Lands of the Holmbyggjar

Ranrike – Ulrik’s Homeland

Ranrike, or Ránríki in Old Norse, corresponds to the northern half of the traditional Swedish province of Bohuslän. Bohuslän is on the western coast of Sweden, bordering Skagerrak and Norway, and is approximately the area described as Alfheim in Scandinavian mythology. Ranrike forms part of Viken, which is a broad term for the huge bay formed by southern Norway and the northern part of Sweden’s west coast.

It is sometimes claimed that the word “Viking” is derived from Viken, although the word “wicing” appears in the 6th or 7th century Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith which predates its appearance in Icelandic Sagas and Scandinavian rune stones. The word is used to refer to pirates generally and not Scandinavians in particular: the Old English word wíc means “trading city” or “camp”. If this derivation is correct, the word may have come to mean Nordic pirates specifically when the Danes and Norwegians started raiding in the 8th century, and the term was eventually adopted by the raiders themselves.

Osea Island – Ulrik’s Land in England

Osea Island is part of the Hundred of Thurstable, a name which probably derives from the pagan deity Thunor. This is the Anglo-Saxon name for Thor. The neighbouring island, Northey, was in a different hundred, probably because the causeways to the two islands lead to opposite shores of the Blackwater estuary. The Domesday Book gives the following information about Thurstable, Osea and Northey islands:

“Hundred of Thurstable: Richard holds (Great) Totham from Hamo, which Thorbert held as one manor, for 5 hides before 1066. Then 10 villagers, now 9: always 16 smallholders. Then 12 slaves, now 13. Then 4 ploughs in lordship, now 3. Always 5 men’s ploughs.

Woodland: 100 pigs; meadows, 16 acres; 2 salt-houses. Always 20 cattle; 40 pigs. Then 5 cobs, now 2; then 100 sheep; now 150; always 40 goats. Value then and later 100s; now £6.

The Blackwater Estuary (modern times)

In the same (totham) 8 free men held 1 1/2 hides which Richard also holds. Always 2 ploughs. Meadow, 3 acres. Value 20s.

He also holds Osea (Island), which Thorbert held before 1066 as a manor, for 4 hides. Then 1 smallholder, now none; always 3 slaves. 1 fishery; pasture, 60 sheep. Value 60s.

Hundred of Wibertsherne: Richard holds Northey Island from Hamo (a steward) which Thorbern, a free man, held before 1066 as a manor, for 4 hids and 40 acres.

Then 2 villagers, now 3. Always 4 slaves; 2 ploughs in lordship; 1 men’s plough. Pasture, 60 sheep. Value then 60s, now £4.”

Osea and Northey Islands, as they are today. The sea was about a metre lower in the 9th century, so the islands would have been larger. [1]

The Future of the Hólmbyggjar

We don’t really know the scale of Viking settlements in Southern England. It’s hard to identify buildings as specifically Scandinavian, and although in the North of England there is genetic evidence for a Norwegian legacy, the settlers in the South were mainly Danish, and too close in origin to the Anglo-Saxons for a clear distinction to be easily made.

Finds of Scandinavian oval brooches, swords and other items have confirmed that Vikings definitely came to England. The distribution of the finds suggests however that only first or second generation settlers maintained the Scandinavian style of dress. It seems that there were not repeated waves of settlers as in Iceland to build up a Norse community: Iceland was unoccupied and land was there for the taking, unlike England which was already fully occupied. Instead, single settlement events seem to have occurred and then fairly soon afterwards the settlers disappeared from our sight. Possible explanations include:

  • The settlers were relatively few in number, and rapidly adopted English styles and burial practices [2].
  • The settlers were killed or driven out within a generation or two.
  • There were very few Viking women settlers: the jewellery we’ve found was given by Viking men to English women.

The Hólmbyggja settled on Osea Island in Essex around the year 880, when Guthrum allocated land in East Anglia to his followers. Again, we don’t know whether there was major population replacement, minor settlement or merely a takeover of the aristocracy – it may also have varied from region to region. The story of the Hólmbyggja assumes that relatively small numbers of Viking warriors and their families settled in lands which were inhabited by the Anglo-Saxons but temporarily under Danish rule. Most of the neighbours would have been English, and there would have been pressure to learn the language and adopt Christianity: according to Icelandic sagas, when a Christian king defeated pagans, they could buy their freedom by being baptised.

There was no room for further immigrants and the descendents of the original settlers were more concerned with establishing a position within English society. It’s likely that by 920, Essex was under English rule again, at which time some of the original settlers may still have been alive. Certainly English rule was fully re-established by the time of the Battle of Maldon in 991, which was part of the fresh wave of Viking invasions.

On St Brice’s Day 1002, Aethelred ordered that all the Danes living in England be killed. It’s not known whether this order applied to settlers of long standing within the Danelaw, or only to the newcomers who were extorting Danegeld and terrorising the coasts. It was not a good time to be seen as a Dane, and if the Hólmbyggja had not been sufficiently Anglicised they may have fallen victims.

Osea Island is close to Northey Island, the site of the Battle of Maldon. According to the Domesday Book, in 1066 Osea Island was owned by Thorbert, and Northey Island by Thorbern. These names are Anglicised versions of Old Norse names, and it’s possible that these men were descendants of ninth century settlers.


  1. A metre is just over a yard in old money. [back]
  2. Pagans were usually buried with grave goods. Christians were not. This showed a lack of consideration towards archaeologists on the part of the Christians. [back]
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