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Viking - 2: Norsemen at Large, Making Inroads Around the British Isles

Updated on December 12, 2017

"Be a true friend to your friend, to him and his friends. Beware of befriending the friend of a foe (lest friend becomes foe)".

Havamal.

First traders, then raiders... And conquerors

Someimes raiding parties were met with resistance on the shore. Where organised fyrd - or militia - organisation was met fleets grew to counter resistance
Someimes raiding parties were met with resistance on the shore. Where organised fyrd - or militia - organisation was met fleets grew to counter resistance | Source
Battling Viking raiders - often fleets of three, four and more came raiding around the British Isles, sometimes based in Ireland, on Man or Orkney, always within easy reach
Battling Viking raiders - often fleets of three, four and more came raiding around the British Isles, sometimes based in Ireland, on Man or Orkney, always within easy reach | Source

Beyond the early attacks and killings...

in Dorset, Northumbria and the Irish Sea the British peoples were lulled into a sense of false security for almost another fifty years.

In AD835 the Chroniclers wrote that 'heathen men ravaged Sheppey' (East Kent). Throughout the rest of the century hardly a year passed without further incident around the islands. To begin with the raids seemed like opportunistic 'muggings' that would be punished nowadays with no more than a 'complulsory restraining order'.

In mid-Century the nature of the attacks changed. In AD850-1 the Chronicles tell us of the 'heathen' over-wintering for the first time. Unknown to the Chroniclers it was not the nature of the attacks but the attackers themselves that had changed. They were now Danes, set on colonising England after having settled parts of Ireland. In AD855-6 a Viking army over-wintered on Sheppey. Thanet (also East Kent) was occupied over winter AD864-5, and the following winter saw a greater fleet drawing up on East Anglia's shores after raiding around the north of the Kingdom of the Franks. The vast fleet of ships that came to these shores in AD865 was led by a number of the sons of Ragnar 'Lothbrok'. The Dane Ragnar fulfilled every man's expectations of the lone surviving shipwrecked Viking thrown into a pit of vipers on the orders of Aella, king of Northumbria. His sons were here to exact tribute and avenge the death of their father.

Ivar 'the Boneless', Halvdan, Ubbi, Sigurd 'Snake-eye and Bjorn 'Ironside' brought and gathered men in East Anglia from Danes who had settled in the region. From there they sailed northward along the coast to Aella's domain. Aella had been made king in AD866, usurping Osberht.

The Danes took Eoferwic (York) at the end of the AD 867. After a battle Osberht was held for ransom, Aella seized and ritually executed - some say this was only the stuff of myth: the method of execution was named the 'Blod Erne' (Blood Eagle), whereby the ribs were loosened from the spine and pulled outward through the skin, giving the victim the appearance of having wings, hence the 'eagle' (O.Dan. 'Erne'). The process is thought to be as mythical as the story of Norse kings having 'berserkers' in their retinues. Aella's kingdom was put in the hands of a puppet king who could be brought to heel if he stepped out of line.

With Northumbria 'taken care of' Mercia was next. Eastern Mercia was seized in AD868. In the following year Ivar led his great army (Chronicle: 'micel here', like the German 'heer') back to East Anglia where they caught up with King Eadmund after he fled to Bury church for sanctuary. For his cowardice he was subjected to a mock trial. As a Christian king he may have been asked if he believed he would be saved by his god, or at least be taken up into heaven when he was killed. However he answered, Eadmund knew he would not live out another day and was executed by bowmen. Another story was he met the same fate as Aella. The Church saw his death in Bury church as martyrdom and Eadmund was later canonised. To the Danes it was anathema that a king should flee the field of battle and hide in a church like one of his defenceless underlings.

Ivar left for Ireland shortly afterward, seeking to enrich himself. He died there in AD873 after having taken Dublin. Halfdan took the leader's mantle, having been one of a few Danish survivors after their defeat by the Saxons at Ashdown in AD871 where a king and five jarls met their fate. Wessex was defeated shortly after, however, at Basing, Merton, Reading and Wilton. King Aelfred was forced to sue for peace. He had a new threat to his kingdom from overseas, the 'summer army' had come to bolster Halfdan's depleted force and helped him win at Wilton.

Over the next few years the Danes consolidated their hold over lands gained in Mercia and East Anglia. Northumbria was not under direct threat from Wessex at this time. The last Anglian king of Mercia had fled in AD874. Halfdan sailed to join Ivar in Dublin and was killed fighting the West Norse Vikings at Strangford Lough (Ulster) in AD877.

Now we see Guthrum come into the picture on his own account. A war-band leader from Denmark, he set himself up as 'king' of East Anglia and, with two other Danish notables Osketil and Eyvind who had led the 'summer army' of AD871, set about taking Wessex out of the picture. Wessex, he greatest prize of the Saxon kingdoms, came within a whisker of being over-run by the Danes in AD878. The chronicler writes that 'the host went unseen in midwinter... rode through Wessex and beset it and drove many of the people therein overseas and brought much of the rest to their knees... but for Aelfred the king... he with a small company fled through woods and into secret parts of the marshes. He struck out at them from Aethelney (west of Glastonbury), a stronghold ringed by marsh and fen - hard to find or to reach but by boat'. Aelfred brought together the men of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire and defeated Guthrum at Ethandun (Edington). Arising from Guthrum's shock defeat he and the other Danish leaders were made to hand over their hostages, embrace Christianity (Aelfred was his 'godfather' and Guthrum took the baptismal name of Aethelstan) and return to East Anglia. A treaty agreed later between Aelfred and Guthrum in AD886 allowed the Danes to keep the eastern part of Mercia - thereafter known as the Danelaw. The Danelaw was subdivided into the 'Fem Borgene' (Five Boroughs), Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford. East Anglia was attached to the Danelaw.

To find evidence of Danish settlement in Eastern England you only need open a road atlas and look at place names ending in '-by', (township, e.g., Rugby), '-thorpe' (hamlet, e.g., Sleathorpe), '-thwaite' (clearing, e.g., Husthwaite), '-toft' (farm, e.g., Lowestoft) and '-holm' (island, e.g., Axholme).

In the same year another army closed on Wessex. After over-wintering at Fulham (Middlesex, now S.W. London) this new force left to cut a swathe across Frankia and the Low Countries for over ten years. In AD892, following defeat at the hands of Arnulf, the king of Eastern Frankia the army came back, bringing its 'own' horses from Boulogne (probably 'rustled' in Frankia). Years of fighting across Aelfred's kingdom followed, but in mid-winter AD896 the army broke up, some to Northumbria. The rest took ship and crossed back over the Channel for the River Seine. This last contingent could not have numbered more than a few hundred as they embarked in a small fleet of a half-dozen ships.

Even when the 'micel here' had left, the Danes of East Anglia, the Danelaw and southern Northumbria kept up pressure on Aelfred's kingdom overland and by ship. Yet Aelfred left a strong and cohesive state. Eadward 'the Elder' (AD899-925) and Aelfred's grandson Aethelstan (AD925-940) after him were able to take back the Danelaw into a bigger kingdom considered to be the embryonic 'England'.

Danish Northumbria (Yorkshire) held out longer. Another wave of Norsemen had strengthened their numbers, this time from Dublin. Sigtrygg 'Silkeskegg' (Silkbeard) took Jorvik from the Northumbrian Danes an AD919 and set up a new dynasty acknowledged by Norsemen and Anglians alike. At different times Norse settlement around Britain centred on Jorvik.

However Rognvald acknowledged Aethelstan's overlordship in AD925, as did also Sigtrygg 'Caech' (Squinty) in AD927. Aethelstan marched on Jorvik after defeating a Hiberno-Norse alliance at Brunanburh (thought to be in the Mersey area) and deposed Olaf Sigtryggsson and his brother Guthfrith. Soon after, however, Olaf Guthfrithsson seized Northumbria, and received the 'Five Boroughs' by treaty. Again Olaf Sigtryggsson succeeded but was expelled once more by the 'long arm' of Wessex in AD944. Olaf tried to take Northumbria by force in AD949, but in AD952 the last truly Norse king of Jorvik was Eirik Haraldsson, nicknamed 'Blood Axe'.

Eirik's reign, beginning in AD947 was broken a year later by local rebellion and resumed only four years later in AD952. In AD954, so the Chronicle tells us, he was 'driven out' by the Northumbrians - namely the Bernicians north of the Tees who had clung to their Anglian heritage unlike those Anglians of Deira (the southern half of the kingdom, later under an ealdorman for the king of Wessex, then an earldom from Knut's time onward) who had mixed with the incoming Danes. A 10th Century Northumbrian chronicle is more informative bout Eirik Haraldsson's gate. He was lured to the highest point of the kingdom, to Stainmore Common. He was confronted by Oswulf, King Ealdred's ealdorman, with a greater force. Many were killed:

'A dreadful slaughter followed, in which many Aenglishmen fell, but for each one that fell came three in his stead from the land around, and when the evening came on the loss of men turned against the Norsemen and many more died. Towards the end of the day King Eirik and five with him kings fell. Three of them were Guthorm, Ivar and Harek [the last-named being one of Eirik's sons]; others being King Sigurd and Ragnvald [the latter one of his brothers] and with them fell the two sons of 'Turf Einar' [earl of Orkney], Arnkel and Erlend'.

A later document tells that Eirik's force was beaten and he was killed by Magnus 'son of Olaf' (meaning Oswulf). The Viking kingdom of Jorvik was at an end, paving the way for a takeover from Wessex by King Eadred.

When the Dragon Prows came...

... The Danes overran much of the eastern side of what became England, and Halvdan Ragnarsson carved out his own kingdom in what would become Yorkshire and Lancashire after 1066
... The Danes overran much of the eastern side of what became England, and Halvdan Ragnarsson carved out his own kingdom in what would become Yorkshire and Lancashire after 1066 | Source
When the Danes came in AD 864 it wasn't to loot or pillage. This began as a revenge trip and would become an occupation of the eastern region of what became Aengla Land in Aethelstan's time
When the Danes came in AD 864 it wasn't to loot or pillage. This began as a revenge trip and would become an occupation of the eastern region of what became Aengla Land in Aethelstan's time | Source
The kingdoms in the late 9th Century, Wessex and Western Mercia in the south, isolated Bernicia to the north of the Viking kingdom of Jorvik versus East Anglia, the Danelaw and East Anglia
The kingdoms in the late 9th Century, Wessex and Western Mercia in the south, isolated Bernicia to the north of the Viking kingdom of Jorvik versus East Anglia, the Danelaw and East Anglia
Object of fear - the broad bladed bearded Dane axe that would come into its own in rendering the Saxons' shield walls defenceless
Object of fear - the broad bladed bearded Dane axe that would come into its own in rendering the Saxons' shield walls defenceless | Source
Another introduction by the Danes was the visored helmet with ear and neck guards - however only their kings and nobles could afford these luxury items
Another introduction by the Danes was the visored helmet with ear and neck guards - however only their kings and nobles could afford these luxury items | Source
Aethelney in the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury, where Aelfred hid from the Danes before victory over Guthrum at Edington
Aethelney in the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury, where Aelfred hid from the Danes before victory over Guthrum at Edington
After a series of defeats and near capture Aelfred of Wessex would adopt the 'Wessex wedge' or 'Swine Array' battle formation
After a series of defeats and near capture Aelfred of Wessex would adopt the 'Wessex wedge' or 'Swine Array' battle formation | Source
Viking chieftain's or jarl's helm with chain mail neckguard, a prize worthy of a great warrior if won from the original owner
Viking chieftain's or jarl's helm with chain mail neckguard, a prize worthy of a great warrior if won from the original owner | Source
Scots kings saw the Norse presence around their northern and western channels as a threat to security. It would be an early Stuart king who acquired the northern and western isles through default on a dowry in 1468
Scots kings saw the Norse presence around their northern and western channels as a threat to security. It would be an early Stuart king who acquired the northern and western isles through default on a dowry in 1468

Solidly researched with maps and references.

Follow the trail from the first Norse raid on Lindisfarne AD793 and on to Iona a few years later. Colonisation took hold in the Northern Isles, Caithness and Sutherland, across Ireland and Man as well as near the Solway Firth. The Danes took the eastern shires from the Tees down to the River Lea east of London.

See if you can find more...


Second in a series...

... Of Viking-themed pages. This one gives a grounding on the Norse influx around the British Isles, to prepare you for the more detailed pages hereafter. Sit back with a drink within reach and follow the octopus tentacles around Europe and the Near East that continues first with -

3:The Vikings in Ireland

.Skal!

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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Richard, firstly Happy (not so) New Year.

      The only battle site I know about that involved an Eric/Eirik in that area is on Stainmore Common in AD954, where Eirik Haraldsson ('Blood-Axe') was ambushed at the time of the Wessex king Eadred. The Saxon Chronicle's a bit vague about it and doesn't mention a season or month, but then that was a few hundred yeas after Bede's death. There is an enclosure (ornate iron railings) around a memorial to Eirik there. I don't know of Rey Cross, unless there was a Northumbrian king Eric in the days of Bede. It's not in the Saxon Chronicles, aside from a Norse king 'Eohric' who was slain amongst a host of others at Brunanburh by Aethelstan's army in the earlier 10th Century.

      Have you any more information?

    • profile image

      Richard 

      6 years ago

      Searched for years for Rey cross battlesite,Erics last battle with metal detectors is it not possible the site was further east a half mile north of Bowes,where on a modern army firiing range there is a [battle hil]l.After all Bedes info on is minimal to say the least.

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      7 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      That is right, the pit of vipers mentioned was a pit of snakes. These particular snakes had a more potent bite than the usual kind and were kept for the purpose of 'entertainment'.

      I used to work in the advertisement department at the Daily Telegraph with a Bob Dwyer-Joyce. His ancestors were Hiberno-Norman as well. There is a Hub-page on this site about the Hiberno-Norse scene before the Normans moved in under the Marcher Lord of Wales William de Clare ('Strongbow', around the time of Henry II, when Nicholas Breakspear became Pope Adrian IV and gave Henry the 'right' to invade Ireland). Some day I'll get around to doing a Hub-page about it.

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Dapples 

      7 years ago from Just Arizona Now

      Very interesting. I was hoping your very informational hub would go on a bit longer because tradition has it that my ever-so-gg-g-g-g-20x Grandfather Kinnaird was a Norsemen (R. de Kinnaird) and he was handed the vast estates due to his support of the William the Conqueror. There are two Kinnaird castles remaining.

      Way up top when you say a 'pit of vipers' do you mean snakes? Voting up and interesting.

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      7 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      You're a bona-fide paid-up member of the Globetrotters' Union. Another Viking by a different name, eh? A lot of people this side of London have some Danish blood in them, as they settled in the Lea Valley from King Aelfred's time onward.

    • one2get2no profile image

      Philip Cooper 

      7 years ago from Olney

      After several stops my family ended up in Olney which is near Milton Keynes. I suppose it's not strictly north. I sort of took a roundabout route and did some time in New York and Toronto, then Greece.

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      7 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      The Odeon is now an Islamic centre, and the fish shop's gone as well. The only things on that block that haven't changed are Barclays on the corner opposite the church and Natwest in the middle of the block. The Princess Louise has gone as well, I think. The Post Office building opposite the church was rebuilt some time ago as a clothes store. The station hasn't changed much, but most of your reference points probably have. The Railway is a sort of watering hole for the local African community and the Fox & Hounds has seen off a half-dozen landladies and -lords since I moved into the area in 1976, to Clova Road. I live on Sebert Road now, a block away from the railway bridge (the viaduct passes the bottom of our garden). Where did you move 'up north'?

    • one2get2no profile image

      Philip Cooper 

      7 years ago from Olney

      Excellent informative hub Alan. Thank you. Vote up!

      I was born in Forest Gate right next to the Odeon Cinema which I guess is not there now. It's probably a Bingo Hall. There was a fish and chip shop next to the cinema and we lived above it before moving north.

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