There is more to the Viking story in Britain than blood and guts, massacres, conquest, and a list of dates on a page. Viking Britain: An Exploration by Thomas Williams unfolds a narrative beyond the traditional stereotypes, immersing readers in the nuanced intricacies of the Viking Age's impact on the British Isles.
Like all good historians and non-historians alike, Thomas Williams clearly loves a museum. And not just any museum but the British Museum - the museum that started it all.
He was the curator of the wildly successful exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend at the venerable institution back in 2014.
Although this exhibition did not initiate the recent "Viking craze" - with our favorite early medieval warriors now seemingly omnipresent from Hollywood to your handheld device - it certainly helped a new generation of the British fall in love with all things Viking.
Pride of the place in the normally understated and austere British Museum was a Viking longboat – Roskilde 6 – discovered in 1996 at the bottom of Roskilde harbor, the ancient capital of Denmark.
Believed to have been scuttled a millennium before to protect the harbor, it once again crossed the North Sea to the British Isles. With precious unseen artifacts, like Roskilde 6, the exhibition won rave reviews and secured a degree of curatorial greatness for Williams.
For those not lucky enough to have seen that wildly popular exhibition, fear not, because it appears that Williams was, to use the popular expression, playing chess, not checkers.
The time and effort he put into this exhibition was not a one-off, as he has graced us with his wealth of knowledge in this detailed exploration of Viking history.
Bamburgh Castle, located in Northumbria, was an important stronghold during the Viking Age in Britain, providing an enduring symbol of resistance against Viking incursions. Photo: Toms Auzins / Shutterstock
Restore some dignity
By Williams' own admission, it was about time that a book was written to help "restore some of the dignity" that the Vikings have, let's face it, "too often been denied."
In his comprehensive work, Viking Britain: An Exploration, Williams addresses the misconceptions surrounding the Vikings and their societies.
His pet hate is how, despite the popularity of the Vikings (and the societies they came from), they have been perceived for centuries as mere destroyers.
As you would expect from a museum curator, the book faithfully tells the history of Viking Age Britain with attention to detail and precision.
We get a deep dive into the milieu on both sides of the North Sea, leading up to the first Viking raid on Lindisfarne – which kicked off Viking Age Britain.
This means that the reader can finally know their Anglo-Saxon King Ecgberth from his contemporary Eadberth but also understand the psychological motivation - a fear of effeminacy - that helped propel vast numbers of men from Scandinavia to the British Isles.
Whilst expertly weaving through Britain's well-known Viking historical sites, such as Northumbria, the Midlands, and the former Kingdom of Wessex, Williams goes beyond expectations.
He illuminates lesser-known places with a rich Viking history, exemplified by the Midlands town of Repton. Here, in the 17th century, a local vicar discovered a superbly preserved amulet featuring Thor's hammer.
Williams reminds us that his is a book about "ideas, objects, and places" and not just mere dates on a page.
Everything from the rise of the British Navy in the 16th and 17th centuries (renowned during this era for conducting Viking-like raids on larger empires) to the Blackshirts of British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley can be traced back to the Viking presence in the British Isles between the late 8th century and the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066.
If Williams' mission was to restore some dignity to the understanding, study, and appreciation of Viking Britain, he has done so with aplomb. This book is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in British or Viking history.
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