There seems to be almost a folk-memory of the Vikings in Britain, the word itself conjuring images of hairy warriors wielding giant axes as they storm ashore from dragon boats. Rape and pillage are the words that spring to mind about the Norsemen, but they settled and farmed as well as raided, bringing their crafts and even improvements to farm stock like the Herdwick sheep . And before they raided they traded here. There is far more to the Vikings than berserker swordsmen.
Some texts like to offer a neatly bookended version of the Viking era as regards Britain, or more Anglo-centrically England, with the bloody raid on Lindisfarne in 793 as the start point, and the defeat of Harald Hardraada at Stamford Bridge in 1066 as the finish.
Leaving aside the raid by Norsemen in 787 on Portland in Dorset (though their murder of a local official may have really been an extreme form of tax evasion by traders), there is some justification in this convention, as the traders shown by archaeological evidence to have preceded such raids were not by definition Vikings - vikingyr in Old Norse, the word having connotations of violent raids overseas - unless as may have been the case with some they were spies and scouts for the raiders. And though William the Conqueror was of Viking descent, his people and lands had little in common anymore with their ancestral homeland.
The Vikings came from Scandinavia in the main, with some from the German Baltic coast. The suggested reasons for their raids and later invasions are diverse: climate change; scarcity of land; a romantic wanderlust; envy of the wealth seen in British religious houses; simple criminal intent. The first period of Viking impact on Britain was one of small-scale smash-and-grab raids, with Lindisfarne in 793 as a model: land from the sea; seize treasure; take slaves; put others to the sword; escape to the seas again. The island of Iona and its religious community suffered a similar attack in 794, and again in 802, but the latter was evidence of slightly changed tactics, the raiders having set up bases on the Irish coast rather than returning to Scandinavia in order to facilitate their attacks. Iona suffered a further one in 806.
A point needs to be made here: while the term 'the Vikings' implies a certain unity, this was generally far from the case: disparate groups were involved in raids and in the invasions of different parts of the British Isles. Unravelling the complexity of Viking kinship, rivalry and alliances is beyond the scope of this article.
In 846 the Viking leader Radnar, bought off by the French, tried his luck in Northumbria with a force way beyond a mere raiding party, but was defeated and killed in battle.
In 850 things changed yet further, with a Viking army using Thanet in Kent as a winter base, probably to distance itself from the European mainland rather than with a view to conquest. But in 866 the Great Raiding Army arrived in East Anglia. The following year York fell to Radnar's sons Ivar the Boneless, King of Dublin, and his half-brothers Halfdan the Wide-Grasper and Ubbi, one of their motives being vengeance. Aella who had defeated their father was indeed killed with his erstwhile rival Osbert when they united to confront the Vikings.
York remained a Viking city for almost a hundred years, in contrast to their more usual tactic of seizing a town - like Repton , Thetford , and Reading - from which raids could be made before moving on. In Ireland they founded major centres such as Dublin in 838, plus Limerick and Cork , again showing their intent to be permanent residents, perhaps a desire first evidenced in the exceptionally large raiding fleet of 120 ships that plagued the Irish coast in 832. And raids on the Welsh coast were followed by colonies established on the Gower , for example Swansea is a place-name of Viking origin.
The Vikings consolidated their position in East Anglia with the defeat and death of King Edmund, horribly martyred by them on November 20 869 . Northumbria and Mercia too fell to the Norsemen, the rival English kingdoms failing to unite against a common enemy.
Previously the Vikings had established a presence in Scotland with an invasion fleet in 839, arriving at the Tay and defeating both Pictish and Scottish leaders - the Picts never recovered, their kingdom a spent force. Other groups settled the various islands off the Scottish shore at about the same time.
While the campaign of the Great Raiding Army in England was obviously premeditated, a concerted effort at conquest, at roughly the same period much of Scotland fell to Harald Finehair, King of Norway, in effect by accident, Harald in 875 pursuing Norwegian rebels across the sea, and ending up as ruler of the Isle of Man , the Isles, and large parts of the mainland.
The Viking occupation of Scotland, or parts of it, was far longer lasting than was the case in England. It took the defeat at the Battle of Largs of Hakon Hakonarson in 1263 by the army of Alexander III for the Western Isles , Isle of Man, and swathes of the mainland to be recovered by the Scots, formalised in the Treaty of Perth three years later. And the Shetland Isles and Orkneys remained under Norwegian influence until 1469.
Alfred the Great fought the Danes (as at this stage the majority of the Vikings on English soil were from Denmark) first under his brother Ethelred, and on the latter's death as king in his own right. In 871 the brothers defeated the invaders at Ashdown , a short-lived triumph followed by defeat at Basing and Martin, but important in that the previously relentless progress of the Norsemen was shown not to be unstoppable, though the incomers did come close to ultimate victory in defeating Alfred at Chippenham in 878 .
The recovery of Alfred and his kingdom of Wessex led to the eventual splitting of England into the Viking ruled Danelaw, roughly east of a line from London to Chester ; and in very broad terms a united England, though this was only formally the case in the reign of Alfred's son and successor Edward the Elder , who ruled from 901 to 925 calling himself King of the English.
Gradual pushing back of the Viking frontier continued for decades, until in 954 Erik Bloodaxe was driven from York , the last Viking ruled corner of the land. But with a century of settlement the Danelaw side of the country had Viking ties, blood, and allegiances, strengthened with continued immigration from Scandinavia. Ethelred the Unready attempted the genocide of the Danish in England in the carefully planned St Brice's Day Massacre in 1002, after a period of relative peace (helped by the continued payment of Danegeld, in essence protection money, to the Scandinavians). Sweyn Forkbeard invaded to avenge the violence, laying much of the land waste until he was driven away in 1005 by the famine of his own creation.
Either spurred by Forkbeard's example, or through ambition or necessity, another period of raids began in Ethelred's reign. The tide was turning again in favour of the invaders. In 1016 Canute invaded on the death of Ethelred, defeating Edmund Ironside at Ashingdon in 1016 and forcing an agreement to share the kingdom, after which the fit and vigorous Edmund very conveniently expired to leave Canute sole King.
Thus England had become a Viking Kingdom by 1016, and remained so through the reigns of Canute's sons Harald I and Hardicanute until 1042, when Edward the Confessor acceded to the throne.
There was of course a further throw of the Viking dice, when Harald Hardraada invaded in 1066 in the confusion after the death of the Confessor. Harold Godwinson defeated and killed Hardraada at Stamford Bridge , driving the remnants of the last Viking horde back into the sea. But as noted at the start of this piece, Godwinson's eventual conqueror William of Normandy was very much of Viking blood, and the Norman rule over England could be argued to be a continuation of Viking dominance.
The Viking legacy in Britain is manifold. They were not great builders, even after their conversion to Christianity, but have left marker stones and some crosses that attest to their presence. We can still see Viking institutions and celebrations in our culture for example the Tynwald, the Isle of Man's Parliament (and the oldest still running in the entire world), was founded by the Vikings, and Up-Helly-Aa in Shetland, though a revival, is rooted in the Viking past there. The Viking presence in York is demonstrated wonderfully at the Jorvik Centre in that city. But more significantly Viking DNA is present in many of us still, and our language is filled with words of Viking origin: both; law; wrong; ill; crooked; and fittingly the words club, knife, and slaughter, among many more.
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