Reading the contemporary sources for 793 and you’d be forgiven to think that you were reading Lord of the Rings, or a particularly apocalyptic section of the Bible-
“A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: thesewere immense sheets of light rushing through the air, andwhirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: andnot long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January inthe same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men madelamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.” (AngloSaxon Chronicle)
You read that right. Not just the slaughter of monks, but actual dragons were sighted. The beginning of The Viking Age. You can see why more people should know about this period of history.
The Vikings are a chance to show the story behind “history”. There is actually a history of how the history of the Vikings has been portrayed. In the 19th century the Vikings were all winged and horned-helmeted psychos, quick to anger and slow to grasp anything civilised. Then in the mid 20th century academics thought this was all rather one dimensional (and by then, sadly, the whole horned-helmet thing had been disproved). So you get a flurry of papers pointing out what great sailors, explorers, traders and artists they were. This is all true and this is the period when you get the revelations that they got to North America before any other Europeans. All cities in Ireland that are pre-modern were founded by the Vikings. Dublin is a slightly mangled version of the Viking name for Blackpool. They also founded Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, as a trading post at the end of the Silk Road and served as bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperors.
This body of newer research went so far rehabilitating the Vikings that there was a need to refocus the story because they weren’t just a bunch of traders, the roots of their fame in Europe had been lost, so there was a need to say, “Yes, they were excellent boat builders but they built those boats to kill and enslave as many people as they could lay their hands on”. Their sagas loved to dwell on the crows pecking at the body of slain enemies left after a huge battle- not exactly Aristotle. To paraphrase Christian teaching to get to Heaven, you have to be a good, decent, upstanding individual. To get to Valhalla you have to die a good death in battle. If you died of old age in a nice comfy bed you would end up in Helheim (Viking Hell). When a Viking lord died, he would be burnt in a ship with his favourite living slave added to the funeral pyre so he could serve his master in the next world. Brotherly love wasn’t high on the Viking agenda.
A Viking long ship is a thing of beauty. Their curves make the whole structure exquisitely streamlined. They are also remarkably practical. They are one of the few ships that are sea worthy in the rough waters of the North Sea and North Atlantic, and yet their shallow draft allows them to navigate rivers, perfect for exploration, and of course, raiding. An average ship would have had 30-40 oarsmen which make a compact fighting force, so even three or four ships arriving out of the blue could deal with almost any martial response thrown at them. Pre-modern communication was slow, so that by the time a raid had happened and the news had reached a local power-base, before any response force arrived the Vikings were long gone.
It was the perfect criminal enterprise, smash and grab on a continental scale. In mainland Europe Charlemagne was at his peak of power and was crowned Emperor in Rome on Christmas Day 800. He was the first person to unify most of the Western Roman Empire for over three centuries. France, the Low Countries, Germany and Italy were his to rule, and yet with all this power, the end of his reign would be marred by his inability to deal with Vikings. If he couldn’t solve the issue with his resources and talents, what chance did the disunited Kingdoms of Britain have?
Much has been made of the reasons for this era of Viking raids. There have been in-depth discussions about population densities and even potential over-fishing of the seas around Scandinavia, but putting aside all the hard work done on herring breeding, it could be argued that the question is being asked the wrong way round. As already pointed out Europe had already gone through generations of raiding and invasion, Visigoths, Angles, Saxons, Magyars, the list goes on and on. The Vikings were just the newest people to the age-old family business of rape and pillage, and their boat technology made them particularly hard to catch.
The Scandinavian influence on Britain therefore can be traced from the end of the 8th century to mid-late 11th century, a period of around 300 years, far longer than the Tudor period or the Georgian era and yet to many people, they are seen as peripheral to British history. They weren’t. The further North you go in the country, the more reminders there are particularly in place names. Any town ending in “by” is invariably of Viking derivation: it means “farm of” or “land of”. Grimsby is therefore “the farm of Grim”.
The Vikings particularly loved a monastery. Monasteries were (from the point of view of a pagan bandit) the perfect place for plunder and violent fun. The communion wine tended to be of good quality. To the Vikings however, it was some of the best booze they ever had. Then there were the gold and silver crosses and relics covered in expensive metals. You could get richer faster raiding monasteries than scrabbling through the straw of peasant huts. Finally, monks were in many ways the ultimate raiding attraction. They didn’t fight and were never armed. There are more than a few references in the chronicles of the Vikings (how can this be put this politely) “ravaging” monks. Finally and helpfully, as the monks were literate, they would make highly prized slaves back in the homeland. To a Viking, a holy monastery was a shopping mall full of lovely things.
Year after year they would appear on the edge of the horizon, their square sails announcing the arrival of violence. They raided with impunity at any time of the year. It was a miserable and uncertain time.
© The History Vault