Britain's Viking Heritage

Written by james holloway Google
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How the Norsemen shaped British culture

Britain's Viking Heritage
Viking longships carried raiders and traders to British shores. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

"The raiding of heathen men miserably devastated God's church in Lindisfarne island by looting and slaughter."

— The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 793

Whether it was morning or evening, winter or summer, history does not record. But one day, some time between the years 789 and 802 -- probably between 789 and 793 -- the reeve, or royal officer, of Dorchester rode down to Portland to see three ships that had arrived there. He went, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records, "to compel them to go to the king's town because he did not know what they were." "And then," the Chronicle laconically continues, "they killed him." It was the first recorded appearance of Scandinavian raiders -- call them Northmen, Danes or Vikings -- in England, and the relationship between the two peoples was not off to a good start. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other sources paint a picture of the Danes as violent marauders, and British national heroes such as Alfred the Great gained their reputations fighting them. However, the Vikings made lasting contributions to our culture; Britain would not be the way it is today without the arrival of these seafarers.

The birth of England

Britain's Viking Heritage
Alfred the Great (c. 849-99) was the architect of a unified England. ( Images)

Anglo-Saxon writers viewed the Vikings as the enemies of England, and this is how they've passed into modern books, films and other stories. But without the Vikings, there wouldn't be an England -- at least not England as we know it.

In the late 8th and 9th centuries, during the period of the fiercest Viking invasions, there was no England. What we call England was divided into a number of competing kingdoms, including East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia (the modern-day Midlands) and Wessex. These English kingdoms alternated between periods of uneasy peace and outright war. The large-scale Viking invasions of the 9th century conquered Northumbria and East Anglia and cut Mercia in two, leaving only Wessex. A series of military campaigns and diplomatic initiatives by the West Saxon king, Alfred the Great, and his descendants drove the Northmen out of the other English kingdoms.

Once these areas were liberated, however, they didn't return to being independent kingdoms. They became part of the West Saxon kingdom. Alfred's grandson Aethelstan, who died in 939 was the first ruler to call himself Rex Anglorum or "King of the English." The idea of England as a unified whole owes some of its strength to the threat from foreign invaders -- although, as we shall see, many of those invaders were also included within the concept of England.

Culture and language: England

Britain's Viking Heritage
Whitby abbey has a name with Old Norse roots. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

The presence of the Vikings helped to create the idea of a unified England, but that doesn't mean that they disappeared once the conflict was over (and it wasn't over for long, either; periodic Viking raids continued for decades, and the beginning of the 11th century saw a new wave of wars erupt). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in the 870s, the Vikings in Northumbria "divided up the land" and began to farm. The raiders had become settlers.

The extent of Viking settlement in England is easy to see. Take a large map of England and spread it out in front of you, looking at the place-names. In the south and south-west, you'll see many names with Old English elements: -wich, - ton, -bury, -lea and many others. In the north, the names start to change: -by, -thorp, -dale and others. The boundary between the two types of name isn't perfectly sharp, but you can plot a reasonably clear line running north-west across England. Naturally, this doesn't mean that there were only Vikings north of the line, or that there were none at all south of it. It does indicate that in the North, the Vikings were in a position to name towns and villages.

The impact of the Vikings doesn't appear only in place-names, but in the English language in general. Old Norse and Old English were closely related languages, and it was easy for Scandinavian words to slip into English, particularly in the north. Modern English owes words like "awe", "egg", "anger", "take" and "die" to Old Norse.

One interesting effect of this mixture is that some words have both Old Norse- and Old English-derived forms in Modern English. The "sk" sound in Old Norse was pronounced with a "sh" in Old English -- to the Vikings, a vessel for crossing the ocean was a "skip" while to the English it was a "ship". But the captain of a ship in English is still sometimes referred to as the skipper. Similarly, the word for a short garment in Old English became the modern word "shirt", while the same word in Old Norse became "skirt".

This linguistic impact was even more visible outside England.

Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man

Britain's Viking Heritage
The festival of Up Helly Aa celebrates Shetland's Viking heritage. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

The history of the Vikings in England is well-known, but Viking activity in Scotland was also heavy, particularly along the Atlantic coast and in the islands. Similarly, Vikings raided and conquered the Isle of Man and made forays into Wales, although they did not establish a lasting presence there as in England or Scotland.

The Atlantic coast of Scotland was a tempting target for Viking raids and settlement, as were island groups such as Orkney, Shetland and the Faroe islands. The powerful Earls of Orkney played an important role in early medieval Scottish politics and warfare. Norn, a language descended from Old Norse, was spoken in Caithness until the 15th century and in Shetland until the 18th. Many Norn words persist in the Shetlandic dialect. Scots also contains a number of words of Old Norse origin not usually found in English -- "bairn" for a child, for example, or "braw" to mean good.

Viking raiders settled in Ireland as well as England; these Norse settlers founded Dublin and established their own Norse-Irish kingdoms. The same groups also raided the Isle of Man. Archaeological excavations highlight the fierce nature of this conflict -- a series of graves excavated at Chapel Hill, Balladoole, shows a Viking boat-burial cutting through a series of earlier native burials. Archaeologist Sarah Tarlow has suggested that this represents an assertion of dominance by the Viking ruling class.

Culture and religion

Britain's Viking Heritage
The hammer was the symbol of Thor, Norse god of thunder. ( Images)

Atlantic Scotland and the Isle of Man boast a wealth of rich Viking burials. The settlers who were buried in these graves chose to depart for the next life equipped with weapons, jewellery and other belongings. Sometimes they were even laid out in boats to carry them on their voyage.

The monastery of Repton in Derbyshire was a very important site to the Mercian royal family, the resting place of their royal ancestors and saintly patrons. When Viking raiders occupied the site in 873-4, it was a dramatic sign of the crisis engulfing Mercia. Archaeological excavations at Repton have revealed characteristic Viking burials, with weapons and amulets indicating the worship of the Norse god Thor. At nearby Heath Wood, a cremation cemetery contains the remains of Scandinavians who preferred to have their bodies burnt.

What is striking about these burials is not that they exist, but how rare they are as a rule. Identifiable Scandinavian burials in England are very rare, considering the other evidence for Viking settlement. The obvious conclusion seems to be that the settlers adopted local customs quickly. There is some evidence for syncretism, the blending of religious systems. For example, some coins from York bear both Christian inscriptions and images of a hammer, symbol of Thor. By the eleventh century, however, the Danish community seems to have become highly assimilated. St Gregory's church in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire, bears an inscription commemorating how the rebuilding of the church was funded by a local dignitary with the Viking name of Orm.

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