Historical Overview

Vikings and Anglo-Saxons

At the end of the eighth century A.D., England was a fully settled Christian land occupied by largely Anglo-Saxon peoples. Much of the land lay within great estates owned by kings, noble families and the Church.

The ninth century saw the Vikings first raid, then conquer and finally settle in England. The Anglo-Saxons gradually lost control of almost the entire country: the low point came in 878 when Guthrum’s forces drove King Ælfred into hiding in Somerset. The remarkable Ælfred immediately returned for a second try and defeated Guthrum soundly, thus beginning the long process of restoring Anglo-Saxon rule, and eventually creating the English nation.

By 920 A.D., Ælfred’s descendants ruled most of the country, although the Danelaw remained a distinct administrative region and numerous Norwegian and Danish settlers retained their lands. In the latter part of the tenth century, a new generation of Vikings launched fresh attacks, first raiding, then extorting tribute and finally bringing England under Danish rule which persisted sporadically through the 11th century: the formidable King Knutr or Canute ruled England, Denmark and Norway from 1016 until 1035.

In 1066 England was conquered one final time by the Viking-descended Normans so it may be said that the Vikings are still with us.

Throughout the ninth to eleventh centuries, Christianity was wielded as a political weapon. Defeated monarchs were forced to convert and allow the Church to set up its administrative structure in their lands.

The Viking attacks were not necessarily seen as the cause of the problems of England: Æelfred considered them a punishment for and consequence of the decline of religious practice.

The Vikings in England

The usual image we have of Vikings in England is of wholesale destruction, conquest and slaughter. Religious establishments are assumed to have been sacked and destroyed on a daily basis.

The true picture is probably more varied. For example, Chertsey Abbey was said to have been attacked in the second half of the ninth century causing the death of the abbot Beocca and ninety monks. But the will of Ealdorman Alfred suggests that the Abbey was thriving again by the 880s.

The Vikings were far from the only factor affecting England. In King Ælfred’s view, the raids were the effect of neglect. The monastic life seems to have fallen into disrepute, and religious life had declined in influence and importance. However, numerous monasteries and nunneries did survive through the ninth and tenth centuries.

One of the major consequences of the Viking incursions seems to have been the unification of England and the development of an English identity under Ælfred’s rule.

Viking Fortifications in England

Overwintering armies needed defensible camps. Natural islands such as Thanet and the Isle of Sheppey were the first choices, but according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Vikings built forts from the late ninth century onwards:

  • 885 Rochester
  • 892 Milton Regis near Sittingbourne, and Appledore in Kent
  • 893 Benfleet and Shoebury on the Essex coast
  • 894 the shore of the River Lea

Forts are hard to recognise and date, and names such as Danes’ Dyke (Humberside) may be misleading, as earlier features were often given a Viking attribution by later historians.

The sites are likely to have used sea, river or marsh as protection on one side, with a D-shaped enclosure such as those around coastal trading sites at Birka and Hedeby. Such a site is known from Repton and was built by the Viking army in 873-4.

An unexcavated site on Ray Island, close to Mersea Island in the Blackwater Estuary, may be a Viking site but this has not been confirmed.

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