Why Did The Vikings Invade Britain

Why did the Vikings invade Britain: 5 reasons why Vikings came and settled in the Anglo‐Saxon Kingdom

Why did the Vikings invade Britain? Today, we’re going to discover how the Viking invasion of Britain unfolded, and explain why they targeted the region in first place. So, if you’re ready, let’s get started…

The Vikings were a group of seafaring warriors from Scandinavia who lived between the 8th and 11th centuries. They frequently left their homes, searching for lands where they could find wealth and settle down. One of their most famous conquests was Britain.

The Vikings were explorers known for raiding, trading and colonising different regions in the world. “Viking” means “a pirate raid” in the Old Norse language.

The Vikings left their homelands in Scandinavia to search for other lands where they could settle. They farmed, kept animals and grew crops and needed to look for fertile pastures where they could sustain themselves.

They travelled great distances in their longboats to trade goods and purchase silks, silver, wine, spices, glass, pottery and jewellery and bring them back to their villages.

The Vikings left behind very little information about themselves. We know about them from the writings of people in Asia, the Middle East and Europe that had encountered them. We also get a glimpse into their life through poetry, saga, treaties and archaeology.

Some accounts painted them as ruthless warriors who came down to the shores of new countries and fought with the locals, stole from churches and burned buildings to the ground.

Other stories depict them as peaceful settlers skilful at craft, boat building, metalwork and wooden carving.

Why did the Vikings invade Britain?

To get a better idea of the Viking’s intention to land new territory and what they did in other countries, let’s look at one of their most famous conquests: their invasion in Britain.

Why Did The Vikings Invade Britain

What were Viking raids like?

Raiding was an important part of Viking invasions. Boats full of fierce Viking warriors would sail across the seas to find and occupy new lands where they would execute their raids.

Vikings raided to enslave people and steal gold from monasteries. They often sold stolen goods to buy the things that they needed. Raiding was also a way of demonstrating bravery and loyalty to the Viking clans.

Raids were typically carried out during the summer when it was easier and safer to cross the sea from their home in Scandinavia. They would farm the land, grow crops, and raise animals during the rest of the year.

Most of what we know about Viking raids comes from the stories of survivors and not the Vikings themselves. Survivors recollect brutal killings, burning villages to the grounds by the Vikings who arrived in ships shaped like dragons.

In the later phases of the Viking age, instead of raiding and returning home, Vikings would settle in the lands that they raided. Many Viking settlements are found in nearby regions, such as coastal regions and islands in Scotland.

These include the Shetland Islands, Lerwick and Dingwall. Vikings were strategic when it came to how they raided. Raiding parties were usually made up of a small number of boats, each occupied by between 40 to 100 men depending on the size.

But how did the Vikings get to Britain, given the long and treacherous journey they had to embark on? It turns out that Vikings were sophisticated shipbuilders.

The Viking boats, called longboats, were long and narrow and had carvings of serpents and dragons at the front. They were designed to land on the beach so that the Viking raiders could swiftly race towards their targets.

Their sudden attacks were part of their plan to surprise their captives and make it hard for them to fight back. After their raids, they would run back to their boats and flee quickly.

Understanding Viking raids can offer insights on why Vikings came to Britain.

When did the Vikings invade Britain?

The period when Viking raids and ensuing settlements in Britain are known as the Viking Age. It’s a milestone because of the profound impact that Viking culture had on Britain’s law, culture, and language.

If you’re wondering when the Vikings invaded Britain, it’s said to be around June of 793 CE. During the raid, three ships approached and docked at the shore of an abbey in Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England.

The abbey’s reeve, Beaduheard, recognized them as Norse traders and thought that they had lost their way.

As he approached their boats to direct them up the coast to the estate, the Vikings instantly killed him and then attacked the abbey and murdered everyone they found on the island.

There were subsequent raids in the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria in 794 CE. They attacked the monastery of Iona in Scotland in 795 CE and, later that year, sites in Ireland.

The Viking Age in Britain continued through c. 1066 CE, ending with the invasion of the great Norwegian king Harald Hardrada, known as “the last of the Vikings.”

Although the Vikings began as small groups of pirates-like explorers in Britain, they eventually grew into big armies under the skilled military leaders, like Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless, making it easier for the Vikings to establish communities there.

When Vikings raided and assimilated into Britain, famous rulers like Alfred the Great (871-899 CE) and Edward the Elder (899-924 CE) tried to Christianize the Vikings, who followed the Norse religion.

Their efforts backfired and are said to have increased the ruthlessness of the Viking raids in Britain.

Why Did The Vikings Invade Britain

Why did Vikings come to Britain? 

Uprooting and migrating to England in the 9th and 10th centuries was no easy feat. Many potential dangers lurked on the British shores, but this didn’t stop the 20,000 to 50,000 Vikings from moving ahead with their conquest and leaving their Scandinavian homeland’s familiar, secure shores.

Initially, the Viking trips to Britain were not as organised and were sporadic. However, the raiding trips became full-blown conquests in later years, when Vikings decided to stay and settle in new lands.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 876, the Vikings “proceeded to plough and to support themselves.”

There are many answers to the question “Why did the Vikings invade Britain?” and why they eventually settled in Britain. Like any other population that migrated to other countries, they were searching for a better life.

Let’s take a look at the specific reasons the Vikings chose to invade Britain and how they moved from primitive plundering to organised military expeditions to acquire new land.

1. Britain was an easy target for the Vikings

The Vikings saw Northern England and Ireland as soft targets that they could easily gain the upper hand. They became aware of this through their previous trade deals with Britain, where they noticed a constant influx of expensive and lavish goods in the region.

The monasteries and churches that were the recipient of these riches were situated in small villages without any soldiers. Their lack of arms and protection meant that they would be unable to defend themselves against the Vikings’ aggressive and ferocious fighting style.

Vikings felt justified attacking religious institutions and killing monks because they were Pagans who worshipped different gods. They simply saw it as an opportunity to gain instant access to riches.

Another reason that the Vikings saw Britain as an easy target was the political instability that pervaded a large part of Europe in the 9th century.

The Anglo-Saxon rulers in England were rivals who were so tied up in their feuding that they lost sight of potential threats like the Vikings.

The Norsemen noticed an opportunity to capitalise on the political tensions and carried out several invasions, eventually acquiring territory from the English rulers.

2. The kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England were wealthy

The Vikings were always on the lookout for treasure to make them rich. They saw an opportunity to acquire wealth in Britain, which had thriving trade hubs that prospered with lucrative commercial exchanges.

Monasteries in Britain were particularly tempting targets to raid because they housed portable treasures that they could quickly loot and take to their ships, such as sculptures made with expensive paint, gospel books, gold chalices, bowls, plates and crucifixes.

One of the artefacts, called the Codex Aureus (translates to ‘Golden Book’), which was decorated in gold and silver, was held by the Vikings for ransom.

The monasteries were unprotected by the unarmed monks who could not protect themselves. The religious institutions were the first sites they struck because they were located near the coast and were conveniently on the way inland.

Archaeologists believe that the Vikings took this portable wealth back to Scandinavia to build ties with lords and their followers, including communities and maybe marital relationships.  

3. Vikings were masters at bribery

British forces were no match to the fighting prowess of the Vikings. The rulers soon realised this and concluded that a better strategy to protect their citizens would be to give the Vikings protection money.

Paying the Norse men seemed to be the best way to avoid putting themselves and their citizens under the threat of facing the brutality of Viking warriors.

They were paid in Danegeld (Dane Gold) which was easy money for the Vikings but a heavy expense for the kingdoms that had to make these concessions.

The Vikings would also keep many of the objects they collected from their plunders in religious sites. Knowing that they were valuable to the locals, they held onto the treasures for ransom.

Items like rare manuscripts and books were priceless and sacred to those aware of their significance. They were willing to pay a hefty amount to have them returned.

An English aristocrat once paid pure gold to the Vikings in exchange for returning the Codex Aureus, a revered religious script.

4. Acquiring more land

Another reason Britain was an attractive target for Vikings is that it had lots of fertile lands that could be cultivated and where they could raise animals.

This was a big motivator for Vikings, who were primarily farmers, to visit and move to Britain with their families and start new settlements.

This is one of the primary reasons as to why the Vikings invaded Britain.

Some historians say that Vikings left Scandinavia because it was overpopulated in the early mediaeval period. This could have been due to the climatic warming followed by the sudden cooling in the region.

Consequently, there was not enough arable land for everyone to share in a Viking family. The oldest son inherited the family land, while the other sons had to find other lands to sustain themselves and their families.

They couldn’t find any prospects in neighbouring places in Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

For this reason, many of them decided to leave their homes and search for greener pastures elsewhere. They soon discovered Britain as a viable prospect.

With rich agricultural lands, a milder climate, and similar surroundings to their home, they offered promising opportunities to start a new life.

The growing population of Viking expats who were familiar with the culture and language in Britain made it easier for future settlers to integrate.

5. The promise of an afterlife in Valhalla

The Norse religion justified the Viking’s raids in Britain based on their interpretation of the mythology. They believed that if they were to die in battle, they were destined for immortality.

Giving up their life was honourable and made them eligible for an afterlife where Valkyries would lead them to the Great Halls of Valhalla. They could join Odin’s army and serve him during the battle at the end of the world on those hallowed grounds.  

The Norse god Odin was highly revered in the pantheon of Norse gods. He’s often known as the “the quintessential god of the Viking Age”, and he was associated with battle, war and military victory.

Those who fought in his name had no fear of death because they knew they were proving their worthiness to their god and would be rewarded after their death. In battle, proficiency and courage were the most sought-after qualities that Odin looked for in his warriors.

Why Did The Vikings Invade Britain

Why did the Vikings settle in Britain?

Studies estimate that between 20,000-35,000 Vikings uprooted themselves and migrated to England between the 9th and 10th centuries.

Initially, the trips were raiding quests, but after exploring the land and learning about the favourable conditions it offers, they decided that it was safe for them to make the drastic move and bid adieu to their homeland.

It’s not any different from the people who immigrated to Australia and America a couple of hundred years ago, searching for a better life.

Travelling became more accessible as the sailing ships grew larger and more sophisticated in the 9th century, facilitating the Viking’s move to Britain. They also sharpened their military strategy and went from rudimentary hit-and-run attacks to organised crusades using their military prowess.

In Old English, the Viking armies were called “micel” or the Great Heathen Army.

For a young Viking who had no chance of inheriting family land in Scandinavia, the opportunity to instantly own valuable land and become a wealthy farmer was something they could not refuse.

Many of them who settled down in Britain became landowners representing the new English elite.

It was not only Viking men who moved to Britain but women as well. Some men would send a message home to ask their wives and family to join them. The other women moved independently after discovering metal jewellery in Britain.

The women liked to wear necklaces and brooches that fastened their clothes together or as adornments.

What did the Vikings do once they invaded Britain?

The parts of England under Viking control underwent considerable changes after they took over.

Here are some of the things that took place during their reign:

  • The Vikings brought their own distinct customs, laws, measurements, place names, crafts and farming techniques.  
  • While ongoing raids took place in Britain, the Vikings settled down as farmers in some regions of Britain and lived peacefully alongside the Anglo-Saxon locals.
  • There were more intermarriages between Vikings and Anglo-Saxons.
  • Vikings predominantly settled in three regions in Britain: East Anglia, Northumbria (includes modern-day Yorkshire) and the Five Boroughs. The biggest Viking settlement was Danelaw, a vital trade centre where over 10,000 Norse people lived.
  • The Vikings maintained their own government and laws, including a meeting called “Thing”, where members would gather together to deal with problems and make decisions.
  • During a Thing, people would vote on issues such as a criminal or ownership sentence, which was overseen by a judge called the “law-speaker.” Viking laws were not documented and were passed down by word of mouth.
  • Outlaws were banished to live in the wilderness, and anyone could hunt them down and kill them.
  • Vikings held duels called “Holmgang” to settle arguments. The winners were often seen as being favoured by the Gods.
Why Did The Vikings Invade Britain

What are the remnants of Viking influence on Britain?

The Viking Age in Britain ended around 1066 B.C.E. By this time, all the Scandinavian settlements in England and Scotland were Christianized, and the Norse pagan religion gradually faded.

What remained of the Viking culture was absorbed into the culture.

Signs of Viking legacy can be found in the remains of the materials they left behind. Archaeologists have excavated burials in various areas in Britain, such as Shetland, Orkney, the Isle of Man, the Western Isles and the northwest of England.

Archaeologists say that whatever they found in the sites was rich in quality and quantity and gave a good idea of their life.

We also see signs of Viking legacy in some vocabulary and in the names of the places they settled in Britain.

The fact that the Scandinavian language was spoken in England for many generations suggests that Nordic women made it a point to pass on the language to their children despite moving to a new part of the world.

So, why did the Vikings invade Britain? They were looking for greener pastures, both literally and figuratively. They successfully created a strong presence in these new lands they called home and left a legacy for future generations to behold and admire.

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