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Bedford and the Vikings

Bedford was a defended town, or burh, before the Norman Conquest of 1066. For two hundred years or so it was on the borders of the Danelaw, which lay to the east, an area under Danish control, though subject (nominally at times) to the Kings of England formed by the royal family of Wessex. King Edgar strengthened the southern defences of the town in 915 [or 918] as related by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: King Edward went with his army to Bedford, before Martinmas [11th November] and obtained the borough; and almost all the citizens, who dwelt there before, submitted to him. And he stayed there four weeks, and before he went away ordered the borough on the south side of the river to be built".  

The Kings Ditch shown in blue on this 1926 map
The Kings Ditch shown in blue on this 1926 map

Here borough is used to mean fortifications, suggesting that the King's Ditch, part of the south bank fortifications, was built at this time. The ditch ran in a loop southwards from the river near the modern Bedford College, cutting Cauldwell Street and running as far south as the Rope Walk roundabout (where a section is preserved) before returning to the river at the Dame Alice Harpur School campus [see the map above - please click on it to see a larger image].

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 917 [or 920] reads: "At the same time the [Danish] army came from Huntingdon and East Anglia and made the fortress at Tempsford, and took up quarters in it and built it, and abandoned the other fortress at Huntingdon, thinking that from Tempsford they would reach more of the land wit hstrife and hostility. And they went till they reached Bedford; and the men who were inside went out against them, and fought against them and put them to flight, and killed a good part of them"  Later excavations in Bedford turned up Dark Age weaponry in Russell Park suggesting this was the site of the battle. The Chronicle goes on: "Then after that during the same summer a great host assembled in King Edward's dominions from the nearest boroughs which could manage it and went to Tempsford ands besieged the borough and attacked it until they took it by storm; and they killed the [Danish] king and Earl Toglos and his son Earl Manna, and his brother and all those who were inside and chose to defend themselves; and they captured the others and everything that was inside".

In 1010 Danes attacked and burned Bedford, despite the defences. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded: "And afterwards they [the Danish army under one Ulfcetel] turned back southwards into the Tahmes Valley [from a successful campaign in East Anglia] and the mounted men rode towards the ships; and quickly afterwards they turned west again into Oxfordshire, and from there into Buckinghamshire, and so along the Ouse until they reached Bedford, and so on as far as Tempsford, and ever they burnt as they went. Then they turned back to the ships with their booty".