What’s on : Cafe-scientifique

“The Early Medieval Isle of Axholme”

18 Oct 2023
Start time
7:00 PM
Mickelgate Social
Alex Harvey
“The Early Medieval Isle of Axholme”

Event Information

This event replaces the originally advertised topic on “Energy” which has been postponed to 24 January 2024.

“The Early Medieval Isle of Axholme”

Alex Harvey, M.A.

We are holding this Cafe Scientifique session on Wednesday 18th October from 7pm, talk starting at 7.30pm, in the “Den”, Mickelgate Social, 148-150 Mickelgate on the corner of Bar Lane, York.  Nearest car park at Nunnery lane and the venue is a short walk from York Station or Rougier Street buses.

Buy a drink at the ground floor bar, (beer, coffee, fruit juice, wine and spirits all available) and then come down the stairs to the basement “Den” where there are tables, chairs and sofas and a sound system and large screen.  Apologies that there is no lift.


The Isle of Axholme is a flat corner of farmland sandwiched nowadays between North Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire, and Nottinghamshire. But, as the name suggests, prior to industrial drainage this expanse was once an island. There is a sizeable local history scene on the Isle, principally focused on the twelfth-century royal lineage of the Mowbrays, and the Wesley methodists of the 1700s. Nobody had ever attempted to research the pre-1066 history of the Isle, however, due to a complete scarcity of information… until now. Using a variety of disciplines, this lecture condenses the research of an upcoming book on the Isle of Axholme: the various important historical characters who visited the place, the battles and migrations that affected the landscape, and the physical evidence left behind by them. Royal whaling outposts, Northumbrian monarchs, bog bodies, Viking armies – the Isle of Axholme has it all. But where did that name even come from? This question, and more, present themselves as tantalising Early Medieval riddles to be solved, and this lecture attempts to do just that.”

Alex’s book on “Riddles of the Isle” will be published in November and is available here:


Member’s report

The speaker described life in the Isle of Axholme during the early medieval period between the end of the Roman occupation (410 CE) and the Norman conquest (1066 CE). He started by giving a general description of the area which lies to the South of the Humber in North Lincolnshire. It is a low-lying, originally swampy, area and is described as an island because it is bounded by waterways. In the reign of King Edward III local taxes were paid in eels!

The speaker’s approach to the study utilised three methodologies, Toponymy, History and Archaeology. Back mutation in toponymy reveals that the name Axholme has possible roots in Brythonic Celtic, Old English and Old Norse. There are no known written sources that mention the area in Anglo-Saxon times. The Isle has links to the seventh century St Oswald and three early Anglo-Saxon kings are thought to have died in the area. The Isle forms the hinterland of the principal settlement now known as Flixborough, an Anglo-Danish burgh from the latter part of the early medieval period and located on the Eastern edge of the Isle. Finds at Flixborough include 22 of the 105 writing styli from this period found in England. Lead fishing weights were also found, not surprisingly indicating a fishing industry. More surprising is the discovery of skeletal remains of dolphins, minke whales and one orca. These finds may indicate the influence of Scandinavian settlers on the local fishing practices.

Altogether a fascinating glimpse of a little studied area during an often-neglected period in English history which, some may be surprised to learn, did not start in 1066.

Andy Marvin