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“Inside that fortress sat a few peasant men, and it was half-made”: a study of ‘Viking’ fortifications in the British Isles, AD 793-1066

“Inside that fortress sat a few peasant men, and it was half-made”: a study of ‘Viking’ fortifications in the British Isles, AD 793-1066

By Benjamin Paul Raffield

MPhil Thesis, University of Birmingham, 2010

Abstract: The study of Viking fortifications is a neglected subject which could reveal much to archaeologists about the Viking way of life. The popular representation of these Scandinavian seafarers is often as drunken, bloodthirsty heathens who rampaged across Britain leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Excavations at Coppergate, York and Dublin however, show that the Vikings developed craft and industry wherever they settled, bringing Britain back into trade routes lost since the collapse of the Roman Empire. These glimpses of domestic life show a very different picture of the Vikings to that portrayed in popular culture. Fortifications provide a compromise to these views, as they are relatively safe, militarised locations where an army in hostile territory can undertake both military and ‘domestic’ activities.

This study investigates the historiography of the Vikings and suspected fortification sites in Britain, aiming to understand the processes behind which archaeological sites have been designated as ‘Viking’ in the past. The thesis will also consider the study of Viking fortifications in an international context and attempt to identify future avenues of research that might be taken in an effort to better understand this archaeologically elusive people.

Introduction: Towards the end of the 8th century AD, Britain and Ireland became subject to attack from Scandinavian seafarers. When, in 793, “the raiding of heathen men miserably devastated God’s church in Lindisfarne island by looting and slaughter”, the period known as the Viking Age begins. This continued in England until 1066, when Harald Hardrada and Earl Tostig were defeated by Harald Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, whilst parts of Ireland and Scotland were to remain under direct Norse control or influence for some centuries after. The British Isles and Ireland were a focus of Viking activity throughout this time, with raiding taking place throughout much of the late 8th Century and the first half of the 9th Century. During this period raiding was seasonal, with the Vikings returning to Scandinavia before the onset of colder months.

However, with the first longphuirt (sing. longphort) – literally meaning ‘ship-bases’ – being constructed in Ireland in the 830’s by those described in the Irish annals as ‘Norsemen’, ‘heathens’ or ‘foreigners’ (CELT 2008) and the first wintering in England by Vikings on Thanet in 851, a period of ‘invasion’ or ‘colonisation’ began. At this time the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle begins to mention ‘raiding-armies’ moving through the English countryside and the battles fought against the Anglo-Saxons.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Birmingham

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