The Coming of the Vikings

In the year 793AD, on the 8th of June, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle relates that, “fierce foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria, and wretchedly terrified the people. There were excessive whirlwinds, lightning storms, and fiery dragons were seen in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and shortly after in the same year, on January the 8th, the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne through brutal robbery and slaughter”. Thus ran the first record of a new terror visited upon the war torn islands.

The slaughter was carried out by a raiding party of Vikings who had already settled in the Orkneys and the Hebrides. There is an earlier reference to a landing, thought to be by Vikings in Portland Bay in Dorset in 787AD, but this seems not to have been a raid. Having been mistaken for merchants by a royal official, they killed him when he demanded trade taxes on their goods. An early example of a “jobsworth” perhaps?

These were the first recorded instances of raiding by Vikings,( from the Old Norse “Viking”, one who comes from the fjords) The word was also later used for any raider from the north, the act of raiding also being called viking. The Chronicles make no distinction of Dane, Swede or Norwegian, they simply refer to “the force”or “shipmen”. The Irish Annals however. Refer to the fair haired Vikings as “gentiles” and the later Danes as “dark gentiles”.

The Norsemen were called Ascomanni by the Germanic people, Lochlanach by the Irish, Varangarians by the Slavs, and Danes by the Angles; the word Viking eventually being used for all northern raiders, although later and more often, referred to as Danes by the Anglo Saxons.  This warlike race that inhabited what is now Norway, Sweden and Denmark crossed the North Sea in their longships with their dragon and snake figureheads striking fear into all who saw them. Driven by 30 oars and carrying up to 90 warriors, they would appear from out of the sea mist to rob, rape, plunder and burn, their very name would become a byword for terror.

The typical Viking warrior would be armed with spear, sword or axe; his protection would be a round shield. If wealthy he would wear a chainmail shirt known as a Byrnie and a conical metal helmet. Contrary to popular belief these helmets were not horned although it was common for some to fix eagle or raven’s wings on them and this probably gave rise to the myth. Their standard formation was the shieldwall from which they would hurl spears and axes at the enemy line before attacking in a wedge formation known as a “svinfylking” or boar formation to break an enemy line. Others would whip themselves up into battle frenzy, believing that Odin would make them invincible. These “berserkers” wore no armour and, it is said, became so crazed that they bit on the edge of their shield and could even ignore the pain of wounds.

These attacks were part of a major expansion that took the Vikings as far as Constantinople and deep into the lands bordering the Volga River in the east as well as southward to the Mediterranean. These raiders were later to range west to Greenland and on to the New World where they found Baffin Island, named by them as Helluland, (Land of Stones), Labrador, named as Markland (Land of Forest) and Vinland, (Land of Vines) believed to be the modern Newfoundland.

As previously noted, the term Viking described any and all raiders from the north, but the early raids were principally made by those from Norway and Sweden. It is later when these two peoples had spread far and wide that the raiders from Denmark began to ravage our islands in a more concerted manner. They were referred to still as Vikings or Norsemen by the Britons, but began to be known by their origin as Danes.

The fact that all these attacks began around the time of what is now called the Medieval Warm Period would indicate that the corresponding melting of the ice packs made the sea crossings easier for the raiders in their narrow boats and also coincided with a growth in population throughout Scandinavia putting pressure on land resources.

A later explanation of this explosion of sea raiding blames the Norse King Harald Harfagri (Harald Fairhair) who, upon becoming king, issued proclamations demanding tax from all ranks of people, taking over farm lands and estates, even the sea and the lakes became his property and thus taxable. It was said that “every forester and every farmer became his tenant, every salt maker and every hunter on land or sea had to pay taxes to him”. He gave all men the choice of three things, either swear loyalty, leave the country, or choose the third way which meant certain death. Many warriors chose the first option and left to settle in Orkney, Shetland or Scotland from where they could mount their raids. The truth is probably a mixture of all these factors.

These “Northmen” had traded with Britain and the Continent for years, but often received a very poor deal from merchants who saw them as heathen and operated a two tier system of pricing that effectively penalised them (this bias also operated against Muslims for the same reason). It is not unreasonable to suppose that a race that traditionally would war with neighbours over slights or impugned honour could very easily interpret this commercial cheating as an insult to their pride and provide yet further reasons for their raiding.

The next year they raided Jarrow and Monkswearmouth, but things did not go entirely their way. The Chronicle relates how “some of their war leaders were killed and some of their ships were broken up in bad weather and many drowned. Some came alive to the shore and were quickly killed at the river’s mouth”. These incursions were clearly not yet thought important enough to distract the larger Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria from their endless wars with each other and to continue their domination of the weaker states.  

In 794AD, Offa of Mercia beheaded the subject king Aethelberht of East Anglia for rebellion against Mercian rule, having first secured his western border by marrying off his daughter Eadberh to the Wessex King Beorhtic, a move that brought a temporary peace treaty between the two kingdoms. Offa himself died in 796AD and was succeeded by his son Ecgfrith who reigned for just five months before being usurped by Coenwulf, a descendant of the brother of the mighty Penda.  Ecgfrith of Wessex also returned from exile to reclaim the Wessex throne from Mercia, who at that time was the most powerful kingdom in the land with sovereignty from Wessex to Northumbria.

Coenwulf then faced an uprising in Kent which was under Mercian control and whose king, Praen, was in exile in the court of Charlemagne. When Praen returned to Kent to claim his throne, Coenwulf wrote to Pope Leo requesting papal support for his invasion, citing the fact that Praen had, at one stage, been a priest and, as such, had given up any right to the throne. He also asked the Pope to move the Archbishopric of Canterbury to London which would seem to suggest that he did not feel that he would ever regain complete control in Kent.

The Pope refused the move but did agree that Praen’s previous ordination made him inadmissible as king. Armed with this moral authority, Coenwulf ravaged Kent, the Kentish King Praen was taken back to Mercia and had his eyes put out and his hands cut off.

Pope Leo himself had led a life every bit as turbulent as the times. He being a Roman was not trusted by the powerful Franks and had allied himself with Charlemagne for protection. The monies and gifts he received from the Emperor enabled him to be a great benefactor to the church and to his friends. On the 25th April 799AD while in procession to the Flaminian Gate, he was attacked by his enemies and reportedly had his eyes and tongue cut out, but amazingly was said to have made a full recovery and regained the powers of sight and speech. He fled to Charlemagne who had him escorted back to Rome and reinstalled him as Pope.

By 801AD, Coenwulf had placed his brother Cuthred on the Kentish throne. Cuthred ruled for seven years and when he died, Coenwulf took control of the kingdom in name as well as fact.

Mercian control over Essex was continued under Coenwulf and the Chronicle notes that the Essex King Cigeric abdicated in favour of his son Cigered and went, like so many other Saxon kings, to Rome. King Sigered’s name appears in records of the time, but was later referred to as Subregulus or subking and thereafter as Dux or Ealdorman, this demotion indicating the contemporary trend of consolidating kingdoms under one ruler.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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