Viking Intermission

Fiery dragons and Sons of Death

In 789 three Viking longships came ashore on a Wessex beach. A local official is said to have welcomed their occupants and assumed they were there to trade, inviting them to meet his king. They killed him on the spot. Four years later another longship landed on the island of Lindisfarne and stripped its monastery of its treasure. Similar raids then began round the coast of Britain east and west almost every year, primarily in quest for booty and slaves. A shoreline long vulnerable to seaborne raiders now faced annual visitations of the ‘angry menace of the oars’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described, ‘whirlwinds, lightning, storms and fiery dragons flying across the sky’. To the settled Christian inhabitants of Bede’s Northumbria, the arrival of the Vikings was the wrath of God let loose. It was widely seen as punishment for some collective sin.

The period from the start of the ninth century to the mid-eleventh is referred to as the Viking era of British history. For the most part raids down the Irish Sea originated in Norway and those down the North Sea originated in Denmark. Pushed by Scandinavian overpopulation and pulled by tales of wealth for the taking, men took to longships in their thousands. They developed an extraordinary skill in ship design and navigation. Their ships could travel fifty miles in a day across some of the world’s roughest seas. Alistair Moffat estimates the journey from Shetland to Norway in a fair wind at thirty-six hours in ships carrying sixty warriors up rivers drawing just three feet of water. When they came ashore, the so-called berserker fighters were violent and merciless. Herbal narcotics coupled with a belief in a riotous afterlife generated a ferocity that terrified its victims. It was alleged that when Vikings could find no one to kill they killed each other. The Chronicle described them as Sons of Death.

From the 790s Viking raids became regular and apparently planned. They did not discriminate between western and eastern targets. Monasteries were first ports of call for their reserves of treasure and potential able-bodied slaves. Lindisfarne was attacked by Danes in 793 and again in succeeding years, its precious metals looted, its monks killed or enslaved and what must have a wealth of manuscripts destroyed. In 794 the monastery of Iona was reduced to rubble. Bangor in Wales was another victim. Many women were taken to the Norse settlement of Iceland, where DNA still shows British traces.

The York scholar Alcuin, in service at Charlemagne’s court in the 790s, wrote that ‘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.’ Sceptics of the putative Saxon invasion of Britain can compare the copious evidence for the real Viking one.

The Vikings in the north

Most concerted were the Norse (Norwegian) attacks on Ireland, suggesting it was a particularly rich source of plunder. The first came in 795, followed by twenty-five raids of increasing severity in as many years. Prime targets were monasteries as bases for local clan rulers and their supporters. These included Cork, Wexford and Limerick. Even the island hermitage of Skellig Michael on its almost inaccessible sea-girt rock was attacked. The scale of these operations is indicated by a report of no fewer than sixty Norse longships sailing up the Shannon and Bann rivers in 837.

In time, the invaders set up trading bases on Irish soil, the most notable being Dublin, founded in 841. These bases made the Vikings vulnerable to counter-attack, leading the Irish to form collective defences. In 849 Norse Dublin was sacked by local Irish kings, as at various times were Wexford, Waterford and Limerick. The kingdoms of Meath and Munster in the south and Connacht and the O’Neill lands in the north formed alliances which, while they did not halt the raids, rendered the Norse settlements insecure. Perhaps as a result, the Vikings grew more attuned to settlement and trade, merging into the local population. Eventually they converted to Christianity, learned Irish and created what came to be called a ‘Hiberno-Norse’ culture.

Dublin was ideally located midway on the route from Spain and Biscay north to Scandinavia. Manufactures and metals from the south and skins and spices from the Baltic and Russia passed through its quaysides, which also boasted west Europe’s principal slave market. Irish burial grounds were filled with objects originating in central Europe and the Mediterranean. Dublin was eventually surrounded by walls and a wide protected zone of ramparts and ditches called the Pale – from Latin palus, or stake. This colony extended over much of what became Louth, Kildare and Meath, later to be known as the ‘obedient shires’.

The Vikings also established colonies on islands and coastal settlements round the west and north of Scotland. The Kingdom of the Isles, from the Hebrides south to the Isle of Man, came under varying degrees of Norwegian overlordship throughout the early Middle Ages. Of 126 village names on the Isle of Lewis, ninety-nine are of Norse origin. The leading Hebridean clan, the Macleods, is named from the son of a Viking named Lod while Macaulay derives from Mac-Olaf. The islands remained Norwegian, or at least Norse-Irish, until claimed by Scotland in the thirteenth century.

Of the southern islands, Man held the key. Located in the middle of the Irish Sea, it was in many ways the hub of the Celtic-speaking world. From its highest point at Snaefell, Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland can all be seen. The island was settled largely by the Irish but at various times was ruled by Norwegians, Welsh, Scots and Northumbrians. From 892 the king of Man was the Norse Earl of Orkney, owing fealty to the kings of Norway. The local Tynwald founded in 930 claimed to be the earliest post-classical parliament in Europe, predating Iceland’s Althing. The Manx language was closest to, though not the same as, Irish Goidelic. Its last native speaker, Ned Maddrell, died much recorded and celebrated, in 1974.

To the far north, DNA evidence gives modern Shetland an almost 50 per cent Norse ancestry. Orkney was reputedly a year-round base for attacks on Ireland, while the name for the adjacent Scottish coast was, and remains, the land not to the north but to the south, Sutherland. Orkney passed to Scotland only in 1472. Norse territory in Britain is estimated to have extended over some 3,000 square miles.

Scotland’s capacity to resist Viking attack was crippled by the same clan conflict as afflicted Ireland. There was no leading tribe or charismatic tradition. Forming a fighting force from local warriors sworn to lifetime vendettas against their neighbours was never easy. In the mid-ninth century a king of Dalriada did manage to coalesce most of the clans. Kenneth MacAlpin (r.843–58) claimed the Pictish throne through his mother’s line and thus the title of ‘King of the Scots’. He settled his royal capital at Scone in Perthshire, and when he died in 858 only English-speaking Lothian in the south-east was not under his domain. By then Viking attacks on Scotland were infrequent, whether through diplomacy or the exhaustion of plunder is unclear.

MacAlpin’s suppression of Pictish rebellion marked the end of the Picts as a separate people. The fate of their language is subject of much academic debate. Contact with Dalriada appears to have led to the replacement of whatever was Pictish, possibly by Brythonic, Scots Gaelic or Old English in the south. Even in southern Scotland Graham Robb in his travelogue of the border country, The Debatable Land, claimed to have found in one small range of hills overlooking Liddesdale ‘whose names are derived from Cumbric, Old English, Old Norse, Middle English and Scots’. Language remains the most elusive of archaeologies.

The Vikings in the south

Elsewhere, the pattern of Viking attacks varied widely, the distinction between raiding and settling, thieving and conquering never quite clear. Place names and genetic markers occur on both east and west coasts. In the Lake District Buttermere refers to a Viking named Buthar. The Welsh coast has Norse names such as Anglesey, Bardsey, Skomer and Swansea, the suffix -sey being the Norse for island. Swansea was Svein’s island.

Wales was at least able to unite against the threat. The traditional supremacy of Gwynedd was cemented in the ninth century as Rhodri Mawr (r.844–78) extended his overlordship to Powys and Ceredigion. This enabled him to raise an army against a Viking attack on Anglesey in 856, when he killed the Norse leader, Gorm. After Rhodri’s death his son Anarawd paid homage to the Wessex monarch King Alfred and in 893 joined him to defeat a substantial Viking incursion that reached the upper Severn at Welshpool.

Down England’s east coast it was the Danes who were active. In 845 a warlord, Ragnar Lodbrok, came ashore in Northumbria, but locals threw him into a dungeon filled with vipers. This was unwise, and Lodbrok’s sons, Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless, needed no further encouragement. From 850 raids took place almost annually until in 865 a ‘great heathen army’ arrived in East Anglia, stayed over winter and carried all before it, capturing York in 866. Halfdan declared it his capital and himself king of Northumbria.

Danes were now roaming free over most of Mercia, Yorkshire and East Anglia. England’s rulers seemed powerless to combine and confront them. That same year a Norse army sailed out of Dublin and destroyed Dumbarton, capital of the old Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde, reputedly departing with 200 ships laden with treasure and slaves. A devastated Strathclyde now fell under the control of the western Scots, though the sagas claim that many Brythonic-speakers went south to join what they saw as their kinsmen in Gwynedd.

Only as the Danes moved south towards Wessex did they encounter serious resistance. In 878 a substantial Danish army confronted Alfred of Wessex (r.871–99), who defeated its commander, Guthrum, at the Battle of Edington in Wiltshire. The peace terms were hardly onerous, requiring that the Danes become Christians and depart from Wessex north of London’s River Lea. Eastern England now fell under what was termed the Danelaw, formally established in 884. This embraced East Anglia, the East Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire as far as the border with Northumbria. Danish control now covered almost half the land area of what is now England, with York as the Danelaw capital. England might have halted the Viking conquest but it was cut in half.

These Viking attacks constituted an assault on the British Isles unlike any since Rome. The scale of any population inflow is unclear, with genetic research suggesting some 6 per cent of British ancestry as of Scandinavian origins, but over an uncertain period of time. Immigration appears mostly uncontentious. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 876 reports that Danes had arrived ‘to plough and support themselves’. They seem to have integrated and assimilated, as they did throughout the Viking diaspora across Europe. They arrived in terror but settled in peace.

The Danes established new patterns of government in the Danelaw, dividing the land into ridings and weapontakes. ‘Boroughs’ were founded at Derby, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford. Many places acquired Danish names distinct from English ones, ending in -thorpe, -by and -gill. Though originally pagan, the Danes converted to Christianity, indicated by the number of Kirkbys or ‘church towns’. Studies of the Northumbrian Geordie vocabulary reveal many traces of Old Norse – yet none of Celtic. Danish words including sky, window, law and hustings entered the English language.

Brunanburh: an English empire is born

By his defeat of Guthrum at Edington, Alfred of Wessex was established as the leading monarch of what remained of non-Viking ‘England’. He ruled southern England from Cornwall to Kent and north through the western half of Mercia. He repaired Roman roads and set up military bases known as burhs, thirty-three in number. He formulated a code of law, welcomed scholars from Europe and recruited a clerical civil service. Hankering after the classical culture of Charlemagne’s Aachen, he visited Rome and was received by the pope. Alfred’s Wessex was a new Britain, in tune with both the European church and the classical values of Greece and Rome. He was dismayed to find that no one in his kingdom could write Latin.

Of the Brythonic-speaking kingdoms one at least was happy to join him. Rhodri Mawr’s grandson Hywel (r.920–50), based in Dyfed, found himself ruler by marriage also of Gwynedd and Powys. Only Morganwg (Glamorgan) and Gwent were outside his domain. Like Alfred, he went on a pilgrimage to Rome, and he also minted the first Welsh coins, albeit in Chester. Hywel drew up what was seen as the most advanced law code in Britain. This was rooted in the liberal principle of reparation rather than retribution, expressed by Hywel as ‘rather to ensure reconciliation between kinship groups than to keep order through punishment’. To John Davies, the code ‘was among the most splendid creations of the culture of the Welsh, for centuries a powerful symbol of their unity and identity’.

Above all, Hywel was pragmatic towards Wessex. He paid tribute to Alfred’s grandson Athelstan (r.924–39) and visited his court, where he was addressed, presumably by virtue of his language, as ‘king of the Britons’. By the turn of the tenth century Wales had established not just a stable eastern boundary but an alliance based on realpolitik with its most powerful neighbour. Hywel was rewarded with the epithet of Dda, the Good.

Athelstan was set on enforcing Wessex’s pre-eminence among the kingdoms of the British Isles at least outside the Danelaw. In 927 he went north to meet the kings of Wales, Scotland, Strathclyde and non-Danish Northumbria. The site of the conclave was Eamont Bridge near Penrith in Cumbria. The Irish were not present. At this meeting Athelstan’s sovereignty over the other monarchs was acknowledged by all present and Eamont Bridge is therefore said to mark the ‘foundation’ of England. The chronicle recorded that he ‘ruled all of England singly, which prior to him many kings had shared between them’.

The accord did not hold. Five years later Athelstan complained that Constantine II of Scotland had broken faith and invaded Scotland as punishment. The Scots’ response was dramatic. In 937 Constantine sought help from his fellow kings in raising an army against the new England. He won support from Owain of Strathclyde and from the Irish under the Norse king of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithson. However, Hywel of Wales did not join him, despite a bard in St David’s declaring that ‘the Irish of Ireland, Anglesey [sic] and Scotland as well as the men of Cornwall and Strathclyde … shall be made welcome among us’. Hywel disagreed. He was an ally of Athelstan and would remain so. The bard’s mention of Cornwall is intriguing, suggesting it was now the last redoubt of Brythonic identity in the West Country.

The Battle of Brunanburh took place in October 937, possibly at a site in the Wirral, between what was briefly a genuine, if partial, Celtic alliance and an English force composed primarily of Wessex and Mercia. It was one of few confrontations in history between the English and an alliance of Celtic-speaking neighbours. The struggle lasted all day and the Irish and Scots were annihilated. Constantine’s son was killed as well as ‘five Irish kings’. Athelstan won what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called ‘the greatest battle fought on English soil’ with improbable reports of 34,000 deaths. It left Athelstan’s Wessex as the undisputed kingdom of non-Danelaw England, and with military superiority over the British Isles.

Superiority in battle is not supremacy and Athelstan was unable to bring even Strathclyde into his fold. It was from Strathclyde that the Welsh poet Taliesin is believed to have written his ‘Prophecy of Britain’ c.940, reflecting frustration at Hywel Dda’s non-appearance at Brunanburh. He predicted that Athelstan’s victory would be avenged by a new and greater alliance of the ‘Old North’, Irish, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and, for good measure, the Vikings. The implied bond must rank as a high point of any putative coalition of Celtic-speaking peoples, notably with England weakened by the Danish incursion. But there was no one leader or country to take up the cause. The coalitional dismantled while the Danelaw ended with the eviction of Eric Bloodaxe as king of Northumbria in 954.

Wessex’s leadership of England was reasserted in the long-postponed coronation of Athelstan’s successor Edgar (r.957–75) at Bath in 973. Afterwards, in a symbolic ceremony, Edgar was ‘rowed in homage’ on the River Dee at Chester by eight kings, including those of Wales, Scotland, Cumbria, Strathclyde and Ireland. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle declared Edgar as holding ‘the land as emperor … over all the kings and the Scots and the Welsh’. For the first time the outline of an English nation and an English empire could be envisaged. England was not just coming into existence as a nation but doing so in a context of acknowledged sovereignty over the whole British Isles.

Edgar’s successors could not live up to this role. Viking raids resumed, and in 1013 Ethelred ‘the Unready’ (r.978–1016) was overwhelmed by a Danish army and fled into exile, to be succeeded by the Danish king Cnut (r.1016–35). England had barely come into being before its king was toppled and it fell to a foreign power. Cnut (or Canute) might be treated as a figure of fun in English textbooks – for supposedly trying to resist the tide – but in reality he brought to the British Isles stability and relief from further attack. Had he secured his succession, he might well have founded a new Anglo-Scandinavian empire round the shores of the North and Baltic seas. Instead, Cnut’s England plunged into conflict on his death and its throne eventually passed to his Anglo-Norman stepson, Edward the Confessor (r.1042–66), followed by the Anglo-Dane Harold Godwinson, Harold of England.

Turbulent statelets

England’s Celtic-speaking neighbours failed to flex any but the puniest of muscles during the century in which an alien Scandinavian power dominated England. Their politics was fragmentary and their feuds seemingly eternal. Scotland and Wales rarely enjoyed a stable monarch. In Ireland there was constant conflict between the dominant O’Neills and the kings of the south.

The Irish conflicts culminated in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, the result of the elevation of the Munster leader Brian Boru (r.1002–14) to High King of Ireland. This was challenged by the Irish-Norse lord of Dublin, Sigtrygg Silkbeard (r.989–1036), in alliance with leaders of the Orkneys and other islands. The battle took place at Clontarf outside Dublin, and though Boru and his son and grandson were all killed, the Munster army was victorious. Clontarf illustrated the depth of Norse penetration of Irish leadership. Sigtrygg was a king in the mould of Alfred, devout in his Christianity and founder of Dublin’s Christ Church cathedral. But virtually his entire reign was spent fighting for or against other kings. He was forced to abdicate and died in 1042.

Across the Irish Sea, Welsh policy continued to be defined by relations with England. Hywel Dda left a largely united country and a unique framework of law, but once again a hereditary monarch could not bequeath a stable succession. In 950 Hywel divided Wales among his offspring with disastrous consequences. The Welsh chronicle records that over the following century thirty-five Welsh rulers died at each other’s hands and ‘a further four were blinded’.

Only one stood out as remarkable, the aggressive Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Gwynedd (r.1055–63). He succeeded in uniting Wales with Glamorgan, meaning that for seven years Gruffydd was one of the few Welsh kings ever to rule the entirety of Wales. However, he recklessly involved himself in English border politics and duly incurred the wrath of Harold Godwinson. Though he defeated two English armies, he was murdered by his own people and his head was sent to England in triumph. Harold married Gruffydd’s widow in an attempt to reconcile England and Wales.

In Scotland the heirs to MacAlpin of Dalriada consolidated their hold over the Pictish lands. Lothian was overrun by the Scottish king Malcolm II in 1018, thus advancing the notional Scottish border south to the River Tweed and the autonomous town of Berwick. Adjacent Strathclyde had long been allied to the Scottish crown, but in 1034 its heir, Duncan, also inherited MacAlpin’s Scottish throne. Reigning from 1034 to 1040, he at last brought Brythonic Strathclyde fully into Scotland’s embrace.

This merger marked the demise of Strathclyde as the Hen Ogledd, though its Cumbric language was to continue in use in the Lake District, possibly into the thirteenth century. It lives on in such ‘Welsh’ place names as Glasgow (green hollow), Carlisle (Lisle’s castle) and Penrith (chief ford). But once more, unification did not put an end to feuding. Duncan’s assumption of the Scottish crown was challenged by a rival, Macbeth (r.1040–57), who eventually toppled and killed him.

Macbeth was an efficient and stabilising monarch who ruled Scotland for seventeen years. He undertook a pilgrimage to Rome, where he was reported to have ‘scattered money round the poor like seed’. Macbeth was eventually killed by Duncan’s son Malcolm III (r.1058–93), supposed ancestor of the Stuart dynasty. Macbeth subsequently fell victim to artistic politics as Malcolm’s descendant was Shakespeare’s patron, James I of England. Macbeth duly joined Richard III in getting the Bard’s thumbs down and is unlikely ever to recover.

The ingénue nations of the British Isles at the end of the Anglo-Saxon era now had borders that are more or less recognisable today. They formed a geopolitical identity and were threatened only by the Danes. Danish monarchs regarded the English crown as their inheritance from Cnut. It was in this cause that in 1066 Harald Hardrada invaded England to march on York, only to be defeated by Harold Godwinson at Stamford Bridge. Harold had little time to savour his victory. He promptly had to march south to face another former Viking with a claim to his throne, this one far more deadly, William of Normandy.

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