The Viking Raids

The Viking Raids

A raid under Olaf.

A raid under Olaf.

From the North Sea came an unknown entity riding in boats believed to be of the devils build and struck terror into all those who encountered them once they landed to pillage, rape, and kill, before leaving to count their loot. These people who caused so much havoc and devastation throughout most of Western Europe and who would eventually become civilized themselves were none other than the Viking.

Event Horizon

The period of the Viking Ages in European History begins in 793. However, the first mentioning of the Norsemen begins in 789:

In the year King Beorthtric took Eadburh, King Offa's daughter, to wife. And in his days first came three ships of Northmen from Haeretha land. And then reeve rode thereto, and would drive them to the king's vill, for he knew not what they were, and they there slew him. Those were the first ships of Danish men that sought the land of the English race.

On the surface, the chronicle treats their arrival rather unfriendly and suggests it was a raid. Reason for this interpretation is that they killed the reeve (district official) for questioning them in a hostile way. The problem with interpreting this as a raid is that no person or reeve would have stopped to question a raiding party as to where these men came from. Rather, it seems plausible that Northsmen from Hordaland, Norway, arrived near Portland, UK, to take part in the lucrative trade between Portland and the lower reaches of the Rhine, which had connections to Hamwic in Wessex, London, Ipswich in East Anglia, and with the Quentovic emporium in Francia besides other ports in the region. What may have gone wrong is a breakdown in communication and customs between the two peoples who were alien to one another. In other words, the reeve expected peaceful traders, tried to force them to the royal residency and in turn, the Northsmen turned and killed the reeve and his men.

In the end, the Northsmen left and the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers wrote down and propagandize the event during the late 9th century as if the Northsmen wanted to carve out a piece of land on English soil. While this event unlikely caused the wave of attacks to come, it is a clear example that a new culture has arrived on the scene to take part in the profitable commercial trade going on in Northern Europe. The Vikings who arrived at or near Portland in 789 indicates if one such group arrived others were surely aware that commerce was passing by them every day and they wanted to partake or a cut of the action. Perhaps the Vikings of prominent status felt that they might have had little or nothing of value to trade and decided to take to the sea and risk raiding as their means of income.

Lindisfarne (793)

Lindisfarne - Wikicommons

Lindisfarne - Wikicommons

On the 8 June 793, Vikings approached the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumberland and raided the monastery. Alcuin, Letter to Ethelred, King of Northumbria details the carnage:

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made.

Alcuin describes in further detail that the Vikings ransacked “the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments.” Alcuin understood that the raid inflicted upon Lindisfarne was just the beginning of more raids to come. He understood that if such a group of men could make it across the sea from a far away land, more was to come once those who have yet to set sail towards England got a whiff of the valuables that await them.

Soon after the raid on Lindisfarne, the Vikings return to the coasts of Northumbrian and attacked the monastery at Jarrow. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles describes the events that transpired at Jarrow and how this time the Vikings lost:

The Heathens ravaged in Northumbria, and they raided Ecgferth's monastery at Jarrow. One of their leaders was killed there, and in addition some of their ships were smashed in the bad weather and many on the men drowned there. Some came ashore alive at the mouth of the river, and were immediately killed.

While Jarrow was a victory for the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Northumbria, it did not stop the Viking raids. While the Vikings were making or attempting hit and run raids in Northumbria, they were at the same time attacking and displacing the populations in the Shetland and Orkney islands. By taking control of the Shetland and Orkney islands gives the Vikings a base to launch deeper attacks not only along the coasts of the British Isles but also deeper into Western Europe.

Seeing that Northumbria provided little riches, the Viking focused on the islands along the western coast of Scotland and that of Ireland. In 795, the Vikings raided the Isle of Skye, Ionia, and Rathlin. At the time they were raiding the islands mentioned, the Vikings were further expanding their sphere by raiding and settling the Sutherland highlands near Orkney and the Hebrides archipelago, which comprised of hundreds of islands off the northwest coast of Scotland. With the northern coast of Scotland and the islands primarily under Viking control, they began to focus their attention on Ireland.

Raiding the Irish and Scottish Coasts

Reason for the Viking focus on Ireland was the Irish cities along the eastern coast, like Dublin, were involved in trade, which had connections to Northumbria, York, Chester, Bristol, and the various ports that dot Francia. It was because of this that drew the Viking to the Irish coast. Furthermore, knowing from experience that monasteries hold relics of considerable wealth, the Vikings would continue to focus their attacks on these monasteries but would find even more wealth on each raid. Irish monasteries used their sanctuaries to store not just religious wealth, but personal wealth and livestock, particular during war in order to safeguard their valuables but even in peacetime, they served as banks for secular and ecclesiastical wealth.


According to The Annals of Ulster, the Vikings continued their raids along the Scottish coasts and the confiscation of Irish wealth beginning in 798 with “The burning of Inis Pátraic (Island of St. Patrick) by the heathens, and they took the cattle-tribute of the territories, and broke the shrine of Do-Chonna, and also made great incursions both in Ireland and in Alba.” In 802 and 806, Ionia was again and again, resulting in looting, killing, and touching. In 807, the Vikings “burned Inis Muiredaig (Inishbofin) and invaded Ros Comáin (Roscommon).” However, the Irish did have some luck repelling the invaders in 811, when they defeated a Viking raid and “slaughter of the heathens” in Ulaid (Ulster). In 812, the Irish and Vikings traded blows with one another “A slaughter of the heathens by the men of Umall. A slaughter of the Conmaicne by the heathens.” Again, in 812, the Irish beat back the Vikings and slaughtered “the heathens in Mumu, viz. by Cobthach son of Mael Dúin, king of Loch Léin.”

Even though the Irish had some success in repelling the Vikings, the Vikings expanded their operations and began to hit areas further to the south of Ireland. Cork was attacked in 822. Further to the north, the monastery at Bangor in 824 was sacked, the relics of Saint Comgall were scattered, the riches plundered, which caused an outrage among the populace.

One would think that the Irish would have untied and concentrated their efforts on repelling the Viking raids like that of England and France. But they could not. Ireland was already a peacefully divided country for the most part, but when the Vikings attacked, the Irish infrastructure collapsed, in that not only did the Irish have to fight the Vikings but also each other. Because of the Irish instability along with the inability to unite, allowed the Vikings to intensive their attacks on Ireland.

As the Viking raids intensified, they soon began to go from raiding to colonizing the Irish mainland in the 830's. In 837, two Viking fleets carrying a substantial amount of warriors, invaded Ireland, and setting up shop in Boyne and another at Liffey near Dublin. The Irish warriors led by Ui Neill kings, confronted, engaged, and were cut to pieces. With the coast clear, the Vikings decided to take it a step further.

In the winter of 839, the Vikings put a fleet on the Lough Neagn. Once the Vikings had established themselves, they began to plunder the countryside and raid the monasteries. Afterwards, they attacked Louth and took "bishops and superiors and scholars prisoner and killed others." This would continue attack the Irish countryside until they were able to set up a permanent base from which they could operate. Those bases were Linn Duachaill in County Louth and at Dublin. Later, the Vikings would continue establishing ports at places like Lough Ree (845) and Cork (848). The man who seems to be leading the Vikings in establishing ports was Turgeis, who operated from the port of Lough Ree. Turgeis now had firm grasp on Ireland and decided to expand his operation by attacking Connaught and Meath, including the abbey of Clonmacnoise. However, Turgeis would eventually be captured by King Maell Sechnaill of Tara, and had him drowned in the Lough Owel in 845.  It was around this time that the various Irish kings realized that if they were to survive, they needed to unite and fight the Vikings in order to survive. The same man, who killed Turgeis, led the Irish to another victory over the Vikings at near Skreen, County Meath, in which 700 Vikings were killed. After the battle, the Irish sent an embassy to King Charles the Bald of the Frankish Empire, informing him that Ireland was heathen free. However, this would not totally be the case.

Viking Dublin

Travels of the vikings. Source:   Dailymail.

Travels of the vikings. Source: Dailymail.

The removal of the Vikings from Ireland went for naught. Instead, they had been weakened and internal disputes did not help either. If the Vikings looked to finally driven off Irish lands more turmoil was coming their way for in 851, a new group of Danish Vikings sacked Dublin in 851. However, the Scandinavians were saved from tearing themselves apart due to the arrival of Amlaid of Scotland around 853. Amlaid allied himself with another Viking leader by the name of Imar and re-established their presence in Dublin. Dublin would become the main Norse center in Scotland, the Isle of Man, and England. With a strong Viking infrastructure established in Dublin, the dynasty of Amlaib and Imar founded would last for half-century. Because of this, the Vikings saw Ireland as an afterthought and began to look to new places to raid, like England.

 Viking Raids of England

 In 835, Danish Vikings began their raids along the English coasts. As the years followed, the raids grew in size. In 838, a large body of Vikings landed in Cornwall was joined with Cornish rebels but were soon defeated by King Egbert of Wessex at Hingston Down by the river Tamar. The Vikings continued their raids on England in both 841 and 844. However, in 851 the Vikings came in larger numbers. Three hundred and fifty Viking ships anchored in the Thames and when they stepped ashore, they burnt Canterbury and London. King Beorhtwulf of Mercia tried to beat back the Vikings but was defeated and fled the field of battle. The Viking victory over Beorthtwulf, allowed King Aethelwulf of Wessex enough time to assemble his forces. Once the Vikings recrossed the Thames, Arthelwulf “fought against them at Acleah, and there made the greatest slaughter of heathen host.” While a great victory and the raids ended, it was just the beginning of more to come.

The Great Heathen Army  Wikicommons .

The Great Heathen Army Wikicommons.

In 865, Seven years after Arthelwulf death, the Danes had been raiding the coasts and were preparing for large invasion headed by Ragnar Lothbrok, Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan, and perhaps Ubbi, along with lesser kings and Jarls. The Great Viking army disembarked in East Anglia. Their mission was to preceded northward with the intent to overthrow the kings of Northumbria and occupy the Vale of York which they accomplished in 866. With Northumbria devastated but not defeated, since some native ruler held out in Bernicia.

The Vikings, seeking more wealth, made their way south placing relentless pressure on Merica in which they quickly succumbed to the Viking pressure and paid a ransom (Danegeld) and again in 869. Searching for more wealth and expanding their sphere of influence, headed towards Eat Anglia ruled by King Edmund where they defeated and killed him in November 869 along with crushing Anglo-Saxon resistance at Hoxne and Suffolk. With East Meric and Anglia under Danish control, they moved further into the rich untouched areas of England. Late 870 the Vikings led by Halfdan moved into Reading, where they quickly setup a fortified camp to further pillage the region. Even though the Vikings one many a victories, they were beaten by King Aethelred I and his brother Alfred in 871. However, the victory was short lived, the Vikings continued to place pressure on Wessex, causing Alfred, who succeeded his brother, decided to pay the Danegld. Even though Alfred agreed to pay the ransom, the many hard fought battles between the two forces saved Wessex.

With Wessex safe for the time being, Mercia fell hard. The Viking army moved from base to base in Mercia from Reading, London, Torkey, Repton, and Cambridge. However, it was a Repton around 874 that King Burgred fled his kingdom and left it in the hands of the Viking Ceolwulf. In the few years the Vikings had arrived in England, they had nearly taken the entire country. With Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia under their control, Ceolwulf wanted more. He wanted the entire island.

In 875, Ceolwulf split his army in two. Some of the forces were placed under the command of Halfdan and were given the mission to subdue the Celts that bordered Northumbria. Guthrum, Oscytel, and Anund were ordered to move south to Cambridge. Guthrum's army headed towards Wessex after arriving at Cambridge. King Alfred got word of their advance and used every measure to repel the invader, even monetary. However, seeing that the Vikings wanted nothing but the kingdom itself, Alfred fought them both in conventional and guerilla type warfare. After a few years of conflict, the turning point came in 878 at the battle of Edington. King Alfred’s small army met the levies of Somerset, Wiltshire, and part of Hampshire, marched towards to Edington, and defeated the Vikings. After the battle, King Guthrum gave Alfreed hostages and agreed to leave Wessex. To further the agreement, Guthrum agreed to be baptized, and accompany Alfred back to his capital and enjoyed 12 days of feasting and gifts. Afterwards, Guthrum agreed to a truce and to sign the Treaty of Wedmore soon after. With the Kingdom of Wessex safe, the lands conquered by the Vikings and ruled by Guthrum became known as the “Danelaw”, which means land ruled under the law of the Danes as contrast to West Saxon and Mercian law.


Beyond the Horizon


With England and parts of Ireland under Viking control, just as those before them left for lucrative opportunities, the same issues would arise again. During the 9th century, the Vikings began to raid the coasts of Northern France and its interior. The Annals of St. Bertin mention the continuous raids conducted by the Northsmen from 843-859:

843 A.D. Pirates of the Northmen's race came to Nantes, killed the bishop and many of the clergy and laymen, both men and women, and pillaged the city. Thence they set out to plunder the lands of lower Aquitaine. At length they arrived at a certain island [the isle of Rhé, near La Rochelle, north of the mouth of the Garonne], and carried materials thither from the mainland to build themselves houses; and they settled there for the winter, as if that were to be their permanent dwelling-place.

844. The Northmen ascended the Garonne as far as Toulouse and pillaged the lands along both banks with impunity. Some, after leaving this region went into Galicia [in Northern Spain] and perished, part of them by the attacks of the crossbowmen who had come to resist them, part by being overwhelmed by a storm at sea. But others of them went farther into Spain and engaged in long and desperate combats with the Saracens; defeated in the end, they withdrew.

845. then the other, came without meeting any resistance to Paris. Charles [the Bald] resolved to hold out against them; but seeing the impossibility of gaining a victory, he made with them a certain agreement and by a gift of 7,000 livres he bought them off from advancing farther and persuaded them to return. Euric, king of the Northmen, advanced, with six hundred vessels, along the course of the River Elbe to attack Louis of Germany. The Saxons prepared to meet him, gave battle, and with the aid of our Lord Jesus Christ won the victory. The Northmen returned down the Seine and coming to the ocean pillaged, destroyed, and burned all the regions along the coast.

846. The Danish pirates landed in Frisia. They were able to force from the people whatever contributions they wished and, being victors in battle, they remained masters of almost the entire province.

847. The Northmen made their appearance in the part of Gaul inhabited by the Britons and won three victories. Noménoé [a chief of the Britons], although defeated, at length succeeded in buying them off with presents and getting them out of his country.

853-854. The Danish pirates, making their way into the country eastward from the city of Nantes, arrived without opposition, November Eighth, before Tours. This they burned, together with the church of St. Martin and the neighboring places. But that incursion had been foreseen with certainty and the body of St. Martin had been removed to Cormery, a monastery of that church, and from there to the city of Orleans. The pirates went on to the château of Blois and burned it, proposing then to proceed to Orleans and destroy that city in the same fashion. But Agius, bishop of Orleans, and Burchard, bishop of Chartres, had gathered soldiers and ships to meet them; so they abandoned their design and returned to the lower Loire, though the following year [855] they ascended it anew to the city of Angers.

855. They left their ships behind and undertook to go overland to the city of Poitiers; but the Aquitanians came to meet them and defeated them, so that not more than 300 escaped.

856. On the eighteenth of April, the Danish pirates came to the city of Orleans, pillaged it, and went away without meeting opposition. Other Danish pirates came into the Seine about the middle of August and, after plundering and ruining the towns on the two banks of the river, and even the monasteries and villages farther back, came to a well located place near the Seine called Jeufosse, and, there quietly passed the winter.

859. The Danish pirates having made a long sea-voyage (for they had sailed between Spain and Africa) entered the Rhone, where they pillaged many cities and monasteries and established themselves on the island called Camargue. . . . They devastated everything before them as far as the city of Valence. Then, after ravaging all these regions, they returned to the island where they had fixed their habitation. Thence they went on toward Italy, capturing and plundering Pisa and other cities.

This would continue on nearly uninterrupted for many years. In 885, the Vikings hit Paris according to the Abbo's Wars of Count Odo with the Northmen in the Reign of Charles the Fat in which the devsation was so bad that the “suffering not only from the sword outside but also from a pestilence within which brought death to many noble men.” However, much of this would end when some Vikings decided that it was time to establish themselves and start a franchise. Early during the 10th century, Rollo, the son of the second early of Orkney, decided to go on an adventure of his own to carve out a piece of land he could call his own and to profit from and focused his sights on France. Before 900, Rollo did hit and run raids along the French coasts. After 900, Rollo and his army decided to settle on French soil between the Seine and Loire rivers and became colonist. However, this did not stop Rollo from raiding, as he would hit Paris in 910 and Chartres. King Charles decided to end this hostility by meeting with the Viking at St. Clair-sur-Epte, which borders the eastern boundary of Viking territory, and agreed to a peace deal in which Rollo would swear allegiance to Charles and vowing to protect French lands from other Viking attacks. After the agreement, Rollo was Baptized Robert in 912 and became the first duke of Normandy.


In the late 8th century, a group of sea nomads took to the sea to find their fortune through political means for economical existence. Once they found a host wealth enough to feed their needs, they eventually settled down and went from colonist to merchants, thus creating a sea states that eventually would turn into kingdoms.



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