Skip to main content area
Main Content Area

The Vikings

"Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs, and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the raiding of the heathen men miserably devastated God's church in Lindisfarne island by looting and slaughtering." Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Peterborough Manuscript, AD 793, pp. 55 and 57 

The above passage taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle demonstrates the utter fear that these foreign raiders brought out in the people of Anglo-Saxon England. The attack on the island of Lindisfarne was the first of a series recorded around the coasts of the North Sea.

The Anglo-Saxons had first arrived in Britain after being invited over by the ruling classes to help subdue raids by the Picts, Scots and Vikings who were taking advantage of the lack of organisation after the departure of the Romans. The deal had been that if the Anglo-Saxons could push back the enemy then they and their families were welcome to settle on land in Britain. As we have already seen, the settlement of the Anglo-Saxons was to alter British rule altogether. However, once the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been established they were still under constant threat of further Viking raids.

The Vikings were sea-faring men who came from Scandinavia, the places we know as Norway, Denmark and Sweden. They were farmers, traders and fishermen who, like the Anglo-Saxons before them, were finding it hard to make a living from their mountainous lands. They recognised the great wealth that England had to offer and were ready to take advantage of a land that was absorbed in squabbles and in-fighting.

The first Vikings to land in Britain were the Danes, and they were later followed by Norwegians. These first approaches of the Vikings to England appear to have been of a relatively peaceful mercantile nature, but soon their desire for wealth and land would spark off fearsome and bloody raids. The Vikings arrived in England on longboats designed to carry large numbers of men ready for the fight.

At first the raids were fairly infrequent but they soon became common occurrences with the numbers of both raids and raiders rising, and it became clear that the Vikings wanted to colonise England. From 835 barely a year goes past without the mention of a Viking raid.

These frequent Viking incursions into England (as it had become by this time) culminated in the landing of a "Great Army" in East Anglia in 865. The army was fierce and made wide territorial advancements into England, and by 875 the kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria had succumbed to their power, leaving Wessex as the last kingdom under Anglo-Saxon rule. The Vikings then attacked Wessex in 878 and the king at the time, Alfred, was forced to flee, before being able to organise a force to counter-attack. He was successful and was able to push the Vikings northwards to the sea. He had shown that the Vikings could be beaten and, hoping to keep the peace, he allowed the Vikings to settle in East Anglia. The lands under Viking rule were known as Danelaw and here Danish laws, not Saxon, were in force.

While the Vikings had control of areas of England, what was it like? The Vikings, like the English they now dominated, were an agricultural community and they began farming on both new and already-cultivated land. The cheap labour that they were able to organise from those they had conquered enabled them to farm intensively with good rewards.

Other than this we know very little of the Viking invaders' life in the countryside, and we know only a little more about their life in the towns. We know that they recognised the importance of fortifying urban centres and they fortified many towns, including Cambridge and Northampton. These urban centres were initially used a places of refuge but later grew into markets and administrative centres. 

The split of Danish and Saxon law

The most important Viking centre in England was York, which the Vikings called Jorvik. York is close to the east coast of England and from here it was just a boat ride across the North Sea to the homeland of the Vikings. This meant that York soon developed as a centre of Viking trade; they minted coins here and established a major market.

As the Vikings became part of the urban society in England, so did the farmers and settlers in the more rural regions. They began to become anglicised, adopting English as their language and setting aside paganism for the Christian religion. Even though they had begun to integrate themselves into society the Vikings were still an unwelcome presence to many.

In 886 Alfred led an army into London to rebuild its city walls. The English now saw Alfred as their king; he made laws and restored monasteries, and for his achievements he was granted the nickname "The Great".

The peace between the Saxons and the Vikings did not last long, and in 890 Viking sea raids began again. The farmers that had settled in England joined these raiders in the hope of gaining some more land from the West Saxons, but Alfred and his troops fought them off.

Fighting continued after Alfred's death in 899, but now the English had the upper hand and Alfred's son Edward the Elder was able to take control of Danelaw, although York continued to have Viking kings until 954. In 924 Edward's son Athelstan became king, and in 937 he was victorious at the Battle of Brunanburh against an army of Vikings, Scots and Strathclyde Britons. Athelstan then became the first king to command loyalty from all of Britain. As a ruler he was interested in government, and ordered that coins should be used throughout the land and that burhs would become the centres of local government, where an ealdorman in each would rule in the king's name.

After Athelstan's death in 939 his successors, Edmund and Edgar, had to deal with new Viking raids and the Vikings were able to gain in power. York once again fell to the Danes. In 954 King Edred (English) invaded Northumbria and drove out the Viking leader Eric Bloodaxe, who was later killed. From this date England became permanently and formally unified.

Edred was now able to rule over a unified England with a more centralised government. This was not to be the last of the Viking attacks, as the English king Æthelred the Unready was soon to find his kingdom under attack from all sides. He failed to fight off the Danes because of his inability to unite the English for battle. Æthelred tried to buy the Vikings off, and then he tried to bribe Danish soldiers to fight for him with the promise of land. They demanded more and so Æthelred ordered a massacre of Danes living in England.

In 1013 the Danish king Sweyn ravaged England and Æthelred fled to Normandy. The English nobles asked Sweyn to be their king. He accepted but he died before being crowned. Æthelred returned but died himself in 1016, and the Viking leader Cnut was effectively in control of England, but on his death (in 1035) the country collapsed into a number of competing earldoms. After much battling for the Crown Edward, son of Æthelred the Unready, came to England from Normandy and was crowned king in 1043: he later became known as Edward the Confessor. 

After Edward's death in 1066 there was once again a dispute over the throne between Harold Hardrada of Norway, Harold Godwinson (an English noble) and William, Duke of Normandy. Harold Godwinson was initially crowned king but he quickly had to deal with the threat of Harold of Norway. Whilst fighting this battle at Stamford Bridge in the north of England, William of Normandy landed in the south and Harold Godwinson had to turn around and meet William at the Battle of Hastings. The Frenchman William was victorious and on Christmas Day 1066 he was crowned king, bringing to an end the Anglo-Saxon rule of England.

During the 250 years of the "Viking Age" Scandinavia had changed from a barely-known pagan region, poorly organised under a series of petty chieftains, to three great nations who were members of the Christian community. They had grown in power and wealth and travelled far and wide across Europe and to the west, going from England to Iceland to Greenland and even on to North America. They were a fearsome group of men who were ready to fight to the death to get what they wanted, but who were also able to settle in a new land and make homes and lives for themselves.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]