I was born and raised in England, but I also have Scandinavian/European ancestry; as a result, I often feel very uncomfortable living here.
Religiously, my allegiance lies firmly with my Norse ancestors. But morally, I find myself feeling rather guilty about the devastating impact they obviously had on my English and Irish ancestors.
However, as an English woman, I am acutely aware that the country I call home would be very different if it weren’t for the invasion of the Northmen.
In around 793, the viking invasions officially began. Scandinavians crossed the North Sea, and came upon our shores. Norse people had already been trading with folk in the far north of England, as well as Scotland and Ireland, for a few years previously… but it wasn’t until then that they showed the British Isles what they were truly capable of.
It was during 793 that the vikings sacked a series of Christian monasteries, beginning with perhaps the most famous raid of their time – on the monastery at Lindisfarne.
After the sacking of Lindisfarne, Archbishop Alcuin of York wrote the following:
“Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such a terror appeared as we have now suffered from the pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments.”
During the next decade, the vikings sacked many more churches, abbeys and monasteries throughout England and Scotland.
But why did they mainly attack Christian establishments during this time? Many Christians believe that the pagans deliberately targeted such places in an attempt to eradicate all traces of the Christian God, and those who followed him. In reality though, it most likely had more to do with convenience rather than religion…
• Firstly, monasteries were left unarmed and unguarded, and the priests who lived there did not possess weapons (nor could they wield them).
• Secondly, these places of Christian worship were full to the brim with treasures of high value.
• Thirdly, the majority of the places they ransacked were positioned on small islands or remote coastal areas.
All of these factors meant that such locations were extremely easy pickings for the vikings – like taking candy from babies!
The very first account of a viking raid taking place in Anglo-Saxon England comes from the year 789, when three ships from Hordaland (part of what is now Norway) landed on the Isle of Portland on the southern coast of Wessex. Upon being approached by the Royal Reeve of Dorchester (whose job it was to identify all foreign merchants entering the kingdom), the vikings promptly executed him.
Although most records from that time have since been lost, it is fair to assume that more raids followed soon after, as in 792 King Offa of Mercia made arrangements for the coast of Kent to be protected from the ‘pagan peoples’.
One of the places most devastated by the vikings was Iona Abbey, on Scotland’s West coast. First attacked in 795, the abbey suffered two more massive raids in 802 and 806, during which 68 of those who dwelled there were slaughtered. Those who survived abandoned the site, and fled to Kells (Ireland).
In the first decade of the 9th century, the vikings began to attack coastal districts in Ireland.
Many hoards of treasure have been found by archaeologists across the length and breadth of the British Isles, most of which was deposited by the vikings. Some may also have been buried by Anglo-Saxons in attempt to hide their wealth from the Norse invaders.
One substantial hoard, unearthed by archaeologists in Croydon in 1862, contained 250 coins who’s origins varied from the kingdoms of England, to France, and to Mediterranean and Arab countries. Experts believe that the coins were buried in 872, when the vikings wintered in London.
From the year 865, the Norse peoples decided that the British Isles were no longer just suitable for raiding – their thoughts and ambitions now turned to colonisation!
As a result, larger armies began to invade, with the intention of conquering lands and constructing settlements.
In 866, the vikings captured York (one of the two major cities in Anglo-Saxon England). When King Aethelred of Wessex, who had been leading England’s resistance against the Northmen, died, his younger brother Alfred succeeded to the throne. Elsewhere in the British Isles, other kings were slowly succumbing to the heathen armies. More than once, confronted by the prospects of enslavement or death at the hands of the pagans, Anglo-Saxon kings handed over their lands, wealth and subjects to the vikings without even bothering to put up a fight.
King Alfred of Wessex (who later became known as ‘Alfred the Great’) nobly continued his late brothers’ conflict with the invaders, but was driven back to the south west of his Kingdom in 878. He was then forced to take refuge in the marshes of Athelney.
A few months later, Alfred managed to regroup his military forces, who successfully defeated the Norse king of East Anglia – Guthrum – at the Battle of Edington.
Following Guthrum’s defeat, in 886 the governments of East Anglia and Wessex signed the Treaty of Wedmore, which established a boundary between the two kingdoms. Everywhere (and everyone) north of the boundary became subject to the Danelaw (basically, the vikings were in charge!). Anyone who disobeyed the Danelaw was put to death or forced to endure horrific punishments.
In addition to seizing total control of northern England, the vikings still intimidated the English kings and governments to such an extent that they were still able to influence them, resulting in the gain of yet more money and lands. Pretty soon, even the southernmost parts of England were subject to the Danelaw, although unofficially.
Meanwhile, King Alfred of Wessex was busy constructing a series of both coastal and inland defences. He also constructed a very primitive version of the modern Navy, and made sure that at least half of his peasant army was on duty at any one time.
The viking armies continued to attack Wessex with a relentless ferocity, but the kingdom’s new defences proved to be successful. In 896 the vikings dispersed, most choosing to settle in East Anglia or Northumbria instead, and some settling in Normandy.
After King Alfred died, his daughter Aethelflaed and her husband (an elderman of Mercia) continued to resist the Northmen.
In 937, the Battle of Brunanburh led to the collapse of Norse power in northern Britain. In 954, Erik Bloodaxe (the last Norse king of York) was expelled from the city.
Despite ultimately losing the power they once held over England, Scandinavian folk were still living all over the country. In fact, by the end of the 900s, there were actually more Norse people in England than there were Anglo-Saxons!
By the latter end of that century, King Edgar the Peaceful of Wessex had successfully unified England, and was now recognised as the sole leader of the countries by both Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians.
However, during the reigns of both Edgar’s son Edward the Martyr and his successor Aethelred the Unready, the political strength of a unified England had waned. Taking advantage of this temporary lapse in adequate leadership and defences, the viking raiders returned and began once again to carry out merciless attacks all over the British Isles.
The English government decided that the best course of action was to pay off the Northmen. In 991 they gave the vikings £10,000 – a substantial sum in those days! This fee did not satisfy the vikings however, and for the next decade the English government was forced to pay them increasingly large amounts of money.
The English people were outraged, and were beginning to lose faith in their leaders. In desperation, King Aethelred proclaimed on St Brice’s Day 1002 that all Danes living in England would henceforth be executed. That day came to be known as ‘The St Brice’s Day Massacre’.
When news of the massacre reached the Danish King, Sweyn Forkbeard, he was furious. His rage grew even more when he learned that his sister Gunhilde was among the victims.
Fuelled by rage, Sweyn launched a series of attacks on England the following year, during which Exeter was razed to the ground. Hampshire, Wiltshire, Wilton and Salisbury also suffered Sweyn’s wrath.
Sweyn’s armies also returned to British shores in 1004, whereby they looted East Anglia, plundered Thetford and sacked Norwich before returning to Denmark.
Further raids took place in 1006 and 1007, and from 1009 to 1012 Thorkell the Tall also led a viking invasion to England.
Having not yet quenched his vengeful thirst, Sweyn Forkbeard returned to England with a large army. King Aethelred abandoned his throne to flee to Normandy, allowing Sweyn to take his place. However, within a year Sweyn was dead, so Aethelred returned. But in 1016 another large viking army invaded, this time under the control of Sweyn’s son, Cnut.
After defeating Anglo-Saxon forces at the Battle of Assandun, Cnut became king of both England and Denmark. Following Cnut’s death in 1035, apart from a brief period in which his son Harthacnut ruled, England and Denmark once again became independent nations.
Finally, the Battle of Fulford took place near York on 20th September 1066. An invading Norwegian force, led by King Harald Hardrada and his English ally Tostig Godwinson, fought and defeated the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar.
When the then King of England, Harold the Second, heard of this defeat he marched his army from the south coast to meet the Norse army at Stamford Bridge.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge took place near the village of Stamford in Yorkshire on 25th September 1066. The Norwegians were defeated, but before the English army had the chance to fully recover, the Normans (led by William the Conqueror – himself a direct descendant of the viking king Rollo) invaded England. William and his army were triumphant, and King Harold was killed during the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066.
After this, the viking raids ceased, and England was no longer plagued by the constant threat of the Northmen.
It has now been over 1000 years since the vikings were defeated, yet our modern nation has been undeniably shaped by their relatively brief presence.
From our DNA, to our place names, to out political system, the legacy of the Northmen lingers on, and will continue to do so for generations to come.
Despite my initial inner turmoil, I am now at peace with both the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon parts of myself – after all, one day in the deepest recesses of my ancestral past, both Briton and Viking saw fit to mate. Their coupling ultimately led to my existence, and I am now proud to practise the ways of one, and live in the homeland of the other.