A Viking Mystery

Beneath Oxford University, archaeologists have uncovered a medieval city that altered the course of English history

British archaeologists looking for evidence of prehistoric activity in the English county of Dorset discovered instead a mass grave holding 54 male skeletons. (Oxford Archaeology)
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Most historians believe that England suffered more from the Vikings than other European countries. In the first recorded attack, in A.D. 793, Vikings raided an undefended monastic community at Lindisfarne in the northeast. Alcuin of York, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, recorded the onslaught: “We and our fathers have now lived in this fair land for nearly three hundred and fifty years, and never before has such a terror been seen in Britain as we have now suffered at the hands of a pagan people. Such a voyage was not thought possible. The church of St. Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God.”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a contemporary historical account, records that the Vikings waged some 50 battles and destroyed or ravaged scores of settlements. Dublin, one of the largest Viking cities in the British Isles, became a major European slave-trading center, where, historians estimate, tens of thousands of kidnapped Irishmen, Scotsmen, Anglo-Saxons and others were bought and sold.

“In many respects the Vikings were the medieval equivalent of organized crime,” says Simon Keynes, a professor of Anglo-Saxon history at Cambridge University. “They engaged in extortion on a massive scale, using the threat of violence to extract vast quantities of silver from England and some other vulnerable western European states.”

“Certainly the Vikings did all these things, but so did everyone else,” says Dagfinn Skre, a professor of archaeology at the University of Oslo. “Although admittedly, the Vikings did it on a grander scale.”

Martin Carver, an emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of York, characterizes the antagonism between the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians as part of a wider clash of ideologies. Between the sixth and ninth centuries, Vikings in Scandinavia preferred to be organized “in loose confederations, favoring enterprise,” says Carver. But other parts of Europe, such as Britain, yearned for a more orderly, centralized government—and looked to the Roman Empire as a model.

Only one Anglo-Saxon kingdom—Wessex, ruled by Alfred the Great—is known to have withstood the Viking invasion. Alfred and his son, Edward, built up an army and navy and constructed a network of fortifications; then Edward and his successors wrested back control of those areas the Vikings had taken over, thus paving the way for English unification.

After decades of peace, Vikings again raided England, in A.D. 980. At the time, the Anglo-Saxon ruler was King Aethelred the Unraed (literally “the ill-advised”). As his name suggests, popular history has portrayed him as a mediocre successor to Alfred the Great and Edgar the Peaceful. The 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury wrote that Aethelred “occupied rather than governed” the kingdom. “The career of his life was said to have been cruel in the beginning, wretched in the middle and disgraceful in the end.”

To avert war, Aethelred paid the Vikings some 26,000 pounds in silver between A.D. 991 and 994. In the years that followed, the king employed many of them as mercenaries to discourage other Vikings from attacking England.

But, in A.D. 997, some of the mercenaries turned on their royal employer and attacked the Anglo-Saxon southern counties. In early A.D. 1002, Aethelred again tried to buy off the Vikings—this time with 24,000 pounds in silver.

The geopolitical situation changed in England’s favor only when Aethelred made an alliance with Normandy and sealed the deal by marrying the Duke of Normandy’s sister in A.D. 1002. Possibly emboldened by the support of a powerful ally, Aethelred decided to take pre-emptive action before the Danes again broke the truce.


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