Scarcely any other period of history or past people attracts as much widespread attention as the Vikings.
There are many films (most recently ‘Northmen’), TV drama series such as ‘Last Kingdom’, ‘Vikings’ and ‘Vikings Valhalla’, a Viking-themed comedy show (‘Norsemen’) and video games such as ‘Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’.
Social media is studded with Viking enthusiasts of all shades, from accuracy-seeking reenactors to fans of fantasy genres.
The Vikings have gone from Victorian villains to 21st-century heroes. But what of the real Vikings and their impact on England?
Who were the Vikings?
By Vikings, we mean groups of raiders and settlers originally from what are now the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
It was most often people from the first two places that were involved with England from about AD 789 to 1066.
Although contemporary sources use the word ‘Viking’, they also just call them ‘Danes’ (regardless of whether they came from Denmark) or ‘heathens’ (non-Christians).
The word ‘Viking’ means something like ‘the people of the creeks’ and was used for the Scandinavians who utilised inlets and fjords to launch their expeditions.
How the Vikings started coming to England
Before the Viking raids began, there were already long cultural and trading connections between Scandinavia and England, particularly along the east coast facing the North Sea.
There are cultural parallels between some of the artefacts found at Sutton Hoo and the Swedish Vendel culture, for example.
Some historians and archaeologists point to increased economic pressure on land in the Viking homelands or to feeling hemmed in by the (Christian) Carolingian Empire (now France and parts of Germany), which led to the Viking desire to expand on their own terms.
Perhaps in England, they began to tire of what they saw as onerous conditions attached to trading, like forms of taxation or control of their movements by Royal officials.
The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of England offered rich pickings in the form of well-developed economies with coastal or riverine trading towns to loot.
England also had churches and monasteries enriched with gold and silver ornaments to plunder for bullion or hacksilver and, eventually, fertile land to take over.
The Vikings could pick off the small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms one by one, or demand ‘money with menaces’ from rulers or local elites at different times.
Where did the first Viking raiders land?
The first recorded sign of trouble was at Portland, Dorset, in AD 789.
A group of Scandinavian ‘traders’ took umbrage at their business affairs being monitored and controlled by the local king’s representative. They promptly killed the unfortunate official along with his retinue.
The next big recorded event was the famous raid on the monastic settlement of Lindisfarne in AD 793. Later, raids in places like Portland and Southampton (Hamwih) increased in the 830s and 840s.
The ‘Great Heathen Army’
At first, the raiding groups were small, but in the 860s, the scale of operations changed dramatically.
In AD 865, a much bigger army landed in East Anglia, probably numbering several thousand. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described this force as ‘The Great Heathen Army’.
The army was very mobile: they may have brought some horses with them but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that many were ‘acquired’ in East Anglia. They raided far and wide and were supported and supplied by their ships using rivers.
They were able to subdue the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria (literally the land north of the Humber River) and effectively control much of Mercia in the Midlands.
Although most were male warriors, they were accompanied by some women and children who the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us stayed in ‘base camps’.
Alfred, the King of Wessex (the main character in Bernard Cornwell’s ‘The Saxon Stories’ books and ‘The Last Kingdom’ television series) preserved his kingdom south of the Thames.
His daughter Aethelflaed also regained control of Mercia in the west and parts of the Midlands.
These areas provided a base from which many other parts of the country were later unified for the first time under rulers of the royal house of Wessex.
What language did the Vikings speak in England?
It’s thought that the Vikings settling here spoke two dialects of Old Norse. They may have continued to speak their own distinct language in England until after the Norman conquest.
Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon speakers were likely mutually understandable, and as time passed, some people may have been bi-lingual.
They have left several very common words that survive in modern English, such as:
Where did the Vikings settle in England?
The Vikings settled in East Anglia, the north of England and parts of the Midlands and were joined by more Scandinavian migrants. There is debate about just how many.
The areas of Viking settlement are full of place names containing the Scandinavian elements ‘by’ (a village) and ‘thorpe’ (meaning an outlying farmstead). Many ‘by’ place names are combined with Scandinavian personal names.
Some examples of places include: Appleby, Ingleby, Dalby, Kirkby and Scunthorpe, Skellingthorpe
The less common ‘Thwaite’ element is derived from the Old Norse ‘thveit’, meaning a clearing or meadow.
A number of towns expanded and flourished during the period of Viking control. The best-understood example is at York (or Jorvik as the Vikings called it).
The Vikings also expanded the “Five Boroughs” of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln and Stamford.
We get a picture from archaeology and history that, at least in some areas, a hybrid ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ culture emerged.
We know from historical records that Viking leaders like Guthrum nominally became Christian. In his case, as part of the treaty with King Alfred of Wessex.
Scandinavian personal names also became widespread. This may partly have been through fashion.
Known Viking name examples from England include:
Male: Hrolfr, Svein, Thurkil, Ulfcytel
Female: Gunnhildr, Gytha, Sigrith
We can’t always tell if someone was ‘Viking’ by birth. We hear of bishops with Scandinavian names or leaders with Scandinavian names fighting against other Scandinavian incomers.
We have a wonderful account from a churchman berating people for imitating Viking hairstyles that were short at the back and long in front – supposedly ‘blinding’ the person sporting the style. Clearly, Viking swagger was something that many wanted to be part of.
There was also intermarriage between Anglo-Saxons and ‘Vikings’. The powerful 11th-century Godwinson family, who provided England with its last ‘Saxon’ king, are a case in point. King Harold’s mother was actually a Danish noblewoman.
A Viking king of England
Over the course of the 10th century, the rulers of the Saxon house of Wessex dynasty, like Edward the Elder and Athelstan, gained control over much of England.
However, by the turn of the 11th century, there was renewed pressure from further Viking inroads, culminating in Ethelred the Unready famously losing his throne and his more robust son Edmund Ironside being defeated by the Vikings.
Ethelred’s name in old English, ‘Aethelraed,’ meant ‘Noble council’, implying a wise ruler. His subject’s bitter joke was that he was ‘Unraed’ – bad council’, or ‘no council’.
From 1016 to 1035, England became part of a pan-Scandinavian empire ruled by the ambitious and ruthless Cnut (Canute) that included Denmark and Norway.
Much of the Anglo-Saxon elites came to an accommodation with this new situation, and many made the best of it, like the Godwinson clan.
The last Viking invasion
Edward the Confessor restored the rule of Wessex’s ‘legitimate’ house. However, he left no heir and there were a number of interested parties including Harold Godwinson, Harald Hardrada King of Norway and William, Duke of Normandy.
Harold Godwinson was on the spot when Edward died in 1066 and quickly made himself king.
Harold had quarrelled with his troublesome brother Tostig, who duly threw in his lot with Harald of Norway. The latter was an experienced soldier who had even served in faraway Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in the Byzantine Emperor’s elite bodyguard, the Varangians.
The armies of Tostig and Harald landed in Northumbria and had some initial success against local forces. However, Harold Godwinson and his army had now travelled to the north and made a surprise attack on the unwary resting Viking army at Stamford Bridge.
Allegedly, many Viking warriors were unprepared for serious combat that day and did not have their armour on. The result was a decisive defeat for the invaders, and Hadrada and Tostig were killed.
English history would have been very different if they had been the only invaders that year. But Godwinson had to turn about and ride back south. William of Normandy had landed at Pevensey. Harold himself went down to defeat at the Battle of Hastings.
The new Norman king was mindful of more Scandinavian invasions and fortified places near the east coast like Colchester in Essex. However, these threats did not materialise, and Hadrada’s campaign proved to be the last Viking invasion.
The role of Historic England
A number of the sites and structures associated with the Viking Age in England are protected, and you can find out more about them from the National Heritage List for England. Add your photos and insights via the Missing Pieces Project.