At the time England consisted of four independent kingdoms: Wessex, to the south of the River Thames, and Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria to the north of it. The latter three were all conquered by Scandinavian armies in the late ninth century and their kings killed or deposed – which allowed expansive Scandinavian settlement in eastern and northern England. However the kings of Wessex successfully defended their territory from the Viking intruders (and eventually went on to conquer the North, creating the unified kingdom of England).
Un-united Kingdoms, Mike Christie (Public Domain)But precisely because Wessex remained independent, there has never been much examination of Scandinavian influence in that part of the United Kingdom. But we’re beginning to get a different picture suggesting that Viking leaders such as Svein and his son Knut were active as far south as Devon and Cornwall in the West Country.
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There are also records of raids for plunder in the West Country. A Viking fleet sailed up the river Tamar in 997, attacked the abbey at Tavistock and brought back treasure to their ships.
Cardinham churchyard. Len Williams, (CC BY-SA 2.0)There is further evidence indicating Scandinavians in the West Country in a close examination of stone sculptures in Devon and Cornwall which has revealed Scandinavian art motifs and monument forms. A Norwegian Borre ring chain ornament decorates the cross in Cardinham churchyard in east Cornwall and a mounted warrior is in one of the panels of the Copplestone Cross near Crediton, mid Devon. Both are matched by examples in northern England in the Viking Age, but seem out of place in the West. Late versions of the “hogback” memorial stones, which have a pronounced ridge and look like a small stone long house, are well known in Cornwall too – the best example is at Lanivet near Bodmin.
These sort of memorials were popular with the Norse settlers in Cumbria and Yorkshire and may be the work of itinerant sculptors bringing new ideas into the West, or patrons ordering forms and patterns which they had seen elsewhere. However, the possibility that the patrons may have been Scandinavian settlers cannot be excluded.