When the watchman on the wall, the Shieldings’ lookout
whose job it was to guard the sea-cliffs,
saw shields glittering on the gangplank
and battle-equipment being unloaded
he had to find out who and what they were. So he rode to the shore,
this horseman of Hrothgar’s, and challenged them
in formal terms, flourishing his spear.
In the days of King Beorhtric of Wessex (786–802), ‘there came for the first time three ships of Northmen from Hordaland’,2 and ‘they landed in the island which is called Portland’.3 ‘[T]he king’s reeve, who was then in the town called Dorchester, leapt on his horse, sped to the harbour with a few men (for he thought they were merchants rather than marauders), and admonishing them [the Northmen] in an authoritative manner, gave orders that they should be driven to the royal town. And he and his companions were killed by them on the spot. The name of the reeve was Beaduheard.’4
‘Those were the first ships of Danish men which came to the land of the English.’5
Looking south from the summit of the barrow, the land feels like it is slipping away, yielding itself to the ineffable splendour of the ocean. Away in the distance the dark bulk of Portland languishes, a last defiant redoubt set in the glittering sea. The world is wide here, the coast of England laid out in broad wings to east and west; on a bright clear day – the ozone hollowing out the sinuses – you feel weightless, as if you could step from the top of that mound and be lifted into the firmament, soar into that white light obliterating the edges of land, sea and sky, tumbling in the breeze.
The mound is known, for reasons now lost, as Culliford Tree. It is a tumulus, a Bronze Age burial mound – one of five running east to west – that had stood on the Dorset chalk for more than 2,000 years before it received a name in the English tongue. Like breakwaters in the surf, the mounds and their ancient dead have endured the battering tides of time, forcing history to shape itself around them. At some point after it was named, the barrow became the meeting place of Culliford Tree Hundred, the administrative district of which Portland formed part at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086. It had probably served this purpose for hundreds of years prior to William the Conqueror’s great national audit and by the end of the eighth century it was almost certainly a significant regional meeting place. It was in this place and in others like it that royal officials enacted the king’s will and delivered his justice, adjudicating disputes and pronouncing verdicts which could include fines, mutilation and death. From the summit of the barrow, the landscape reveals itself to the watcher – a place from which the land could be claimed, authority enacted in the act of seeing.
On that day at the end of the eighth century when three ships came unasked to Portland, the man riding down to Portland strand might well have paused and looked back over his shoulder, looked for Culliford Tree. He might have sought comfort from the distant mound on the horizon – a dark beacon of antiquity and earth-fast custom, a symbol of territory and authority, of land and legitimacy. This man, Beaduheard, would have known that the barrow watched over him, lending him the power in the land, confirming the prerogatives of his office. He was reeve to the king of Wessex, Beorhtric, and as such he exercised the king’s delegated authority. Reeves represented the king in towns, ports and sometimes across whole shires; the modern and medieval word ‘sheriff’ has its origin in these ‘shire-reeves’. Beaduheard, therefore, was an important man – responsible, perhaps, for local government in Dorchester and the surrounding countryside, a man used to getting his own way.
Beaduheard arrives on Portland to find a group of travellers arrayed on the beach, their ships drawn up behind them, their backs to the sea. They are wary – frightened even. They are strangers in a strange land, conditioned perhaps to expect a frosty welcome. Beaduheard dismounts from his horse to receive them, others following his lead, shingle crunching beneath leather-shod feet. Words are exchanged but their meaning is lost – whatever mutual words they understood failing in the tension of the moment, drowned by the crashing of the waves. But Beaduheard is no diplomat, and the tenor of his words is clear enough. He ‘admonishes’ the newcomers in an ‘authoritative manner’, he attempts to ‘drive them’ to the king’s residence (‘against their will’ as the chronicle of John of Worcester adds).6 He knows his duty, and he knows the law.
The West Saxon edicts that are closest in date to these events are the laws of King Ine (r. 688–726). Clause 20 gives a sense of the sort of welcome that the unfortunate wanderer could expect in eighth-century Wessex: ‘If a man from afar, or a stranger, goes through the woods off the highway and neither calls out nor blows a horn, he may be considered a thief, to be slain or to be redeemed [by paying his wergild (“man-price”)].’7 Britain’s most southerly realm offered cold comfort to the lost.
In the Old English poem Beowulf – composed at some point between the early eighth and the early eleventh century – there can be found, expressed in the Reeve’s own West Saxon tongue, a form of words that we might imagine Beaduheard speaking in his final hours: an echo of a lived experience.8
‘What kind of men are you who arrive
rigged out for combat in coats of mail,
sailing here over the sea-lanes
in your steep-hulled boat? […]
Never before has a force under arms
disembarked so openly – not bothering to ask
if the sentries allowed them safe passage
or the clan had consented […]
So now, before you fare inland
as interlopers, I have to be informed
about who you are and where you hail from.
Outsiders from across the water,
I say it again: the sooner you tell
where you come from and why, the better.’9
In the poem, these words are spoken by the Danish coastguard to the eponymous hero and his men as they arrive from the realm of the Geats (southern Sweden) to lend their aid to Hrothgar, the Danish king. They are formalities, to be understood both by questioner and visitor: the back-and-forth ritual of arrival.
In the real-life counterpart to this scene, however, the newcomers on the Portland beach chose not to participate, not to play the game. Perhaps they did not know the rules.
The travellers, berated in a foreign tongue by an aggressive stranger, are frightened and frustrated – the instinct to fight or flee like a high-pitched whine, raised to intolerable pitch. In the heavy moments that follow, the confrontation develops the hypertension of a shoot-out: a bead of sweat running down the back of a sun-burnt neck, eyes darting left and right as time slows to dream-pace, measured out by the metronomic crashing of the surf. Perhaps a hand flickers towards a sword hilt; perhaps a horse stamps, a cloak billows, a gull shrieks … When the spell finally breaks the violence seems inevitable – preordained – as if only death can bring the world back into balance.
In the end, all that is left, in place of Beowulf’s polite and formal replies, are huddled corpses on the strand, their blood swallowed between stones.
The arrival of these Northmen in Portland – the carbuncle that sprouts from Dorset into the English Channel – established the leitmotifs for Britain’s early interactions with its northern neighbours: unanswered questions and sudden brutality, the fluid identity of the merchant-marauder, the collision of cultures at the margins of the land. For almost three centuries, seaborne marauders would return again and again – sometimes like the inevitable attrition of the tides, dissolving the most vulnerable shores one wave at a time, at others like a mighty storm that smashes sea-walls and wreaks devastation before expending itself exhausted. Sometimes it would seem more like the inexorable flood of a climate apocalypse, the waters rising and rising without respite, washing deep inland and bursting river banks deep in the interior of the land. Everywhere the crimson tide flowed and pounded, the history of these islands would be changed for ever, new channels and shapes scoured and moulded in the clay of British history.
The island that the crew of those three ships blundered into in the reign of King Beorhtric was still far from settling into its familiar modern grooves. Scotland, Wales and England did not exist, and the shifting patchwork of petty kingdoms that made up the political geography of Britain was fractured along cultural, linguistic, religious, geographical and historical lines. Major fault-lines divided those parts of Britain that had once been exposed to intensive Roman colonization from those which had not, those which adhered to Roman and which to Irish forms of Christian liturgy, those who believed their ancestors were British from those who looked to a homeland in Ireland or across the North Sea. Landscape sundered highland zones from lowland zones; language divided speakers of Celtic languages from those who used a Germanic tongue; the sea brought an influx of foreign goods and ideas to some, while shutting others out.
The map of Britain at the end of the eighth century had developed slowly from conditions arising from the decline of the Roman Empire during the fourth century. In Britain, the removal of direct Roman administration and military defence around the year 400 coincided with changes to the cultural orientation of communities along Britain’s eastern seaboard. Increasingly, their centre of gravity shifted from the Mediterranean world to the North Sea. Part of the reason for this was political and economic, but migration also played a major role. People from what is now northern Germany, southern Scandinavia and the Low Countries had been moving into eastern areas of Britain – particularly Kent, East Anglia and England north of the Humber – from at least the early fifth century. The numbers involved, and the nature of the migration, remains fiercely contested, but the impact was undeniable and dramatic.
By the early eighth century, the northern monk Bede was able to write with confidence about an ‘English-speaking people’ who were distinct from the native British. The key distinguishing characteristic of this group – as implied by Bede’s phrase – was their tongue. These were people who spoke a different language from both Romano-British elites (for whom Latin was the ubiquitous written language) and the ‘indigenous’ Britons, who spoke varying forms of a Celtic language known as Common or Old Brittonic (or Brythonic). The newcomers, however, spoke a Germanic language known to modern scholars as ‘Old English’ (or, more rarely these days, as ‘Anglo-Saxon’) which was closely related to the languages spoken in the regions from which migrants across the North Sea had come.
While doubts hover over a great deal of Bede’s narrative, and particularly his migration and conquest narratives (much of which is an elaboration of a vague, tendentious and ideologically motivated sermon written by the British monk Gildas in the sixth century),10 the impact of the English language is not in doubt. Place-names and early vernacular written records attest that English became dominant and widespread at a remarkably early date. Moreover, these English-speakers (whatever their genetic ancestry) had, by Bede’s day, become culturally and linguistically dominant in most of lowland Britain, forming a tapestry of greater and lesser kingdoms which had grown out of an inconsistent pattern of tribal groupings and late Roman administrative districts.
The most northerly of these English-speaking realms was Northumbria – literally the land north of the River Humber. By the late eighth century this kingdom covered a huge swathe of northern Britain, from the Humber to the Forth, cobbled together from a number of former British territories: Deira, Bernicia, Gododdin, Rheged and Elmet. For over a century, Northumbria had represented a high point of post-Roman achievement in scholarship and artistic culture, driven from major centres of learning such as Wearmouth-Jarrow (where Bede wrote, among much else, his Ecclesiastical History of the English People) and the island monastery of Lindisfarne. This extraordinary cultural flowering was also remarkable for its fusion of British, Irish, Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean influences. The Lindisfarne Gospels – an illuminated manuscript of breathtaking beauty and craftsmanship – exemplifies the splendour, ingenuity and spontaneity of this northern renaissance, its famous ‘carpet pages’ weaving Celtic, Germanic and Coptic Christian themes into mind-bending symphonies of colour and cultural synthesis.
However, despite the cultural refinement and territorial muscle, Northumbria had been growing weaker throughout the eighth century, undermined by the incessant feuding of its aristocracy and the instability of its royal house. In 790, for example, around the time that the Northmen had arrived in Portland, King Osred II was deposed after only a year on the throne, forcibly tonsured and exiled from his kingdom. His replacement, Æthelred I, seems to have had powerful friends. It is likely that the coup was carried out with the support of Northumbria’s large and belligerent southern neighbour: the kingdom of Mercia.
Covering most of the English midlands from approximately the modern Welsh border in the west to the borders of East Anglia in the east, and from the Thames valley in the south to the Humber and the Wirral in the north, Mercia dominated southern Britain and reached the apogee of its political dominance under King Offa (r. 757–96). In the last decade of the eighth century, Offa was at the height of his powers. From his power-base in the Staffordshire heartlands around Tamworth, Lichfield and Repton, the king exercised not only direct rule over Mercia, but political and military control over the neighbouring kingdoms of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. The greatest surviving monument of his reign is the massive defensive earthwork marking the western boundary of Mercia: Offa’s Dyke. The scale of this engineering project is testament to the extent of the king’s power and ambition, not to mention his ability to coerce his subjects into undertaking state-wide projects.11 Offan statecraft was of the Corleone school of governance. When, for example, King Æthelberht of East Anglia attempted to assert a measure of independence (briefly minting his own coins), ‘Offa ordered King Æthelberht’s head to be struck off.’ This sort of gangland authority was closely tied to the personal charisma of the king and, as it turned out, the Mercian supremacy unravelled shortly after Offa’s death in 796.12
The decapitation of King Æthelberht wasn’t enough to bring the kingdom of East Anglia to an end. Comprising at its core the ancient counties of Norfolk and Suffolk (the ‘north folk’ and the ‘south folk’ in Old English), the kingdom had, at the beginning of the seventh century, been an important power-broker. East Anglia had once boasted links to Scandinavia, the rest of continental Europe and beyond, and nothing better exemplifies the kingdom’s cosmopolitan splendour than the great ship burial at Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge in Suffolk. The famous mustachioed helmet found at Sutton Hoo is the ubiquitous icon of the Anglo-Saxon age, an object which in its style, iconography and manufacture has its closest parallels among the grave goods buried with the military elite of southern Sweden. But the burial also contained – among other objects – silverware from the Byzantine Empire (the surviving eastern part of the Roman Empire, centred on Constantinople – modern Istanbul), coins from Merovingian Gaul (which comprised parts of France, Germany and the Low Countries) and weapons and jewellery embellished with garnets imported from India. Although East Anglia would never again achieve the influence it commanded in this glittering seventh-century heyday, it nevertheless maintained its independence long into the ninth century.13
The smaller kingdoms which had lain under Mercian domination during Offa’s reign were, however, destined ultimately to becoming defunct as independent concerns. The royal dynasty of the East Saxons (with its core in Essex) and those of the South Saxons (Sussex) and Kent either disappeared or had been demoted to junior aristocratic rank by the early ninth century. The killer blow in each case was delivered not by Mercia but by another resurgent player in the English-speaking community: Wessex – the kingdom of the West Saxons.
Wessex had experienced a torrid eighth century. With its heartlands in Hampshire and Dorset, Wessex was an assertive force in southern Britain, extending north across Somerset, Wiltshire and Berkshire, and eating steadily westwards into Devon. During its heyday in the reign of King Ine (r. 688–726), West Saxon authority had also extended across Surrey and Sussex in the east. But more than sixty years of attritional warfare with the Mercians to the north had eroded its territories south of the Thames, created a militarized zone across the chalk uplands of Wiltshire and Berkshire and seen control of Sussex lost to Offa’s Mercia. In 786, the pugnacious West Saxon ruler Cynewulf was killed in a power-struggle and the man who emerged as king, Beorhtric, was, it seems, Offa’s man. The impression of Wessex in these years is of a beaten-down kingdom, exhausted by war and resigned to its subordinate status in Offa’s new order. The man who would pick up the banner of West Saxon kingship from Beorhtric, however, was of a markedly different stamp. King Ecgberht (r. 802–39) would take the West Saxon kingdom to the peak of its power and prestige, overwhelming its smaller neighbours, restoring the pride and reputation of its royal house, and ultimately providing the self-confidence that future kings would need in the dark days that lay ahead. But all this was in the future. When the Northmen arrived on Portland, Wessex yet remained a weakened client state of the Mercian supremacy.
Although English kingdoms had been, and continued to be, dominant in lowland Britain, they were never the whole story, and in parts of Britain – notably the highlands and islands of what is now Scotland, Cumbria and the valley of the Clyde, the lands west of Offa’s Dyke and the Cornish peninsula – a number of kingdoms of mixed provenance maintained distinct identities, languages, religious practices and cultural norms. Cornwall, beyond the south-western marches of Wessex, had been only lightly touched by direct Roman rule. At the western end of the kingdom of Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall), the region had developed a distinctive culture that blended British and Irish influences and maintained maritime links with both Brittany and the Byzantine Empire. While Devon, the eastern part of Dumnonia, became subsumed by Wessex over the course of the eighth century – becoming thoroughly Anglicized in the process – Cornwall, for the time being, retained its independence.
Further north, the kingdoms of what is now Wales present an altogether more complex picture, and posed a greater challenge for their Mercian neighbours to the east. The scale of the threat is represented by the magnitude of the effort made by Offa, and perhaps his predecessors, to contain it (through the construction of the dyke), and a range of sources make clear that border raids into Mercian territory (and vice versa) were endemic.14 The Celtic-speaking people of what is now Wales were no more unified, however, than their Anglophone rivals. The four main kingdoms, as established by at least 850, were Gwynedd (in the north and north-west), Dyfed (in the south-west), Gwent (in the south-east) and Powys (in the eastern and central regions). All of these, in one way or another, were based on the former Roman civitates of western Britain, themselves based on old Iron Age tribal groupings.15 This, it must be admitted, is to simplify a complex and volatile pattern of tribal confederations, but it is evident that ruling Welsh elites clung to an idea of Romanitas even as it drifted ever further into the past. Latin and bilingual inscriptions on standing stones (stones deliberately erected as upright monuments) throughout Wales (and elsewhere in former Roman Britain) reveal a self-consciously Latinate identity that lasted into the ninth century and beyond. The bitter irony was that it was the heathen interlopers – the Anglo-Saxons – who, having adopted an explicitly Roman model of Christianity, would ultimately align themselves with the new mainstream culture of ‘Latin’ Europe; the British, despite having kept alive a vibrant, if idiosyncratic, Christian faith alongside the memory of their imperial heritage, were increasingly cast as the barbarians in this changing European landscape.16
The British kingdoms of Wales and Cornwall were by no means the only representatives of Brittonic-speaking culture to survive the Anglo-Saxon cultural takeover. Though some (such as Rheged, Gododdin and Elmet) had perished in the expansion of Northumbria, the British kingdom of Alt Clud (‘the rock of the Clyde’) still held out in the region bordering the Clyde. A shadowy kingdom of obscure origin, Alt Clud had its fortress capital at Dumbarton Rock. The kingdom had spent most of the eighth century fending off the unwelcome advances of its neighbours, and in 780 was burned (by whom, or why, is not known). One of the possible culprits was Alt Clud’s neighbour to the north-east, the substantial and periodically powerful kingdom of the Picts (sometimes referred to as ‘Pictavia’), a realm that had its heartland in northern and eastern Scotland, and which seems to have held sway (at least culturally) over the Orkney and Shetland islands. The most visible and dramatic monuments to Pictish culture are the symbol stones – slabs carved with images of beasts and enigmatic symbols that are most often interpreted as representations of the names of kings and aristocrats. By the eighth century, many of these objects displayed ostentatiously Christian iconography, and it is clear that Christianity had by that time become associated with expressions of power and status: a monastery at Portmahomack, on the Tarbat peninsula in Easter Ross, had been established as early as the sixth century, possibly with royal patronage.17
Pictish power was by no means unchallenged in northern Britain. The kingdom’s main rivals were Northumbria, whose borders extended to the Forth, and whose armies it had repeatedly beaten back during the earlier part of the century, and the kingdom of Dál Riata, a Gaelic-speaking polity spanning the Irish Sea to include Argyll, Lochaber and the north-eastern part of Ulster. Dál Riata had its power-base at Dunadd near Kilmartin, an imposing hill-fort where its kings were believed to have been inaugurated – the impression of a foot, worn into the living rock, may have played a key role in the rituals that were enacted there. By the end of the eighth century, however, Dál Riata was coming under Pictish domination. In 736 Dunadd had been captured by the Pictish king Oengus (he underscored his dominance by dragging the sons of the Dál Riatan king back to Pictavia in chains), and by 811 Dál Riata was being ruled directly by the Pictish king Constantine (r. 789–820). By then, however, a new power was rising, and the Viking impact in northern Britain would have profound consequences for all of its regional players.
There is more that might be said. Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Irish monastic colonies of the Western Isles – Iona chief among them – are all stitched tightly into the events that followed the advent of the Northmen. Nor can the story of the Vikings in Britain be told without some reference to events in continental Europe. Nevertheless, the foregoing paragraphs sketch – in broad outline – the most important contours of British political geography at the time that three strange ships pitched up on the beach at Portland. Though nobody could have known it then, the death of Beaduheard marked the beginning of a series of cataclysmic upheavals that changed Britain for ever. Many of the places mentioned above will be revisited in the chapters that follow; many of the kingdoms will fall.
But before that story can be told, we must return to that beach in Portland, the dark sails receding into the distance. We watch them go, and the coastguard’s questions replay in our minds, too late now for any hope of an answer: ‘Outsiders from across the water […] the sooner you tell where you come from and why, the better.’18
There is no written source that tells these events in the words of the Vikings themselves. For the most part, the people of Scandinavia did not record their history in written form until long after the Viking Age is usually considered to have closed. The sagas and histories, produced in Norway and especially in Iceland, are products of the late twelfth century and later – sometimes much later. To say that the Vikings were illiterate is strictly false, however. As will be seen, they made use of their own runic script for inscriptions marking ownership or memorializing the dead. Moreover, poems composed during the Viking Age survived orally to be written down in later centuries. Nevertheless, very little of the Viking voice survives, and certainly nothing that will explain the identities, motivations and origins of those first violent pioneers. In the face of this Scandinavian silence we must turn and consider who the people of early medieval Britain thought these strangers were, where they had come from and what had driven them on to British shores.
The written sources for the Viking Age in Britain are not a straightforward guide to contemporary events. These were documents written for specific purposes, in different times and in different places, each one reflecting the views of the people who compiled or commissioned them. As such, they are partial and biased, limited by the range of knowledge which their authors possessed, though not by their imaginations. By far the most important sources for this period are the various manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The first, and oldest, of these manuscripts is normally referred to as the A text or, sometimes, as the ‘Winchester Chronicle’. It was put together in the late ninth century – probably in the 890s – as part of the intellectual scene that surrounded the court of King Alfred in Wessex. All later historians and chroniclers of the Middle Ages, including the other texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, rely on the A text to some degree.
The earliest record of the Viking arrival on Portland is found in the A text, and was therefore written down a century later than the events it describes. Although this Chronicle almost certainly contains real traditions and material from older sources, none of these survive for us to make a comparison. The suspicion therefore remains that the view of history which the Chronicle presents is coloured by a bleak century of Scandinavian plunder, conquest and colonization. In particular, one might justly raise an eyebrow at the chronicler’s assertion that these ‘were the first ships of Danish men which came to the land of the English [Angelcynnes lond]’: quite apart from the vexed question of what exactly the chronicler meant by ‘Angelcynnes lond’, one might well question how, 100 years later and from the perspective of Britain’s most southerly realm, such knowledge could possibly have been possessed.19
The A text tells us, in no uncertain terms, that the newcomers were ‘Danish’ (denisc). While this might seem, on the face of things, to be a useful statement of origins, it is not at all certain whether that which seemed ‘danish’ to Anglo-Saxon eyes would necessarily appear ‘Danish’ to our own. As will be seen, the term denisc (along with other generic terms used throughout Britain) in fact came to be applied indiscriminately to people and things held to have emanated from the North. Far more promising is the statement that the newcomers were ‘Northmen’ (Norðmanna) from Hordaland (Hereðalande), now a county of western Norway centred on Bergen. Alas, this is surprisingly (and suspiciously) specific. The earliest record of this notice is found, not in the A text, but in the so-called ‘northern recension’ of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and can be dated no earlier than the mid-eleventh century – at least 250 years after the incident at Portland. This reference may shed more light on the origin of eleventh-century Scandinavian settlers in Northumbria than it does on events in late eighth-century Wessex.20
In other words, the sources – so promising at first reading – really only tell us that the newcomers were foreigners, probably from somewhere across the North Sea. It is certain, however, that the people of Britain thought something when they encountered strangers on their beaches and imagined the worlds from which they had come. Understanding what that something might have been – what it meant – is bound up with how the people of early medieval Britain understood their own world, and their place within it.