England and the Vikings

England and the Vikings

By Pavel Stefanov

The Vikings: navigators, discoverers, creators [papers from an international conference held at “St. Kliment Ohridski” University of Sofia (May 15th-17th 2000)], edited by Elizaria Ruskova (Sofia, 2001)

Introduction: In the 8th century AD the British Isles were divided between several small kingdoms dominated at that time by Mercia. As elsewhere in the Middle Ages, internecine rivalries were not lacking but in general the century was the most peaceful, stable and prosperous since the demise of the Roman empire. The Anglo-Saxons considered their fatherland to be an outpost of the Christian civilization sheltered by its isolation from invaders. The Church was restructured along Roman lines by St. Theodore of Tarsus in the last quarter of the 7th century and supported a flourishing cultural activity. Then, all of a sudden, disaster struck. According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, which is the major and at times only source for the period, in 789 the reeve or sheriff of Wessex called Beaduheard went with several of his men to meet three ships of Norwegians who have entered the bay of Portland on the Channel. He thought that they were traders. When he ordered them to report to the nearby royal palace in Dorchester, they refused and in the ensuing skirmish killed him and his companions. Beaduheard thus became the first known person in history to be murdered during a Viking raid.

By 792 the threat of invasion became intensive. The Mercian King Offa issued a charter confirming the privileges of the Kentish churches, in which his defences against “pagan seamen” were mentioned. Moving quickly in their long and elegant war ships, the Vikings attacked the unsuspecting north of England. On the 8th of June 793 they raided the rich monastery of St. Cuthbert on the island of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria. Some of the monks who resisted were killed, others were taken captive, the altars were despoiled but most of the inhabitants managed to flee with such valuables as the lavishly illustrated Lindisfarne Gospels and the coffin with St. Cuthbert’s relics. The Frankish King Charlemagne tried to ransom the abducted monks but the outcome of his effort is not known. In 795 Vikings plundered the famous but remote monastery of Ionain the Scottish Hebridean islands and went west to rob the coast of Ireland. Later they turned their attention to the Continent. In the late 8th century West European nations were divided, few castles were constructed along the sea shores, defence fleets were hard to come by and the Scandinavians who were Pagans cared little for the spiritual sanctions associated with Christian shrines. Linguistic and archaeological evidence confirms that Danes choose eastern England as their target while Norwegians were active in the Scottish islands and Ireland. The raids were on a small scale with up to a dozen ships participating and usually took place when the Scandinavians were not engaged in agricultural labour, i.e. in the spring between sowing and haymaking and in the autumn between the gathering of the harvest and the first snow blizzards.

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