This Day in History – June 8, 793 – The fury of the Northmen hits England for the first time

“A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine”

(“From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord”)

This would be the despairing prayer uttered in coming years in churches and monastic institutions around Western Europe.  June 8, 793 is often used to mark the beginning of the Viking age.  A group of Norsemen (i.e. Northmen) suddenly appeared out of the blue at Lindisfarne Abbey in Northumbria, sacked and looted it and slaughtered the monks.

“Never before has such terror appeared in Britain. Behold the church of St Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of God’s priests, robbed of its ornaments.”

Alcuin of York

The Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, by Thomas Girtin, 1798
The Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, by Thomas Girtin, 1798

Since about 500 AD, the land now known as England was divided among the Seven Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of the Heptarchy:  Northumbria (for a while two kingdoms Deria and Bernicia), Mercia, Wessex, East Anglia, Kent and Sussex – the last two would soon be incorporated into Wessex.  The Anglo-Saxons had been sea raiders in their time as they drove the native British inhabitants of the island back into Wales and Cornwall.  But by the late 8th century they had grown fat with the land and had abandoned their sea raiding legacy.  The rulers of the Heptarchy frequently warred with each other but their armies were now based on the largely farmer levies of the fyrd.

What prompted the Norse to go Viking is unclear.  It is possible that Scandinavia may not have been able to support the native population.  Also just before the invasions, Charlemagne’s Saxon Wars may have added pressure to the pagan populations in the North.  The prospect of looting fat well endowed and undefended abbeys was also likely a temptation too great to pass up.  So a bunch of warriors went raiding.  Adding to their military advantage were their longships that could use sail or use oara and could navigate the oceans and sail in rivers.

The result was devastating.  The Saxon kingdoms were simply not equipped to handle an enemy who could seemingly strike at will.  Weakened by the raids and civil war Northumbria was the first to fall in 867 – and a Viking puppet was placed on the throne.  East Anglia fell to the Great Heathen Army in 869 and its King St. Edmund was killed – and Danish puppets were put on its throne too.  Next was the turn of Mercia whose King Burgred fled to Rome in 874.  The Danes seized the eastern part of Mercia in 877 while the remainder sought the protection of the last remaining Saxon Kingdom – Wessex.  A surprise attack in 878 almost finished off Wessex, but King Alfred the Great managed to raise an army and win a decisive victory at Ethandun.  In the aftermath the Danish leader Guthrum converted to Christianity and in 886 signed a treaty with Alfred dividing England along the old Roman road of Watling Street.

This did not end the invasions.  However, Arthur had found the Achilles heel of the Vikings.  He established a number of fortresses (burhs) along the coast where it was possible to withdraw and wait out the Vikings – who generally did not have the patience for siege warfare.  In France, the Viking ability to merrily sail down rivers was stymied with the construction of fortified bridges at key points.  Under Alfred’s son Edward the Elder and grandson Aethelstan the Glorious, the West Saxons would take the offensive.  In 927 Aethelstan conquered Northumbria uniting England under one King for the first time.

Danish raids would resume at the end of the 10th century during the disastrous reign of Aethelred II the Unraed and in 1016 the Danes would actually conquer England.  However, by then the Viking raids had unwittingly helped create a unified political entity called England.   England would be the first major Western European country to create a unified unitary state.  In most of Western Europe the process would not occur until the 18th-19th century.

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