Post-classical history




If claims in The Saga of the People of Laxardal are anything to go by, the Norwegians had long been raiding the coasts of the Scottish isles.1 DNA evidence from the Orkneys and Shetlands presents an even clearer indication: these have not only many Scandinavian place names, but also the highest concentration of Norwegian DNA outside Scandinavia. A debate still rages, however, about the nature of the Viking settlement there. Local sheep have interbred with Norse sheep to create a unique strain, but for Norwegian sheep to be on the islands in the first place, they would have to be brought there by ship. Many of the Vikings on the Shetlands and Orkneys not only raided, but also stayed.

The Orkney Islands have given up several ship burials. In 1991, on the north-eastern island of Sanday, excavation commenced on what turned out to be a family ship burial – a man, woman and child. The man was buried with the accoutrements of a warring life, the woman with tools and materials for housekeeping and weaving. Her brooch was a Scandinavian design, dating to the middle of the ninth century, precisely the time when Viking raiders would have had a whole generation to reconnoitre their targets, and perhaps decide to settle in one of them. The Orkneys would have been an especially tempting prospect for a Viking. They were sufficiently distant from the upheavals in Scandinavia, but still within sailing distance should the need arise. They are also islands, and no Viking willingly settled in a location that didn’t guarantee him some sense of defensive security.

Much of the scattered signs of Viking habitation in the Orkneys are relatively recent – runic graffiti in a burial mound, for example, whose carvers boast they are on their way to Jerusalem, presumably at the time of the Crusades.2 Orkneyinga Saga, an account of life in the islands until the twelfth century, only recounts bizarre legends for the early period. For the time the first pioneers were building their crofts and appeasing or fighting with the islands’ Pictish natives, their later skalds could only discuss a strange creation myth that places the families’ origins in the lands of the Finns and the Kainu. By the time the Orkneyinga Saga begins in earnest in the ninth century, the Vikings have already been in the region for a generation or so. Runic and circumstantial evidence suggests that they overwhelmed the local population, but not necessarily in an openly belligerent way. Pictish words persisted in the local language, implying that at least part of the next generation was reared by local girls. Unlike many other Viking settlements, however, some of the men in the Orkneys do appear to have arrived with their Scandinavian wives. Orkney and Shetland were colonization attempts, and successful ones, that would eventually form the bridge to points even further east. As time went on, the Vikings would also infest the northern extremities of Scotland – Caithness, Sutherland and, in the west, the Hebrides. From there it was but a short trip to another Viking stronghold the Isle of Man, and then Ireland.

The Vikings found a different kind of world in Ireland – if anything, it was one into which they fitted quite well. Like Scotland, Ireland had been largely unaffected by the Romans. It was a barbarian region of independent crofts and homesteads, widely separated without intermediate places of exchange that deserved the name of town or village. Instead, local overlords afforded ‘protection’ (or rather, extorted protection money) from the nearby settlements. The political unit was the clan (tuath), and the symbol of local authority was a fortified island (crannog) or a ring-fort (rath). One ‘high king’ supposedly ruled over all the others, although such suzerainty was often a subject of some argument among several contenders and rival families, often with as many as five simultaneous candidates. At the time of the arrival of the Vikings, the Ui-Neill clan’s hold on power was beginning to fragment, while the rulers of the Munster region were gaining control of an increasingly larger territory.

Christianity already held sway in Ireland, but Irish monks were often as belligerent as their secular countrymen, even involving themselves in battles. In the seventh century, the Ionan monk St Adamnan felt obliged to issue a directive against monks, women and children participating in battles. Nor were the Irish strangers to the idea of plundering monasteries. Raiding parties, seeking to rob rival clans of cattle, produce or other wealth, were not merely a known, but an accepted part of the Irish year – in their attacks on their enemies, they were as seasonally predictable as the Vikings themselves. Since monasteries were affiliated to clans, and often used as repositories of wealth, primitive precursors of modern banks, it was not unknown for them to be targets. Whereas the very idea of raiding a monastery was a terrible sin in the eyes of the Anglo-Saxons, to the Irish it was not an unthinkable idea.3

When the Vikings first arrived as isolated plundering parties on the coast, few of the local clans permitted this to distract them from their ongoing family feuds. It was only a generation later, when the raiding parties were transformed into much larger fleets, that the Irish began to take notice. By the 830s, the Vikings were arriving in greater numbers, staying for longer, and even over-wintering in Ireland ready for a second season of raiding. Ireland’s rivers and lakes permitted them to travel deep into the country. In a land that had never been conquered by the Romans, roads were all but unknown. The most reliable form of travel was by boat, so monasteries and homesteads clustered by the riverbanks all the way into the interior. The Vikings were able to sail their ships deep into Ireland and take what they wanted, although not without local resistance.

Longships in force plundered Armagh in 832. The following year, they were back in Louth, Columcille and south as far as Lismore in Waterford. By 834, they had clearly decided that pickings were rich in the south, and the Annals of Ulster report a series of raids in County Wicklow.

Around the same time in the twelfth century that the saga-writers of Iceland were reaching their literary peak, a similar endeavour in Ireland attempted to chronicle the history of the Irish. The result was the highly unreliable Wars of the Irish with the Foreigners, which told the tale of the arrival of the Vikings from the point of view of just one of the ruling dynasties, to the detriment of any role played by others like the Ui-Neill. The Wars of the Irish presents the Vikings as vicious raiders descending from the sea, much the same as the English chronicles. But as with the English chronicles, the later Irish writers only gave one side of the story. The Vikings were not always unwelcome and, in fact, many of them were hired by local clans intent on defeating their rivals, and fought as mercenaries with the promise of plunder and land to settle. Intermarriage between Viking men and Irish women seems to have been commonplace at all social levels, from the lowliest warrior to the highest king. In recent times, archaeologists have been forced to rethink their earlier assumptions – it is no longer assumed that if a Viking grave is found to contain Irish wealth, then that must have been stolen. Some of the Norse killing in Ireland was done at the instigation of and with the approval of some of the Irish themselves.4

The Viking assaults increased in the 830s thanks to the arrival of a war leader that the locals call Turgeis, presumed by linguists to have been a corruption of Thorgils or perhaps Thorgest. Had he survived to bring his wealth and power back to Scandinavia, he might have gained himself some fawning skalds and a saga that cleared up such questions. We can only piece together his life from references in the literature of his enemies. Sifting through the contradictory references, comparing rival chronicles and archaeological evidence, we gather that someone with such a name arrived on Ireland’s far western shore and sailing deep inland up the River Shannon, plundered the cream of the local monasteries, the inhabitants of which must have regarded themselves as safe from pirate assault, since they were often as much as 100 miles inland.

Whoever Turgeis was, he was in for the long haul. He and others like him founded semi-permanent bases from which to continue their plundering. As in other areas subject to Viking assault, they favoured island retreats at river mouths, or fortified positions on lakes. Around 841, one such base was founded in the wedge of ground where the River Poddle met the River Liffey, at a marshy place the locals called ‘the black pool’ – Dubh Linn. The Viking settlement may have begun as a temporary fortress, but soon became more permanent.

Just how permanent became clear in the 1840s, when work on a railway line uncovered Viking cemeteries at Islandbridge and Kilmainham near modern Dublin. The find is less useful than it would have been if discovered today, since Victorian archaeologists were keener on buried treasure than carefully logging the details of what they found. However, it was catalogued by William Wilde (father of the more famous Oscar) and yielded a rich haul of swords, spears and shield-bosses, mainly from Norway, although some display signs of Frankish workmanship. Certain items had been made locally, indicating that the Viking settlement was permanent enough to have a smithy. The graves were also found to contain women, buried with distinctly Norse jewellery, necklaces and household implements such as spindles, needles and smoothers. Some of the brooches seemed to have been fashioned from book-clasps – in other words, the ornate bindings of priceless Bibles and lost chronicles, levered off before the books themselves were cast into a fire or left to rot in the dirt. The women in the Islandbridge graves were Norse, not Irish, and their presence implies that at least some of the Vikings in Ireland were planning on staying.5 Other graves contained blacksmiths, farmers and merchants, buried with their scales and measures. It would appear that by the end of the ninth century, the Vikings of Dublin were still embarking upon raids and wars, but were also established in a relatively peaceful settlement.

Other place names in Ireland reflect Viking origins: Vikingalo (Wicklow), Veisufjordr (Wexford), Hlymrekr (Limerick) and Vedrafjordr (Waterford). The Vikings were still referred to as gaill (foreigners) by the Irish, but the use of the term took on a tribal context. The locals had begun to regard the newcomers as part of the scenery – the gaill became one more rival tribe to be dealt with, and Turgeis was regarded as their king. After casting out the abbot of Armagh Abbey, the local Irish saw his occupation of the Abbey as a sign of his attempt to set himself up as a religious leader, allowing later writers to interpret his raids as a heathen attempt to spread the religion of Thor. This idea was helped considerably by the blasphemous behaviour of Turgeis’s wife Aud, who danced on the altar of Clonmacnoise, and supposedly performed rites of witchcraft there.6

By 845, Turgeis and his men were holed up in a heavily defended position on Lough Ree in the centre of Ireland. However, he came to a suitably bad end, drowned in Lough Owel in County Westmeath during a fight with a local clan. A more detailed yet still unlikely story claims that the devilish Aud was not enough for Turgeis, and that instead he lusted after the daughter of a local king Mael Sechlainn. In what could be a garbled reference to a dynastic pact that went awry, Mael Sechlainn sent his daughter to Turgeis, with 15 beautiful handmaidens in attendance. Turgeis arrived with 15 of his companions, clearly expecting a night to remember, only to discover that the 15 Irish beauties were youths from Mael Sechlainn’s army. Dressed in women’s clothes and with their beards shaven off, the youths supposedly looked good enough to fool the Vikings until it was too late, revealing their true nature only as the Vikings took them in their arms and felt the cold iron of their concealed daggers.7 Perhaps a confused reference to a thwarted gang rape, perhaps a story wholly invented, the death of Turgeis entered Irish legend, and soon there were others like him.

Around 851, the Norwegian invaders had to fight off an incursion of other Vikings – a group of Danes arrived from England or Scotland, and tried to seize the plunder that the Norwegians had been carefully amassing for themselves. The Irish were now obliged to distinguish between two groups of foreign invaders – the ‘white’ Norwegians or Finngaill, and the ‘black’ Danes or Dubhgaill. The new arrivals were, however briefly, welcomed by some of the tribes, who were prepared to exploit Viking rivalry to their own ends. The Danes were enlisted to fight on behalf of the Irish, and fought the Norwegians around Carlingford Lough, near County Down. The Danes were victorious, and, when told that Saint Patrick himself had supported them, they even offered gold and silver to the representatives of the saint. This endeared them even further to the Irish, who mistakenly regarded the Viking newcomers as devout Christians, prepared to regard the local people as spiritual brothers.

Before long, the tables were turned. Olaf the White led his Norwegian men in a fierce counter-campaign, chasing the Danes out of the area and firmly establishing himself as a local king – in fact, the first Viking king of Dublin. His victory was so impressive (or, perhaps, threatening), that the locals were swift to accept him, even paying manngjöld, Scandinavian-style, in atonement for the death of Turgeis.8

Olaf was was not above dealing with the local Irish, and married the daughter of the petty kingdom of Osraige. Olaf, his brother Ivar and their supporters fought on the side of Osraige during his kingdom’s brief rebellion against the ‘high king’ of the southern Ui-Neill, although the Irish soon had cause to regret the presence of the foreigners among them. Deprived of the expected plunder, in 863 Olaf and his fellow Vikings instead decided to rob the grave mounds of the River Boyne, breaking their way into the tombs of ancient Irish nobles. Before long, the clans of Osraige and the Ui-Neill had decided they preferred the devil they knew, and concluded a reluctant peace. Without an excuse for fighting, and facing a united front of local Irish, Olaf led his Vikings in search of easier pickings in Scotland.

The Vikings maintained a presence in Dublin, and Olaf was sure to return to raid Armagh to remind them who was boss, but in 866 it was Scotland that took the full brunt of the Viking offensive. After inflicting a crushing defeat on the Britons at the mouth of the River Clyde, Olaf returned to Ireland for just long enough to profit from the sale of many hundreds of prisoners of war into slavery. He then returned to Scotland, leaving the unsure Irish possessions in the hands of his brother Ivar. Olaf was officially the ruler of the Vikings in Ireland until 871, when he was slain in a forgotten battle somewhere in Norway. His brother Ivar then took on the role of ruler, with a title that implied hegemony not only over the Vikings in Ireland, but also in ‘Britannia’, presumably Northumbria.

Northern England had fallen to a ‘Great Heathen Host’ in the late 860s, led by the ‘brothers’ Halfdan the Wide-Grasper, Ivar the Boneless and Ubbi.9 They landed in East Anglia, wintered there, and then headed north. Above the Humber, Northan Hymbre, was Northumbria, its capital, the ancient city of York – Roman Eboracum. The Vikings occupied the old Roman centre of the town, utilising the ruined walls and fortifications constructed many centuries earlier by the legions. Roman architecture was built to last, and before long the Vikings had jury-rigged an impressive battlement to protect them from the locals.

On 21 March 867, the rival kings of Yorkshire Osbert and Aella agreed that it was best to get rid of the Viking newcomers before they settled their own quarrel. Although some broke into the refortified Roman compound, the Vikings still won the day, and killed both the kings.

With Northumbria now in Viking hands, Ivar’s host headed south, where he conquered East Anglia, capturing the local ruler Edmund, tying him to a tree, and using him for target practice. When the time came for the king to be killed, the Vikings favoured the ‘blood-eagle’ sacrifice, wrenching his ribs away from his spine and pulling out his lungs. At least, that is what later writers have claimed – it remains possible that Edmund’s end, while gruesome, may not have been quite so grotesquely ritualized.10

South of Northumbria lay Mercia and Wessex, two kingdoms ripe for the picking. But Ivar and his associates seemed happy with what they had. Northumbria remained in Viking hands, and the Vikings became part of the local population. Ivar’s heathen host had tired of warring, and now had won that most important of treasures, land. Furthermore, if they had headed any further south, they would have run into trouble, not only from the Mercians and West Saxons, but also from another heathen host. 871 saw the arrival of Guthrum, a new Viking leader with his own band of men in search of English resources. However, the two southermost kingdoms put up a much better fight.

In April 871, the southern kingdom of Wessex got a new king, Alfred. The youngest son of Aethelwulf (r.839–58), Alfred had enjoyed a far-travelled early life. When he was only a child, he made two journeys to Rome itself, where Pope Leo IV had confirmed him as a godson, and given him the honorary title of a Roman consul. On the second trip, as a six-year-old boy, Alfred had seen European diplomacy in action, as his father concluded an alliance between Wessex and the Franks. One by one, he had seen his elder brothers die during his teens, until, with his nephews too young to rule, Alfred became the king of Wessex.

Alfred’s first year as king was not a good start, known as the Year of Battles. For a decade, southern England had been plagued by a roving army of Vikings, first in Kent, then points north, then Reading, then Cambridge. The size of the ‘Great Army’ is difficult to gauge, although we know from the excavation of a mass grave in Repton that 200 of them succumbed to disease over the winter of 873–4.11 Some came direct from Denmark, others seem to have arrived via France – the Franks successful in moving them on.

By 876 the ‘Great Summer Army’ led by the Viking Guthrum had relocated to Dorset, wandering the countryside unchecked. Alfred’s warriors followed the army, engaging with it occasionally, but barely controlling its excesses. As the armies headed south, however, there were signs of weariness in both. Alfred and the Vikings made a peace treaty in Wareham on the south coast, and, as a sign of the desperation of the situation, Alfred was even prepared to accept an oath from Guthrum sworn not on the cross, but on an arm-ring sacred to Thor.12

Oaths clearly did not mean the same to Guthrum as they did to Alfred. The treaty was soon broken, and the Vikings were on the move again. Eventually, the large war-band reached Exeter, their backs to the sea, and agreed to a second treaty. Guthrum had been hoping to meet up with a second band of Vikings, arriving by sea, and so effect a cunning escape at the very moment Alfred thought he had them cornered. The elements, however, allied with England, and sunk 120 Viking ships before they could meet up with their colleagues.

It was hardly a victory for Alfred. His part of the bargain involved bribing the Vikings to leave – an early precursor of the danegeld of later, less feted rulers. The removal of the Viking threat may have brought temporary respite to Wessex, but simply shifted the problem elsewhere. Guthrum’s army instead plagued the Mercians north of Alfred’s border. Other Vikings, it seems, had given up on fighting – in around 878 many of them began settling in the East Midlands, in a region that became known as the Five Boroughs, the largely Danish settlements of Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford and Leicester.

Guthrum still coveted the treasures of Wessex, and seemed to appreciate that the chief barrier to an acquiescent Wessex was the king himself. Accordingly, the Vikings mounted a surprise attack in the middle of winter. A large part of the Saxon army had been disbanded, and the resolutely Christian defenders were coming to the end of their twelve days of Christmas celebrations. Alfred and a small party of his soldiers were wintering in Chippenham in Wiltshire, where they were caught off guard by a Viking assault – pagan Yule celebrations went on for just as long, but seem to have been cancelled in order to allow for hostilities.

With Alfred on the run in the marshes of the West Country, Wessex was effectively overrun. What happened next is mysterious, almost miraculous. Alfred was reduced to hiding in disguise – there is a famous legend that he ended up promising to watch a peasant-woman’s baking for her, and somehow caused the cakes to burn. The story, if it has a grain of truth, may have more to do with his role as the provider of ‘bread’ to the West Saxon people.13 Somehow, Alfred scraped up an army in the west, waiting until the late spring, when the local farmers would have sown their crops and had more free time. He led his army against Guthrum, who had occupied Alfred’s former wintering place at Chippenham. It was a last stand for the Saxons, as final as that once fought in the west by the British against their ancestors.

The West Saxons ‘won’ the Battle of Edington in 878, although how well they won it is open to debate. Some time later that they signed a treaty, whose terms implied that the battle was not all that decisive after all. A borderline was established between the realm of the Saxons and the area that had been settled by Vikings. It was understood by both parties that the Vikings would not be leaving eastern England, but would instead be settling there permanently. The island was effectively partitioned, along a line that ran up the Thames Estuary, north from the River Lea in what is now east London, and then north-west across what is now the Midlands. The land to the east of it was the Danelaw, a place where any remaining Saxons were now obliged to accept that Scandinavians lived among them, and had their own laws and customs. The Scandinavians would never leave.

By acknowledging the extent of Viking incursion into what is now England, Alfred was able to put a temporary stop on the raiders. The next time Vikings attacked (and war-bands were back before the decade was out), the newly settled Danes in the east would have just as much an interest in defending ‘their’ new home as the Saxons. Alfred’s compromise also left the possibility that a later ruler would be able to reassert Saxon control over the Danish lands, incorporating them into a greater ‘England’. This, in fact, was what Alfred’s son Edward was able to do. Alfred’s grandson Athelstan would become the first true king of England.

But Athelstan would be able to accomplish such things partly because by the time he did so, the settlers of the Danelaw were embracing the same religion as him. Alfred had been prepared to give Guthrum exactly what he wanted – a kingdom of his own, so long as Guthrum accepted that Alfred’s god was better than his own. Guthrum has evidently thought eastern England was worth the price of Christian baptism. Not everyone believed it. A generation later, Pope Formosus would get extremely agitated at the number of reports he received of pagan rituals persisting in eastern England.

While Guthrum’s army may have disbanded after the treaty, there were still other, smaller war-bands roaming England. When one enjoyed some raiding success on the south bank of the Thames, the Danes of the Danelaw were unable to resist the temptation. They marched on Essex, meeting up with the new arrivals on the coast at Benfleet. The threat arose of a Viking assault on London, but then the Viking group broke up, supposedly after arguments on jurisdiction and plans. Alfred, however, could not let the moment go unpunished. A small fleet of English ships sailed to East Anglia and raided the Danelaw coast, wiping out a flotilla of 16 Viking vessels in the Stour estuary. The Danes of East Anglia banded together quickly enough to destroy the victorious English fleet before it could make it back to Kent.

The experience was enough to convince Alfred of the importance of London. Although the city was in Mercia, not Alfred’s homeland of Wessex, London was the bridging point of the River Thames. Whoever controlled London controlled the river that ran right into the heart of Wessex, and the 880s saw the city change hands several times, as Alfred fought off successive Danish assaults. Eventually, in 886, Alfred occupied London for good, ordering that the people should repopulate the deserted Roman part of the town. In his desire to hold London against Vikings, he found himself asserting his rule over Mercia, and consequently much of modern England. We remember Alfred for being ‘Great’ thanks to his mastery not of Vikings, but of other Saxons. Uniting against the Vikings, Wessex and Mercia formed the bulk of what would become modern England.14

But this brief history should be told from the Viking point of view. To the war-bands who left Norway and Denmark in search of foreign plunder, the era of the heathen hosts was highly successful – a complete victory for the Vikings. For an outlaw from the Vik, fighting his way around Europe, pillaging foreign lands, and to finally settle down as a farmer in East Anglia with a couple of Saxon concubines must have seemed perfect. It did not matter to him what religious symbol a distant, unseen leader wore around his neck. He had what he wanted, and if he paid protection money to a local ruler, it mattered little whether the cash eventually ended up in the possession of a Saxon or a fellow Dane. From the Orkneys to Essex, the eastern coast of the British Isles was a Viking domain.

In the long perspective, we might call Alfred and the English the ultimate victors. Christianity and civilization did their slow work, undermining the brutal codes of the war-band. The battle-religion of Odin only made sense to roving bands of warriors. Take the Viking out of the longship, turn him into a farmer, and suddenly he worries about crops, disease, trade and family. He welcomes law and order; a war-band is something he wants to be protected from. His children grow up speaking English to their mother, and his grandchildren find his accent hard to understand. When he dies, he leaves barely any sense of his Scandinavian origins, save for a scattering of place names – like Grimsby, ‘the farm of Grim’. Old age was the ultimate enemy of the Viking hordes – to a culture prepared to play a waiting game, the old enemies eventually faded away.

English history credits Alfred, rightly, with mounting a heroic resistance to the Vikings, and with a diplomacy that saw his greatest enemy accept his religion and his guidance. But that must have meant little to the dead and the dispossessed in the region now known as the Danelaw. To a Dane, laying claim to a stretch of land that used to be Saxon and being allowed to keep it, the Vikings had won.

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