A Viking Apologises for the Destruction of Canterbury Cathedral – a Thousand Years After the Event Took Place

Now’s the time to get it off my chest. I’m proud to claim Viking descent, but I deeply regret the atrocity my forebears carried out during the last few days of September 1011, when they desecrated Canterbury Cathedral, held its Archbishop hostage and killed its abbot. I can’t think what got into them. They were almost certainly high on beer, which their wives always made in large quantities to give them Dutch courage when they went on their

marauding raids. But that’s no excuse for their outrageous behaviour, for which I humbly apologise. However I won’t grovel for too long, because they were intrepid chaps at heart and, as one of the earliest groups of English immigrants, helped to lay the foundation of what today is Britain’s enterprise culture.

At present there are no DNA tests to prove my Nordic ancestry, but I have grey eyes, which is a characteristic of Scandinavian people, and I also suffer from Dupuytren’s contracture, a tightening of the fascia of the palm of the hand, which is strongly represented in people of Viking stock. But our strongest claim to be distantly related to King Canute is our family name, which is a corruption of ‘North-folk’. The Vikings established themselves in Britain during the ninth to the eleventh centuries, settling largely in East Anglia, Yorkshire and Northumbria. To stop their constant skirmishes with neighbouring tribes, King Alfred divided the country into two separate kingdoms, the one to the east and north to be ruled by the Danes; the remainder to be held by the indigenous Anglo-Saxons. That distribution is still shown in the distribution of Scandinavian place names, such as Whitby, which is the Norse word for ‘white cliff.’ Some years ago I surmised that if surnames are of Viking origin. they should show the same regional distribution as the place names ending in ‘by’. To put this theory to the test I counted the number of ‘Norfolks’ in the current telephone directories and found that, despite the intermingling of recent years, there are still ten times as many ‘Norfolks’ in the old Danish settlement areas in the heartland of Anglo-Saxon Britain.

These invaders soon settled down, married local girls and established farmsteads on England’s green and pleasant lands. According to historians at Cambridge University, they were role models for positive immigration. ‘Most people’s image of the Vikings centres on their arrival and disruption,’ say the Cambridge researchers, ‘but that only continued for a very short period of time. Afterwards they started building settlements and interacting with the locals. They assimilated into their culture and they influenced them in many ways.’ Although they had no tradition of art or architecture, they were wonderful story tellers. To keep themselves amused during their long winter nights they told each other sagas about hobgoblins, elves, witches, sorcery and magic. These tales have been a lasting inspiration for English writers of children’s fantasy fiction, from the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis to the ‘Lord of the Rings’ series of J.R.R. Tolkien and the enormously successful Harry Potter stories of J.K Rowling. In the community the Vikings established in Iceland, a remarkable one in ten of their descendants today are published authors.

They enriched our language, giving us words like ‘ball’ which comes from the Nordic bollr (a round object or ball); rottinn (decayed or rotten) and uggligr (dreadful or ugly.) But most of all they encouraged us to stage a festival to celebrate the mid-winter solstice. They called this carnival Yule, a season when feasts were held, trees decorated, roaring log fires lit, and vast quantities of liqueur consumed to drive away the gloom of the long Arctic winters. We turned this pagan rite into a prolonged Christian party, ruled over by Santa Claus, who is a carbon copy of the Norse god Odin, who sported a long white beard and rode through the sky on an eight-legged horse, bearing gifts and entering homes at night through the smoke holes in their roofs. So, while we regret the excesses of the early Viking invaders, let’s not forget the debt we owe to their predecessors, who have done so much to enrich and enhance the British culture. Children aged seven to14 can do this by entering a prize competition in which they are asked to re-tell the story of the Viking siege of Canterbury Cathedral, either in pictures or as a poem or story. Full details are available on www.canterbury-cathedral.org/assets, the closing date being 11/11/11.

© Donald Norfolk 2011

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