The Vikings in England

Although the Viking Period is often reckoned to span from 793–1066, the raids that characterised it were concentrated in the eighth and ninth centuries. In both Britain and Ireland the raids caused economic devastation and social upheaval. The appearance of the heathen raiders sent shockwaves throughout Christian Europe as churchmen struggled to make sense of what appeared to be divine punishment. Perhaps most significantly, the raids fundamentally changed the political landscape of Britain and Ireland. Old kingdoms vanished and new ones arose to take their place.

 

The main events of two centuries of Viking activity in England are presented in the following timeline (please note that this may not be fully compatible with mobile devices). Certain key thematic areas are then explored in more depth below.

 
The Impact of Raids: General Themes

The Viking raids of the ninth and tenth centuries fundamentally changed politics and society in Britain, Ireland and Western Europe. In England, Viking raids were a direct contributor to the emergence of the polity that would become the Kingdom of England. In Ireland, the Vikings altered the nature of local society and economy through their foundation of towns built on the back of the trade in Irish slaves. In northern France, the Viking presence gave rise to the Duchy of Normandy, sowing the seeds for the eventual Norman conquest of England.

Key Questions:

  • How did the nature of Viking activity in the British Isles and Ireland change during the Viking Age?

  • How did Viking activity affect political dynamics in Britain and Ireland?

 
The Raid on Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island) is a tidal island in northeastern England, lying within sight of Bamburgh, once the capital of the early medieval kingdom Bernicia before the latter was absorbed into the kingdom of Northumbria. The religious history of Lindisfarne dates back to the seventh century, when a monastery was founded on the island by St Aidan (d. 651). From 684–6, the bishopric of Lindisfarne was held by St Cuthbert. After his death, his relics were housed in the monastery. The cult of St Cuthbert was extremely popular in Anglo-Saxon England and Lindisfarne thus came to be considered as one of the holiest sites in Britain and Ireland.

Although the Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793 may not have been the earliest instance of Viking activity in Western Europe, but it was the first to elicit a widespread response in contemporary literature. The earliest known reaction to the raid is a letter written to Bishop Higbald of Lindisfarne by the scholar Alcuin, Anglo-Saxon by birth, who from 781–796 was attached to Charlemagne’s court as a prime mover in the Carolingian Renaissance. In his letter, Alcuin notes that ‘it has not happened by chance, but is the sign of some great guilt’, implying that the raid must be viewed as a punishment from God for mankind’s transgressions. He uses the letter to argue for more strict observance of God’s laws, counselling the community to avoid temptations such as fine clothing, drunkenness or carnal desires. Alcuin’s letter set the tenor for subsequent literary interpretations of the raids and their causes (almost all literature at the time was produced in an ecclesiastical context). The impact of the raid on Lindisfarne throughout the century, and it is hardly surprising that it was perceived to be the first Viking raid in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Key Question:

  • Discuss the reaction to early Viking activities throughout medieval European written sources of the ninth and tenth centuries.*

*Consider such sources as Alcuin’s Letter, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Irish Annals and Wulfstan’s Sermon of the Wolf to the English.

The Great Heathen Army and the Re-emergence of Wessex

The Great Heathen Army managed to overrun every kingdom in Anglo-Saxon England except Wessex. Following the successful resistance of Alfred the Great, the disarray the Vikings had created left the West Saxon dynasty in an ideal position to expand their power, both direct and indirect, throughout England and Wales. Alfred’s grandson Athelstan even managed to gain overlordship of King Constantine II of Scotland in 934. Alfred’s response to the threat posed by the Great Heathen Army thus represents a decisive first phase in the slow process by which the English kingdom came into existence.

Key Questions:

  • Assess the impact of the Great Heathen Army on the kingdom of Wessex and evaluate Alfred’s response to the threat.