You’ve given a gift, right? You’ve felt anger. You’ve learned a new skill. And you’ve definitely looked out of a window. These words all have their root in Old Norse, the language spoken in Scandinavia between the 8th and 15th centuries CE – indeed, about one in every twenty words in common modern English usage derive directly from Old Norse roots. The shape of our modern language is one of the many lasting impacts of the Viking Invasion of England, which still bears its battlescars. Between the late-8th and mid-11th centuries CE, successive waves of Norse people came to the shores of England: but they were not a uniform bloc of bloodthirsty raiders. There were indeed many raids undertaken by Vikings on English soft-targets, such as the infamous first raid on Lindisfarne. But many also came as traders, seeking to turn the bounty of the wealthy Early Medieval English kingdoms into its weight in silver – and later, many more came as settlers and colonists, driven by the paucity of Scandinavia and the richness of English soil. By the early 11th century, Scandinavian monarchs even managed to become Kings of England, briefly uniting it with the crowns of Denmark and Norway in an northward-looking North Sea Kingdom. If this polity had persevered, the subsequent history of England – and that of the whole European Continent – might have been very different.
In this article, we’ll look at the first wave of the Viking invasions of England, from the first Viking raids in the 780s CE, until the invasion of the Great Heathen Army in 865 CE, charting the impact they had on the future of England. By necessity, we have to limit ourselves to examining England specifically – the Viking interactions with Scotland, the Isles and Ireland could be (and are!) books in themselves.
Why Did The Vikings Leave Scandinavia?
We’ve had a more comprehensive look at the factors which drove the Viking expansion from the 8th century onward in our article on the Viking colonization of the known world. A cocktail of factors including the development of more intensive farming practises and the tradition of primogeniture meant that large numbers of ‘spare’ male Scandinavians with little prospects in an agriculturally-stretched homeland sought mercenary service, trade and lands elsewhere. Adam of Bremen, a German chronicler, wrote of the Vikings in about 1075 CE: “Poverty has forced them thus to go all over the world and from piratical raids they brings home in great abundance the riches of the lands.”
By the mid-8th century CE, the Norse societies in coastal Norway, Sweden and Denmark were far from unified kingdoms, characterised by collections of individual patrilineal families, united by loose social structures for purposes of trade and raiding. They had developed an aggressively outward-looking martial culture, frequently involving mercenary service in distant lands such as Continental and Eastern Europe, united with highly developed ship construction and sea-faring skills. The perfect preconditions for the invasion of their sleepy, wealthy neighbour: Anglo-Saxon England.
A Ripe Target
The gradual withdrawal of Roman Imperial garrisons from England around the turn of the 5th century CE had left a network of ex-Roman governors and Romano-British aristocrats in a country which varied from a heavily Romanized South and East, to a scantly incorporated North, with an entirely un-Romanized Celtic fringe in Cornwall, Scotland and Wales. Though Roman Emperors occasionally referred propagandistically to a future reconquest of England, this would never materialize. Gradually, non-Roman Germanic-speaking peoples in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia – collectively known as the Anglo-Saxons – began colonizing the poorly defended ex-Roman territory in the South and East. Depictions of this process vary – from a blistering genocide to a gradual political merger. Regardless, the Anglo-Saxons largely displaced the remnants of Roman tradition, creating a number of Kingdoms.
Though these Kingdoms jockeyed for position constantly, were not particularly war-like: the English population was probably less than a million in number and extremely spread out, and with a military tradition that relied on bonds of personal loyalty without any central bureaucratic organiztion they could only support a few thousand men under arms at any one time. Anglo-Saxon scholars suggest a more ritualized form of combat, involving shoving-matches and single combat rather than mass slaughter. This is not to say that the Vikings were vicious invaders who sought to take advantage of a pacifist neighbour: by any modern metric, both Anglo-Saxon and Viking society were spectacularly violent, with murder and assault taken as an unfortunate hazard of life.
A Fractured Kingdom
Anglo-Saxon society was rigidly hierarchical, with kings who ruled over a group of independently-powerful ealdormen, who counted upon the loyalty of land-holding thegns. By the time of the beginning of the Viking invasion in the 780s CE, four large Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms dominated England: East Anglia (modern-day Eastern and South-Eastern England), Wessex (the South-West, with a capital at Winchester), Northumbria (roughly between the Humber and Lowland Scotland), and Mercia (the Midlands, which was by far the biggest and most powerful kingdom, holding sway over much of East Anglia and Wessex). These Kingdoms themselves were fluid and disunified, and it makes little sense to draw them on maps with defined geographic boundaries – thegns and ealdormen would often switch their allegiances. This disunity was a huge boon to the first Viking raids.
Below the high-politics of ealdormen and thegns, the vast majority of the English population were either barely-free farmers, or unfree enslaved people. Both Viking Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon were slave-holding societies – and while the forms of enslavement differed from the modern Trans-Atlantic slavery of the 17th-19th centuries CE (for example, many Early Medieval European enslaved people were captured in local wars), we should be under no illusions that these were both very alien and grim places to be for the vast majority. Modern estimates put the slave population of Anglo-Saxon England as high as 25% of the population.
The Raiding Begins
The first Viking raids on England are traditionally dated to the 780s CE – when Viking raiders began to mount attacks on coastal English monasteries. These monasteries had been deliberately founded in secluded places, so that monks could live in quiet contemplation away from the secular world – but that also made them ideal targets for the Norse raiders. As well as being a long way from other communities where armed defense could be quickly raised, Early Vikings were mostly followers of a syncretic collection of Old Norse religious traditions known today as Ásatrú, and so were unbound by Christian taboos against violence in holy places.
Monasteries were also frequently opulent places, being richly decorated with donations of gold and silver from local aristocratic patrons, and sometimes they even housed relics which could be ransomed back to the sentimental Christ-followers for large sums. Vikings would often land right at the gates of the monastery, threaten or coerce the monks into surrendering their valuables, and then make off before the local thegns could gather their men from the farms to mount a defense.
Disaster at Portland
The most well-documented of the first Viking raids in England comes from 789 CE – although it seems to have become a raid only by accident. A Viking party of three trading ships landed on the Isle of Portland, and the local reeve named Beaduheard rode out to meet them. In accordance with his responsibility for establishing contact with foreigners and merchants, the reeve asked them to move to the local port of Dorchester to register formally as merchants – and therefore pay the King of Wessex’s taxes on their wares. The Vikings took this interference from the local authorities in their affairs as an affront, and they slew the unfortunate Beaduheard along with his retinue. Thus, Beaduheard the reeve became the first known casualty of the Viking invasion of England.
However, this almost certainly wasn’t the first Viking raid on English shores: most scholars agree that raiding probably took place throughout the decade. A decree from the Mercian King Offa in 792 CE exempted monasteries from military service “against seaborne pirates with migrating fleets”, implying that raids were already a well-known threat. Alciun of York, a leading Churchman and biographer of the great Continental king Charlemagne, wrote a letter to King Æthelred of Northumbria around this time, castigating the residents of the Kingdom for copying the fashions and trends of the pagan raiders – heavily hinting that there was already well-established contact between Scandinavians and the English. This seems born out by the uncanny selection of soft targets and the careful timing of the first Viking raids, likely due to the regular networks of trade and socializing between the two cultures.
The Doomsday moment for the Viking invasions of England was the first Viking raid on Lindisfarne of 792 CE. Lindisfarne had long been a holy place, and had been seat of Northumbria’s patron saint St. Cuthbert. The monastery became a center of Christian literature, wealth and culture – the monastery became a destination for (paying) pilgrims from all over the Anglo-Saxon North, and the gorgeous Lindisfarne Gospels were written and illuminated in the early part of that century. The Frankish Christian King Charlemagne had brutally subjugated the Saxons of north-western Germany a few years previously, symbolically cutting down the sacred Jôrmunr tree – and so scholars speculate that the ritual destruction of Lindisfarne was chosen as a deliberate act of revenge against the Christians. Indeed, the missionaries who had encouraged this genocidal act had themselves set out from Lindisfarne. Regardless, the attack on Lindisfarne was exceptionally brutal: on the 8th June 792 CE, a large force of Vikings landed at Holy Island – the church buildings were burnt and razed, the entire material wealth of the island was pillaged, and many dozens of monks were murdered, with many more being captured and enslaved.
A Mixed Response
The response to the first Viking raids was mixed – it certainly doesn’t seem to have been perceived as an existential threat, nor did it stimulate a uniform or lasting response from Anglo-Saxon rulers. Over the next few years, Monkwearmouth-Jarrow and Iona Abbeys were also raided – although less destructively than Lindisfarne. Royal charters begin to talk of the building of bridges and fortifications to allow faster and better responses to the raiders. Although we don’t have any direct records from the Vikings themselves (who were a wholly oral culture aside from a handful of scattered runestones in Scandinavia), we can presume that before about 865 CE, there was no concerted attempt at colonization: the Norse mostly raided soft targets and withdrew. However, in some places the Norse did attempt to establish more permanent camps as a beach-head for longer raids and overwintering. A grant of land in 822 CE by King Coenwulf of Mercia to Archbishop Wulfred of Canterbury enjoins the Archbishop to destroy the ‘pagan fortifications’ built in Kent. The Isle of Sheppey was subjected to a significant raid in 835 CE, and the Isle of Thanet became a frequent winter stop-over for Viking raiders. The semi-permanent presence of Vikings was now becoming a serious problem.
Under the noses of the Anglo-Saxon Kings, a change was taking place: from lightning raids on soft monasteries, to more extensive inland raiding. By now, the first Viking raids were a known and quantifiable threat, and often the Vikings were more than happy to receive payments in kind, instead of going to all of the mucky business of actually pillaging people. These spear-point ‘taxes’ were known as gafol (literally ‘gavel’; Old English for a tax or tribute), and they would become regularized in coming centuries as the infamous Danegeld. This new landscape was prompted by several developments. Many of the easy coastal targets had already been exhausted: many monasteries and coastal communities had already been looted, and those who had not had swiftly upped sticks and headed inland to safer territory. For example, the nuns of the badly-raided town of Lymington had been granted land within the walls of Canterbury itself, bringing with them the relics of St. Ethelburgha. Thus, unlike the first Viking raids, raiders from the middle of the 9th-century had to be larger in number and more organized to have a chance of plunder.
The Beginnings of English Unification
Furthermore, there had been a major shift in the way at least the Southern Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms dealt with the Viking threat. The powerful Kingdom of Mercia had been the pre-eminent power in England since the early 8th century – but at the Battle of Ellendun in 825 CE, a joint East Anglian and West Saxon rebellion led by King Ecgbert of Wessex had ended the Mercian hegemony over the Southern kingdoms. Now, the South and East came under the domination of the Kingdom of Wessex. This newly powerful Kingdom (whose Kings were now occasionally referred to as the Bretwalda, the ‘Ruler of All Britons’) could much more effectively mobilize to meet Viking incursions. Likely realizing the danger that a unified Southern England posed to Viking raiders, a group of Danes attempted to contest the domination of the West Saxons by supporting the Cornish minor kingdom of Dumnonia against Wessex – but King Ecgbert crushed the Cornish and Danes in an open battle at Hingston Down.
Now, Wessex united all the lands between Kent in the east, and the subjugated Kingdom of Dumnonia (modern day Cornwall) in the west. The unified power of this Kingdom was evident in 851 CE, when a large invasion force of Danish Vikings sailed up the River Thames, raiding both London and Canterbury. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the army’s size as ‘three and a half hundred ships’, which is doubtless a significant exaggeration. But this was doubtless a fearsome invasion force, far larger than the first Viking raids. King Æthelwulf of Wessex gathered his thegns and met the Danes in the field, at a place named Aclea (possibly modern Ockley, Surrey), and smashed the Danes to smithereens, engaging in “the greatest slaughter of a heathen raiding-army that we have heard tell of up to the present day”. King Æthelwulf’s fifth and youngest son, the future King Alfred the Great, was a mere two years of age, and his father looked to be establishing a secure and Viking-proof Kingdom for Alfred’s elder brothers to inherit.
The End of the Viking Raids…?
So – in the early 860s CE, everything was looking up. A unified Wessex was secure in the South, and even large inland Viking raids were being comprehensively defeated. The Viking invasion of England is going to end about 865 CE, right? For the students of history amongst you, you’ll know that nothing could be further from the truth. For even now, a coalition amongst the Norse is being formed. Ships are being made. Swords and axes sharpened. The year 865 CE will see the largest invasion of any Viking force in the Early Medieval world: the Anglo-Saxon scholars would bewail it as the “mycel hæþen here” – the ‘Great Heathen Army’. Its invasion will spark a fourteen-year war, and will result in the partition of England between Anglo-Saxon and Danelaw. The Viking invasion of England has only just begun.