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  1. #1
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    A Prime Time History of Britain #3 - Nation Building

    As the people in Britain had started converting to Christianity, monasteries sprung up around the island. These buildings were the ultimate expressions of the faith of the local Kings. They offered more than merely spiritual comforts, though; all were part of an interconnected network, one that linked far-flung territories with the Mother Church in Rome. That also meant they were vital for trade. In an age when few were literate, monasteries were centres of learning. But reading and writing were not merely about education, but also power. The ability to write down not only the deeds but the wishes and commands of a monarch gave rise to legal systems and the ability to conceive of shared bonds outside of small areas. The nation-state would never have arisen without the monasteries.

    However, they were isolated communities, manned exclusively by men and women of God. There were no warriors in their midst. They were also the site of many treasures, symbols of secular power’s devotion to their faith. Poorly defended wealth made them an obvious target for a new set of invaders.

    The Vikings have gone down in history as one of the most terrifying prospects imaginable. Indeed, nothing else in the Medieval world seems to have captured the popular imagination quite so much. In truth, the time that they were active as a genuine threat is relatively short. They began near the end of the eighth century, and by the end of the following century, their progress had been checked, though not finally stopped. But it is hard to describe the terror that they inspired in the time of their first attacks. This is in no small part because as Pagans, they had no qualms about attacking unarmed men and women of God. Much of their reputation exists entirely because these were also the only people who could write their history.

    The first raid came in 739 CE, at the monastery in Lindisfarne. The wealth of the monastery was taken, and the monks were either killed or taken away as slaves. Some of them would be sold to slave markets as far away as Constantinople in an early example of international slave-trading. The success of the mission saw a spate of further Viking raids through the remainder of the century. These also occurred in Scotland, and all the way around to the West Coast of Ireland. In 795 CE, they would reach Columba’s monastery on Iona for the first time. But poor land for farming and exploitation in the cold climate of Scandinavia meant that in the following century, the Vikings did not come back simply to raid.



    England, Scotland, and Ireland were all settled at some level by the Vikings. The only country without a strong Norse or Danish presence is Wales. There are three reasons for this. One is geographic, as it is tucked away on the other side of the country. The second is economic – tucked away, it is surrounded by more attractive propositions with more productive land. And the third is that the one time a Dane did try to attack Wales, they were beaten on the Island of Anglesey by Rhodri ap Merfyn.

    The rest of the British Isles were not so fortunate. Dublin is the most famous city in Ireland, and yet it was first built by the Vikings in the ninth century as a stronghold. Some might think that the Irish population is heavily weighted to the east coast because that is the side on which you find their much larger neighbour. Though I’m sure that exacerbates things, in truth, it predates this period; many of the major towns and cities of Ireland on that coast were founded by the Vikings.

    Scotland also began to look very different although the effects differ depending on which part of the country you are looking at. In the land of the Gaels, Norwegian communities sprung up alongside the existing settlements. They co-existed rather than conquered but equally could not be shifted out, and it was only in time that they were assimilated into the wider Gaelic community. But in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the picture is more sinister. Genetic markers in the present-day inhabitants point to one likely explanation: genocide. Whether this was genocide by forced removal and exile or through simple eradication is anyone’s guess. But in the town of Lerwick, de facto capital of the Shetland Islands, the people still celebrate their decidedly Viking origins with the ritual burning of a replica Viking longboat.



    Despite the increased power of the Kings of Mercia, the English fared little better than their neighbours. Initially, Viking raiders from Denmark landed and conquered the Kingdoms of East Anglia, and Northumbria, giving them effective control of the entire East Coast of Britain. On the other hand, Saxon England seemed to think that money could solve all problems. They invented a system by which wrongs – even those such as murder – could be compensated financially. These payments were called weregeld, or man price. The Saxon solution was to try and pay the Danes to go away, an approach that was also taken up by the Franks further South. As with all cases of extortion, the Danes tended to come back, demanding more and more not to conquer the rest of the country. By the end, they had taken so much English cash that more Saxon coins from this period are now found in Denmark than Britain. The area under Danish control became known as the Danelaw, and as time went on Danes took key settlements in Mercia, driving Saxons from towns such as Nottingham, and instigating raids around the edge of Wessex.


    However, the Vikings were eventually assimilated into Irish society, and they never did successfully capture all of England or Scotland. Though they were never able to conquer either, it was the Vikings and the threat they posed that led to the eventual unification of both. It is an intriguing parallel that at similar times, each saw a figure emerge that was able to fight back against the Vikings and take a new place in our national mythologies. In England, the man was Alfred the Great, King of Wessex. In Scotland, it was Kenneth MacAlpin. Each has parallels with the Irish figure Brian Boru. Ireland, though, would only ever be unified for more than the briefest of interludes under British control.

    Kenneth became the King of the Picts almost by default. A massive battle between the Vikings and a multi-ethnic coalition of Northern groupings had seen the aristocracy of the North effectively wiped out. That left a power vacuum in Scotland, and Kenneth MacAlpin was the man to fill it. The legend has it that MacAlpin was able to step into the breach and gather the same coalition together again. This time, he saw off the Vikings for good, becoming the first King of Scotland in the process.

    On the South Coast of Britain, we find a similar story. King Alfred was initially as likely to pay the Vikings to leave Wessex alone as the Mercians had been, and the results were much the same. An invasion of Wessex by the Viking King of East Anglia, Guthrum, saw the capital of Winchester fall and Alfred was forced to flee to the obscurity of the Somerset marshland. This is the site of the most famous legend concerning this most famous of the ancient English kings. Alfred is travelling incognito and arrives at the home of a peasant woman, who asks him to watch her cakes while she is out. Distracted by his plight and how to launch a fightback, Alfred allows the cakes to burn. In one version of the story, Alfred takes his scolding without revealing his true identity. In another, he hides the evidence in the woods. It does not matter which you prefer as the whole story is a later invention.

    It is true, though, that Alfred fled into the marshes. By this point Mercia was no more than a satellite Kingdom of Wessex, so with the Vikings in his capital and Alfred on the run this represents the lowest ebb of Saxon England. Had Alfred been unable to mount a fightback, Viking England would have been a reality. Instead, Alfred was able to send out messengers who were able to raise the fyrds (the ancient English equivalent of a militia) of several shires. Alfred’s forces won the Battle of Edington, and from there chased Guthram and his men to Chippenham, where they were forced to surrender. Guthrum and his family converted to Christianity, and the threat of a Viking conquest of all England would always seem more remote after that. Crucially, Alfred had been inspired by a trip to Rome in his youth. It was there he conceived of a united England, free from pagan influence and standing like a rock of Christian values. Unlike other Saxon kings, Alfred had something more than a lust for power. He had a vision. Thus strengthened, Alfred became so powerful in this landscape that eventually Welsh kings would ally themselves to him and recognise that they owed him loyalty. It did them little harm in Alfred’s time. Still, his successors would use this submission as a justification for stricter control of the land on their western border.

    In later years, Alfred became known as the first King of England, while Kenneth received the moniker the first King of Scots. These titles attach themselves to major national symbols. History itself is always somewhat messier. England and Scotland would both have to wait to be unified. In England, the first true King of a united England would be Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, who finally conquered the Danish stronghold of Jorvik (York) in 927 CE. Kenneth remained King of the Picts while the Vikings retreated only to their existing strongholds in Western Scotland and the Islands. There would be more reverses before Scotland could unify in the same way.

    Kenneth’s heir proved weak when the Viking threat resurfaced, and he was eventually killed by a Gaelic noble. Giric was a refugee from the Vikings who found his way to the King of the Picts. Seeing him weak in the face of the threat that had already driven him from one home, he took the crown. Before he could secure his position by killing the heirs of the MacAlpin line, supporters spirited the two cousins – Donald and Constantine – away to other parts of Gaelic Ireland. These areas had familial connections to the MacAlpin’s rather than with Giric.

    This journey in their youth created something of a paradox, because when they returned, and Donald claimed the throne, they came back as Gaels, rather than Picts. Rather than turning the clock back on Giric’s reforms, they accelerated them, making Gaelic the official language and unifying the Kingdoms north of the Antonine Wall. By the time Donald died, he was no longer the King of the Picts, but the King of Alba. The inhabitants of Alba came to be known by the old Latin name for the Gaels – Alba was the land not of Picts or of Gaels, but of the Scots. When Donald died, and he was replaced by his cousin Constantine in 906 CE, he was crowned at Scone (pronounced Scoon), where he sat on a block that became known as the Stone of Destiny. The monarchs of Scotland would be crowned at Scone using that same stone for the next few centuries. It is not the last we will hear of the Stone of Scone.

    Those who know anything about the history between England and Scotland will not be surprised to learn that the two started fighting almost immediately. Athelstan’s army invaded Scotland and bottled up Constantine at Dunottar, near modern Aberdeen. Constantine agreed to pledge his loyalty to Athelstan, becoming a satellite Kingdom under English control. It was a promise he had no intention of keeping. In an unthinkable move, Constantine made peace with the remaining Viking settlements in Scottish territory, putting together a multi-ethnic group that would invade England.

    In 937, this army met Athelstan’s forces at a site called Brunanburh. We don’t know where it is today although there is some reason to believe it is somewhere along the banks of the River Mersey. Though reports from this period are obviously sketchy, there is reason to believe this is amongst the bloodiest of battles ever fought on British soil. Technically, the English had won, but they had taken such losses that any ambition to try and subdue Scotland disappeared. Even if the army could be beaten, the country could not be held. It would take more than Athelstan could afford to lose. In defeat, Constantine and the remnants of his army returned to Scotland. Still, their efforts guaranteed that Britain would be a land with at least two kingdoms on it, rather than a single Imperial power.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  2. #2
    Lamb of LOP anonymous's Avatar
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    Excellent as ever. I've actually been to Dublin a lot and the times I've been sober, I've really enjoyed visiting the Viking museums and tours. It really is fascinating how they still embrace it to this day.

    York (the greatest City in England) has some fantastic stuff too.

  3. #3
    The Brain
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    I never realized the Vikings had such a strong influence on this period, although I suppose I should have guessed as much from their notoriety. Lovely retelling as always, the story of the cakes burning struck me as an especially funny aside.

  4. #4
    Senior Member Gooner's Avatar
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    I have to say this is making from some great midnight-before-bed reading... read into that what you want!

    I'd always thought Vikings made a play for the British Isles but never settled, which I guess is slightly accurate given the amount of time they were around. If only they had Thor...



  5. #5
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Nony - Yes, York's a hugely important site for Viking stuff. Sadly, the Jorvik Viking Museum was badly flooded earlier this year. I'm hoping it won't be too damaging and they'll be able to bounce back. But yes, what a city! Would be on the list of places to visit for any Americans doing a tour of Britain. Thanks for the kind comments!

    Mizzie - That story is such a huge part of our national story. I reckon that there will be people who know nothing else about Alfred, even those people who think he's as fictional as King Arthur, will know of the story of the cakes here. Glad to be able to share that bit of myth-making with you!

    Gooner - Yeah, lots of Viking settlement here. There are parts of Northern England where they've done DNA tests and people have more genetic material in common with Scandinavians than they do people in Southern England. It's been thrown out as a reason for the North/South cultural divide, although that is almost certainly bollocks. As for the before bed thing.... I often like a documentary when I'm letting my brain wind down, so I'll take it as a compliment!


    Thanks to everyone for continuing to read. We're hitting some well-known bits and pieces next....

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

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