Terrible portents appeared over Northumbria and miserably frightened the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine followed these signs; and a little after that, in the same year on 8 June, the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter. – The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 793AD.
Like the Saxons, the Vikings – Norsemen from what is now modern Sweden, Norway and Denmark – initially came as raiders. But, also like the Saxons, recognising what a jolly fine place Britain was, some of them wanted to settle down and grow pigs and so forth. Some people think the Vikings have been victims of an unfair Christian-biased press and that they were, deep down, really nice fun-loving guys who were just a tiny bit misunderstood. In any event, they were astonishingly successful seafarers, whose impact on history was felt far beyond the British Isles. Vikings established cities and trading centres as far apart as Ireland and Russia, and got to America about 500 years before Columbus did. But they also wanted land . It is ironic that the Saxons, once terrible invaders themselves, had the tables turned on them.
The first recorded Viking raid on Britain was on the south coast in 789 and raids continued haphazardly for the next fifty years or so, often on undefended monasteries where the attackers could be sure of little resistance and good plunder. Iona was attacked in 795, 802 and again in 806 when 68 monks were killed. In 835, a major assault was launched against the Isle of Sheppey in southern England and, thereafter, raids of varying scale became pretty much an annual summer event from Cornwall to Kent.
Eventually, some of the raiders took to wintering in Britain and setting their sights on more permanent living arrangements. In 865, the Danes landed what contemporaries called the Great Army in East Anglia, wintered there and, the following year, struck north. In 867, the Danes captured York and the southern part of Northumbria. In 869, Ragnar Hairy-Breeks, his son Ivarr the Boneless and their followers, secured East Anglia, murdering its king, Edmund, in a particularly gruesome fashion. In 870, they destroyed Dumbarton, the fortress of the British kings of Strathclyde. By 874, the Danes were conquering Mercia and, in 877, attacked the King of Wessex, Alfred, whilst the Christmas Feast was being celebrated at Chippenham, in Wiltshire.
Alfred, king of the last remaining Saxon kingdom, was forced into hiding in the marshes of Somerset, near Athelney, but was able to gather an army and defeat the Danes in 878 at Edington (Ethandun or Athandune), in Wiltshire. The Danish leader, Guthrum, was even ‘persuaded’ to become a Christian and change his name to the (apparently) more acceptable Athelstan. Alfred was not powerful enough to expel the Danes entirely, though. England was divided with the Saxons controlling the south and most of the west midlands and the Danes ruling East Anglia and the north. The influence of the ‘Danelaw’ can be seen today in language and about 1500 place names – for example anywhere ending in ‘-by’ – Derby, Grimsby, Formby and Leicester (that’s a tiny joke) – is of Danish origin. (The suffix ‘by’ denotes a farmstead, village, or a settlement of some sort). ‘York’ is a Danish name too, from ‘Jorvik’ – a key Viking trading centre. In fact, the Danes profoundly transformed the racial and linguistic characteristics of northern England.
Alfred built a defensive network of 33 towns, or fortresses, called burghs, or burhs, to resist further incursions into Wessex. At the time of his death in 899, Wessex was the last remaining independent English kingdom.
Alfred is the only English king to be called ‘great’. In addition to his military success, he was an excellent law-maker and administrator, is often credited as being the father of the Royal Navy and encouraged reading and writing, both in Latin and Anglo-Saxon (old English). He is also reputed to have been immensely pious and was undoubtedly a good propagandist. Further, he is said to have suffered from Crohn’s Disease. There is a grand statue of Alfred in Winchester, the old capital of Wessex, and you’d never know he wasn’t well from that.
The situation in Wales and what is now Scotland was pretty confusing. The west of Britain was prone to raids from Ireland as well as by the Vikings. Slavery was rife – and it really is about time someone apologised for that, don’t you think? But neither the Saxons nor the Vikings ever conquered Wales. It’s even possible that some Britons from Wales may have fought alongside their erstwhile enemies, the Saxons, against the common foe.
The Anglo-Saxons clashed with the Celtic kingdoms of Dalriada and Strathclyde in the south and west of Scotland, and with the Picts – by whom they were roundly defeated – but made no permanent penetration beyond the borders (which came to be part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria).
The Picts ruled much of the north and the Highlands, but were progressively weakened by the Viking coastal raids that threatened the whole of the British Isles. Gradually, the Picts came more under the influence of the Scotii of Dalriada (originally from Ireland), and the latter’s ruler, Kenneth Mac Alpin, became the first king of both the Scots and Picts in 843AD. But the Vikings had been using parts of Scotland as bases and in 875 the northern isles of Shetland and Orkney fell under the rule of Harald Fair Hair, King of Norway.