The 11th-century Norse onslaught on the British Isles

Has Norse terror been exaggerated? Or have revisionist historians gone too far in ‘rehabilitating’ the Vikings? Wayne Bartlett assesses the evidence.

Colour illustration of Irish warriors meeting Viking invaders in the early 11th century AD.
Irish warriors meet Viking invaders in the early 11th century AD.

Mention the word ‘Viking’ in polite company and the chances are that a certain image will be conjured. That image will probably involve a dragon-headed longship gliding in from the sea, falling on an unprotected and unprepared monastery, which is quickly overwhelmed, its monks slaughtered, its buildings left smouldering.

Large-scale Viking raiding began in the 8th century. It was followed by large-scale conquest in the North Sea zone during the 9th century. There was then a partial lull, before a second surge of Viking aggression began in the late 10th century.

This second surge was more powerful. The first wave had been led by independent warlords, standing at the head of relatively small raiding parties of a few hundred at most. The second wave was led by kings and other great lords, and Viking armies now numbered a thousand, two thousand, sometimes more. They enjoyed the advantage that they were a warrior elite – heavily armoured, well-armed, battle-hardened – and that longships and horses afforded them exceptional strategic mobility.

Colour illustration depicting Vikings storming into a building.
The Viking are here! But were they really as violent and brutal as they are traditionally depicted?

And then, of course, there were the Normans – the ‘Norsemen’ – who conquered England in 1066. The Duchy of Normandy was a feudal state founded by Viking warlords in the early 10th century. This was the warrior tradition of seaborne raiders transformed into a highly centralised polity, organised for war.

The Vikings in this image are people that inhabit our worst nightmares. It is a picture that was initially crafted by contemporary chroniclers, later amplified by saga-writers, who between them developed the image of a breed of men who were fearless adventurers, but also brutal barbarians.

For the Vikings, there was a great deal of loot on offer. But while the portable treasures of monasteries, royal estates, and even villages were attractive, this was probably not the main target for the raiders.

Colour illustration depicting a clash between Vikings and Anglo-Saxons
Vikings (left) versus Anglo-Saxons (right). But were the Vikings any more militaristic than the Anglo-Saxons themselves?

There was another commodity worth even more: human beings. The Vikings became the ultimate slavers, establishing a network that ran across Europe and beyond, to the Middle East and North Africa. Dublin, in particular, came to play a prominent part in these activities.

Contemporary chroniclers, in Ireland and Francia as much as in England, wrote of events on an almost annual basis, implying that the Christian world was under relentless attack.

The Viking invasion of England, for such it ultimately was, continued over a number of years. The size of the attacking forces seemed to get progressively larger, and the inability of the Anglo-Saxon forces to defend the country ever more apparent.

Colour depiction of the mythic Irish hero Cuchulainn, the subject of Irish sagas.
The mythic Irish hero Cúchulainn, the subject of Irish sagas, implies a contemporary warrior culture no less violent than that of the Vikings.

Large amounts of money were sucked out of the economy, both to pay off the attackers and also in futile attempts to strengthen the defences against them.

Atrocities were rife. In one infamous episode, the Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered by drunken Vikings while a hostage. Anglo-Saxon England teetered on the edge of national oblivion.

During the latter half of the 20th century, an alternative image emerged. While recognising that the events in which the Vikings were involved could on occasion be violent, historians now insisted that the negative impact of the Vikings on north-west Europe had been greatly exaggerated.

There is a mitigating factor here, for this was a violent age. In the closing years of the 8th century, Charlemagne had launched a series of assaults on the Saxons in Germany. Thousands died in the attacks that followed, and huge quantities of plunder were taken.

A romanticised reconstruction of the Battle of Clontarf, where Irish kings defeated a Viking invasion and saved Gaelic civilisation.
A romanticised reconstruction of the Battle of Clontarf, 23 April 1014, where the Irish kings defeated a Viking invasion and saved Gaelic civilisation.

Yet Charlemagne was a Christian ruler and his campaigns were waged in the name of Christianity. Many of the Saxons who were slaughtered died because they refused to give up their pagan beliefs and convert to the new faith. These were indeed violent times, but the savagery was not limited to pagan Vikings.

The Viking Age came to an end with the defeat of the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire in 1066. The same year, of course, William the Conqueror won his bloody victory at Hastings, fighting under a papal banner.  And less than four decades later, Crusader warriors would conquer Jerusalem, unleashing an orgy of bloodshed in the process – all in the name of Christianity.

So would the real Vikings please stand up? Which image is truly representative? Or is the truth of all this stranger than fiction? As we pull back the layers and reveal the Vikings for what they were, the picture that emerges is surprisingly complex; but not necessarily any less terrifying for all that.



This is an extract from a 14-page special feature on the Vikings, published in the November 2019 issue of Military History Matters

In our special this issue, Wayne Bartlett takes issue with ‘revisionist’ historians who doubt the barbarism of Viking warfare, arguing instead that the Vikings’ fearsome reputation is well deserved. Meanwhile, Jeffrey James focuses on the Viking ‘second wave’. He looks particularly at two decisive battles, Assandun (1016) and Clontarf (1014), which determined the respective fates of England and Ireland.

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