The Vikings would shape and transform England's political, social, cultural, and economic realities and help lay the foundations of a modern nation-state.
The withdrawal of Rome, Germanic invasions, and the Lindisfarne raid
Following the withdrawal of Roman legions from England in the late 4th century CE, a series of invasions were undertaken by Germanic-speaking Saxons and Angles. By the 7th century CE, these peoples had formed seven petty kingdoms, the so-called "Heptarch." Christianity had begun to take serious inroads, and many Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were Christianized, with many possessing monasteries.
There was no single political entity that unified all of England, and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms often fought amongst themselves, though the Kingdom of Mercia had conquered many territories by the 8th century CE.
Viking raids soon began in the very late 8th century CE. The most famous, which historians have traditionally used as the basis for the beginning of the so-called "Viking Age," was a raid on a monastery at Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast of England, in 793 CE. This bloody raid for treasure shocked local elites and much of the rest of Europe.
Alguin, an Anglo-Saxon scholar working at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, wrote of the raid, "Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race ... The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets."
The Viking Age of England had well and truly begun.
Further raids, invasions, and the Great Heathen Army
From around 835 CE, Viking raids soon began to plague more and more settlements around the English coast. The lack of political unity in England, the wealth of the monasteries, and the ease of raiding were all factors in the increased occurrence of Viking raids. However, by the mid-9th century, the declining security situation in England presented an opportunity for the Vikings.
In 865 CE, a series of Viking armies sailed across the North Sea and began to mount a series of invasions of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Though this has been described as "the Great Heathen Army," it was never a unified force but made up of several armies with different leaders amongst them, including, according to legend, the famous Ragnar Lothbrok and Ivar the Boneless.
These invasions would see over a decade of conquest in which the Viking warriors would subjugate nearly all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. By 878 CE, the Vikings had conquered the Kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, and almost all of Mercia. Only the Kingdom of Wessex, in southwest England, remained led by Alfred the Great.
A battle between the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom and Viking forces at Edington saw a crushing victory for Alfred and a peace treaty that essentially saw Wessex left alone but saw Vikings carve up the rest of England. England had entered the phase of "Danelaw" (i.e., areas ruled by Danes – mostly Danish Vikings).
Danelaw and its legacy on England
Viking rule in England lasted almost two centuries. The Viking warriors soon married and interbred with the local Anglo-Saxon population to form a new, Anglo-Scandinavian elite. This presence is still felt in England today both linguistically (over 3,000 English words have Scandinavian roots) and geographically (1,500 English place names have Old Norse origins, e.g., the suffix by meaning a farm or village in Old Norse is found in the names of places like Grimsby, Oadby, and Whitby).
Alfred's great-grandson Edgar died in 975 CE, and after a short reign by Edgar's older son, the crown of Wessex passed to Æthelred. He has been commonly described as having one of the worst reigns in English history, a total disaster, and has been given the moniker, Æthelred the Unready.
At the beginning of his reign, there was a sense of stability in the Danelaw and Wessex and peace with various Viking rulers. However, throughout the late 10th century, Viking raids became more and more frequent. A defeat to the Vikings saw Æthelred pay a large sum of money to the Danish king, but the Viking raids still ravaged his kingdom. He felt there was only one choice left, and he had to strike back with lethal effect.
On November 13, 1002 CE, Æthelred ordered the killing of all the Danes that lived in his kingdom. The "St. Brice's Day Massacre" saw a significant loss of life for the Danes though there is little historical evidence of a specific number. Nonetheless, this enraged Viking rulers back in Scandinavia.
According to the Chronicle of John Wallingford, amongst the dead were the sister and brother-in-law of the King of Denmark, Sweyn Forkbeard.
Sweyn Forkbeard was born sometime in the early 960s CE. He was, according to Adam of Bremen, the son of Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson. Photo: larisons2006 / Pixabay
Invasion of England
Sweyn Forkbeard thus launched an invasion of England in 1003 CE. Campaigning mostly in East Anglia and Wessex, he was eventually joined by another Viking ruler, Thorkell the Tall, who led another invasion of England in 1009 CE. The following two years saw Sweyn wage a bitter war, sacking and ravaging much of Wessex, whilst Thorkell would swap his support between Wessex and Forkbeard.
In late 1012 CE, Forkbeard's men descended onto London to seek a final battle against Æthelred and Thorkell. Though London would resist, the writing was on the wall. Æthelred fled into exile, with his sons, Edward (the future last Anglo-Saxon King of England, Edward the Confessor), and Alfred fleeing to the safety of Normandy.
Forkbeard was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1013. He was now the King of Norway, Denmark, and England and would establish an empire across the North Sea.
North Sea Empire and Harold Godwinson
Forkbeard would establish what historians now call "the North Sea Empire." However, his reign was cut short by his sudden death in 1014 CE. The personal union of the three kingdoms was temporarily broken only to be retaken by Forkbeard'ss son, Cnut the Great, by 1028 CE.
This thalassocracy, with the North Sea the highway connecting the three kingdoms, would last only a short time. However, at its height, under Cnut, it was rivaled only by the Holy Roman Empire in terms of political importance and size. However, this would be the high point of the Viking Age in England. Following Cnut's death, his kingdom was further divided, and the links between England and Scandinavia would soon be severed forever.
Cnut's successor in Denmark, his son, Harthacnut, proved to be an unpopular ruler both in England and in the Danelaw. He imposed high taxes that the population resented so much that they invited Edward, son of Æthelred the Unready, back to govern from his exile in Normandy in 1042 CE.
During his 20-odd-year reign, Norman accounts record that Edward had promised the Kingship of England to his cousin, William, the Duke of Normandy. When Edward eventually died in 1065 CE, the crown passed to Harald Godwinson and then to William.
Godwinson defeated the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada, who was aided by Godwinson's half-brother, Tostig, in 1066 CE. Photo: Steinar Engeland / Unsplash
The Norman invasions and the end of the Viking Era
The nine-month reign of Harold Godwinson was marked by invasions. First, Godwinson brilliantly defeated the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada, who was aided by Godwinson's half-brother, Tostig, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066 CE.
This victory was short-lived as news broke shortly that William, Duke of Normandy, had invaded southern England in order to claim the English throne, which he believed was rightfully his. Godwinson's men, fresh off an exhausting march to the north of England, then had to turn around and march all the way south, with little rest, to take on William in battle.
The two sides, William, Duke of Normandy, and the Anglo-Saxon King of England Harold Godwinson, met at Hastings in what is now East Sussex in southern England. Exhausted from the quick turnaround and march southward, Godwinson was roundly defeated. The Normans appear to have won by pretending to flee and then turning around and butchering the Anglo-Saxon army.
Harold was believed to have been felled (by an arrow being shot in his eye) towards the end of the battle, his death mostly famously depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Despite further skirmishes, William, Duke of Normandy, marched triumphantly into London and was crowned King of England on Christmas Day, 1066 CE.
The Norman invasion of England marked the death knell of the Anglo-Scandinavian elite. William would subjugate all of England and replace the Anglo-Scandinavian elite with a new Norman elite. Old English and Old Norse would be replaced by Norman French as the (literal) lingua franca of the new Kingdom of England.
1066 CE is generally given as the end date of the Viking Era in English history. England would now turn its focus to Normandy and France and away from Scandinavia.
For more information on the "St. Brice's Day Massacre," as depicted in the popular television series Vikings: Valhalla, read a Newsweek article here.
And for an in-depth look at the "Danelaw: A Viking Kingdom in England," please visit the BBC History Extra website here.
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