The Age of the Vikings
After the anglo-saxons had established their kingdoms this is another interesting part of English history, a period in which England went from a people divided, to a people united under one King, a period in which the English would become the worlds first known Nation State. And the Norsemen were, without a doubt a big part and reason for that future political State, and Nation Statehood, but we will also learn that the Norsemen are as much apart of the English nation, as a people and as much apart of England’s identity as the early Anglo-Saxon ancestors are.
The term Norsemen was used, and is used to mean the Vikings of Denmark, of which the early Angli ancestors originated from, i.e. Anglen in southern Denmark and the Islands of the Jutland Peninsula. But also the Vikings of Norway, Sweden and perhaps other Nordic tribes in that part of Northern Europe, and as we shall find, the Angles and Saxons were in many ways no different from the Vikings who first came to England in 793 AD as raiders like the Anglo-Saxons some four hundred years before.
Both the early English and the Norsemen worshiped more or less the same Gods, fought in more or less the same fashion, and more or less had the same cultural identity, poems, songs and lived more or less by the same codes, the same warrior codes, fought in the same sort of war bands and loyally serving and dying in battle for the same sort of voted for war leader, or warlord. So we can see that the English and the Norse were of the same roots, and from more or less the same lands, in North Western Europe. One of the reasons why genetically it is difficult to separate Danes from English.
The Norsemen – why did they invade England?
Measure for measure, what the Englisc had given the Britons in the early 400’s AD was meted out to their English descendants after a lapse of four hundred years. In the eighth century a vehement manifestation of conquering energy appeared in Scandinavia. Norway, Sweden, and Denmark threw up war bands of formidable fighting men, much akin to the early Englisc war bands that ravaged southern Britain, who, in addition to all their martial qualities, were the hardy rovers of the sea.
Arguably there still is much similarity between these Sea Nations today. Heavily tattooed, a Viking warrior would have looked very similar to an English Huscarl, who copied the Danish fighting arts, especially the use of the Dane Axe. The causes, which led to this racial ebullition, were spontaneous growth of their strength and population, the thirst for adventure, and the complications of dynastic quarrels. There was here no question of Danes or Norsemen being driven Westward by new pressures from the steppes of Asia, that put the early Englisc on their sea roving adventure to Britain. They moved of their own accord.
The Viking Warrior
Famous for their ‘spectacle’ helmet visors, Dane Axes and wolf skins. Their prowess was amazing. One current of marauding vigour struck southwards from Sweden, and not only reached Constantinople, but left behind it a potent memory which across the centuries made their mark upon European Russia. The word ‘Rus’ (as in Russia – ‘state of the Vikings’), is another term for Viking or ‘sea pirate.’ Another contingent sailed in their long boats from Norway to the Mediterranean, harried all the shores of the inland sea, and were with difficulty repulsed by the Arab kingdoms of Spain and the north coast of Africa. They attacked Majorca and Menorca. The third far ranging impulse carried the Scandinavian buccaneers to the British Isles, to Normandy, to Iceland, presently across the Atlantic Ocean to the North American coast. Mexico has been theorised as a destination.
The relations between the Danes and the Norwegians were tangled and varying. Sometimes they would raid together; sometimes they fought each other in desperate battles; but to the English they presented themselves in the common guise of a merciless scourge. They were incredibly cruel. Though not cannibals, they were accustomed to cook their feasts of victory in cauldrons placed upon, or spits stuck in, the bodies of their vanquished enemies. When, after a battle in Ireland between Northmen and Danes, the local Irish inhabitants expressed horror at this disgusting habit, and, being neutral, asked them why they did it, they received the answer, “Why Not? They would do it to us if they won.” It was said of these Scandinavian hunters that they never wept for their sins, nor for the death of their friends.
The Viking Longships
The soul of the Vikings, like their earlier English kin (and their Cyuls,) lay in the Viking long-ship. They like their early English kin, had evolved, and now, in the eighth and ninth centuries, carried to perfection, a vessel which by its shallow draught could sail far up rivers, or anchor in innumerable creeks and bays, and which its beautiful lines and suppleness of construction could ride out the fiercest storms of the Atlantic Ocean.
We are singularly well informed about these ships. Half a dozen were dug up almost intact. The most famous being the Gokstad ship in Norway, in 1880, from a tumulus. It is almost complete, even to the cooking-pots and draught boards of the sailors. It was re-measured with precision in 1944. This ship was of the medium size, 76 feet 9 inches from stem to stern, 17 feet 6 inches beam, and drawing only 2 feet 9 inches amidships. She was clinker-built of sixteen strakes a side of solid oak planks, fastened with tree-nails and iron bolts, and caulked with cord of plaited animal-hair. Her planks fastened to the ribs with bast ties gave the frame-work great elasticity. She had a deck of loose un-nailed boards, but no doubt her stores were contained in lockers which have perished. Her mast was stepped in a huge solid block, was so cunningly supported “that while the mast stands steady and firm there is no strain on the light elastic frame of the ship”.* She had sixteen oars a side, varying in length between 17 and 19 feet; the longer oars were used at the prow and stern, where the gun-wale was higher above the water-line; they were all beautifully shaped, and passed through cir-cular rowlocks cut in the main strake, which were neatly fitted with shutters that closed when oars were shipped. Her rudder, stepped to the starboard quarter, was a large, short oar of a cricket-bat shape, fitted with movable tiller, and fastened to the ship by an ingenious contrivance which gave the blade full play. The mast, 40 feet high, had a long, heavy yard with a square sail. She could carry a smaller boat or din-ghy, three of which were discovered with her. The Gokstad ship would carry a crew of fifty, and if necessary another thirty warriors or captives, in all weathers, for a month.
*Description by a Professor Collingwood, who did a detailed study of the ship.
Such was the vessel which, in many different sizes, bore the Vikings to the plunder of the civilised world – to the assault of Constantinople, to the siege of Paris, to the foundation of Dublin, and the discovery of North America. It’s picture rises before us vivid and bright: the finely carved, dragon-shaped prow; the high, curving stern; the long row of shields, black and yellow alternatively, ranged along the sides; the gleam of steel; the scent of murder. The long-ships in which the great ocean voyages were made were somewhat stouter build, with higher freeboard; but the Gokstad model was reproduced in 1892 and navigated by a Norwegian crew across the Atlantic in four weeks.
Yet this superb instrument of sea-power would have been useless without the men who handled it. Like there early English kin, all were volunteers. Parties were formed under leaders of marked ability. In the sagas we read of crews of “champions, or merry men”: a ships company picked no doubt from many applicants, “as good at the helm or oar as they were with the sword”. There were strict regulations, or early “Ar-ticles of War”, governing these crews once they had joined. Men were taken between the ages of sixteen and sixty, but none without a trial of his strength and fighting prowess. No feud or old quarrel must be taken up while afloat or on service. No woman was allowed on board. News was to be reported to the captain alone. All taken in war was to be brought to the pile or stake, and there sold and divided according to rule. This war booty was personal; that is to say, it was not part of the property which passed by Scandinavian law to a man’s kindred. He was entitled to have it buried with him.
“With anything like equal numbers,” says Oman, “the Vikings were always able to hold their own, but when the whole countryside had been raised, and the men of the shires came swarming up against the raiders, they had to beware lest they might be crushed by numbers.” It was only when a fleet of large numbers had come together that the Norsemen could dare to offer their opponents battle in the open field. Fighting was after all not so much their object as plunder, and when the land was rallied in overwhelming force did the invaders take to their ships again and sailed off to renew their ravages in some yet intact province. Like the opportunists they were, they would look for more, weaker targets to attack. The Norsemen soon learned moreover to secure for them-selves the power of rapped locomotion on land. When they came to shore they would sweep together all the horses of the neighbourhood and move themselves and their plunder by horseback across the land. It was with no intention of fighting as cavalry that they collected the horses, but only for swift marching. The first mention of this practice in England comes in the year 866 AD, when “a great heathen army came to the land of the East Angles, and there was the army a-horse”.*
When we reflect upon the brutal vices of these salt water bandits, pirates as shameful as any whom the sea has borne, or recoil from their villainous destruction and cruel deeds, we must also remember that our and their early English kin, came in much the same way as they did, when the English war-bands crossed the North sea to plunder, raid and burn the lands of the Romanic-Britons before coming as conquerors. We must also remember that even as late as the 1500’s our English Privateers, plundered and raided the lands and colonies of the Spanish King, the same sea-fearing blood of our early Englisc and Nordic kin flows through the English. We should also remember the discipline, the fortitude, the comradeship and fighting prowess which made the Norsemen and their English kin, at this period and after, beyond all challenge the most formidable and daring race in the world. The English are them. Anglo-Nordic. *(Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)
The Vikings arrive
In the summer of the year 789 AD, while “the Innocent English people, spread through their plains, were enjoying themselves in tranquillity and yoking their oxen to the plough”, new was carried to the King’s officer, the Reeve of Dorchester, that three ships had arrived on the coast. The Reeve “leapt onto his horse and rode with a few men to the harbour [probably Portland] thinking that they were merchants and not enemies. Giving his commands as one who had authority, he ordered them to be sent to the King’s town; but they slew him on the spot and all who were with him.” This was a foretaste of the murderous struggle which, with many changes of fortune, was to harry and devastate England for two hundred and fifty years. It was to be beginning of the Anglo Viking Wars. But these Wars were also to be, the foundation of a combined English effort, to stop and finally re-conquer the English lands taken by the Norsemen, but it would also lead to England becoming one Nation, one Country, and the first Nation State in the world under one King.
Slaughter at the Lindisfarne Monastry
In the year 793 AD, on a January morning, the wealthy monastic settlement of Lindisfarne (or Holy Island), off the Northumbrian coast, was suddenly attacked by a powerful fleet of Danish Vikings. They sacked the place, devoured the cattle, killed many of the monks, and sailed away with rich booty in gold, jewels, and sacred emblems, and all the monks who were likely to fetch a good price in the European slave-market. This raid had been planned with care and knowledge. It was executed with complete surprise in the dead of winter before any aid from the shore could reach the island.
The news of the atrocity travelled far and wide, not only in England but throughout Europe, and the loud cry of the Church sounded a general alarm. Alcuin, the Northumbrian, wrote home from the Court of Charlemagne to condole with his countrymen:“Lo, it is almost three hundred and fifty years that we and our forefathers have dwelt in this fair land, and never has such a horror before appeared in Englaland, such as we have just suffered from the heathen. It was not thought possible that they cloud have made such a voyage. Behold the church of St Cuthbert sprinkled with the blood of the priests of Christ, robbed of all its ornaments….In that place where, after the departure of Paulinus from York, the Christian faith had its beginning among us, there is the beginning of woe and calamity…..Portents of this woe came before it…..What signifies that rain of blood during Lent in the town of York?”
When the next year 794 AD, the raiders returned and landed near Jarrow they were stoutly attacked while harassed by bad weather. Many were killed. Their “King” was captured and put to a cruel death, and the fugitives carried so grim a tale back to Denmark that for forty years the English coasts were un-ravaged.
It was not till 835 AD that the storm broke in fury, and fleets, sometimes numbering three to four hundred ships, rowed up the rivers of England, France, and Russia in predatory enterprises on the greatest scale. For thirty years England was constantly attacked. Paris was more than once besieged. Constantinople was assaulted. The har-bour towns in Ireland were captured and held. Dublin was founded by Vikings under Olaf. In many cases now the raiders settled upon the conquered territory. The Swedish element penetrated into the heart of Russia, ruling the river towns and holding the trade to ransom. The Norwegian Vikings, coming from a still more severe climate, found the Scottish islands good for settlement. They colonised the Shetlands, the Faroes, and Ireland. They reached Greenland and Stoneland (Labrador). They sailed up the St Lawrence River (Canada). They discovered North America; but having found it they put little store by the achievement.
For a long time no permanent foothold was gained in England or France. It was not until the year 865 AD, when resistance stiffened on the Continent that the great Dan-ish invasion of Northumbria and Eastern England began.
England was at this time ripe for the sickle. The invaders broke in upon the whole Eastern seaboard. On all sides were abbeys and monasteries, churches, and even ca-thedrals, possessed in that starving age of treasures of gold and silver, of jewels, and also large stores of food, wine, and such luxuries as were known. The pious English had accepted far too literally the idea of the absolution of sins as the consequence of monetary payment to the church. The church had told the English, that their sins were many, their repentances frequent, and the Church had thrived and got fat, while the English People suffered. But the Church itself became an easy prize for sharp willing swords to win. To an undue subservience to the Roman Church the English at this time added mili-tary mismanagement. Their system of defence was adapted to keeping the survivors of the Romano-Britons in their barren mountain-lands to the West or guarding the frontier against an incursion by one of their own neighbours. The local noble, upon the summons of his chief or king, could call upon the able-bodied cultivators of the soil to serve in their own district for perhaps forty days. This service, in the “fyrd”, was grudgingly given, and when it was over the army dispersed without paying regard to the enemies who might be afoot or the purposes for which the campaign had been undertaken. Now the English were confronted with a different type of enemy. The Danes and other Norsemen had not only the advantages of surprise which sea-power so long imparted, but they showed both mobility and skill on land. They adopted the habit of fortifying their camps with almost Roman thoroughness. Their stratagems also have been highly praised. Among these “feigned flights”* was foremost. Again and again we read that the English put the heathen army to rout, but at the end of the day the Danes held the field. On one occasion their leader, who was besieging a town, declared him self to be dying and begged the bishop of the town to give him Christian burial. The worthy Churchman rejoiced in the conversion and acceded to the request, but when the body of the deceased Viking was brought into the town for Christian burial it suddenly appeared that the attendants were armed warriors of proved quality, disguised in mourning, who without more ado set to work on sack, rape, burning and slaughter. There are many informing sidelights of this kind upon the manners and cus-toms of the Vikings. They were, in fact, the most audacious and treacherous type of pirate and shark that had ever yet appeared, and, owing to the very defective organisation, and the very weakness of the Roman/Christian dogma, that taught the converted English of the Viking era, of turning the other cheek, meekness before might, which turned them from their old warrior virtues and prowess of arms, for which the Norsemen took for weakness, the Norsemen achieved a fuller realisation of their desires than any of those who have emulated their proficiency – and there have been many. *”feigned flights” – sounds familiar, it should.
The Viking Ragnar Lodbrok and the first Viking War
In Norse legend at this period none was more famous than Ragnar Lodbrok, or “Hairy-Breeches”. He was born in Norway, but was connected with the ruling family of Denmark. He was a raider from his youth. “West over the Seas” was his motto. His prow had ranged from the Orkneys to the White Sea. In 845 AD he led a Viking fleet up the Seine and attacked Paris. The onslaught was repulsed, and plague took an unforeseeable revenge upon the Norsemen. He turned his mobile arms against Northumbria. Here again the fates were adverse. According to a Scandinavian story, he was captured by King Ella of Northumbria, and cast into a snake pit to die. Amid the coiling mass of loathsome adders he sang to the end his death-song.*
Ragnar had four sons, and as he lay among the venomous reptiles he uttered a potent threat: “The little pigs would grunt now if they knew how it fares with the old boar.” The skalds tell us how his sons received the news. Bjorn “Iron-side” gripped his spear shaft so hard that the print of his fingers remained stamped upon it. Hvitserk was playing chess, but he clenched his fingers upon a pawn so tightly that blood started from under his nails. Sigurd “Snake-eye” was trimming his nails with a knife, and kept on paring until he cut into the bone. But the fourth son was the one who counted. Ivar, “the Boneless”, demanded the precise details of his father’s execution, and his face “became red, blue, and pale by turns, and his skin was swollen with anger.”*
A form of vengeance was prescribed by which sons should requite the killer of their fathers. It was known as the “Blood-Red-Eagle”. The flesh and ribs of the killer must be cut and sawn out in an aquiline pattern, and then the dutiful son with his own hands would tear out the palpitating lungs. This was the doom which in legend overtook King Ella. But the actual consequences to England were serious. Ivar “the Boneless” was a warrior of command and guile. He was the master-mind behind the Scandinavian invasion of England in the last quarter of the ninth century. He it was who planned the great campaigns by which East Anglia, Deira in Northumbria, and Mercia was conquered.
Hitherto he had been fighting in Ireland, but he now appeared in 865 AD in East Anglia. In the spring of 866 AD his powerful army, organised on the basis of ships companies, but now all mounted not for fighting but for locomotion, rode north along the old Roman road and was ferried across the Humber.
He laid siege to York. And now – too late – the Northumbrians, who had been divided in their loyalties between two rival kings, forgot their feuds and united in one final effort. They attacked the Danish army before York. At first they were successful; the Norsemen were driven back upon the city walls. The defenders sallied out, and in the confusion the Norsemen defeated them all with grievous slaughter, killing both the kings and destroying completely their power of resistance. This was the end of Northumbria. The North of England never recovered its ascendancy.
As Hodgkin has put it:”The schools and monasteries dwindled into obscurity or nothingness; and the king-dom which had produced Bede and Alcuin, which had left the great stone crosses as masterpieces of Anglian art, and as evidences of Anglian poetry the poems of Caed-mon and the Vision of the Rood, in the generation following the defeat of the year 867 AD sank back into the old life of obscure barbarism….A dynasty was broken, a religion was half smothered, and a culture was barbarised.”
Simeon of Durham, writing a hundred and fifty years after this disastrous battle at York, underlines these lamentations:”The army raided here and there and filled every place with bloodshed and sorrow. Far and wide it destroyed the churches and monasteries with fire and sword. When it departed from a place it left nothing standing but roofless walls. So great was the de-struction that at the present day one can scarcely see anything left of those places, nor any sign of their former greatness.
But Ivar’s object was nothing less than the conquest of Mercia, which, as all men know, had for nearly a hundred years represented the strength of England. Ivar lay before Nottingham. The King of Mercia called for help from Wessex. The old King of Wessex was dead, but his two sons, Ethelred and Alfred,* answered the appeal. They marched to his aid, and offered to join him in his attack upon the besiegers lines; but the Mercians flinched, and preferred a parley.* Ivar warred with policy as well as arms. He had not harmed churches at York and Ripon. He was content to set up a vas-sal king, one Egbert, in Northumbria, and after ending the campaign of 868 AD by a treaty which left him master of Nottingham he spent the winter fortifying himself at York in North East England.
While the Danes in their formidable attempt at conquest spread out from East Anglia, subdued Mercia, and ravaged Northumbria, the King of Wessex and his brother Al-fred quietly built their strength. Their fortunes turned on balances so delicate and pre-carious that even with the slightest addition to their burdens must have been fatal.
It was therefore a deliverance when Ivar, after breaking the Treaty of Nottingham when he subjected King Edmund of East Anglia to martyrdom, suddenly quitted England for ever. Perhaps out of fear, for England would have become to hot for him to stay, who knows, but he quit England never to return. The Annals of Ulster explain that Olaf and Ivar, the two Kings of the Norsemen, came again to Dublin in 870 AD from Scotland, and “a vary great spoil of captives, English, British, and Pictish, was carried away to Ireland”. But then there is the final entry: “872. Ivar, King of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain, ended his life.” He had conquered Mercia and East Anglia. He had captured the major stronghold of the Kingdom of Brythonic Strathclyde, Dumbarton. Laden with loot and seemingly invincible, he settled in Dublin, and died there peacefully two years later. The pious chroniclers report that he “slept in Christ”. Thus it may be that he had the best of both worlds.
The Vikings begin to settle
The Danish raiders now stayed longer every year. In the summer the fleets came over to plunder and destroy, but each year the tendency was to dally in more genial and more verdant land. At last the warrior’s absence on the raids became long enough and the conditions of his conquest sure enough for him to bring over his wife and family. Thus again, like their early English predecessors who came first as raiders, then con-querors and finally as settlers, the Norsemen lay aside their killing and rapine and there grew the process of settlement.
But these settlements of the Danes differed from those of the English; they were the encampment of armies, and their boundaries were the fighting fronts sustained by a series of fortified towns. Stamford, Nottingham, Lincoln, Derby, and Leicester were the bases of the new invading force. Behind their frontier lines the warriors of one decade were to become the colonists and landowners of the next.
The Danish settlement in England was essentially military. They cut their way with their swords, and then planted themselves deeply in the soil, as did their English predecessors. The war-rior type of farmer asserted from the first, a status different from ordinary agriculturist. Without any coherent national organisation to repel from the land on which they had settled the ever-unknowable descents from the seas, the English, now for four centuries entitled to be deemed the owners of the soil, very nearly succumbed com-pletely to the Danish inroads.
That they did not was due – partly to their own stubborn refusal to be driven from their homeland, in the way they had forced the Romanic-Britons to do, partly their own stubborn refusal to be cowered or whipped out all together, and partly, as in almost every critical turn in our long eventful historic fortune has been due – to the sudden coming of one figure in an era of confusion and decay, one figure who would turn the tide, and lead the English from sudden disaster to victory, or – “Cometh the day, Cometh the Man”, and one of the greatest figures in our long history would come, to turn back the tide of decay and disaster.
A man who wouldn’t only change the fortunes of the English, but he, and his descendents would go on, not only to re-conquer the lost English lands, but also to build a new united English Nation, a United English Nation-state, the first Nation-State in the worlds History, and who’s grand-son and his descendents would be known as Kings of all the English – Alfred the Great of England.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "The Viking Invasions of England" https://englishhistory.net/vikings/the-viking-invasions-of-england/, February 17, 2022