Category Archives: ENGLAND

60,000 skeletons buried in a green area of ​​London have been excavated

Mass dig of 60,000 skeletons from 230-year-old cemetery set to expose London’s secrets

A mammoth dig is ongoing that is expected to Unearth 60,000 skeletons from a London cemetery that is 230 years old.

To date, 1,200 people’s bones have been exhumed from the burial ground near Euston Station to make way for the new high-speed railway between Birmingham and the capital.

The major dig show archeologists recently released photos clearing thick clay from coffins and brushing the dirt from remains. They are part of an archeological team on the 150-mile HS2 route that is currently delving into 10,000 years of British history.

Field archaeologists work on the excavation of a late 18th to mid-19th-century cemetery under St James Gardens near Euston train station in London, as part of the HS2 high-speed rail project. – Tucked behind one of London’s busiest railway stations, a small army of archaeologists shovel thick clay as they clear a vast burial site to make way for a new train line.  

Land at St James’s Gardens – the former site of a late 18th and 19th-century burial ground – is needed for Euston’s expansion. With tens of thousands of skeletons to be removed, protests and a memorial service have been held at the site where people were laid to rest from 1790 to 1853.

HS2 project bosses say that an estimated 60,000 people are buried there, including notable people such as Lord George Gordon, who in 1780 called for the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act and a return to the repression of Catholics.

A field archaeologist uses a brush on a skeleton in an open coffin during the excavation of a late 18th to mid-19th-century cemetery under St James Gardens near Euston train station in London as part of the HS2 high-speed rail project. 

He led a 60,000-strong crowd from St George’s Fields to the Houses of Parliament, which prompted anti-Catholic riots. Also buried at St James’s Garden is Matthew Flinders, one of the world’s most accomplished navigators who was born in England, entered the navy at the age of 15 and served with Captain Bligh.

After sailing for Australia just five years later, he made detailed surveys of the country’s coastline and islands – becoming the first person to circumnavigate it.

Machines have been used to remove the topsoil, stopping once coffins or human remains are exposed. Archaeologists then carry out further excavation by hand.HS2 bosses said that “all artifacts and human remains will be treated with due dignity, care and respect.”

They have been working with Historic England, the Church of England and the local parish to “put appropriate plans in place for reburial”.

A London Inheritance said that it was “unusual for a public park and an old burial ground to disappear, however, this has been the fate of St James’s Gardens.“It will be a major task for the exhumation and reburial of such a large number of bodies.”

The website has photos of the gardens, to record “a historic space that will soon be lost from the landscape of London forever.”Research will be carried out into how cemeteries have developed, and the burial practice in terms of the treatment of bodies and coffins compared to other excavation sites.

A planning document on this and other planned digs said that: “St James’s seems to represent a typical late post-Medieval London cemetery… but on its own is unlikely to provide significant insights.”So far, sites along the rail route have revealed Neolithic tools, medieval pottery, and Victorian time capsules.

In total, more than a thousand archaeologists are set to explore more than 60 separate sites, from prehistoric and Roman settlements to those from the Industrial Revolution and the Second World War.

Mark Thurston, HS2 chief executive, said: “Before we bore the tunnels, lay the tracks and build the stations, an unprecedented amount of archaeological research is now taking place between London and Birmingham.”This is the largest archaeological exploration ever in Britain, employing a record number of skilled archaeologists and heritage specialists from across the UK and beyond.”

Archaeological sites being investigated along the route include a prehistoric hunter-gatherer site on the outskirts of London, a Roman British town in Fleet Marston, Aylesbury, a 1,000-year-old demolished medieval church and burial ground in Buckinghamshire and a WW2 bombing decoy in Lichfield.

Archeologists find 60 Roman British skeletons buried in field

Archeologists find 60 Roman British skeletons buried in a field

On the site of a Roman cemetery in Lincolnshire, archeologists found the remains of 60 human burials.

Men, women and children were discovered and a tomb even included a lamb leg for the deceased to take them to the afterlife.

Grave goods found by Lincoln-based Allen Archaeology also include pots, bracelets, and bangles. The burials are believed to date from the 2nd to the 4th century AD and some were in coffins and others wrapped in shrouds.

Archeologists find 60 Roman British skeletons buried in a field
One of the skeletons found at Winterton

Three Roman villas or farmsteads have previously been found near the dig site off North Street, Winterton, which is just outside Scunthorpe. And it was Roman tradition to place burial grounds outside of towns and villages to avoid pollution.

The Romans founded a settlement nearby called Ad Abum, at modern-day Winteringham on the south bank of the River Humber.

This was where the Roman Road between London and Lincoln – Ermine Street – ended.

The graves at Winterton
The graves at Winterton 

Travelers in Roman times would have crossed the river at low tide or by ferry to Brough for the road to York and as far north as Hadrian’s Wall.

The cemetery site is set to be developed as 135 homes by house-builder Keigar Homes, pending planning permission.

Natasha Powers, senior manager at Allen Archaeology, said: “In the previous phases of work, we did the geophysical survey and a trench evaluation in 2014/15.

“We could not tell the extent of the cemetery. We found it seemed larger than we expected.”We know some of the burials were in coffins. One of the skeletons was buried with a whole leg of lamb.”We have men, women and children out of these graves. We have found a little pot and some bracelets and bangles.

We have two different types of burial rites – a lot of substantial coffin burials and people in shrouds.”Does this represent different dates, personal choice or different groups of people? We think it is date-related as the rites have changed.

“It’s very organized burials in rows, it’s an enclosed area and it’s clearly a cemetery.”The team will be on site for a few more weeks. Finds will be fully analyzed and a report produced.

Finds from the cemetery at Winterton 

Natasha added: “Where the people buried here related and where had they come from? We have a chance to look at some of the population of the area in Roman times and we now have some information on what would have been growing in the fields around here.”

Ghosts of the past: 3 haunted royal Medieval residences of Britain

Ghosts of the past: 3 haunted royal Medieval residences of Britain

From the chilling apparition of a royal pageboy who haunts Glamis Castle, to the tragic Jane Seymour who carries her severed head about Hampton Court Palace, Caroline Taggart explores 3 of the most haunted sites in Britain…

3. Hampton Court Palace, London

One of the joys of Hampton Court is that it is two palaces for the price of one: there’s the Tudor construction and also the palace built by William and Mary two centuries later. So it’s fitting that you should also find there two royal ghosts.

Two of Henry VIII’s wives are said to haunt Hampton Court – one of them more peacefully than the other. The wife said to have been Henry’s favourite – number three, Jane Seymour – died here in 1537, shortly after giving birth to the longed-for son, the future Edward VI.

In Hampton Court’s Chapel Royal, you might start by admiring the exquisite ceiling, vaulted and painted in striking midnight blue with a repeating pattern of stars and the royal motto ‘Dieu et Mon Droit’ picked out in gold. Then if, having been dazzled by looking up, you care to look down, you can contemplate the peculiar rumour that Jane Seymour’s heart and other organs may be buried beneath the floor.

The rest of her body is in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where she lies next to her husband. She was the only one of Henry’s wives to be given a queen’s funeral. But Jane may not entirely have left Hampton Court.

It is suggested that a ghostly lady in a long white gown has been seen carrying a lighted taper down the so-called Silver Stick Staircase and out into the Clock Court, and that she may be Henry VIII’s third queen. If it is indeed Jane, she isn’t alone in her wanderings.

Tradition has it that Katherine Howard – wife number five – upon learning that she was to be charged with adultery, ran along the processional route that leads from Henry VIII’s quarters to the chapel, screaming and begging her husband for mercy. The royal guards seized her and forced her back to her own apartments. She never saw Henry again, but her ghost, still screaming, is regularly seen and heard in what is now called the Haunted Gallery.

Two of Henry VIII’s wives are said to haunt Hampton Court – his third wife, Jane Seymour, and his fifth, Katherine Howard.
Two of Henry VIII’s wives are said to haunt Hampton Court – his third wife, Jane Seymour, and his fifth, Katherine Howard.

2. Glamis Castle, Angus

Widely recognised as the home of William Shakespeare’s Scottish nobleman Macbeth, Glamis is now better known as the childhood home of the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother; and as the birthplace of the late Princess Margaret in 1930. It is also said to be the most-haunted castle in Scotland.

One of its most appealing ghosts is a mischievous pageboy. The story goes that this naughty boy was frequently punished by being told to sit on a stone seat just outside the room that is now styled as the Queen Mother’s sitting room. One freezing cold night, everyone went to bed and forgot about him. The pageboy, doing what he was told for once, obediently sat there all night and froze to death.

Today, visitors still occasionally trip over as they enter this room, supposedly because the boy sticks out his foot as they pass by. It’s tempting to imagine he sticks out his tongue, too.

The nearest Glamis has to a royal ghost, though, is the so-called Lady in Grey, Janet Douglas (c1498–1537), who was widow of the sixth Lord Glamis. Douglas’s clan had a long-running feud with the royal Stuarts and, in order to be avenged on the family and claim Glamis for himself, in 1537 James V accused Janet of witchcraft and put her on trial in Edinburgh.

Even in the superstitious times of the 16th century, the charges were so obviously trumped up that there was rioting in the streets.

But it made no difference: Janet was burned at the stake on Castle Hill in Edinburgh on 17 July 1537.Some 150 years later her ghost found its way back to Glamis, where today’s castle guides make macabre mileage from warning visitors that she occupies a specific seat in the chapel – perhaps the one being occupied at that very moment

Glamis Castle, Angus

1. Nottingham Castle

After 20 years of foolish decisions, the disastrous monarch Edward II was deposed in 1327 by his queen, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. Visitors to Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire can still see the dungeon where Edward died in what one historian has described as a “suspiciously timely” manner.

Although the official account said that Edward had died of natural causes, many theories abound as to how he may have been murdered, including death by the intimate administration of a red-hot poker or, as the 16th-century playwright Christopher Marlowe had it, by being forced to lie on a bed while his executioners put a table on top of him and stamped on it.

Isabella and Roger briefly controlled the kingdom in the name of her teenage son, now Edward III, but the young Edward soon decided to take power into his own hands. On 19 October 1330, still a month short of his 18th birthday, the king launched a dramatic coup against Isabella and Roger at Nottingham Castle. He took his mother and her lover prisoner and hauled Mortimer off to the Tower of London. On 29 November, after a token trial, Roger was hanged ignominiously at Tyburn.

Hanging was, at this time, the form of capital punishment used to punish common criminals. Given Mortimer’s rank, it would have been more respectful to have beheaded him on Tower Hill.

Mortimer’s ghost supposedly made its way back to Nottingham and it is said that the apparition can sometimes be seen in one of the man-made caves in the labyrinth under the castle. If you stop for a drink at the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, the centuries-old pub set among the caves, you may just see him.

The caves at Nottingham Castle, where the ghost of Roger Mortimer has supposedly been spotted.
The caves at Nottingham Castle, where the ghost of Roger Mortimer has supposedly been spotted. 

Wooden Shield Dating to Iron Age Discovered in England

Wooden Shield Dating to Iron Age Discovered in England

 The shield is made from green bark that has been stiffened with internal wooden laths.
The shield is made from green bark that has been stiffened with internal wooden laths.

In Leicestershire, the only example of its kind ever found in Europe, a “surprising and unparalleled” 2,300-year-old shield made of tree bark was discovered.

Archaeologists say the discovery of the shield, made between 395 and 250BC, has completely overturned assumptions about the weapons used in the iron age, sparking breathless reactions among experts of the period.

“This is an absolutely phenomenal object, one of the most marvelous, internationally important finds that I have encountered in my career,” said Julia Farley, curator of British and European iron age collections at the British Museum.“So often it is gold which grabs the headlines, but this bark shield is much rarer.”

The shield was discovered in 2015 by archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Service in a site close to the River Soar.

Organic objects from the period very rarely survive, but the shield was preserved in waterlogged soil and may have been deposited in a water-filled pit, according to Matt Beamish, the lead archaeologist for the service. 

Bark shields of the period were entirely unknown in the northern hemisphere, and the assumption was that the material may have been too flimsy for use in war. However, experiments to remake the weapon in alder and willow showed the 3mm-thick shield would have been tough enough for battle but incredibly light.

It was likely that, contrary to assumptions, similar weapons were widespread, Beamish said. The shield is made from green bark that has been stiffened with internal wooden laths, described by Beamish as “like a whalebone corset of split hardwood”, and surrounded by a rim of hazel, with a twisted willow boss.

“This is a lost technology. It has not been seen before as far as we are aware, but presumably it is a technique that was used in many ways for making bark items.”

The malleable green wood would then tighten as it dried, giving the shield its strength and forming the rounded rectangles into a slightly “waisted” shape, like a subtle figure of eight.

That was significant, said Farley, because it was exactly the shape of the ornate Battersea shield, which was dredged from the Thames in the mid-19th century and dates from the same period.“So it is possible this incredibly rare organic object is giving us some little hints about why we see what we see when we look at the metal objects.

The Battersea shield might be pretending to be a shield like this.”Because so little organic material survives from the period, she said, “we are left with the earthworks, the shiny metal work, some of the ironwork, but we don’t really see the everyday world of these people: the wooden houses they lived in with their thatched roofs, their clothing … and so really the visual world of the iron age is lost to us.

But something like this is just a little tiny window into that, which for me is fabulous and so exciting.”The shield has been donated to the British Museum where Farley said she hoped it would go on display next year.

Large Roman Building Uncovered in England

Large Roman Building Uncovered in England

Archeologists celebrate the scale of a 150-ft-long, uncovered Roman building in Faversham.

The structure — the largest of its kind in the county — was uncovered by the Kent Archeological Field School (KAFS), which has now undertaken final excavation work on the Abbey Farm site off Abbey Fields.

Its location had been identified several years ago during a field walk from Canterbury to Rochester, but only now has the building realized its scale and complexity.

An idea of what the building would have looked like
An idea of what the building would have looked like

Dr Paul Wilkinson, of KAFS, says it would have had several uses.“What we found on stripping the topsoil off was a profound and amazing building – the largest Roman agricultural building found so far in Kent,” he said.“It is absolutely enormous at 150ft long by 50ft wide.

“It was divided into zones of activity, so the west end was a bath house with the furnace, and then as you moved to the east it turned more into the agricultural activity.

The site was investigated by more than 20 students
The site was investigated by more than 20 students 

“The work has shown that the survival of the building was amazing, with stone walls, polished terracotta floors, underfloor hypocaust heating, all untouched, and covered by tons of ceramic roof tiles and the collapsed stone walls covering huge amounts of box flue tiles, which were used to direct hot air up the interior walls.

Painted plaster from these walls is mostly white but the hot sauna room on the north side of the building had plaster walls decorated in green, red and yellow panels.

“In the 5th century, it had been extended another 15 meters, with what could be an internal Christian altar.”

An idea of what the building would have looked like
An idea of what the building would have looked like

The building was investigated by more than 20 students, in what has been described as a “unique experience” by Dr Wilkinson.

The team’s next step will be to write a report, which will join documentation for other Roman villa estates in the historic environment record kept by Kent County Council.

“It’s an extremely exciting building,” Dr. Wilkinson added. “It was in the landscape for at least 400 years and had a variety of purposes.

The team on site
The team on site 

“We are finding that because of investigation of the landscape taking place now prior to the building of housing estates that the Romans were very thick on the ground indeed, and this was almost unknown of 20 years ago.“We have found they had profound activity in the countryside and it was densely populated.”

Rare Roman Coin Uncovered in England

An extremely Rare Roman Coin Uncovered in England

Dr Julian Bowsher examines the rare coin.
Dr Julian Bowsher examines the rare coin.
Archeologists working on the upgrade of the A14 between Huntingdon and Cambridge discovered an extremely rare coin showing a Roman emperor who reigned only for two months.
This is only the second coin of Emperor Laelianus to be discovered in England.

This is only the second coin of Emperor Laelianus to be discovered in England.

Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus ‘ “radiate” coin is only the second to be found and is named after the emperor’s radiate crown.

The find is important because Laelianus, who was killed in the siege of Mainz, ruled a breakaway empire from Rome for only a short spell in the 3rd century and there is little evidence of his reign.

Archaeologists believe the coin only arrived in Britain after the emperor’s demise.

Dr Steve Sherlock, archaeology lead for the A14 on behalf of Highways England, said: “Discoveries of this kind are incredibly rare.

This is one of many coins that we have found on this exciting project but to find one where there are only two known from excavations in this country that portray this particular emperor really is quite significant.

This Celtic coin dates back to around 57 BC, and would have likely helped fund the resistance to Caesar’s legions.

This Celtic coin dates back to around 57 BC, and would have likely helped fund the resistance to Caesar’s legions. 

“I look forward to seeing how the analysis of this find, along with numerous other Roman remains that we have found on this project, help us better understand our past.”The coin was found in a ditch on a small Roman farmstead.

Julian Bowsher, a coin specialist at archaeology firm MOLA Headland Infrastructure, said: “Roman emperors were very keen to mint coins.

Laelianus reigned for just 2 months, which is barely enough time to do so. However, coins were struck in Mainz, Germania.”

The fact that 1 of these coins ever reached the shores of Britain demonstrates remarkable efficiency and there’s every chance that Laelianus had been killed by the time this coin arrived in Cambridgeshire.”

An even older coin, dating back to 57 BC has been found on the A14 dig and it is believed to have come from France where it was thought to have been minted to help fund resistance to Julius Caesar.

Pioneering work on the A14 upgrade, which has seen archaeological excavations its 21 mile length, won the rescue project of the year award at the Current Archaeology Awards. Thousands of items of interest have been discovered.

The upgraded road is expected to open to traffic in December 2020.

Source: bbc

Four Families Detected in Late Neolithic Burial in Poland whose Bodies Were Buried with Care

Four Families Detected in Late Neolithic Burial in Poland whose Bodies Were Buried with Care


Archaeologists found the remains of 15 people who were murdered about 5,000 years ago during the late Neolithic. Here’s what they may have looked like at the time of burial.

When 15 of them were brutally murdered — killed by vicious blows to the head— in what is now Poland about 5,000 years ago, an extended family met a grim end. But although these victims were violently killed, a new study shows that anyone who buried them did so carefully, placing mothers side by side with children and siblings.

In other words, it was far from random to place bodies in this burial. The burial shows “children next to parents, brothers next to each other[ and] the oldest person near the center,” said study co-lead researcher Niels Nørkjær Johannsen, a professor at Aarhus University’s Department of Archeology and Heritage Studies in Denmark.

Archaeologists learned about the late Neolithic burial during the construction of a sewage system in 2011, near the town of Koszyce in southern Poland.

The grave in Koszyce, southern Poland, holds the remains of 15 people and the grave goods that were buried with them.
The grave in Koszyce, southern Poland, holds the remains of 15 people and the grave goods that were buried with them.

This is far from the first large grave filled with ruthlessly murdered victims from the Neolithic; the remains of 9 brutally murdered people dating to 7,000 years ago are buried in Halberstadt, Germany, and 26 murdered individuals are buried in a 7,000-year-old “death pit” at Schöneck-Kilianstädten, Germany.

But the newly described burial is unique because the individuals were related to one another and weren’t buried haphazardly, according to a genetic analysis on the remains.”We are dealing with what you might call an extended family.

“We were able to show that there are four nuclear families present and emphasized in the burial, but these individuals are also related to one another across these nuclear families — for example, being cousins.”

The genetic analysis also revealed that the group, which was part of the Globular Amphora culture (named for their globular-shaped pots), had one male lineage and six female lineages, “indicating that the women were marrying from neighboring groups into this community where the males were closely related,” Johannsen noted.

It’s impossible to know who buried the victims, but whoever did wasn’t a stranger. “It is clear that lots of effort has gone into this [burial] and the people who buried them knew the deceased very well,” Johannsen said.


This graphic shows how the Neolithic victims were buried and how they are related to one another, according to a genetic analysis.

Even so, it’s interesting that these 15 people were buried together, rather than separately.”Perhaps the people who buried them were in a hurry?” Johannsen said. “But they nonetheless took care to bury individuals next to their closest family and also equipped the dead with funerary gifts, such as ceramic amphorae [jugs], flint tools, amber and bone ornaments.”

The burial doesn’t hold the remains of any of the family’s fathers, so maybe the victims were massacred when the fathers were away, Johannsen said. “[Perhaps] they returned later, found their families brutally killed and subsequently buried their families in a respectful way.”The massacre is tragic, but unsurprising given the time period.

During the late Neolithic, European cultures were being heavily transformed by groups migrating from the steppes, to the east. “We do not know who was responsible for this massacre, but it is easy to imagine that the demographic and cultural turmoil of this period somehow precipitated violent territorial clashes,” Johannsen said.

The finding is remarkably similar to 4,600-year-old burials from the Corded Ware culture (named for their corded pottery designs) found near Eulau, Germany. At that site, “violently killed people were also carefully buried according to their familial relationships,” said Christian Meyer, a researcher at OsteoARC, Germany, who was not involved in the study but who has worked on several other sites of Neolithic mass violence.

If anything, the Koszyce burial “is further evidence that lethal mass-violence events occurred at times throughout the Neolithic of Europe,” Meyer said. “These events could be catastrophic for the targeted communities, which were apparently built upon overlapping social and biological kinship ties.

“However, while the researchers of the new study call the Koszyce finding a “mass grave,” Meyer said he sees it differently. “The people were buried very carefully, received grave goods and were positioned according to their immediate kinship ties,” he said. “We should maybe call this a large ‘multiple burials’ rather than a ‘mass grave,'” in which bodies are typically buried in a disorganized heap.

Source: archaeology.org

Ivar the Boneless | Viking Leader & Commander of Great Heathen Army who Conquered Much of England

Ivar the Boneless | Viking Leader & Commander of Great Heathen Army who Conquered Much of England

Starting with the 793 AD attack on Lindisfarne’s island monastery, Viking raids on England had become almost routine, but this changed for the worse in 865 AD, and the English faced what they called “The Great Heathen Army.”

This was an invasion force of 1000,s of Norse warriors, most of them from Denmark, but others from Norway, Sweden, and Ireland, and under the command of Ivar the Boneless and his brothers, Halfdan and Ubba, who had made their names in Ireland fighting for Olaf the White, ruler of the Viking Kingdom of Dublin, in the 850s.

England in the 9th century was divided between four major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms — Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the middle of the country, East Anglia in the east, and Wessex covering much of the south.

By the time of Ivar’s end sometime after 870, Viking territory in England, called “the Danelaw”, covered the bulk of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia.

“Hyngwar”, Ivar’s name as it appears in Harley MS 2278, a 15th century Middle English manuscript.
“Hyngwar”, Ivar’s name as it appears in Harley MS 2278, a 15th century Middle English manuscript

Norse influence stretched from the River Tees to the River Thames, shaping the language, culture, and geography of the north and east of the country. This was down to the leadership of a warrior chief who struggled to walk, but according to legend had to be carried into battle on an upturned shield.

The kingdom of Ivar (outlined in red) and the territories paying him tribute (outlined in purple).
The kingdom of Ivar (outlined in red) and the territories paying him tribute (outlined in purple).

According to Norse mythology, Ivar the Boneless was born with “only cartilage was where bone should have been, but otherwise, he grew tall and handsome and in wisdom, he was the best of their children.” His father was said to be Ragnar Lodbrok, the main character in the first 4 seasons of Vikings, and as punishment for forcing himself on the mother, the sorceress (or völva) Aslaug, their child was cursed with deformity.

Lothbrocus and his sons Ivar and Ubba. 15th century miniature in Harley MS 2278, folio 39r.
Lothbrocus and his sons Ivar and Ubba. 15th century miniature in Harley MS 2278, folio 39r.

Many believe Ragnar, who is played by Travis Fimmel in the show, to be a fictional character. He’s a sort of every(North)man narrator who is used in order to contextualize important events in Viking history. It’s a way of binding together folk tales and oral histories from different regions, eras, and traditions as the Norse world expanded through exploration and conquest.

Some modern theories are that Ivar could have suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), that he was double jointed, or that rather than being literally boneless, there’s a line in the 13th century saga Ragnarssona þáttr (Tale of Ragnar’s Sons) that suggests it may be a euphemism for his impotence.

The sagas offer more noble and heroic reasons for the invasion by the Great Heathen Army, suggesting that Ivar the Boneless and his brothers were simply avenging the betrayal and killing of Ragnar by the lowborn King Ælla of Northumbria, but that’s most likely an attempt to retrospectively give the invaders a more noble motive than mere plunder.

A modern artist’s interpretation of the reputed execution of Ragnar Lodbrok

Even if Ragnar were a real historical figure, it doesn’t seem hugely likely that Ælla kept a pit of venomous snakes to have his captives thrown into like a supervillain, especially given there are no species of snake in the British Isles that are lethal to humans. It’s much more plausible that the “betrayal” and the snake pit are allegories, as Ælla was regarded by his peers as a usurper, who had displaced the true king, Osberht, giving Norse storytellers a convenient bad guy for their own tales.

The Great Heathen Army did, however, turn on Ælla of Northumbria first. Landing in East Anglia to little resistance, they marched north to capture York in 866. This would be the capital of their new English domain. Ælla, and his predecessor Osberht, faced the greater threat together and were killed in battle near York in March 867 and replaced with a puppet king, Ecgberht I, who accepted Viking rule of the territory taken by Ivar the Boneless.

A map of the routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878.
A map of the routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878. 

The sagas give different, more poetic interpretations of these events. They claim that Ivar went to broker peace with Ælla and took York from him using his greater cunning. Asking for compensation from the King of Northumbria for the murder of his father, Ivar said he would take whatever land he could cover with a piece of ox hide.Ælla, thinking his opponent could do little harm with a patch of Northumbria, agreed.

Ivar then cut the leather into thin strips that he could stretch around a parcel of land big enough to settle the city of York. (As York had already been an important Roman and then Anglo-Saxon city, this is most likely nonsense.)

Having subdued their northern neighbors, the Great Heathen Army then turned west and south and invaded the Kingdom of Mercia and then, eventually — after buying time with a peace treaty he had no intention of honoring — the Kingdom of East Anglia. King Edmund of East Anglia was defeated in battle and according to Anglo-Saxon sources is done away with for refusing to turn his back on Christianity.

While his kin launched an ultimately unsuccessful invasion of the Kingdom of Wessex, Ivar the Boneless returned to Ireland and joined his old ally Olaf the White in a raid on Dumbarton, the capital of the Celtic (or Brythonic) Kingdom of Strathclyde on the west coast of Scotland. Returning to Dublin in triumph with loot and slaves, Ivar the Boneless died sometime after 870, with one source giving the date as 873.

Silver penny of Æthelred I, King of Wessex (865–871)

Silver penny of Æthelred I, King of Wessex (865–871)

“The Norwegian king […] died of sudden hideous disease,” recorded the 11th-century Fragmentary Annals of Ireland cheerfully. “Thus it pleased God.”

Some historians believe that it may have been a result of his deteriorating condition, but until an archaeologist stumbles across his distorted bones buried beneath an unassuming Irish hillside, there’s simply too little detail and too much mythology to know for certain. What we do know, is in fewer than ten years Ivar the Boneless left a mark on history that can still be seen in Norse place names, dialect words, folklore, and on our TV screens.