View from Leith Hill, Surrey, site of a major battle between Danes and Saxons in 851
People we now call the Vikings were originally Germanic peoples who settled in Europe's northern peninsula and surrounding islands. Gradually distinguishing themselves into Danes, Swedes and Norwegians, there is anecdotal evidence that these people were "fast breeding". Scandinavian countries were, according to legend rather than statistics, "like a mighty hive, which by the vigour pf propagation and health of climate, growing too full of people, threw out some new swarm at certain periods of time, that took wing and sought out some new abode, expelling or subduing the old inhabitants, and seating themselves in their rooms" (quoted by Daniel Boorstin in The Discoverers P 208). The Vikings spread out in all directions. Some headed down the rivers of Russia. The word Russia seems to derive from the old Norse world "rothr" meaning "to row". Others headed into western Europe, settling in Normandy - the name clearly deriving from Norse Man. There were also settlements in Iceland, Greenland and northern Canada. As far as Britain is concerned, Scandinavian raiders first landed on British shores in 789, at Portland. This was a reconnaissance mission, and it ended with the death of a high ranking local official known as a reeve. In his surprise at being confronted by strangers on a beach, the reeve refused to hand over a tribute of money and provisions demanded of him.
In 793 raids started in earnest with an attack on the monastery at Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumberland. Monasteries, poorly defended and offering much booty, then became favourite targets. One stormy night early in the ninth century, an Irish Monk sat in a monastery on the Island of Iona and looked out to sea. He wrote in the margin of a book he was reading: "The wind is rough tonight tossing the white-combed ocean; I need not dread fierce Vikings crossing the Irish Sea" (see P93 The Course of Irish History: ed: T.W Moody and F.X Martin). Raids continued and developed into full blown invasion and settlement. The counties of Caithness and Sutherland were conquered from Pictish tribes and settled. Place names in the area remain predominantly Norse: Sudrland, now Sutherland, the most northerly district in Britain was the southern land as far as the Norse were concerned. Thorsa, now Thurso referred to "Thor's river"; Skarabolstadr, now Srabster, was the "Homestead on the edge"; Vik, now Wick, was "the bay". The Norse were the first to call Ireland by that name. They cut Irish settlements in Scotland off from their homeland and gave impetus to Scotland's development as a distinct country.
Meanwhile further south the Danes started raiding, and then settling in England. They gained an initial toe hold on the Isle of Sheppey in 835, and their operations increased in scale soon afterwards. Hundreds of ships sailed out of Denmark every year. A major offensive took place in 851 when a huge fleet invaded up the Thames, destroying Canterbury and London. This force was stopped by Ethelwulf, father of Alfred the Great. Ethelwulf it seems took up a position on the slopes of Leith Hill in Surrey, and used his position on high ground to defeat his enemy. But this vistory only slowed the Danes down. By 870 a large proportion of England between Scotland and the Thames was Scandinavian territory. Of the old Saxon kingdoms only Wessex - in today's southern England - held out. The Danish eastern region became known as the Danelaw, and many place names in what was once the Danelaw commemorate Danish influence. Danish place name endings are "by", "thorpe" and "dale". There are many examples in the north-east, east and Midlands: Grimesthorpe, Grimsby, Rochdale, Ashby, Horsby and Whitby are just a few examples. The line of demarcation between Wessex and the Danelaw followed the line of Watling Street, the old Roman road which ran between London and Shrewsbury. This line is now followed by the modern A5. The confluence of the rivers Thames and Lea marked a critical point in the line. By coincidence this point lies exactly opposite London's Millennium Dome on the Prime Meridian dividing eastern and western hemispheres today.
Statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester
But even though Wessex did not succumb to attacks that defeated the rest of Britain, the future still looked precarious for England's last Saxon kingdom. The young king of embattled Wessex, Alfred, now used a combination of guile, military improvisation and diplomacy to head off what seemed like certain defeat. In 878 Alfred gathered his forces on the borders of Somerset and Wiltshire at King Egbert's Stone. It is not clear where King Egbert's Stone actually was, but local legend suggests Kingsettle Hill in Wiltshire. In the 1760s Henry Hoare, whose family made a fortune in banking, built a commemorative folly on this site, called King Alfred's Tower. So at Kingsettle Hill, or perhaps somewhere nearby, Alfred gathered what strength he had, and in the battle that followed, Alfred managed to inflict a defeat on the Danish leader Guthrum. Alfred then took Guthrum into his tent and persuaded him to accept baptism. This victory, and the subsequent parley, gave Wessex breathing space, and laid the foundations of what would become a unified nation. When people talk of the Wessex capital Winchester as being the first capital of England, they are referring to this time when Alfred began to find some common ground with the Danes.
The Scandinavian invasions were a milestone in the formation of England. Historians suggest that these attacks had the effect of breaking up the pattern of little kingdoms that dominated the previous period (see The Isles by Norman Davies for example). The attacks simplified matters. Wessex had only one enemy to fight, or work with as seemed fit. Rather that being a threat to England, the Viking invasions actually helped bring about the eventual formation of a new country. The Vikings also gave great impetus to the formation of towns. Before their arrival there were only about a dozen sites that might be classified as towns. By 1066 over one hundred places could be called towns. This development was partly the result of Viking traders stimulating market sites, and also a consequence of frightened Anglo Saxons gathering together in large settlements fortified against attack. Many towns were fortified in this way, and were known as burhs. The Burghal Hidage of 914 - 918 lists burhs defending frontiers and coasts of Wessex. Thirty are mentioned. There were burhs in Kent, at the Roman walled towns of Canterbury and Rochester, also at Dover, Romney and Hythe. Roman defenses were reused at Bath, Chichester, Exeter, Portchester, Southampton and Winchester. Oxford was also a Saxon stronghold. The Saxon Tower in Oxford's Cornmarket Street survives from these times, as do portions of Oxford's Saxon defensive walls, best seen at New College in Holywell Street.
The Vikings also had a huge impact on land ownership in Britain. Before the invasions very few individuals owned land. It was vested in communities and families. Individuals only had what Julian D. Richards terms a "life interest". People rarely sold land since to do so would disinherit heirs. The Viking invasions disrupted this system and led to a massive privatisation of land ownership. People buying land today might listen out for the distant echo of the Viking's arrival in Britain.
The Vikings also broke up a monastic monopoly over Britain's religious life. After the famous initial pillage of isolated monasteries, Viking settlers seemed to have quickly accepted Christian customs of the local Anglo Saxons. In some ways this was done simply as a way of solidifying control. Powerful and successful Viking settlers needed a way of showing off their wealth to local people. A very good way to do this was to build a big, impressive, and expensive church building. Since religion has always conferred benefits on people aspiring to lead, investing in churches also had an important psychological influence over a community. By the time of the Domesday Book there were over 2600 local churches. Although no Viking buildings survive, over five hundred local churches have been rebuilt on earlier Viking church sites. Passing a local church in Britain you can thank a Viking lord for showing off his new found success.
Considering the Viking's huge impact on Britain, their physical remains today are almost nonexistent. In York a peculiarity of soil type has preserved Viking artifacts below ground, and the Jorvik Centre has been created to make these excavations accessible to casual visitors. On the Isle of Man the Vikings are slightly more visible, with promontory forts and the outline of a Viking ship burial at Chapel Hill, Balladoole. For the most part, however, the most obvious physical evidence of Viking presence is confined to the sculptures they left behind. Stone crosses show a fascinating blending of Scandinavian, Saxon, Celtic and Christian themes. In the church yard at Gosforth, Cumbria, there is a cross that has the Crucifixion depicted on one side, and scenes from Scandinavian mythology on the other. Viking stone sculptures can also be seen at St Andrew's church in Middleton, near Pickering, North Yorkshire, in the Minster Undercroft at York Minster and at St Gregory's Minster in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire. The Vikings also made distinctive grave monuments called hogbacks. These elongated arched stone objects, about five feet in length, have curved sides with a ridged roof. They were reminiscent of a popular design of Scandinavian building. Representations of wolves, bears or dogs would be carved at each end. The best collection of hogbacks in the country can be seen in the church at Brompton, North Yorkshire.
A few sculptures might not seem much to show for such a hugely influential period in history. But the Vikings' legacy was more lasting than a few statues. The Vikings changed the pattern of life, and British people feel those patterns to this day. There's no need to go to a Yorkshire churchyard to feel a Viking influence. If you live in a town, go to a local church, own some land, then Viking history is with you.