Ancient Britain, as early as 43 A.D., when the Island was part of the Roman Empire was infused with a mix of diverse cultures. The Vikings, with their sleek swift boats got in on an easy exploitation with raids, intermarrying, and bringing a new Christianity to the country.
Danegeld refers to the practice of paying extortion money to Vikings in order to make them go away. All was associated with the Anglo-Saxon king ‘Aethelred Unraed’. At various times in history, British kings paid as much as 20,000 pounds in silver to appease the Vikings and prevent invasion—a disastrous policy bankrupting the island and only encouraged the extortionate Vikings to return every few years. The failed policy of Danegeld ultimately led portions of northern England to be settled by Vikings in an area that came to be known as ‘Danelaw’. In time it also played an important part in the evolution of the English language by incorporating Scandinavian words. English words, for instance, like skiff, ship, and shirt are all ‘loan-words’ borrowed from the Vikings.
Viking raids on smaller English communities occurred continuously, but during this chaotic period, contemporary historians never recorded events (?). However, to examine it now gives one an idea of how widespread the Viking invasions were, helping to explain why medieval Europeans and the British folk in general were so frightened by these successful Viking raids, take-overs, or explorations.
During the reign of Ethelred II (978-1016), Danegeld was like a tax levied in Anglo-Saxon England to buy-off Danish invaders, designating the recurrent gelds, or taxes, collected by the Anglo-Norman kings. The word Danegeld was not recorded before the Norman Conquest—the usual earlier (Old English) term being gafol (“gavel,” or “tribute”). The Danes were often ‘bought-off’ in the 9th century. The word Danegeld is usually applied to the payments that began in 991 and continued intermittently until 1016. Danegeld is distinct from heregeld—which was an annual tax levied between 1012 and 1051 to pay for Danish mercenaries, a profitable taxing practice continuing until 1162.
Danelaw, north, central, and eastern regions of Anglo-Saxon England, colonized by Danish armies in the late 9th century, derived its name from the Old English Dena lagu (Danes’ law) under the assumption the unique ‘legal’ practices were of Danish origin. The Danes did not settle the entire area, but used their impressive military landed gentry to leave a firm imprint on local custom, noted by the survival of Danish personal and place-names. With procedural differences the profitable tax law was enforced with severe fines for a breach of peace—all controlled by the existence of a selected aristocratic jury (attached to a lord) with rigorous prosecutions of criminal suspects.
Viking invasions and settlements took place in small scattered villages with raids beginning the last years of the 8th century; by the 9th century large-scale plundering invasions were made into Britain and the Frankish (Germanic) empire. King Egbert of West Saxons from 802 to 839 CE formed a powerful Wessex kingdom that eventually achieved the political unification of England (mid-10th century). Egbert defeated a large Viking force in 838 that had combined with Britons of Cornwall. Aethelwulf also won a great victory in 851 over a Viking army that had stormed Canterbury and London putting the Mercia King (old English) to flight; it had been difficult to deal with an enemy that could attack anywhere on the long undefended coastline.
Viking raids were recorded in Northumbria, East Anglia, Kent, and Wessex. A large Danish Viking army came to East Anglia in the autumn of 865, intent on conquest. By 871, Wessex was first attacked, while already York was captured, but had been bought off by Mercia after possession of East Anglia.
Many battles were fought in Wessex, including one that led to the Danish defeat at Ashdown in 871. Alfred the Great, a son of Aethelwulf, succeeded to the throne in the course of the year making peace; thus, giving a breathing space until 876. Meanwhile the Danes drove Burgred out from Mercia. By putting a puppet king in his place as a division of Northumbria, Alfred was able to force the Danes to leave Wessex in 877. He settled in northeastern Mercia; but a Viking attack in the winter of 878 came near to conquering Wessex. That it did not succeed is attributed to the resolve of Alfred who later retired to the Somerset marshes, and in the spring he secretly collected an army routing the Danes at Edington. Their king, Guthrum, had accepted Christianity and took forces to East Anglia, where they settled.
The importance of Alfred’s victory prevented the Danes from becoming masters of England. Wessex was never again in danger of falling under Danish control, and in the next century Danish areas were reconquered. Alfred’s capture of London in 886 and the resultant acceptance of him by all the English (outside the Danish areas) was a preliminary to this reconquest. Wessex stood when the other kingdoms fell is attributed to Alfred’s courage and wisdom, to his defensive measures of reorganizing his army, to build fortresses and ships, and to his clever diplomacy, making the Welsh kings and people his supporter.
The Viking raids did not end with any singular event. Renewed attacks by the Vikings in 892-896, aided by the Dane residents in England, brought widespread damage but had no lasting success. Some proclaim it was the general conversion to Christianity in the Norse lands beginning in the 11th century that brought about an end to the Viking age. Christian religious teachings did not at all embrace activities that took place on typical raids.
Viking raids nearly always came as a total surprise. The Vikings were expert navigators and knew the coasts of Europe and the British Isles like the back of their hand. They decided on a target and planned attacks in advance, and with the fastest ships of the day they would arrive seemingly out of nowhere close to the target and rage ashore ready to attack. If needed, they would row their vessels up shallow rivers, and if targets were some distance from the river they would leave their ships, round up available local horses and head for a church, convent, or village. They had superior weapons, were well trained, ruthless and got what they wanted. After a raid they would return to their ships and sail quickly away. For the people attacked it was difficult to organize a defense, because of the speed with which everything happened.
When the Vikings arrived, it was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness augmented by the fear of the invaders. (from a Paul Clifford story). The effect on the people would be similar today by an attack of troops brought in by helicopters attacking a peaceful small town or perhaps resembling the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the Twin Towers.
By Egil Smedvig / Steinar@blarg.net