Medieval History

Viking raid on Lindisfarne

The Norse raid on Lindisfarne in 793: the beginning of the ‘Viking’ age in Britain?

Norse raiders attacked the holy island of Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast in an event that is generally accepted as the start of the ‘Viking’ period of British history.

The monastery on Lindisfarne had been established by Saint Aiden in the early 7th century, and grew to be an important centre of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Although the attack on the Holy Island was not the first time that Vikings had targeted Britain, it is notable due to being an assault on the holiest site in the kingdom of Northumbria and, arguably, Anglo-Saxon Britain. The raiders laid waste to the island, slaughtering the monks that lived there, and stealing vast quantities of treasure.

The island was probably targeted due to being both remote and wealthy, although Christian commentators at the time proposed other explanations. Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar who was working as a tutor in the Frankish kingdom, wrote to both the bishop of Lindisfarne and the Northumbrian king. His letters expressed upset at the attack but also questioned whether it was ‘the outcome of the sins of those who live there’.

Although the religious community on Lindisfarne survived the attack of 793, Viking raids on monasteries and other religious sites in Britain continued for many years. Consequently some of the best examples of early medieval religious metalwork have been found in Scandinavian graves from the time.

From the middle of the 9th century the Norsemen began to see Britain as a place for colonisation rather than plunder. Within a few decades they had established an area of independent rule known as the Danelaw, the legacy of which can be seen in many place names in the North of England and the East Midlands.

Æthelstan: the first Anglo-Saxon ‘king of all Britain’

July 12th 927 is the closest we have to a foundation date for England, when all the kings of Britain met at Eamont Bridge, near Penrith in Cumbria, to swear an oath of peace under the overlordship of Æthelstan. Having previously been king of the Anglo-Saxons, Æthelstan’s key success in 927 was conquering Viking York which placed the kingdom of Northumbria under his control and secured the submission of the northern kings.

Æthelstan was the son of Edward the Elder, and grandson of Alfred the Great, and his ancestors had already carved large chunks from Viking lands as far north as the River Humber. As such they customarily referred to themselves as ‘king of the Saxons’ or ‘king of the Anglo-Saxons’. However, securing the submission of the other British kings meant that Æthelstan could go further. Coins minted soon after the 927 oath referred to him as rex totius Britanniae or ‘king of all Britain’.

Despite the oath, Æthelstan’s rule over the north of England was still fragile and in 937 he faced the combined forces of Scots, Vikings and Strathclyde Britons under the command of Olaf Guthfrithson, Constantine II, and Owen I respectively. An account of the ensuing Battle of Brunanburh was recorded in a contemporary poem of the same name and was preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A further 52 other sources mention the battle, although realistically we know little about what happened other than Æthelstan and his army were victorious. This victory secured Anglo-Saxon control, and effectively laid out the map of the British Isles as we know them today.

Æthelred the Unready and the St Brice’s Day Massacre

On the 13th November 1002, the St Brice’s Day Massacre took place when king Æthelred the Unready “ordered slain all the Danish men who were in England”. Although it is believed that there was considerable loss of life, actual numbers of Danes who were killed following the order are unknown. However, recent archaeological excavations including two mass graves have begun to shed some light on the mystery.

Æthelred came to the throne when he was just 10 years old, following the assassination of his half-brother Edward the Martyr, who he succeeded. Suspicions over Æthelred’s involvement led to distrust of the new king, and meant that he did not secure the full loyalty of all his subjects. Danes already dominated large areas of northern and eastern England in what became known as the Danelaw, where Danes had practised self-rule since 878. However, they were able to exploit the divisions among Æthelred’s subjects by launching raids against coastal towns in southern England from 990 onwards. By 997 they were attacking Æthelred’s kingdom every year.

Æthelred paid significant amounts of silver and gold to the Danes as Danegeld, ‘Dane-payment’ in an attempt to stop the attacks but, in 1002 received information that the Danes planned to “beshrew him of his life, and afterwards all his council, and then have his kingdom without any resistance.” In response, Æthelred ordered the killing of all Danes in England, although it is unlikely that the killing extended into the Danelaw. For Æthelred, the massacre had little effect but to provoke a brutal retaliation by Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, who invaded the following year.

Coronation of Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England

On the 6th January 1066, Harold Godwinson was crowned king of England. Harold II was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, but reigned for barely nine months before being killed at the Battle of Hastings on the 14th October by Norman invaders led by William of Normandy.

The day before Harold’s coronation, Edward the Confessor died. He had suffered a series of strokes in late 1065 and lay in a coma for much of the remainder of his life. He died without an heir, and this sparked a succession crisis that culminated in the Norman invasion of England later that year.

The Normans claimed that Edward had promised the throne of England to William. Reported by various Norman chroniclers, the Bayeux Tapestry shows that Harold even swore an oath on sacred relics to support William’s claim to the English throne after becoming shipwrecked in 1064. The reliability of this story is debated by historians, especially since it goes against the English tradition that the new king would be chosen by the Witenaġemot – the “meeting of wise men”.

Whatever the truth of Edward’s promise and Harold’s meeting with William, Edward apparently regained consciousness and entrusted his kingdom to Harold for “protection” shortly before he died. When the Witenaġemot met on the 6th January they elected Harold as king, and his coronation took place the same day. Historians generally believe that this took place in Westminster Abbey, which had been built by Edward and had been consecrated just a few days earlier on the 28th December 1065. Hearing of Harold’s accession to the English throne, William soon began preparing to invade.

Harald Hardrada’s victory at the Battle of Fulford

On the 20th September 1066, Harald Hardrada – the Viking king – defeated his northern English enemies at the Battle of Fulford. The defeat of Harold Godwinson’s northern earls was disastrous for the new English king who was forced to rush north and defeat Hardrada himself, which in turn contributed to Godwinson’s later defeat at Hastings to William of Normandy.

The origins of Hardrada’s invasion lie in the conflicting claims to the throne after the death of Edward the Confessor. As one of the claimants, Hardrada had allied himself with Harold Godwinson’s banished brother Tostig. Having been blown across the North Sea by the very winds that famously left William’s fleet stuck on the Normandy coast, Hardrada met up with Tostig’s forces and they made their way to York.

The battlefield at Fulford was largely flat marshland – hardly ideal conditions for armed combat. However, the English took advantage of the River Ouse and the marshier ground to arrange their troops in such a way as to secure their flanks. Despite this, the fierce fighting that initially saw the Norwegians being driven back gave way to a counter-attack that led to Hardrada’s victory.

The Norwegians made their way to the city of York, which surrendered on condition that the city wasn’t forcibly entered. Hardrada then set up camp at Stamford Bridge, and it was here that he was surprised by Harold Godwinson five days later. Despite Harold’s victory here, however, defeat at Fulford had depleted the English army. This had a major impact on William the Conqueror’s successful invasion that occurred just a few weeks later.

The Norman Conquest

From the BBC’s History File series on Medieval Realms.

Brief overview of the Battle of Hastings

On the 14th October 1066, the Battle of Hastings was fought between Duke William II of Normandy and the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson. Harold’s defeat triggered the Norman conquest of England and the beginning of a new age in England’s rich monarchical history.

To call the battle the Battle of Hastings is actually misleading, since it was actually fought seven miles away from Hastings, near the modern town of Battle, although the 1087 Domesday Book ordered by William the Conqueror did describe it as the Battle of Hastings.

Less than four weeks before the battle, the northern English army had been defeated by King Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Fulford. Harold had been waiting on the south coast, expecting an invasion by William, but Hardrada’s invasion forced him to rush north where he defeated the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on the 25th September.

Conscious of the imminent Norman invasion, Harold immediately marched his battered troops south again on an exhausting journey averaging 27 miles a day. Having received news of William’s arrival on the way, Harold arrived at the battleground and took up a defensive position on top of Senlac Hill.

Contemporary accounts of the battle frequently contradict each other, so specific details are not known. However, most historians accept that the Anglo-Saxons formed a shield wall that was broken after the Norman knights staged a feigned retreat. Harold was killed on the battlefield. His exact cause of death isn’t known, but signalled the collapse of the English forces. William was crowned King of England on the 25th December.

Chaos in Westminster as William of Normandy crowned king of England

On the 25th December 1066, William of Normandy was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey. The event ended in chaos as Norman guards outside mistook the sounds of the cheering crowd inside for the start of a riot.

William, having defeated the English king Harold at the Battle of Hastings on the 14th October 1066, was forced to fight on after a number of English nobles nominated Edgar the Ætheling as the new king. When he crossed the Thames at Wallingford in early December he was met by Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who just a few weeks earlier had elected Edgar as king. However, he immediately abandoned Edgar and submitted to William, who soon marched to Berkhamsted where Edgar himself gave up his claim to the throne.

William’s coronation in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day saw both Norman and English nobility in attendance. Norman troops were stationed outside the abbey and in the surrounding streets in case of trouble while the coronation itself was conducted by Geoffrey, the Bishop of Coutances, and Ealdred, the Archbishop of York. The account of Orderic Vitalis, the Anglo-French chronicler of Norman England, tells how the assembled nobles cheered loudly when asked if they agreed to William becoming King of England.

The troops outside mistook these cheers for a fight between the Normans and English inside the church, so set fire to some of the English houses nearby before charging into the Abbey itself. The arrival of the troops panicked the coronation guests, many of whom fled the Abbey while the bishops frantically finished the ceremony amongst the commotion.

History Through Art – The Bayeux Tapesty

Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious

The Power of the Medieval Church