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Fury from the North 814-1042

“. . FROM THE FURY OF THE NORTHMEN, Good Lord, deliver us.” Until recent times, this line was included in the prayer book used by the Church of England. The raids of the Norse Vikings on Britain were so terrible that the victims never forgot them. For generations the memory of the savage Norsemen was kept alive and Englishmen repeated this prayer for more than a thousand years. It was not only Britain that felt the fury of the Norsemen; they raided the European continent as well.

The Norsemen’s ships themselves seemed to threaten terror. The hull of a Viking ship was long and narrow, bristling with sweeping oars and studded with round, brightly painted shields. The square sail was painted with coloured stripes and the towering bow was carved into a dragon’s head. When the ships reached shore, their threat of terror proved to be no empty one. A swarm of blond, heavily bearded warriors leaped from the decks and stormed inland, looting, burning, killing. A French chronicler, writing of the Viking invasions, said, “They destroyed houses and razed monasteries and churches to the ground and brought to their death the servants of our holy religion by famine and sword, or sold them beyond the sea. They killed the dwellers in the land and none could resist them. . . . The Northmen ceased not to take Christian people captive and to kill them and to destroy churches and houses and burn villages. Through the streets lay bodies of the clergy, of laymen, nobles and others, of women, children and suckling babes. There was no road nor place where the dead did not lie; and all who saw Christian people slaughtered were filled with sorrow and despair.”


The Norsemen, or Northmen, came from the Scandinavian lands which would later be known as Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Whenever they set out in search of trade or booty, they said, in their own language, that they were “going a-viking”– and so they were called Vikings. Until the ninth century, when the Viking fleets began to appear on the shores of southern Europe, Scandinavia was an almost unknown country. The Vikings were still pagan when the rest of Europe was Christian. They were brutal and primitive, but they were masters of shipbuilding and sailing.

Although small parties of Norse traders had been sailing south for years, the Viking invasions of Britain, Ireland and Europe began shortly after the death of Charlemagne in 814. Within the next 200 years, the Vikings helped to speed the collapse of the Carolingian empire, established a kingdom in Ireland, conquered part of England and France, founded colonies in Russia, settled Iceland and discovered Greenland and the North American continent. For the Vikings were more than plunderers and pirates; they were eager for trade.

Sometimes, too, they hoped to escape political oppression in Scandinavia and find new homes. In 872, a Norse warrior named Harold Fairhaired won a great tribal battle and declared himself King of Norway. Many of the defeated clan chiefs, called “jarls,” set out for foreign lands with their tribes. When they arrived, they established new homes in the only way they knew — by conquering the local inhabitants, taking over their territory and setting up their own communities.


Among the lands which suffered most from the Viking invasions were Ireland, Britain and France. For centuries Ireland had been ruled by petty kings, or clan chiefs, who governed their people and a certain portion of land. The island had been converted to Christianity about the year 400, by a young Briton known to history as Saint Patrick. The Christian faith had a great effect on the Irish. Many monasteries and churches sprang up and Irish scholars and missionaries became respected throughout Europe. The Vikings almost destroyed Irish culture. They remained a destructive force until 1014, when they were defeated by the Irish chieftain Brian of Munster at Dublin.


It is likely that the Vikings first learned of Iceland from the Irish monks who had visited Iceland as missionaries. The Norse colonization began in 874, after Igolf Arnarson was driven out of Norway and began seeking a new homeland. The colony grew rapidly and in the year 1000 it adopted Christianity. The Vikings of Iceland produced a remarkable literature. In epic poems, called “sagas,” they preserved the old Norse traditions and the stories of the pagan gods.

The Vikings had struck out for Iceland after invading Ireland; from Iceland they pushed farther west to Greenland. There Eric the Red founded a colony in 986. His son, Leif Erikson, decided to sail still farther west, across the Atlantic Ocean, to see what lay beyond the sea. The voyage was long and dangerous, for the Vikings navigated by dead reckoning — by observing the position of the sun and the stars. Even so, Lief and his crew discovered and explored the northeast coast of North America. They failed in their attempt to plant a colony, but ancient Norse writings mention the new lands of Markland, Hulluland and Vinland. These regions are probably what today are known as Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Cape Cod.

Viking attacks along the northeastern coast of Britain began in the late 700’s. They continued for 150 years, until finally a Danish king sat on the English throne. When the first Danish Vikings invaded Britain, the land was divided into several small kingdoms under weak kings. No one could stop the savage Danes and they overran the whole of eastern England, taking the cities of Canterbury, London, Surrey and York. “The Danes got the victory,” wrote one chronicler, “and slew the king and subdued all the land and destroyed all the churches and monasteries.”


The Danes met little opposition in Britain until 871. That year King Alfred the Great of Wessex, the West-Saxon kingdom, succeeded in uniting his people and stopping the advancing Danes. Alfred was unable to push them out of Britain altogether, so he signed a treaty giving them a large portion of eastern England, which became known as the Danelaw. The Danelaw became practically a Danish nation on English soil, but it kept the Danes confined within a certain area and prevented them from spreading into the rest of Britain.


Alfred was still not satisfied. He set out to win back the Danelaw, setting up large forts on the lands he took. What Alfred began, King Athelstan finished and by 940 all of the Danelaw was in English hands. For some years there was peace — a peace that was broken in 980 by a second Danish invasion, led by King Sven Forkedbeard. The English king at that time was Athelred and he decided that he could not fight off the Danes. Instead, he paid them to stay out of England. The payment was called Danegeld and now, of course, the Danes had a perfect excuse to return — to collect the Danegeld. They did return from year to year and if the English did not pay, the Danes raided them. Finally, in 1016, Sven’s son, Canute, seized the English throne. He was the King Canute who, according to legend, sat on a beach and commanded the tide of the ocean to stop rolling in. The waves kept coming and Canute got his feet thoroughly wet.

In spite of his experience with the tide, Canute was a strong and powerful king. His two sons, who ruled after him, were not nearly so powerful and in 1042, a descendant of Alfred the Great took the throne. His name was Edward the Confessor and he would be remembered as the founder of Westminster Abbey, the great cathedral which became the final resting place for kings and queens and other notable persons.

To the Vikings, the coastline of western Europe, broken by many wide, navigable rivers, was an invitation to invade the former empire of Charlemagne. They went up the Somme, the Seine, the Rhine and the Loire rivers into the heart of the European continent. From France they moved on to the coasts of Spain and Italy.

Charlemagne’s empire had been divided into three kingdoms, each ruled by one of his grandsons and this gave the Vikings a great advantage. The three kings were weak and had no talent for warfare. Furthermore, the nobles, who wanted to gain power for themselves, refused to support the kings for fear of strengthening the monarchs’ power. The common people allied themselves to various nobles, who could protect them. The result was that there was no military force strong enough to oust the Vikings and the French, like the English, paid Danegeld to buy off the invaders.

During the ninth and the tenth centuries, Frankish kings paid out huge sums to the Norse chieftains, but buying off one group of invaders was no guarantee against invasions by other groups. Sailing up the Seine River, the Norsemen attacked Paris in 845, in 851 and in 861. In 885, they tried again, with an amazingly large force — 40,000 men and 700 vessels. The Parisians fought back. For ten months the people of the besieged city held out, under the inspired leadership of Gozelin, the bishop of Paris and Odo, the count of Paris. Food became scarce and to keep from starving the Parisians ate roots, acorns, dogs, cats and rats. Finally the Frankish king, Charles the Fat, bought off the Norsemen with gold and the promise that he would not interfere while they ravaged the province of Burgundy. This earned Charles the hatred of his subjects and soon afterward he left France, never to return. Paris was famous throughout Europe as a brave and heroic city and from the family of its courageous leader, the Count of Paris, would come the future kings of France.

After their failure to take Paris, the Norsemen became interested in establishing a permanent home for themselves in France. They had settled in large numbers along the coast opposite England and in 911 they signed a treaty with Charles the Simple of France giving them this land for their own. At first known as the Norselaw, the region was later called Normandy and its inhabitants Normans. Their duke, Hrolf, agreed to be a vassal of King Charles and within a hundred years the Normans became staunch Christians and adopted the language, customs and manners of France. A few decades later, the Norman conquest of England would change the whole pattern of life in the British Isles and have a great influence on western civilization.

While the Danes and the Norsemen were overrunning western Europe, the Swedish Vikings crossed the Baltic Sea and moved along the rivers toward the interior of Russia. Here they founded settlements and began trading with the Slavs. The Slavs called the newcomers Varangians and the great water route they established, from the Baltic to the Black Sea and the trading centres of Constantinople and Baghdad, came to be known as the Varangian Route. In 862 the Swedish chieftain Rurik founded a Viking state near Novgorod which became the basis of the Russian monarchy.


The Vikings were not the only invaders of Europe. From North Africa, Crete and southern Spain came the Moslems, whom the Europeans called Saracens. Followers of Mohammed, they believed that a sure way to attain Paradise was to slaughter non-believers. They poured into southern France and Italy, but in 849, when they were almost at the gates of Rome, they were turned back by troops under Pope Leo IV. No one, however, could dislodge them from Sicily, the island at the tip of the Italian boot. The Moslems held Sicily for two centuries, dominating the Mediterranean Sea and cutting off trade routes between western Europe and the Byzantine Empire.

Eastern Europe was threatened by a new wave of Mongolian invaders, the Magyars. Like the Huns, they were nomads, fierce fighters and magnificent horsemen. They used the bow and arrow with deadly precision, shooting as they rode their galloping horses. They swept across the steppes of southern Russia into western Germany and then into southern France and northern Italy. Like the Vikings before them, the Magyars collected tribute from weak kings and fearful nobles. This went on until 933, when they were defeated by a German army led by King Henry I.

After the middle of the tenth century, Europe was no longer threatened by either the Arabs or the barbarians and could develop its own way of life. Charlemagne’s former empire was now governed by weak kings who were constantly dividing and subdividing their realms into smaller and smaller portions. They were too weak to control the nobles — the powerful lords, counts and dukes who ruled their own lands, waging their own private wars, administering justice and coining money. The result was that the ordinary man no longer felt a tie of loyalty to his king. Instead, he pledged his allegiance to the nearest lord, who could offer him protection and the means of making a living and so, feudalism came into being; it would be a way of life and a system of government for centuries to come.

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