The First Reported Contact Between Britain and Vikings

 

The anonymous author of the early sections of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was the first known source to write about a Viking raid in Britain. In the entry for the Anglo-Saxon year 787 (often equated by modern historians to year 789 CE), it was reported that three ships of “Northmen” arrived near the Kingdom of Wessex from the so-called “Hæretha Lands,” or the land of robbers. Some believe the description of the Northmen’s homeland refers to Hordaland, Norway, while other think it refers to Denmark. While it is plausible that these or other Vikings had attacked different regions during the time it took for the three northern longships to make their way toward Wessex, the chronicler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle believed that the vessels off the coast of Wessex were “the first ships of Danish men that sought the land of the English race” (ASC 787 [789]).

At the time, King Beorhtric ruled Wessex and one of his reeves (basically a sheriff) discovered the northern strangers on the coast. As the Kingdom of Wessex had reportedly had no contact with Vikings before, the reeve did not know what to expect from the foreigners. Therefore, the dutiful official rode down to the beach to meet with the sailors, likely thinking them to be merchants or diplomats. He reportedly planned to guide the Vikings to meet with King Beorhtric, but the poor reeve quickly discovered that the Northmen had not come to Wessex for diplomacy. Instead of friendly discourse, the Vikings killed the reeve and presumably raided some nearby villages before disappearing back into the sea.

After the death of the reeve, no more Viking attacks were reported for several years. During that span of time, perhaps the Anglo-Saxons believed the reeve’s death was an accident or a product of failed diplomacy. Yet, word finally began to spread around Christendom about the nature of the Vikings after 793—in that year, Vikings raided the monastery of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, looting the sanctuary and killing some of the monks. While the death of the reeve only caused some grumbling in Wessex, the raid on Lindisfarne horrified many throughout Europe. It was about time they worried, for the raids would only get worse in the years to come.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Painting of a Viking Raid by Ferdinand Leeke (1859–1937), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in The Viking Age: A Reader, edited by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald. Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2010.
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • http://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/ang08.asp#b30

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