Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

The Appearance of the Vikings

Steve Muhlberger

The appearance of the Vikings on the Western European scene is one of the most dramatic episodes of medieval history. The raids, the conquests, the settlements, the sea voyages of the Vikings were remarkable achievements. These achievements have left a mark on the historical imagination of Western Europeans. Sometimes scholars have been tempted to make wide claims for the uniqueness of the Viking raids and migrations. This in turn has provoked other scholars to minimize the importance of those phenomena.

I will give what I think is a balanced account, but be warned that there are a lot of different opinions out there in the scholarly world, and this is only one.

The word "Viking." "Viking" is not an ethnic or racial identity, it is the name of an occupation. In other words, not all Scandinavians were Vikings, and not all Vikings were Scandinavians. A Viking was "a man of the vik," in other words a man who hangs around a vik or a trading center. This ambiguous word, was used by the Scandinavians of our period to mean a sea-going adventurer, a man who might be interested in the profits of trade, but who was more likely to be a pirate and a plunderer.

Vikings were a by-product of trade, that trade which, we saw in the last lecture, was increasingly important in Western Europe in the eighth century. The growing commercial activity of Western Europe in some sense created the Vikings.

The peoples on the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic were pulled into it. The sheltered "Northern Mediterranean," as it is sometimes called, is an easily navigated waterway, and it leads to some desirable resources.  It was also a route to Russia, and through Russia, to the mighty Islamic empire centered in Baghdad.

This increase in trade was a destabilizing influence. There were literally dozens of minor rulers around the Baltic. Those who controlled trading centers grew rich, and the others grew envious. The envious ones turned to war and piracy in an attempt to muscle in on the new wealth.

It is in this period, the eighth century, that the famous Viking longship may have been developed. Piracy put a premium on speed and maneuverability for both pirates and their prey, and led the Scandinavians to combine both sails and oars in one very seaworthy ship.

Eventually this pirate activity spilled out of the Baltic, and isolated Viking bands began to hit the coasts of Christian countries in the west. This was a complete surprise to the English, the Franks, and others. The northern seas had been peaceful for a good long time. Mariners who showed up at English ports, for instance, were assumed to be peaceful traders -- thus the ASC entry for 787: When the first Norwegian ships showed up on the south coast of England, a royal reeve went down to tell them to go to the customs station and pay their taxes. The murder of the reeve was the first indication that England was about to face hostility from overseas peoples.

Up to about 830, however, the Viking threat to England and the continental Christian countries was so sporadic as to be easily ignored. After 820, Ireland became the target of many small Norwegian raids that came around the northern tip of Britain. But the still mighty Frankish empire contained Danish aggression by the southern sea routes, and England had only to contend with a few isolated raids.

After 830, however, dissension in the Frankish royal family and then outright civil war weakened the empire and distracted its rulers from the problems of external defense. The Danes soon took advantage of the situation. They began by sacking the port towns in modern Netherlands and Belgium, towns that had been basically unfortified because they could count on the protection of the Frankish emperors. These trade centers were easy pickings for the Vikings. News of the wealth that the raiders gained on these occasions attracted more pirates, and soon the western seas were swarming with them.

The bigger Viking expeditions of the 830s made the English on the coasts feel more insecure, but England was still not the main target of Viking activity. The continent, still torn by civil war between rival Frankish rulers, was too tempting. What little information we have about England in this period gives the impression of a prosperous country.

After about 850, the scale of Viking expeditions seems to have increased yet again. The accounts of the victims of the Vikings -- and in this period as always, these victims' accounts are our main source of information -- say that Viking fleets included 150 ships and more. Even taking exaggeration into account, this means that some of the fleets carried thousands of warriors.

Another difference between the post-850 expeditions and the earlier ones is that some of the leaders called themselves kings. These were not great national kings with extensive lands in Scandinavia. Rather they were failed contenders for power at home looking for opportunity elsewhere -- more aggresive counterparts to the English princes in exile who were always a part of English political life.

But still in the 850s, the main opportunities were in disorganized Ireland and on the continent. Only occasionally would one of these large fleets descend on Britain.

Charles the Bald, who ruled most of modern France in the mid-ninth century, had a role in bringing about the most devastating Viking attacks on England. In the 850s and 860s, he took the first effective action by a Frankish king against the Vikings. Paying Vikings to fight each other was just one of his tactics. The use of fortifications was another.

Such tactics were not infallible, but they made France a less attractive destination for Vikings, and England more attractive, just as their activity was reaching a peak. The storm broke in 865, with the appearance of the so-called Great Army.

The name "Great Army" was probably an invention of the chroniclers, but it expresses the dismay that the English felt when faced with an enemy of unprecedented size. The East Anglians, rather than fight, gave the Viking army tribute, including the horses they would need for further campaigning. After spending the winter of 865 in East Anglia, the army, perhaps reinforced by other Vikings from France, went to Northumbria, where a civil war was in progress, and took York, which was the chief town of the kingdom. After some delay, the contending kings, Osbert and Aelle, came to their senses, and in March of 867 they combined their forces to attack the army at York. They lost badly -- both English kings were killed.

The Viking army was effectively in control of Northumbria, but did not settle at this point. Rather, they appointed a client king, took tribute, and moved on. They seized Nottingham, in Mercia, and spent the winter of 867/8 there. King Burgred of Mercia was frightened enough by the approaching army, to appeal to his neighbor and former rival, King Aethelred of Wessex, for aid. Aethelred responded favorably -- he and his brother and heir, Alfred, took an army to Nottingham to help the Mercians beseige the Vikings.  English cooperation against a common enemy didn't work this time, though. For some reason the Mercians decided that peace was less risky than storming the Viking camp. So they made a treaty and the West Saxons went home.

The Mercian peace gave them a respite of four years. The Vikings went back to York in 869, and then, probably after being reinforced from overseas, they marched back to East Anglia. This time they didn't merely take tribute: they killed the king, Edmund, perhaps as a pagan sacrifice, and in the words of the chronicler, "overran the kingdom the entire kingdom." East Anglia was well and truly overrun. The East Anglian royal dynasty disappeared forever.

In 870, the Great Army attacked Wessex. Because the ASC comes from Wessex, we know what happened there in some detail. The chronicler knew, for instance, who the Viking leaders were. They were a collection of warlords, some of whom called themselves kings, others who did not have the support or the ambition to be more than jarls (earls). What is more interesting is how well Wessex did in the face of the assault. The kingdom did not collapse at the appearance of the army at its borders, and was not defeated in the field. In the early part of the year there were four separate battles. The West Saxons won some and lost some, but neither side got a decisive victory.

Aethelred died, but Alfred stepped right into his shoes and continued his campaign. There were at least nine engagements that the chronicler considered worth of the name "battle," plus innumerable lesser forays mounted by the English to harrass or repulse the attacking army. By the end of 870, the Vikings had lost one king and nine jarls, and they were willing to make peace.

One wonders about the resistance of Wessex. Did they face a smaller army than the earlier kingdoms? Had some of the Vikings stayed behind to consolidate their gains elsewhere? Perhaps, but the fact that the army Aethelred and Alfred faced had two kings and many jarls speaks for a sizeable force, and certainly one that began its campaign confident of victory. One is forced to give a great deal of credit to the leadership ability of the brothers Aethelred and Alfred. It is not so much the battles they one that impress us, though that was quite an achievement, but the fact that they could suffer a number of defeats and continue to fight, without losing heart or the support of their subjects. Even the death of Aethelred in mid-fight did not sap West Saxon morale.

This morale must be kept in mind when we look at later events. The great Viking army backed off from Wessex temporarily, and spent its energy subduing Mercia. In 871 the London area was taken, in 872 the area around Lincoln. In 873 they took Repton, in the north-central part of the kingdom. In that year or the next, King Burgred called it a day. He abandoned his kingdom and retired to Rome, no doubt with a great deal of treasure to console him for his loss of status. Parts of Mercia remained unconquered, but it was now a Viking client state, somewhat like the Vichy republic in France in the second World War. The Vikings chose a king they could control, a king's thegn named Coelwulf, who ruled on their sufferance.

After this victory, the army appears to have split. Part went to York and then farther north, raiding into Pictland and the lands of the Strathclyde Britons. Another part took possession of Cambridge. In 875, this southern army renewed the war against Wessex, the one undefeated English kingdom. Riding fast, as they often did on raiding expeditions, they dashed right across Wessex to the south coastal town of Wareham. Alfred brought up a force and made them swear to leave his kingdom when the winter was over. But in the next spring, that of 876, they broke their oath. Part of them went by sea. Immediately a storm blew up and according to the chronicler, 120 ships were lost. The Vikings who went by land did much better. They dashed out of Wareham and got into the fortress at Exeter, a major town, before Alfred could stop them. This time, however, he did convince them to go.

The next year they went to Mercia, where they started to divide the land for settlement. It appeared in 877 that Wessex had survived the storm. Viking bands were beginning to settle down. Much of the army they had faced in 875 and 876 was taking land in eastern Mercia. The Danes in York were also appropriating the land, and according to the ASC, they spent the year of 876 "ploughing and making a living for themselves."

But there were others who were not satisfied. In early 878, the army, or what was left of it, attacked Wessex in midwinter. In the words of our source, it "rode over Wessex and occupied it, and drove a great part of the inhabitants oversea, and of the rest the greater part they reduced to submission." This situation is usually seen as merely the prelude to Alfred's amazing comeback in the spring.

It takes nothing away from Alfred's achievement to look instead for a moment at the amazing conquests of his enemies.

In 865, there had been no Vikings based in England whatsoever.  England had really suffered very little from the fleets that had roamed freely over France, the Low Countries, and Ireland. The political and social structure built up since the Anglo-Saxon invasions was intact.

In a very few years, the Great Army had by sheer force rearranged the entire English scene.

The Viking descent between 865 and 878 went beyond raiding, although the scale of plunder must have been immense, including as it did the very land itself. This was invasion, and it changed the face of England forever. But England was not reduced entirely to foreign rule. Alfred, hiding in the marshes, was down but not out.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.