Sunday, 30 July 2017

120 The Vikings

120 The Vikings
Anyone who has watched on television (or perhaps seen in the old Plaza cinema) the 1958 film “The Vikings”, which starred and was produced by Kirk Douglas, father–in-law of Swansea’s Catherine Zeta Jones, will envisage Vikings as Norse seafarers intent on plunder and pillage.  The word “Viking” comes from an Old English word meaning pirate, though there is no evidence that they wore horned helmets.  According to legend, Vikings destroyed St Cenydd’s hermitage in Llangennith in the year 986.  Yet prior to the Norman conquest Norsemen were often engaged in more peaceful activities, setting up trading settlements from their Irish bases at Wexford and Dublin across the Irish Sea to South Wales.  That could have been how Swansea originated, although, as Gerald Gabb points out in the first volume of his authoritative “Swansea and its History”, actual evidence is hard to come by, and what there is can often be disputed.
The Welsh name Abertawe meaning “mouth of the river Tawe” is an accurate description of the town, for that was the attraction for a settlement.  The English name Swansea may have derived from “Sweyn’s Eye”, composed of an old Norse proper name “Sveinn”, along with the old Norse word “ey”, meaning an island or inlet.  Svein might have been Svein Forkbeard, who was king of Denmark from 986 to 1014, and the father of Cnut the Great.  This was Canute of the apocryphal anecdote about king Canute and the waves, which demonstrated the limitations of secular power compared with God’s supreme power, though it often misrepresents Canute as if he believed he had supernatural powers.
Was Swansea founded in the eleventh century by a person named Sweyn?  In spite of the paucity of evidence, when the new Guildhall was being built in the 1930s, architect Ernest Morgan advised the Corporation to include features suggesting Viking connections.  So the bronze handrails of the grand staircase represent the bows and sterns of Scandinavian ships, the imagined visage of a bearded Sweyn presides over approaches to the Council Chamber, and the prow of a Viking long boat projects from each side of the clock tower.
Some Viking artefacts have been uncovered – in 1949 Minchin Hole below Pennard car park provided the earliest find of any post-Roman currency in Wales, before any coins minted by the Normans.  It yielded a penny of Egbert of Wessex (802 to 839), as well as two other coins.  When a road was being constructed from Penrice Castle to Millwood a hoard (rather like the large 3rd century Pennard hoard) of 30 coins was discovered dating from 1003 to 1009, from the time of Ethelred the Unready (meaning “uncounselled”).  A complete bronze brooch, described as of Irish-Norse type and probably used to affix a cloak, was found in Whitford in the parish of Llanmadoc.  At Culver Hole near Burry Holmes (not the Port Eynon Culver Hole), a 10th century bronze ring-and-pin brooch was discovered.  Of course the name of the tidal island Burry Holmes may itself indicate Viking connections, since “holm” is the Old Scandinavian word for island.
In 1993 artist Mark Mumford envisaged an immense statue of Sweyn, about 150 feet high, rivalling New York’s Statue of Liberty, and proposed it be erected on top of Kilvey Hill, but his suggestion was not taken further.                                            
If we move away from images of a warlike Viking (Kirk Douglas wearing a horned helmet), perhaps we can imagine Norse seafarers seeking a trading post at the mouth of a navigable river.  In the absence of conclusive proof, former City Archivist Dr John Alban, County Archivist of Norfolk, stated, “I am still of the opinion that there was a Viking settlement at Swansea”.  

No comments:

Post a Comment