament headquarters, it regularly staged important meetings and court sessions. Meanwhile, Meols was used as a seaport, and it remains one of Britain's best preserved Viking sites to this day. A longship is believed to lie beneath the Railway Inn of Meols, and some archaeologists even consider it the first Viking vessel ever discovered in the UK.
In terms of legacy, the aforementioned place names, and in some cases family names, stand as a lasting reminder of our Viking heritage. But we also have relics to spark the imagination. In Thurstaton Common, for example, an ancient rock formation known as Thor's Rock forms the epicentre of romantic legend on Wirral. Many believe the Vikings held religious ceremonies around the rock in honour of Thor, the Nordic god of thunder and fertility.
Another local fable centres around the exploits of King Canute, ruling leader of the North Sea Empire. According to mythology, Canute thought he was so powerful that he could sit in a chair near the sea and turn back the tide. One particular demonstration is believed to have taken place on Wirral, somewhere between Leasowe, Moreton and Meols. During the later Victorian period, a replica chair was erected on the peninsula, bearing the following inscription: Sea come not hither nor wet the sole of my foot. Though later damaged by vandals, the chair was another reminder of our colourful ancestry.
In modern times, the most significant emblem of Wirral's Viking bloodline may be the name of Tranmere Rovers, the only professional football club in Britain with a Norse moniker. Tranmere is derived from the Old Norse of Trani-Melr, meaning sandbank with the herons. It's likely that the Vikings saw a heron, or crane bird, perched on a nearby sandbank, and that particular township was duly named as such. The title later morphed into Tranmere, and has remained untouched for over 1,100 years. The football club adopted it in 1885, a year after formation as Belmont FC, and has subsequently represented Wirral's Viking tradition around the country and even abroad in the Anglo-Italian Cup.
Of course, it can be easy to have an overly sentimental view of the Vikings, which doesn't necessarily mesh with historical fact. According to some accounts, the Norsemen were exceedingly violent and bloodthirsty. That partly led to their defeat in Britain, although the seeds of eventual downfall were scattered before the Vikings even arrived on Wirral.
King Alfred ruled from 871-899 and set the ball rolling towards toppling the Norsemen. He took London and fortified it in 886, triggering a treaty with Guthrum, leader of the Vikings, which essentially split Britain into two territories: the so-called Danelaw, home to Viking rule, and English Mercia, governed by conventional West Saxon law. The Danelaw comprised most of the north-west and east of England, while Alfred became king of the rest. When Ingimund and his clan arrived in 902, they were therefore interjected into a delicate political process.
While records show that the Vikings lived fairly peacefully on Wirral, the peninsula is often cited as a possible location for the famous Battle of Brunanburh in 937, which established Saxon rule throughout England. Athelstan, Alfred's grandson, led the Saxons into battle against Vikings from Dublin, Scotland and elsewhere. In a legendary conflict, one of the greatest in Anglo-Saxon history, the Vikings were defeated after much bloodshed, and any threat to England's unity was dissolved.
The Danelaw became part of England, and Athelstan became the first true king of the entire country. Although Viking activity continued, and four Viking kings later ruled the nation, the Battle of Brunanburh did lasting damage. The Viking age in Britain finally ran out of steam in 1066, when Harold Godwinson, the English king, defeated Hardrada in a long battle at Stamford Bridge.
In dealing a heavy blow to confidence and numbers, the Battle of Brunanburh was crucial to overthrowing the Vikings. Therefore, it's incredibly significant that Wirral stands as the favoured destination of the battle by most experts. Although the exact location is yet to be accurately pinpointed, Bromborough is a leading candidate, with Bebington also a possibility.
Thus, Wirral can be seen to have experienced the best of both worlds when it comes to a Viking legacy. Our borough was bestowed with the very best they had to offer, in terms of place names, societal foresight and architecture, while also providing a possible site for the battle that catalysed a movement towards English unification.
From our vantage point of retrospect, it's difficult to pass judgement on any historical sect. In their own way, every army does regrettable things. However, in general terms, Wirral probably benefits from its strong Viking connection, while also reaping the rewards of their eventual demise, which with a certain pinch of salt can also be traced to our fine corner of the world.