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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 793 AD.
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, many 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 wee bit misunderstood. In any event, they were astonishingly successful seafarers and global traders, 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 to deal with a similar problem to the one they presented to post-Roman Britain. By the way, it is unlikely that Vikings wore horned helmets into battle.
The first recorded Viking raid on Britain was on the south coast in 789 AD, 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 seasonal events, every summer, along the coast 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, popularly believed to have been led by three sons of the legendary (or mythical) Ragnar Lothbrok, aka Ragnar Hairy-Breeks. The brothers, Ivarr the Boneless, Halfdan and Ubba, wintered in East Anglia and, the following year, struck north and captured York. In 867, they thrashed a Northumbrian army and then proceeded south into the kingdom of Mercia, where they established winter quarters at Nottingham. Here, they were confronted by a joint Mercian-Wessex force, but no major engagement ensued and, the following year, the invaders returned to York. In 869, they headed back to East Anglia, set up camp at Thetford and defeated the East Anglians, led by king – later saint – Edmund near Hoxne in Suffolk. Edmund, tradition has it, was bound to a tree, shot full of arrows, then beheaded.
Probably coincidentally, in 866, western Scotland came under attack by a large Viking army led by Olaf the White, the Norse King of Dublin. In 870, after a four-month siege, the great British fortress of Dumbarton fell. The plunder and number of slaves seized was said to be so great that the victors needed a fleet of 200 longships in which to carry off their booty.
The great Danish army, meanwhile, made their first incursion into the kingdom of Wessex, basing themselves at Reading. Despite a victory at the Battle of Ashdown in 871, however, Wessex was on the back foot and the new king, Alfred, was forced to buy the Danes off. The Danes subsequently turned their attentions on destroying Mercia. Some also began to settle into permanent homes, particularly around the area that is now modern Yorkshire. By 875, the Danish army had divided into two and one half was ready to threaten Wessex again. Intermittent warfare ensued until, in January 878, a surprise attack was made on Alfred at Chippenham, Wiltshire, where he had been celebrating the Christmas Feast.
Alfred, king of the last remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdom, was forced into hiding in the marshes of Somerset, in Athelney, but was able to gather an army and defeat the Danes in 878 at Edington (Ethandune or Ethandun), 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 midlands and the Danes ruling East Anglia and the north. The influence of this ‘Danelaw’ can be seen today in language and about 1500 place names – for example anywhere ending in ‘-by’ – Derby, Grimsby, Formby – is of Danish origin. (The suffix ‘by’ denotes a ‘farmstead’, ‘village’, or a settlement of some sort). Other common Danish or Norse suffixes in place names are ‘thorpe’ (dependent, outlying, settlement), ‘holme’ (island, raised ground surrounded by marsh), and ‘thwaite’ (clearing, meadow). York, which the Danes called Jorvik, became a key Viking trading centre. In fact, the Vikings profoundly transformed the social, racial and linguistic characteristics of northern England.
Alfred built a defensive network of towns, or fortresses, called burghs, or burhs, to resist further incursions into Wessex. An Anglo-Saxon document from the 10th century, known as the Burghal Hidage lists 30 fortified places (burghs), most of which have survived as towns today.
At the time of Alfred’s death in 899, Wessex was the one remaining independent English kingdom. Without Alfred, there would have been no England and he 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 by Irish as well as by Norse 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 likely 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 Scoti of Dalriada (originally from Ireland), in the west of modern Scotland. In 843 AD, Kenneth MacAlpine (Cináed mac Ailpín) a Gaelic or Pictish warlord, united the people of Dalriada with the people of Pictland against a common foe, the Viking Norsemen. Kenneth MacAlpine’s descendents became kings of Scotland. The Vikings had not only been raiding, but also using parts of Scotland as bases and in 875 the northern isles of Shetland and Orkney fell under Harald Fair Hair, King of Norway.