The Scandinavian Invasions in England

 

By the 8th c. Norwegian Vikings made their first attacks on England. In the 9th century Wessex succeeded in consolidating all the kingdoms into a unified country, which broke up the tribal structure and advanced the feudalism society. But it was not possible yet to call England to be the centralized state. The big landowners were as strong as ever and separate regions retained their political independence.

The invaders who in 793 started their predatory expeditions with the ruthless destruction of the Lindisfarne abbey and wholesale slaughter of the people who lived there. It was two Scandinavian tribes Danes and Norwegians. Danes became the invaders of England and the Norwegians invaded Scotland and Ireland.

The Vikings were very skilful warriors and seamen; they were brave, courageous and ferocious fighters. The green meadows, mild climate, rich soil attracted the Vikings. They found the English kingdoms weak and easy to invade. The Scandinavians could afford to equip a huge host, transfer their activities to England launching annual expeditions that inaugurated a whole epoch of slaughter and suffering that lasted practically about three centuries. The Danes surpassed the Anglo-Saxons in military skill and in military equipment. They had improved weapons, long, high-speed ships, iron axes, swords, iron helmets and firm shields and chain armour while the Anglo-Saxons had knives and spears and far from being protected with iron mesh could only boast leather covering.

The traditional date of the Germanic invasion on the British Isles is 449-450 A.D.

The runic alphabet is a specifically Germanic one, which cannot be found in other Indo-European languages. The Vikings’ tactics was very unusual, they knew tricks of lightning –speed attack, getting where they wanted in their long ships with the high stern and pointed bow, landing quickly, getting all the horses available and attacking on horseback, building stockades and retreating behind them if necessary to rally for new attacks.

The traditional date of the Germanic invasion on the British Isles is 449-450 A.D.

The runic alphabet is a specifically Germanic one, which cannot be found in other Indo-European languages. The Vikings’ tactics was very unusual, they knew tricks of lightning –speed attack, getting where they wanted in their long ships with the high stern and pointed bow, landing quickly, getting all the horses available and attacking on horseback, building stockades and retreating behind them if necessary to rally for new attacks.

The Vikings’ armed forces attacked London and burned it up in 842 and in the year 850 they stayed to winter in England instead of withdrawing. And in the sixties of the 9th century they founded their first permanent settlements. Having founded the military settlements and camps they started to invade the country, moving to the depth of the island. In 871 they founded a fortified camp in Reading that served them as a base for their further push.

The struggle of the English against the Scandinavians lasted over 300 years; during this period the invaders occupied more than half of England. At first there were small raids but by the 9th century. The raids increased and the Danes subdued Northumbria and East Anglia, ravaged the eastern part of Mercia, and advanced on Wessex. The Scandinavians came to England in large numbers to settle in the new areas. They began to mix up with the English people because they were of the came Germanic group. The communication between the newcomers and the local population was easy one because their languages were of the same group too.

The Viking incursions had destroyed many of monasteries in the north and east of England, and it was in these monasteries in particular that learning had flourished in the 8th and in the 9th centuries. That learning was based on knowledge of Latin. It is therefore, understandable that Bede should be a famous author who wrote in Latin, not in English. Other learned men of the pre-Viking age – such as Aldhelm, Alcuin and Boniface – all used Latin as their principal medium of written communication. England was one place where the torch of learning was kept alight – but that learning was Latinate. However, not all learning in England was in Latin in that time. “Cadmon’s Hymn” and the runic inscriptions with parts of The Dream of the Rood found on the Ruthwell cross show that poetry in English was composed on religious themes in Northumbria. In Mercia the poet Cynewulf wrote a number of poems which are still extant in English, and translations such as the Life of St Chad are extant. Although text written by English scholars in Latin could be read all over Europe and therefore stood a better chance of survival, texts written in any variety of English where probably for local consumption and so easily have been lost when the monasteries were destroyed.

The effect of the Scandinavian invasion on the English language became manifest at a later date in the 12th c. when the Scandinavian elements began to penetrate into the central dialects of the Old English language.

The kingdom of Wessex resisted stubbornly. The King of Wessex, Alfred (871-899) was at the head of that resistance. The year 871 was called “Alfred’s great years of battles”. The Danes encountered staunch resistance and finally they had to make a truce with young king. After that period Scandinavians changed their tactics they found new forms of invasion – such as settling down to found kingdoms. That was done in Northumbria and East Anglia. In 872 the Scandinavian attacks increased in strength and number, so that in 878 Alfred with his armed forces were driven into the Somerset marshes where they took refuge in the island of Athelney. This place was the center of the guerillas and the place of the beginning of the struggle for the national independence. At first they fought against the outnumbered Scandinavian army, but then the people began to join him in his marshy citadel and gradually Alfred gathered a great force. After thorough preparations and training the army Alfred started to learn the strategy and tactics of the Danes to imitate them. The Saxons put to rout the Danes at Ethandune.

In 878, the English concluded the peace treaty with the Scandinavians. England was divided into two halves: the northeastern half under Danish controls Dane lag and the southeastern under the leadership of Wessex. Alfred the Great made vigorous efforts to restore the country’s economy and build up its military potential so as to secure it against invasions. Every nobleman got a certain number of hides (hide estate sufficient to support one family, measure of land about 100-120 acres) of land to serve in the army. He built a lot of fortifications in key points along frontier with permanent detachments of professional soldiers to defend the country in case of the Scandinavian attacks. Later on these fortified camps developed into towns.

The reconquest of the areas under the Danish control began in the early 10th century but the Danish raids were renewed again and in the early 11 th century the Scandinavians at the head of Sweyn and Canute achieved the success. The English kingdoms had to pay regularly large sums of money (Danegeld “Danish money”). Canute was declared as king, and England became part of a great northern empire, comprising Denmark and Norway. The rein of Canute was marked by a growing unwillingness on the part of the thanes and knights to continue as professional warriors and the king had to create a permanent army of well-trained soldiers who were paid for their service. Thus taxes for hired soldiers from the Anglo-Saxons peasants increased. Henceforth the English tax payers were in fact supporting the permanent army.

It was during Canute’s rein that the Godwin family came to power in England, that was, south- west of the line marking the “Danelaw” territory.

After Canute’s death (1035) and then the death of his son (the last one, childless, died in 1042] his kingdom broke up and England regained political independence. The Godwin family [Godwin held three of the six earldoms of the country] succeeded in restoring the Old Saxon dynasty to the throne of England. Thus, Edward, son of Aethelred was brought back from Normandy. Weak-willed and undistinguished, he prepared the ground for the Norman conquest of England.

With the founding of Scandinavian settlements the first place names of Danish and Norwegian origins appeared. These names are still found in different parts of England, Scotland Ireland and the Isle of Man. There are 1,400 places, which bear the Scandinavian names. Most of these are naturally in the north and the east of England, the districts that were under Danelag (Danish Law) for it was here the majority of invaders settled. The most common Scandinavian elements in place names are: by “farm, village”. - Coningsby “king’s village”, Denby “Danes ’ village”, Derby “animal farm”, Ingleby “village of the English”, Sowerby, Surby “swampy farm” – “homestead” – This element is chiefly Danish Bratoft “broad homestead”, Wigtoft “homestead on the creek.

There are groups of names which include a compound names of Norse – Gaelic background, or mixed Scandinavian – English” for example: Kirkcolm “Columba’s church”, Kirkpatrick B. Patrick’s church”, Kirkbride “St Bride’s church”.

The Scandinavian invaders were no further from the Anglo-Saxons. They belonged to the Northern branch of the Germanic people while the Anglo-Saxons were the western one, and the Goths being the eastern one. They were gradually assimilated. The Scandinavian words enriched the Anglo-Saxons vocabulary.

 

 







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