Norse activity in the British Isles

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Norse activity in the British Isles occurred during the Early Mediaeval period, when members of the Norse populations of Scandinavia travelled to Britain and Ireland for trade, raiding and settlement. The Norse peoples that came to the British Isles have often been referred to in modern scholarship as Vikings;[1][2] however, there is a dispute among scholars as to whether the term Vikings should be used to apply to all Norse settlers or simply the Norse raiders.[3]

At the start of the Early Mediaeval period, the Norse kingdoms in Scandinavia had developed trade links stretching all the way into southern Europe and the Mediterranean that gave them access to imports such as gold. Such trade links also extended westward into Ireland and Britain.[4]

In the final decade of the 8th century CE, Norse raiders attacked a series of Christian monasteries located in Britain. This started in 793, with an attack on the monastery at Lindisfarne off England's eastern coast, and the following year they sacked the nearby Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey. In 795 they once again attacked, this time raiding Iona Abbey on Scotland's west coast.[5]

Background[edit]

During the Early Medieval period, Ireland and Britain were culturally, linguistically and religiously divided into various groups. The languages of Britons and Gaels were descended from the Celtic languages spoken by the Iron Age peoples. In Ireland, part of western Scotland and the Isle of Man, people were mostly by this time speaking an early form of Gaelic known as Old Irish. This language was descended from the Celtic language brought to Ireland in the Iron Age. There may have been another pre-Indo-European language spoken by the Erainn in modern Kerry into the 8th century, though this could have been another Celtic or Indo-European language. In Western Britain (modern South-West,Wales, Cumbria and Southwestern Scotland), the Celtic Brythonic languages were spoken. North of the Forth-Clyde line, Britain was inhabited by Picts who spoke Pictish. Due to the scarcity of inscriptions in Pictish, all in Ogham, there are varying views on whether Pictish was Celtic like the more southerly languages, or perhaps even non-Indo-European, like Basque. However most inscriptions and place name evidence points towards the Picts being Celtic in language and culture. These peoples had already been predominantly converted to Christianity from their older, pre-Christian polytheistic religions. In contrast to this, across much of southern Britain, in what is considered to be Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon migrants from continental Europe had settled in the 5th century CE, bringing with them their own Germanic language (known as Old English), their polytheistic religion (Anglo-Saxon paganism) and their own distinct cultural practices, although by the Viking age Anglo-Saxon England was mostly Christian.

The Isle of Man had supported its own agrarian population, but it is widely believed that it was Brythonic-speaking before Old Irish (later to become Manx) spread there. Gaelicisation could have taken place before the Viking age or perhaps during it, when the area was settled by Norse-Gaels who practised their own culture.

In northern Britain (the area that is the rough equivalent of the modern nation of Scotland), three distinct ethnic groups lived in their own respective kingdoms, all Christian: the Picts, Scots and Britons.[6] The Pictish cultural group dominated the majority of Scotland, with major populations concentrated between the Firth of Forth and the River Dee, as well as in Sutherland, Caithness, and Orkney.[7] As discussed earlier, it is not certain whether the Picts spoke a Celtic language, or even a non-Indo-European language, although evidence from place names and personal names points to their language being closely related to the Brythonic languages. The Scots were, according to written sources, a tribal group which had crossed to Britain from Dalriada in the north of Ireland during the late 5th century. Archaeologists have not been able to identify anything that was unique to the kingdom of the Scots, noting similarities with the Picts in most forms of material culture.[8] The Britons were those dwelling in the Old North, in parts of what became southern Scotland and northern England, and by the 7th or 8th centuries had apparently come under the political control of the Anglo-Saxons.[9]

By the mid-9th century, Anglo-Saxon England was divided into four separate and independent kingdoms; East Anglia, Wessex, Northumbria, and Mercia, the latter of which was the strongest military power.[10] Between half a million and a million people lived in England at this time, with society being rigidly hierarchical. This class system had a king and his ealdormen at the top, under whom were the thegns, or landholders and then the various forms of agricultural workers below them. Beneath all of these was a class of slaves, who may have made up as much as a quarter of the population.[10] The majority of the populace lived in the countryside, although a few large towns had developed, namely London and York, which were centres of royal and ecclesiastical administration, although there was also a number of trading ports, such as Hamwic and Ipswich, that were involved in foreign trade.[10]

Scandinavia[edit]

A 20th century replica of a Viking longship, known as the Hugin

Society in 8th century Scandinavia was (unlike the British Isles) still pre-literate, existing in the final state of European prehistory, in a period known by archaeologists as the Iron Age. In Scandinavia, the 8th century proved to be "a period of rapid technological, economic and social development" which would lead the region out of the Iron Age and into what has come to be known as the Viking Age.[11]

At the start of the Early Mediaeval period, the Norse populations saw themselves primarily as inhabitants of specific regions such as Jutland, Vestfold and Hordaland. It would only be by the later centuries of this period that national identities developed amongst the Scandinavians, dividing them up into Danes, Swedes and Norwegians.[12]

The Late Iron Age peoples of Scandinavia had not yet been converted to Christianity as the peoples of Britain and Ireland had, and instead followed Norse paganism, a polytheistic set of beliefs that revered such deities as Odin, Thor, Frey and Freyja.[13]

Scandinavian society was heavily seafaring, allowing Norse sailors to navigate around much of Europe during the Early Mediaeval period.[14] The Norse populations of Scandinavia had developed trade links with many other areas of Europe, obtaining large quantities of gold in the late 5th century, most of which was found in Sweden, and to a lesser degree Norway.[4]

Viking raids: 793–850[edit]

In the final decade of the 8th century CE, Norse raiders attacked a series of Christian monasteries located in the British Isles. In the British Isles, Christian monasteries had often been positioned on small islands and in other remote coastal areas so that the monks could dwell there in seclusion, devoting themselves to worship without the interference of other elements of society. At the same time, it made them isolated and un-protected targets for attack.[15] Historian Peter Hunter Blair remarked that the Viking raiders would have been astonished "at finding so many communities which housed considerable wealth and whose inhabitants carried no arms."[15] These raids would have been the first contact many Norsemen had with Christianity, but such attacks were not specifically anti-Christian in nature, rather the monasteries were simply seen as 'easy targets' for raiders.[13]

"Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such a terror appeared as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments."

Archbishop Alcuin of York on the sacking of Lindisfarne.[16]

The first known account of a Viking raid taking place in Anglo-Saxon England comes from 789, when three ships from Hordaland (in modern Norway) landed in the Isle of Portland on the southern coast of Wessex. They were approached by the royal reeve from Dorchester, whose job it was to identify all foreign merchants entering the kingdom, and they proceeded to kill him.[16] It is likely that other raids (the records for which have since been lost) occurred soon after, for in 792 King Offa of Mercia began to make arrangements for the defence of Kent from raids perpetrated by "pagan peoples".[16]

The next recorded attack against the Anglo-Saxons came the following year, in 793, when the monastery at Lindisfarne, an island off of England's eastern coast, was sacked by a Viking raiding party on 8 June.[16] The following year they sacked the nearby Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey.[5]

In 795 they once again attacked, this time raiding Iona Abbey on Scotland's west coast.[5] This monastery would be attacked again in 802 and 806, when 68 people dwelling there were killed. Following such devastation, the monastic community at Iona abandoned the site and fled instead to Kells in Ireland.[17]

In the first decade of the 9th century CE, Viking raiders began to attack coastal districts along Ireland.[18] In 835, the first major Viking raid in southern England took place and was directed against the Isle of Sheppey.[19]

Treasure hoards[edit]

Various hoards of treasure were buried in England at this time, some of which may have been deposited by Anglo-Saxons attempting to hide their wealth from Viking raiders, and some of which may have instead been buried by the Viking raiders themselves as a way of protecting their looted treasure.[16]

One such of these hoards was discovered in Croydon, Surrey in 1862. Containing 250 coins, three silver ingots and part of a fourth as well as four pieces of hack silver in a linen bag, it was believed by archaeologists that this was the loot collected by a member of the Viking army. By dating the artefacts, archaeologists came to believe that it was likely that this hoard had been buried in 872, when the army wintered in London.[16] The coins themselves came from a wide range of different kingdoms, with Wessex, Mercian and East Anglian examples being found alongside foreign imports from Carolingian dynasty Francia and the Arab world.[16] Not all such Viking hoards in England contained coins however, for example at Bowes Moor, Durham, 19 silver ingots were discovered, whilst at Orton Scar, Cumbria, a silver neck ring and penannular brooch were uncovered.[20]

The historian Peter Hunter Blair believed that it was the success of the Viking raids and the "complete unpreparedness of Britain to meet such attacks" which was the major factor in the subsequent Norse invasions and colonisations of large parts of the British Isles.[15]

Invasion and Danelaw: 865–896[edit]

From 865 the Norse attitude towards the British Isles changed, as they began to see it as a place for potential colonisation rather than simply a place to raid. As a result of this, larger armies began arriving on Britain's shores, with the intention of conquering land and constructing settlements there.[21]

England[edit]

Main article: Danelaw

In 866, Norse armies captured York, one of the two major cities in Anglo-Saxon England.[21] In 871, King Æthelred of Wessex, who had been leading the conflict against the Vikings, died, and was succeeded to the throne by his younger brother, Alfred the Great.[21] Meanwhile, many Anglo-Saxon kings began to capitulate to the Viking demands, and handed over land to the invading Norse settlers. In 876, the Northumbrian monarch Healfdene gave up his lands to them, and in the next four years they gained further land in the kingdoms of Mercia and East Anglia as well.[21] King Alfred continued his conflict with the invading forces, but was driven back into Somerset in the south-west of his kingdom in 878, where he was forced to take refuge in the marshes of Athelney.[21]

Alfred regrouped his military forces and defeated the armies of the Norse monarch of East Anglia, Guthrum, at the Battle of Ethandun. Following Guthrum's defeat, in 886 the Treaty of Wedmore was signed between the (Norse-controlled) East Anglian and Wessex governments that established a boundary between the two kingdoms. The area to the north and east of this boundary became known as the Danelaw because it was under the control of Norse political influence, whilst those areas south and west of it remained under Anglo-Saxon dominance.[21] Alfred's government set about constructing a series of defended towns or burhs, began the construction of a navy and organised a militia system whereby half of his peasant army remained on active service.[21] Although there were continuous attacks on Wessex by new Viking armies, the kingdom's new defences proved a success and in 896 the invaders dispersed, instead settling in East Anglia and Northumbria, with some instead sailing to Normandy.[21]

Alfred's policy of opposing the Viking settlers was continued under the regime of his daughter Æthelflæd, who married Æthelred, Ealdorman of Mercia, and also under the regime of her son Edward the Elder. In 920 the Northumbrian government and the Scots governments both submitted to the military power of Wessex, and in 937 the Battle of Brunanburh led to the collapse of Norse power in northern Britain. In 954 Erik Bloodaxe, the last Norse King of York, was expelled from the city.[22]

Norse settlement in the British Isles[edit]

The early Norse settlers in Anglo-Saxon England would have appeared visibly different from the Anglo-Saxon populace, wearing specifically Scandinavian styles of jewellery, and probably also wearing their own peculiar styles of clothing as well. There was also a difference in the style of hair worn by Norse and Anglo-Saxon men, with the former typically wearing a hair style that was shaved at the back and left shaggy on the front, whilst in contrast to this the latter typically wore their hair long.[23]

Second invasion: 980–1012[edit]

Cnut the Great's domains, in red

England[edit]

Under the reign of Wessex King Edgar the Peaceful, England came to be further politically unified, with Edgar coming to be recognized as the king of all England by both Anglo-Saxon and Norse populations living in the country.[24] However, under the regimes of his son Edward the Martyr, who was murdered in 978, and then Æthelred the Unready, the political strength of the English monarchy waned, and in 980 Viking raiders from Scandinavia once more started making attacks against England.[24] The English government decided that the only way of dealing with these attackers was to pay them protection money, and so in 991 they gave them £10,000. This fee did not prove to be enough, and over the next decade the English kingdom was forced to pay the Viking attackers increasingly large sums of money.[24] Many English began to demand that a more hostile approach be taken against the Vikings, and so, on St Brice's Day in 1002, King Æthelred proclaimed that all Danes living in England would be executed. It would come to be known as the St. Brice's Day massacre.[24]

In 1013 King Sveinn Hákonarson of Denmark invaded England with a large army, and Æthelred fled to Normandy, leading Sveinn to take the English throne. Sveinn died within a year however, and so Æthelred returned, but in 1016 another Norse army invaded, this time under the control of the Danish King Cnut.[25] After defeating Anglo-Saxon forces at the Battle of Assandun, Cnut became king of England, subsequently ruling over both the Danish and English kingdoms.[25] Following Cnut's death in 1035, the two kingdoms were once more declared independent and remained so apart from a short period from 1040 to 1042 when Cnut's son Harthacnut ascended the English throne.[25]

Invasions of 1066[edit]

The Battle of Stamford Bridge took place near the village of Stamford, East Riding of Yorkshire in England on 25 September 1066, between an English army under King Harold Godwinson and an invading Norwegian force led by King Harald Hardrada of Norway. The invasion was repelled but before the English Army had fully recovered the Normans under the leadership of Duke William II of Normandy (William the Conqueror), invaded Anglo-Saxon England William defeated King Harold II of England army at the Battle of Hastings.

Evidence[edit]

Written records[edit]

Archaeologists James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E. Batey noted that there was a lack of historical sources discussing the earliest Viking encounters with the British Isles, which would have most probably been amongst the northern island groups, those closest to Scandinavia.[26]

The Irish Annals provide us with accounts of much Norse activity during the 9th and 10th centuries.[27]

The Viking raids that affected Anglo-Saxon England were primarily documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals initially written in the late 9th century, most probably in the Kingdom of Wessex during the reign of Alfred the Great. The Chronicle is however a biased source, acting as a piece of "wartime propaganda" written on behalf of the Anglo-Saxon forces against their Norse opponents, and in many cases greatly exaggerates the size of the Norse fleets and armies, thereby making any Anglo-Saxon victories against them seem more heroic.[28]

Archaeological evidence[edit]

The Norse settlers in the British Isles left remains of their material culture behind, which archaeologists have been able to excavate and interpret during the 20th and 21st centuries. Such Norse evidence in Britain consists primarily of Norse burials undertaken in Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles, the Isle of Man, Ireland and the north-west of England.[27] Archaeologists James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E. Batey remarked that it was on the Isle of Man where Norse archaeology was "remarkably rich in quality and quantity".[3]

However, as archaeologist Julian D. Richards commented, Scandinavians in Anglo-Saxon England "can be elusive to the archaeologist" because many of their houses and graves are indistinguishable from those of the other populations living in the country.[2] For this reason, historian Peter Hunter Blair noted that in Britain, the archaeological evidence for Norse invasion and settlement was "very slight compared with the corresponding evidence for the Anglo-Saxon invasions" of the 5th century.[27]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

Academic and Popular Books
  • Blair, Peter Hunter (2003). An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Third Edition). Cambridge, UK and New York City, USA: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-53777-3. 
  • Crawford, Barbara E. (1987). Scandinavian Scotland. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Leicester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7185-1282-8. 
  • Graham-Campbell, James and Batey, Colleen E. (1998). Vikings in Scotland: An Archaeological Survey. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-0641-2. 
  • Richards, Julian D. (1991). Viking Age England. London: B.T. Batsford and English Heritage. ISBN 978-0-7134-6520-4. 
  • Keynes, Simon (1999). "Vikings". The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England (Eds: Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg) (Oxford: Blackwell). pp. 460–461.