James Kirkup

How Denmark made England

How Denmark made England
(Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
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International football is good for many things other than the sport itself. Politics, culture and history are all in play in the best matches. I’m hardly a football fan but I’d watch, say, Spain vs Portugal just for the spectacle. And who could turn away from Serbia vs Croatia, or Finland vs Russia?

Like a lot of countries, England fixtures are often seen through the prism of the country’s history of conflict. So far, Euro 2020 has heard echoes of battles ancient and modern, as England played Scotland then Germany. And everyone knows the history of those meetings.

But what about England and Denmark? How many people know that this is about as old a rivalry as nations can have, one that goes back to before there really were nations? Who now knows the story of how the Danes inflicted a 9 /11 moment on what passed for the West at the time?

Well, I’m from a place that remembers. A place that predates England. A place where conflict with the Danes truly began: Northumberland.

To be precise, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, just off the coast of Northumberland and connected by a tidal causeway. The priory at Lindisfarne, now a ruin, can claim to be one of the pivotal sites of early British Christianity. In the 7th century, Northumberland’s King Oswald installed an Irish monk called Aidan on Lindisfarne as his bishop. Aidan was followed by Cuthbert, later sainted. His followers made Lindisfarne the centre of Christian scholarship in England; Northumberland had military and political clout.

Then came 793, a year that should stand alongside 1066 and 1688 in British historical memory but which is sadly neglected.

Here’s what the Anglo Saxon Chronicle says about that year:

This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.

(Thanks to Nick Attwood for his translation. I’m not a big reader of the sports pages, but the Chronicle’s prose strikes me as being rather more understated than some of the stuff turned out by our leading football writers.)

Those 'heathen men' would later be known as Vikings and while it’s not entirely clear precisely where they came from, it seems reasonable to bet on the land that is now Denmark.

That comparison to 9/11 isn’t an exaggeration. While a few Viking raids had taken place along the east coast before 793, the raid on Lindisfarne was a civilisational challenge at least equal to al-Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers. Lindisfarne was the holy site of a great British power, protected by the spirit of Saint Cuthbert and God himself. The Danes burned it anyway.

Lindisfarne 793 was the start of the Viking era of English history: Danelaw; Danegeld; the Great Heathen Army; Alfred the Great and his cakes; several hundred Bernard Cornwell novels, all with the same plot. Good or bad, it was a truly important moment in history, one that should be better known.

Most accounts suggest that the date of the 793 raid on Lindisfarne was 8 June. Now on another summer’s day, Englishmen and Danes will play football, heavy with the flags of those two countries.

Would England have come into being in the same way without the Danes and Norsemen offering a common enemy for the Anglo-Saxon people to unite against? It’s one of the great 'what ifs' of history, but maybe proud Englishmen should quietly thank their Danish opponents tonight, for their forefathers’ unwitting help in creating England itself.

And in the process of forging England as a nation, Northumberland ceased to be its own kingdom and was lost in something bigger. I suppose that’s been a good thing overall, but there are times when I do wonder.