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In its heyday, Thetford was the Saxon capital of East Anglia.
During this period Thetford suffered a number of Viking raids, but later developed into a thriving town, with a focus on pottery production and other craftworking, and was considered to be the capital of East Anglia.
King Sweyn casually destroyed Thetford before becoming King of England in 1013.
In the 10th century Thetford even had its own mint with its coins being found as far afield as Scandinavia
In the ninth and tenth centuries Thetford was attacked by the Vikings several times. The town was within the area of the Danelaw, the parts of England under Viking rule, which included much of the east coast of England. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle is a key source for our knowledge of events in Thetford during this period.
In 869 the Chronicle recorded that:
“This year the [Viking] army rode over Mercia into East-Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And in the winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king; whereupon they overran all that land, and destroyed all the monasteries to which they came. The names of the leaders who slew the king were Hingwar and Hubba.”
The battle between King Edmund’s army and the Vikings took place somewhere near Thetford, but the exact location remains unknown. King Edmund is reputed to have been tied to a tree by the Vikings, whipped and then shot with arrows before being decapitated. His body, and head, were later buried in Bury St Edmunds, and Edmund became venerated as a saint throughout the medieval period, and the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds became a centre of pilgrimage.
The Vikings returned to Thetford in 1004 under the command of Sweyn Forkbeard, but this time Thetford itself was plundered and burned. Thetford was subjected to another similar Viking raid in 1010, and shortly after this, the East Anglian army was defeated at a battle to the north of Thetford, probably near Ringmere in Wretham.
Sweyn Forkbeard, who led the Viking raids against Thetford, was a powerful Viking leader who ruled over much of Norway in around 1000. He was involved in raids in England from 1002 onwards, and during 1013 he led his forces in a sustained campaign across England. This culminated on Christmas Day 1013, when Sweyn was declared King of England after King Ethelred went into exile. Sweyn died early in 1014, only weeks after becoming King, but his sons, Cnut, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut went on to rule England for nearly thirty years.
During the fifth and sixth centuries the focus of settlement in Thetford was in the area between Brandon Road and Red Castle. Excavations show evidence of textile production, due to finds including a number of loomweights, a spindle whorl and other associated artefacts.
Other excavations revealed the presence of an Early and Middle Saxon settlement to the west of the present town, as well as an Early Saxon building on Brandon Road. One of the finds recovered from the Brandon Road site was a rare piece of a decorated glass vessel dating from the fifth or sixth centuries. A small Early Saxon cemetery was excavated on Brunel Way on higher ground overlooking the Little Ouse, a typical position for cemeteries of this date. At least thirteen burials with grave goods were found; these finds included brooches, beads, knives, spearheads, and, in a few cases, traces of textile remains.
During the Middle and Late Saxon period Thetford developed into a large town, and during the tenth century it may have been the same size, or larger, than Norwich. Thetford’s prosperity is usually associated with the Viking occupation of the late ninth century, but it is likely that the town was already of some importance, otherwise it may not have been such an attractive base for the Vikings. Thetford’s position was significant; situated on a navigable river and an important ford, its location made it a key centre for connecting trade routes within East Anglia.
Despite the destruction unleashed by the Vikings in the early eleventh century, Thetford became one of the most important towns in East Anglia in the Late Saxon period, and that area of the town is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The prosperous town developed to the south of the Little Ouse, near the Grammar School, the New Town estate and the London Road cemetery.
Like many Late Saxon towns, Thetford was surrounded by a defensive ditch and bank, measuring about twenty feet across. The course of the bank can still be traced today by a linear earthwork along the course of the Late Saxon defences.
The town covered an area of around 150 acres on the south side of the river, stretching from Red Castle Furze to Nuns Bridges. To the south of the river, some of the modern road pattern may date back to this period, including the routes of London Road, Brandon Road, Star Lane and Bury Road. The use of the word ‘gate’, the Danish word for ‘street’ suggests that streets whose names contain this element may date back to the pre-Conquest period; Bridge Street used to be known as Bridgegate for example.
Excavations revealed dense Late Saxon occupation, including the remains of a number of buildings, pottery kilns and roads. The production of a type of wheel-thrown pottery called Thetford Ware was a particularly important trade within the town. Further excavations have also revealed evidence for iron smelting, lead and bronze working and other industrial activity. In the tenth century the area along Brandon Road developed into a small area of settlement, with a number of pottery kilns producing Thetford Ware. Excavations in the Bury Road area have revealed Late Saxon buildings as well as a coin die – clear archaeological evidence for the presence of a mint in Thetford during this period. At least six moneyers were producing coins in Thetford during the mid eleventh century.