Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Old English, A Historical Background: Vikings I

 Of all of the history and lore that has come out what we sometimes call The Early Middle Ages (circa 476 to 1000 A.D.), some of the most interesting and exciting are the Vikings

The Viking Age (793 - 1066 A.D.) saw a great movement of the peoples of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark throughout Europe to Russia and across the seas to North America (establishing colonies in Iceland and Greenland in the process):

Why they left when they did it is largely beyond the scope of discussion we have been engaging in, but in short it appears it was a combination of swelling populations and decreasing land availability in the lands of Scandinavia and, oddly enough, by the destruction of the Frisian Pirates by Charlemagne, which - much like Byzantium later in history - removed the buffer between Europe and those that would raid it.  The seas to much of Europe at this time (including Anglo-Saxon England) were more like moats; to the Vikings they were boulevards, allowing travel almost at will.

The first recorded Viking attack on Anglo-Saxon England (we assume; no one questioned them) was in 787 A.D. when three ships appeared on the Dorset coast of Wessex.  The local royal official, the port reeve, came to the shore to question their business.  Their response was to kill the port reeve and sack the town.

Now the English Heptarchy had two issues:  jostling among themselves and trying to defend themselves against the increasing tempo of the Viking raids.

By the beginning of the Viking raids, as you may recall, the consolidation of the smaller kingdoms into the "Big Four" - Wessex, Mercia, Essex, and Northumbria - was proceeding apace.  In 814 A.D. Wessex conquered Dumonia, thus conquering the last Celtic independent kingdom in the south.  In 825 A.D., Wessex defeated Mercia and conquered Kent, Sussex, and Essex (apologies, I having problems coming up with a map - if you could use the one above and "fill in as needed", I would be indebted).

But the Vikings kept coming as well.

The monastery of Jarrow was raided and burned in 794 A.D., the monastery of Iona in 795 A.D.  The Vikings came in small groups and raided.  But after a time their practices changed as well, as the moved from hit and run raids to beginning to raid stay and settle where they raided.  Across the Irish Sea, the Vikings attacked and largely over-ran the clans and kingdoms of Ireland, and in 841 A.D. the town of Dubh Linn (Black Pool, or as we now know it, Dublin) was founded.  This started in England as well: in 850 A.D., Viking raiders overwintered on the island of Thanet (off Kent) rather than return to Denmark in the Winter.

And then, in 865 A.D. disaster struck.

A large Danish Army (known as The Great Viking Army, the Great Heathen Army, or The Great Danish army, take your pick) arrived in 865 A.D. (As a historical note, the recorded impetus for this invastion was revenge on the king of Northumbria for the killing of Ragnar Lodbrok by at least three of his sons, he of the show "Vikings" fame). They came not to raid, but to invade and found a Kingdom.  Arriving in East Anglia, they marched north and conquered the city of York, destroying the kingdom of Northumbria. From there, they moved south in Mercia  andEast Anglia and Wessex, conquering and taking territory as they went.  The Heptarchy was destroyed, the royal houses of all but Wessex destroyed.  Every year in this period The Great Heathen Army overwintered in Brian instead of retuning home. They were a problem that was not going to sail away as had happened in years past.

By 870 A.D, the world looked a bit bleak for the Anglo-Saxons as a political entity.
Works cited

Blair, Peter Hunter:  Roman Britain and Early England 55 B.C. - A.D. 871.  WW Norton and Company:  London, 1991.

Hollister, C. Warren:  The Making of England 55 B.C. to 1399.  D.C. Heath and Company:  United States,  1976.

Nicolle, David:  Arthur And The Anglo-Saxon Wars.  Osprey Publishing:  Hong Kong, 1984


  1. Finally, a period of time I know quite well thanks to my watching of the show Vikings. The followup series, Vikings Valhalla, hasn't been nearly as captivating.

    1. Ed, I only saw one or two of the first episodes and never followed up. I have not seen any of the follow on series either. My impression is that it was enjoyable, but like any remotely historical drama, managed to polarize between those that want a good story and those that want historical accuracy (which can make for a good show, but not always).

  2. Nylon123:26 AM

    Vikings knew how to deal with the local politics, off the mayor! Good post TB, don't know much about this period prior to 1066.

    1. Nylon12, Vikings were often just as willing to take a "bribe" (such as the Danegeld) and move on to easier pickings. They could be low risk-high reward people as much as anyone else.

      History is always one of those things where the more we have of it, the less we spend in certain places (and a bias towards more current events). I find the Medieval period to be endlessly fascinating - as I do the Greek and Roman Period and Byzantine History and Japanese History (largely to 1868). If only I was independently wealthy and could spend all my time on such things...

  3. Interesting period, with the Viking expansion westward to Greenland and beyond. It also highlights limitations of the current "climate Armageddon" hysteria, as at the later part of this period Greenland was warm enough to support Viking farming communities (the Mediaeval Warm Period) that would not be possible again until the present day.

    1. Will, it is incredibly interesting in that there was no industrial society at all and yet Greenland through most of the settlement period could support a measure of agrarian economy, almost as if there was some other factor that influenced such things (as with the previous Ice Age). At best not addressing such things is willful disbelief.

  4. Another great post, TB, thanks. This is a time period I'm more familiar with too. We watched Vikings until the storyline fell down, but really enjoyed The Last Kingdom, both the series and the books.

    I've been looking back through my online genealogy site, and while prone to mistakes (being something anyone can edit), it's interesting to me that so far, the majority of ancestors on my father's side can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon England. A Celtic connection enters in, thanks to extensive research on Welsh genealogy, plus I'm finding a growing number from Normandy and Brittany, all showing up in England around the time of the Norman Conquest.

    1. Thank you Leigh! I have only watched a very small part of The Last Kingdom as well; sounds like something I should give another look at.

      So the growing number from Normandy and Brittany is no accident but highly historical. Jumping ahead a big, Edward the Confessor (the last uncontested Anglo-Saxon King) was exiled for many years in Normandy at the court of his relative, Duke William of Normandy (we know him know as William the Conqueror). When Edward became king in 1042, he brought back several Continental Churchman and advisors and was likely quite Norman in his views. William the Conqueror recruited heavily for his invasion of England from Normandy and Brittany.

      This has renewed an interest in my genealogy. We have English roots from my father's side (my last name is, perhaps a little depressingly, very English), but no idea how far or from where. Both the Anglo Saxon connection and any additional Celtic connections would be super interesting.


Your comment will be posted after review. If you could take the time to be kind and not practice profanity, it would be appreciated. Thanks for posting!