Monday, April 22, 2013

Viking Invasion of Britain, Part I

The Vikings first appeared in three ships off the Dorset coast. This was the first time these grim men from the north were mentioned in English history.  

Who were the Vikings?
These invaders from Norway, Sweden and Denmark were brilliant sailors, enthusiastic traders and adventurers who roamed the sea. They were stealthy fighters, and were accustomed to moving at night. They would sieze gold and silver and then they would be off, leaving buildings in flames.

The Vikings sacrificed to their cruel gods of Thor and Odin with death and destruction, believing that only by bloodshed would they reach the afterlife. They were landless, young men who raided to feed themselves as there were not enough fields to support them. They were irked by the strengthened powers of the monarchy under their powerful kings. Self sufficient and independent, they were used to ruling themselves.

There were three kinds of Vikings:
1) Swedish: founded Kievan Rus (the first Russian state)
2) Norwegian: sailed west and founded Greenland, later discovering North America. Sailed to Ireland and founded Viking cities like Dublin and Cork
3) "Inner Line": concentrated on the southern coast of England and the north coast of continental Europe

At the height of their power in the 860's they numbered 350 ships. There were approximately one hundred fighting men onboard each 80'x17' craft, most of whom had experience in thirty years of warfare. The Danish Vikings were a lethal striking force and increasingly daring and aggressive. Their intention was not just to raid but to drive out the native population and settle.

Attack on Britain and the Impact on Christianity
Christianity in Britain was endangered again. Thousands of illuminated manuscripts were burned. Only a tiny number survived, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells, both of which are now displayed in the British Library. The British interpreted the burning of Lindisfarne as a sign that God was angry with them. Why had He let this holy place be destroyed?

By 867 the whole of Northumbria (whose government was already weakened by civil war) was in the hands of the Danish Great Army. The Mercians agreed to pay the Vikings to go away, only to be raided again. East Anglis too was now another kingdom of the Danes. In five years these three Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had fallen to the Vikings. Only the kingdom of Wessex remained Anglo-Saxon.

Britain fights back
In 870 the Danes decided to conquer the last of the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England which remained independent, Wessex. But they finally met their match in Alfred the Great. Alfred expelled the Vikings repeatedly and successfully. Britain began to see a fusion of the Vikings into their society after their defeat.

The Danish settled into Britain and became cooperative neighbors. The towns began to revive and rural life was invigorated. Vikings used their English neighbor's knowledge of the land to become excellent farmers. The English learned from the Vikings as well. They borrowed the Viking's disciplined wedge formation to fight on land, as well as their metal mesh shirts, which would become the chain mail body armor of the English knight. Now, get ready for a long list successors who continued to struggle with the Danes, all of whom have a variation of 'Ed' in their name.

EDward the Elder
After Alfred the Great's series of Viking expulsions and countrywide reforms, he was succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder, who continued to fight back against the Danes. He inherited a kingdom where the threat of another invasion was always present. 

Edward would have to launch a series of preemptive strikes against the Danish kingdoms which surrounded him. With the help of his sister, Ethelflaed, they strengthened the frontier. Edward and his decedents became overlords to the Scots and Welsh and began to enjoy greater status as a result. Under the rule of the Wessex kings, England became a unified country over the next 50 years.

Edward the Elder's youngest son, Edred, eventually took over the throne. His chief minister, St Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, was determined to encourage a monastic revival in England to rebuild the civilization destroyed by the Danes. Dunstan guided Edred in expanding the boundaries of his kingdom. His nephew, Edwy, became king after his death in 955 but he quarrelled with Dunstan and drove him into exile.

EDwy the Fair and EDgar the Peaceful
Without Dunstan to guide him, Edwy's rule was both weak and harsh. Mercia and Northumbria rebelled against him and insisted that his younger brother, Edgar, become leader of their kingdoms. Dunstan returned in triumph to crown the new king with the sacred oil known as chrysm, for the first time in England's history to show that Edgar was the Lord's Anointed. The ritual is still part of the coronation ceremony today.

Although Edwy remained king of Wessex, upon his death Edgar became king of the whole of England. Edgar's reign was a high point of the monarchy, before the years of its decline under his son, Ethelred, nicknamed the Unready.

EthelrED the Unready and a Reemergence of Viking Savagery
During the fourth year of Ethelred's reign a new Danish army arrived in England. Many scholars believe the invasion was probably inspired by rumors that England was ruled by boy-kings and priests. In the next decade, the whole of the south coast and East Anglia were continuously attacked. Ethelred paid the Danes to go away, an action which was later termed a Danegeld. The word Danegeld has become infamous in English culture as shorthand for a cowardly and shortsighted course of action.

During his reign, the English lost the old fighting spirit. Morale plunged and out of the 32 English territories, the Danes had soon overrun sixteen.

In an attempt for peace, Ethelred married a Viking woman in order to curry favor with the Danes. However, he was incapable of consistent action and secretly gave orders that all the Danes in England be butchered. Neighbors were told by the shire to kill their neighbors which intensified racial divisions. Gunhildis, the king of Denmark's sister, was living in England as the wife of an English nobleman. She was Christian and pledged to improve relations between the Danes and English. She begged Ethelred for patience but her and her son were beheaded anyways.

Sweyn Forkbeard avenged his fellow Vikings in Britain by invading England in 1013. He arrived in person at the head of an enormous army and killed all the English he encountered as he marched through East Anglia to Northumbria. He besieged London, which he thought was sheltering Ethelred. Ethelred fled to Normandy and Forkbeard's son, Cnut, took over the siege of England. Ethelred returned to England to lead the resistance against Cnut but died soon after.

EDmund Ironside
Ethelred's son, Edmund Ironside, now took over expelling the Vikings but after 6 battles realized they were evenly matched. The Treaty of Olney was established between the opposing sides which proclaimed Cnut as the king of Northumbria and Mercia, while Edmund remained King of Wessex.

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