The Great Wall of Denmark

I watched The Dig last night, a movie about the 1939 excavation of an Anglo-Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. It was pretty good but rather too sad for my tastes. By coincidence, my son Robin, 8, is now learning about Angles, Saxons and Jutes in his home-schooling. In a stranger coincidence, I’m thinking about these ancient Germanic peoples too, today, for my new Viking novel, The Last Berserker, which is being published this month.

Replica of the famous Anglo-Saxon helmet found at Sutton Hoo

I learnt about the Angles, Saxons and Jutes at school, way back when, perhaps you did, too. I was taught that they came over from “Germany” in the 5th century and pushed out the native Romano-Britons, packing them off to Wales and Cornwall. They founded the English nation; they were our ancestors (well, a few of them, most of my lot are Scots) and their tongue was the origin of the excellent language we now speak. OK, so far so good.

But I never quite got a grip at school on where exactly these people came from. Jute, as far as I knew, was something you made sacks from. Where was the original land of the Angles? Before East Anglia? Saxony, I thought growing up during the Cold War, was somewhere in Communist East Germany. Either I didn’t ask or my teachers the right questions, or they simply didn’t know.

It wasn’t until I began researching The Last Berserker and looking at maps and images of the part of the world where Denmark meets Germany, that I managed to understand where the ancestors of the English actually came from. And to get an idea of why that had come barging into Britain. The “where” is pictured on the map below. The “why” is to do with the low-lying nature of their homelands, constantly flooding, leading to a scarcity of good farm land, coupled with an aptitude for boats, and an adventurous spirit.

These folk are described as three different peoples but, in fact, they were very similar to each other in culture, appearance and language. I’m sure they moved about freely, Jutes marrying Angles, Angles mixing with Saxons. They were not even that different to the Franks, the enemies of our heroes, in The Last Berserker. During the 8th-century wars my Fire Born series will chronicle, there was an incident where a column of Franks met a group of Saxon warriors and assumed from their speech and dress they were on the same side. They let them into their camp, where the Saxons caused havoc.

They say that the difference between a language and a dialect is that a language is a dialect with an army. This may well be true. But a nation is often formed, and a dialect transformed into a separate language, when a physical barrier separates two groups of people, preventing the flow of folk, and the muddying of identities. Think of Offa’s Dyke, which was built in the late 8th century and pretty much still marks the border between England and Wales. Or Hadrian’s Wall which, for the Romans, separated the land of the wild, uncivilised Scots from their soft, southern neighbours.

The Dane-Work, which has an import role to play in The Last Berserker, is one such ancient boundary. Broadly speaking, it separated Danish culture and language from German (although it is now firmly in Germany). This fortification, a huge ditch and a high rampart, was built over many hundreds of years but probably completed at the end of the 8th century. It runs for more than ten miles from the inlet of the Schlei, which runs out to the Baltic, to the Treen River, which flows out to the North Sea. It was a formidable military obstacle and probably prevented the Christian Franks, who overran pagan Saxony, from conquering the Danes of Jutland. For me, I also think it is interesting because at the line of the Dane-Work (Dannevirke, in Danish) you have the three founding people of the English living within a day’s march of each other. (See map below. Brown line is the Dane-Work.)

Here is an extract from The Last Berserker that describes the Dane-Work.

Bjarki stopped in the middle of the causeway and looked left and right. Of all the wonders he had seen in his life, this was the most extraordinary. An enormous trench had already been excavated on either side of the narrow land-bridge, a monstrous muddy ditch more than twenty paces wide. And the diggings were already half filled with rainwater. The scale of this mammoth undertaking was, to Bjarki’s mind, almost inconceivable: that a man, even a great ruler such as Siegfried, could order a ten-mile river to be dug from one side of his realm to the other, and demand a high earthen rampart to be built behind it, and that all this would actually be accomplished. It was awe-inspiring, stupendous. While the sun was not fully risen, there were already hundreds of dirt-smeared men along on the edges of the Mark-Channel, wielding their picks and spades, with the overseers bawling instructions . . . 

“Don’t dawdle, oaf,” snapped Tor. “We haven’t got all day for you to stand around and gawp at these scurrying river rats.”

Bjarki broke into a trot but he was surprised to see Valtyr standing on the far side of the land-bridge looking back thoughtfully at the long broken shapes of the man-made mountains on the bank of this artificial waterway. 

“Take another look, Bjarki, if you wish to,” the one-eyed old man said. “You may not see the Dane-Mark again for some time. Since the peace was made, this place now marks the frontier between the kingdom and Saxony.”

“Siegfried and the Saxons were at war?” said Bjarki.

“Until last summer. Theodoric of Saxony and King Siegfreid have been butting heads in this region for many years – mostly squabbles over the theft of cattle and sheep by border folk – but they are now fully reconciled. They made the old sacrifices at Hellingar last year, agreed that this was the border between their territories and feasted like heroes. Duke Theodoric’s eldest son Widukind was married off to Siegfried’s daughter Geva to seal a peace. And this, the Mark-Work, is a monument to the alliance they made then.” 

Tor made a scoffing noise.

“Take a last look yourself, Torfinna, and save your scorn. Siegfried is a wise ruler and favours peace. But not peace at any price. This Channel will prove a fine passageway for his ships but it is also the Mark’s best defence, its moat and ramparts in one, which may one day save us from our enemies.”

End of extract.

I sometimes wonder what strange turn history would have taken if the Dane-Work had never been built. Most likely the Franks would have conquered the Jutland Peninsula and forcibly converted the people to Christianity – as they did with their southern neighbours the Saxons. And other parts of Scandinavia might well have fallen to the fanatical Franks too. We would have had no Vikings raids in England. No Dane-Law. The Holy Roman Empire might have extended into the Arctic. Modern Danes, Swedes and Norwegians might even be speaking German. Who can say?

You can buy a copy of The Last Berserker here. It will be published as an eBook on February 11 and as a paperback on February 25, 2021.

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