Repton and the Great Heathen Army

I live near a small village called Repton. You might actually be more familiar with it than you might have been a couple of years ago if you’re a gamer; it’s featured heavily in the Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla video game. Of course, it’s historically inaccurate but I appreciated the reference. Modern day Repton is expensive to live with a very well respected school and I couldn’t hope to actually move there.

When I used to go on country bike rides though, it was part of my route. It’s home to my favourite pizza kitchen (and brilliant pub) The Bull’s Head so it’s certainly close enough to be considered local.

It was also home to The Great Heathen Army in the winter of 873.

Naturally, this is spine-tinglingly exciting to me. I casually drive past the church on my way to pick up some delicious pizza, travelling over the same ground as Ivarr the Boneless did nearly 1,200 years ago, minus a few bits of concrete, tarmac and paving slabs.

How do we know this?

Well, Ivar the Boneless isn’t confirmed as being here, but in actual fact many historians speculate that not only was he here in Repton – he was actually buried here!

Repton’s known association with the Vikings began way back in 1686 when a labourer named Thomas Walker reported on his discovery when searching for stone near to the church.

According to Walker, he found a two-roomed subterranean structure some 15 ft square, originally roofed by ‘decayed wooden joyces’. Inside, he found a stone coffin, containing ‘a Skeleton of a Humane Body Nine Foot long.’ (This being the one speculated to belong to Ivar). Around this one body were ‘One Hundred Humane Skeletons, with their Feet pointing to the Stone Coffin.’  If the account is true, we can deduce that this Viking was an extremely important figure with high renown. Ruling out other figures of the time based on later whereabouts, some historians believe this to be Ivar, he himself disappearing from records around this time. This might also explain the boneless nickname, the height of this skeleton being way above the average for the time period.

Walker unfortunately removed the skull of the main burial, but this was soon lost.  He also revealed that the floor of the sunken building was stone-paved, and in the outer wall was the frame of a doorway, with steps leading down into the western room. This was never recorded as being investigated further at the time, but we then have another account from 100 years later.

A look underneath St. Wystan’s church, home to the Mercian Kings of old

Landowner George Guilbert reinvestigated the site, but this time merely reported finding ‘a vault’ in which there ‘were found vast quantities of human bones, as if collected … and thrown in a heap together.’  Had the earlier find been desecrated by nosy locals or thieves after Walker’s discovery?

Much further in time, in 1914, the cleric Charles Cox dug a narrow trench across the area and observed that ‘ignorance and folly had entirely destroyed what remains there may have been’. Whether we take Walker’s original account at complete face value or not, we might have assumed from this that any evidence of Viking occupation had been wiped out over the centuries.

However, a few years later in 1923, a Viking style axe was found buried in the church courtyard. The find of a Viking sword soon followed, in the attic of a house – perhaps a relic from a previous amateur search of the area?

Fast forward to 1976, and everything changed.

Professor Martin Biddle, aided by his wife, were carrying out excavations on the area, originally planning to study the architecture of the Anglo Saxon church.

They were shocked to find a group of important Viking interments in the present churchyard, immediately north and south of the famous crypt (which contains the remains of a number of historic Mercian Kings). The most significant was the skeleton of a 35-45 year-old man, nearly 6 ft tall, lying in a grave north of the church which was originally marked by a 12 in square wooden post which may once have been carved and painted.

In a nearby grave was a second male, aged around 20, perhaps a retainer to his older companion.   The older man was a person of obvious importance, who seems to have died in a battle or skirmish, perhaps with the Anglian locals around the time of the Trent Valley incursion.   The warrior had fallen from a blow to the skull, and whilst on the ground had been despatched with a sword-cut that had severed the femoral artery.   He was buried in true pagan fashion; round his neck was a thong holding two glass beads, a small silver Thor’s Hammer and a leaded bronze fastener.  

A leather belt around his waist had been secured with a decorated copper buckle, and by his left side was an iron sword in a fleece-lined wooden scabbard covered with leather, with another copper buckle holding a strap for the sheath.   By the sword hilt was a folding iron knife, plus a second knife with a wooden handle, whilst halfway down the scabbard was an iron key.   Between the thighs was the tusk of a wild boar and lower down, perhaps originally in a bag or box, was the humerus bone of a jackdaw. Because there was evidence of a deep cut to the groin area, there is a likelihood that there would have been serious damage to the poor bloke’s genitals; the tusk of the wild boar was a way to send him to the afterlife with his man parts intact.

The skeleton in the adjoining grave may also have died violently from a cut to the right side of his head.   He had an iron knife at his waist and may well have been a squire or weapon-bearer killed at the same time as his lord and united with him in death.   Both burials had been subsequently covered with an oblong setting of broken sandstones heaped up over the double-grave.   Other intact Scandinavian-type burials in the vicinity included one with a gold finger-ring, and was neatly dated by five silver pennies minted in the mid-870s.

There is more evidence for the Viking presence in the area, too. 2¼ miles south-east of Repton were almost 60 burial mounds. They were first located by the Derbyshire barrow-digger Thomas Bateman, who dug a few of them in 1855 and dated them to the early Viking era. The barrows were further probed in the 1940s and 50s, and again between 1998-2000. Evidence of cremations were found, many apparently in situ, together with grave goods which included items of dress and weaponry.   Many of the dead seem to have been burned on sections of boat planking.

The Viking barrow cemetery is a site unique in Britain. It is likely to have been used between 873-7 and was possibly the principal interment area of members of the Great Viking Army.   The dead may have included battle casualties, plus those who died of disease or other causes.

The Biddles’ most notable find however was the mass Viking grave mentioned earlier, containing up to 250 bodies – 82% being male. Of the 69 skulls recovered, only one belonged to a person over the age of around 45. Importantly, too, it appears they at least partially were able to confirm Walker’s initial 1686 discovery.

They found a central coffin which was the focal point of the burial, as well as a fine iron axe, a sword blade, two large seaxes, a key, chisel, and five silver pennies, all minted between 872-4, and securely dating the deposit to the Viking occupation of Repton between 873-4. Although Walker had dismantled the original burial, there is plenty of food for thought that the original body would have belonged to Ivar the Boneless. Although 9 feet tall was probably an exaggeration, perhaps this explains the nickname?

Whatever the case, I love being so close to a major part of the Viking history of Britain. It’s always unfortunate when an important site has been disturbed after its original condition but it’s safe to say that regardless, the viking burial at Repton is one of the most important ever found.

If you’d like to listen to a more in-depth look at the Vikings in Repton, you can watch this fantastic video from Lakeside Arts and Cat Jarman:

The audio quality isn’t perfect but it’s listenable!

Alternatively, Cat talks about the Great Heathen Army in general (and specifically in Repton at 5:25 into the video although I recommend the whole thing!) in 2020 below which is also well worth a listen:

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the Great Heathen Army and Repton. Any further questions, I’ll do my very best to help! Thanks for reading and enjoy the rest of the upcoming posts.

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