When Vikings Attack: A Brief History of Norse Raids and Settlements in the United Kingdom

There was a time when sails over the eastern horizon was a herald of death and destruction.  Sailing from Scandinavia, Viking raiders plagued the United Kingdom for over 200 years before finally being driven off for good in 1066.  Throughout this time, the Vikings not only raided villages along the coast, including undefended monasteries but also established several settlements, eventually absorbing into Britain.  By the end of the Viking Age, the Nordic ravagers had made a significant cultural impact on what would become the United Kingdom.

The first recorded Viking raid took place in 789 when Vikings landed at Dorset and, when asked to pay the trading tax by a government official, promptly murdered him and set about their attack.  Continued raiding began in earnest on 8 June 793 at a monastery known as Lindisfarne, which was on an island just off the coast of Northumberland.  The abbey was looted and what monks who weren’t killed were taken back as slaves.  More attacks against these monasteries followed as the Vikings found them to be full of treasure and relatively undefended.

Ultimately, the solitude that the monks sought in establishing places of worship and learning in secluded locations made them the perfect targets.  The frequency and ferocity of these attacks led to the creation of the (undocumented) prayer “Free us from the fury of the Northmen, Lord.”  Perhaps the saddest result of these raids is that many of the records and illuminated manuscripts, each painstakingly made by hand, were lost.  The most famous of these manuscripts to survive was the Book of Kells, begun in Iona and completed as the monastery in Kells.

As the attacks continued, the warbands amalgamated and their raids became greater in duration and scale.  English defenses were pitiful in the early years as the country was separated into the kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia, Wessex, and Northumbria.  By the 850s the Vikings were so large in their forces that they began to settle in parts of England during the winter.  They forced the East Angles to supply their army, conquered the southern part of Northumbria, and utterly subjugated the kingdom of Mercia.

The first major successes against the Vikings occurred after they began an invasion of Wessex in 878.  One driven back by the Vikings, King Alfred the Great regrouped and scored his first victory against them at Edington.  Alfred’s victories helped lead to an era of peace, though there were still significant Norse populations that continued to settle and eventually blend in Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford, Leicester, and York, amongst others.  Alfred would go on to become responsible for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and his descendants would take back much of the areas conquered by the Vikings, further cementing his family’s dynasty and control over England.

There was, however, a bit of a setback in 1013 when Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard launched a major invasion of England.  He managed to conquer so much of the country that many territories fully recognised him as King of England.  Perhaps the only place he did not hold sway was London, which managed to resist his forces and was the bastion of King Ethelred the Unready.  Sweyn’s son Cnut the Great completed the conquest in 1016 and remained as king until 1035 when his son Harthacnut became king.  On his death, Edward the Confessor, who had been a co-ruler of England, became the sole King of England.

The Viking Age in England truly came to an end in 1066 due to activity both in Britain and in Scandinavia.  For the latter, that year marked to region’s end of the Iron Age as royal houses and governments formed and the conversion to Christianity concluded.  Back in Great Britain, meanwhile, Harold Godwinson, who was in a succession crisis with Norman lord William, succeeded in defeating the remaining Viking forces at Stamford Bridge.  It is believed that the losses incurred in that battle and the subsequent march to Hastings to face William contributed heavily to Harold’s defeat and the beginning of William’s reign as King William I.  Ultimately, for all the work to drive out the Norse, the monarchy that would change the future of England would begin with a leader descended from those very Nordic peoples.