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Need to Know


From hit-and-run raiders to powerful kings, the Vikings flourished in northern Europe

The first appearance of the “Northmen from the land of robbers”, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, came in the form of three alien-looking longships lurking off the shores of Wessex in AD 787. When a reeve went to meet them, he was slain. These strangers did not come in peace.

Six years later they reappeared, and ruthlessly ransacked Northumbria’s Lindisfarne monastery in a shock-and-awe attack that horrified Christian England. The Viking Age had begun.

In the decades that followed, longships would appear suddenly to stage violent hit-and-run raids on vulnerable monasteries and settlements around the coast of Britain. As word spread, monks gathered their holy relics and fled into hiding. Many records were lost amid the destruction.

The Danes began overwintering in England by the mid-ninth century AD and, in 866, the ‘Great Heathen Army’ captured the city of York. Leading the onslaught against the four kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England – Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia and Wessex – were Ívarr the Boneless and his brother Hálfdan Ragnarsson, who became the first King of Jórvík (Scandinavian York) and claimed the crown of Dublin.

FORCE MAJEURE A fleet of Viking longships, ready for battle, sails towards modern-day Normandy – a land named after its Scandinavian marauders

Only Wessex, under King Æthelred and his brother, Alfred the Great, avoided complete conquest. By the Battle of Edington in AD 878 – when Alfred was victorious and Viking King Guthrum converted to Christianity and withdrew from Wessex – the territory of ‘Danelaw’ extended from Yorkshire to East Anglia. Danish power declined, however, until, in AD 927, Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan reclaimed York and became the first king of all Anglo-Saxon England.

In 1013 – after the 1002 St Brice’s Day massacre, when King Æthelred the Unready ordered the mass slaying of Danish people in England – Sweyn Forkbeard invaded and became the first King of Denmark and England. He was succeeded by his son, Cnut the Great, who added Norway to his realm in 1028.

The English crown eventually reverted to the House of Wessex, passing from Cnut’s son Harthacnut to his half-brother Edward the Confessor, then Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king. In 1066, the era ended violently, when Harold quashed an attack by Norwegian Viking Harald Hardrada, but suffered defeat and death during the invasion of the Normans (themselves direct descents of Vikings).

MERCILESS RAID A Viking attack on Lindisfarne Abbey is carved into this stone, on the holy island

“THE HEATHEN MEN MADE LAMENTABLE HAVOC IN THE CHURCH OF GOD IN HOLY-ISLAND, BY RAPINE AND SLAUGHTER”The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports the AD 793 Viking raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne, Northumbria

150 The number of minor kings Ireland had prior to the Viking invasion

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The April 2016 issue of History Revealed.