Vikings at Whitby Abbey

We spent the August Bank Holiday weekend up in North Yorkshire, primarily to attend yet another Viking encampment and battle. This one was at Whitby Abbey, a site we’ve visited several times in the past, but never for a reenactment. The event was staged from the Saturday to Monday (August 25th – 27th) and as the best weather report was for the Saturday, that was the day we chose to attend. And what a good thing we did! Although very windy, Saturday was a lovely, sunny day, whereas it poured down for much of Sunday, when we visited Scarborough Castle further down the coast.

Whitby shown within North Yorkshire. Source: Ordnance Survey OpenData Author: Nilfanion. Creative Commons.

The encampment itself was educational and very interesting, with demonstrations of various Viking crafts and skills, including  favoured foods and methods of cooking them, as well as displays of  a number of goods in leather, wood and metal, and features of general lifestyle. All in all, it was great family fun as well as a learning experience. The lyre player was excellent … lovely music… and two different woodturners were also great to watch. These are a few of the photos we took around the camp:

There was also a reenactment of the death of a local Saxon thegn at the hands of the invading heathens/pagans, i.e. the Vikings. His cadaver was transported from the (supposedly) nearby village by a number of monks up to the abbey for burial – and the nuns were warned of a likely attack on the abbey. Needless to say, the nuns were outraged and terrified by the thought of pillaging and raping Danes. But the corpse was blessed and arrangements made for Saxon warriors to defend the abbey:

In the morning we watched the two armies warming up and practising their battle techniques, and the actual battle was in the afternoon. It was difficult to take photos during the battle, when the warriors were half killing each other close to the lines of tape encircling the battle site. Of course, the tape is vital for safety, but it meant that I have so many photos with green tape across the middle that are are unusable! (One of the hazards of being a ‘shortie’ is not being able to get my camera up higher. Still, I found that most of my photos could be cropped to make good headers, as the one above. But, then again, how many headers can I use in one post…?) 😀

Raids were common along the east coast of England during the Viking Age and monasteries, abbeys and such like would have been prime targets. So much plunder, in the form of gold or silver cups, crosses and chalices would have been irresistible to marauding bands. And the poor nuns would also have been seen as easy rape victims. Whitby Abbey itself was destroyed by Viking raiders in 867. Incidentally, the name Whitby means White settlement in Old Norse.

As with most Viking and Saxon battles, action starts with the shield wall formation of the opposing sides, during which time the warriors hammer on their shields with their swords, spears or battleaxes, generally making a great racket and yelling profanities at each other. All this is intended to intimidate and terrify their opponents. Then a number of missiles are hurled, including spears, rocks and stones – some via catapult – or arrows, if there are archers present. Once all these preliminaries are over, the two shield walls come together in an almighty clash and stab and slash out at each other in a effort to get through the wall of shields and kill or maim as many of the enemy as possible. And as men fall, so the shield wall breaks up and the one-to-one fighting takes place. On this occasion, we were treated to an excellent display of swordsmanship. We did video it, but the quality is so poor, I’d be ashamed to put it on YouTube. The fight was fast and furious but, unfortunately, that doesn’t show on a single photo. A new camera is on my Christmas list, so I hope Santa will be generous.

So here are some of the ‘usable’ photos we took:

It was a very enjoyable day, and I can only thank the various Viking and Saxon groups from around the country who came together to produce this event. The members obviously love what they do and are very proficient at doing it. Thanks must also go to English Heritage, who manages the fabulous ruin (courtesy of Henry VIII) of Whitby Abbey.

Whitby is a lovely, quaint, old seaside town and fishing port, and is packed with visitors for most of the summer, even without any events being on. The town and abbey are well worth visiting and I have many photos from the various times we’ve been there. I’ll get round to doing a post about it at some stage.

30 thoughts on “Vikings at Whitby Abbey

  1. Wow, what fun! You know that I absolutely love reenactments, and doubly so when they have demonstrations of the arts and crafts. Ooh, I would have maxed out my welcome at every booth, I can assure you! I especially like the drama they played out — how interesting to see the customs and dynamics between the different players. The only thing that throws me off is how clean and new everything looks. Not that I think Vikings in particular were messy — this is a “suspension of disbelief” problem I have with most historical reenactments, that the tents and clothes and tables etc. don’t look like they’ve been used more than a few times. I’d love to see them look more lived-in.

    1. I’m certain you would have loved this event, Joy! There was a lot to be learned at most of the stalls/tents. I know what you mean about the unused look of some things, although groups like these are in demand, so their equipment must get a fair bit of use – and we can’t really compare things to what a real Viking village would have (probably) looked like. It’s all good fun though. The groups involved put o a good show and the battle was excellent.

    1. We were so lucky with the weather. Our visit to Scarborough the next day wasn’t so wonderful. Although we enjoyed going round the castle, it was very dull, so our photos are pretty unimpressive, and it started pouring down just as we headed down into the town. Thegn is the original spelling of the word, I believe. I couldn’t say when thane came into use, exactly, although I know Shakespeare uses it in Macbeth (the Thane of Cawdor). I think the different spellings are just alternative versions. I’ve also seen thayn – so it’s take your pick! I always use thegn.

  2. There IS a site/app you can use to get that green tape out of your photos…
    I’d have to look for it in my site notes. Do please contact me on my site (in the about/contact tab) or any of my sites in the side bar.

    1. Thank you! That’s very kind of you and what you mention sounds brilliant. I have photos from several reenactments with tape or rope across them I’ll contact you tomorrow… it’s getting a bit late here now. 😀

  3. What a great event! I would love to have heard the lyre-player. I wonder if one of the participating groups was Regia Anglorum? It is a group based in England, but it has some branches here in the US. A couple of people I do reenactment with in the Society for Creative Anachronism are very high up in the local US chapter of Regia Anglorum. Sometimes it is a very small world, indeed! ❤

    1. Thank you, Ann. It was a fun event. If Santa decides to be mean, I’ll just have to buy a new camera myself! Lol. I really need something so I can video these events. Battles don’t look quite the same in still life! The last video I uploaded on YouTube was so fuzzy that someone kindly told me I needed a new lens. I haven’t tried to film anything since. I don’t know what the problem is because it seems OK for photos.

      1. Well, I can recommend to have a video camera for making videos, since usual photo cameras are not intended to good quality videos! Also, as the person who deals with it, I can suggest to think about stabilizer – a special device that reduces shake in your videos! Or a tripod!

      2. Thanks, Ann. Unlike you, I’m no photographer! I love to use photos of places I’ve visited, and videos are great for re-enactments. We have a really old video camera, but it’s too big to carry round (unlike modern, small cameras and phones!) so we don’t use that nowadays. And videoing from our main camera has become a waste of time as the film is all fuzzy. (I did warn you, we’re not into modern technology!) 😀

  4. Regia Anglorum is superb, Timi. We’ve been to few reenactments in which they were involved, the last one being a Viking reenactment at Sherwood Forest in May. I didn’t post about it at the time, simply because my blog was ‘on hold’ then. Regia Anglorum not only does Viking reenactments, but also others at various stages of the Middle Ages. They did a superb one at Newark Castle (near to where I live) about King John for the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta in 2015. The battle demo then involved 13th century soldiers. But no, R.A. wasn’t involved in the event at Whitby. Interesting to know there are branches in the US. Yes, it’s a very small world.
    The lyre player was really good, Timi, and with your musical talents, I can see why he took tour interest. His music was lovely and I could have stood and listened to it all day. Lol ❤

    1. I would have liked to have been there. And also to have seen Regia Anglorum on their home turf! You are fortunate, indeed. We Anglophiles in the US can only dream and sometimes travel there, although that’s not in the cards for me anytime soon! ❤

  5. I like re-enactment part in UK. We don’t have them here. It allows people to understand the history better and take a closer feel of it.

    1. Yes, there are a lot of reenactment groups here, Arv, covering several periods of history. The main one in my area is The Sealed Knot, which performs reenctments of the Civil War (1642-49) regularly. There was a lot of action during that time around Newark Castle and the town of Southwell, so I suppose it makes sense. They are all valuable learning experiences.

      1. I want aware that there are specific groups doing re-enactments. It sounds fun. Thanks for showing interesting part of your world, Millie.

    1. Thank you, Susan. It was a lovely day for taking photos, with a wonderfully blue sky!
      I hope you are well now. I spotted a note about you being in hospital but it was a while after you wrote it and wasn’t sure of the situation at the time.

  6. Sorry it took me so long Millie. I love reenactments and admire the dedication of the actors. The settings are absolute magic! Thank you for sharing your photographs – I enjoyed them, as always.

    1. Oh, Inese, you have no need to apologise to me and thank you for reading my post. I haven’t posted on my blog for ages, as I’ve been trying to make a good start with the 4th (and final!) book of Sons of Kings series. I do plan to read some blog posts very soon.
      I hope your health has greatly improved by now, but I’m sure I’ll find out for myself as soon as I read some of your recent posts. ❤

      1. Millie, thank you for the great news about the book #4! The moment I got better, I read your book #3, and I mentioned it somewhere in my posts and linked to your blog. I so love these books! The world looks a very unsafe place these days. Communism raising its ugly head; divided families, nations, countries – all of this make us all so vulnerable. And there is your story about the man who embraced two cultures and remained a noble king in his heart regardless of his circumstances. Your books are precious ❤
        I only started writing in late August. You didn't miss much as I post twice a month these days 🙂

      2. Inese, I am really touched by your words. I can only agree about the state of the world today and I sometimes wonder whether my love of writing historical novels is partly my way of escaping many of the problems of everyday life for a while.
        I’m really happy you enjoyed reading the 3 books. As you know, I only intended to write a trilogy, but I realised I needed to take the story to the end of Alfred’s life.
        I know you’ve been very ill, as I noticed comments about your absence from your blog the last time I managed to work on mine. I was so sorry to hear about your illness, whatever it was, and realise it must have been something serious. I hope recovery is going well and you’ll eventually regain your strength.
        I can’t thank you enough for your kind words about my books and will look for the link you mentioned. Take care of yourself. ❤

      3. Thank you so much, Millie. It was a difficult summer. I am trying to refocus, but it doesn’t always work out.
        Even though your books are fiction, in this world of absurdity they feel very real. Like something we had once but have since lost or forgotten. I wish people would revise their principles and actions before it is too late. Thank you or writing! ❤

  7. I’d love to go to one of these days, but have not been organised enough to do so yet. It looks great fun – and you did very well with your shots, I think. I’d have been pleased with them, anyway! I’m intrigued by the one of the one-legged Viking raiders, though… And Whitby is always worth a visit!

  8. Looks like a really fun day, Millie. I hope things are going well with you this year. So much has changed in our lives here. Mostly good. I miss our chats here on the blogs. I see you are not so active, so I hope that means you are busy writing.

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