Bloody and brutal history celebrated with our cheerful little Viking statue

History column'Viking statue at County Hall
History column'Viking statue at County Hall

UNLESS you count the little men on top of the Clock Tower, Morpeth has never been a place for statues.

If you go to County Hall, however – and, by the way, you can get a good lunch there – do look at the statue of the Viking landing on the Northumberland Coast. Viking is a little smaller than life-size, but stands fiercely waving his sword in the prow of his ship.

The Danish invasion was, of course, brutal and horrible. When the Vikings sacked Lindisfarne in 793, Northumbria had enjoyed a long period of comparative peace. Alcuin, the scholar of York who became one of Charlemagne’s most important advisers, wrote to King Ethelred: ‘To the most beloved lord King Ethelred and all his chief men, Alcuin the humble deacon sends greeting.

‘Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such a terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made.

‘Behold, the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as prey to pagan peoples. And where first, after the departure of St Paulinus from York, the Christian religion in our race took its rise, there misery and calamity have begun.

‘Consider carefully, brothers, and examine diligently, lest perchance this unaccustomed and unheard-of evil was merited by some unheard-of evil practice. … from the days of king Aelfwold fornications, adulteries and incest have poured over the land, so that these sins have been committed without any shame and even against the handmaids dedicated to God.

‘Consider the dress, the way of wearing the hair, the luxurious habits of the princes and people. Look at your trimming of beard and hair, in which you have wished to resemble the pagans. … What also of the immoderate use of clothing beyond the needs of human nature, beyond the custom of our predecessors?’

Alcuin was convinced that the Viking invasion was a form of punishment, but in fact the kingdom of Northumbria was already past its best.

Sir Frank Stenton remarks that Aelfwold, who died in 788, ‘was the last Northumbrian king for whom any ancient writer expressed admiration.’

Instead, it was governed by undistinguished and often, like Ethelred, vicious rulers who followed each other in a miserable succession of political murders. And despite his respectful greeting, Alcuin knew this perfectly well.

In the same letter, he describes York as ‘the head of the whole kingdom’. The Danes occupied it in 866. One of the leaders, Halfdan, based himself on the Tyne and ravaged Durham and Northumberland. In 874, he settled a party of Danish immigrants at York, and it was to all intents lost to the kingdom of Northumbria.

All of this and more lies behind the Viking statue at County Hall, but the statue itself has its own history. It was made in 1925 by the sculptor Margaret Wrightson and placed in the grounds of Doxford Hall, the home of Sir Walter, later Baron, Runciman.

Lord Runciman was a colourful character. He ran away to sea at the age of 12, served in sailing ships until he was 30, then transferred to steamers and became a millionaire shipowner. He was also a Methodist, teetotaller and lay preacher.

Northumberland County Council bought Doxford Hall in 1953 for use as an old people’s home, and the Viking was brought to Morpeth in 1981. It sold Doxford Hall in 1993 and it is now a luxury hotel.

Statues aside, the picture quiz in our issue of February 6 shows that there’s plenty to look at, if we just raise our eyes a little above the pavement.

One example, the town badge, crops up everywhere. It was awarded in 1552, and Morpeth was only the second town to be so honoured after Gloucester in 1538.

But wait. Didn’t places like London, Bristol, York and Norwich have them earlier? Well, sort of. They all had shields from an early date, but the College of Arms was only founded in 1484. Norwich’s arms weren’t registered until 1562, Bristol 1569 and York 1587. London had an armorial shield in 1319 and later a full coat of arms, but it wasn’t registered with the College of Arms until 1957. Yes, 1957.

Armorials have a long history. If you visit Hexham Abbey, look for the tombstone of Flavinus, the signifer or standard-bearer of the cavalry regiment Ala Petriana. Flavinus sits his horse easily as it prances above a cowering barbarian, and holds a staff with a wheel-like device at the top. In What the Soldiers wore on Hadrian’s Wall, the artist Ronald Embleton interprets it as a portrait of the Sun-god, with beams of light radiating round his head.

Bede tells us that Edwin, King of Northumbria from 616 to 633, had a Roman-style standard carried before him, called a tufa. The Bayeux Tapestry shows both Normans and English with narrow, pear-shaped shields. Some have a pattern of discs on the outward side, others a St Andrew’s cross. After that, the earliest evidence for coats of arms is the wax seals on documents.

It is often said that the de Merleys had blackbirds on theirs, but John Hodgson is more circumspect: ‘The chargings in arms are so often puns on the names of the persons who bear them, that I have been tempted to conjecture that the bearing of Roger de Merlay the Third, which is the first of the family that assumes an heraldic form, was intended for three merulae, or blackbirds. From the figures in the several seals, it is, however, difficult to say what species of birds they were intended to represent.’

The earlier de Merley seals had no shield, but a stylised tree with four birds roosting in the branches. Roger III’s first armorial shield was blue with gold-coloured merles. He later adopted the red and silver (or white) bars of his grandmother’s family, the Stuttevilles, surrounded with his own family’s merles on their blue ground.

Morpeth’s coat of arms is recognisably the same, except that Norroy King of Arms added the castle, and the birds became the more usual martlets, or house-martins.

Castle Morpeth adopted the Morpeth shield, but added the crest from the badge of Castle Ward R.D., and supporters consisting of two stags standing on a grassy mound, with a trout stream at the bottom. The three stars on the lion’s shoulder represent the three authorities that came together in 1974.

After Castle Morpeth’s demise, the first town Mayor Ken Brown led the campaign to have the old coat of arms reinstated. It was approved by the Queen in Council in November 2010, and the achievement, or design, was received from the College of Arms in June 2011. That’s a lot of history in one piece of art.