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FROM VIKING RAIDS TO KING CNUT
The story of the Viking raids on England is perhaps best told in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There are several different versions of the Chronicle, now known by the places they were kept -- Winchester, Peterborough, Abingdon and so on. They are unique in being written in the vernacular, the Anglo-Saxon language, rather than Latin, by people contemporary or nearly contemporary with the events they record. Most importantly, several of them cover the entire period of Viking attacks. There are some gaps and biases, different traditions and additions from various sources. For most of the Viking Age, there is a central core of information, while the different versions have their own local additions. Some parts of the tradition show the influence of a kind of royal public relations office, other parts blame the king. But whatever the flaws and unevenness of the Chronicle, it seems to tell a broadly reliable story.
Much of the detail we would like to know about, the kind of detail that catches our attention, is lacking in the Chronicle. The entries are frustratingly spare. We can supplement the information from poems and letters, saints' lives and later histories, from archaeology and place-names. It has to be admitted that not all the information we might glean from these sources is quite reliable. Even with this material we often have what amounts to a series of cinematic stills rather than a proper feature film, but there is enough material to give colour and life to the picture. We have an incomplete, but gripping story. It is to that story of the Vikings in England that we turn now.
In many ways the Vikings were doing what the Germanic peoples had done for centuries. Tacitus, a Roman historian in the first century, saw that the Germanic tribes preferred to raid each other rather than do the hard graft of farming for themselves. Their code of honor was born out of, and sustained by, constant raiding. Saxon raiders annoyed the Romans in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain is not dissimilar from the Viking conquest of the northern and eastern parts of England, the Danelaw. The Anglo-Saxon kings maintained this predatory warfare against the Celts and each other. So what was new about the Vikings?
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle towards the end of the eighth century shows that while warfare was not unusual, the main preoccupations of those in power in England by this time were to do with the church and power politics. There was a fight for the crown of Wessex in which 85 men died in 786, and some nasty feuding in Northumbria. But for many of the years, versions of the Chronicle read like 'clergy movements' and obituaries pages from a modern religious newspaper: 'Archbishop thelberht died', 'Eanbald was consecrated arch-bishop', 'Abbot Botwine died', and so on. And to continue the analogy, the entry for 787 is a banner headline, shocking and unprecedented: 'Contentious synod at Chelsea'! Struggles for power were going on, but they were internal and domestic.
The chroniclers are absolutely clear that something new was happening when the Vikings arrived:
'789. [In the days of King Beorhtric] three ships came for the first time. The reeve rode over to them and wanted to force them to go to the king's residence, because he did not know what they were. He was killed. Those were the first ships of Danish men that came to the land of the English.'
This chronicler misses out some of the details we would like to know in the process of emphasizing the novelty of the attack and the nature of the men. Several versions of the Chronicle give further detail, principally that the 'Danes' were Northmen 'of Heretha lande', that is from Hordaland, the area around Bergen in Norway. Since it was the Danes and not the Norwegians who were the main attackers later in England, the use of the word 'Danes' to identify Vikings must come from a later time when it was the Danes who were attacking England. The Annals of St Neot's, a Latin chronicle, adds that the three ships arrived at Portland, near Dorchester. Another chronicler, thelweard, writing towards the end of the 10th century, and possibly using a lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tells the story in his florid Latin. He does not provide much more information, but elaborates the suddenness of the attack, gives the reeve's name and mentions that his men were killed along with him:
'When the very pious King Beorhtric was ruling over the domains of the West Saxons, the people spread over their fields were then making furrows in the grimy earth in serene tranquillity, and the burden-bearing frames ... of the oxen placed their necks under the yoke in nearest love. Suddenly a not very large fleet of the Danes arrived, speedy vessels to the number of three: that was their first arrival. At the report the king's reeve, who was then in the town called Dorchester, leapt on his horse, sped to the harbor with a few men (for he thought they were merchants rather than marauders), and admonishing them in an authoritative manner, gave orders that they should be driven to the royal town. And he and his companions were killed by them on the spot. The name of the reeve was Beaduheard.'
All the writers who tell this event stress that this was the first time that the Scandinavians came, implying that it was similar to the way they came later. It was a kind of portent of what was to come. They emphasize that the over-conscientious steward failed to understand the sort of people he was dealing with. There was a clear distinction in their minds between merchants and marauders.