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The story of

Vikings and Anglo-Saxons Migrations, invasions and the battle for Britain


Alfred the Great Treasures of Sutton Hoo Early Christianity The first Anglo-Saxons Why the Vikings attacked Warriors of the seas The creation of England Vikings in America



Anglo-Saxon world / Sutton Hoo



WHEN THE DARK AGES WERE LIT UP This iron helmet, now on display at the British Museum, is the crowning glory of the AngloSaxon burial hoard discovered at Sutton Hoo in 1939

It’s three-quarters of a century since the fabulous Anglo-Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo was unearthed. Alex Burghart looks back at the discovery, and explores how our knowledge of the period has expanded since 1939 17

Anglo-Saxon world / The dark side

The dark side of the AngloSaxon world If your vision of Anglo-Saxon England is a lost rural idyll inspired by the likes of The Hobbit, you’re not alone. Yet, says Ryan Lavelle, the reality was far less cuddly, blighted by slavery, sexism and great social inequalities 30

The Story of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons

Living the high life

This image from an 11thcentury English calendar shows three high-status men drinking, flanked by four attendants. In Anglo-Saxon society, a thegn’s (knight’s) oath was reckoned to be worth that of six men from the lower classes



ow much have Peter Jackson and JRR Tolkien influenced perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England? The New Zealand film-maker’s recent three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s classic children’s fantasy novel The Hobbit enchanted audiences as much through the cosy world of Bilbo Baggins as the escapades that lead him from it. Bilbo’s “hole in the ground”, and the green and pleasant land of the hobbits in which it is situated – the Shire – are shown in stark contrast to the dangers of the road that leads to adventure. The imaginary figure of the hobbit, inhabiting a comfortable corner of ‘Middleearth’ (later to be defended from evil in The Lord of the Rings), was Tolkien’s quintessential Englishman. Bilbo Baggins was portrayed as adventurous but not too adventurous, loving home comforts while able to make the best of uncomfortable surroundings, possessed of a good spirit, and ever resourceful, with a fierce loyalty where it counted. The world through which the hobbit and his companions moved was the product of The Story of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons

“Where Anglo-Saxons feature in popular consciousness they are often portrayed, like hobbits, as ideal country folk” Tolkien’s deep knowledge and love of AngloSaxon culture. The Oxford professor of Old English shaped his fantastical landscape of Middle-earth with the myths of the northern world, such as the Old English epic Beowulf. But at the same time, we see Baggins leaving the comfortable surroundings of a place not unlike rural England – a place with an Anglo-Saxon name and a past, ever intruding on the present, not unlike that of Anglo-Saxon England. The Shire was not, of course, Anglo-Saxon England. It has been observed to have sat squarely in Tolkien’s own era, a mishmash of Victorian and Edwardian life, and closer to the early 20th century than the 10th. But, at the same time, Tolkien’s Shire – like his vision of England – was rural, with deep roots. This appealed to British and American audiences in the late 1930s, and

continues to do so around the world, not just to the young audience originally envisaged by Tolkien’s publisher. Imaginings of an idyllic rural age, informed by ideas of a lost medieval past, continue to make deep impressions, manifesting themselves, for example, in the vision of pre-industrial Britain realised so spectacularly in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Such visions can be enchanting, and one cannot help but feel that is part of the appeal of looking at the Anglo-Saxon age. Unfortunately, from that enchantment also comes much idealisation. Where Anglo-Saxons feature in popular consciousness they are often portrayed, like Tolkien’s hobbits, as ideal country folk: rustic ancestors from a simpler age, versed in folklore, living close to the land in a society that was 3131

Anglo-Saxons vs Vikings / Changing relationships

A modern illustration depicts a martial-looking Viking longship – but, after early raids, Vikings and Anglo-Saxons developed a more nuanced relationship





From the late eighth century, waves of Viking raids brought terror to Britain’s shores – yet within decades the dynamic had changed. Ryan Lavelle argues that Alfred the Great’s relationship with the Danes was defined as much by compromise as by the power of the sword


Anglo-Saxons vs Vikings / Swein Forkbeard



The Story of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons


Swein Forkbeard leads the Viking assault on England in this detail from Matthew Paris’s 13th-century Life of Saint Edward the Confessor. The Danish king was drawn to England by the country’s material riches, says Sarah Foot

A little over a millennium ago, Swein Forkbeard employed superior military strength and tactical ability to supplant the descendants of Alfred the Great. Sarah Foot traces Swein’s journey from foreign adventurer to first Viking king of England The Story of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons


Viking world / At home


The Story of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons



at home

Cameron Balbirnie looks beyond the common image of the savage, pagan plunderers from Scandinavia to discover who the Viking invaders really were


The image of the boat was central to Viking culture: the c10th-century Viking stele (left) from Gotland reveals a ship full of warriors. The background picture shows one of Gotland’s stone ship monuments. This one is said to be the grave of a mythical Bronze Age warrior called Tjelvar The Story of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons


Viking world / Ships and success




Vikings were famously fearsome warriors, but the real foundation of their success was their mastery of ships. Gareth Williams explores the superlative seamanship of the Norsemen


The Story of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons


ne of the most enduring images of the Viking Age in the popular imagination is the longship, with its dragon head, row of shields, and large square sail. Unlike the equally popular image of the horned helmet (a Romantic fabrication of the 19th century), the longship is a fitting symbol for the Norsemen. The 250 years between AD 800 and 1050 saw a remarkable expansion from the Scandinavian homelands of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, involving a combination of raiding, conquest, peaceful settlement and long-distance trade. That same period saw the Vikings develop a remarkable network of international contacts that spread from eastern Canada in the west to central Asia in the east, and and north Africa in the south. Many of these contacts were peaceful, and in recent years the Vikings have become known for more than their established reputation as violent raiders might suggest. Having said that, this reputation was far from unfounded, and would have been all too familiar to contemporaries around the Viking world. The Persian geographer Ibn Rusta’s assessment of the Vikings in Russia is damning: “Treachery is endemic, and a poor man can be envied by a comrade, who will not hesitate to kill him and rob him.” Meanwhile, you can almost feel an anonymous ninthcentury Irish monk’s relief as he notes: The wind is sharp tonight, It tosses the white hair of the sea, I do not fear the crossing of the Clear [Irish] Sea, By the wild warriors of Lothlind [Vikings]. This quotation reminds us how much the Vikings’ expansion relied on their ships: remarkable vessels that could carry settlers across the Atlantic, trade goods along the river systems of Russia, and be used with devastating effect in raids around Europe. Charlemagne’s biographer, Einhard, tells us that the mighty Frankish emperor ordered fortifications to be built in every port and at


The bow of the Oseberg ship, which was excavated from a burial mound in Norway. It was the Vikings’ skilled use of vessels such as this – rather than their prowess in battle – that made them such potent raiders

The Story of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons

“Vikings crossed the Atlantic, traded goods along Russian rivers and carried out devastating raids” 99

The Story of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons  
The Story of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons