Viking Hoole

From Hoole History and Heritage Society

Surprisingly, Hoole has a Viking past, and this may even be reflected in an almost unique local place name, that of Flookersbrook. “Flook” place-names are relatively rare. For example, Flookburgh is an ancient village on the Cartmel peninsula in Cumbria and is sometimes thought to derive its name from the European flounder (Platichthys flesus) a coastal flatfish, known as the Fluke, found in the area. However, it is thought far more likely that the name of the Cumbrian village is an adaptation of "Flugga's Town". “Flugga”, as used for example in the name of the Shetland island Muckle Flugga comes from Old Norse Mikla Flugey, meaning "large steep-sided island" as well as being a personal name, possibly for one coming from such a place. The name of Flookersbrook is often said to be derived from the Old English “flocere”, Medieval English “flokere” and also Old Norse “flokari” which means fish, but a case can also be made out that it might be derived from “Flugga's Brook”, named after a now forgotten "Flugga". This article explores how far the link between Hoole (or that part of it which was once a section of Newton) and the Vikings can be taken.

Viking Wirral

Vikings were the seafaring Norse people from southern Scandinavia (in present-day Denmark, Norway and Sweden) who from the late 8th to late 11th centuries pirated, raided and traded from their Northern European homelands across wide areas of Europe, and explored westward to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. In modern English and other vernaculars, the term also commonly includes the inhabitants of Norse home communities during this period. This period of Nordic military, mercantile and demographic expansion had a profound impact on the early medieval history of Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, Estonia, Kievan Rus' and Sicily. The Vikings were known as Ascomanni ("ashmen") by the Germans for the ash wood of their boats, Dubgail and Finngail ("dark and fair foreigners") by the Irish, Lochlannach ("lake person") by the Gaels and Dene (Dane) by the Anglo-Saxons.

The presence of a Viking settlement in the Wirral and their influence at Chester first became evident to historians from place names and has more recently been confirmed by DNA studies. It is now very well established. There is additional evidence in the form of church dedications and physical objects. One rather amusing piece of evidence comes from culinary habits - Lapskaus is a thick Norwegian stew made of meat, potatoes and other root vegetables. In Britain such a dish and its variants are known in areas which were settled by the Vikings. They did not have the potato, but they did have the parsnip.

The exact reasons for Vikings venturing out from their homeland are uncertain; some have suggested it was due to overpopulation of their homeland, but the earliest Vikings were looking for riches, not land. They achieved this by a mixture of raids and trade. Quite a bit of the trade was in slaves. When the Vikings established early Scandinavian Dublin in 841, they began a slave market that would come to sell "thralls" captured both in Ireland and other countries as distant as Spain, as well as sending Irish slaves as far away as Iceland. DNA mapping of the modern Icelandic population found that up to two-thirds of Iceland’s female founding population had Gaelic origins (either Ireland or Scotland) while only one-third had Nordic roots.

Viking Chester

The Vikings would have a very strong influence on the history of Chester for a period of about 200 years from around 873 to 1066. This does not mean that the Vikings arrived suddenly in 873. They were almost certainly present before that year, although they expanded their presence afterwards. Their influence even stretches to the Cheshire dialect: the word "rein" as a boundary or ploughland strip occurs only in the dialect of the Wirral and Broxton Hundreds on the western edge of Cheshire. This shows that Viking settlement was more widespread than simply the north-east corner of the Wirral.

There is one peculiar piece of physical evidence for Viking settlement some way south of Chester at Shocklach where there is a church dedicated to St Edith. Inside the church, tucked away in a corner at the western end near the bell-tower, is a carving on a piece of sandstone about 12 inches square. The “Corpus of Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture” suggests that it could be Odin and discusses interpretations.

The period of Viking influence on Chester can be split somewhat roughly into several phases:

  • Events prior to the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in 865: The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are largely concerned with wars between each other and with Wales. The Vikings are only an occasional problem, but are mentioned in the “Annals of Chester” which for the year 789 record "Primus Danorum educatus [adventus] in Angliam qui docuerunt Anglos nimis potare" (The first arrival in England of the Danes, who taught the English to drink too much).
  • Alfred's War with the Danes (865-900): A major invasion followed by settlement resulting in the establishment of the Danelaw. This divided Mercia along a line stretching from Chester to London, roughly along the line of the Roman Watling Street. The remains of Werburgh were translated to Chester in 873 to protect them from the Vikings. Nevertheless the Vikings would raid Chester in 894 and may even have left some graffiti in stonework at the amphitheatre (robbed out for re-use at St John's).
  • The reconquest of the Danelaw (900-954): The descendents of Alfred progressively recapture control of the Danelaw and of Scandinavian York, with some setbacks at times. Chester was a key strategic location during this reconquest and was refortified against the Vikings around 902 by Æthelflæd, Alfred's warlike daughter. At around the same time she allowed Viking settlement in the Wirral. The importance of the region is also possibly indicated by the death of king Edward the Elder at nearby Farndon in 924.
  • The quiet years of Edgar the Pacific (954-975): A period in which there appear to be comparatively few issues with the Vikings. Edgar used his extensive fleet to help defend against the Vikings and Chester appears to have been a significant naval base having clear associations with Edgar and his boating exploits on the River Dee.
  • Æþelræd's War with the Vikings (980-1013): Renewed Viking aggression following the end of Edgar's peace, possibly triggered by political instability in England. A strong argument exists that a decisive battle took place at Brunanburh – possibly Bromborough, just north of Chester.
  • Viking Rule (1014-1042): Wholesale "conquest" (by Canute and others) at the peak of the "Viking Empire". The House of Leofric emerged as a local power and was one of the few of national importance that had largely “English” roots.
  • Norman Involvement (1043-1066): Restoration of English rule now with the focus shifting to contact with mainland Europe. However Chester appears to have maintained it's link with the Vikings. The church of St Olave is a dedication to a Viking saint and dates from this period.
  • Norman Conquest (1066 and after): The end of Anglo-Saxon England, with considerable involvement of Vikings and Normans. In some ways the Chester Palatinate can been seen as a partial continuation of the remnant of Mercia shaped by Viking incursions.

Viking Flookersbrook

The earliest known owner of land at Flookersbrook was Arni of Neston. He is described as a “Free man” in Domesday but his lands were transferred under the Normans to William FitzNigel, who is probably the same who succeeded his father Nigel as baron of Halton and Constable of Chester.

His gift to St Werburgh’s of "Neutona" (Newton by Chester, a manor of 1 hide) with the service of Hugh fitz Udard, was included in the almost certainly forged confirmation of Earl Richard dated 1119 (Barraclough, Charters of the Earls of Chester, 14–16, no. 8) :

  • "Willelmus constabularius dedit Neutonam simul cum servicio Hugonis filii Udardi de quatuor bovatis, et cum servicio Wiceberni de duabus bovatis."

The reasons why the charter is thought to be a forgery are discussed in the Flookersbrook article.

Arni of Neston's holdings as listed in Domesday. The size of the dot indicates the value. Newton is the dot just north of Chester.

Very little is known about Arni of Neston, although his holdings are identified in the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) database as including “Opetone” (Upton), Newton, Netherlegh, Handbridge, Neston, Raby, Capenhurst, Bagilt and Marlston. There is some evidence that several of the places associated with Arni have Viking associations. Handbridge used the Viking unit of land measurement. Raby is an evidently Viking name. Within the church of St Mary and St Helen at Neston are the remains of five early medieval decorated crosses (CSMR 2/1/2). The fragments consist of four shafts and one head, with one of the shafts re-used as a lintel in the belfry. The crosses are contemporary with, and related to, a group of circle headed crosses which occur along the western seaboard between Cumbria and Anglesey, in areas of Viking settlement.

The Arno in Oxton is not named after the famous Italian river, but rather is believed to represent a worn-down form of the Old Norse “Arnis-haugr”, the burial mound of Arni. Twelve of the twenty-eight former lords of the manor listed in Domesday bore Norse names: Arni, Gamel (Poulton), Gunnarr (Mollington), Osgot, Ragenald (Stanney), Ravenswart (Barnston), Thored, Toki, Ulf (Mollington), Ulfkel (Heswall), Ulfketel (Thornton) and Winterlet. Between them they had held seventeen manors, nine in southern and eastern Wirral. Two of the two pre-Conquest tenants with Norse names, Leofnoth (of Caldy - who's name might be Old English) and Arni, held a ring of strategic estates around the Dee estuary. Leofnoth in particular was both a major landholder in north-west Wirral and held estates across the Dee.

So what does all this mean? By the time of the Battle of Brunanburh the relations between the Vikings in Wirral, the English and their opponents, an alliance of Hiberno-Norse Vikings, Scots/Picts and the "Welsh" of the "Old North" was no longer simple. Many of the moneyers at the Chester mint appear to have Scandinavian names and Vikings also fought on the English side at the battle. The connection with Chester is not only one of proximity, it is possible that a boundary stone ("Vínheíþr-stan" in Icelandic) existed at Upton giving rise to the name of "Wealstone Lane". The reference to "Vínheíþr" has been considered interesting as "Vin Heath" is mentioned in Egils Saga (see Chapter 52) as being the location of the Battle of Brunanburh. Æþelstān was encamped prior to the battle at a town a little way to the south and, given the time that it took for messengers to ride between the opponents, this may well have been Chester. "Vin" is often interpreted as a personal name, but the so-called "Wirral Micro-climate" may be such that it was possible to grow grape-vines there in Viking times, so the "Vin" may be a reference to a place where grapes grew (there is a "Vinyard Farm" there today). There is a further reference to vines on the 1735 tithe map of Upton. Port-, Tapa- and Wing-Fields are grouped together along Liverpool Road behind the Egerton Arms (now "The Mill") – Upton Drive area. Tapa is a personal name (NB Pica in Picton), words beginning with ‘wing’ in the Old English dictionary frequently relate to vines. Another possible origin of "Wealstone" could be from "foreigners stone", but whatever it actually was, its location has possibly long been lost.

Putting all this together, there are suggestions that there were established land-owners of Norse descent in important defensive locations to the north of Chester just prior to the Norman Conquest. One of these appears to be Arni (the holder of Newton), and there are some indications as to how they arrived there from their Viking roots. Perhaps there was even a "Flugga" who gave his name to a brook.

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