This site is called Sea Wolf because that is what my name means. Probably. It is an old name and a rare one, and despite a great deal of research, nobody in my family can be quite sure what its ultimate origins are. It seems, however, that we are named for the men whom the English of medieval times called the sea wolves: the raiders who came in longboats to the English coast, seeking to trade or to settle – or, more famously, to pillage and burn.
We like to call these people “Vikings,” but the term doesn’t mean very much. “Viking” is a word meaning “raiding,” and in the centuries when people from Scandinavia were raiding all over northern Europe, they became known in England as Vikings – that is, people who went viking. But the men who did the viking might be Danes, Norwegians, or Swedes, and if you called any of them a Viking to his face, you would likely have met with a blank stare – or perhaps a blow to the head. It would be like meeting the chefs from an assortment of Asian restaurants, one Chinese, one Vietnamese, and one Thai, and calling them all “cookings”. Better, as is usually the case in history, to call people what they called themselves. In the English case, most of the raiders who came to rape and plunder the country between the year 793 and the late eleventh century were actually Danes.
What the Danes brought is the stuff of legend to this day. Their long, low wooden ships, often decorated at the prow with mighty demonic heads leering maliciously towards the shores of England, carried pirates who were feared throughout northern Europe. They frequently attacked monasteries because these were among the few significant concentrations of gold and precious metals in these drab, backward little kingdoms. For the locals, therefore, the terror of the Danes was mingled with the terror of religious desecration, for how could their souls be protected if all the monks were slaughtered and all the treasures of the churches carried away? One attack by the sea wolves could bring several entire communities crashing down. They were the scourge of the northern seas.
Yet not all of them merely raided, got back into their longships, and left as suddenly as they had arrived. In the eastern parts of England, the Danes built villages and settled down, sometimes forcing out the English to make room. One large area in the north was completely taken over by Danish settlers and became known as the Danelaw – and kings from the south paid regular tribute, the Danegeld, to make sure it stayed settled and calm. At the climax of this wave of conquests, there appeared a short-lived Danish kingdom spanning territories all around the North Sea, and ruled from 1016 to 1035 by the Danish king Cnut. In Cnut’s Charter, we find mention of a man who was called Sewlf.
“Sae-ulfr” or “sae-wulf” is Old Norse, and it means, of course, “sea wolf”. From the eleventh century, variants of the name appear in several areas of Danish settlement – not only England, but northern Germany, Flanders, and France. It is written variously as “Sewlf,” “Seulf,” “Saolf,” and “Saulf”. It does not become “Selthe” until the fifteenth century, when we find a record of one William Selthe living in a village in Norfolk, in the east of England. That village, not surprisingly, is a village of Danish origin. Called first Dallinga, then Wodedallyng, and today Wood Dalling, it was named for the hometown of the settlers who founded it – probably back in the eleventh century, when the village was catalogued as Dallinga in William the Conqueror’s great census, the Domesday Book.
Almost all of the Selths on record, from the time of William Selthe onwards, are concentrated in East Anglia – the eastern English region comprising the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, with some spill-over into Lincolnshire. This was a key area of Danish settlement, but it does also raise a different possibility. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, one of the main English exports was wool. The shrewd and frequently brutal king Edward III, who reigned 1327-1377, correctly discerned that more money could be made by exporting woollen cloth than by merely exporting the raw product, straight off the sheep. He therefore invited weavers from Flanders, northern Europe’s dynamic centre of the trade in woollen cloth, to immigrate to England. Many did so, and they settled mostly in East Anglia. Perhaps it is not coincidental that a great many of the early Selths in this same region appear to have been weavers of wool. Flanders, many centuries before, had been an area of Danish settlement too, and we know that there were people called Sea Wolf there. It may be that the modern line of Selths, from whom I am descended, came not directly to England through the Danes themselves, but second-hand via Danish settlement in Flanders.
The past is murky and full of fascinating ambiguities, and so we must finally be satisfied with conjecture. I do not believe that our ancestry should define us, and I certainly do not feel much affinity with those terrifying Danish men who harried the coasts of England and northern Europe in the dark and distant past. But I can choose to own what parts of my heritage I wish to own, and I like the name “Sea Wolf”. That is why you see it at the top of this page.