History lesson: How Viking conquest shaped England

Poster fo The Story of Medieval England, with a castle as the background image

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Paxton held the Washington, D.C., lodge of the Sons of Norway spellbound as she spoke on the topic, “How the Vikings Changed England.” She began with the surprising assertion that England would not be England today if it were not for the Vikings.

All in attendance perked up, eager to hear Paxton prove her assertion. She certainly had the credentials. A professor in the History Department at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., with a B.A. from Yale and a PhD from Harvard University, she teaches courses in medieval Britain, the world of the Crusades, and medieval Ireland.

Photo courtesy of the Catholic University of America
If you can’t see Jennifer Paxton speak in person, you can get the benefit of her scholarship in her Great Course on Medieval England.

Although many had tried, the Vikings were the only people to successfully conquer England, and they conquered it twice! Their first conquest lasted 100 years (roughly 850–950). To be truthful, they did not control the whole country. They did, however, leave a rich legacy on the landscape and the language. But most importantly, the English can thank the Vikings for England itself.

When the Vikings arrived in A.D. 850, England was divided into many smaller units, either of indigenous people or Anglo-Saxons. There was no England but seven kingdoms: Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, Wessex, and Northumbria, which was one of the most severely affected by the Vikings. The Kingdom of Mercia dominated southern England and then lost to Wessex. At this time the Vikings had started spreading out from Scandinavia. They became well known for their plundering. In fact, some linguists believe that the word viking was a verb that meant to plunder.

In the late eighth century, they attacked Ireland and Scotland. Their policy was “smash and grab,” especially in churches. They traveled with a few ships with as many as 60 men each. Then in 840 they “went corporate.” They started traveling with 50 or 60 ships with a total of a thousand men.

In 850 Danish Vikings under Ivar the Boneless arrived in England. In 860 another army arrived that was known simply as “The Army,” which gives us an idea of its formidable importance. They set up the Kingdom of York and in 870 captured Edmund, the King of East Anglia, and killed him, supposedly by shooting him full of arrows and then, for good measure, beheading him.

All of the eastern part of the island was now under Viking control. The Vikings then came to settle and they called for their wives and other family members. Many of the names they gave to places are still in use today. For example, the word by meant farmstead or village and any English town with a name ending in -by is probably of Viking origin. Examples include Whitby (white farm) or Wetherby (Wether sheep farmstead). Other frequently found endings are –thorpe (secondary settlement), -kirk (church), and -keld (spring). The word gata meant street and many streets have names ending in gate such as Coppergate in York.

Many Scandinavian words entered the English language including anger, birth, cake, blunder, give, take, awkward, berserk, happy, and they and them.

The kingdom of Wessex was able to create a unified kingdom of England because the Vikings had destroyed all the other kingdoms, so when Wessex defeated the Vikings, they were now the only game in town!

The second conquest lasted from 1013 or so until 1042. This was a more total conquest because England was now a unified country. Therefore, when the Vikings defeated the English king, they were able to seize control of the entire country.

In 1042, the Viking line died out and was replaced by an Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor. When Edward died without heirs, William, the Duke of Normandy, conquered England in 1066. His feat became known as the famous Norman Conquest of 1066.

The Vikings threatened to conquer England a third time in the 1070s, but William the Conqueror paid them to go home!

Professor Paxton enthralled her audience with her knowledge and her passion for the subject. The space herein does not allow for a complete rendering of all the details of her stimulating talk. If you are interested, you can listen to two courses that she has created for “The Great Courses: Story of Medieval England: From King Arthur to the Tudor Conquest” and “1066: The Year That Changed Everything.” Go to www.thegreatcourses.com and search Jennifer Paxton.

This article originally appeared in the July 14, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.