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Viking - 1: Threat From the Sea - Onset of the Viking Age on Mainland Britain

Updated on January 31, 2019
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"VIKINGS!" Alan takes you through an age of uncertainty and fear for coastal and river communities in the late 8th-10th Centuries

"The traveller must sharpen his wits. All is easy at home. He who knows little beyond his own doorstep is a laughing stock amongst men of the world"

Havamal.

Clash of arms

Weight of numbers and brute strength won the day for Viking invaders until the defenders would be able to withstand the crush - that would take decades of struggle
Weight of numbers and brute strength won the day for Viking invaders until the defenders would be able to withstand the crush - that would take decades of struggle | Source
The source of the push westward out of Scandinavia. Poor growing and grazing land at home prompted the Danes to seek pastures new. Their West Norse cousins saw raiding and trading as the way forward - after taking the Northern Isles
The source of the push westward out of Scandinavia. Poor growing and grazing land at home prompted the Danes to seek pastures new. Their West Norse cousins saw raiding and trading as the way forward - after taking the Northern Isles

Portland, Dorset AD789

"In this year... there came for the first time three ships of Northmen, from Horthaland. And the reeve rode thither and tried to get them to go to the king's manor - for he did not know what they were - and they slew him. These were the first ships of Danes to come to England".

With this killing we have the first victim of a Viking attack, and four years on we saw the first concerted raid on Lindisfarne. The writer erred inasmuch as Horthaland is in Norway, but he was unconcerned about political definitions - to him all these raiders were of the same brood: heathens more than anything else; moreover they were destructive heathens.

"The harrying by the heathen miserably destroyed God's church on Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter" (they had nuns on the island? Either that or the writer imagined the monks would have been sexually assaulted!)

Another entry runs:

"Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race". Plainly the writer forgot how his forebears came to Britain and carried out the same 'terror' on the Romano-Britons). It was Alcuin of Eoferwic (York) who wrote the following lines, going on to say:

"...Nor was it thought possible that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of Saint Cuthbert, spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than any other in Britain has fallen prey to pagans!" And so he waxed, as if the Northumbrian Angles had been in Britain since the year dot, plainly forgetting - or worse, ignoring that the Angles and their southern neighbours the Saxons and Jutes were once also heathen, coming across the sea in great rowing ships. Selective learning does that to the mind.

To the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers, hidden away in their monasteries, the world 'out there' had suddenly come banging on their doors. The terms 'Dane', 'Northmen' or 'heathen' were interchangeable. The name Viking was hardly used beyond Scandinavia itself. Frankish writers had them down as 'northmanni' (Northmen/Normans) whilst those further north amonst the Saxons called them 'Ascomanni', (ash-men, possibly from their sacred ash groves. Yggdrasil was the world ash tree). Islamic sources called them 'al-madjus', or heathen wizards, whilst to the Slavs in the east they were 'Rus'. The Finnish name for Sweden was 'Rotsi' and Byzantine writers described them as 'Rhos' (the Greek adjective for 'red' on account of their ruddy skin-tone) or 'Varangoi' (from old Norse 'Var', or oath, i.e., bands of men sworn to one another. The Gaels or Erse/Irish called them collectively 'Lochlannach' (Northmen) or 'Gaill' (outlanders). Specifically they were known as 'Finn-Gaill' (white foreigners, or Norwegians) and as 'Dubh-Gaill (black foreigners, or Danes, on account of the black leather war gear they wore).

Chroniclers elsewhere wrote of Danes, Norweyans and Swedes, mixing them according to how they felt at the time. We also learn from Adam of Bremen around AD1075 that the Danes and the Swedes and the 'other folk beyond Denmark' (i.e., Norwegians) are known collectively as 'Norsemen'. Thus, when the A.S. Chronicle tells us about the 'Dene' or 'Dani' we should not automatically assume they know what they are talking about; alternatively they may have been trying to direct hostility toward one group who kept turning up on the borders of Wessex.

The etymology of the term 'Viking' is not certain, althoutgh a greater number of academics have plumped for the derivation of 'Vik' (inlet or fjord). This would mean a free-booter, lurking in a fjord or bay like the Jomsvikings at Jumne on the southern Baltic coast, (near Wolin, close to the German-Polish frontier since 1945) who used a network of low-lying islets that hid their fortified haven.

Others would have it that the term harks back to an area of southern Norway known as the Vik, and in other Scandinavian writings 'Vikings' means freebooters or pirates - groups of men embarking on such a venture might have a fortified island unassailable by anyone other than organised water-borne armies using fire arrows.

Then again Scandinavians who sought to gain profit from their voyages called themselves Vikings; going 'a-viking' meant to sail overseas - or even to a neighbouring chiefdom - to plunder and gain slaves or other means of wealth. It was a poor or indolent chief or jarl who did not instigate long trips to earn or bolster a fearsome reputation. A man who did not fight back at the Vikings was not worthy of his wealth, as the monks of Lindisfarne or Iona found to their cost. In their cossetted, undefended monasteries they learned that their gold and silver ornament was fair game. On Britain's mainland the women found they qualified as 'treasure' to be bartered against other prizes.


The first attacks came as a bolt from the blue. Gradually the fight-back held them. They reached a stage where neither had the upper hand

The Franks had their cavalry, the Vikings their ships. The only way of levelling the playing field was by cutting them off from the seaways
The Franks had their cavalry, the Vikings their ships. The only way of levelling the playing field was by cutting them off from the seaways
Danish division. Eastern Mercia,  East Anglia and Northumbria north to the Tees came under Danish rule in the 9th Century after agreement between Guthrum and Aelfred. Colonisation had reached the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Danish division. Eastern Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria north to the Tees came under Danish rule in the 9th Century after agreement between Guthrum and Aelfred. Colonisation had reached the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Battle scene from the finale of the Jorvik Viking Festival, York, 2013 and...
Battle scene from the finale of the Jorvik Viking Festival, York, 2013 and... | Source
Another scene from the same event, another year as witnessed by a cameraman from the local paper
Another scene from the same event, another year as witnessed by a cameraman from the local paper | Source
Topographic map of Scandinavia and the Baltic region illustrates the need to push beyond the bounds of their own lands
Topographic map of Scandinavia and the Baltic region illustrates the need to push beyond the bounds of their own lands
Whilst the Danes and their western cousins struck out west, to the east the Svear - Swedes - sought their fortunes amongst the Slavs as 'policemen' and 'guardians'. Here's a pair of mounted Rus or Rhos warriors survey the scene on the open Steppe
Whilst the Danes and their western cousins struck out west, to the east the Svear - Swedes - sought their fortunes amongst the Slavs as 'policemen' and 'guardians'. Here's a pair of mounted Rus or Rhos warriors survey the scene on the open Steppe

Where did the Norsemen and Danes settle?

Distribution of Danish and Norse place names in Eastern and North-western England, endings: 'by', 'toft', 'thorpe' and 'thwaite' are evident in any search of a road atlas in these parts. By rights SW Wales should have a coloured square, look at a map
Distribution of Danish and Norse place names in Eastern and North-western England, endings: 'by', 'toft', 'thorpe' and 'thwaite' are evident in any search of a road atlas in these parts. By rights SW Wales should have a coloured square, look at a map

Before the land bridges were plunged under water by the melting ice the Beaker People migrated west and established themselves in lakeside settlements, to be followed by the Celts. The Romans had to use ships, as did the Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Danes and Norsemen, finally Normans (basically Vikings on horseback)...

Good news for fans and newcomers alike at the Jorvik Viking Centre

After enforced flood closure in December, 2015 the Jorvik Viking Centre opened its doors again in early April, 2017 with a new introduction. Mustn't say more, use the link (below) to look into a different age

The Danes had mixed with their Anglian and Saxon neighbours, become landowners or huscarls in the king's household. The next test of their loyalty would come ac

A trial of strength would come in the form of 'new technology', mounted warfare, crossbows and 'trebuchets' (sling machines) when Duke William invaded in late September. Two fighting cultures met on 14th October, 1066 on Caldbec Hill
A trial of strength would come in the form of 'new technology', mounted warfare, crossbows and 'trebuchets' (sling machines) when Duke William invaded in late September. Two fighting cultures met on 14th October, 1066 on Caldbec Hill | Source

One day invaders and raiders would become stalwarts

Over the years these Vikings settled around Britain and elsewhere. They became defenders, as when later Vikings raided southern Northumbria (Yorkshire) under Harald Sigurdsson in September, 1066, they rallied to arms with the fyrd under thegns who were quite likely descended from the Danes of the 'micel here', the Great Army. They would rise against the Normans at Durham, York and Ely when Danes under Jarl Osbeorn and his brother King Svein came over in 1069 and 1071. The men they fought were also erstwhile Vikings under Duke William. Fighting would be savage, no quarter asked or given.

Do you have Norse DNA? Here's an excerpt from one of today's national newspapers (10.3.2014):

'Almost a million British men are of direct Viking descent, genetic research has shown. One in 33* is related to the Scandinavian warriors who invaded more than a thousand years ago.

Scientists compared the 'Y' Chromosome of 3,500 UK men with Norsemen (sic) DNA patterns to find the Viking bloodline. They found 29.2 percent of Shetland islanders and 25.2 percent of Orkney men can claim [direct] Viking ancestry, compared to 1.6 percent in the south west and 1 percent in Wales'

* West Norse (present day Norwegian) settlement in England and Wales was originally mainly around Cumbria, the Lake District, and 'ran' across the Pennines into the northern Dales. There was also isolated West Norse settlement along the east coast between the Tyne and Scarborough (Scarborough was established by Icelander Thorgils 'Skarthi' or 'Harelip' in the 10th Century after his brother Kormak was slain in Scotland in single combat).

However, do not despair. There might be some of the colonising Dane in you.

Danish Viking DNA is similar enough to that of their Anglian neighbours from northern Europe, amongst whom they settled in Eastern England, as to be indistinguishable. If your ancestors came from East Anglia, the old Danelaw districts of the midlands (East Midlands: Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham or Stamford) they are as likely to have Danish blood in them as English. York was the epicentre of Danish Viking culture in northern England and the kingdom of York encompassed modern-day Yorkshire, Lancashire and parts of modern Cumbria alongside the West Norse, Anglian and Strathclyde Scots' settlements. Few eastern English districts were wholly without Danish or Norse influx, and they are mostly in Wessex (the south and south-west). In the London area the Danish presence was east of the River Lea in what was western Essex and southern Hertfordshire.

Next - 2: Norsemen At Large

By 1066 Danes and Norsemen were assimilated, Christian and many were landowners who stood to lose when the next influx of 'Vikings' came. Only these new 'Vikings' were different. They spoke a form of the Frankish tongue and many rode into battle
By 1066 Danes and Norsemen were assimilated, Christian and many were landowners who stood to lose when the next influx of 'Vikings' came. Only these new 'Vikings' were different. They spoke a form of the Frankish tongue and many rode into battle

We all love a heroic failure, it's sort of etched into the English 'psyche'

Harald falls to an Aenglish arrow: a fanciful version of the dramatic end to his invasion, based on Snorri Sturlusson's King Harald's Saga. Using oral sources two hundred years afterwards things were a bit garbled. The Aenglish fought on foot in 1066
Harald falls to an Aenglish arrow: a fanciful version of the dramatic end to his invasion, based on Snorri Sturlusson's King Harald's Saga. Using oral sources two hundred years afterwards things were a bit garbled. The Aenglish fought on foot in 1066

The Norwegian Invasion of England, September 1066

The last great Viking venture, some said a fool's errand. Harald Sigurdsson, 'Hardradi' (Hard-ruler) was reminded by King Harold's brother Tostig Godwinson, former earl of Northumbria, of an agreement between Harald's nephew Magnus Olafsson and Harthaknut Knutsson or Knudsen of Denmark. The agreement was whichever of the two, heirs or dependents who survived the other had a claim to the crown of England. Eadward had no offspring, his heir was a youth - grandson of Eadmund 'Ironside', half-brother of Eadward and older son of Aethelred 'Unraed' by Aelfgifu - and practically unknown beyond London or Winchester. On the throne the strong, politically wise militarist Harold Godwinson was seen as a usurper by many beyond Wessex and the Southern shires. Tostig was willing to destabilise his brother's kingdom to further his own ends...

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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

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

      Or words to that effect... Welcome tsmog. There is a whole series of 'Nexts' to catch up on and get some ideas. There's also the 'DANELAW' and 'CONQUEST' series amongst others.

      Why not cut to the Northworld site? There's a link on the RAVENFEAST page.

      TTFN

    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 

      4 years ago from Escondido, CA

      And . . . soon will be the next, with hope another. The adventure has begun :) I must accord a map leading to the when and where for that story idea. I seem to see a horizon, though of distance. And, journal this adventure amongst tattered of age and weathered pages in my knapsack full of scribbles and sketched paths through the forest called yesterday.

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

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

      Nice to have you on board, Barnsey. There's much more on the site that you'll enjoy reading. Try the RAVENFEAST page, giving the background to my first published - fiction - work based on events between the battle at Stamford Bridge near York and the - little known - battle on London Bridge where William and five hundred knights were repulsed with many casualties! The battle on Caldbec Hill near Hastings also features strongly

    • Barnsey profile image

      Barnsey 

      7 years ago from Happy Hunting Grounds

      Great stuff! I love the historical facts being an ancient history geek!

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