Viking Assault on the British Isles

The Assault on Ireland (794–847)

They came mostly from modern Norway by way of the Shetlands and Orkneys. From these archipelagos it was only a short jump to Caithness at the northern tip of Scotland, then either down the east coast to Northumbria and East Anglia or down the west coast through the Hebrides to the Isle of Man and Ireland. They came initially not in great invasion fleets but in small exploratory flotillas of perhaps two or three ships. It is clear from the raid on Lindisfarne off the east coast of Northumbria in 793 and the sack of Iona in the Inner Hebrides in 795 that the Norse raiders probably ravaged the shores of the North and Irish Seas concurrently. Yet aside from the attack on Jarrow in 794, there were no significant recorded assaults on what is known today as England until 835. It was a different story for Ireland, so it is fitting to begin there.

Thanks to the Annals of Ulster and other Irish accounts, more is known about the early years of the Viking onslaught on the Emerald Isle than on Britain. In fact, an entry of the Annals for the year 794 not only announced the inception of the raids, but also suggested they were part of a wider movement engulfing the whole region: ‘Devastation of all the islands of Britain by heathens.’ The next year it noted ‘the burning of Rechru [referring to monastic foundations on Rathlin Island off the northeast Irish coast] by the heathens’. In the same entry for 795 it added that ‘Sci [Isle of Skye] was overwhelmed and laid waste’, possibly alluding to the destruction of Iona, also in the Inner Hebrides. Indeed, it seems St Columba’s monastery on Iona, being a convenient way-station en route to Ireland, was subject to regular ravishing. It was burned again in 802 and in 806 sixty-eight members of its community were slaughtered, forcing the monks to move the monastery in 807 to Kells in Ireland. The isle of Éire, as it was called in Gaelic, was to prove no safe haven, however. It became a victim of Viking invasions with ever-increasing frequency.

By 798 the Norse marauders had delved into the Irish Sea. That year they plundered Inis Pátraic (the Isle of St Patrick off the Skerries headland just north of modern Dublin) and despoiled the shrine of St Do Chonna. The same entry stated that ‘the heathens … also made great incursions both in Ireland and in Alba [Scotland]’. As of 807, these bands of Scandinavian sea bandits had begun roaming the western bays. They found the monastery of St Molaise on Innismurray near Sligo and left it in ashes, then raided Roscam in Galway Bay just east of the modern city of the same name. The eastern shores of the island received even more attention. In 821 ‘the heathens’ savaged Howth Head, again north of modern Dublin, and ‘carried off a great number of women into captivity’. Growing bolder still, they penetrated deeper into the Irish Sea, rounding the southeastern end of the island at Wexford to hit Cork in 822. And in 824 they reached Skellig off the southwest coast of Kerry, where they abducted the abbot.

Having circumnavigated the entire island, the raiders now seemed to concentrate on the wealthiest, most important monastic institutions. In 824 the Scandinavian freebooters struck the great learning centre at Bangor Abbey on Belfast Lough. More portentous still was the increasing willingness of the Vikings to venture further inland to reach the richest prizes. In 832 the fabulously affluent monastic complex at Armagh, almost 60km (37 miles) from the coast, was plundered ‘by the heathens three times in one month’. The following year the revered Lismore Abbey, some 20km (12 miles) from the island’s south shore, was burned, its monks massacred. And the renowned monastery of Glendalough, founded by St Kevin in the sixth century on land at least 30km (20 miles) from the east coast, was pillaged in 834 and 836. As many a scholar has pointed out, the Vikings did not target these ecclesiastical establishments because they harboured some heathen abhorrence for Christianity: abbeys were simply where they could find ‘the greatest loot’.

The northern freebooters continued their quest for largesse ever more aggressively. According to the Annals of Ulster, they were penetrating in force deep inland on the major rivers as early as 837: ‘A naval force of the Norsemen sixty ships strong was on the Bóinn [Boyne river], another of sixty ships on the river Life [Liffey].’ The Annals went on to say, ‘Those two forces plundered the plain of Life and the plain of Brega [in modern County Meath], including churches, forts and dwellings.’ The local lords fought back, sometimes even winning, but on the raiders came, and in ever greater numbers. The Annals signalled a significant change in 841 with the words: ‘The heathens were still on Loch nEchach [Lough Neagh – a large freshwater lake in Northern Ireland].’ The Vikings had begun wintering over. Then came the longphoirt: fortified ship enclosures. That same year the Annals reported them at Linn Duachaill (Annagassan) on the central east coast and at a place about 60km (40 miles) to the south called Duiblinn (‘Black Pool’), which would eventually become the great Irish capital of Dublin. The Vikings had come to stay.

A few years later, in 845, the Scandinavians sailed their longships up the Shannon and established an encampment under a leader called Turges on Lough Ree in the centre of the island, from which they savaged all Connacht and County Meath. No wonder the Annals of St-Bertin made the following grim assessment in 847: ‘The Irish, who had been attacked by the Northmen for a number of years, were made into regular tribute-payers. The Northmen also got control of the islands all around Ireland, and stayed there without encountering any resistance from anyone.’ As it turns out, this was a bit of an overstatement. The Irish kings soon came together and battled back, often with great success. Once the Vikings surrendered the mobility and quick-strike capability of their ships to fight on land, they did not seem nearly so invincible. They gained no great swathes of territory and their fortunes ebbed and flowed like those of the many competing petty kings of the island. That said, the Vikings would be a significant element in Irish life until the end of the twelfth century.

The Viking Assault on Britain (835–65)

Since the Shetlands, the Orkneys and Caithness in Scotland formed the primary raiding route from Norway to the British Isles, it can be assumed that Scotland was subject to the Norse assault from the beginning. Yet the nature of that assault is obfuscated by the lack of contemporary chronicles and annals covering the region. Nonetheless, occur it did. An entry in the Annals of Ulster for the year 839 which refers to a victory of ‘the heathens’ over the men of Fortrui, a Pictish kingdom in the north of Scotland, has convinced highly regarded Irish scholar Donnchadh Ó Corráin that ‘the Western and Northwestern Isles and the western and northeastern mainland [of Scotland] were already theirs [the Vikings’]’. In fact, Ó Corráin believes that the region was the heart of a Norse realm which Irish sources referred to as Laithlinn, and archaeological and linguistic evidence strongly supports that conclusion. In all probability, the Viking invasion of Britain followed the pattern already elucidated in Ireland and on the continent: hit-and-run attacks by small squadrons on soft targets on the periphery, followed by incursions in force up rivers into the hinterlands by entire fleets which eventually over-wintered.

The Viking raids on the southern end of the island finally rose to the level of concern in 835 when it merited this terse entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: ‘Here heathen men raided across Sheppey.’ The incident seems innocuous enough at first glance, but it was a harbinger of the Scandinavian storm surge about to break upon the shores of Britain. For one thing, Sheppey is an island in the Thames estuary, leading into the heart of England. For another, it was merely the first in a long series of raids reported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. For the next two centuries hardly a year went by without some mention of the Viking invaders. The Northmen, who must have come from Ireland and the continent as well as Scandinavia, ratcheted up the pressure almost immediately. In 836 Egbert, king of the West Saxons, had to battle a fleet of thirty-five ‘Danish’ ships at Carhampton on the south coast of the Bristol Channel.70 Two years later he was fighting ‘a great raiding ship-army’ in Cornwall. And two years after that, in 840, Ealdorman Wulfheard ‘fought at Southampton against thirty-three shiploads’, while that same year Ealdorman Æthelhelm dealt with a ‘Danish raiding army’ on the island of Portland, just south of Dorchester, and lost his life in the process. Another ealdorman, Hereberht, was ‘killed by heathen men’ along with many others at Romney Marsh on the south coast of Kent the very next year. Rochester, near the north Kentish coast, was next in May 842 along with London itself, where ‘there was a great slaughter’. The continental chronicler Nithard, a grandson of Charlemagne, notes that Hamwic (Southampton) was also ‘ravaged’ at this time.75 And on it went, occasionally with multiple occurrences in the same year, as was the case in 850 when big battles were waged with sizeable Viking contingents in both Somerset and Kent.

It was in 851 that the incursions took a telling turn: ‘for the first time the heathen men stayed over the winter’. Perhaps more worrying still, they began coming in greater numbers. ‘And that same year 350 ships came into the mouth of the Thames and stormed Canterbury and London,’ reported the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘and put to flight Beortwulf king of Mercia with his army, and then went over the Thames into Surrey.’ In 855 ‘the heathen men settled in Sheppey over winter’. And ten years later, in 865, it became apparent that the Viking presence had become permanent, as the Northmen increasingly profited from both plunder and tribute: ‘Here a heathen raiding-army stayed in Thanet [at the easternmost tip of Kent], and made peace with the inhabitants of Kent; and the inhabitants of Kent promised them money in return for peace.’ ‘And under cover of that peace and that promise of money,’ added the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘the raiding-army stole away by night and raided across all eastern Kent.’

The arrival of yet another large Norse force in 865 signalled an even more troubling development in the Viking onslaught on England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle announced it with the following prosaic entry: ‘And the same year a great raiding-army came to the land of the English and took winter quarters in East Anglia and were provided with horses there, and they made peace with them.’ It would be the first of many entries in various annals and chronicles referring to the actions of this unusually large Viking war band over the course of the next thirty years or so. And the term ‘make peace’, in this case, would eventually come to mean more than simple tribute. It would mean the first step in an effort to achieve conquest.

1 thought on “Viking Assault on the British Isles

  1. Pingback: Viking Assault on the British Isles — Weapons and Warfare – My Writer's Vault

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