An illustration from above of a walled Viking village on the coast.
A brief introduction to

5 Facts About the Vikings in England

A quick introduction to the Viking Age in England.

Take our quick tour through the impact of these Scandinavian raiders and settlers on England from AD 789 to 1066.

An aerial view of a harbour.
Portland, Dorset, the scene of the first recorded Viking raid on England. © Historic England Archive. 24689_003.

1. The first recorded raid on England was a trading expedition that turned sour

In AD 789, at Portland, Dorset, a group of Viking ‘traders’ took umbrage at their business affairs being controlled by the local king’s representative.

They killed the unfortunate official and his retinue. The more famous raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne followed in AD 793.

Artist's reconstruction of  a coastal Anglo-Saxon monastery as seen from the air.
View by Peter Dunn of what the Lindisfarne Monastery complex might have looked like before the Viking Age. © Historic England Archive. View image IC059/008.

2. The Vikings were highly mobile and organised warriors

In the AD 860s and 870s, Vikings invaded in larger numbers. They used their ships to support their armies along England’s rivers. They requisitioned horses for raiding. The Vikings built winter camps to protect their families, such as at Torksey in Lincolnshire.

A photograph of viking re-enactors fighting with swords.
Reenactment of a battle between Vikings and Saxons. © Historic England Archive. PLB_N050053.

Documentary sources tell us how Vikings exploited divisions in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms to overwhelm them, until the last kingdom standing was Wessex, in southern England, under King Alfred.

Archaeologists have identified the ‘signature’ of the Viking army’s presence: comprising lost artefacts such as slivers of coins from the Islamic world, ‘hacksilver’, and gaming pieces.

Viking finds in a museum display.
A selection of metal-detected finds from the Viking winter camp at Torksey. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

3. They settled in large areas of England

The Vikings settled in East Anglia, the East Midlands, and the North of England. This is reflected in the density of Scandinavian place names such as those ending in ‘-by’ or ‘thorpe’ for example.

Reconstruction art showing a cellared building under construction with other thatched timber buildings in the background.
Constructing a cellared building in Viking-Age York. Artwork by Chris Evans. © Historic England Archive. View image IC128/005.

The Vikings were not just raiders. Once settled, their far-flung trading network contributed to the economic growth of towns in the ‘Five Boroughs’ of Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, and Stamford, and especially of York.

During the 10th century, King Alfred’s successors brought together much of England under their rule. But new waves of Vikings changed the situation so that for a while England became part of a Scandinavian ‘empire’ under King Cnut.

4. The Vikings brought new artistic styles that blended with existing Anglo-Saxon ones

Their ‘hogback’ tombstones look like idealised Viking houses with curved shingle roofs and bowed sides. There are carved crosses whose motifs blend Christian and pagan Norse beliefs, for example at Gosfoth, Cumbria.

Drawing showing stylised mythical figures in combat, above them is a mounted figure.
A detailed drawing of the Viking mythical characters Loki and Sigyn depicted on the Gosforth Cross. © VTR / Alamy Stock Photo.

5. The last Viking invasion of England was in 1066

The period under Cnut was followed by a Saxon restoration under Edward the Confessor. When Edward died in 1066, the throne was claimed by Harold Godwinson. His right to rule was disputed by Duke William of Normandy and Harald Hadrada, King of Norway.

A stone and brick memorial commemorating the Battle of Stamford Bridge, including a plaque with a design of crossed axes.
A memorial commemorating the Battle of Stamford Bridge. © Paul Richardson / Alamy Stock Photo.

The veteran warrior Harald Hadraada invaded first but was defeated and killed by Harold Godwinson’s army at Stamford Bridge. Harold himself then lost the Battle of Hastings, which ushered in the era of Norman rule. The Viking Age in England was over.

The role of Historic England
Some of the important sites mentioned are protected by being ‘scheduled’ or ‘listed’. You can find out more about these and other sites online at the National Heritage List for England.

Further reading

I work in Historic England’s Content Team. I originally come from a corner of Essex rich in history. My previous background was as an archaeologist, having worked around England, Central Europe and the Near East.

1 comment on “5 Facts About the Vikings in England

  1. Thanks, Robin – I find these summary / over-view articles perfect – interesting in themselves, of course, and a big help in deciding whether or not to pursue an interest in any particular period.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: