Tag: Iron Age

The Picts

Romano Saxon Cavalry vs Picts 5th C. AD

The Picts were a tribal confederation of peoples who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.

They are thought to have been ethnolinguistically Celtic. Where they lived and what their culture was like can be inferred from the geographical distribution of brochs, Brittonic place name elements, and Pictish stones. Picts are attested to in written records from before the Roman conquest of Britain to the 10th century, when they are thought to have merged with the Gaels. They lived to the north of the rivers Forth and Clyde, and spoke the now-extinct Pictish language, which is thought to have been closely related to the Celtic Brittonic language spoken by the Britons who lived to the south of them.

Picts are assumed to have been the descendants of the Caledonii and other tribes that were mentioned by Roman historians or on the world map of Ptolemy. Pictland, also called Pictavia by some sources, gradually merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). Alba then expanded, absorbing the Brittonic kingdom of Strathclyde and Northumbrian Lothian, and by the 11th century the Pictish identity had been subsumed into the “Scots” amalgamation of peoples.

Dál Riata

Pictish society was typical of many Iron Age societies in northern Europe, having “wide connections and parallels” with neighbouring groups. Archaeology gives some impression of the society of the Picts. While very little in the way of Pictish writing has survived, Pictish history since the late 6th century is known from a variety of sources, including Bede‘s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, saints’ lives such as that of Columba by Adomnán, and various Irish annals.

Map of Britain from withdrawal of the Roman Empire in 410 until the ascension of Anglo-Saxon rule in 450AD.

What the Picts called themselves is unknown. The Latin word Picti first occurs in a panegyric written by Eumenius in AD 297 and is taken to mean “painted or tattooed people” (from Latin pingere “to paint”; pictus, “painted”, cf. Greek “πυκτίς” pyktis, “picture”). As Sally M. Foster noted, “Much ink has been spilt over what the ancient writers meant by Picts, but it seems to be a generic term for people living north of the Forth–Clyde isthmus who raided the Roman Empire.”

Illustration of a warrior, blue tattoos on his chest, and holding a small shield.

Their Old English name gave the modern Scots form Pechts and the Welsh word Ffichti. In writings from Ireland, the name Cruthin, Cruthini, Cruthni, Cruithni or Cruithini (Modern Irish: Cruithne) was used to refer both to the Picts and to another group of people who lived alongside the Ulaid in eastern Ulster. It is generally accepted that this is derived from *Qritani, which is the Goidelic/Q-Celtic version of the Britonnic/P-Celtic *Pritani. From this came Britanni, the Roman name for those now called the Britons. It has been suggested that Cruthin referred to all Britons not conquered by the Romans—those who lived outside Roman Britannia, north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall

A Pictish confederation was formed in Late Antiquity from a number of tribes—how and why is not known. Some scholars have speculated that it was partly in response to the growth of the Roman Empire.

Pictland had previously been described by Roman writers and geographers as the home of the Caledonii. These Romans also used other names to refer to tribes living in that area, including Verturiones, Taexali and Venicones. But they may have heard these other names only second- or third-hand, from speakers of Brittonic or Gaulish languages, who may have used different names for the same group or groups.

Pictish recorded history begins in the Dark Ages. At that time, the Gaels of Dál Riata controlled what is now Argyll, as part of a kingdom straddling the sea between Britain and Ireland. The Angles of Bernicia, which merged with Deira to form Northumbria, overwhelmed the adjacent British kingdoms, and for much of the 7th century Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom in Britain.

The Picts were probably tributary to Northumbria until the reign of Bridei mac Beli, when, in 685, the Anglians suffered a defeat at the Battle of Dun Nechtain that halted their northward expansion. The Northumbrians continued to dominate southern Scotland for the remainder of the Pictish period.

Dál Riata was subject to the Pictish king Óengus mac Fergusa during his reign (729–761), and though it had its own kings beginning in the 760s, does not appear to have recovered its political independence from the Picts. A later Pictish king, Caustantín mac Fergusa (793–820), placed his son Domnall on the throne of Dál Riata (811–835). Pictish attempts to achieve a similar dominance over the Britons of Alt Clut (Dumbarton) were not successful.

The figure of the Old Testament King David shown killing a lion on the St Andrews Sarcophagus is thought to represent King Óengus. The figure is dressed as a Roman emperor of Late Antiquity and wears a fibula like that of the Emperor Justinian on the mosaic at San Vitale, Ravenna.

The Viking Age brought great changes in Britain and Ireland, no less in Scotland than elsewhere, conquering and settling the islands and various mainland areas, including Caithness, Sutherland and Galloway. In the middle of the 9th century Ketil Flatnose is said to have founded the Kingdom of the Isles, governing many of these territories, and by the end of that century the Vikings had destroyed the Kingdom of Northumbria, greatly weakened the Kingdom of Strathclyde, and founded the Kingdom of York.

In a major battle in 839, the Vikings killed the King of Fortriu, Eógan mac Óengusa, the King of Dál Riata Áed mac Boanta, and many others. In the aftermath, in the 840s, Cínaed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) became king of the Picts.

During the reign of Cínaed’s grandson, Caustantín mac Áeda (900–943), outsiders began to refer to the region as the Kingdom of Alba rather than the Kingdom of the Picts, but it is not known whether this was because a new kingdom was established or Alba was simply a closer approximation of the Pictish name for the Picts.

Constantín mac Áeda; Modern Gaelic: Còiseam mac Aoidh, known in most modern regnal lists as Constantine II; died 952.

However, though the Pictish language did not disappear suddenly, a process of Gaelicisation (which may have begun generations earlier) was clearly underway during the reigns of Caustantín and his successors. By a certain point, probably during the 11th century, all the inhabitants of northern Alba had become fully Gaelicised Scots, and Pictish identity was forgotten. Later, the idea of Picts as a tribe was revived in myth and legend.

Pictish Kings and Kingdoms

Approximate location of Pictish kingdoms, based on the information given here.

The early history of Pictland is unclear. In later periods multiple kings existed, ruling over separate kingdoms, with one king, sometimes two, more or less dominating their lesser neighbours. De Situ Albanie, a late document, the Pictish Chronicle, the Duan Albanach, along with Irish legends, have been used to argue the existence of seven Pictish kingdoms. These are as follows; those in bold are known to have had kings, or are otherwise attested in the Pictish period:

More small kingdoms may have existed. Some evidence suggests that a Pictish kingdom also existed in Orkney. De Situ Albanie is not the most reliable of sources, and the number of kingdoms, one for each of the seven sons of Cruithne, the eponymous founder of the Picts, may well be grounds enough for disbelief. Regardless of the exact number of kingdoms and their names, the Pictish nation was not a united one.

For most of Pictish recorded history the kingdom of Fortriu appears dominant, so much so that king of Fortriu and king of the Picts may mean one and the same thing in the annals. This was previously thought to lie in the area around Perth and southern Strathearn; however, recent work has convinced those working in the field that Moray (a name referring to a very much larger area in the High Middle Ages than the county of Moray) was the core of Fortriu.

Map showing the approximate areas of the kingdom of Fortriu and neighbours c. 800, and the kingdom of Alba c. 900.

The Picts are often said to have practised matrilineal kingship succession on the basis of Irish legends and a statement in Bede‘s history. The kings of the Picts when Bede was writing were Bridei and Nechtan, sons of Der Ilei, who indeed claimed the throne through their mother Der Ilei, daughter of an earlier Pictish king.

In Ireland, kings were expected to come from among those who had a great-grandfather who had been king. Kingly fathers were not frequently succeeded by their sons, not because the Picts practised matrilineal succession, but because they were usually followed by their own brothers or cousins, more likely to be experienced men with the authority and the support necessary to be king. This was similar to tanistry.

The nature of kingship changed considerably during the centuries of Pictish history. While earlier kings had to be successful war leaders to maintain their authority, kingship became rather less personalised and more institutionalised during this time. Bureaucratic kingship was still far in the future when Pictland became Alba, but the support of the church, and the apparent ability of a small number of families to control the kingship for much of the period from the later 7th century onwards, provided a considerable degree of continuity.

In much the same period, the Picts’ neighbours in Dál Riata and Northumbria faced considerable difficulties, as the stability of succession and rule that previously benefited them ended.

The later Mormaers are thought to have originated in Pictish times, and to have been copied from, or inspired by, Northumbrian usages. It is unclear whether the Mormaers were originally former kings, royal officials, or local nobles, or some combination of these. Likewise, the Pictish shires and thanages, traces of which are found in later times, are thought to have been adopted from their southern neighbours.

The Aberlemno Serpent Stone, Class I Pictish stone with Pictish symbols, showing (top to bottom) the serpent, the double disc and Z-rod and the mirror and comb.

The archaeological record provides evidence of the material culture of the Picts. It tells of a society not readily distinguishable from its British, Gaelic, or Anglo-Saxon neighbours. Although analogy and knowledge of other so-called ‘Celtic’ societies (a term they never used for themselves) may be a useful guide, these extended across a very large area. Relying on knowledge of pre-Roman Gaul, or 13th century Ireland, as a guide to the Picts of the 6th century may be misleading if analogy is pursued too far.

As with most peoples in the north of Europe in Late Antiquity, the Picts were farmers living in small communities. Cattle and horses were an obvious sign of wealth and prestige, sheep and pigs were kept in large numbers, and place names suggest that transhumance was common.

Animals were small by later standards, although horses from Britain were imported into Ireland as breed-stock to enlarge native horses. From Irish sources it appears that the élite engaged in competitive cattle-breeding for size, and this may have been the case in Pictland also.

Pictish Burghead Bull (British Museum).

Carvings show hunting with dogs, and also, unlike in Ireland, with falcons. Cereal crops included wheat, barley, oats and rye. Vegetables included kale, cabbage, onions and leeks, peas and beans and turnips, and some types no longer common, such as skirret. Plants such as wild garlic, nettles and watercress may have been gathered in the wild.

The pastoral economy meant that hides and leather were readily available. Wool was the main source of fibres for clothing, and flax was also common, although it is not clear if they grew it for fibres, for oil, or as a foodstuff. Fish, shellfish, seals, and whales were exploited along coasts and rivers. The importance of domesticated animals suggests that meat and milk products were a major part of the diet of ordinary people, while the élite would have eaten a diet rich in meat from farming and hunting.

No Pictish counterparts to the areas of denser settlement around important fortresses in Gaul and southern Britain, or any other significant urban settlements, are known. Larger, but not large, settlements existed around royal forts, such as at Burghead Fort, or associated with religious foundations. No towns are known in Scotland until the 12th century.

The technology of everyday life is not well recorded, but archaeological evidence shows it to have been similar to that in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England. Recently evidence has been found of watermills in Pictland. Kilns were used for drying kernels of wheat or barley, not otherwise easy in the changeable, temperate climate.

The early Picts are associated with piracy and raiding along the coasts of Roman Britain. Even in the Late Middle Ages, the line between traders and pirates was unclear, so that Pictish pirates were probably merchants on other occasions.

It is generally assumed that trade collapsed with the Roman Empire, but this is to overstate the case. There is only limited evidence of long-distance trade with Pictland, but tableware and storage vessels from Gaul, probably transported up the Irish Sea, have been found. This trade may have been controlled from Dunadd in Dál Riata, where such goods appear to have been common. While long-distance travel was unusual in Pictish times, it was far from unknown as stories of missionaries, travelling clerics and exiles show.

Brochs are popularly associated with the Picts. Although these were built earlier in the Iron Age, with construction ending around 100 AD, they remained in use into and beyond the Pictish period. Crannóg, which may originate in Neolithic Scotland, may have been rebuilt, and some were still in use in the time of the Picts. The most common sort of buildings would have been roundhouses and rectangular timbered halls. While many churches were built in wood, from the early 8th century, if not earlier, some were built in stone.

Reconstructed crannóg on Loch Tay.

The Picts are often said to have tattooed themselves, but evidence for this is limited. Naturalistic depictions of Pictish nobles, hunters and warriors, male and female, without obvious tattoos, are found on monumental stones. These stones include inscriptions in Latin and ogham script, not all of which have been deciphered. The well known Pictish symbols found on standing stones and other artifacts, have defied attempts at translation over the centuries. Pictish art can be classed as ‘Celtic’ (a term not coined till the 1850s), and later as Insular. Irish poets portrayed their Pictish counterparts as very much like themselves.

The harpist on the Dupplin Cross, Scotland, c. 800 AD.

Early Pictish religion is presumed to have resembled Celtic polytheism in general, although only place names remain from the pre-Christian era. When the Pictish elite converted to Christianity is uncertain, but traditions place Saint Palladius in Pictland after he left Ireland, and link Abernethy with Saint Brigid of Kildare. Saint Patrick refers to “apostate Picts”, while the poem Y Gododdin does not remark on the Picts as pagans.

Bede wrote that Saint Ninian (confused by some with Saint Finnian of Moville, who died c. 589), had converted the southern Picts. Recent archaeological work at Portmahomack places the foundation of the monastery there, an area once assumed to be among the last converted, in the late 6th century. This is contemporary with Bridei mac Maelchon and Columba, but the process of establishing Christianity throughout Pictland will have extended over a much longer period.

An early 20th century depiction of Saint Columba’s miracle at the gate of King Bridei’s fortress, described in Adomnán’s late 7th century Vita Columbae.

Pictland was not solely influenced by Iona and Ireland. It also had ties to churches in Northumbria, as seen in the reign of Nechtan mac Der Ilei. The reported expulsion of Ionan monks and clergy by Nechtan in 717 may have been related to the controversy over the dating of Easter, and the manner of tonsure, where Nechtan appears to have supported the Roman usages, but may equally have been intended to increase royal power over the church. Nonetheless, the evidence of place names suggests a wide area of Ionan influence in Pictland. Likewise, the Cáin Adomnáin (Law of Adomnán, Lex Innocentium) counts Nechtan’s brother Bridei among its guarantors.

The importance of monastic centres in Pictland was not, perhaps, as great as in Ireland. In areas that have been studied, such as Strathspey and Perthshire, it appears that the parochial structure of the High Middle Ages existed in early medieval times. Among the major religious sites of eastern Pictland were Portmahomack, Cennrígmonaid (later St Andrews), Dunkeld, Abernethy and Rosemarkie. It appears that these are associated with Pictish kings, which argues for a considerable degree of royal patronage and control of the church. Portmahomack in particular has been the subject of recent excavation and research, published by Martin Carver.

The cult of Saints was, as throughout Christian lands, of great importance in later Pictland. While kings might patronise great Saints, such as Saint Peter in the case of Nechtan, and perhaps Saint Andrew in the case of the second Óengus mac Fergusa, many lesser Saints, some now obscure, were important. The Pictish Saint Drostan appears to have had a wide following in the north in earlier times, although he was all but forgotten by the 12th century. Saint Serf of Culross was associated with Nechtan’s brother Bridei. It appears, as is well known in later times, that noble kin groups had their own patron saints, and their own churches or abbeys.

The Pictish language is extinct. Evidence is limited to place names, the names of people found on monuments, and the contemporary records. The evidence of place-names and personal names argues strongly that the Picts spoke Insular Celtic languages related to the more southerly Brittonic languages. A number of Ogham inscriptions have been argued to be unidentifiable as Celtic, and on this basis, it has been suggested that non-Celtic languages were also in use.

The absence of surviving written material in Pictish—if the ambiguous “Pictish inscriptions” in the Ogham script are discounted—does not indicate a pre-literate society. The church certainly required literacy in Latin, and could not function without copyists to produce liturgical documents. Pictish iconography shows books being read, and carried, and its naturalistic style gives every reason to suppose that such images were of real life. Literacy was not widespread, but among the senior clergy, and in monasteries, it would have been common enough.

Place-names often allow us to deduce the existence of historic Pictish settlements in Scotland. Those prefixed with the Brittonic prefixes “Aber-“, “Lhan-“, or “Pit-” (=? “peth”, a thing) are claimed to indicate regions inhabited by Picts in the past (for example: Aberdeen, Lhanbryde, Pitmedden, etc.). Some of these, such as “Pit-” (portion, share), may have been formed after Pictish times, and may refer to previous “shires” or “thanages”.

The evidence of place-names may also reveal the advance of Gaelic into Pictland. As noted, Atholl, meaning New Ireland, is attested in the early 8th century. This may be an indication of the advance of Gaelic. Fortriu also contains place-names suggesting Gaelic settlement, or Gaelic influences. A pre-Gaelic interpretation of the name as Athfocla meaning ‘north pass’ or ‘north way’, as in gateway to Moray, suggests that the Gaelic Athfotla may be a Gaelic misreading of the minuscule c for t.

Medieval Welsh tradition credited the founding of Gwynedd to the Picts and traced their principal royal families—the Houses of Aberffraw and Dinefwr—to Cunedda Wledig, said to have invaded northern Wales from Lothian.

References

  • James E. Fraser, The New Edinburgh History Of Scotland Vol.1From Caledonia To Pictland, Edinburgh University Press(2009) ISBN 978-0-7486-1232-1
  • Fraser Hunter, Beyond the Edge of Empire: Caledonians, Picts and Romans, Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie (2007) ISBN 978-0-9540999-2-3
  • Alex Woolf, The New Edinburgh History Of Scotland Vol.2From Pictland To Alba, Edinburgh University Press,(2007) ISBN 978-0-7486-1234-5
  • Benjamin Hudson: The Picts. Wiley Blackwell, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4051-8678-0 (cloth); ISBN 978-1-118-60202-7 (paperback).

Early Viking activity in the British Isles

Norse activity in the British Isles occurred during the Early Medieval period when members of the Norse populations of Scandinavia travelled to Britain and Ireland to settle, trade or raid. The Norse peoples who came to the British Isles have been generally referred to as Vikings, but it is a matter of debate if the term Viking represented all Norse settlers or just those who raided.

At the start of the Early Medieval period, Norse kingdoms of Scandinavia had developed trade links across southern Europe and the Mediterranean, giving them access to foreign imports such as silver, gold, bronze and spices. These trade links also extended westward into Ireland and the British Isles.

In the last decade of the 8th century AD, Norse raiders sacked a series of Christian monasteries located in what is now the United Kingdom, beginning in 793, with a raid on the coastal monastery of Lindisfarne on the east coast of England. The following year they sacked the nearby Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, and in 795 they attacked again, raiding Iona Abbey on Scotland’s west coast.

Background

During the Early Medieval period, Ireland and Britain were culturally, linguistically and religiously divided into various peoples. The languages of the Celtic Britons and Gaels were descended from the Celtic languages spoken by those of Iron Age Europe.

In Ireland, parts of western Scotland, as well as the Isle of Man, people were speaking an early form of Gaelic known as Old Irish. There may have been another pre-Indo-European language spoken by the Erainn up until the 8th century in what is today Kerry, but this is likely to have been Celtic or some other Indo-European language.

In Western Britain, which includes; Cornwall, Cumbria, Wales, and Southwest Scotland, the Celtic Brythonic languages were spoken, with modern descendants such as Welsh and Cornish still being used. In Northern Britain, past the Forth and Clyde rivers which constitutes a large portion of modern-day Scotland, dwelled the Picts who spoke the Pictish language.

Due to the scarcity of writing in Pictish, all of which can be found in Ogham, views are conflicted as to whether Pictish was Celtic like the southernly languages, or perhaps even a non-Indo-European language like Basque. However, most inscriptions and place names hint towards the Picts being Celtic in language and culture.

Most peoples of Britain and Ireland had already predominantly converted to Christianity from their older, pre-Christian polytheistic religions. In contrast to the rest of the isles though, much of southern Britain was considered to be part of Anglo-Saxon England, where Anglo-Saxon migrants from continental Europe had settled during the 5th century CE, bringing with them their own Germanic language (known as Old English), a polytheistic religion (Anglo-Saxon paganism) and their own distinct cultural practices. By the time of the Viking incursions though, Anglo-Saxon England had too become mostly Christian.

The Isle of Man had supported its own agrarian population, but it is widely believed that it was Brythonic-speaking before Old Irish (later to become Manx) spread there. Gaelicisation could have taken place before the Viking age or perhaps during it, when the area was settled by Norse-Gaels who practised their own culture.

In northern Britain, in the area roughly corresponding to modern-day Scotland, lived three distinct ethnic groups in their own respective kingdoms; the Picts, Scots and Britons. The Pictish cultural group dominated the majority of Scotland, with major populations concentrated between the Firth of Forth and the River Dee, as well as in Sutherland, Caithness, and Orkney.

The Scots were, according to written sources, a tribal group which had crossed to Britain from Dalriada in the north of Ireland during the late 5th century. Archaeologists have not been able to identify anything that was unique to the kingdom of the Scots, noting similarities with the Picts in most forms of material culture. The Britons were those dwelling in the Old North, in parts of what have become southern Scotland and northern England, and by the 7th or 8th centuries, had apparently come under the political control of the Anglo-Saxons.

By the mid-9th century, Anglo-Saxon England was divided into four separate and independent kingdoms; East Anglia, Wessex, Northumbria, and Mercia, the latter of which was the strongest military power. Between half a million and a million people lived in England at this time, with society being rigidly hierarchical. This class system had a king and his ealdormen at the top, under whom were the thegns, or landholders, and then the various forms of agricultural workers below them.

Beneath all of these was a class of slaves, who may have made up as much as a quarter of the population. The majority of the populace lived in the countryside, although a few large towns had developed, namely London and York, which were centres of royal and ecclesiastical administration. There was also a number of trading ports, such as Hamwic and Ipswich, where foreign trade took place .

Scandinavia

Society in 8th century Scandinavia was, unlike parts of the British Isles, still pre-literate, existing in the final stages of European prehistory, known to archaeologists as the Iron Age. In Scandinavia, the 8th century proved to be “a period of rapid technological, economic and social development” which would lead the region out of the Iron Age and into what has come to be known as the Viking Age.

At the start of the Early Mediaeval period, the Norse populations saw themselves primarily as inhabitants of specific locations, such as Jutland, Vestfold and Hordaland. It would only be in the later centuries that the national identities would develop amongst the Scandinavians, dividing them into such national groups as the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians.

The Late Iron Age peoples of Scandinavia had not yet been converted to Christianity as the peoples of Britain and Ireland had, and instead followed Norse paganism, a polytheistic set of beliefs that revered such deities as Odin, Thor, Frey and Freyja.

Scandinavian society was heavily dependent on fishing herring, and when that failed, the seafaring Norse sailors turned to navigating around much of Europe during the Early Mediaeval period. The Norse populations of Scandinavia had developed trade links with many areas of Europe, obtaining large quantities of gold in the late 5th century, most of which had been found in Sweden, and to a lesser extent, Norway.

Viking raids: 793–850 AD

In the final decade of the 8th century AD, Norse raiders attacked a series of Christian monasteries located in the British Isles. In the British Isles, Christian monasteries had often been positioned on small islands and in other remote coastal areas so that the monks could dwell there in seclusion, devoting themselves to worship without the interference of other elements of society.

At the same time, it made them isolated and unprotected targets for attack. Historian Peter Hunter Blair remarked that the Viking raiders would have been astonished “at finding so many communities which housed considerable wealth and whose inhabitants carried no arms.” These raids would have been the first contact many Norsemen had with Christianity, but such attacks were not specifically anti-Christian in nature, rather the monasteries were simply seen as ‘easy targets’ for raiders.[13]

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such a terror appeared as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments.

Archbishop Alcuin of York on the sacking of Lindisfarne.

The first known account of a Viking raid taking place in Anglo-Saxon England comes from 789, when three ships from Hordaland (in modern Norway) landed in the Isle of Portland on the southern coast of Wessex. They were approached by the royal reeve from Dorchester, whose job it was to identify all foreign merchants entering the kingdom, and they proceeded to kill him. It is likely that other raids (the records for which have since been lost) occurred soon after, for in 792 King Offa of Mercia began to make arrangements for the defence of Kent from raids perpetrated by “pagan peoples”.

The next recorded attack against the Anglo-Saxons came the following year, in 793, when the monastery at Lindisfarne, an island off England’s eastern coast, was sacked by a Viking raiding party on 8 June. The following year they sacked the nearby Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey.

In 795 they once again attacked, this time raiding Iona Abbey on Scotland’s west coast. This monastery would be attacked again in 802 and 806, when 68 people dwelling there were killed. Following such devastation, the monastic community at Iona abandoned the site and fled instead to Kells in Ireland.

In the first decade of the 9th century AD, Viking raiders began to attack coastal districts along Ireland. In 835, the first major Viking raid in southern England took place and was directed against the Isle of Sheppey.

Treasure hoards

Various hoards of treasure were buried in England at this time, some of which may have been deposited by Anglo-Saxons attempting to hide their wealth from Viking raiders, and some of which may have instead been buried by the Viking raiders themselves as a way of protecting their looted treasure.

One of these hoards, discovered in Croydon (historically part of Surrey, now part of Greater London) in 1862, contained 250 coins, three silver ingots and part of a fourth as well as four pieces of hack silver in a linen bag. Archaeologists interpret this as loot collected by a member of the Viking army. By dating the artefacts, archaeologists came to believe that it was likely that this hoard had been buried in 872, when the army wintered in London.

The coins themselves came from a wide range of different kingdoms, with Wessex, Mercian and East Anglian examples found alongside foreign imports from Carolingian-dynasty Francia and from the Arab world. Not all such Viking hoards in England contain coins, however – for example, at Bowes Moor, Durham, 19 silver ingots were discovered, whilst at Orton Scar, Cumbria, a silver neck-ring and penannular brooch were uncovered.

The historian Peter Hunter Blair believed that the success of the Viking raids and the “complete unpreparedness of Britain to meet such attacks” became major factors in the subsequent Norse invasions and colonisation of large parts of the British Isles.

Invasion and Danelaw: 865 – 896

From 865 the Norse attitude towards the British Isles changed, as they began to see it as a place for potential colonisation rather than simply a place to raid. As a result of this, larger armies began arriving on Britain’s shores, with the intention of conquering land and constructing settlements there.

In 866, Norse armies captured York, one of the two major cities in Anglo-Saxon England. In 871, King Æthelred of Wessex, who had been leading the conflict against the Vikings, died and was succeeded to the throne by his younger brother, Alfred the Great. Meanwhile, many Anglo-Saxon kings began to capitulate to the Viking demands, and handed over land to the invading Norse settlers. In 876, the Northumbrian monarch Healfdene gave up his lands to them, and in the next four years they gained further land in the kingdoms of Mercia and East Anglia as well. King Alfred continued his conflict with the invading forces, but was driven back into Somerset in the south-west of his kingdom in 878, where he was forced to take refuge in the marshes of Athelney.

Alfred regrouped his military forces and defeated the armies of the Norse monarch of East Anglia, Guthrum, at the Battle of Edington. Following Guthrum’s defeat, in 886 the Treaty of Wedmore was signed between the (Norse-controlled) East Anglian and Wessex governments that established a boundary between the two kingdoms.

The area to the north and east of this boundary became known as the Danelaw because it was under the control of Norse political influence, whilst those areas south and west of it remained under Anglo-Saxon dominance. Alfred’s government set about constructing a series of defended towns or burhs, began the construction of a navy and organised a militia system whereby half of his peasant army remained on active service.

Although there were continuous attacks on Wessex by new Viking armies, the kingdom’s new defences proved a success and in 896 the invaders dispersed, instead settling in East Anglia and Northumbria, with some instead sailing to Normandy.

Alfred’s policy of opposing the Viking settlers was continued under the regime of his daughter Æthelflæd, who married Æthelred, Ealdorman of Mercia, and also under the regime of her brother Edward the Elder. In 920 the Northumbrian government and the Scots governments both submitted to the military power of Wessex, and in 937 the Battle of Brunanburh led to the collapse of Norse power in northern Britain. In 954 Erik Bloodaxe, the last Norse King of York, was expelled from the city.

Norse settlement in the British Isles

The early Norse settlers in Anglo-Saxon England would have appeared visibly different from the Anglo-Saxon populace, wearing specifically Scandinavian styles of jewellery, and probably also wearing their own peculiar styles of clothing as well. There was also a difference in the style of hair worn by Norse and Anglo-Saxon men, with the former typically wearing a hair style that was shaved at the back and left shaggy on the front, whilst in contrast to this the latter typically wore their hair long.[23]

Second invasion: 980–1012

Cnut the Great’s domains.

England

Under the reign of Wessex King Edgar the Peaceful, England came to be further politically unified, with Edgar coming to be recognized as the king of all England by both Anglo-Saxon and Norse populations living in the country. However, under the regimes of his son Edward the Martyr, who was murdered in 978, and then Æthelred the Unready, the political strength of the English monarchy waned, and in 980 Viking raiders from Scandinavia once more started making attacks against England.

The English government decided that the only way of dealing with these attackers was to pay them protection money, and so in 991 they gave them £10,000. This fee did not prove to be enough, and over the next decade the English kingdom was forced to pay the Viking attackers increasingly large sums of money. Many English began to demand that a more hostile approach be taken against the Vikings, and so, on St Brice’s Day in 1002, King Æthelred proclaimed that all Danes living in England would be executed. It would come to be known as the St. Brice’s Day massacre.

The news of the massacre reached King Sweyn Forkbeard in Denmark. It is believed that Sweyn’s sister Gunhilde could have been among the victims, which prompted Sweyn to raid England the following year where Exeter was burned down. Hampshire, Wiltshire, Wilton and Salisbury also became victims to the viking revenge attack. Sweyn continued his raid in England and in 1004 his viking army looted East Anglia, plundered Thetford and sacked Norwich, before he once again returned to Denmark.

Further raids took place in 1006–1007, and in 1009–1012 Thorkell the Tall led a Viking invasion into England.

In 1013 Sweyn Forkbeard returned to invade England with a large army, and Æthelred fled to Normandy, leading Sweyn to take the English throne. Sweyn died within a year however, and so Æthelred returned, but in 1016 another Norse army invaded, this time under the control of the Danish King Cnut son of Sweyn Forkbeard. After defeating Anglo–Saxon forces at the Battle of Assandun, Cnut became king of England, subsequently ruling over both the Danish and English kingdoms. Following Cnut’s death in 1035, the two kingdoms were once more declared independent and remained so apart from a short period from 1040 to 1042 when Cnut’s son Harthacnut ascended the English throne.

Invasions of 1066

The Battle of Fulford took place at Fulford near York, on 20 September 1066, when an invading Norwegian force led by King Harald Hardrada of Norway and Tostig Godwinson, his English ally, fought and defeated the Northern Earls Edwin and Morcar. When King Harold II of England heard of this defeat he marched his English army from the south coast of England to meet the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge took place near the village of Stamford, East Riding of Yorkshire in England on 25 September 1066. The Norwegian invasion was repelled but before the English Army had fully recovered, the Normans—under the leadership of Duke William II of Normandy (William the Conqueror)—invaded Anglo-Saxon England. William defeated Harold II of England’s army at the Battle of Hastings.

Evidence:

Written records

Archaeologists James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E. Batey noted that there was a lack of historical sources discussing the earliest Viking encounters with the British Isles, which would have most probably been amongst the northern island groups, those closest to Scandinavia.

The Irish Annals provide us with accounts of much Norse activity during the 9th and 10th centuries.

The Viking raids that affected Anglo-Saxon England were primarily documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals initially written in the late 9th century, most probably in the Kingdom of Wessex during the reign of Alfred the Great. The Chronicle is however a biased source, acting as a piece of “wartime propaganda” written on behalf of the Anglo-Saxon forces against their Norse opponents, and in many cases greatly exaggerates the size of the Norse fleets and armies, thereby making any Anglo-Saxon victories against them seem more heroic.

Archaeological evidence

The Norse settlers in the British Isles left remains of their material culture behind, which archaeologists have been able to excavate and interpret during the 20th and 21st centuries. Such Norse evidence in Britain consists primarily of Norse burials undertaken in Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles, the Isle of Man, Ireland and the north-west of England. Archaeologists James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E. Batey remarked that it was on the Isle of Man where Norse archaeology was “remarkably rich in quality and quantity”.

However, as archaeologist Julian D. Richards commented, Scandinavians in Anglo-Saxon England “can be elusive to the archaeologist” because many of their houses and graves are indistinguishable from those of the other populations living in the country. For this reason, historian Peter Hunter Blair noted that in Britain, the archaeological evidence for Norse invasion and settlement was “very slight compared with the corresponding evidence for the Anglo-Saxon invasions” of the 5th century.

References

 

  • Blair, Peter Hunter (2003). An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Third Edition). Cambridge, UK and New York City, USA: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-53777-3. 
  • Crawford, Barbara E. (1987). Scandinavian Scotland. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Leicester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7185-1282-8. 
  • DeVries, Kelly (2003). The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. ISBN 1-84383-027-2. 
  • Graham-Campbell, James & Batey, Colleen E. (1998). Vikings in Scotland: An Archaeological Survey. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-0641-2. 
  • Richards, Julian D. (1991). Viking Age England. London: B.T. Batsford and English Heritage. ISBN 978-0-7134-6520-4. 
  • Keynes, Simon (1999). “Vikings”. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England (Eds: Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg). Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 460–61.
hleomæg wesiKs