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The Vikings in the British Isles

Now let’s look at the Vikings’ grand accomplishments in war in more detail. We’ll start with the region that was impacted more than any other by their military activities: the British Isles.

Viking raids on England began in the late eighth century, and by 792, English kings who ruled coastal areas were organizing defensive forces against, in their words, “seagoing pagans.”

The raid that really established the Vikings as a force to be reckoned with, and not merely a piratical nuisance, was the attack on the Monastery of St. Cuthbert at Lindisfarne in 793. The ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives us a sense of how vivid an impression the attack made on the minds of the English:

In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.

Attacks by rival powers were common in England as elsewhere in Europe at the time, but what was so novel about this attack, and what so scandalized the English and other Christian Europeans, was that the raid specifically targeted a monastery, something which no Christian ruler dared to do. To the English and other the Christian Europeans, this was not a normal depredation in the back-and-forth of everyday power struggles; this was evil. The Vikings’ reputation in Christian Europe as demonic barbarians was beginning to fall into place.

After this, Viking attacks on England became more common, until by 835 attacks occurred on an almost annual basis. In 851, the Vikings stayed in England over the winter for the first time. In 865, they began collecting tribute (the “Danegeld”). The English paid the Danegeld in exchange for peace, but the Vikings continued to raid even so.

The year 865 marked the entrance of a so-called “great heathen army” to England. It numbered perhaps two or three thousand men. After overwintering in East Anglia, in 866 the “army” captured York, the capital of the northern English kingdom of Northumbria. They placed a puppet king in control of Northumbria, raided monasteries, and established direct control over certain areas, some of which had formerly been owned by the church.

The army then moved on to the other English kingdoms, conquering or making peace settlements – which obligated the local population to give the Vikings food, lodging, and such – with all of them.

The Vikings in the British Isles

In 874, the “great heathen army” divided in two. Some, under the leadership of Halfdan, consolidated their control of Northumbria, and began working the land in 876. The other part of the army, led by Guthrum, Oscetel, and Anwend, turned their sights toward Wessex, the only English kingdom that remained under English rule. The Vikings conquered most of the realm, sending its king, Alfred the Great, fleeing into the marshes for refuge. But Alfred was able to amass an English army to move against the Vikings in 878, and won a decisive victory over them. The Vikings were forced to leave Wessex, and Guthrum was baptized as part of the bargain. Members of this band of the army settled and began working the land in Mercia in 877 and East Anglia in 880.

In the 890s, other bands of Vikings came up from the Continent and attempted to settle in Wessex, but King Alfred repelled them all. Alfred’s successors proved to be as capable as he was, and during the early tenth century, they gradually extended their domain to encompass the rest of England. After this, control alternated between them and Vikings until 954, when rule passed back to the English.

Throughout much of the ninth and tenth centuries, much of England was known as the “Danelaw” – that is, the area under the law of the “Danes.”(The English tended to refer to all Scandinavians as “Danes.”) Although the Danelaw was never a unified political unit, its formidable influence upon the culture and customs of the inhabitants of those regions lived on for many centuries thereafter.

After a period spent concentrating on other regions, the Vikings returned to England in the late tenth century. In the 980s, raiding recommenced, this time under the true kings who had emerged during the intervening period – figures such as Norway’s Olaf Tryggvason and Denmark’s Svein Forkbeard, who managed to amass great wealth through tribute. They raided until 1013, when Svein set out to conquer the entirety of England. He succeeded, but he died the following year. In the ensuing struggle over succession, rule returned to the English.

The Vikings in the British Isles

However, Svein’s son Cnut the Great managed to re-conquer all of England in 1016. In 1027, the king of Scotland submitted to him, too. Cnut became king of Norway as well in 1028, after defeating its king, Olaf Haraldsson. When Cnut died in 1035, his empire broke up, and England returned to English rule.

In 1066, the Norwegian King Harald Hardruler (Harðráði) attempted to retake England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. This was the last major Viking attack on England, and Harald’s forces were thoroughly defeated by those of the English King Harold.

However, this battle was decisive for the history of England in another way: the English army didn’t have time to recover its strength before having to face another invader, Duke William of Normandy. At the Battle of Hastings, the forces of William (thereafter known as “the Conqueror”) were victorious, and King Harold died in battle. Norman rule was to shape England’s subsequent character even more than Viking rule had.

The first recorded Viking raid in Scotland occurred on Iona in 795, but there were undoubtedly earlier raids in the Northern Isles of Scotland, which lie between Iona and Norway on the period sea route, of which we don’t have records. In the ninth century, the Norse seem to have conquered lots of already-thriving settlements in Scotland and its islands, subjugating the local populations.

Viking raids on Ireland began in the 790s, but were isolated events at first. In the 830s, they became more frequent and widespread. In the 840s, the first Viking settlements were established, including the new town of Dubh-Linn (“Black Pool”) by the side of the river Liffey (modern-day Dublin). It became the capital of a new Norse kingdom, and an internationally important center of trade.

In the Battle of Tara in 980, the Vikings were defeated by the Irish, and were compelled from that time forward to pay tribute to the Irish in order to remain in Ireland. But the Viking trading towns generated a great deal of wealth, so the Irish put up with the Viking presence in their midst.