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‘Sword-point and blade will reconcile us first’: The Vikings in the English Context
By Simon Newcombe
Paper given at the Forward into the Past Conference, Wilfrid Laurier University (2013)
Introduction: The popular perception of the Viking people today is a very caricatured, often romanticized, version of the reality. As a result of their violent activities in Britain and other areas, the Vikings have become synonymous with the term “barbarian”. Unfortunately, this outlook does a great disservice to the complexity of Viking society and culture demonstrated by contemporary historical accounts and archaeological investigation. The Viking influence on what would eventually become known as the United Kingdom cannot be overstated as the raiders became invaders, neighbours, and finally integrated residents of Britain. Their impact is also far reaching: covering linguistic, political, and cultural influences that survive to this day. But in order to decipher this influence it is necessary to understand how the Anglo-Saxons saw the Vikings they were in contact/conflict with and how this differs from how the Vikings viewed themselves. This relationship can then provide a greater understanding of the popular conception of the Viking people in modern society and how it came to be.
The Vikings were a seafaring people that settled many parts of the globe and explored many more during the early Middle Ages. The term “Viking” is, perhaps, inaccurate as it describes an action rather than the name of a people itself. To go víking is an Old Norse term meaning “to go on an expedition” and it was from this term that “Viking” came to describe a people as opposed to an activity. The more encompassing term is “Norse” as it describes a large group of people who spoke a similar language, known as Old Norse, and lived all over Europe including Iceland and Greenland. The term is most associated with the residents of Scandinavia during the 8th century on through the 11th century who migrated outwards to settle in places like Britain. Nevertheless, the term “Viking” has pervaded historical studies and shall be used here for the purpose of consistence.
The Vikings first came to Britain in 793 CE sacking the monastery at Lindisfarne off its northeast coast. The Vikings proceeded to kill the monks present and take the valuables enclosed in the monastery; a policy that gained them no small amount of fear and dislike from ecclesiastical writers. Records such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mention only intermittent raids performed by small parties up until the mid 9th century when raids began to escalate. 850 CE marked the first time the Vikings would winter in Britain as they set up camp near Kent. This cumulated in 856 CE when the Great Heathen Army invaded and took York in northern Britain. It was here that the Vikings established a base of operations, which they named Jorvik. This was the first permanent settlement as the Norse began to work land in the area. Conflicts continued as more Vikings traveled to the island seeking land. These conflicts did lessen for a number of years following the victories of Alfred the Great (r. 871-899), but would flare up again in the mid 10th century, albeit with less strength on the part of the Vikings. The Norse presence in Britain had already been decreasing for a number of years when they lost the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 CE. This defeat marked the conclusion of the eponymous Viking Age in Britain.