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The Scandinavian invasions of Britain

Viking ships

English monastic culture was to be seriously disturbed (like that in Ireland as well) because of developments in Scandinavia. In the 8th century the Scandinavians became expansionist and began raiding neighbouring coasts. Initially, this just consisted of marauding and plundering of places of wealth and they always returned back to home base. In time, the Scandinavians became more adventurous and, with the efficient and sea-worthy boats which they had, succeeded in making the crossing over the North Sea to Scotland. This was a qualitative change which was to have lasting consequences for the peoples of the British Isles. From this point onwards the Scandinavians are known as Vikings, a term deriving either from Frisian wic ‘settlement’ or Old Norse vik ‘bay’. The earliest attacks were on Lindisfarne and Jarrow in 793-4. Here the monasteries with their ornamental riches attracted the raiders. They plundered and killed indiscriminately there and elsewhere, e.g. on the island of Iona, a centre of Hiberno-Scottish culture. Very soon the Vikings became the scourge of Ireland and the entire north of England.

The early Viking raids were carried out by Norwegians. In the course of the 9th century the Danes joined in, beginning with a series of attacks on the east coast of England in 835. With the Danes the first historical Viking figures of the invasions come to the fore with the sons of Ragnar Lothbrók who were responsible for the razing of Sheppey in Kent to the ground. By the mid 9th century they had gained a firm foothold on Kent and East Anglia. The resistance to the Danes in the beginning was disorganised and, given the ease of the conquest, they decided to settle permanently in England. This was the first step in the establishment of the so-called Danelaw which was the area in eastern and north-eastern England of the time which was under Danish rule. The Danes were never to leave England entirely. Military incursions into England which were started from Denmark were to stop but those Danes who remained in England were finally assimilated into the English population.

Military resistance to the Danes is personified by King Alfred the Great. He was born in Wantage in 849 and by 871 had begun to engage himself in the war against the Danes. For fifteen years (871-886) Alfred waged war against the intruders and succeeded in maintaining Wessex free from Viking influence. The ups and downs of the military struggle with the Danes are described in detail in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, particularly in the section known as the Parker Manuscript, named after a bishop in whose possession the manuscript was for some time. In the years 886 to 892 Alfred was able to devote his energies to non-military matters, chiefly to educational reform and cultural matters in general, such as the translation of religious works. In 892 the Danes took on Alfred once more (after several decades of plundering in northern France). The latter, however, succeeded in defending Wessex and English Mercia and in 896 the Danes (consisting of both the Norman and the East Anglia Danes) reconciled themselves to being confined to the Danelaw. Some of them returned to France and others settled down eventually. Three years later, in 899, Alfred, the greatest of Anglo-Saxon kings, died.

The influence of Scandinavian in Britain and Ireland can be seen by examining placenames which are of Viking origin. In England these are mostly in the Danelaw. In Scotland they are found on Shetland and Orkney as well as the north-west of the mainland with the offshore islands. In Ireland the influence was greatest along the east coast where the Vikings found many towns at the estuaries of rivers, e.g. Waterford, Wexford and to a large extent Dublin itself.

Areas of Scandinavian settlement in Britain and Ireland

Scandinavian placenames in Britain

Reconstructed Viking long ship on the River Liffey, Dublin

Model of the Oseberg Viking ship


Reconstruction of a Viking longship in Ramsgate, Kent (the Hugin ship)