Early Societies: Britain and the Ancient World

The Vikings

793: In this year fierce foreboding omens came over the land, wretchedly terrifying the people. There were whirlwinds, lightning storms and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine and shortly afterwards, in the same year, on January 8th, heathen men destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne...(Anglo-Saxon chronicle)

This is the first mention of the people who have come to be known as the Vikings. The Vikings represent the past of the Anglo-Saxons coming back to haunt them. Although they came from further north than the Saxons - Scandinavia as opposed to north Germany - there were few differences between the two 'waves' of invaders, except that the Saxons had settled down in the meantime and become 'civilised'. Ironically, the descendants of Saxon mercenaries who had disposessed the Christian landowners of Roman Britain had now to defend Christianity against a fresh onslaught of 'heathen' men from the sea.


Who were the 'Vikings'?

Although there is a great deal of archaeological evidence (eg Jorvik) to tell us what life was like in the Viking Age (9th to 11th centuries), there are no traces of the bearded warriors in horned helmets beloved of Hollywood. That image derives from the so-called Icelandic sagas, poems written down in the 13th Century to record the names of those intrepid adventurers who had settled the island three centuries earlier. The word Viking itself is actually a verb, meaning 'to go on an adventure' and it occurs only a few times in the sagas. When the Saxons refer to the Vikings they usually use the word 'Danes'. We may find it easier to refer to them as 'Norse'.

Like the Saxons these Norse-men had a long tradition of sea-faring, raiding or trading whichever offered the greatest advantage. During the ninth century, when conditions for going 'a-viking' seem to have been particularly favourable, important centres grew up in places as far apart as Dublin and Kiev where expeditions could 'launder' (in modern parlance) their ill-gotten gains. Here large deposits of broken silver have been found - clearly loot - as well as hoards of silver coins. Meanwhile the Vikings themselves got as far as Constantinople where a regular supply of recruits formed the emperor's bodyguard.

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Alfred the Great

By 900 AD there was only one Saxon royal family surviving - that of Alfred, king of Wessex. After many defeats, Alfred had finally worked out how to deal with the Vikings. The problem was that the Vikings could strike anywhere on the coast without warning. By the time sufficient forces had assembled to deal with them, they were long gone. The pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record the depressing effects of this 'no-win' situation.

Alfred's solution was to set up a network of strongpoints called burghs. Every able bodied man in Wessex had to spend a few days manning the walls of his local burgh, and every landowner had to contribute towards the upkeep of its defences. If a Viking force landed nearby, everyone would take refuge in the burgh, which the invaders would be forced to waste time attacking. Meanwhile, by a system of signalling between burghs - rather like the Armada beacons - the king could be alerted to the danger and bring his army to the rescue. The scheme worked: its effectiveness made people see the advantage of being part of a kingdom which could protect them more effectively than they could protect themselves, and soon other areas wanted to join Wessex. Of course, belonging meant paying, at first by performing services like guard duty at the burgh, later by paying taxes (for which money had to be created). In this way you could say that the Vikings were responsible for the reinvention of taxation and for the emergence of England as a nation state.

Between the age of the Vikings and the Tudors lie the Middle Ages. Children may already have met the world of castles and knights at Key Stage 1, and it seems to leave a huge gap at Key Stage 2, full of important events like the Norman Conquest (by a descendent of Vikings), Magna Carta, the Black Death and the Peasants' Revolt. However, there ways in which this gap can be filled - through a local study for example, or a RS focussed visit to a cathedral or church - and it is fair to say the England of the Tudors resembled that of the Viking era much more than it does the present day. Although there were busy towns, many of them were smaller than modern villages and most people still made their living farming the land, as they had in King Alfred's day, probably in the same locations.

We can therefore legitimately use the Bayeux Tapestry to illustrate the world of Beowulf: indeed the single surviving manuscript of Beowulf dates from just before William the Conqueror's time. Other rich sources for the mentality and landscape of the Middle Ages are the Luttrell Psalter and the Mappa Mundi, both dating from around 1300. The latter is particularly interesting as it represents a 'summa' or encyclopaedia of all that was known or imagined about the world as it was conceived then. A 'closed' system of thought (i.e. one in which the answers to all the important questions are known) it was destined to be blown apart by the discoveries of Columbus and Galileo, and the religious conflicts of the Reformation.


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