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The wild life of the Vikings..........

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runic stones in Jelling

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The Vikings in Britain

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Big and bountiful Britain was one of the best sources of income for the Vikings, and they gained unparalleled glory and prestige there. They plundered, collected taxes (the Danegeld), acted as mercenaries, and tradesmen. They also settled, cultivated the land, and had great importance in the development of towns.

Britain was the only place where they conquered well-established local kingdoms, and took over the thrones. This happened in several small empires in the 9th century as well as in all Britain after it had been united.

From 1018 to 1042 Britain shared their king with Denmark (except for 5 years). This heavy commitment to Britain throughout the entire Viking Period meant a lot in Denmark as well as in Scandinavia.

 

 

 

Apart from the outrages in the South of England, the measures taken against piracy attacks shortly before the year 800, and the plunder of St Cuthbert’s Monastery in Lindisfarne in 793, only one single piece of information exists about the Vikings in Britain before 835. It relates to the plunder of the Monastery of Donemuthan in 794; this holy place was probably situated near the estuary of the river Don in the South of Yorkshire. The raiders might have come from Norway, but probably found better prospects in Scotland and Ireland.

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In 835 the expeditions in Britain started for real and were escalated in Ireland. The Vikings savagely devastated Britain, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle laconically states, “This year heathen men ravaged Sheppey.” This was the real beginning of more than 200 years of Scandinavian action, and now especially the Danes went into action. Their military progress can be tracked in the Chronicle almost year by year, but there are also other written sources, like for instance Asser’s biography on the Life of King Alfred of Wessex.  Like in the Frankish empires towns were flourishing, and the nobles very rich, so the pagans did not raid monasteries exclusively.

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At first the development followed the same pattern as elsewhere. First a surprise attack on islands and various localities along the coast, either from bases on the European Continent, Ireland, or from home, and then wintering. The first bit of information about this is from the winter of 850-851, when the Vikings camped on the island of Thanet on the east coast of Kent. A couple of years later they wintered in Sheppey. Soon they also raided the main land, and in 865 an army in Thanet made peace with the people of Kent in return for money. This was the first of many Danegeld payments.

Then events gathered speed. In 865 a large pagan army arrived in Britain. We know the names of many of the commanders, both kings and earls. Among them are the “Lodbrog sons” Ingvar and Ubbe, who are historically authentic  whereas their father, Ragnar Lodbrog, is known exclusively as a hero in folk-tale adventures. The size of the army has been discussed, but many are of opinion that it amounted to 2-3.000 men. The army wintered in East Anglia, acquired horses, and made peace with the people. The following year they moved to Northumbria, conquered the capital of York on the 1st of November, made peace with the Northumbrians, put a vassal king on the throne and wintered there. It was probably around this time that the Monastery of Whitby was plundered and destroyed. Quite a few furnishings have been found there, which were likely torn off religious artefacts, and place names in the area indicate that the landed property of the Monastery was taken over by the Vikings. In 867 the army went to Mercia, wintered in Nottingham and made peace with this empire. In 868 they returned to York and stayed there for one year, and in 869 rode through Mercia to East Anglia, wintered in Thetford, conquered the whole kingdom and killed King Edmund, who was soon worshipped as a martyr and saint. In 870 Wessex was the target. In 871 the army took Reading as their point of departure, and nine major battles were fought beside many minor ones, and nine Danish earls and one king were killed according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But Wessex concluded peace with the Vikings. This was the year Alfred the Great became King.

The system with ever changing winterings and many peace treaties continued for a while. In 871-72 they camped in London, wintered in Repton, drove away the king of Mercia, and put a renegade on the throne.

Repton became a turning point. In 874 the large army split up. Halfdan went to Northumbria with part of it and wintered at the river Tyne. The following year he conquered the country and went plundering in the west and north. It is also reported that the Monastery of St Cuthbert in Lindisfarne left the exposed island in 875 and took refuge on the main land. For some years they went from one place to another carrying the relics from St Cuthbert with them apparently without suffering any injury, even though Northumbria was full of Vikings. In 876 the Chronicle brings the famous message, “and this year Halfdan shared out the land of the Northumbrians, and they began ploughing and earning an honest livelihood.” The Vikings had taken land in order to settle. Halfdan is supposed to have died the following year.

In 874 the other part of the army left Repton led by the Kings Gudrum, Osketil, and Anund and went to Cambridge where they stayed for a year. Then the army went into Wessex, the last independent kingdom, and King Alfred had to make peace with them. In 875-876 they wintered in Wareham and the next year in Exeter. In the late summer of 877 the army then continued to Mercia, “ which they divided up and also gave some land to Ceolwulf.” (their vassal king). But not all settled down for their base was in Gloucester, and at the beginning of the new year the army returned to Wessex and Chippenham, and took control of most of the country. King Alfred with a small group of men fled into the marshes and  fortified himself in Athelney. In the spring of 878 he managed to gather an army, and at Edington he won the decisive victory over the Viking army. At the peace negotiations the Vikings promised to leave Wessex, and King Gudrum together with 30 of his nobles were christened with King Alfred as their god father. They received many christening presents and were treated excellently.

In 878-879 the army wintered in Cirencester. Then they moved on to East Anglia, and in 880 the Chronicle notes that the army settled there and divided up the country. A separate group, however, sailed to Ghent on the western European Continent, and in the following years the Viking raids were centred there.

In Britain the Viking army had now conquered three out of four kingdoms and had taken land to settle and cultivate – all within 15 years of wandering. Gudrum, however, soon broke his agreement with King Alfred, but a fresh one was made in 886 or shortly after, and the text has been preserved. Here the boundaries between the kingdoms of Alfred and Gudrum were fixed, and a number of rules for peaceful coexistence between the two peoples were laid down.

Quite a few silver treasures from the 9th century testify to the unruly times. Another valuable artefact is the Codex Aureus, which is a magnificently illuminated Gospel manuscript. In it there is a note describing how the book was bought back from the pagans for gold.

On the western European Continent, however, many Vikings still supported themselves in the traditional Viking manner. But times were getting tough, and in 892 a large Danish army came to Britain from Boulogne, and Hasting brought his army from the Loire and wanted to settle in Britain like his colleagues. The large army now attacked Wessex, some 300-400 ships. The Viking kingdoms in Britain supported the army, and it took King Alfred several years to drive them out of Wessex, but in 896 they gave up. After that some went to Northumbria and some to East Anglia. Others got hold of vessels and went southwards across the ocean to the Seine.

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