The Vikings


On the Continent it is proverbially said that “the English are defeated in every battle except the last.” Now this exaggerated but witty saying need cuase us no offence, for it means simply that the steadiness of our nerves and our powers of endurance are deemed to be greater than those of other peoples, and that though at first we may receive a terrible gruelling, owing ot our national dislike of the attitude of being prepared for war, we may be expected to survive the first shocks and to come out at last on top.

The history of our nation provides a number of instances which prove the basic truth of this most piquant proverb, but there is none which better demonstrates our almost uncanny ability to win in the end than the tale of the Viking invasions; for the story shows the country beaten to its knees, and yet at last victorious. The generations of our forefathers who lived through those terrible times could never have believed it possible that the continuous and frightful onslaughts of the Vikings would one day be regarded as a mere incident in the unfolding story of our race; yet such is the fact, and today, looking back, we see the seemingly irresistible invaders finally dispersed and the old British lion licking his wounds, as a hundred times he has licked them ince, in sole possessions of the field.

The name “Vikings” or “People of the Vik, or Creek,” reveals the origin of the invaders; for the Vik was the Skager Rack which passes northwards into Norway by the inlet whereon the city of Christiania now stands, and southwards into the Cattegat beyween Sweden and Denmark. But in their relationship to Britain these people were spoken of in a general way as “Danes,” and it seems that they were closely akin, both in blood and in speech, to the Angles and Jutes who had migrated from Denmark to Britain in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries.

These latter, however, had become Christians in hteir new home, and, as we have seen in the previous chapters, had developed into a very fairly civilized group of nations: whereas the Vikings had remained pagans, worshippers of Woden and the old gods, and incessant fighting amongst themselves had left them, at the beginning of the Ninth Century, even more warlike than were their Anglo-Saxon kinsmen of three or four hundred years earlier.

The great historian Green terms them “Englishmen bringing back to an England that had forgotten its origins the barbaric England of its pirate forefathers”; and though the relationship to the Anglo-Saxons in Britain thus implied is perhaps closer than our present knowledge warrants, we may say at any rate that the main difference between the earlier invaders who now were defending Britain, and these later Vikings who now were attacking it, was one of religion and upbringing rather than of breed and character.

The earliest recorded expedition of these Vikings to our shores took place in the year 789 A.D., when three uploads of them landed on the coast. The English sheriff went down to the seashore to find out who they were, and was about to arrest them when they set upon him and his men, killed them, and pushed off once more. Then in 793 A.D., there was a more serious Viking attack when, in hteir long black boats, taking advantage of a spell of fine weather, they issued forth from their fiords at mid-winter, and adventures acroos the open sea, landing on Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, off the Northumbrian coast, where they sacked the monastery.

Previous to their coming, so the `Anglo-Saxon Chronicle` tells us, “came dreadful forewarnings in the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people – immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and cyclones, and fiery `dragons` flying across the firmament, these tremendous portents being soon followed by a great famine.

In the following year these pirates came again, and plundered the monastery of Monkwearmouth, on the Durham coast; but there they suffered a disaster, for a storm wrecked some of their ships, and those of their crews who were not drowned were killed as they reached the shore.

It is not easy to decide how best to bring before the readr`s imagination the terrible menace which these first raids foreshadowed; but perhaps this could be achieved by giving the bare list of the most serious Viking attacks in the following years.

In 795 A.D., pirate  bands, probably Norwegian in this case not Danes, appeared off the coast of Ireland with a fleet of a hundred boats, and, landing on the Isle of Rechru, now called Lambay, north of Dublin Bay, sacked the monastery founded there by Columba more than two centuries earlier.

In 798 A.D., they ravaged the Isle of Man, and in 802 A.D., they raided Columba`s famous monastery on the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Four years later they returned to this sacred spot and completely wrecked it, murdering the 68 monks who were living there, and making off with the treasures presented by ten generations of Kings.

In 807 A.D., these Norwegian Vikings appeared on the west coast of Ireland, and destroyed the monastery of Innishmurray, off Silgo; and it seems that they now used the route from Norway which crossed two hundred miles/169.93km of open sea to the Shetlands, and then passes down the waest coast of Scotland. From 812 A.D., onwards for 20 years and more they roamed over Ireland, plundering and destroying as they went; and in 823 A.D., they paid another vivit to Iona, and againsaclked the monastery.

In 834 A.D., a swarm of Danish Vikings raided the mouth of the Rhine, and sacked Dorstadt and Utrecht; and in the same year they returned to England for the first time since 794 A.D., landing on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.

It is hard to say why England itself had escaped their attentions between 794 and 834 A.D.; but it is known that from 812 A.D., onwards a pact of peace existed between the Danes and the Franks, and it maybe that the Anglo-Saxons in Britain were also included in this pact, but that the Norwegians who were then harrying Ireland and the west coast of Scotland were outside the scope of the treaty. The museums of Norway, contain many specimens of metal-work of this period, which are now recognised as loot from Ireland.

In 835 and 837 A.D., the Danish Vikings sacked Antwerp, and the in the latter year they raided Charmouth, near Lyme Regis in Dorset, but were routed at Hingston Down, near Plymouth by the West Saxons under King Ecgbert, the first named king of England, the grandfather of Alfred the Great, a fine warrior who was 70 years of age at the time.

In 811 A.D., the Vikings appeared in the Wash, and having raided East Anglia, turned their attention to Kent; while in  the same year they captured and looted Rouen. In 842 A.D., London and Rochester in England and Quentovic in Picardy fell to them; and in 844 A.D., we find them not only raiding the lands of the Northumbrians, whose King fell in battle against thrm, but also attacking Lisbon and Cadiz.

In 845 A.D., they appeared before Hamburg with a fleet of 600 ships, and, after sacking the city, went on to Paris which they captured, though here they afterwards suffered a defeat due to the confusion caused by a timely fog. Then came further raids on Britain, and in 848 A.D., Bordeaux was sacked by them.

In 851 A.D., they came in 350 ships to Kent again, and Canterbury and London were looted abd burnt; but shortly after this they were routed at Aclea, probably Oakley, near Bsingstoke. At this juncture, however, it will be best to pause in the midst of the terrible tale of theirv raids; for in the year 849 A.D., Alfred the Great, their ultimate conqueror, was born, and the battle of Aclea, when he was a child of two years old, marks a turning-point in their fortunes.

The bald statement of their activities which have been given above will serve as sufficient introduction to the epic story of Alfreds`s life and victories; and the reader will thus understand the extent of the menace he had to meet. The raids had now developed from their piractical and sporadic beginnings into a concerted attack on Christendom, and there was a real danger that paganism would triumph over it.

The loot which the invaders had carried off was immeasurable, the damage they had wrought incalculable. The terror they had inspired had knocked the heart out of the Christians on the Continent: panic reigned everywhere, and all men fled at sight of the black boats which had now developed into large fighting ships, each carrying 105 men trained to the last ounce/mg as warriors and seamen.

Only the southern Anglo-Saxons, the heroic forefathers of the men of South England, stood firm against them; and in the next chapter we shall see how these English, after many defeats, won that last battle of which the Continetal proverb speaks, and saved the civilized world.

The Vikings, of course, have not left Britain many remains of their incursions, but a certain number of objects have been found in their graves. In the museum at Edinburgh you will find some of their weapons and personal ornaments, including a great horde of silver objects found at Skaill, in the Orkneys, where for many generations the raiders had their northern base; and though these articles date from nearly a century later than the period with which we are now dealing, they are typical of the Viking arts and crafts. In this particular hoard there were several silver coins struck in Baghdad and Samarcand, which fact indicates that the plundering raids of these reckless Sea-rovers had extended very far. The massive silver bracelets and brooches are of good, if rather ponderous, workmanship, but they are inferior to articles made by the Anglo-Saxons.

From the grave of a Viking chief snd his wife in Colonsay came a sword, part of the shield, a hammer, and a pair of blacksmith`s tongs, these being found with the man, while with the woman were a bronze cooking-pan, some silver ornaments, and a string of glass beads. The skeleton of another Viking was discovered at Kiloran Bay, Colonsay, and with it were the bones of his horse, his sword and spear, some boat-rivets, bronze ornaments, and a pair of scales and a set of weights for weighing the gold and silver he had looted.

In the British Museum there are many Viking remains, including an interesting group of objects found in the tomb on the Isle of Barra in the Herbrides. The tomb consisted of a mound of sand and a standing stone on top; and the burial revealed the bones of an aged Viking together with a sword, a shield, two fine bronze brooches, ao iron comb for preparing flax, a bone comb for the hair, and other articles.

Several richly ornamented stirrups of Viking horsemen are to be seen in the British Museum and in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, one of them having been found in the Thames at Battersea, and another at Magdalen Bridge, Oxford. But the most interesting Viking remains are preserved in their own country, and there at Christiania one of ther ships, found at Gokstad, near that city, is exhibited. It is 79 ¼  feet/ 23.8m from stem to ster, and had 16 oars on each side, 20 feet/6.1m long, which passed through rowlocks fitted with shutters to be used in bad weather. There was also a 40 foot/12.1m mast which carried a large, square sail.

Parts of an awning were found, having red and white strips; and on board there were an iron anchor, buckets, a cauldron for cookin, a kettle, cups, plates, a bedstead, and a draughtsboard and draughtsmen.

This is a typical Viking vessel of the early Eighth Century, but in later times, their ships were of much greater size. Traces of them have been found in Britain, and in the Torquay Museum, there is also one of them which was found at Newton Abbot.