Northampton's story: From Valhalla to French town
Glimpses of the past can bring us a greater understanding of what is happening in our world today
By Dr Marie Dickie OBE
This piece was written for us by chairperson of the Friends of Northampton Castle and NN Journal subscriber Dr Marie Dickie OBE
This half term school holiday should give local children excellent opportunities to know about their town and it’s relatively distant past.
Northampton Museum is offering an insight into the Viking raids which eventually created the Dane law lands, in which Northampton was a border town. Pagans and skeletons make an exciting mix for the young and excitable, but adults too can enjoy seeing the past come to life with digital reconstructions of the faces of those long dead raiders.
These glimpses of the past can bring us a greater understanding of what is happening in our world today. For example, the Northampton Panel in the Valhalla exhibition gives only a small flavour of Northampton’s part in this great change or migration of population.
The exodus from Denmark and Norway was a search for farm land as well as silver. Settlement and conquest followed and our land became a part of a Scandinavian empire based in Denmark. The invasion by Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut gave most of England a Danish King in 1013. But it also gave Northampton a Queen.
Cnut had married the daughter of a Northumbrian nobleman, part of a political alliance designed to split the English away from support for King Ethelred, known as the Unready.
Queen Aelfgifu was described as the woman from Northampton, probably because she and her family held land in the area and the fortified town offered protection against their enemies, but also because her children’s claim to the English throne became a dynastic war. It was the start of a struggle which ended with a much more well known invasion, that of William the Conqueror.
King Cnut was apparently not satisfied with having one wife. He needed two. Or perhaps he just needed to prevent any disputes about his own claim to the throne. He married Emma of Normandy, the widow of his rival and enemy King Ethelred. Aelfgifu continued to enjoy the status of Queen, with King Cnut deputing her and her son to run Norway, another part of his Scandinavian Empire.
Kings and Princes did not reign long in these days, with accident and violence featuring largely as causes of death.If you have watched Game of Thrones or another gory saga you will know this does not get more simple!
On the death of Cnut, his son by Emma claimed the Danish and English throne, but he remained in Denmark, fighting off a challenge to his Norwegian lands. Meanwhile, the English magnates instead installed Queen Aelfgifu’s second son, Harold Harefoot, as King of England. But he died at just 24 years-old after a five year reign.
Emma’s children by her first husband then lay claim to the English throne. Edward the Confessor indeed, provided a much needed stability for around twenty six years. But he left no child and dispute and invasion returned in 1066.
So what of the French town? The Norman soldiers who followed in King William’s train, saw themselves as French though some also boasted of their Scandinavian and Viking ancestry. William may have asserted his legal right to the throne of England, but in reality he was imposing himself on a society which saw him as foreign.
Perhaps in an attempt to conciliate local feeling, our young Anglo Saxon Earl of Northampton was confirmed in his role by the new King William. Waltheof later rebelled against the Norman rule and was beheaded, but that is a story for another day.
The new Earls of the de Senlis family created the French town of Northampton, with its great churches and religious institutions. You can visit what is left of them today – at St Peters Church on Marefair, or take a day out at Delapre Abbey.
You could also join Friends of Northampton Castle at Delapre Abbey over half term, when the Castle of Northampton will be brought to life in VR amongst other exciting entertainments.
Northampton Museum Valhalla Exhibition is free and runs from now till early April.
The Delapre Abbey events over half term, include children’s workshops by Friends of Northampton Castle – as part the wider opening of the House to the public ( £8 per adult) but free to children.