The Vikings – Viking raids

Viking raids

Raids by seaborne Scandinavian pirates on sites in Britain, especially largely undefended monastic sites, began at the end of the eighth century AD.
By the end of the ninth century there were large-scale settlements of Scandinavians in various parts of Britain, and they had achieved political domination over a significant territory.

Early in the 11th century the king of Denmark became king of England as well. And in 1066 there were separate invasions by the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada, and duke of Normandy, William, the latter the descendant of Scandinavian settlers in northern France.

Many monasteries in the north were destroyed, and with them any records of the raids.

Yet the most significant development of the period was an indirect result of Scandinavian involvement in the affairs of Britain – the emergence of two kingdoms of newly unified territories, England and Scotland.

In 793 AD, an anguished Alcuin of York wrote to the Higbald, the bishop of Lindisfarne and to Ethelred, King of Northumbria, bemoaning the unexpected attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne by Viking raiders, probably Norwegians sailing directly across the North Sea to Northumbria.

It is clear from the letter that Lindisfarne was not destroyed. Alcuin suggested that further attack might be averted by moral reform in the monastery.

Over the next few decades, many monasteries in the north were destroyed, and with them any records they might have kept of the raids. We know no historical details of the raids in Scotland, although they must have been extensive.

Iona was burnt in 802 AD, and 68 monks were killed in another raid in 806 AD. The remaining monks fled to Kells (County Meath, Ireland) with a gospel-book probably produced in Iona, but now known as the ‘Book of Kells’.

Other monasteries in Scotland and northern England simply disappear from the record. Lindisfarne was abandoned, and the monks trailed around northern England with their greatest possession, the relics of St Cuthbert, until they found a home in Durham in 995 AD.

England and Scotland

The Vikings – England and Scotland

England and Scotland

We cannot be sure of the impact the Vikings had on Scotland due to a real scarcity of written material from the area. But the surviving place names show us that the Orkneys and Shetlands, and the mainland of Caithness and Sutherland, were heavily settled by Norwegians.

Those Norwegians were probably involved in the greatest political upset in the north – the disappearance of the kingdom of the Picts. The Vikings began to assemble larger armies with the clear intent of conquest. In the eighth century, the Picts had one of the most important kingdoms in Britain. By the end of the ninth century they had vanished. In their place was a kingdom of Scotland, controlled by the Scots, who were the descendents of immigrants from Ireland in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The Scots took advantage of the presence of the Vikings, and, above all under King Cináed mac Alpín (Kenneth MacAlpine), they did so with considerable aggression and intelligence. They promoted themselves as the kings of all those in northern Britain, or ‘Alba’.

They wove a new national history, which emphasised (or invented) many links between the Scottish and Pictish dynasties. They also promoted the idea that St Columba, the founder of the monastery of Iona, was the apostle of all those in the north.

The Viking raids in England were sporadic until the 840s AD, but in the 850s Viking armies began to winter in England, and in the 860s they began to assemble larger armies with the clear intent of conquest.

In 865 AD they forced the East Angles to help supply an army, which in 866 AD captured York and in 867 AD took over the southern part of the kingdom of Northumbria.

Later traditions saw Ragnar Hairy-Breeks and his son Ívarr the Boneless as the two main Viking leaders, responsible not only for killing Ælla, King of Northumbria in 867 AD but also Edmund, King of the East Angles in 869 AD, and for destroying Dumbarton, the fortress of the British kings of Strathclyde.

The normally reliable ‘Annals of Ulster’ recorded Ívarr’s death in Ireland in 873 AD and described him as ‘king of the Northmen in the whole of Ireland and Britain’.

The man we then see more clearly in the sources as the Viking leader, Hálfdan, was later believed to be Ívarr’s brother. He led the Viking army to a conquest of Mercia in 874 AD, organised a parcelling out of land among the Vikings in Northumbria in 876 AD, and in 878 AD moved south and forced most of the population of Wessex to submit.

The Vikings had conquered almost the whole of England.

Alfred's dynasty

The Vikings – Alfred’s dynasty

The idea that the Vikings had forced Wessex to submit may have been invented to magnify the achievement of its king, Alfred, the only English king to be called ‘the Great’. Famously, he hid in the marshes near Athelney (Somerset) in 878 AD, but then emerged, re-formed his army, and defeated the Vikings later that year at Edington (Wiltshire).

An excerpt from the ‘Parker Chronicle’, the oldest surviving manuscript from the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ (890 AD) ©. After the peace that Alfred forced on the Vikings, the Viking army seems to have moved across the Channel (it established winter quarters in Paris in 886 AD), giving the king some time to organise for war.

Æthelstan’s victory did not end the Viking threat or the slow expansion by the Scots. He built fortresses, established a defensive strategy, and built up a navy. By the time the Vikings returned in the 890s, the West Saxons were able to resist, leaving Alfred, at his death in 899 AD, king of the only independent English kingdom.

Thanks to Alfred’s own propaganda machine, we know more about him than about most early medieval kings in Britain. He ordered the compilation of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, a major source of information that was continued as contemporary chronicles in various centres until the 12th century.

Under Alfred’s auspices, the Welshman Asser prepared a ‘Life of Alfred’, after the model of Einhard’s ‘Life of Charlemagne’. Like Charlemagne, Alfred was deeply interested in promoting literacy and learning, and he sponsored (and perhaps even took part in) the translation of various Latin works into English.

Alfred was succeeded by his son Edward the Elder (899-924 AD) and grandson Æthelstan (924-939 AD). Both these rulers were in many ways even more important in the history of England than Alfred himself.

In a few expeditions Edward (with the direct military help of his sister Æthelflæd, widow of the Mercian king) conquered the south of England from the Danes, and incorporated Mercia itself into his kingdom.

The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ tells us that Edward built a fortress at Bakewell (Derbyshire), and there he was chosen ‘father and lord’ by the king of the Scots, the king of the Strathclyde Welsh, and the people of Northumbria.

All of them were perhaps in need of protection from aggression by the Vikings of Dublin.

There was a similar submission to Æthelstan in 927 AD, at Eamont (Cumbria), when Welsh kings as well as the Scottish king submitted to him. The great Welsh king Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) was apparently a close ally. In fact, he was so Anglophile that he named one of his sons Edwin, and sponsored a written law code after the English model.

Æthelstan’s greatest success was the victory at Brunanburh, somewhere in the north. A Viking army led by Olaf Guthfrithson, allied with the kings of Scotland and Strathclyde, invaded Northumbria in 937 AD. Our source tells us that five kings and seven of Olaf’s earls died on the battlefield, as well as the son of Constantine II of Scotland.

Æthelstan’s reputation was immense on the continent, and an Irish monk called him ‘the pillar of the dignity of the western world’. But his victory did not put an end to the Viking threat in the north, nor to the slow expansion of the power of the Scots.

The last Viking king of York, Eric Bloodaxe, was only expelled from Northumbria in 954 AD, after Æthelstan’s rule. In that same year the Scots took Edinburgh from the English.


The Vikings – Danegeld

After 955 AD there was a generation of peace on the island of Britain. As the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ says of Edgar, King of England (959 – 975 AD) ‘without battle he brought under his sway all that he wished’. He issued laws for ‘all the nations, whether Englishmen, Danes, or Britons’, an interesting recognition of the multi-ethnic character of England at the time.

Edgar took advantage of his strong position to foster the reorganisation of the church that is generally known as the ’10th-century Reformation’. New bishoprics were established in the areas conquered from the Vikings.

Raids were on a large scale and their object was extortion.

But above all this reformation was about the re-establishment and strict reform of monasticism.

Edgar relied on three men in particular – Dunstan (archbishop of Canterbury, 960 – 988 AD), Oswald (bishop of Worcester, 961 – 992 AD, and archbishop of York, 971 – 992 AD) and Æthelwold (bishop of Winchester, 963 – 984 AD).

The process was sealed by the ‘Regularis Concordia’ of 973 AD, a document of monastic reform that relied heavily on continental models. It was cemented by the building of some magnificent churches (mostly replaced by the Normans) and some lavish illuminated manuscripts, such as the ‘Benedictional of St Æthelwold’.

After Edgar’s death, his successor Edward I reigned briefly. He was murdered in 978 AD at Corfe (Dorset), possibly by the followers of his young half-brother Æthelred, and possibly by his stepmother.

Edgar’s half-brother, Æthelred II, who later would acquire the nickname ‘the Unready’, started his long reign (978-1016 AD) at the same time as the emergence of Denmark.

The country was newly converted to Christianity and newly unified under Harald Bluetooth. It was becoming a major power.

This was the dawning of the ‘second Viking age’, and it was very different from the first. Raids were on a large scale, frequently organised by royal leaders, and their object was extortion. In 991 AD the Danes acquired 4,500 kg of silver in return for going home.

By 1012, payments to the Danes, known as ‘Danegeld’, had increased to 22,000 kg. England was wealthy, and it developed a taxation system that was probably more sophisticated than any other in Europe, which was both a cause and a consequence of the raiding.

Conquest and fall

The Vikings – Conquest and fall

The extortion came to an end in 1013, when Harald’s son, Swein Forkbeard, decided to conquer England. He forced Æthelred into exile, although the definitive conquest of England was only achieved under his son Cnut (or Canute).

In 1016, Cnut became king of England, and after further campaigns in Scandinavia he could claim in 1027 to be ‘king of the whole of England and Denmark and Norway and of parts of Sweden’.

Silver penny of Cnut (Canute) ©. Cnut was a strong and effective king. He introduced some Danish customs to England, but England also influenced Denmark. For instance, Cnut appointed several Englishmen as bishops in Denmark, and even today most of the ordinary Danish words of church organisation are English in origin.

William won and the last English royal dynasty perished. In an attempt at reconciliation with the English he had conquered, Cnut married Emma, the widow of Æthelred. She was the daughter of the duke of Normandy, himself the descendant of Vikings or Northmen (Normans).

She bore Cnut a son, Harthacnut, but she had also had a son by Æthelred, who succeeded Harthacnut as Edward II, the Confessor (1042 – 1066).

When Edward died without children, it was natural that Emma’s great-nephew, Duke William, should lay claim to the throne. It was just as natural that this claim should be resisted by Harold, the son of Godwin, Edward’s most powerful noble.

Harold II successfully beat off the invasion by Harald Hardrada of Norway, defeating him at Stamford Bridge near York in September 1066. Even when he and his troops arrived, exhausted, at Hastings three weeks later to face William’s Norman invaders, he nearly prevailed.

But William won, and the last English royal dynasty perished.

About the author

Edward James is Professor of Medieval History at University College Dublin.

Previously he had been Senior Lecturer at the University of York and Professor of Medieval History at Reading. He has published a number of books and articles on early medieval France, including The Franks (Blackwell, 1988) and is currently writing a book called Europe’s Barbarians for Longman.