British Isles and beyond

The Vikings: 8th - 10th century AD

In 793 the monks on the island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England, are unpleasantly surprised by the arrival of violent raiders from the sea. Their misfortune is the first clearly dated event in the saga of the Vikings - the last and most dramatic exodus in the long story of migration from Scandinavia, the original home of the Goths and vandals.

The name Viking is thought to derive from vikingr, a word for 'pirate' in the early Scandinavian languages. It accurately describes the Norsemen who for two centuries raid the coasts of Britain and of northwest France. But in many places the Scandinavians also settle - in the islands of the North atlantic, in the British Isles, in Normandy, in Sicily and in the very heart of Russia.

It is impossible to assign the various Viking groups at all precisely to places of origin. But broadly speaking, adventurers from the coast of Norway raid the north of England and continue round the Scottish coast to Ireland. Vikings from the same region later settle in the Scottish islands, Iceland and parts of Ireland.

The Vikings invading eastern Britain and northwest France, and eventually settling in both regions, come mainly from Denmark. The Swedes raid across the Baltic and penetrate deep into Russia as traders.

The Vikings and the British Isles: 9th - 10th century AD

The coasts of the British isles are now dotted with monasteries, not yet rich by the standards of medieval monasticism but with sufficient wealth to attract Viking marauders. One of the most famous islands, Iona, is raided three times in a decade (in 795, 802 and 805). Even monasteries which seem secure, pleasantly sited on inland rivers, fall victim to Viking longships rowing upstream. But gradually, during the 9th century, the raiders settle.

Soon all the Scottish islands and the Isle of Man are in Viking hands, and the intruders are even seizing territory on the mainland of both Britain and Ireland. In 838 Norwegians capture Dublin and establish a Norse kingdom in Ireland. From 865 the Danes settle in eastern England.

At this time the territory securely in the hands of the Scots and picts extends only from the great rift of Loch Ness down to the firths of Clyde and Forth. North of this central region, the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands, together with much of the mainland, are in the hands of Vikings from Norway. In the southwest the border region of Strathclyde is often under threat from the Norwegian Vikings of Dublin. In the southeast Lothian is another border region. Until recently part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, it is exposed to the Danish vikings, whose capital city is York.

But at least by now, in the mid-9th century, there is a recognizable Scottish kingdom.

Danes in England: from AD 865

Thirty years of Danish raids on the east coast of England precede the arrival, in 865, of a 'Great Army' equipped for conquest rather than quick booty. The Danish invaders now consolidate each year's gains by establishing a secure base from which they can continue a campaign of harassment - which invariably ends with the settled English buying peace from their footloose tormentors.

York is taken in 866 (and becomes, as Yorvik, the Danish capital in England). Nottingham falls in 867, Thetford in 869. By now the kings of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia have made terms with the invaders. Next in line is Wessex.

In 870 the Danes advance into Wessex, capturing Reading where they meet the most determined opposition thus far. During the next year nine battles are fought in this district. In 871, at Ashdown on the Berkshire downs, the English win their first significant victory of the war; a Danish king and nine earls are killed on the field of battle. Even so, it proves impossible to recapture Reading. Wessex, like the other English kingdoms, makes peace with the Danes - who withdraw to winter in London.

But the victory at Ashdown has introduced a figure of significance in English history. The Wessex men are commanded that day by a 23-year-old prince of their ruling family - Alfred, brother of the king of Wessex.

Alfred and the Danes: AD 871-899

In popular tradition the story of England, as opposed to Britain, begins with Alfred. And there is a valid basis for this heroic status. He is the first Anglo-Saxon ruler to be accepted as something akin to a national leader. The English see him as such in those regions resisting Danish domination. With good cause he is the only king of England to be accorded the title 'the Great'.

His authority derives from his successes against the Danes. His kingly virtues can also be seen, with hindsight, in his encouragement of learning. But his central achievement is the quarter-century of struggle which follows his victory over the Danes at Ashdown in 871.

In that same year, 871, Alfred's elder brother dies and he becomes the king of Wessex. One of his first acts is to establish the beginnings of an English fleet. The Danes draw much of their strength from their swift Viking Longships. It makes sense for the Anglo-Saxon islanders to reply in kind. By 875 Alfred can claim a small naval victory which is nevertheless a significant beginning. Going to sea with his new fleet, he holds his own against seven Danish ships and even captures one of them.

On land he has similar successes, defeating Danish armies and forcing them to agree to leave Wessex in peace. But the Danes regularly break their word.

In 878 a surprise Danish attack pushes Alfred west into the Somerset marshes. From a single fort at Athelney he organizes local resistance. This is the lowest ebb of the English cause, the nearest that the Danes come to conquering Wessex and establishing their rule over the whole of England.

Within a few months Alfred is strong enough to move east again and defeat the Danes at Edington in Wiltshire. The conclusion of this campaign is a two-week siege of Guthrum, the Danish king of East Anglia, who is encircled in his encampment. Guthrum secures his freedom by promising (once again) to leave Wessex. More significantly, he also agrees to be baptized a Christian.

The ceremony of baptism takes place on the river Parrett, with Alfred in the role of sponsor of the new convert. Then the two Christian kings go together to Wedmore (the year is still 878), where they spend twelve days in ceremony and feasting and in the agreement of a treaty which finally preserves Wessex from Danish intrusion.

A Danish invasion of Kent in 885 gives Alfred the pretext for expansion eastwards. He drives back the invaders, and in 886 occupies London. This success leads to a new treaty with Guthrum. He and Alfred agree a basis for coexistence between Anglo-Saxons in the south and west and Danes in the north and east of the country - the region which becomes known as Danelaw.

A king of Wessex ruling London has a new degree of authority. Alfred becomes accepted as the overlord of Danes (his daughter is married to the king of Danes), thus virtually uniting the two kingdoms of Wessex and Danes. Together with Mercia they are now safeguarded by a system of local levies (capable of providing an army at short notice) and by a network of walled and garrisoned towns (the boroughs). In this way Alfred leaves in place the framework which makes possible the reconquest of Danelaw in the next generation (after his own death in 899).

Meanwhile the English king concerns himself with restoring the cultural as well as the military well-being of his country.

Norwegians in Ireland: 9th - 11th century AD

During the 9th century the Norse kings of Dublin are in constant warfare with Irish kings. They suffer several reverses. But in the early 10th century the trend seems to be going in favour of the Vikings. They capture important strongholds at the mouths of Ireland's main rivers. Waterford falls to them in 914, Limerick in 920. Cork is at various times occupied by Vikings, and Wexford is founded as a Norse settlement.

The Irish persistently fight back - most notably under the leadership of Brian Boru.

Brian Boru and the Vikings: AD 976-1014

Brian, known as Boru from his birthplace by the river Shannon, is the son of a small local ruler. His family gain power through their successful attacks on the Vikings. In 964 Brian's elder brother asserts his dominance over the local Irish potentates, the royal dynasty of Munster. Taking their famous stronghold, the rock of Cashel, he becomes accepted as king of Munster and as leader of resistance to the Vikings in southern Ireland. Brian succeeds him in both roles in 976.

Brian Boru successfully drives the Vikings from the Shannon. In 1002 he is accepted as high king of all Ireland. His final confrontation with the Norsemen follows a plot set in motion in 1013.

In 1013 the Norse king of Dublin spends Christmas in the Orkneys with another Viking ruler - the local earl. They hatch a scheme. The earl of the Orkneys will bring a fleet and army to Dublin, before Easter, to assist the Norse king in overwhelming the king of all Ireland, Brian Boru.

The engagement takes place, and at the appointed season. On April 23, 1014, Brian Boru confronts the Norse army at Clontarf, on the coast just east of Dublin. He is now seventy-three, so he only directs the battle. His son, Murchad, leads the men in the field and dies fighting (as does the earl of the Orkneys). After twelve hours the Norsemen are defeated. But a Viking chieftain, fleeing the battlefield, comes across Brian Boru in his tent and kills him.

The Irish victory at Clontarf puts an end to any serious Norse threat to the whole of Ireland. But it does not remove the Vikings from their coastal strongholds of Dublin and Waterford. And, with both Brian Boru and his son casualties of the battle, it leaves the Irish themselves in a disordered state.

This remains the case for more than a century until a stronger group of Vikings, of Norman descent, arrive on the Irish coast in 1169.

Vikings in the North Atlantic: 9th - 10th century AD

Rowing and sailing through the northern seas, in their superbly streamlined longships, the Norsemen settle in islands close to land which have been inhabited since neolithic times (such as the Orkneys and Shetlands) and in others further afield where their only predecessors - in the previous century or two - are Irish Christian hermits, searching for isolated discomfort.

Islands with only hermits to displace include the Faeroes and above all Iceland. From Iceland the Vikings venture even further west to perch on the edge of Greenland, where they are preceded only by the Eskimo.

The first family of Iceland: AD 874

In 874 Viking longships are beached on a promontory in the southwest of Iceland, where Reykjavik now stands. They have brought from the coast of Norway a chieftain, Ingólfur Arnarson, together with his family, dependents and livestock. Arnarson establishes a settlement, based on fishing and sheep farming.

Other similar groups soon follow, staking out territories round the coast of the island. Two centuries later the population of Iceland is already about 75,000 people - a level not exceeded until the 20th century. Meanwhile Norse colonists from Iceland have formed the first European settlements on the American continent, naming them Greenland and Vinland.

Further expansion

Vikings in France: 9th - 12th century AD

As elsewhere in northwest Europe, Viking raids on the coast of France gradually evolve into settlement. During the last decades of the 9th century, Danes are in possession of the territory round the lower reaches of the Seine. Early in the 10th century they are joined by a Norwegian who has already distinguished himself adventuring in Scotland and Ireland. His name is Hrölfr. He is known in western history as Rollo the Ganger.

Rollo becomes leader of the Seine Vikings and by 911 he is strong enough to besiege the French city of Chartres. The siege ends when the Frankish king, Charles III, agrees at St. Clair-sur-Epte to grant Rollo Feudal rights over the territory round Rouen.

The Viking word for a Scandinavian is Northman, which in medieval French becomes Normand. Rollo the Viking and his successors, rapidly expanding their territory beyond his original feudal grant, are known therefore as Normans. Their dukedom, in its larger boundaries, becomes and remains Normandy.

Rollo's descendants rule Normandy for two centuries, until the male line dies out in 1135 with the death of Henry i. Meanwhile they have become keen Christians (Rollo is baptized, though his son William I is the first Norman duke fully committed to the religion). But they lose nothing of their Viking restlessness, which finds expression in Adventures outside normandy.

Vikings in Russia: from the 9th century AD

Unusually for the Vikings, trade rather than plunder is the main reason for their penetration deep into Russia during the 9th century AD. The rivers of eastern Europe, flowing north and south, make it surprisingly easy for goods to travel between the Baltic and the Black Sea.

One spot is particularly well-favoured as a trading centre. Near Lake Ilmen the headwaters of the Dvina, Dnieper and Volga rivers are close to each other. Respectively they flow into the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Caspian. Goods ferried by water between these important trading regions converge on this area. By the early 9th century Viking tribes known as the Rus have a base on the site of Novgorod.

Although they are not Slavs, there is justice in the Rus giving Russia her name. Their development of trade, particularly down the Dnieper (a route which becomes known as Austrvegr, or the 'Great Waterway'), lays the foundation of the Russian nation.

In 882 a Viking leader, Oleg, moves his headquarters down the Dnieper, seizing the town of Kiev. Here, in 911, he negotiates a commercial treaty with the Byzantine empire.

A Viking successor of Oleg's in Kiev, two generations later, describes how this first Russian city is the centre of a triangular trade between civilized Byzantium in the south, the steppe lands in the middle, and the wild forests of the north.

In this place 'all goods gather from all parts: gold, clothes, wine, fruits from the Greeks; silver and horses from the Czechs and Hungarians; furs, wax, honey and slaves from the Rus'.

The first Russians: 10th - 11th century AD

The rulers of Kiev in the 10th century are still Vikings. But as they settle and become more prosperous they begin to seem something new and different - Russians. This is particularly true of Vladimir, who is proclaimed prince of all Russia in 980 after capturing Kiev from a rival.

Vladimir's early life is spent in full-blooded pagan style, fighting and wenching (the chronicles credit him with 800 concubines), but in about 988 he takes a step which gives Russia its characteristic identity and brings him personally the halo of a saint. He sends envoys out to discover which is the best religion. Their report persuades him to choose for Russia the Greek orthodox brand of Christianity.

The new religion is rapidly imposed upon the towns under the control of Vladimir and his family. The inhabitants of Novgorod, the most prosperous of these towns apart from Kiev itself, are forcibly baptized in 989.

Vladimir won Kiev in 980 after a fight to the death between himself and various brothers, and the process is repeated after his own death in 1015. His successor, Yaroslav the Wise, is the survivor of five sons of Vladimir. Yaroslav kills the last of them in 1019 and is accepted as grand prince of Kiev.

The line of grand princes and tsars in Russia seems, with hindsight, quintessentially Russian. Yet the descendants of Vladimir, a Scandinavian princely adventurer, rule in an unbroken male line for nearly six centuries.

The Russian royal dynasty is as much a part of Viking history as the Norman conquest of England or the settlement of distant Iceland and Greenland.

Greenland: from the 10th century AD

From high ground in western Iceland the peaks of Greenland are sometimes visible, across 175 miles of water. In about981 the distant sight attracts a Viking adventurer, Eric Thorvaldsson, also known as Eric the Red. He has a reason for leaving Iceland. He has been exiled for three years as a punishment for manslaughter.

Eric puts his family in a longship, together with their retainers and their livestock, and they sail towards the distinct peaks. They land in the southern tip of the island, near what is now Julianehaab, where they survive the necessary three years.

At the end of his exile Eric returns to Iceland to persuade more settlers to join him. With a better sense of public relations than of accuracy, he gives his territory the attractive name of Greenland. He sets off again with twenty-five longships, of which fourteen complete the journey (some turn back). About 350 people land with their animals. The colony survives four centuries in this inhospitable climate; eventually Greenland is abandoned in the early 15th century.

Meanwhile, in the very earliest years of Greenland, an outpost settlement is briefly established in north America.

Vinland: AD c.1000 - 1013

Icelandic Sagas of the 13th century give various versions of how Leif, a son of Eric the Red, comes to spend a winter at a place west of Greenland which he names Vinland (the root vin in old Norse could imply either that grape vines or flat grassland characterized the place). In some accounts Leif loses his way when returning from Norway, in others he is following up reports made fifteen years earlier by Bjarni Herjolfsson, another Viking blown off course.

Either way it seems likely that in about the year 1000 Leif Ericsson lands at three successive spots in north America which he calls Helluland, Markland and Vinland. There is no way of identifying them, but it is possible that they fall somewhere on the coasts of Baffin Island, Labrador and Newfoundland, as Leif makes his way southward.

Leif returns in the following year to Greenland, but the Sagas state that a few years later an Icelandic expedition - led by Thorfinn Karlsefni - establishes a new settlement at Vinland. The settlers survive only three winters, before being discouraged by the hostility of the native Americans - called in the Sagas Skraelings, or 'savages'.

Archaeology proves that Vikings did indeed settle, however briefly, in north America. A site at L'Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, has a longhouse with a great hall in Viking style. It has also yielded artefacts of a kind used in Iceland - including a soapstone spindle, suggesting that women were among the settlers. The famous Vinland map, however, has been proved a forgery.

Adventures outside Normandy: 11th century

The Frankish empire is too strong for the Normans to expand far within France, but the adventurous spirit of the Vikings does not fit well with a settled life of agriculture. To their inherited skills as sea raiders, they now add another fighting discipline learnt from the Franks - that of heavy cavalry, with all the weight and power of Armoured knights on strong chargers. Normandy has little to offer the ambitious younger son of a noble family. But with these military accomplishments, he is superbly equipped to become a mercenary.

From about 1017 Normans arrive in southern Italy in increasing numbers to fight against the enemies of the pope.

In the Mediterranean there are two kinds of enemies, both anathema to Normans with a simple devotion to Roman Catholicism. Parts of southern Italy are still held by representatives of the Byzantine emperor, asserting the Greek orthodox version of Christianity. And Sicily is in the hands of outright infidels, the Muslims. In both regions The pope encourages Norman rule from 1059.

Meanwhile, just seven years later, there is a tempting opportunity for expansion nearer home. The Norman conquest of England begins in 1066. It is the last major step in the explosion of Scandinavian energy which is the story of the Vikings.
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