When I found out the biggest Viking festival in Europe was happening at my doorstep, I felt obliged to investigate.
Although I wouldn’t call myself a Viking expert, something about Jorvik Viking Festival intrigued me. Seafaring explorers, heroic warriors and majestic ships – how could I say no?
Are you curious what it’s like being one of the forty thousand visitors who flock to the festival from all over the world every year? Read on and find out if it’s for you…
Jorvik Viking Festival: History
The annual Jorvik Viking Festival takes place in the fairytale city of York during the second week of February, a date that coincides with Jolablot. Jolawhat?
Let’s back up a little… The Vikings first invaded Britain in 793 and by 866 arrived in York, or Jorvik as they called it.
Nowadays York now doesn’t even make the top 50 list of England’s largest cities. But under Viking rule it thrived as the country’s second biggest city after London, a major river port and part of their extensive trading routes throughout northern Europe.
Vikings brought many traditions along with them and one of them was Jolablot – an annual festival heralding the arrival of spring and the end of winter hardships.
It was forgotten for many years, but in the 1980s York Archaeological Trust rediscovered this long lost tradition. But there’s a lot more we’ve been learning about the Vikings…
Jorvik Viking Festival: Myths debunked
Do you think Vikings were dirty pillagers who came to Britain to loot and rape? There are lots of myths out there but many of them are just Victorian inventions.
Yes, some Viking raiders plundered but most of the settlers were farmers. They started a new life in British cities, married local women and minded their own business.
Speaking of women – they weren’t exactly oppressed, for the most part. They ran their households and were in charge when the men were away (which was pretty often).
Vikings were not the brutish giants we consider them to be – archaeological finds show that the men were about 5’7”/170cm tall.
They also didn’t reek of sweat from a mile away. Contrary to popular belief they bathed weekly, unlike many Europeans who considered it unnecessary.
Oh, and they wore kohl eyeliner. According to an Arab traveller visiting the Viking town of Hedeby in 950, “when they use it beauty never fades, on the contrary it increases in men and women as well”.
So although their uber-masculine image might be a bit of a lie, you can rest assured that the Vikings were an attractive bunch.
Fascinating how the truth can get bent out of shape, isn’t it? I loved learning more about these adventurous explorers and find them more interesting now than even before…
Jorvik Viking Festival: Activities
Jorvik Viking Festival offers tonnes of family-friendly events and as a young solo traveller I was worried that I’d feel out of place or *gasps* be bored.
Luckily that was far from being the case. A few of the activities – like fights in the Combat Arena or child-friendly workshops – were aimed at kids, but the majority of the events were interesting for people of all ages.
From lectures to guided walks and encampments selling Viking memorabilia (like the gorgeous boxes above which I regret not buying!) the itinerary had me running from one corner of York to the next in an attempt to see it all.
I definitely left Jorvik Viking Festival with a better grasp of British history. I particularly enjoyed learning about Cnut the Great also known as King Canute… and not only because of his profane-sounding name which lends itself to dozens of puns.
I simply Canute bring myself to share them all with you. I know his name sounds funny, but I won’t be a Cnut about it.
Yes, I think that’s enough.
Eager to learn more about his reign, I decided to attend a Viking banquet celebrating his coronation! I was so excited that I sourced some traditional Viking clothes – the colourful ensemble in my first photo – before heading to York’s Merchant Taylors’ Hall for the feast.
I was greeted by several Viking guards and whisked away to a torchlit dining hall, with King Canute and his new wife Emma of Normandy sitting at the front of the room.
As the evening wore on, I almost forgot that it was 2016 and felt like I was at his coronation which happened exactly one thousand years ago in 1016!
The delicious three-course banquet – complete with lots of wine in true Viking fashion – was definitely one of the highlights of my time at Jorvik Viking Festival. If you get a chance to go, do it.
But my favourite event was without a doubt the firework finale. I’m a sucker for a good firework show – I even went to the Fireworks Festival in Cannes a few years ago – so this was right up my street.
Recreating the tale of the Battle of Assandun, I watched with baited breath as an army of Danes led by not-yet-King Canute clashed with a throng of Englishmen led by still-King Edmund Ironside (whose table I happened to sit at during my Viking banquet the night before).
Although my face felt numb in the cold wind, I felt a wave of warmth wash over me as fireworks ascended from Clifford’s Tower and lit up the night sky.
For a short moment right there I felt completely transported back in time. Don’t worry – I’m well aware Vikings had no fireworks.
But the atmosphere, the raw energy, the celebratory roars… the Vikings came alive and I felt like I was one of them, witnessing King Canute’s victory first hand.
Jorvik Viking Festival: Final verdict
York is a gorgeous historic city and imagining what it looked like in times bygone isn’t difficult. But seeing an army of Vikings march through its streets on their way to Coppergate felt completely surreal.
The juxtaposition of Vikings in full armour and the frilly displays of Patisserie Valerie – a cafe chain which I sometimes visit for a large plate of eggs benedict – seemed a little jarring at first.
But by the time the festival ended I no longer questioned it. York then and York now became one.
If you love learning about Europe’s complicated past or just like the sound of partying like a Viking, this festival is definitely worth checking out.
Jorvik Viking Festival: Practical info
If you’re thinking of going to Jorvik Viking Festival next year, do it! Many of the events are free, so you can learn about Britain’s Viking past even if you’re on a tight budget.
But if you can’t make it to York during the second week of February don’t despair. The Jorvik Viking Centre is available all year round – or it will be once all the damage from York’s recent floods is reversed, likely in early 2017.
There are tonnes of other fun things to do in York and I’m currently working on a proper city guide. Until that’s published let me leave you with one final recommendation: stay at the Monkbar Hotel.
The place recently underwent a £3 million refurbishment and the rooms are beautiful. It’s centrally located, has delicious cooked breakfast and free WiFi.
Because let’s be honest – it’s a lot more fun pretending to be a Viking for a weekend with reliable Internet than fighting to the death in muddy fields.
Have you ever heard of Jorvik Viking Festival before? Would you visit? What other quirky festivals would you like to hear more about, see me attend or go to yourself?