The Viking invasion and settlement of Britain transformed the region politically, socially, and demographically. Though in our popular perception they were bloodthirsty savages, the contribution of the Vikings to British history is remarkable.
The first major Viking raid in the area was the sacking of the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 AD. However, it was only in 866 AD that large scale Viking military operations and civilian settlement commenced in earnest.
The first Vikings arrived in order to obtain plunder. However, Vikings were people just like us and came over for a wide variety of reasons.
Why Did the Vikings Come to Britain?
It appears that Vikings became the most feared raiders of the Atlantic as a means of coping with their financial hardships. There was a scarcity of fertile lands in their homelands in what is today Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.
This led many in those regions to develop seafaring skills in order to fish and trade as a means of supplementing their economy. At times when they happened upon richer areas, they turned to raid and plunder as their primary means of income.
Britain was not the richest part of Europe at that time. However, it proved more attractive to Viking settlement than any other area.
The two main factors contributing to this state of affairs was the considerable agricultural potential of the region alongside the structural political weakness of most British kingdoms at the time. The Saxons dominated most of England, but they were split between the competing kingdoms known as the heptarchy.
As the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Sussex, East Anglia, and Essex fought each other, the Vikings could divide and conquer. They built their own kingdoms in England, most notably at Jarvik (today York).
At first, the Saxons were overwhelmed. Several Saxon kingdoms fell to the invaders. These included East Anglia and Mercia, which were now ruled by Scandinavian kings.
Many Saxons were terrified of the Vikings and concerned that the victories of these heathens who believed in Thor and Odin signified that God had abandoned them.
This left only the Saxon kingdom of Wessex standing. However, the leader of that kingdom, King Alfred of Wessex, know to posterity as “Alfred the Great”, is often credited for stemming the tide of Viking dominance.
After defeating the Viking King Guthrum, Alfred required that his enemy be baptized into Christianity. As part of the deal, the country was divided into a Saxon kingdom in the south, and Scandinavian controlled lands in the north.
The baptism of Guthrum did not see an immediate end to the pagan practices of the Vikings, but it signified and coincided with mass conversion to Christianity amongst their ranks.
As the areas dominated by the Vikings expanded at the expense of Saxon lands, their kingdoms became known as “Danelaw.” The Saxons had a funny habit of calling all Scandinavians Danes, no matter where they originated from.
Viking kings ran orderly systems, as the name Danelaw attests. They resolved some of the major legal controversies of the time, such as the amount to be paid in the wergild: the fine to be paid as compensation for murder and other serious crimes.
The Legacy of the Vikings
In the Tenth Century, the Vikings lost their remaining political power. Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan incorporated Danelaw into Wessex after winning the Battle of Brunaburh in 937.
Not long after that, York was restored to Saxon rule. The Saxons would continue to dominate England for the next century.
The Vikings became an integral part of the fabric of society in Saxon Britain and beyond. They were not defeated or thrown out, as much they simply intermarried and interbred with the rest of the population.
However, the large Scandinavian migration of the time left a permanent mark on British society and the English language. The days of the week come from Norse gods: for example, Thursday is named Thor the God of thunder.
Many English words also originate in Scandinavian languages. Not surprisingly, these include some violent words such as berserk and slaughter.
However, their contribution to British law is seen in the Scandinavian origin of words such as bylaw and loan.
Though arriving violently and engaging in a lot of warfare, the Vikings are more than just bloodthirsty savages. Their contributions remain integral to British culture to this day.