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Viking Attack

Ryan Lavelle uncovers the story of Vikings in Britain, and how a Danish prince came to take the Anglo-Saxon crown
RAIDERS TO KINGS What began as small raids on British coastal towns soon developed into all-out war, as a Great Viking Army arrived with a very different aim: to conquer

This year marks the millenary of the acclamation of a prince of Denmark as king of England. The victor of a long and bloody campaign, marrying the widow of his conquered predecessor, Cnut stepped up to the controls of one of the most powerful kingdoms in 11th-century Europe. Remembered in Denmark and much of Scandinavia, but curiously not in England, as Knud den Store – ‘Cnut the Great’ – the new Anglo-Danish King would wield power effectively for some two decades until his death in 1035.

Cnut’s transformation from Viking sea lord to Christian king is a perfect example of the way in which the Vikings themselves had changed. The journey from seasonal raiders and pirates to highly respected rulers had taken a little over two centuries, but it was one of the most important developments in Western Europe. Not only had Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Sweden come of age, but the English and Scottish kingdoms had emerged in the white heat of the Viking wars.


In Britain and Ireland, the age of Norsemen had begun gradually. The first Viking activities were surprisingly small, but they were deadly and had an impact far beyond their size. Flotillas made their way across the North Sea to raid coastal and estuarine sites, particularly monasteries, chocked full of treasures as a result of an eighth-century economic boom. Those who embarked on the raids were the happy beneficiaries of developments in maritime technology, which allowed them to set out from Scandinavia confident of being able to return safely again. Though, like other ships of the age, they could be rowed, Viking ships enjoyed beautifully rigged square sails; they had strong keels and well-designed hulls. It has even been argued that Vikings had developed their navigation skills well in advance of other European peoples. While many early medieval ships used coastal routes to travel between lands, the new longships could dominate sea roads across open water, perhaps even as early as the 780s and 790s. Writing of the earliest datable Viking raid on the famous monastery of Lindisfarne in June 793, one churchman wrote of surprise “that such an inroad from the sea could be made.”

This ninth-century grave marker found That Lindisfarne depicts Vikings brandishing swords and axes

The writer was Alcuin, formerly a deacon of York Minster, who had risen to become Charlemagne’s right-hand man. Although he was some 500 miles away in the court of Charlemagne, Alcuin conveys some of the sense of the shock of hearing the news of pagan raiders’ actions. To many Christians, the Vikings heralded the apocalypse. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a year-by-year record of events associated with the kingdom of Wessex, reported that the Vikings’ arrival was preceded by freak atmospheric conditions – “dragons” were seen flying across the sky – and indeed one gravestone found That Lindisfarne (above) shows heathen barbarians in apocalyptic terms: the Sun and the Moon, portents of the End of Days when the Sun would turn to darkness and the Moon turn a blood red, are juxtaposed by an image of seven warriors, most of whom brandish surprisingly realistic contemporary weapons. Whoever buried that member of the Lindisfarne community evidently thought that a message had been sent and had to be heeded.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

"From raiders to invades: Medievalist Dr Ryan Lavelle tells the story of how the Vikings dropped their hit-and-run tactics and instead banded together to form a Great Heathen Army, eventually conquering a large part of Britain. Also in the issue, find out how a Lancastrian widow came to marry a Yorkist king during the Wars of the Roses, and what happened when a German monk dared to take on the Pope with a 500-anniversary feature on Martin Luther's Reformation. Plus, inside Hitler's last gamble at the Battle of the Bulge, the spy who tried to kill Lenin and the Atomic Age in pictures."