The Viking and Anglo Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England

The Viking and Anglo Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England

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Dateline: 793AD to 1066AD

The word Viking literally means “to go raiding”, making it a verb rather than a noun. It has, however, come to mean the Scandinavian people of Norway, Sweden and Denmark who sought expansion through raid and conquest between the years 793AD to 1066AD (1263AD in Scotland).

Raiding

793 is the generally accepted beginning of the Viking Age in Britain, although there are hints that the North sea and English Channel were full of pirates hassling the English Kingdoms throughout the 8th Century. The first recorded raid was in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle in approx 789AD when three ships of Northmen arrived in Wessex (at Portland, now Dorset), killed the King’s Reeve (a kind of sheriff who had probably come to collect trading taxes), and sailed away.

The most famous major raid, however, and the one that is usually taken as the start of the Viking Age, is that which was visited upon the monastery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumbria, in 793. One of the holiest places in England at the time, it was the place where the Lindisfarne Gospels were written, and the hermitage and final resting place of St Cuthbert. St Cuthbert was a missionary who had spent his last years standing up to his waist in the freezing North sea before returning to sleep on a tiny rock off the main island. Those monks really knew how to party.

Anyway, after sacking Lindisfarne and running off with all the gold and valuables (including the bejewelled cover from the Gospels but luckily not the pages themselves, which are now in the British Library) and taking the monks to be sold as slaves, the Vikings continued making life difficult for the people of Northern Europe. They raided Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, France, Frisia, the Baltic states, and made headway down the rivers of Eastern and Central Europe into Russia. They continued to Spain, Portugal, Italy and even reported that they’d sacked Rome, until it turned out they’d got the wrong city.

Conquest and Settling

But raiding wasn’t all the Vikings were interested in. Living conditions in the Viking homelands were less than ideal: Denmark was low-lying, swampy, made of little more than a series of connected peninsulae and islands, making farming difficult. Sweden was covered in thick forests, and Norway’s landscape tends towards the vertical, with mountains rising directly from the sea and back again, with minimal flat land for arable farming.

Then there’s the climate – the further north you go, the worse the weather, especially in winter. Long dark nights (the sun never rises in the far northern winters) and heavy snows mean a short growing season, and although the Vikings were consummate seafarers (living off sea fish, whales, seals etc. and all the associate by products) the northern seas would have often been impossible to weather in open sailing ships.

It didn’t make for comfortable or sustainable living, and with an expanding population and superior maritime ability, expansion overseas seemed a good choice. There was also the chance to “get rich quick” off the back of the poorly defended but well-stocked Christian churches. It is also thought that the Vikings initially chose Christian targets in revenge for Christian missionaries attempting to convert the Viking countries away from the old Gods.

So after approximately 70 years of hit and run raids, the Vikings began to overwinter in England so that they could begin their raiding activities earlier in the spring, and travel further inland to do so. They also began to eye chunks of land for settlement, enjoying the temperate climate, fairly even daylight hours and fertile, rolling hills.

865AD saw the invasion of the Great Army: a “heathen” force landed in East Anglia and, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the locals made peace with them. The Vikings took horses and continued inland, overwintering at various places for the next few years until by 878 Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia – all but the Kingdom of Wessex – had been subjugated under Viking rule.

Although the Viking leaders swore fealty to King Alfred of Wessex, they soon betrayed him and attacked Wessex, driving Alfred into the Somerset levels, where he hid in Athelney Marshes. One does not earn the epithet Great, however, by sitting around moaning that someone stole your Kingdom; Alfred soon got together a force of loyal men, and fought back against the Vikings.

This ended with a victory for Alfred at the Battle of Eddington in 878, where he gave Guthrum the option to sue for peace and convert to Christianity. Guthrum agreed, and was baptised, with Alfred becoming his Godfather. Guthrum attacked Wessex again in 884, but Alfred won. This time the terms of surrender included an agreement between Alfred and and Guthrum to divide the country in half between the Anglo Saxons and the Northmen.

The Danes would take:

“Up on the Thames, and then up on the Lea, and along the Lea unto its source, then straight to Bedford, then up on the Ouse unto Watling Street.”

~Anglo Saxon Chronicle

This area was to become known as the Danelaw, as it was under Danish rule. The agreement also set out the equal value of each man’s life, in gold, whether Danish or Saxon, to establish equality between the two races.

The Anglo Saxons become the English

The Danelaw was short lived, however, as incursions by the Mercians slowly ate away at it and by 927 the heartland of Northumbria had been reconquered by Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan. Athelstan was the first King to be crowned King of all the English, as opposed to one of the component Kingdoms. Once the last Viking King of York – Erik Bloodaxe – was exiled in 954, England became one country, never again to be split.

The next few decades saw renewed waves of Viking attacks until 1013, when the Danish King Svein Forkbeard defeated King Aethelred, kicked him into exile, and took the throne. It was a short lived victory, however, as Forkbeard died shortly afterwards and Aethelred was brought back from Normandy to reclaim the kingdom. Forkbeard’s son Cnut, who had ascended to the throne on the death of his father, fled back to Denmark but returned in 1016 to defeat the now-King Edmund, and established England as part of the North Sea or Scandinavian Empire, following his conquest of not just England but Norway and also parts of Sweden.

King Cnut reigned for nineteen years until his death, and was the only other English King apart from Alfred to earn the title “The Great”. He subdued the Viking raids and England prospered under his rule, but on his death his two sons by different mothers turned to fighting and the empire fell apart.

On the deaths of Cnut’s sons, Harald Harefoot and Harthacanute, the House of Wessex was briefly restored to the throne, with the return of Edward the Confessor from his exile in Normandy. He’d been sent there for safety when his mother Emma (widow of Aethlered the Unready) married Cnut. The deal was that if his half-brother (Cnut’s son by Emma) Harthacnut died without children, then Edward could have his throne back.

Unfortunately, Edward also died without children, being more interested in his bible than his marital bed, and his death led to the massive bunfight for the throne with three supposedly legitimate claims from Wessex, Normandy and Norway. This was to culminate in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which would change England forever.