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Monday, March 19, 2018

The Vikings in Britain, Part I

Taken from an Ad for an event at the Chesterfield Museum, Britain, on 23 Mar 2018

The Vikings in Britain, Part I

793 A.D. – 1066 A.D.

By 793….wait a sec, this already sounds like a history lesson….so let’s take the macro view and call the start of the Viking era the late eighth century, when Britain was first raided by the Vikings, also known by the names Norse, or Northmen. Matter of fact, there’s no way to tell when the first raid occurred, but the first recorded raid was on the island monastery of Lindisfarne, in 793.  Monks were killed outright, or tossed in the sea to drown, or carried off as slaves.  It was a taste of things to come.

Let’s start there and get you ready for cocktail conversation.  But, hey, the Vikings were tough, independent dudes, so you may be ready for a biker bar, too.  To warn you, as I always do, my Viking Tale of Britain is like the tales of Britain before it.  I am not a scholar, so your professor may well call me out on various points, but I’m not out to get you ready for your PhD oral presentation, only trying to give you a few icebreakers and get someone to buy the next round.

Economics:  So much of this societal world is based on economics and the Vikings were no different.  Ponder for a moment, if you will, that everything in human existence is tied to economics.  Economics are not just charts and graphs, but determine your choices about whom you marry and when you marry, how many kids you choose to have, what kind of car you drive and even your choices in the super market.

But, even before we start on the Vikings, we need to know what happened in the almost 300 years between when the Romans pulled out of Britain and the Vikings began raiding.  The Roman auxiliaries, mercenaries recruited from mostly Germanic tribes decided to stay. Even before the Romans hit the trail, mercenaries rebelled after not being paid.  Yes, even loyalty has an economic component.  Eventually other Germanic tribes migrated into Britain.  Native Britons, the Germanic Angles and Saxons fought it out.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  (which has it’s doubters) describes how various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms merged to form England.  But, monks evidently took centuries to write about it and also took great liberties in adding and subtracting events to suit their purposes and no doubt under the watchful eyes of their superiors. Let’s settle for Romans followed by Anglo-Saxons and move onto the wooly men (and women) from the north.

As you’ve already guessed, the Vikings came from Scandinavia, possibly all over Scandinavia, but in great part Norway and Denmark. They raided and traded not only in Britain, but all across Europe and even as far away as modern day Turkey, all for economic reasons.

Viking, taken from the Norse word, Vikingr, meaning pirate or raider.  Very few of the Norsemen were raiders. Raider was a part-time job for mostly younger men.  Grab some land, or bring back riches, get yourself ready to go into farming or becoming a merchant.  It took expensive boats to traipse around the oceans and don’t forget, these raiders didn’t limit themselves to Britain.  They went wherever they felt the urge, wherever they might profit, but the folks who put up the money for these raids surely had some say.   

Very independent lads, these raiders.  The story goes that when Vikings went to what is now France, they were met by a peaceful emissary who asked them to take him to their leader.  They told him, We are all leaders here.   Great warriors.  Yes. Great army?  Not so much.  Good for popping off undefended monasteries and unsuspecting towns and villages. 

As, I intimated, the Viking raiders were heavily armed, but not that well organized.  “Get your ass off the boat, charge out there and kill somebody!  Hey, Johansson, don’t forget your sword! And bring back a few slaves!”  The lack of military organization would be their downfall.

Remains of the Monastery at Lindisfare

Raiding took place all over Britain, but especially on the coasts and in Scotland.  As in the case of Lindisfare before it, sometimes the raids were quite bloody, such as the raid at Iona in 802 A.D. when 68 monks were slain.  Lots of pillaging and rape and the taking of slaves. 

An Irish source tells of an Irishman, Murchad, who was taken as a slave by the Vikings and sold to a nunnery in Northumbia (Just south of Scotland). After leading all the nuns astray, he was retaken by the Vikings and sold to a widow in Saxony.  Yep, he seduced her too!  After many more adventures, he made his way back to his home in Ireland.

So were the raiders all nasty brutes, intent on murder and mayhem?  Yes and no. For one thing, raiders carried their wives with them. It’s said that up to 50% of raiders were women.  And everywhere the raiders went, they picked up customs of the locals and often settled down to establish farming societies of their own.  But, they did have a take-no-prisoners approach to nation building.  Part of this attitude was a sign of the times and the places they raided.  Monasteries were unarmed and undefended, places of quiet reflection. The Vikings attacked a lot of them.  Bad press.  Especially when the only people who could supply a written record of what happened were monks who suddenly had big time grudges.  In this case it wasn’t the winners who wrote the history.

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