People from Scandinavia began to attack England from the end of the 8th century onwards. In 793 the Vikings sacked the monastery on Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumbria. This has traditionally been regarded as the start of the Viking Age in Britain.
Irish annals first record a Viking raid in 795, on Rathlin Island off Ireland’s north-east coast. In 798 there is a reference to the breaking of a shrine or reliquary, and also the seizing of cattle. Until the 820s, raids in Ireland were only occasional; in the years 813-21 there is no mention of Viking raids at all. The main evidence for Viking occupation of Ireland comes from Dublin. Some aspects of Viking-age Dublin are known through the study of old maps and drawings, place names and documentary records. The name Oxmantown, situated across the River Liffy from Dublin, indicates an area where the ‘ostmen’, the Hiberno-Norse Dubliners, lived after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. Most evidence of the Viking city of Dublin has come from large-scale archaeological excavations.
Shetland and Orkney
The Northern Isles are only 320km (200 miles) or two days sailing time from the western coast of Norway, and were obvious stepping-stones for the Vikings on their way to Britain. The islands offered the natural resources of the sea, the shore and the cliffs, which provided the mainstays of life, and there was plenty of pasture for sheep and other beasts. Orkney offered good arable land where corn could be grown; its greater economic potential made it the seat of Viking power in the islands. Modern historians believe that the leading family in the More district of Norway, south of Trondheim, established the earldom of Orkney. It was Rognvald of More who established his brother Sigurd the Mighty as first earl at some time in the later 9th century. The most famous Viking settlement site in the Northern Isles, Jarlshof, is on the southern tip of mainland Shetland. Excavations there have revealed a succession of buildings spanning 600 years of occupation.
Place names in the Western Isles suggest the settlement of speakers of Old Norse, whilst discoveries of silver hoards and burials suggest that the Vikings inhabited these islands in the 10th century, an unexplained contrast with the Northern Isles where most hoards were hidden in the 11th century.
The hoards and burials were found throughout the islands, from Lewis in the north to Islay in the south. An excavation on St Kilda, 65km (40 miles) out in the Atlantic to the west of the Hebrides revealed a Viking warrior who had been laid to rest beneath a cairn.
Written evidence also mentions Viking settlement on these islands:”Having landed in the west Ketil fought a number of battles and won them all. He conquered and took charge of the Hebrides, making peace and alliances with all the leading men there in the west.” (Eyrbrygga Saga, Chapter 1).
In 794 Vikings first attacked sites in northern Britain. At this time there was not a unified kingdom making up Scotland, just a series of independent territories occupied by several distinct peoples, including the Picts and the Scots. Evidence suggests that the Vikings invaded certain areas of Scotland, including the Outer Hebrides, Shetland, and some of Caithness and Sutherland, and settled there. The stretch of water between the Northern Isles (Shetland and Orkney) and the adjacent mainland (Caithness and Sutherland) was known by the Vikings as Pettlandsfjordur – ‘the firth of the Picts’. When the Vikings arrived the Picts controlled these areas as well as eastern and central Scotland. Vikings reached the north-west tip of Britain, which they called hvarf ‘the turning point’, known today as Cape Wrath. After they turned south they came upon what they called the Suthreys – ‘the southern islands’, known today as the western Isles or the Hebrides. Some of the Hebrides, including Iona, the adjacent mainland promontory of Kintyre and its surroundings in Argyll, formed the kingdom of Dalriada; these lands were controlled by the Scots, who originally came from north-east Ireland. In the Firth of Clyde, Vikings encountered the seat of the British kingdom of Strathclyde. The Strathclyde Britons shared a border to the east and south with an Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria that extended across the Lothians as far north as the Clyde-Forth line.
The Isle of Man
The Isle of Man was inhabited by British and Irish Christians at the start of the Viking Age. However, runic inscriptions suggest that both Norwegians and Danes settled on the island and place names there suggest that some Viking settlers had spent time in Ireland, Scotland or England.
The island still has its own parliament which meets at a stepped earthen mound called ‘Tynwald'; this is from an Old Norse name thingvvollr, meaning ‘assembly fields’, and reflects a system of government that goes back to the Viking Age.
The Isle of Man was probably an important settlement for the Vikings going about their business in Ireland, the Western Isles, mainland Scotland, Wales, and north-west England.
Vikings from Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Hebrides raided Wales, particularly coastal monasteries, from the 950s. There is no evidence for any Viking immigration and land-taking in Wales, as there was in England, nor for any long-lasting independent Viking power base such as Dublin. Wales was, however, part of the important Viking trading network around Britain and Ireland. Anglesey seems to have been a favoured port of call, and the natural haven of Red Wharf Bay in particular attracted traders. Archaeological evidence from Anglesey that demonstrates contact with Viking-age Ireland includes a hoard of five Hiberno-Viking arm rings.
Archaeological excavation has not uncovered any richly accompanied Viking graves like those found in other parts of Britain and Ireland. A simple burial on the coast at Talacre, Flintshire, in north Wales, in a stone cist, included a spearhead and knife.
Viking settlement in the north-west of England was unrecorded in any surviving Anglo-Saxon annals, but evidence suggests that they did settle here. An Irish source records how a Viking leader, Ingimund, in the early 10th century, was expelled from Dublin and eventually settled near Chester. Other evidence suggests substantial Viking settlement along the coast from the River Dee to the Solway Firth. Archaeological evidence from this area includes burials with Scandinavian affinities, including one at Beacon Hill in Cumbria;
some individual objects; a series of silver hoards; and some stone carvings.
The boundary separating Anglo-Saxon England from Viking England was defined in a treaty between King Alfred and King Guthrum in AD 880. This was written as follows: Up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, then up the Ouse to the Watling Street.
Although this political boundary had completely disappeared by 954, there were still social differences between areas of ‘English’ England and what had become Anglo-Scandinavian England. This is seen within the various Codes of Law that successive English kings issued which recognised that the laws of Anglo-Scandinavian areas might differ subtly from those in use elsewhere.
In the early 11th century Archbishop Wulfstan of York referred to the ‘Danelaw’. Unfortunately he didn’t define the geographical location of this area, which was probably the east and north of England. It is in these regions, however, where archaeological evidence demonstrates the greatest impact of Viking settlers on the landscape.