Vikings (Scandinavians) AS Context

Scandinavia (Vikings) The Anglo-Saxon ContextVikings oarwalk

Hlafdige Arastorm aka Tchipakkan mka Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor ©2015


To understand Anglo-Saxons we need to understand the people with whom they interacted, what came before and after. This series of workshops looks at the surrounding cultures through the lens of their interaction with the Anglo-Saxons. This workshop focuses on the Scandinavian cultures.


It is too easy to think of the “Vikings” raiding the English coasts, and forget the Danelaw or when England was part of the Danish Empire in the 11th century. We’ll try to differentiate between Norse and Danes; how they, from Vendel to Icelandic periods, dealt with the English, and explore a bit of the orther Norse- from Verangians and Rus to Hiberno-Norse/Norse-Gaels.

Roman writers occasionally mentioned Suiones (Swedish) & Gautoi (Geats), as barbarians beyond the borders of the Empire, and members of Germanic tribes were found as Foederati (non-Roman auxiliaries) in the Roman Legions. Also the Baltic was where many of the Jutes, Goths, Vandals, and others came from during the migration era. Jordanes write that the Heruli were driven from their homeland by the Dani (Danes). After they attacked the eastern Empire in the 3rd c., they were subjugated by Ostrogoths and Huns, then joined Odoacer against Rome in the 5th c., and were defeated by the Lombards (in northern Italy), and returned to Thule (Scandinavia) where they had retained ties. Similarly, settlers in Iceland, the Faroes, and the Danelaw retained very strong cultural identity to their homelands.


Norway was unified under Harald Fairhair in ~872 ce, and his harsh reign motivated some Norwegians to move to parts of England, Ireland (Dublin area), the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland. Harald put a Jarl to administer each fylki (collect fines). Their power lasted until the Hanseatic League weakened their power. Harald’s unification fell apart after his death, although Olaf the Stout united them again for a few years in the 11th century. Tradition says Olaf Christianized the Norse, although they continued to practice old traditions- he did a lot of forced baptism and torturing heathens.


Anglo-Saxon Connections:

Haakon the Good 934-961 was fostered in England by Æthylstan who gave him ships and men to win back his throne from his older brother Erik Bloodaxe, who’d been proclaimed king on their father Harald’s death. Promising tax relief, he ousted Erik, who moved to the Orkey’s and then Jorvik (in the Danelaw). Haakon was the first Norse Christian King, but did not convert Norway. Athylstan also fostered Alain of Brittany, and several other princes.

Cnut, son of Sweyn Forkbeard was king of England 1016-1035 (as well as King of Demark 2018 and Norway 1026 and Sigtuna, Sweden ). He married Emma wife of Æthylred Unrede, after his father (and Edmund Ironside, Æthylred’s son) died. His son Harthacnut was rejected by the English for spending too much time fighting Magnus of Norway for his Danish throne, so Harold Harfoot (left as regent) reigned 1035 – 1040


Migration Age culture is dominated by tribal organization, living in scattered farms, and hill fort. Families lived in bowed side long houses (18-27 meters long) with multiple generations and animals. They were organized in groups around the wealthiest farmers. In the 9th c. these clans Horder or fylki developed Things (assemblies) for settling disputes. A thingstead would contain a horg (open air sanctuary) or hof (temple). Most settled areas were near the coast, and due to the mountains, travel was best accomplished by sea. The Viking age lasted from 793 (first in England) to about 1000.

In Sweden the late Iron Age (550-790) is called the Vendel Period. The culture was based on Germanic style clans. Royal burial mounds and sacred grove mark Old Uppsala as a political and religious center. These people interacted with the new Slavic princedoms in the east and the Merovingians in the west. The name comes from boat inhumations found in Vendel (similar ones in Valsgärde). These graves showed an elite of mounted warriors with armor, stirrups and saddle ornaments decorated with gilded bronze birds of pray, set with garnets. In the historical record, they were mentioned by Jordanes who admired their horses. The Sutton Hoo helm direction is comparable to the Vendel and Valsgarde helms, and that burial has a lot in common with those ship burials.

Other kings from early Sweden include king Eadgils/Adils (6th c) and Hrolf Kraki/ Hroðulf. Hroðgars nephew in Beowulf (Bödvar) was probably also a 6th c. tale. Their trade centered on export of iron, fur and slaves. It was around this period that the longships began to have masts and sails rather than just being rowed (like the ships the Anglo-Saxons used).


The term “Viking” should specifically refer to the pirates who raided England, France and other cities. They came from various places in Scandenavia, but some Northmen in boats were merchants, others raiders, and some did both.

The Viking period is said to have started in 793, the first recorded raid After a century of simply raiding, the Danes shifted to taking land, (bringing over wives and children). They pulled together into a mycel heathen here (Great Heathen Army) in 865. and had nearly taken over England. They’d set up puppet kings in Bangurg and E. Anglia, and accepted tribute and land from Mercia. By 877 ce. only a small bunch of refugees from Wessex, hiding in a swamp, remained. Alfred managed to rally them, retook some land, and created a fortified line of burhs beyond which the Vikings could not expand, and his son and daughter Edward and Æðelflæd managed to push that line back until the Danelaw- the part ceded to the Danes, only encompassed Northumbria.

The Danelaw initially had the right to use their own traditional laws, although most were dropped or adapted when England was unified mid 10th c. In this area many Danish loan words entered the English Language. The Danes were heathen, but after a few decades most converted to Christianity. Being Christian reconciled those from mixed marriages, and won favor from the church and court.

In Ireland the Norse-Gaels (Ostmen) created fortified towns in a few coastal cities in the 9th and 10th centuries: Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, but maintained alliances with inland Irish Kings through large gifts/tribute, and intermarriage with Irish women. These were taken over by the Normans in 1169. Hiberno-Vikings also include those on the Isle of Man, Scotland Galloway), and York.

Harald Fairhair conquered the Hebrides, Man, Shetland and Orkney Islands, and sent Ketil Flatnose to keep them when they rebelled. He became King of the Isles- a position that was debatably independent in various periods.


Vikings started raiding England again in 997. Aethyred Unrede ordered the St. Brices’ Day Massacre: he “ordered slain all the Danish men who were in England” provoking Sweyn Forkbeard to attack England. Later, in 1013, he led a full invasion with many allies, was crowned King at Christmas, but died in February leaving England to Cnut, and Denmark to Harold II. Aethred returned, Cnut raised huge army, & Wessex surrendered in 1014, Swein died Cnut became king- marrying Aethylthred’s queen Emma, and had a very successful reign.

Cnut designated Earls (previously Eoldermen) as deputies over regions of England: Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia, initially Scandinavian followers, but gradually replaced by English nobility. (Godwin became earl of Wessex in 1030.) Kings companions were called Huscarls, and

Cnut’s sons Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut ruled after him- after which Edward the Confessor was brought back from Normandy.

The Baltic Scandinavians developed trade routes to the East. The Volga Route followed the Volga to the Caspian Sea nd aht Abbasid Caliphate and Samanid Emirate. The Greek Rout went down the Don to the Black Sea ending in Constantinople (Micklegard). In 922 Ibn Fadlan sent to Bulgars and traveled with the Rus he saw.


In Byzantium: Varangians were Mercenaries in Constantinople from the Rus/Novgorod The guard was first formed under Emperor Basil II after 988, after the Christianization of the Rus, it included Anglo-Saxons after the Norman Conquest. The Rus worked the Volga route to the Caspian the Arab Route, and down the Dnieper to Micklegard (the Greek route). They traded with Byzantium, raided them, married princesses.


When Charlemagne was having his 30 year Saxon Wars, Widukind, their leader (777 to 785 ce.) sometimes retreated to Denmark before giving in. In 808 Godfred, King of Denmark built the Danevirke across isthumus of Schleswig.


Christianization: The dates are ambiguous as they usually reflect the baptism of a few royals, or when a Saint was posted to the area. Haakon was Christianized as a fosterling of Aethylstan, but knew better than to push it, when he became king of Norway. In 1004 Olaf converted Norway, in 1000 Iceland voted that rather than have a civil religious war, they’d officially convert, but privately people could continue as they wished. In 829 ce St. Ansgar was sent to Sweden, but in the late 10th century there was still significant resistance. They preferred to blend Christian and pagan practice. Sigurd undertook a crusade against Smaland in the 12th c.



Judith Jesch, Women in the Viking Age, BOYE6, 1991

Jenny Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society, Cornell U Press, 1998

Richards, Julian D. , The Vikings: A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press, 2005

Anders Winroth, The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe, Yale Univ. Press, 2014


Map from article Visions of Vikings

Image from movie the Vikings, “because Oarwalking”


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