Ryan Lavelle un­cov­ers the story of Vik­ings in Bri­tain, and how a Dan­ish prince came to take the An­glo-Saxon crown

History Revealed - - COVER STORY VIK­ING AT­TACK -

This year marks the mil­lenary of the ac­cla­ma­tion of a prince of Den­mark as king of Eng­land. The vic­tor of a long and bloody cam­paign, mar­ry­ing the widow of his con­quered pre­de­ces­sor, Cnut stepped up to the con­trols of one of the most pow­er­ful king­doms in 11th-cen­tury Europe. Re­mem­bered in Den­mark and much of Scan­di­navia, but cu­ri­ously not in Eng­land, as Knud den Store – ‘Cnut the Great’ – the new An­glo-Dan­ish King would wield power ef­fec­tively for some two decades un­til his death in 1035.

Cnut’s trans­for­ma­tion from Viking sea lord to Chris­tian king is a per­fect ex­am­ple of the way in which the Vikings them­selves had changed. The jour­ney from sea­sonal raiders and pi­rates to highly re­spected rulers had taken a lit­tle over two cen­turies, but it was one of the most im­por­tant de­vel­op­ments in Western Europe. Not only had Den­mark, Nor­way, Ice­land and Swe­den come of age, but the English and Scot­tish king­doms had emerged in the white heat of the Viking wars.


In Bri­tain and Ire­land, the age of Norse­men had be­gun grad­u­ally. The first Viking ac­tiv­i­ties were sur­pris­ingly small, but they were deadly and had an im­pact far be­yond their size. Flotil­las made their way across the North Sea to raid coastal and es­tu­ar­ine sites, par­tic­u­larly monas­ter­ies, chocked full of trea­sures as a re­sult of an eighth-cen­tury eco­nomic boom. Those who em­barked on the raids were the happy ben­e­fi­cia­ries of de­vel­op­ments in maritime tech­nol­ogy, which al­lowed them to set out from Scan­di­navia con­fi­dent of be­ing able to re­turn safely again. Though, like other ships of the age, they could be rowed, Viking ships en­joyed beau­ti­fully rigged square sails; they had strong keels and well-de­signed hulls. It has even been ar­gued that Vikings had de­vel­oped their nav­i­ga­tion skills well in ad­vance of other Euro­pean peo­ples. While many early me­dieval ships used coastal routes to travel be­tween lands, the new long­ships could dom­i­nate sea roads across open wa­ter, per­haps even as early as the 780s and 790s. Writ­ing of the ear­li­est dat­able Viking raid on the fa­mous monastery of Lind­is­farne in June 793, one church­man wrote of sur­prise “that such an in­road from the sea could be made.”

The writer was Al­cuin, for­merly a dea­con of York Min­ster, who had risen to be­come Charle­magne’s right-hand man. Al­though he was some 500 miles away in the court of Charle­magne, Al­cuin con­veys some of the sense of the shock of hear­ing the news of pa­gan raiders’ ac­tions. To many Chris­tians, the Vikings her­alded the apoc­a­lypse. The An­glo

Saxon Chron­i­cle, a year-by-year record of events as­so­ci­ated with the king­dom of Wes­sex, re­ported that the Vikings’ ar­rival was pre­ceded by freak at­mo­spheric con­di­tions – “dragons” were seen fly­ing across the sky – and in­deed one grave­stone found at Lind­is­farne ( above) shows hea­then bar­bar­ians in apoc­a­lyp­tic terms: the Sun and the Moon, por­tents of the End of Days when the Sun would turn to dark­ness and the Moon turn a blood red, are jux­ta­posed by an im­age of seven war­riors, most of whom bran­dish sur­pris­ingly re­al­is­tic con­tem­po­rary weapons. Who­ever buried that mem­ber of the Lind­is­farne com­mu­nity ev­i­dently thought that a mes­sage had been sent and had to be heeded.

“The Vikings were show­ing that they were more than bunches of bearded ma­raud­ers”

In th­ese early raids, it was speed and sur­prise that brought suc­cess. Where Vikings are known to have faced op­po­si­tion, such as down the coast from Lind­is­farne, per­haps af­ter a raid on the monastery at Jar­row in 794, lo­cal forces could match them ef­fec­tively. An­glo-Saxon king­doms them­selves had their own share of hard­ened war­riors, whose whole life­style was or­gan­ised to­wards the de­feat of their en­e­mies, and so they were no pushover. But with armies or­gan­ised for bat­tles fought ac­cord­ing to rituals and ex­pec­ta­tions (at par­tic­u­lar places and per­haps even at par­tic­u­lar times of the year), they were rarely able to catch more mo­bile en­e­mies. As one his­to­rian aptly put it, the Vikings did not “play by the rules”.


In Bri­tain, it all changed when Vikings stopped be­ing sum­mer raiders and stayed for longer, a strat­egy they had al­ready been adopt­ing in Ire­land. Up un­til around the 850s, a lo­cal pop­u­la­tion could ex­pect Viking war bands to go away at the end of the sum­mer once the raid­ing sea­son was over; now, the peo­ple were stuck with the enemy at large. The

An­glo-Saxon Chron­i­cle refers to a “Great Viking Army”. The Vikings were show­ing that they were more than bunches of bearded ma­raud­ers, but could adapt to learn lessons. Viking forces banded to­gether, tied up their ships and dug ditches and even ram­parts to pro­tect them­selves. That way they could range fur­ther and even take over ter­ri­tory.

The de­fence of the king­dom of Wes­sex by Al­fred the Great is per­haps the best re­mem­bered and most cel­e­brated mo­ment of this pe­riod. The other three An­glo-Saxon king­doms, Northum­bria, Mer­cia and East Anglia, had lost their na­tive rulers, only for them to be re­placed by ei­ther pup­pet rulers or by Vikings them­selves, but Wes­sex re­mained un­con­quered. The peace treaty that Al­fred had ne­go­ti­ated in 871 was ex­changed for sil­ver, sug­gest­ing that Al­fred sur­vived the 870s only by the skin of his teeth.

In 878, the king­dom was briefly taken over by Vikings, but Al­fred’s re­turn to power showed an iron will. There were enough lords in Eng­land will­ing to choose him rather than a Scan­di­na­vian lord, and Al­fred ev­i­dently worked hard to re­tain their sup­port. But this was no mean feat. The pres­ence of pow­er­ful Scan­di­na­vian war­lords in the south of Eng­land deep­ened the fis­sures of po­lit­i­cal ri­val­ries. A char­ter from around this time records the con­fis­ca­tion of

land from an eal­dor­man (gov­er­nor) of Wilt­shire, who had “de­serted” both “his lord King Al­fred” and his “coun­try”, while Al­fred’s own nephew, the son of his pre­de­ces­sor King Æthelred I (d.871 , made com­mon cause with Vikings fol­low­ing Al­fred’s death.


Al­fred had held Wes­sex for his di­rect de­scen­dants to en­sure that it would be the heart­land of the English king­dom that was to de­velop dur­ing the tenth cen­tury. In Scot­land, a sim­i­lar pat­tern emerged for the de­scen­dants of the famed Ken­neth MacAlpin (Cináed mac Alpín), whose king­dom of Alba was es­tab­lished in the vac­uum cre­ated by the de­struc­tion of the power base of the western king­dom of Strath­clyde in a par­tic­u­larly vi­cious Viking at­tack in 870. But if more pow­er­ful king­doms de­vel­oped, they had to con­tend with Vikings as a po­lit­i­cal force in Bri­tain and Ire­land.

A large part of what is now Eng­land and much of north­ern and western Scot­land, as well as the Isle of Man and land around the coast of Ire­land (Dublin be­ing one of the key ex­am­ples), be­came home to Scan­di­na­vian set­tlers, with new Viking lords tak­ing the re­sources of the lo­cal peo­ple, which had once been en­joyed by An­glo-Saxon, Pic­tish and other na­tive rulers. Po­lit­i­cal con­trol was now the name of the game, and though Wes­sex had sur­vived with a na­tive dy­nasty, Scan­di­na­vian in­ter­ests pro­vided a fierce ri­valry. The king­dom of York, con­trolled for gen­er­a­tions in the mid­tenth cen­tury by com­pet­ing dy­nas­ties with links to Nor­way, Den­mark and

Ire­land, is the best ex­am­ple of the change, and the king­dom’s im­por­tance in the tenth cen­tury de­ter­mined the way in which the king­dom of Eng­land de­vel­oped dur­ing the course of that cen­tury. Un­til York and its hin­ter­land were fi­nally pulled into the or­bit of Wes­sex dom­i­nance fol­low­ing the death of the in­fa­mous Erik ‘Bloodaxe’ in 954, Dublin, York and Scan­di­navia were part of an ar­chi­pel­ago of trade and cul­tural con­nec­tions that stretched from the Ir­ish Sea across the North Sea and in­deed fur­ther, with the Vikings’ con­nec­tions to the Baltic, Eastern Europe and Rus­sia.


Dur­ing this time, many Vikings be­came con­verts to Chris­tian­ity. Though pa­gan be­liefs lin­gered, and in­deed in some places Christ be­came just one of the many deities to whom one might turn, the adop­tion of Chris­tian­ity across the Viking world was what laid the path to po­lit­i­cal and so­cial change. The change wasn’t in­stant, but im­por­tantly, con­ver­sion was what al­lowed such things as a Chris­tian king in Eng­land to marry his sis­ter to the ruler of the Viking king­dom. Æthel­stan, ruler of Wes­sex and Mer­cia, did just this in 926, while his other sis­ters were mar­ried to rulers across Europe. The Vikings were plug­ging into the Chris­tian world.

In this man­ner, new in­va­sions of Eng­land, spear­headed by the Dan­ish king Sweyn ‘Fork­beard’, who was ac­tive in Eng­land in the 990s and the early years of the 11th cen­tury, were the work of a Chris­tian prince – more like the in­va­sion of Wil­liam the Con­queror in 1066 than the depre­da­tions of the Great Viking Army in 866. Sweyn was king in Den­mark, with a fleet of royal ves­sels and an army he could call on like the ‘feu­dal’ armies of later gen­er­a­tions. But some­thing of the Viking re­mained. Wil­liam of

Nor­mandy had a le­git­i­mate claim to the English king­dom, how­ever shaky. If Sweyn had any claim to Eng­land, it was a poor one and no con­tem­po­raries made any­thing of it, even if only to deny it. Those who came to Eng­land with Sweyn might an­swer a royal call, but they also came as Vikings be­cause of the op­por­tu­ni­ties of­fered by be­long­ing to a mas­sive Viking fleet. Æthelred was tax­ing his sub­jects heav­ily in re­sponse to new Viking raids. The An­glo-Saxon Chron­i­cle recorded the amounts in­creas­ing in re­sponse to each new out­rage, from £10,000 pounds (an enor­mous amount for 991 to £16,000, to £24,000, then to £36,000. Some of the money was given to Vikings to go away; other sums were paid to groups of mer­ce­nar­ies to take ser­vice with the English king.

Such amounts were un­sus­tain­able. In 1013, Æthelred was driven from his king­dom and Sweyn ac­claimed king by his men. It looked as though he would be the first Viking king of Eng­land, as many in the south of Eng­land had al­ready sur­ren­dered to him, hand­ing over hostages that were then en­trusted to his son Cnut, who had ac­com­pa­nied Sweyn from Den­mark. The crown­ing was not to be. Sweyn died in Fe­bru­ary 1014. Æthelred was re­called from ex­ile by his no­bles and Cnut de­parted for Den­mark, paus­ing only to bru­tally mu­ti­late the hostages whose care he had been charged with. This was Viking politics at its most sav­age.


It was also typ­i­cal of early me­dieval politics that a bru­tal act was called for in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. Cnut was in a tight spot, and he had to re­spond in a fash­ion that sent a mes­sage to those who he saw as be­tray­ing him. When Cnut re­turned to Eng­land with a vengeance in 1015, he took full ad­van­tage of the messy politics of Viking-Age Eng­land. He had a

“King Cnut would have been more a na­tive lord than an in­vad­ing new­comer”

fleet with him once more, but he was also linked by mar­riage to the pow­er­ful fam­ily of the mid­land no­ble­woman Ælfgifu of Northamp­ton. To such groups, King Cnut would have been more a na­tive lord than an in­vad­ing new­comer.

When Cnut was crowned in 1017, he must have seemed like the only ‘strong and sta­ble’ op­tion for the English no­bil­ity. There was an irony here, as his fa­ther had caused so much of the up­heaval and Cnut had played no small part, but this was not alien to the 11th­cen­tury game of thrones.

Cnut was not some pa­gan new­comer to Chris­tian­ity, freshly con­verted. He was part of a royal fam­ily that had been Chris­tian for three gen­er­a­tions. Fol­low­ing the death of Æthelred’s war­like son Edmund ‘Iron­side’, and the ex­ile to Nor­mandy of other sons of Æthelred, Cnut was able to present him­self as a le­git­i­mate English king. He mar­ried Queen Emma, widow of Æthelred and sis­ter of the Nor­man duke, which gave Cnut the op­por­tu­nity to white­wash him­self with a sense of le­git­i­macy, keep­ing the am­bi­tions of the ex­iled princes in check, to boot.

Be­hind this, how­ever, was the naked re­al­ity of power as well as prag­ma­tism, not just on Cnut’s part but on those who ac­cepted him as king, such as the pow­er­ful Arch­bishop of York, Wulf­s­tan, who, like Al­cuin, had seen the end of days com­ing with re­newed Viking at­tacks. Un­like Al­cuin, Wulf­s­tan was now ac­com­mo­dat­ing him­self to the new or­der. We can only imag­ine the eye­brows raised at the news that though Cnut had mar­ried Queen Emma, he had not given up his re­la­tion­ship with Ælfgifu. But if Ælfgifu was in Scan­di­navia and helped Cnut to keep con­nec­tions there, where new Viking threats might arise from, an English au­di­ence might be will­ing to over­look a few trans­gres­sions. Sweyn’s king­dom of Den­mark was in the hands of Cnut’s brother Har­ald, but Cnut still had a fleet be­hind him, which he main­tained in Eng­land for two years af­ter the death of Edmund.

Much of the fleet was dis­missed in 1018, again with a mas­sive pay­ment of geld, but Cnut re­tained the ser­vices of forty ships. Fol­low­ing Har­ald’s death around 1018, the king­dom was now Cnut’s for the tak­ing and th­ese ships seem to have been im­por­tant in the cam­paign. The ta­bles had turned. As king of Eng­land, Cnut could now be a Dan­ish king.

From that Dan­ish base, Cnut re­claimed the Nor­we­gian ter­ri­tory that had been sub­ject to his fa­ther. Though con­trol of Nor­way re­mained a prob­lem for Cnut just as it had been for Sweyn, Cnut was able to make good his claim, rul­ing Nor­way through his wife Ælfgifu and their son un­til 1034. The Scan­di­na­vian em­pire broke up, but the con­trol of this em­pire was to play a key role in the down­fall of the English king­dom in 1066.

Har­ald Hardrada (‘hard ruler’) of Nor­way pre­sented him­self as the heir to the Dan­ish pos­ses­sions of Cnut’s son Harthac­nut, mak­ing claim to Eng­land in the af­ter­math of the death of Ed­ward the Con­fes­sor with an in­va­sion of the north of Eng­land in Septem­ber 1066. Af­ter an ini­tial vic­tory at the gates of the great Viking city of York, Har­ald’s Viking strat­egy was de­ci­sively beaten by his name­sake, Harold II of Eng­land.

The last great bat­tle of the Viking age had been won by an English king­dom that had spent so long fight­ing the Viking threat, but it was a very dif­fer­ent king­dom from that of Al­fred, given that the king who fought that bat­tle was part of Cnut’s fam­ily through mar­riage. A fi­nal twist of fate was that the king­dom was lost as a re­sult, with the Nor­man Con­quest a few days later. Though noone knew it at the time, Bri­tain’s Viking Age was over.

This ninth-cen­tury grave marker found at Lind­is­farne de­picts Vikings bran­dish­ing swords and axes

To the av­er­age An­glo-Saxon, the tall, bearded Viking war­riors would have seemed like gi­ants, and their physique al­lowed them to swing an axe with great force

The first Vikings struck Bri­tain in small raid­ing par­ties, but by the mid-850s, they had grouped to­gether to form a Great Army

A coin minted in the Viking king­dom of York in the 920s shows the im­por­tance of the sword as a sym­bol of power in the re­gion

Æthel­stan, King of the An­glo-Sax­ons and later King of the English, mar­ried his sis­ter to the Viking king of Den­mark af­ter his con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity

Cnut ( right) mar­ried Queen Emma ( above), the widow of Æthelred the Un­ready, help­ing to le­git­imise his claim to the English throne

Odin was the Norse god of war and death, a fig­ure shared with Ger­manic mythol­ogy Much of what we know about Norse religion comes from Snorri Sturlu­son’s ‘Edda’

Har­ald Hardrada, King of Nor­way, was de­feated by An­glo-Sax­ons at the Bat­tle of Stam­ford Bridge

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.