The Peoples of Britain: The Vikings of Scandinavia

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Diorama with Vikings

On June 8, 793AD, the Vikings announced themselves with typical ferocity when they suddenly appeared off the Isle of Lindisfarne in the North Sea, some five miles off the eastern coast of Britain.

The Savagery of Viking Raids

They stormed ashore, killed or captured the monks who inhabited the island, ravaged their monastery, seized its treasures, then just as suddenly departed.

The news spread rapidly, producing fear and trepidation throughout Britain. Not only were these latest invaders utterly terrifying, but no one had ever believed that their voyage across the sea from Scandinavia was possible.

Nevertheless, in later years, the Vikings proved that nowhere was safe if their longships could reach it.

They attacked the island of Iona three times between 795AD and 825AD, plundered Lambay near Dublin in Ireland, slaughtered the inhabitants and spread similar destruction through western Europe.

The Fury of the Northmen

As a result of these disasters, a special prayer was written into the Christian Litany: “Save us, O Lord, from the fury of the Northmen.”

But the “fury of the Northmen” was not so easy to assuage. Nor was there greater success in other attempts to halt the Vikings’ perpetual raiding – by paying them “Danegeld” (Danes’ Money) to go away and leave Britain alone.

Scandinavia, a Harsh Land to Live In

The Vikings were after much more than money or the proceeds of their hit-and-run raids, lucrative though they were. For the raids revealed the true wealth of Britain. The riches the Vikings most coveted lay in the country’s fertile fields, rich grazing land and forests teeming with animal life: these were in total contrast to the harsh conditions the Vikings knew in Scandinavia.

With its fearsome blizzards and near-perpetual nights in winter, Scandinavia was a place where survival of the fittest was the basic law of life and Nature. In addition, by the late 8th century, the Scandinavian population was increasing, creating greater competition for farming land and with that, fewer opportunities for the younger generation.

For them, the most practical solution was to emigrate. In that context, Britain was a tempting prospect and one which the Vikings could easily reach. At a time when most voyages involved hugging the coastline so that landmarks would always be visible, the Vikings were able to navigate their way across large bodies of water, like the North Sea, that took them out of sight of land.

This was deemed a near-impossible feat and greatly magnified the shock of their first all-out raid on Britain, at Lindisfarne.

Just over seventy years after Lindisfarne, the Vikings resorted to assaults designed to seize large quantities of land in Europe for permanent settlement. In 865AD, the “Great Army”, a mighty force of Danish,

Norwegian and Swedish Vikings landed in East Anglia which lay in presentday Norfolk and Suffolk.

Before long, the “Great Army” captured Eoforwic (York) and London, and then moved south, only to suffer a bloody defeat, at Ashdown, near Reading, from an army headed by Prince Alfred, who became King of Wessex (southwest England) in the same year, 871AD.

Throughout the 9th century, Anglo-Saxon Wessex had grown into the most dominant of the many kingdoms in England. By 878AD, when the Vikings led by King Guthrum, staged another major assault on Wessex, Alfred had increased the power of his kingdom even further.

Alfred the Great, King of Wessex

The result was another costly defeat for the Vikings at the battle of Edington in Wiltshire. Afterwards, Alfred obliged the pagan Guthrum to convert to Christianity. Even so, Alfred”s victory was not entirely decisive.

He was forced to make concessions that recognized the Vikings’ right to a share of English territory.

This share comprised the Danelaw, the eastern half of England between the River Tyne and an area north of London where Viking law and Viking rule were recognized. This situation did not last long. Edward the Elder, Alfred’s son, succeeded his father as King of Wessex in 899AD and in the next nineteen years fought the Vikings to retrieve most of the Danelaw.

The Return of the Vikings

This, though, did not solve the Viking problem. The terrifying Viking raids were renewed when in 991AD, a fleet of some ninety Viking ships sailed up the estuary of the River Thames to London, pillaging and plundering at will.

The “fury of the Northmen” continued unabated and In 1014, yet another force from Scandinavia not only invaded England, but also seized the crown. King Knut, who already ruled Norway, Denmark and parts of Sweden was created sovereign of All England in 1016.

England, however, was not yet done with foreign incursions. There was one more to come – the invasion of 1066, led by Duke William of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror and himself a descendant of Vikings.

Sources:

  1. Maskell, Hazel, Wheatlley, Abigail and McNee, Ian: Anglo-Saxons and Vikings (History of Britain) London, UK: (Usborne Publishing Ltd, 2010) ISBN-10: 1409504913/ISBN-13: 978-1409504917
  2. Jesch, Judith: Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age: The Vocabulary of Runic Inscriptions and Skaldic Verse (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press,, 2008) ISBN-10: 0851158269/ISBN-13: 978-0851158266
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