Medieval England and Vikings: The Culmination of the Viking Influence on England, Part 1

Diorama with Vikings

According to renowned historians, English history began in 1066 when William the Conqueror invaded England and introduced feudalism, which replaced the traditional Anglo-Saxon system. Claiming that pre-Norman England was not feudal, and that English history began with the conquest, is as simplistic as concluding that the American Revolution was fought over a tea tax.

The definition of feudalism can be debated, but what can be agreed to, is that it is a system where land is held by a lord, with the understanding that he or she will swear loyalty and provide service to a higher lord. William’s feudalism did not introduce new concepts to England; it was an adaptation of a system which evolved over the prior 300 years of Viking influence. England attracted many invaders: the Romans in the first century B.C.; the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the fifth century A.D.; the Danes and Norwegians in the eighth through eleventh centuries; and the Normans in 1066. Long before Duke William of Normandy set foot on English soil, England was being prepared for him through both friendly and hostile encounters with the Norwegians and Danes.

Scandinavian ships first made their appearance near England in 789, and four years later the Danes made their infamous raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne. Their raids and conquests were nearly non-stop in England during its later heptarchy period. By the late ninth century, the Vikings overcame the weak English kings. Instead of seven petty kingdoms, England was either under the Danes, or under the remaining English king: Alfred of Wessex. The Danish threat helped centralize England’s government. In Norway, a situation developed which fostered the birth of a new Viking land: Normandy.

King Harald’s friend, Jarl Ragnvald, had a son, Rollo, who was more ambitious than the king liked. Rollo “was a great viking…[but he] harried much in the eastern countries. [Becoming aware of his plundering, King Harald had Rollo outlawed,] …for he had strongly forbidden robbery in the land.” Rollo left Norway to harry the Hebrides, northwest of Scotland, and went south to raid in France. Rollo eventually overran northern France, adding a Norwegian Viking settlement to the south of England. It was to play the major role at the end of England’s Anglo-Saxon period. In England, Alfred was still having trouble with the Danes. He received aid from his new Viking neighbor, Rollo, and offered him half the kingdom in return.

Rollo declined the land-offer, preferring his sea-faring life. The Danish invaders possessed East Anglia, eastern Mercia, and parts of Northumbria. By treaty with Alfred, this became the Danelaw; it created a legitimate Danish claim to part of England. In a manner similar to that which established the Danelaw, Rollo was recognized as duke of Normandy by the king of France. Alfred’s successor, Edward, secured the South and East of England from the Danes. To help protect the north from the Danish Vikings, Athelstan, king of England in 924, allowed the Norwegian kingdom of Northumbria to be established.

Like in the Danelaw, giving this land to the Norwegians, gave them legal rights to part of England. (Keep in mind who all has claims in England. This’ll be important later.) In 925 this Northumbrian/English relationship was sealed by the marriage of Athelstan’s sister to Sihtric, the Northumbrian king. Athelstan annexed Northumbria after Sihtric’s death.