Alfred the Great and Æthelred II ‘the Unready”: the Viking Wars in England, c. 850-1016
By Richard Abels
Published Online (2009)
Introduction: Vikings were Germanic raiders/traders who came from Scandinavia. The meaning of the word ‘viking’ is obscure; some have derived it from the Norse word for fjords, others think that it refers to the men of the Viken region of Norway around Oslo, still others have argued that it meant pirate (its meaning in Anglo-Saxon). The verb ‘to go viking’ meant to engage in piracy. Vikings are best thought of as pirate bands, not unlike the buccaneers of the Spanish Main in the seventeenth century. Norwegians ravaged northern Britain, islands, Iceland, Ireland and France.Danes ravaged Francia and settled in northern England in the second half of the ninth century. Swedes established trading centers in Russia (Novgorod, Kiev) and even went so far as to attackConstantinople ca. 860. The ‘nationality’ of a viking warband was defined by its leaders. The members of a viking boat, however, could well be a heterogeneous lot. In late ninth-century Ireland, for example, some natives decided that they would rather be predators than prey and joined viking bands. They became known as the ‘Irish foreigners.’
Why did the vikings suddenly appear in the late eighth century?
The viking age began in the late eighth century with reports in chronicles of raids upon the coasts of Britain and Francia:
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s.a. 787: And in [King Beohtric's] days came for the first time three ships: and then the reeve rode thither and tried to compel them to go to the royal manor, for he did not know what they were, and they slew him. These were the first ships of the Danes to come to England.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s.a. 793: “In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, and miserably frightened the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 June the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter.”
In 830s the size and frequency of viking raids on France and England increased. In 834 vikings attacked Frisia, laid waste the important trading town of Dorestad (on mouth of Rhine), and returned for the next three years in a row to pillage this port city. From 841-892 West Francia was subject to wave upon wave of viking raids.
The sudden appearance of the vikings is difficult to explain. It may have had to do with a) overpopulation in Scandinavia (there is some archaeological evidence for new farmsteads established in sparsely populated areas of Sweden and Norway in the late eighth and ninth centuries); b) the endemic warfare between the many petty kingdoms in Scandinavia, which resulted in exiles, rebels, etc. becoming adventurers; c) new mining (extraction of iron) and naval technology (the true keel, which made ocean going voyages possible); d) the increase of trade in the north sea in the ninth century that attracted the attention of enterprising pirates. It should be emphasized, though, that raiding and slaving were normal early medieval activities for Christian as well as pagan warrior societies. The prosperity of Charlemagne’s kingdom was based on his constant and usually successful wars, which produced enormous numbers of slaves and portable booty, as well as large territorial additions to his Frankish empire. That the Vikings raided Europe needs no explanation. When and how they did, does.
a) pirate raids (small bands, 830s & 840s, and large armies, England 991-1013)
b) colonizing ventures (esp. in Ireland and England, 860s-895)
c) political expeditions (royal warbands, such as King Swegn’s and King Cnut’s conquest of England, 1013-1016)
d) commercial penetration (Russia)
One ought not to draw too distinct a line between these activities. Vikings came both as traders and pirates. If a town was strongly held, or if the viking party was laden with booty it wished to trade, the vikings would sell their goods. If a town was easy prey, they would sack it.