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Viking activity in England

‘The scale of the raids, the density of the settlements and the degree of destruction have been greatly exaggerated’. Discuss this assessment of Viking activity in England in the ninth and tenth centuries.The entry in the northern version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 793 tells how “In this year terrible omens appeared over the land of the Northumbrians…: these were immense lightning flashes and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky”. It goes onto describe how “the ravaging of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne through plundering and slaughter”. These apocalyptic images helped to support a view of the Vikings, whose name means literally ‘pirates’, as a mass of (pagan) barbarian invaders who overwhelmed the British Isles.

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This interpretation of events, notably accepted by Frank Stenton in the 1940s, was (in)famously questioned by Peter Sawyer in an essay of 1958, who argued that the number of invaders, the density of the Danish settlements and, to a certain extent, the degree of Viking destruction had been greatly exaggerated. Sawyer’s theory then led to a wave of ‘post-revisionism’ by historians, including Alfred Smyth, who claim Sawyer’s argument is flawed and paints too rosy a picture of Viking activity in England. We must now set out to forge a middle ground between these two sides (for which, Patrick Wormald reminds us, it is necessary to move away from the 1066 And All That -style temptation to see the Vikings as either a ‘good thing’ or a ‘bad thing’), which will helpfully aid our understanding as to what really happened.

Early Viking raids in the late eighth and early ninth century were, it is generally agreed, relatively sporadic and small-scale, averaging no more than fifty ships, and targeted at monasteries, such as Lindisfarne, and trading centres (Campbell). It is not until the mid-ninth century, that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle begins to refer to the (now Danish as well as Norwegian) Viking forces as ‘Micel here’, which has traditionally been taken to mean ‘great army’.

The ASC claims the armies of 865 and 871 numbered 150-250 ships, which indicates that there were thousands of invaders. These ‘great armies’, the ASC goes on to explain, managed to bring Anglo-Saxon England to its knees, within nine years conquering the remaining kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia and would have gained Wessex had it not been for the military genius of King Alfred.

Sawyer suggests that we should be very wary of this view of events. Medieval chronicles, he argues, are always prone to exaggeration, partly through their tendency to draw parallels with biblical disasters. The ASC is potentially still more unreliable due to its being commissioned by Alfred. Whether it was deliberately intended as a piece of pro-Wessex propaganda is unclear, but we should bear in mind that it could exaggerate the size of the Viking armies in order to make Alfred’s achievement appear even greater. However, the ASC was not the only chronicle recording events.

Interestingly, the Frankish annals agree with the ASC that the great army of the 890s numbered 200 ships, and both put that of Haesten, which reinforced it after 20 years of raiding on the Loire, at between 50 and 100. Seeing as, to the best of our knowledge, the two chronicles were written independently of each other, this ability to agree in apparent exaggeration indicates that the ASC’s figures are correct, although we must be wary of the fact that they are round numbers. Sawyer claims that Viking ships could not have carried more than around 30 men, and still fewer if one makes allowances for horses, prisoners and plunder, but even if most of the ships carried no more than 10 men, the army of 893 would still have numbered thousands of men. Sawyer’s idea that the Danish armies only contained 200-300 men does not appear to stand up.

However, it has been argued that we should move away from the debate of whether the Viking army was either large or small and accept that it could be both at different times. ‘Here’, suggests Barbara Crawford, is more applicable to a raiding band than an army. Viking warbands were essentially ships’ companies which combined together, each under their own captain, and which then came together in larger groups commanded by earls or kings. They were so effective because they could choose to splinter (as happened more in the earlier period of Viking activity) or to join forces from across Europe to make one cohesive force.

Furthermore, we should not assume that a smaller army will be less destructive than a greater one. A band of around 200 determined men could easily wreak havoc in a surprise attack on, say, a monastery. A collection of sporadic and isolated but brutal assaults on strategic targets could serve to weaken a kingdom so that it would take less force to conquer it in the future. We must also bear in mind that the England that the Vikings landed in would have been relatively easy to take over.

Decades of kingdom (over-) expansion meant that instead of there being many small kingdoms which may have been hard to penetrate all at once, there were only a few very large kingdoms in which the centre only had the weakest of holds over the periphery. Mercia may have once been the most powerful kingdom in terms of the land it held, but this could prove to have a negative effect once the Vikings invaded and it found it could not defend its own frontiers.

There did not need to be one great army to defeat the disunited and disjointed English kingdoms, but we simply do not have enough evidence to claim, as Sawyer did, that the scale of the raids was exaggerated by a substantial proportion. Sawyer went on to link the small number of invaders with a claim that England was not as densely settled by Vikings as was previously thought. The belief in a dense Danish settlement was based a number of factors.

First, the significant amount of Scandinavian place-names in areas settled by the Danes. If we look at distribution maps, the dots representing Scandinavian or part-Scandinavian place names present a striking pattern.1 However, as Keynes reminds us, it is hazardous to “read too much between the dots”. In many of these places, there can also be found a large amount of Anglo-Saxon place-names.

Moreover we cannot assume that any settlement with a Scandinavian name (one ending in -thorp or -by; or ending in the English -ton with a Scandinavian prefix) contained only Scandinavians, or that English-named settlements never experienced an influx of Scandinavians. DM Hadley gives the example of Inglesby in Derbyshire. Although the name means ‘farmstead/village of the English’, it is the site of a cremation cemetery in which Scandinavian-style artefacts have been found. Also, Scandinavians may have taken over some places without changing the name: there have been stone sculptures with Scandinavian motifs found at sites with Old English place names.

So can we draw any firm conclusions based on toponymic evidence? Patrick Wormald suggests that the place-names ending in -ton but with a Scandinavian prefix indicate that the first Viking settlers took over the best land (which would have already been settled by the English). The absence of English elements in the 2nd class of names (those ending in -thorp and -by) may show that Viking settlement was either sufficiently dense to obliterate the evidence of previous inhabitants or that it was on unoccupied land.

This, he says, builds up a picture of a significant influx of Vikings. Wormald claims that there is no evidence for a difference between the 1st and 2nd class of names which sheds doubt on the idea recently suggested by Sawyer of a second wave of invader-settler colonisation. However, nor is there any real evidence that the names were formed at the same time.

After all, we are heavily reliant on the Domesday Book of two-hundred years later. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there are a great many Scandinavian place-names in the area under the Danelaw. One could argue that whether these names were formed in the 9th, 10th or 11th Centuries is not so much an issue as the fact that they were formed at all. What is inescapable with regard to this is that, somehow, the Vikings managed to have a considerable impact on the English language. Gillian Fellows-Jensen perceives a major flaw in the Sawyer perception of England being invaded by a few aristocratic Danes is the ‘vast number’ of loan words that replaced ‘perfectly adequate’ English words for familiar objects and concepts (that is, not simply administrative terms).

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