The raid on Lindisfarne

On 8 June 793, the terrified inhabitants of the small Northumbrian island of Lindisfarne found themselves under attack. Norse longboats landed on the holy island with the intention of plundering its monastery's riches. Treasures were stolen, religious relics destroyed and monks murdered, in a brutal and shocking start to centuries of Viking activity in Britain.

Anglo-Saxon monasteries made rich pickings for Viking raiders. The British Isles’ religious communities could offer little resistance to the plundering of their treasures. Furthermore, as pagans, the Viking attackers had no religious qualms about desecrating sacred sites.

Lindisfarne was not the first time Scandinavians had visited on the British Isles. While they had largely come to trade peacefully, there had been sporadic violence. In 789 three ships of Norsemen had landed on the coast of the kingdom of Wessex and murdered one of the king’s officials. Yet the merciless raid on Lindisfarne’s monastery was different – it was an unprecedented brutal strike right at the heart of Anglo-Saxon Christianity.

The shocking event spread fear and panic across Christian Europe. The scholar Alcuin argued that God, as vengeance on the immoral people of the kingdom of Northumbria, had sent the raiders. The attack was not easily forgotten. In the ninth century, Lindisfarne’s Anglo-Saxon residents memorialised the violence by carving the scenes of bloodshed onto a stone grave marker. The stone, now kept in Lindisfarne’s museum, is known as the ‘Viking Domesday Stone’.

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Just as Christian communities had feared, Lindisfarne heralded the beginning of further death and destruction, as Viking raids on Britain escalated over the following years.

The Lindisfarne Stone, which depicts the bloody Viking raid on the island.
The Lindisfarne Stone, which depicts the bloody Viking raid on the island. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

865 – The Great Heathen Army lands in England

The formation of the Great Heathen Army in 865 marked a turning point in the Vikings’ relationship with Britain. Up until this point, Scandinavian expeditions to the British Isles had consisted of smaller raiding parties on ‘smash-and-grab’ missions. Their intention was to plunder the islands’ riches before returning to their homelands with the loot. The Great Heathen Army was different however – it was a calculated invasion force.

The army was a coalition consisting of soldiers from Norway and Denmark, and possibly also Sweden. According to legend, various bands of Norsemen came together under the leadership of the three sons of legendary Viking warlord Ragnar Lothrok – Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless and Ubba. The number of troops in the army is unclear – estimates range from less than 1,000 men to several thousands.

The Great Heathen Army landed on the coast of East Anglia in the autumn of 865, picking up horses before going on to capture Northumbria and York. For several years, frequent fighting plagued the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, as rulers proved unable to subdue the spread of the Viking invaders. By 874, Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom not under effective Viking control.

866 – York is conquered by Viking forces

As a thriving Anglo-Saxon metropolis and prosperous economic hub, York was a clear target for the Vikings. Led by Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan, Scandinavian forces attacked the town on All Saints’ Day. Launching the assault on a holy day proved an effective tactical move – most of York’s leaders were in the cathedral, leaving the town vulnerable to attack and unprepared for battle.

After it was conquered, the city was renamed from the Saxon Eoforwic to Jorvik. It became the capital of Viking territory in Britain, and at its peak boasted more than 10,000 inhabitants. This was a population second only to London within Great Britain.

Jorvik proved an important economic and trade centre for the Vikings. Norse coinage was created at the Jorvik mint, while archaeologists have found evidence of a variety of craft workshops around the town’s central Coppergate area. These demonstrate that textile production, metalwork, carving, glasswork and jewellery-making were all practised in Jorvik. Materials from as far afield as the Arabian gulf have also been discovered, suggesting that the town was part of an international trading network.

According to Dr Soren Sindbaek, urban living in the tightly packed streets of Jorvik was unusual for Viking settlers, whose traditional lifestyle was agricultural. Sindbaek argues that for a Viking, “the commonest path is to farm the land… If you end up in towns, something’s almost always gone wrong.”

Jorvik's last Viking king was Eric Bloodaxe. Depicted in Norse sagas as a bloody tyrant, Bloodaxe was expelled from York in 954, after which the town returned to Anglo-Saxon rule.

A silver penny minted in 10th-century Jorvik.
A silver penny minted in 10th-century Jorvik. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

886 – The Danelaw is formally agreed

By the 870s, the Great Heathen Army had conquered huge swathes of north-east England. However, Viking forces had failed to conquer Wessex, under the rule of Alfred the Great. After two unsuccessful invasion attempts, in 878 the army launched a third attack on Alfred’s kingdom. At the ensuing battle of Edington, they met with a crushing defeat at the hands of the Anglo-Saxons and Viking leader Guthrum met with Alfred to negotiate terms.

A peace treaty was established. Guthrum agreed to baptism and assumed the Anglo-Saxon name Aethelstan. In return, Alfred formally recognised the Viking leader as king of East Anglia.

As part of this peace treaty, a political boundary was drawn up, dividing Aethelstan’s Norse territory in the north-east and Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon lands in the south-west. The Viking region, known as the Danelaw, was to be dominated by Norse customs and law-codes, different to those of the surrounding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

The first article of the treaty formally drawn up between Alfred and Guthrum has been taken to mark out the boundaries of the Danelaw. It reads – “First concerning our boundaries: up on the Thames, and then up on the Lea, and along the Lea unto its source, then straight to Bedford, then up on the Ouse to Watling Street.” The treaty also laid down laws to establish peaceful co-existence between the two kingdoms. Its fifth article banned attacks by raiding bands, set down rules for the exchange of hostages and slaves and made allowances for safe trading between Vikings and Anglo-Saxons.

Although the Danelaw was never extensively settled by Vikings and had dissolved by c954, the impact of Norse rule on England’s north-east was significant and long lasting. Echoes of the Danelaw could be traced forward in the social customs and law codes (such as severe fines for breach of the peace) of the region for many centuries. Norse influence can still be seen in the area’s place names, especially in the central Viking hub of Yorkshire. Here, you can still find many town names ending in ‘thorpe’, the Norse term for an outlying farmstead, and ‘by’, which meant a farmstead or village.

An image of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, c890.
An image of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, c890. Alfred established the boundaries of the Danelaw in a peace treaty with Viking leader Guthrum. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

10th century – The Second Viking Age

In the mid-tenth century Denmark began to emerge as a major power, heralding in what is known as the Second Viking Age. As the Danish kingdom became increasingly powerful, Viking raiders began to target the British Isles with a renewed ferocity.

In 991 Danish king Swein Forkbeard landed in Kent with more than 90 longboats, before exacting a cruel victory over Anglo-Saxon forces at the battle of Maldon. Over the following two decades, Swein led several more destructive campaigns in England.

While Norse raids had been targeting the Britain Isles since the eighth century, it was unprecedented for these raids to be led by the king himself. Raids were on a larger scale than ever before, and Swein’s Danish forces proved unstoppable as they ravaged England’s major towns and extorted money from their leaders.

By 1012, the Anglo-Saxons’ situation had reached breaking point. Payments to the Danes, known as Danegeld, had proved crippling. Anglo-Saxon leaders were forced to raise 22,000kg of silver, largely levied through tax. The same year, Viking raiders led by Thorkell the Tall (it is debated whether Thorkell was an agent of Swein or not) plundered Canterbury and held the archbishop Aelfheah hostage for seven months. When he refused to let anyone pay his ransom they pelted him to death with bones and struck him over the head with an axe.

c1000 – The Vikings reach North America

The British Isles were not the only destination of seafaring Norse traders, raiders and adventurers. Paris, Iceland, Italy and even the Iberian peninsula and Morocco were also visited by the Vikings.

Remarkable archaeological discoveries have revealed that Norse longboats even travelled huge distances to North America, making the Vikings the first Europeans to land on the continent. In 1960, evidence of Norse settlement was uncovered at L’Anse aux Meadows, a site on the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland, off the east coast of Canada.

Investigation into the site began after archaeologists found a small cloak pin that appeared to be of Scandinavian origin. Further archaeological work revealed timber-framed buildings identical to ones in Viking settlements discovered in Greenland and Iceland. After extensive work on the sites, experts have suggested that there were in fact Norse settlers in Newfoundland, but they stayed close to the coast and abandoned the site just a few years after it was founded.

According to Norse sagas, the first Viking explorer to reach North America was Leif Erikson, a fearless seafaring adventurer who discovered ‘Vinland’. The description of ‘Vinland’ in the sagas has been seen by some to match the site in Newfoundland.

In 2015, a potential new site of Viking settlement was found at Point Rosee, on Newfoundland’s south-west coast. Identified using infrared satellite images and aerial photographs, the site contains promising evidence of iron-smelting, and turf walls which match Norse construction styles. Further investigation into the site is planned for later this year.

Replicas Of Norse sod houses in L’anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Replicas Of Norse sod houses in L’anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

1013 – Swein Forkbeard becomes the first Viking king of England

By 1013, after years of raiding England, Danish king Swein Forkbeard set his sights on conquering the country entirely.

Although Swein had been campaigning in Britain from 991 onwards, fighting had been piecemeal. His troops were repeatedly forced back to Scandinavia – in 999 by an attempted coup in his homeland and in 1005 by famine in Britain. However, after decades of patchy campaigning, in 1013 Swein’s attempts to conquer the entirety of Anglo-Saxon England finally came to fruition.

By 1013, Oxford, Bath, Winchester and many other major towns had capitulated to Swein’s forces. After fierce resistance, London also finally submitted, its residents afraid of what the Viking forces might inflict on them. Following these victories, the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred the Unready was forced into exile in Normandy and Swein was finally accepted as king of England.

However, after battling for so long to add England to his great Scandinavian empire, Swein’s reign was short-lived. Only five weeks after he was pronounced king of England, Forkbeard died on 3 February 1014. It took two more years of intensive fighting before the country was returned to Viking rule, under Swein’s son Cnut. King Cnut reigned over England for 19 years, finally bringing a period of relative peace and stability to the kingdom and uniting his Anglo-Saxon and Danish subjects.

1066 – The end of the Viking age

The death of Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor (of the House of Wessex) in 1066 led to a power-struggle for the English crown. The Viking contender for the throne was Harald Hardrada, king of Norway. Descended from the line of the kings of Norway ousted by Cnut a generation earlier, Hardrada claimed a right to the throne based on an agreement between his father and Hardicanute, Cnut's son and successor.

In an effort to reclaim England for the Scandinavians, in 1066 Hardrada sailed to England with 300 ships stuffed full of 11,000 warriors. His intention was to seize the throne from the vulnerable Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson, who was also expecting a Norman invasion from the south.

After sailing up the river Ouse and seizing York, Hardrada’s forces were taken by surprise by the Anglo-Saxon troops at Stamford Bridge. Harold Godwinson’s men had travelled north with remarkable speed, meaning that the Scandinavian forces were unprepared to take them on. Not expecting Harold Godwinson to leave the south under the threat of Norman invasion, Hardrada had left both men and armour behind with his anchored fleet at Riccall. The Viking army was smashed and Hardrada killed by an arrow through the neck. It was reported that of the 300 longboats that landed in England, only 24 returned to their homeland carrying the survivors.

Despite proving a failure, the Viking invasion of 1066 nonetheless had a significant impact on British history. Taking on the Vikings at Stamford Bridge had weakened Harold Godwinson’s forces, making the path easier for the successful invasion of William of Normandy. William defeated Godwinson at the battle of Hastings just three weeks later, going on to launch a conquest more successful and long lasting than any Viking invasion.

Hardrada’s crushing defeat at Stamford Bridge is generally seen as the end of Viking influence in Britain. Centuries of raiding, extortion, trading and bloodshed had finally come to a close.


This article was first published on HistoryExtra in May 2016