Identity and Self-Image in Viking Age England

  By Aelfgifu, 3 October 2007; Revised
Contents »
Changes in relations between Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians 792-1042

Chapter 1 - Introduction

In the late eighth century a wave of attacks hit the coasts of Europe. A monastery on an island off the Northumbrian coast was attacked, sacked and burned to the ground by pirates coming from the north. They had disappeared as fast as they had come. This horrible attack was just the beginning of a whole series of events which would eventually, more than two-hundred years later, lead to a Danish king on the English throne.

This research aims at analysing the events that led up to that point. The focus, however, will not so much lie on the political events of the two-hundred-odd years of Scandinavian presence in England, but on the social, cultural and ethnic consequences of the interaction between Scandinavians and Englishmen. One of the main questions will be, how different parties viewed themselves and others. What were the defining aspects of a person? Was there mainly a cultural difference? Was it based on language, religion? Or was it a more general sense of difference and equality? Another important question is how the image of people changed over time, and which factors were defining in this process.

Because of the nature and availability of the sources, the essay will mainly focus on the feelings of the English towards ‘others’, and towards the Scandinavians in particular on the one hand, and on the expression of feeling and emotion in the sources in general on the other hand. It is important to establish a backdrop against which to analyse the source material. So first I will provide some information about the historical events, the available sources and their value. Then I will take a closer view at the various sources to see what information they can offer about self-image and worldview, and finally I will look at the sources and see what they can tell us about the different factors and their effect on integration.

For this research, I will use the original sources in English translations, not in their original language. The sources will be the primary focus of the research; secondary literature is used only on a small scale, to support or clarify certain points when needed. The bibliography, however, does contain most of the relevant secondary literature available.

A note on names: I have standardised names for clarity. I have also attempted to keep names as close to the historical names as possible, except in cases where a modern equivalent of a name is still in common use, such as Alfred or Edward. In Scandinavian names, I have removed case endings in –r, as these serve no function in an English text, except to muddle pronunciation.

Chapter 2 - Events

The First Viking Attacks (789-865)

In 793, the northern recension of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) tells us, there were many dire portents. Flashes of lightning were seen, and immense whirlwinds, and fiery dragons in the skies. Soon after these terrible events, a famine broke out. And then, on 8 June, heathen men destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.[1] This is one of the earliest references to Viking attacks in the medieval annals, and probably the best-known one. It symbolises the beginning of a new age, one in which the Scandinavian peoples play an important role. From this time onwards, Viking attacks, both on the British Islands and on the Continent, were to increase steadily, and to evolve into other phenomena: settlement and, eventually, assimilation. I will here try to give an overview of the roughly 250-300 years in which this took place.

Lindisfarne in 793 was in fact not the earliest entry in the ASC to mention the Vikings. In 789 the chronicle tells us of a local reeve who was killed by the crews of three ships of Northmen. The reeve, who seems to have been called Beaduheart,[2] mistook the sailors for traders and rode out to them to send them to the closest marketplace. The Northmen seemed to have different ideas about what they should do, and slew him. The chronicler, with the advantage of hindsight, concludes that ‘those were the first ships of Danish men which came to the land of the English’.[3] But this was not entirely true. Scandinavians had been coming to England and the continent on a regular basis for over a century, as traders.[4]

International trade had been steadily increasing in the eighth century, and international commercial centres such as Dorestad, Quentovic and Hamwic (Southampton) had come into existence. The Scandinavian lands profited from this development. Their main exports were furs, amber and whetstones. Most of these were extracted as tribute from the Sáami, Finns and Balts by the Scandinavians. Scandinavian trade centres came into existence as well, the most important being Hedeby, close to present-day Schleswig in Germany.[5] The international contacts between traders gave Scandinavians an opportunity to become familiar with the waterways in and around Europe.[6] It also helped them develop better ships: there is no proof the Scandinavian peoples knew sailing boats before the eighth century, as the only boats found from before this time were rowing boats.[7] Both the knowledge of where places of wealth could be found and the ability to build fast ships to go there were to be important factors in the next few centuries.

Although no Viking attacks were reported before 789, the evidence suggests that piracy was already a problem along the European coasts. In 800, Charlemagne inspected the defences along the Frisian coast which were meant to protect the inhabited areas from pirates, and an English charter from 792 shows that king Offa of Mercia was also taking measures against pirates.[8] There is no way to establish the place of origin of these pirates, but the sources show that piracy in itself was not new. The first Viking attacks were pirate attacks: fast hit-and-run actions which only targeted the coastline, and which were done by small forces of one or just a few ships.[9]

The year after Lindisfarne was sacked, the Vikings returned to England. They landed on the coast of Northumbria and ravaged Ecgfrith’s monastery at Donemuthan, which probably was the monastery of Jarrow. But after these initial attacks on England in the late eighth century, the first third of the ninth century was relatively quiet. This strange lull in the storm can be explained by a wider view of the Vikings’ doings.[10] Unrest on the Continent, created by the conflict of the Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious with his sons, and internal unrest in Ireland created ample opportunity for the raiders elsewhere. A number of trading-bases were established by Vikings in Ireland, the main trading commodity being slaves for the Muslim slave markets in the South.[11] Vikings also started to get involved in the local political conflicts of the countries they invaded. There is evidence of Vikings taking sides with the Britons of Cornwall against the West-Saxons, and of a Northumbrian king being restored to his throne with the help of Viking mercenaries.[12]

From 830 onwards activity along the North Sea coasts increased steadily. In 835 the English coast was attacked once more, and the raiders returned ever more frequently in the years after, and in ever increasing numbers.[13] Around 843-845 bands of Vikings in Francia employed a new tactic. They now started to ask for pay-off money instead of attacking right away. This blackmail cost the rulers of Europe considerable amounts of money. But the troubles in the Frankish lands had subsided somewhat, giving the kings a chance to turn their attention to the external defences of their countries. In 862 fortified bridges were built over the Seine and Loire to stop Viking bands from sailing upriver towards the big cities. As a consequence, more of the Viking action moved to England.[14] In 850/851 a new development took place when the raiders first started to winter on English soil, on Thanet in Kent, an event that was to recur increasingly often in the years to follow.[15]

The Great Heathen Army and its Aftermath (865-978)

Hostile activity kept increasing on both sides of the Channel, and in 865 a Great Heathen Army appeared in England. This was a composite army, created out of a number of smaller warbands, probably those which had been active on the North Sea for some time and new forces from Scandinavia itself. Its leaders were Ivar the Boneless and his brother Halfdan, both of whom had presumably been active in Ireland for some time, and an otherwise unknown man called Bagsecg.[16]

The Army did not stick to the coasts, but went inland and roamed about, exacting tribute as it went (or ‘making peace’, as the chroniclers described it), which means the Army would promise not to attack if the people paid a considerable sum, and sometimes attack anyway even after the money had been paid.[17] They first went north to York, ending a civil war between two contenders for the Northumbrian throne by killing both and taking control themselves. In 869, the Army went to East Anglia, killed king Edmund (and thus made him a saint), and used the area as a base from which to start a series of attacks on Wessex. In 871 they were joined by a ‘Great Summer Army’ which came over from the Continent, and they continued to harass Wessex and Mercia in the next few years.[18]

In 874, the Army moved into Mercia and drove away its king, Burgred, replacing him with a figurehead of their own. Then the Army split into two parts. One half moved north to Northumbria under Halfdan, shared out the land and settled down in 876. The other half, under a leader called Guthrum, moved on to Cambridge and then to Gloucester, where once more a group settled down. The remainder of the Army renewed its attacks on Wessex. In this they were initially successful, even driving the West-Saxon king Alfred (871-899) into exile in the marshes of Athelney, but the West-Saxons managed to regain the upper hand and finally defeated the Vikings in 878. Guthrum and his main leaders were baptised, and this last group of the Great Heathen Army of 865 returned to East Anglia, were they too finally settled down (879-880).[19]

With the Great Army settled in the lands now known as the Danelaw, and new raiding parties apparently discouraged by Guthrum’s defeat, a period of relative peace followed. Those remnants of the Army in England which had not settled down moved back to Francia, where internal wars about succession rights once again created opportunities for them.[20] King Alfred used this time to set up a series of defences against future attacks. At the core of these defences were a series of fortresses, described in a document called the Burghal Hidage, and arrangements to keep a full-time standing army at the ready. Alfred also gave orders to build a fleet to strengthen the defences.

The measures taken by Alfred proved effective soon after, for in 892/893 a new wave of Viking raiders appeared on the coasts of England. This force of no less than 250 ships took up quarters in East Anglia and from there it waged war on Wessex for several years. But the defences held, and in 896 the Vikings had to give up their attempts. A part of the forces, those with some money, went north and settled within the Danelaw. The rest moved back to the Continent in search of easier targets.[21]

Many of the former war bands had by now settled for good (around Dublin, within the Danelaw and in the Seine estuary), getting ever more involved with local politics and not welcoming any newcomers from Scandinavia, unless they had money. The tenth century was rather quiet. Opportunities for invasions and raids had lessened considerably, and politics in Scandinavia itself kept most people occupied there. Those that did still go out for money turned to the East, they went to the Baltic coast and along the rivers Volkhov, Dnepr and Volga, areas which offered better opportunities.[22]

Alfred’s successors, his son Edward the Elder (899-924) and grandson Æthelstan (924-939), started a series of campaigns in which they slowly managed to win overlordship over ever bigger parts of England in a programme which, with hindsight, can be seen as the first steps towards English unity. Æthelstan managed to win back impressive tracts of land, at one point even gaining overlordship over both Wales and Scotland, but the grip of the West-Saxon kings over the North remained slippery.[23]

After Æthelstan’s death the Viking king of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithsson, saw his chance and claimed the throne of York for himself. In 941 he was succeeded by his cousin Olaf Sithricsson, whom Æthelstans’s brother and successor, Edmund (939-946), managed to oust again in 944. But Northumbria once again proved a difficult area to keep a hold on. In 947 the Northumbrian people decided they had enough of the West-Saxon overlordship and invited a Norwegian called Eirik Bloodaxe to sit on their throne. The West-Saxon king Eadred (946-955) got rid of him the next year, but in 950 the Northumbrians tried again. They first elected Olaf Sithricsson (again) and then Eirik Bloodaxe (again) as their king, a series of events in which the bishop of York, Wulfstan, seems to have played no small part. In the end it was the Northumbrian people themselves who drove out Eirik once more and returned to the kings of Wessex in 954.[24] Between 957 and 959, England was divided one more time, this time between two brothers, Eadwig (955-959) and Edgar (957-975). After Eadwig died, Edgar finally succeeded in unifying the whole of England into a single kingdom once and for all.[25] 

The Reigns of Æthelred II the Unready (978-1016) and Knut the Great (1016-35)

When the Swedish and Slavic rulers in the East became stronger and hence more able to defend their lands from hostile invasion, Viking action began to move west once more. The  expansionist ambitions of the Danish kings Harald Bluetooth (ca. 960-986) and his son Svein Forkbeard (987-1014), busy trying to establish a unified Danish-Norwegian empire, forced men to seek lands and income elsewhere. England meanwhile had become rich and prosperous, and the Vikings soon learned that its king, Æthelred, was willing to pay handsomely to keep his lands at peace.[26]

So, after a period of relative peace the raiders were back in 980. At first the attacks were merely sporadic incidents, but in 991 a large fleet turned up at Folkestone. The leaders of this force were two well-documented Scandinavians: Svein Forkbeard from Denmark and Olaf Tryggvason from Norway. Svein and Olaf raided all along the English coasts, exacting tribute wherever they went. One of their more famous battles took place at Maldon, where they killed the local reeve Byrhtnoth. His death was honoured in a long poem that has survived to the present day. The tributes they asked in exchange for promises of peace were of a staggering height, and ever increasing with time. In 991 an amount of 10,000 pounds (of gold and silver, presumably) was demanded, but in 1002 the demand had risen to 24,000 pounds. Around 994/995 Olaf and Svein went their separate ways, Olaf going back to Norway to claim the Norwegian throne, and Svein presumably going back to Denmark to secure his rule there. However, the bulk of their forces remained in England, and in 1003 Svein returned as well. But in 1005 a great famine struck throughout England, and Svein was forced to return to Denmark. [27]

Svein and Olaf were not the only ones to consider the rich and prosperous united kingdom of England as an interesting target. In 1006 and 1009, two more invasions of large armies took place, the first possibly led by a man named Tostig, the second certainly led by Thorkell the Tall. In both years, again huge amounts of tribute had to be paid to ensure peace in England, 36,000 and 48,000 pounds respectively. And in 1013 Svein and the Danes were back, this time with the intention to stay. Svein landed at Sandwich, moved north to gather support within the former Danelaw, and had Æthelred driven into exile in Normandy within a few months. The very next year, however, Svein died, and although his son Knut had the support of the North, Æthelred soon drove him out. Knut returned to Denmark, where his brother Harald was king. In 1016 Æthelred died and Knut returned to England. For a short time he was opposed by Edmund Ironside, a son of Æthelred who was chosen king by the South, but Knut soon managed to extend his control over all of England.[28] Knut does not seem to have changed much in English politics. The same laws were valid,  and the bishops retained their sees. The only significant difference made was the replacement of the English ealdormen who had died, either in battle or by murder, with Knut’s own men. Soon after his victory, Knut married Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, probably also as a sign of continuity. Soon after his ascending the English throne, his brother Harald of Denmark died, and Knut assumed that kindom as well. Through a combination of coercion and force, Knut managed to get the overlordship of Norway as well, and for a time he was one of the mightiest men in the north of Europe. But already before his death his position started to decline, and in 1035, after his death, he left a difficult situation for his heirs.[29]

His son Hearthaknut was his most likely heir to the English throne, but he was in Denmark, and unable to leave on short notice because of the loss of Norway and the threat of Norway’s new king Magnus (d. 1047), son of St. Olaf, to Denmark. In England, two factions appeared, one in favour posed by Hearthaknut, and one in favour of Harold, a son of Knut by his first wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton.[30] When it became clear that Hearthaknut would not show, Emma changed her support to her sons by Æthelred, Edward and Alfred. She summoned them to come to England from Normandy, but Earl Godwin of Wessex, who had been her co-supporter for Hearthaknut, decided to switch to Harold and treacherously killed Alfred when he arrived. Harold now became king, but he did not live for long, and in 1040, after his death, Hearthaknut became king after all. Hearthaknut appointed Edward, Emmas oldest son by Æthelred and his half-brother, as co-ruler. In 1042 Hearthaknut died, and Edward, nick-named the Confessor, bachelor and a dedicated to celibacy, became king, setting the stage for one of the biggest events of English history: 1066.[31]

Chapter 3 - Causes and Consequences

Pre-Viking England

The political situation in England at the time of the first Viking attacks was quite stable. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes had invaded the British Isles some four hundred years earlier. Shortly after the invasion of England the political landscape would have been very similar to that of the rest of the early Germanic world: small regions and communities being ruled over by chieftains or kings, sometimes comprising areas of no more than 50 square km. In time, the stronger of these territories would take control over their neighbours, and bigger political units would emerge. These would need more complex forms of administration, and the increased usage of the terms ealdorman and dux, commander or agent of the king, seems to support the idea of the emergence of such an administration. This idea is also backed up by the archaeological evidence, which shows an increasing difference between richer and poorer graves. This may indicate the emergence of an elite. [32]

From the late sixth century onwards England was being converted to Christianity. Pope Gregory the Great sent his disciple Augustine to convert the English, and Augustine went to king Æthelberht of Kent. Æthelberht was married to a Christian Frankish princess, and it is also likely that a Christian community had been in existence in Britain since the Roman age. Æthelberht therefore, although a pagan himself, was no stranger to Christianity, and he seems to have welcomed the missionaries. Nevertheless, after initial success, the conversion did not continue without resistance. It would take until 686 until the last pagan kingdom, that of the Isle of Wight, converted to Christianity.[33]

In the eighth century one English kingdom began to gain power over all the others: Mercia. The long reigns of two kings, Æthelbald (716-755) and Offa (756-796), provided Mercia with a political stability which gave it an edge over the other kingdoms. Mercia took advantage of political unrest to take control of Kent and London and to ensure a hold over trade with the Continent. The marriages of Offa’s daughters with the kings of Wessex, East-Anglia and Northumbria suggests there might even have been an  overlordship of Mercia over other kingdoms, as all of these kings seem to have needed the support of Mercia against political opponents.[34] But the might of Mercia did not long outlive its strong kings, and soon after Offa’s death Mercia slowly began to decline. Wessex saw its chance. It began to nibble away at the edges of Mercia, but the process was cut short by an event which was the end of all the English kingdoms save Wessex: the coming of the Vikings, and, eventually, a Danish king.

Scandinavian Politics

For any discussion about the Viking settlement in England to be successful, an answer is needed to the question why the Vikings left their own country to raid and settle elsewhere. The answer to this question is closely connected to the politics and life of the Scandinavian peoples.

Power in the eighth century was fragmented. The basic unit was the extended family, which included all male family members up to the fourth degree, as well as slaves and servants. These extended families formed clans by themselves. There were some regions which possessed stronger unity than this, but even here there seem to have been mainly loose alliances between neighbours, which sometimes knew central gatherings, rather than of any form of state-like government. In the course of the eighth century, larger regional units slowly came into existence, especially in Denmark. Here, these larger units were called herred. One herred was probably an area which could provide forty armed men. Every herred had its own meeting, the thing. In the course of time, war leaders occasionally tried to gain control over bigger portions of land. These warlords called themselves kings. Once established over a region, kingship tended to become hereditary and stay within a particular family, but these little dynasties seldom lasted more than a few generations.[35]

In Norway the landscape is more rugged, and the area is geographically less coherent, and it is naturally divided into three separate parts. First, there is the south-east, which was relatively densely populated and mainly agrarian. This area was a unity usually ruled by a king of some sort, and here was the power base of the later Norwegian kings. Close to Denmark and economically interesting, it was under constant threat from Danish invasion. Then there is the area in the north around Trondheimsfjord, which from the ninth century was ruled over by the Hlaðjarlar, the Jarls of Lade. There was some agriculture here, but hunting, fishing and trade (in furs and ivory for example) were also important sources of income. Thirdly, there is the rugged and inhospitable terrain on the west coast. Agriculture here was almost impossible, and the area was poor, with people living on fishing and piracy.[36]

The Danish were the first to move towards stronger forms of government. Already in the eighth century kings started to claim the whole of Denmark, with more or less success, but it was in the ninth century that, as a result of the increasing pressure of the Carolingians on the southern border, a strong dynasty managed to emerge. Helpful in the process was the strong grip of this dynasty on trade in the region. This provided wealth, which in turn provided the possibility of engaging a full-time standing army.[37] One of the first Danish kings who managed to set up a firm powerbase was Godfred. In 808 he attacked and raided a Carolingian trade centre called Reric and made all the traders move to the reinforced town of Hedeby, which was under his control. This made it possible for him and the Danish kings after him to keep a firm grip on trade throughout the Baltic.[38] After his death, Godfred’s family remained in power for another sixty years. During this period the land sometimes was an undivided political unity, but sometimes it was split up and shared between brothers.

After this initial rise the power of the Danish kings fell again, partly due to the political unrest created by Viking raiders returning laden with wealth and with ambitions towards rulership. In 854, king Horic and a number of his close relatives were defeated by a distant cousin who had returned after years of pirating at sea. The dynasty slowly declined, and after a century or so in 934 the German king seized the opportunity and forced the Danes to pay tribute to him.

In Norway a king called Harald Finehair took advantage of the Danish weakness and tried to establish an overlordship over Norway. His family only managed to stay in power for a few generations before the Danes regained their strength, but Harald is still remembered as the first King of Norway. [39]

The revival of the Danish kingdom started with Gorm the Elder, who probably died in 958. It was continued by his family: his son Harald Bluetooth (ca. 960-986), Harald’s son Svein Forkbeard (987-1014), who conquered England, and Svein’s son Knut the Great (1016-1035), who managed to become king over Denmark, England and Norway.

The Causes for Raiding

So why did the Vikings decide to go plundering abroad? And why did they stay in the lands they came to as raiders? One explanation that has been suggested is overpopulation. Overpopulation would have caused a shortage of land and food, and would have been likely to incite people to go and find better living conditions elsewhere. But there is no archaeological indication that the health of inhabitants decreased in the period before the raids, which would have been the case if food had been scarce. On the contrary, from excavations of burial sites it seems as if general health, especially of women, was rapidly improving in the ninth century.[40] Neither is it true that there was no more room in Scandinavia. In fact, large parts of Denmark were still uncultivated at the end of the eighth century.[41] Another objection to this reasoning is that it was not until 840, fifty years after the first recorded attack on Lindisfarne, that there is evidence of Vikings settling abroad, on Lough Neagh in Ireland. Before this, Vikings only made hit-and-run attacks. If they were desperate for land, they surely would have settled sooner.[42]

A far more convincing answer to the question is political unrest. Germanic societies did not have primogeniture, and within the ruling family any male had a potential claim on the throne.[43] This custom had lessened in the Christian Germanic kingdoms under the influence of the Church, but pagan Scandinavia had not yet undergone this Christian influence.[44] This, combined with a strong tradition of blood feud, easily caused political unrest and gave many men good reasons to leave the country for some time. At first these political exiles took refuge in other countries, in Scandinavia with the Svear in Sweden for example, or in the Frankish empire.[45] But trade and travel during political exile gave the Scandinavians a very shrewd idea of European affairs. Geographical knowledge of coasts and rivers as well as knowledge of the locations of the richest markets and wealthiest towns, and a thorough knowledge of political unrest within the various European nations gave some of these first Vikings a good insight into where and when to strike to gain money and power. Money and power which could provide the exiles a means to return home. Once the first raiders returned with their booty, many were likely to follow.

Chapter 4 - Sources

English Historiographical Sources

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC)[47] is one of the most important documents for medieval history in England. The work was probably composed and circulated shortly after 890. This can be ascertained because, first, a contemporary historian, Asser, had a copy at hand which was already two steps away from the original text in 893 and because, secondly, the oldest surviving copy was written in one and the same hand up to 891. However, it is harder to establish exactly when the chronicle was written. The answer that first comes to mind, that it was written during the revival of learning instigated by king Alfred, cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt. It remains uncertain when the work was compiled, although it must have been before 890.

Nowadays there are seven surviving copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A to F are (near) complete manuscripts. G was a manuscript which was in large part destroyed in the Cotton Library fire of 23 October 1731, so that only fragments now remain, but a transcript was made before the destruction. H is a fragment containing some very late annals. The oldest of these manuscripts, A, is already at least two copies removed from the original. As manuscript A is written in a late-ninth or early tenth-century hand, it seems that the manuscripts were copied and re-copied in relatively quick succession. Manuscripts D and E are different from the other manuscripts in such a way that together they can be identified as the so-called ‘Northern recension’. These two copies take a particular interest in events taking place in the north of England. Both of them descend from the same archetype, which very likely was at York. Already very early in the process of copying, a chronological dislocation appeared in all copies and versions of the text, so that all dates from the ASC have to be converted into actual dates.

The ASC is the basis of all writing of Anglo-Saxon history, and almost every other medieval writer of annals or histories has used it in some form. Most historians, however, have used other sources as well, some of which have not been passed on to us. First there is Asser,[48] the writer of a Latin biography of king Alfred the Great, written in 893. Asser was a bishop of St. Davids in Wales, and was on intimate terms with king Alfred. His Life of King Alfred is a very important work for present-day historians, as it gives a detailed portrait of a ninth-century English king. He used a copy of the ASC which was at least two copies away from the original text. In its shape the Life seems to have been influenced by Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne. The only version of the work to survive to the modern age was tragically lost in the Cotton Library fire, but fortunately a good transcript had been made before its destruction.

Another early historical work is the Chronicle of Æthelweard[49]. Æthelweard was an English ealdorman who wrote his Chronicle in the late tenth century (ca. 978-988) for his kinswoman Emma, who was a nun at Essen in Germany. Æthelweard is often ignored as a source, as he mainly translates the ASC in Latin, filling the gaps with Bede; he only gives marginal information not known from other sources. He is, however, of interest to this research because he, unlike many other writers of history who at least make an attempt at objectivity, had little scruples to give his own opinion on various subjects.

Sometime around 1050 a History of St. Cuthbert[50] was written at Durham. The writer of this work used Bede as source for the earlier history, and a great number of charters and records for the later part. This work contains much legendary and miraculous material, but it is still useful to us today. Because of the relative scarcity of northern annals, it is to works like this that we must turn to obtain information on northern England in the period. The History of St. Cuthbert provides some interesting information on the coronation of king Guthfrith, and also on the survival of monasteries and church institutions within the Danelaw.

Post-Conquest writers based their histories on the ASC, often adding only information based on legends and stories rather than factual history. This makes them less reliable on historical facts, but for a study of the image of peoples they can be quite useful. And many of these writers have had access to sources that now no longer exist, and so can still be useful in that respect as well.

First there is William of Malmesbury, who finished his De Gestis Regum Anglorum in about 1125.[51] Most of his history holds little new information for us, but he includes a poem about the reign of Æthelstan which seems to date back to the tenth century.

Soon after William, a work was written which survives under the name of Chronicon ex Chronicis.[52] It is ascribed to a monk named Florence of Worcester. Florence again uses the ASC (and Asser), but he adds a chapter on the reign of king Knut which gives information not known elsewhere. Later writers often based themselves on Florence’s work as well as on the sources he used.

Next, there are Simeon of Durham and Roger of Wendover. Simeon of Durham (d. 14 Oct., between 1130 and 1138) is indicated as the writer of the History of Kings[53] in the only surviving manuscript of that work, although this is far from certain. The History is a patchwork of annals, combining matter borrowed from historians and writers such as Bede, Asser, Florence of Worcester and various now-lost northern annals. Simeon also added some information of his own, mainly in a section concentrating on the Northumbrian earls. It is the use of the now-lost northern material that gives this source added value.

          Roger of Wendover’s (d. 1236) Flores Historiarum[54] in turn lean heavily on Simeon’s History of Kings, but Roger also seems to have access to some sources from York which give interesting information on the ravaging of Thanet by king Edgar.

          Another twelfth-century work are the anonymous Annals of St. Neots, which are of interest because the writer seems to have had access to a very early copy of the ASC, one that does not have the chronological dislocation that Asser’s and Æthelweard’s manuscripts of the ASC did have.

Continental Historiographical Sources

There are a few continental sources that give useful information on our subject. Some of the Frankish annals give information on Viking movements, such as the Annals of St. Bertin’s, (839-861)[55] named after the house the oldest manuscript came from.

Scandinavian Historiographical Sources

The trouble with Scandinavian sources from the early Middle Ages is that they are often vague or biased. Much of what we have is either written by foreigners or has been written many centuries after the events took place. A good example of such a historiographical source is Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish clerk who lived around 1200 and wrote the Gesta Danorum, the Deeds of the Danes. He was heavily influenced by the politics of his own day and wrote with an extravagant patriotism. He tried to give the Danes a royal line which went back uninterrupted until prehistory, and whenever sources or reality failed him, he did not hesitate to fill in the gaps himself with whatever materials came to hand.[56]


There are considerable similarities as well as differences between Scandinavian and English poetry and literature. Scandinavian culture is known for its huge amount of historically based literature in the form of sagas, whereas in England not a single clear example of such a saga story can be found. There are traces, though, that a genre of the kind was once in existence in Anglo-Saxon culture. Examples are the tale of king Alfred and the cakes in the Annals of St. Neots, the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheart in the ASC and the story of Horsa and Hengest in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.[57]

The Scandinavian sagas are not contemporary, and they are literary works, not historiographical sources. They cannot be considered particularly reliable as sources for dated events; even when the writers attempted to write as accurately as possible, it is still very likely that their own sources were not completely reliable in themselves.[58] But nevertheless they still can tell us much about the Scandinavians, especially about their morals and values.

Sagas come in different forms. Most of them were written in Iceland, some in Norway. The oldest of them date back to about 1150, but the golden age of saga writing was between 1190 and 1230, and they continued to be written until the fifteenth century and even after. They can be divided into groups, depending on their contents. The oldest sagas are those that deal with events before the colonisation of Iceland. Most of these are heroic sagas, stories about heroes. They are often based on historical persons, but the stories themselves are fantasy. Another group consists of family histories from the age when Iceland was first settled. They continue until ca. 1340 and are generally called Islendingasögur. A third group, dealing with Icelandic politics of the thirteenth century, is called the Sturlungasögur, after the leading family and their saga. A fourth group are the Konungssögur, which deal with the stories of kings. Many of these king-sagas were written down by the Icelandic writer and poet Snorri Stuluson in his Heimskringla. There are several other sub-divisions that can be made in the Sagas, but these will do for our purpose.

It is mainly the Islendingasögur and the King’s sagas that are of interest here, and specifically those that describe trips or battles in England. This narrows down the selection considerably. The three sagas that are most important are Egill Skallagrimson’s saga, Olaf Tryggvason’s saga, and St. Olaf’s saga. The latter two were written by the great Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson and included in his Heimskringla, a collection of sagas about the Norwegian Kings. Egill’s saga may also have been written by Snorri, but this cannot be proven.


It is more fruitful to compare the poetry written in the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian areas than to compare the prose produced there. The similarities between the poems are explained by the common Germanic background of the two peoples. Germanic heroic poetry observes a set of general rules that most poetry in the Germanic languages stick to. Early Germanic poetry (Old-Norse, Old-English and also Old-German), generally has a common subject matter, and  has also similarities in both metre and diction. The subject matter and the historical background of the oldest poetry seems to be pre-sixth-century, and to lie in the Migration Era.[59] The metre is generally governed by stress and accented syllables, and the rhyme is always alliterative, end-rhyme being unknown. There is an abundant usage of kennings (certain types of metaphors).[60] The characters appearing are always either royalty or nobility, and often warriors; the common people have little place in them. The scenery is either set at a ruler’s court or in the middle of an adventure; domestic scenes are rare.[61] Fighting is nearly always single hand-to-hand combat. Even large battles are described in such a way as to split them into a number of one-to-one battles. It is therefore no surprise that the most important virtue is personal courage, and that the main causes of war, fighting and other arguments in the poems are personal wrongs and wounded pride.[62] Drinking and weapons are an important feature of the heroic poems. Whenever the story takes place at a court, there is drinking being done, along with the singing of stories. Leaders and kings are often described by the amount of drink they share out amongst their followers and visitors, as well as by the weapons and gifts they present to them.[63]