We all know, that England (and UK/GB) was blessed with superior Danish genetics.
“King Canute did nothing wrong.” ᛋᛠᛉ
“They controlled a large area, which was known as the Danelaw for more than 100 years.”
Danelaw can describe the set of legal terms and definitions created in the treaties between Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex, and Guthrum, the Danish warlord, written following Guthrum’s defeat at the Battle of Edington in 878.
In 886, the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum was formalised, defining the boundaries of their kingdoms, with provisions for peaceful relations between the English and the Vikings. The language spoken in England was affected by this clash of cultures, with the emergence of Anglo-Norse dialects.
Map of Britain in 802. By this date, historians today rarely distinguish between Angles, Saxons and Jutes.
Historical and toponymic evidence suggests a substantial Viking migration to many parts of northern Britain; however, particularly in the case of the Danish settlers, differentiating their genetic contribution to modern populations from that of the Anglo-Saxons has posed difficulties.
A study published in 2020, which used ancient DNA from across the Viking world in addition to modern data, noted that ancient samples from Denmark showed similarities with samples from both modern Denmark and modern England. While most of this similarity was attributed to the earlier settlement of the Anglo-Saxons, the authors of the study noted that British populations also carried a small amount of “Swedish-like” ancestry that was present in the Danish Vikings but unlikely to have been associated with the Anglo-Saxons. From this, it was calculated that the modern English population has approximately 6% Danish Viking ancestry, with Scottish and Irish populations having up to 16%. Additionally, populations from all areas of Britain and Ireland were found to have 3-4% Norwegian Viking ancestry.
Researchers have used ancient DNA to determine the nature of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, as well as its impact on modern populations in the British Isles.
One 2016 study, using Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon era DNA found at grave sites in Cambridgeshire, calculated that ten modern day eastern English samples had 38% Anglo-Saxon ancestry on average, while ten Welsh and Scottish samples each had 30% Anglo-Saxon ancestry, with a large statistical spread in all cases. However, the authors noted that the similarity observed between the various sample groups was possibly due to more recent internal migration.
Another 2016 study conducted using evidence from burials found in northern England, found that a significant genetic difference was present in bodies from the Iron Age and the Roman period on the one hand, and the Anglo-Saxon period on the other. Samples from modern-day Wales were found to be similar to those from the Iron Age and Roman burials, while samples from much of modern England, East Anglia in particular, were closer to the Anglo-Saxon-era burial. This was found to demonstrate a “profound impact” from the Anglo-Saxon migrations on the modern English gene pool, though no specific percentages were given in the study.
A third study combined the ancient data from both of the preceding studies and compared it to a large number of modern samples from across Britain and Ireland. This study concluded that modern southern, central and eastern English populations were of “a predominantly Anglo-Saxon-like ancestry” while those from northern and southwestern England had a greater degree of indigenous origin.
“I don’t agree that Danish Viking DNA should be limited to certain areas,” says Røyrvik.
“People have moved around since the Viking Age and people have had children with people in different areas. So the idea that Viking DNA is just limited to one or two areas in England doesn’t really make sense to me. The DNA study shows itself that there’s been lots of mixing in the lowlands of England, so it would be strange if the DNA was limited to the Danelaw,” she says.
Scientists disagree on how to identify Danish Viking DNA
Their mistake, according to Røyrvik, is the way in which they differentiate between the Anglo-Saxon and Danish Viking DNA. A part of the genetic input that they describe as Anglo-Saxon actually probably has a Danish origin, she says.
“I think that the population that they think reflects Anglo-Saxons, also includes Danish Vikings. The arguments that they use to establish that it doesn’t apply to Danish Vikings don’t hold up,” says Røyrvik.
She points out that the Anglo-Saxons invaded England in the 5th century, but they originally came from northern Germany, close to Jutland in West Denmark, where the Vikings later prospered.
“It’s difficult to separate Danish Vikings and Anglo-Saxons genetically because these populations lived so close together. And at the same time, the Vikings arrived in England relatively soon after the Anglo-Saxons. This leads to extra uncertainty and it means that you can’t separate the two,” says Røyrvik.
“Impossible” to separate Anglo-Saxon and Viking DNA
Donnelly was aware of the uncertainties surrounding this separation of Danish Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons when the study was originally published.
“Definitively separating Saxon and Danish Viking [genetic] inputs is impossible,” they write in the supplementary material accompanying the study.
But they still write that “we thus think it likely” that Danish Vikings only left limited traces of their DNA in the modern British population because “we see no remnant of the Danelaw, in terms of a distinct genetic cluster within the UK.”
“It’s true that we cannot exclude that the Vikings’ descendants have moved around so much that we can no longer see the signal from the Vikings in certain areas. But they should have moved around a lot for such a genetic signal to be erased. And we quite clearly see the genetic signals from other events that took place thousands of years before the Vikings came to England.”
“But of course no one can say anything definitive. We’re trying to reconstruct events that happened over 1,000 years ago based on modern human DNA,” says Donnelly.
Danish DNA from Copenhagen hospital patients
The modern Danish DNA comparison was made using DNA samples from hospital patients in Copenhagen. But these may not have been the best choice to represent Danish Vikings, says Røyrvik.
“In mapping the British DNA, we went to great lengths to select the participants. For example, you could only take part if you had four grandparents that all came from the same small area of Britain. But we couldn’t apply the same high standards to the DNA material that we got from all the other countries,” she says.
“The material from Denmark only came from Copenhagen and perhaps it’s not the best representation of Vikings, geographically speaking. We don’t know if some of the patients were immigrants to Denmark from other countries or if their grandparents were foreign,” she says.
Vikings and the Danelaw
From about 800 AD waves of Danish Viking assaults on the coastlines of the British Isles were gradually followed by a succession of Danish settlers in England. At first, the Vikings were very much considered a separate people from the English. This separation was enshrined when Alfred the Great signed the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum to establish the Danelaw, a division of England between English and Danish rule, with the Danes occupying northern and eastern England.
However, Alfred’s successors subsequently won military victories against the Danes, incorporating much of the Danelaw into the nascent kingdom of England. Danish invasions continued into the 11th century, and there were both English and Danish kings in the period following the unification of England (for example, Æthelred II (978–1013 and 1014–1016) was English but Cnut (1016–1035) was Danish).
Gradually, the Danes in England came to be seen as ‘English’. They had a noticeable impact on the English language: many English words, such as anger, ball, egg, got, knife, take, and they, are of Old Norse origin, and place names that end in -thwaite and -by are Scandinavian in origin.
The English population was not politically unified until the 10th century. Before then, there were a number of petty kingdoms which gradually coalesced into a heptarchy of seven states, the most powerful of which were Mercia and Wessex. The English nation state began to form when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms united against Danish Viking invasions, which began around 800 AD. Over the following century and a half England was for the most part a politically unified entity, and remained permanently so after 959.
The nation of England was formed in 937 by Æthelstan of Wessex after the Battle of Brunanburh, as Wessex grew from a relatively small kingdom in the South West to become the founder of the Kingdom of the English, incorporating all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the Danelaw.