Bring Back the Danelaw

Posted by in commentary, England

The legend of the Danish King Cnut attempt­ing to bid back the waves springs to mind when con­sid­er­ing the response of London appar­at­chiks to Scotland’s tidal move­ment away from the Union in gen­eral and London in particular.

Scotland, led by a Scots Nationalist gov­ern­ment recently re-elected by a land­slide, is gear­ing up for a vote on inde­pend­ence. This isn’t going down well with London, which hates not being at the centre of everything.

Worse is in store, how­ever: London is going to be ignored. In pre­par­ing for an inde­pend­ent future, Scotland is also begin­ning to shift its atten­tion away from the Sassenach south, and back to its his­toric neigh­bours in the east and north.

An inde­pend­ent Scotland would shift much of its atten­tion away from the UK to become a mem­ber of the Scandinavian circle of coun­tries, with its own army, navy and air force mod­elled on its Nordic neigh­bours, accord­ing to detailed plans being drawn up by the SNP.… They reveal that SNP lead­ers want an inde­pend­ent Scotland to look north and east in Europe for part­ner­ships, trade and key defence rela­tion­ships, rather than con­tinu­ing to focus on west­ern Europe and the Commonwealth, as the UK does now.’

This story caused howls of anger and ridicule in England – or rather, in the London media and polit­ical elites which seem united in their bit­ter oppos­i­tion to the increas­ingly inev­it­able pro­spect of Scottish inde­pend­ence. Largely because this means the end of the imperial/global pre­ten­sions of ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’, and of course those London insti­tu­tions foun­ded on it.

Personally, I wel­come and sup­port full Scottish inde­pend­ence. Partly because I think it will do them a power of good, but mostly because it means us English will have to finally find out who the hell we are.

And closer ties with its Scandinavian neigh­bours seems to me a per­fectly sens­ible move for Scotland. The Scots have much in com­mon with the Scandinavians. Many are des­cen­ded from them. Scotland and Scandinavia are oil-producing, socialist-leaning, sparsely-populated regions which also tend to pro­duce very sim­ilar hard-drinking mor­ose TV detectives.

But then, England, when it isn’t tun­ing into the latest series of The Killing is in denial about its own Scandinavian her­it­age. By rights, we should talk not about ‘Anglo-Saxon’ but about ‘Anglo-Saxon-Danish’. As a res­ult of large-scale set­tle­ment by Vikings the English lan­guage has been greatly enriched by a host of rather use­ful Danish words, such as ‘law’, ‘sky’, ‘win­dow’, ‘knife’, ‘hus­band’, ‘call’, ‘egg’, ‘she’, ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ and ‘arse’. Without the Danish con­tri­bu­tion to English our TV soap opera scripts would be very dif­fi­cult to write indeed.

As a meas­ure of the influx of Danish blood, English pat­ronym­ics end­ing in ‘son’– e.g. ‘Clarkson’ or ‘Simpson’— are likely to be Danish in ori­gin. And under the Danelaw in the 8th and 9th Century, half of England was occu­pied and run by the Danes, from my homet­own of York (then Jorvik), which was at the centre of a thriv­ing trade net­work stretch­ing from Iceland and Dublin to the Black Sea.

And in the Danelaw, not only were Danish/Old Norse words bor­rowed by English, Anglo-Norse dia­lects which were in some ways more Scandinavian than English took root, bequeath­ing us the dis­tinct­ive sounds and argot of the Lake District, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

In the early 10th Century the Danish King Cnut the Great man­aged to preside over a king­dom that included Norway, Denmark, all of England and much of Sweden. His reign in England was said to have been main­tained in part through ‘bonds of wealth and cus­tom’ rather than sheer might. In other words, a shared trade and cul­ture. A wise and pop­u­lar king, it was only the Cnut’s fail­ure to pro­duce a last­ing heir that brought the col­lapse of his Anglo-Scandinavian king­dom (and single cur­rency) which would have changed the his­tory of these islands, and per­haps Europe itself.

His fam­ous bid­ding back of the waves was not a sign of mega­lo­mania but rather a delib­er­ate demon­stra­tion to his sub­jects of the lim­its of kingly power. It’s a les­son that Westminster really needs to learn again in regard to Scottish independence.

It was of course the suc­cess­ful inva­sion by William the Conqueror in the water­shed year 1066 that finally ori­ented England south­wards and towards the Continent for the next Millennia, repla­cing the rul­ing Saxon class with fel­low Normans. But Francified William was of Scandinavian des­cent him­self: ‘Norman’ means ‘men from the north’. And he defeated the Anglo-Saxon king Harold at Hastings in part because Harold was exhausted by a forced march to York (and back again) to defeat an inva­sion by… Norwegians. 1066 was a very Scandinavian year indeed.

So as a ‘-son’ of York who dwelled in London for a dec­ade or so but has since returned to his ances­tral stomp­ing grounds to become a pro­vin­cial les­bian, I say good luck to Scotland with its dreams of a future safe in Scandinavia’s arms. And if a newly single England still won’t acknow­ledge its own Scandinavian her­it­age, or if the south keeps inflict­ing a London/Norman/Tory gov­ern­ment on the rest of us maybe the east and north, where val­leys are Danish ‘dales’, streets Danish ‘gates’, and counties are still — no mat­ter what the south insists — Danish ‘rid­ings’, should just revolt and bring back the Danelaw.