The Age of Vikings
So, this post somewhat follows my statement that I would take a break from posts about wars of the past. In its essence, the Viking raids were not so much of an official war as they were a series of invasions of England and other territories.
First, some contextualization. The wars and conflict brought about by the Vikings lasted roughly from the 800s to the 1000s C.E. Contrary to popular belief, the Vikings were not a ragtag group of disorganized barbarians that wandered across Northern seas; rather, they rather a well-organized and disciplined fighting force. While it is true that there were numerous Viking clans at any given time, they were well regulated by their own leadership and occasionally would work together. Though the Vikings would conquer as far as Northern North America (and be absolutely crushed by the Native Americans), this post will center around the Viking invasions of England.
The first recorded instance of conflict resulting from Viking invasions was in 793 C.E., when a monastery (a type of community of Christian monks) was raided. In fact, Vikings would often target monasteries more than any other objective for raids, as these communities were usually poorly defended and held many valuable objects. Essentially, the Age of Vikings began as a series of numerous and somewhat random acts of pillaging the English coastline.
However, by the late 800s, the Viking armies had become quite organized. Just before the year 850, Wessex was victim to a naval invasion of Vikings and nearly fell. The clans of England (England was not so much of a unified nation at this point as it was a collection of smaller kingdoms), at this point, began to rally in response to the Viking invaders. York became a heavy area of conflict during the first few centuries of this age, with forces from both sides more or less repeating the same battles over and over.
The Vikings were also very good at picking and choosing their battles. They would often infiltrate fortresses, posing as civilians or monks, and spy on them to determine the defenses of targets. They would also target civilizations and communities that were perhaps lowly populated, or ones with people who did not get along well or where disputes already existed that would hinder the ability of a local populace to come together in defense of their land.
The Vikings fought quite valiantly, and this was largely because they would earn honor if they fought well in battle, and, if they died in battle, as long as they died an honorable death, they would earn a high place in the afterlife. With these beliefs, the Vikings pretty much fought as if nothing mattered, making them deadly combatants and enemies on the battlefield. As I’m sure you have already guessed, Vikings were not too keen on treating conquered peoples well. Their interests were in looting and pillaging, and as to the civilian populations of taken lands, they would most likely face slavery (called “thralls” in Old Norse), torture, or execution.
Finally, Alfred the Great of Wessex managed to take back much of England from the Vikings in the late 800s. After the 1000s, the Viking raids would gradually become more and more infrequent and on far less of a scale than they had been in the past. But who technically won in the Viking Age? While the Vikings ultimately declined in number and then vanished as a people by the 1000s, all empires and nations will at some point fall, so it is important to look at this matter relative to their time.
The Vikings, in this essence, easily had the English peoples outdone. They were more organized, more ruthless, and overall won more skirmishes than their English counterparts. Even as the Vikings attempted and failed to take Sussex in the late years of their age (thanks to William the Bastard), the era forged and defined by the Vikings was nearly over.
I would not, in any instance, want to have lived in England during any time before 1600. Not even four hundred years before the Vikings arrived, the Romans had just left Britannia. This post more or less shows how simply miserable the Middle Ages were for those living in that era of history. Yet, it also shows how fun it is for us historians today to study! So, at least there’s that benefit.