A History of Vikings in the British Isles
For 273 years, Danes and Norse, later known as Vikings, raided and plundered the British Isles, leaving their mark on English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish culture and history.
Viking culture has fascinated many across the centuries, their warriors popularised in books, comics, shows, and movies. But for those living in the British Isles during their era, Vikings were a scourge to their livelihoods and a danger to their lives. For villagers and townsfolk, Vikings had a terrifying reputation as blood-thirsty, merciless killers who glorified violence and battle. Here’s how the fearsome Viking Age unfolded in the British Isles.
The First Signs of the Viking Threat
Viking attacks in Britain are thought to have begun in 793 BCE with the plunder of St. Cuthbert’s monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland in northern England. This was an unprovoked raid where peaceful, unarmed monks were brutally killed or enslaved, and the treasures they held were stolen.
News of this heinous act spread and was seen as an assault not only on the people of the British Isles, but also on their faith and values. When several other monasteries fell in the time that followed, the Norse gained a reputation as savage pagans and heathens. It didn’t take long for settlements and small cities along the coast to also be targeted.
The first raids were small-scale but well planned, and no matter how many times the Norse were fought off, they always returned by ship. Around 850 BCE, men from the North overwintered on British soil and started building settlements. They soon gained control of the Shetland and the Orkney islands, the Hebrides and much of mainland Scotland. They were also the ones who founded Ireland’s first trading towns: Dublin, Waterford, and Wexford, using them as a base to launch attacks further inland.
The Great Heathen Army
In 865 BCE, an army led by the Viking Guthrum, Ivar the Boneless, and his brothers, Halvdan and Ubba, arrived in East Anglia. They crossed into Northumbria, where they captured York and established a Viking community in Jorvik. From there, they raided the nearby kingdoms, which could not withstand the Viking army, and in 867 BCE, Northumbria became the northern kingdom of Danelaw.
Their plan was to invade Wessex, but King Alfred of Wessex and his men managed to fight the Vikings off and force them back to the north. A treaty between Guthrum and Alfred was signed in 886 BCE defining the boundaries of their territories, as well as agreements of peaceful trade. Because of this treaty, the Vikings and the English lived rather peacefully for years, causing the emergence of Anglo-Norse dialects in many parts of the British Isles.
A Second Viking Age
Despite the truce between the English and the Vikings, all was not well between the two. English forces still fought to get their land back, and Vikings continued occasional raiding. When Viking attacks became even more frequent in 980 BCE, the English government paid the Vikings protection money to prevent further attacks.
However, the Vikings were not satisfied with the amount and the raiding continued. As a result, the English people demanded a more hostile approach be taken against the Vikings. In 1002, King Æthelred of Wessex proclaimed that all Danes living in England would be executed. This would later be known as the St. Brice’s Day massacre.
When King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark heard of this, he initiated a full-scale invasion against England, and he raided until King Æthelred fled. This allowed Sweyn to take the English throne himself in 1013, which marked the beginning of several decades of Danish rule in England. Forkbeard was succeeded by his son, Cnut the Great. Harold Harefoot followed on behalf of Harthacnut, before Harthacnut himself took the throne. Last in line was Edward the Confessor, who reigned until his death in 1066.
The End of the Viking Age
When King Edward died, a dispute arose regarding who should succeed him. Harald Hardrada, also known as Harald of Norway, led an invasion of England that same year, attempting to seize the throne, but the invasion was repulsed in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, where Hardrada was killed along with most of his men. This defeat has been described as the end of the Viking Age in Britain.
More than 1,000 years have passed since the Viking Age ended in England and the British Isles. Their acts of terror and bloodshed are now only remembered in history books, but remnants of their lives, culture, and language can still be found across the lands, allowing you to get a glimpse into what life was like here so many centuries ago.