Alfred and the Vikings: Part 3: Why did the Vikings first invade England?

Alfred and the Vikings

In 793, a surprise attack on an otherwise peaceful monastery at Lindisfarne marked the beginning of one of the most turbulent periods in English history. In this series I hope to provide an overview of events to explain what happened and why. Whilst the facts I’ve cited are not all universally accepted, they are gleaned from the research I undertook for my books in The Shadow of the Raven Series

First, let me explain that the Vikings were not solely interested in England, they traded and explored throughout the then known world, their destinations including places as far afield as Constantinople (Istanbul) and even the east coast of Canada and North America via Iceland and Greenland. However, there were a number of reasons which prompted them to adopt a violent approach to their travels, including one key event for which I need to take you back to when Charlemagne (Charles the Great) ruled the all-powerful Frankish Empire which dominated Europe at that time.

EUROPE CIRCA 814AD
Bukkia, via Wikimedia Commons

It was a very powerful empire and, as a devout Christian, Charlemagne saw it as his duty to convert the pagans in Europe to Christianity. To achieve this, he rounded up 4500 pagan prisoners in 782 and forced them to be baptised. When they did, he promptly beheaded each and every one of them! As you can imagine, this brutal act sent shock waves through the pagan communities, especially those in what we now think of as Scandinavia. This may have persuaded the pagan Vikings to see Christian lands and monasteries as a legitimate target and the first (recorded) of what were to become frequent raids was carried out in England on a monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 – accompanied by much bloodshed and extraordinary violence.

LindisfarneCastleHolyIsland

LINDISFARNE
Matthew Hunt via Wikimedia Commons

If retaliation was one of the motives for this savage attack on a Christian land, it was facilitated by a number of other important factors, not least of which was better ship building technology which produced the infamous Viking Longship.

These fast, stable craft were ideally suited to the purpose of raiding. They could sail at close to 15 knots and could be beached and relaunched quickly without being dependent on the tides. Having a shallow draught meant they could also sail up rivers enabling them to strike deep inland and their construction was such that it allowed the hull to ‘flex’ so as to handle very rough seas, opening up the prospect of winter raids despite the severe storms at that time of year. 

Moragsoorm

A RECONSTRUCTED VIKING LONGSHIP archiwum własne wikingów, Jarmeryk, via Wikimedia Commons

There were actually various different sizes and designs of longships, each fulfilling a specific role and, whilst the English ships would not have looked very different, they were initially no match for these technologically advanced vessels manned by an experienced Viking crew.

EXAMPLES OF SOME TYPES OF VIKING LONGSHIPS
KARVI: 6 – 16 rowing positions and used for raids but also trade
SNEKKJA: 20 rowing positions on each side (40 men plus a cox)
SKEID: 30 rowing positions on each side – a crew of up to 80 men
DREKAR: None found but were said to be richly decorated with carvings of dragons etc

From what we can tell, owning a longship was often a community affair. If so, the crew would all be well known to each other and worked very much as a team with a common objective.

Given the long history of trading with English settlements, in all probability they may well have established some ‘safe ports’ where they could rest after an arduous journey across the North Sea and then take on supplies and fresh water before embarking on their raids. This might sound something of a betrayal by the Saxon settlements involved but it is conceivable – particularly given that there were still family and trading ties between the Saxons and the Vikings going back many generations.

Apart from the advances in technology, the raids may also have been encouraged by a shortage of viable farmland, not to mention the prospect of substantial booty from what must have seemed like ‘soft targets’ in the rich but unguarded churches and monasteries in England. Alcuin, a monk, commented thus:-

Never before has such terror appeared in Britain
as we have now suffered from a Pagan race

In fact, ‘visits’ from the so called ‘Vikings’ were probably nothing new – as I’ve said, trading with Scandinavia had been long established – but the violence which now accompanied them came as a terrible shock which must have resounded through the religious communities and which they saw as evidence that they needed to be better Christians. But were the Vikings really just blood crazed heathens intent on vengeance? I suspect not. They were certainly violent and committed some fearful atrocities but it was a violent time and as like as not they were no worse than anyone else. Yet, to the peace-loving monks whose job it was to record these events, they must have seemed very terrible indeed, something which may well have prejudiced the Vikings’ reputation.

Having got the taste for some ‘easy pickings’ of plunder and slaves, (slaves being a valuable commodity in those days) the violent raids continued until, in 865, everything changed. No longer content to simply raid, the Vikings determined to conquer England for themselves. This resulted in a full-scale invasion from a largely Danish force (the Great Heathen Horde) which quickly secured most of the kingdoms which made up England at that time leaving just one – the Kingdom of Wessex to stand alone.

As discussed in Part One of this series, there followed a period of fiercely fought battles, bloodthirsty raids and terrible destruction. Eventually Alfred, by then King of Wessex, secured an astounding victory, though it remains one that few people have ever heard of. Part four of the series looks at this in more detail as the story of these turbulent times continues.

PART 4 – THE ALMOST FORGOTTEN BATTLE

Alfred and the Vikings: Part 2 – Who were the dreaded Vikings?

Alfred and the Vikings

In 793, a surprise attack on an otherwise peaceful monastery at Lindisfarne marked the beginning of one of the most turbulent periods in English history. In this series I hope to provide an overview of events to explain what happened and why. Whilst the facts I’ve cited are not all universally accepted, they are gleaned from the research I undertook for my books in The Shadow of the Raven Series

You might be surprised to learn that the so called ‘Vikings’ were not a people at all – the word ‘Viking’ is a verb which means to go off in search of adventure and to explore, though no doubt raiding or at least foraging as they went.
There were actually three main ‘groups’ which have all become lumped together as ‘The Vikings’.
The Danish Vikings were probably the largest group and formed the main part of the force which invaded England in 865. There was also the Norwegian Vikings who actually sailed as far as the eastern coast of Canada and North America (via Iceland and Greenland), and even briefly established settlements there. The rest were the ‘East Facing Vikings’ from Sweden and the Baltic regions who travelled extensively – using rivers and dragging their boats across land if necessary, and even reaching as far as what is now St Petersburg and the cosmopolitan city of Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Image courtesy of Mediatus (H.J.)/Wikimedia Commons

In reality they may not have fitted quite so easily into these rather neat categorisations and there would have been some overlap both in terms of their objectives and achievements. Also, their numbers would have included mercenaries and probably slaves but there were certain ‘traits’ which were common to all. For one thing, they all travelled and traded extensively – a grave discovered in Scandinavia revealed a rich array of surprisingly exotic ‘grave goods’, including a small statue of a Buddha suggesting trading links with some very distant lands and cultures.

Also, it would be wrong to think of them as people who had nothing better to do than raid, rape and pillage. They included extremely skilled craftsmen who produced some superb work, poets, storytellers and astute traders, not to mention expert sailors and navigators as well. They were lured to Britain not only by the prospect of plunder and slaves but also came in search of land they could farm, that being a scarce resource in many parts of Scandinavia. This is perhaps what Alfred had in mind when, having secured victory at Ethandune (Edington), he ceded areas of land to the Vikings so long as they didn’t trouble him again – land which became subject to the so called ‘Danelaw’ – basically that north of a line drawn from London to Chester. Much of this was already under Viking control but, even so, it was probably not a popular act at the time – giving back land they’d fought for to the very people who’d taken it from them in the first place! Yet it proved how wise Alfred could be, for it meant that many Vikings eventually gave up a life of raiding and integrated themselves into the Saxon communities, traces of which are evident even today not only in our language but in our place names and, of course, in the DNA of many people.

None of this should diminish the image of battle-hardened warriors who carried out some brutal attacks on the fat, undefended monasteries and, of course, on many settlements and farmsteads as well given that they needed to live off the land as they went, often with much violence and bloodshed. But these were brutal times – war was conducted very much up close and personal. It was also a very dangerous occupation because even minor wounds received whilst fighting might well become infected and therefore cause an agonising death sometime later.

Vikings fighting (part of a festival). Photo taken in August 2005 in Denmark by Tone

For the Vikings their chief tactic when attacking a monastery or a settlement seems to have been a lightening ‘hit and run’ raid, no doubt sometimes even on horseback (the horses having presumably been stolen). However, when it came to a battle both sides tended to fight on foot, often with one side forming a defensive shield wall which, if breached, would result in fearsome hand to hand combat. This involved the use of an array of very brutal weapons including axes, arrows, spears and swords, plus any number of projectiles. The ferocity of the Viking warriors was no doubt fuelled by their belief that only if they died in battle could they earn their place in Valhalla – the Great Hall of Dead Warriors.

Image courtesy of Rob Roy (Flickr: Beserker, Lewis Chessmen, British Museum), via Wikimedia Commons

To this end I must also mention the Berserkers. These feature strongly in my novel, Blood & Destiny, as warriors who would razz themselves up into such a frenzy that they had no fear of death or dying. They reputedly stripped off their mail vests and drew heathen symbols on their bare chests, having possibly imbibed some sort of halogenic drug, making them an almost impossible foe. If you’ve ever seen the Lewis chess set in the British Museum or one of the many replicas you may have noticed that one of the pieces is shown chewing the edge of his shield which is thought to depict a berserker. In Blood & Destiny I have regarded them as a cohesive and specialist military unit and I think that is the generally accepted position but I do wonder whether in fact they were just individual warriors who chose to prepare themselves for battle in that way hoping to secure a larger share of any booty by fighting like maniacs – hence the term ‘to go beserk’.

Part 3: Why did the Vikings first invade England?

Alfred and the Vikings: Part 1 – Alfred’s Troubled Realm

Alfred and the Vikings

In 793, a surprise attack on an otherwise peaceful monastery at Lindisfarne marked the beginning of one of the most turbulent periods in English history. In this series I hope to provide an overview of events to explain what happened and why. Whilst the facts I’ve cited are not all universally accepted, they are gleaned from the research I undertook for my books in The Shadow of the Raven Series

 

Image courtesy of Hel-hama from Wikimedia Commons

It’s quite likely that strong trading links had existed between Saxon England and what we now call Scandinavia for many years. This changed following the attack on Lindisfarne (more about the motivation for that in Part Three of this series) which was followed by more raids until, in 865, a Viking army, known as the ‘Great Heathen Army’, landed in East Anglia determined to conquer England for themselves. This largely Danish force quickly secured most of the kingdoms which made up England at that time leaving just one, Wessex, to stand alone.

In 870 Wessex was ruled by King Aethelred who, with his younger brother, Alfred, held the Vikings off but the only significant victory they achieved was at the battle of Ashdown where Alfred earned his military spurs. His brother is said to have spent so long at Mass that Alfred pre-empted things and ordered the attack himself. Aethelred died later that year, probably from wounds received at the battle of Marton.


In those days there was no automatic right of succession. Kings were ‘chosen’ and Alfred, as an accomplished warrior, was the obvious contender to succeed his brother. As King, he fought a number of major battles but could not secure a decisive victory. He also tried to buy peace by paying tribute (i.e. gold or silver etc), which didn’t please the church or many of the senior Saxons. Then, in 877, he retired to his Royal Vill in Chippenham for the winter, thinking himself safe until Spring. But on the 10th day after Christmas – in January 878 – the Vikings under Jarl Guthrum launched a surprise attack. Alfred’s army – or at least that part of it which had remained with him – was all but annihilated. Alfred fled with a few survivors and took shelter in the desolate marshes at Athelney in the Somerset Levels, a time which features strongly in my first novel, Blood and Destiny.

Given the ferocity of the attack, Alfred was lucky just to be alive. In fact, luck is a key element in his story. For a start, he was ‘lucky’ that only about half the main Viking army took part in the attack on his Vill, a contingent which had split off from the main force. Had it been the full Viking army it’s doubtful he would have survived. In fact, he was ‘lucky’ to be King in the first place as, being the youngest of five brothers, he was destined for a life in the church until one by one his brothers predeceased him and he found himself as King.

Alfred the Great’s statue at Winchester.
Image courtesy Odejea via Wikimedia Commons

But King of what? The marshes at Athelney were then a harsh and forbidding place and he had nothing which could be described as an army at his disposal. Estimates of the numbers who accompanied him vary but we are probably talking about twenty or so men at best, many of them wounded and no doubt dejected having lost family and friends in the attack. It is from this miserable and wretched period that many of the stories about Alfred emanate – such as the burning of the cakes and the contention that he disguised himself as a wandering minstrel and actually returned to Chippenham to spy on the Vikings. Make what you will of the story of the cakes (you might also like to read my blog post ‘So, Did Alfred Really Burn the Cakes’) but the idea of him returning to spy on his enemies is an unlikely proposition given that the prize for anyone prepared to betray him would have been wealth beyond all reckoning. Also, if he was betrayed as a spy, Alfred could expect no mercy for the Vikings hated spies, reasoning that whereas a murderer might kill one or two men, a spy could be responsible for the defeat of a whole army.

Having conducted what might best be described as a guerrilla campaign against the Vikings, by Easter Alfred had somehow managed to rally the Saxon people in sufficient numbers to strike back and win a decisive Victory at the Battle of Ethandune (sometimes called ‘Edington’) which then secured his realm of Wessex – and ultimately provided the basis for a united England, albeit that didn’t happen until several generations later.

The relevance of this surprising victory reaches deep into English culture for had King Alfred not triumphed there, virtually the whole of England would have been under Viking rule and Alfred himself either executed or slain. Had that occurred, many of the hugely important events which followed would simply not have happened; including quite possibly the Battle of Hastings given that the Vikings had such close ties with the Normans – the name ‘Norman’ is actually derived from the ‘Norsemen’ or ‘Northmen’ – Vikings who had settled in that part of France. Whilst not exactly brothers, they might be considered as cousins, albeit many times removed.

Alfred was merciful in victory and entered into a treaty with the Viking warlord, Guthrum, whereby he ceded control of lands to him (basically to the north of Watling Street) in return for leaving Wessex in peace. This provided a period of relative and much needed peace which, although it didn’t last, enabled Alfred to instigate the many reforms and initiatives for which he is renowned.

Read Part 2: Who were the dreaded Vikings?