The Danelaw Origins of the American Revolution

The Danelaw Origins of the American Revolution,

or how the Norse Started it All.

By Saul M. Montes-Bradley, II

 

A few years ago, I wrote an article on the American Revolution of 1689[1], in which I underlined the role it played in laying the foundations of that of 1775, and traced its origins to East Anglia in the 16th Century.

I stated then that the reasons which led our forbears to rebel against the authority of King and Parliament could be traced to the liberties won during the Reformation and then threatened by the royal prerogatives that Charles I was attempting to reassert.

I was on the right track but, as further scrutiny would have it, I was completely wrong in giving all the credit for those liberties to the Reformation.

The reader will recall that most of the folk who came thither during the Great Migration hailed mostly from the Five Boroughs and Yorkshire. That was the area were non-conformists were most prevalent, where opposition to the king’s taxation policies was most active, where resistance to the church of England was most virulent, and where most of our ancestors came to the realization that it was worth the while to face untold uncertainties across the Atlantic, that they may preserve that which they held dear.

It also happened to be a very singular and distinct area of England from the time of the Danish invaders turned to farming, and remains so to our days. And I believe it is precisely this singular heritage that shaped what would one day become the American Revolution and that it begun to take shape in the 9th Century.

The Danelaw

The Danelaw, c. 878

While a full account of the settlement of the Danes in Yorkshire and East Anglia is well beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that, beginning in the IXth Century, bands of Danish and Norwegian raiders led by Guthrum, most likely a son of Horda-Knut Sigurdsson, begun to ravage the lands north and east of England followed, as became custom, by settlers. Eventually, these bands controlled an area extending from Chester, down Watling Street (an old Roman road) to the Lea and then along the Thames to the sea. Slowly and painstakingly recovered by Ælfred the Great, this area was restored as an independent political body under Æthelred “the counsel-less” and again during the reign of Knut, thus preserving its own traditions, laws, forms of land ownership and language, and came to be known as the area in which those laws held sway: the Danelaw. A state of affairs that remained mostly unchallenged to the day of our immigrant ancestors and, in some degree, to our own days.

Ælfred, king of Wessex

It is this set of laws and traditions that our ancestors applied to their settlements immediately upon arrival in New England.[2]

While most of the histories of the Danelaw deal mostly with military matters and that almost universally from a Saxon perspective, R. H. Hodgekings gives us a unique perspective into the legal system and customs of the Danes as opposed to those of the Saxons. And a clear idea of the area they occupied at the time. According to a treaty signed by Ælfred and Guthrum to prevent quarrels among Danes and Saxons that could lead to war, the Danish area was defined as those encompassing the lands comprised between the Thames, then up to the Lea and along the lea to its source, then straight to Bedford, and then up the Ouse. The treaty — and Guthrums defeat by Ælfred at the battle of Edington — led to the Peace of Wedmore in 878. By its terms, Guthrum accepted baptism, Ælfred adopted him as a son, and Guthrum returned to East Anglia as king of the Danes. Later, Ælfred and his successors, Edward I “the Elder” and Æthelstan, reconquered the land, but the Danelaw remained as a distinct cultural and legal area.

Æthelstan presenting a book to St. Cuthbert, National Portrait Gallery, London
Parker Chronicles, oldest of the surviving manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, c. 890
Baptism of Guthrum at Aller, near Athelney, by Ælfred, 878. He took the name Æthelred, same as Ælfred’s brother, above.

Sir Frank Stenton provides more insight into the land and social structures. He goes further in explaining some of the Danelaw’s institutions, comparing them with those of Wessex. A case in point would be the wapentake, the classic land division of the Danelaw, which Stenton compares to the hundred of Wessex. He ventures that the word wapentake itself derives from vapnatak, wherefrom the Old English wapentac, noticing the symbolic flourishing of weapons by which a public assembly confirmed its decisions. A singular precursor to New England’s Town Meetings’s practice of raising the sword hand to the same purpose.

This wapentake was divided into carucates (land ploughed by one team in one year), and bovates (same as the ox-gang). There was a further subdivision, the manslot, or land allotted to one free settler.

The Wapentake also lent its name to periodic meetings, a precursor to the Town Meetings of Massachusetts Bay, a kind of Parliament and Court. The freemen that labored in the division voted by show of weapons, which were then counted.

There are still some Wapentakes in existence in East Anglia for certain administrative functions.

A key difference to note here is that while the English Parliament could only meet when summoned by the king at his will, the Wapentake met of its own authority and can be said, on this basis alone, to be the real precursor of the Massachusetts Bay’s Meetings and Courts, and not its English counterpart.

Some of the differences he finds in law are most telling; including that of the wergild for a man’s slaying which in the Danelaw was determined by the man’s rank, while in Mercia it was determined by the man’s Lord’s rank. Not quite a technicality.

According to Stenton, the Wantage Code of Æthelred was not a rewriting of the legal code of the Five Boroughs, but rather the King’s assent that the customary laws of the area should remain in force, in itself, and admission that the codes developed from Scandinavian sources and that they were already a part of the polity in the area. Even the terms used are of a Scandinavian rather than Saxon origin.

An example of this is the ploughland, split into eight ox-gangs, which made the standard land unit. Each ox-gang was assigned to a man who could contribute one ox to an eight-ox team. The Saxons, instead, used the system of hideage, based on the amount of land needed to feed a peasant’s household. We can already begin to see the difference between the freeman-farmer in the Danelaw and the peasant-serf in Saxon lands.

But, perhaps more relevant to us was the soke. That is, property owned by peasants which, according to Stenton: “while owing service and taxes to the lord of the area, were not under his direct ownership, allowing the peasants some degree of autonomy, and freedom from the rents of the lord given to those tenants on his personal land.”

Indeed, William the Conqueror’s survey of all property in his new realm, ordered in 1085 and started in 1086, which is known to us as the Doomsday Book — a clear reference to Tax Day —, perhaps the most complete work of its kind to this day[3], reveals that in England about 14% of the population owned their land, as opposed to a meager 7% average in the rest of feudal Europe. But closer scrutiny reveals that most of England was not that far from their counterparts in the continent. The numbers are skewed by land ownership in the Danelaw where it approached 65%! An island of yeoman farmers in an ocean of feudal serfs.

Doomsday Book, National Archives, London

According to Dr. Cyril Hart, these singular laws and customs extended to five main areas: the Northern Danelaw (that area around York that constituted the old kingdom of Deira); the Five Boroughs of Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Stamford and Derby; the Southern Danelaw in Buckinghamshire, Herfordshire, Middlessex and Essex, briefly under Danish control; the Eastern Danelaw in Norfolk and Suffolk; and the Outer Danelaw, in those lands between the Southern Danelaw and the Five Boroughs.

Any student of the Great Migration will not fail to see a most striking coincidence between these places and the points were the vast majority of our Puritan and Pilgrim ancestors originated.

But the similarities do not end in the division of lands or the condition of freemen of the yeomen farmers. One of the codes of Edgar permitted the Danes to exercise their rights “according to the good laws they can best decide on,” including those in matters of religion. A practice our ancestors imported into the Town Meetings and General Courts, and a right they strenuously defended against any encroachment from king or Parliament from the moment they landed in America.

Even the architecture in early New England bears a striking resemblance to that of East Anglia at the time — no surprise there, since most of the early carpenters hailed from East Alglia — and the Yankee twang to this day carries the musical tones of East Anglian accents, most especially the somewhat harsh, high-pitched, nasal “Norfolk whine.”

East Anglia wood-frame house
1630 house in New England, built by East Anglian carpenters

It was then their condition as freemen and freeholders that our ancestors were defending against the encroaching of Charles I. It was their freedom from taxes; it was their parliaments’ independence from the whim of the king and their independence in matters of religion. It was, indeed, long held liberties that they were defending — those consented to by Alfred and Æthelred — not any newly acquired privilege; and that was the reason why some of them rose against the crown and others came to America after the Crown was no more. The Reformation must then be seen not as their source of inspiration, but as the inevitable consequence of their strenuous defense of their polity.  Non-conformism might have been a sin in the eyes of the Church, treason in those of the Crown, and a political nuisance to the Lord Protector, but for the yeoman farmers of the Danelaw it was their ancestral right, their way of life, and the essence of their world.

Death of Wat Tyler, who led the 1381 Peasant Revolt in East Anglia and the sougheastern counties, as Richard II addresses the crowd.

Thus, for eight centuries the Danelaw folks rose in successful peasant revolts, tax revolts, civil wars and revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic, against every monarch that attempted to impose his prerogative over their ancient rights, defending the principles and privileges they had enjoyed  since the times of Alfred and Guthrum:

The very principles and privileges that were finally enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, and that we now hold as our most cherished heritage.

 

[1] Tell King Charles We’ll Pay No Taxes, Flintlock and Powderhorn, Vol. 19, Number 2, Fall 2001, p. 20; also posted in this blog: https://www.saulmontes-bradley.com/tell-king-charles/

[2] Massachusetts Body of Laws and Plymouth Compact

[3] “there was no single hide nor a yard of land, nor indeed (it is a shame to relate but it seemed no shame to him to do) one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was there left out, and not put down in his record.” [Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed., D. Whitelock, pp.161-62] As stated above, a hide refers to the standard unit of assessment used for tax purposes. It was meant to represent the amount of land that could support a household, roughly 120 acres.

 

 

The author is a 35th great-grandson of Ælfred the Great, king of Wessex through his son, Edward I “the Elder”; and a 42nd great-grand nephew of Guthrum, king of the Danelaw Danes by virtue of descent from Horda-Knut Sigurdsson.

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