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Old 03-17-2022, 08:45 PM   #33 (permalink)
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Chapter III: A Game of One Throne:
The Rise and Fall of the House of Wessex

The last time we left England, the previous inhabitants, the Britons, had been more or less completely wiped out or subdued by the Saxons, now the Anglo-Saxons, who had divided the country up into seven separate kingdoms, most of which survive today in the names of English counties: Sussex, Wessex, Essex and so on. But the first millennium of England’s history was one filled with conflict, invasion and conquest. Whereas the Saxons had come from relatively nearby Germany to settle in England, the next invaders would come from far north, and would certainly leave their indelible mark on the country. In their case, England would not be their only target, as they ranged south in search of lands and plunder, glory and battle. Indeed, by the middle of the tenth century there would not be a country in Europe which had not heard of, feared or been attacked by the mighty northmen from Scandinavia.

The third invasion of England was strange in comparison to the previous two. The Romans had basically come there as a matter of westward expansion of their empire, on tour as it were, conquering all before them, ready to literally take on the world. They installed governors and praetors, left garrisons and laid down Roman law. They administered and oversaw the people they had conquered, and considered them now part of the Roman Empire. In an effort to get rid of them, as has already been noted, the Britons as they were pretty much shot themselves in the foot, inviting the Saxons, who, on seeing how weak they were, emulated a later businessman and decided they liked the country so much they’d buy it. Or, actually, steal it, take it by force of arms.

The third invasion though, was nothing to do with empires, and came out of nowhere. Vikings were not particularly interested in building communities, taking territory or passing laws. They were more of your smash-and-grab merchants, not that interested in the land, but they’d take your gold, your coinage, and if women were going, well they’d take them too, much obliged. Livestock? Nah, not so much. It’s this old Mark II Longship you see. Now, had we the Mark III with all the bells and whistles and all the latest gadgets, a roomy and practical ship for the discerning raider of today, then sure, but only your earls and your kings owned them. Expensive to build, a bitch to maintain, just not worth it. Not even for the fluffy dice.

Had we one of those babies, then yeah, maybe we’d take your horses and oxen and sheep, though to be honest the smell might be a bit much. Forty or fifty unwashed Viking warriors crowded together over the course of a sea voyage of many months might offend the animals. And then of course we might have to sacrifice them. To our gods, you know? Just not worth it, pal. Must say, your wife looks pretty tasty though, What? CLONK! Sorry, my mistake: your widow there looks pretty tasty.

Probably the hardest foe to fight is a man who wants to die, and while probably few if any Vikings wanted to actually die, they weren’t completely against the idea. As is widely known of their culture, to die in battle was the greatest honour any Viking could achieve, and Vikings were all about honour. From a very young age they were taught to fight, and how important reputation was. No young man worth his salt would want to hang back in the village or settlement while his bros went off pillaging and raping. The chance to make your name in battle was something every Viking craved, and certainly affected his standing in society. Men were measured by how many people they had killed, what battles they had won, what scars they had picked up. A Viking wasn’t really expected to have enemies, at least, living ones. Not if he was doing this Viking thing right anyway.

So when a chance came for glory every Viking of qualifying age wanted to pile into the ship and strap on his axe or hammer and head off for adventure and violence. He knew he might get killed, but if he did, well, that was just a bonus wasn’t it? Free entry into Valhalla and the honour left behind for his family of a true, fallen warrior. In many ways I think Vikings could be almost likened to unpaid mercenaries. They would fight for king and country, sure, and for family and friends, but they were always up for a fight and if some local earl or king had trouble and wanted a few likely lads to crack (or maybe hack) some heads, they were your men. They were even known to team up with rival lords as long as they got a share in the booty. There was no standard going rate for a Viking warrior, no flat fee for his services paid by the leader of the expedition, but they could certainly help themselves to whatever they found during the raid and thus enrich themselves that way.

Apart from material wealth though, taking part in daring battles and raids helped Vikings store up stock in the Bank of Odin, where valorous deeds and mighty victories would all be chalked up to their account, checked when they finally popped their clogs and, assuming their quota was met, they would be welcomed into the halls of the heroes. Or so they believed, and belief is a powerful thing. If you think that by fighting and dying you can attain for yourself immortal fame and glory, well, it’s a lot easier to throw yourself into the fray, isn’t it. And harder for your enemies to cow you.

The first time a Viking ship is said to have docked at the English coast was the year 787, less than fifty years after the Saxon Heptarchy had been established, setting the seal on Anglo-Saxon rule of England. When the king’s envoy, however, rode out to treat with these new arrivals, they killed him (and presumably anyone with him) - not, one would have thought, the most diplomatic opening of negotiations with a foreign power! But then, Vikings were never about talking. Well, they were, but on their terms. They generally preferred conquest over conversation, might over mediation and brute force over a nice cup of tea and a scone. That Elvis song could have been written for them, as they definitely preferred a little more action, as they showed when, only six years later (barely time to catch your breath, in terms of history) they launched an all-out attack on the peaceful monastery of Lindisfarne.

Meet Me on the Corner - and I’ll Kill You: the Lindisfarne Raid (793)

It must have come as something of a shock to the quiet, pious monks on the island of Lindisfarne, on the northeast coast of England, also known as the Holy Island, and with good reason. No less than four saints were said to have resided there - including the one who set up the monastery, Saint Aidan - and it was one of the most important centres of early Celtic Christianity. Although this was not the very first Viking raid, it shocked the English because of not only its ferocity, but its sacrilegious nature. One just did not attack holy men, to say nothing of defenceless holy men. But the Vikings were a breed apart. They were not Christians, and did not believe in one god, but a whole pantheon of them. Not only that, their gods were warlike and vicious, and viewed such things as mercy and compassion as weakness. Well not really, but they would have kicked the Christian God’s arse in a fight, that’s for sure.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts in words the outage such an attack engendered: “In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne.”

Alciun of York, a scholar from Northumbria, gives us a more PG-rated account: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race ... The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”

So Vikings probably saw no reason to exempt, or exclude monasteries from their raids. In fact, they would have been drawn to them due to the riches to be found there. As related in the History of Ireland journal, monks were poor and took a vow of poverty, but the works they created were some of the most beautiful and used the richest materials that could be obtained. Gold, silver, precious stones, expensive cloth, inks, all of these went into their illuminations and books, and the statues and ornaments that decorated the chapels were richly furnished of gold and other precious metals. The Vikings wanted these, and the fact that the monks put up very little or no resistance (not that they could) surely enraged and disgusted them. They were used to fighting enemies who fought back, who could be killed and who might kill them - a fair fight, well matched. But these men! It must have been like skinning rabbits, or whatever equivalent they had up there in the frozen north.

Not a lot of fun then, and certainly not many opportunities for glory, but plenty for plunder. Rape was probably off the menu (unless, you know, some of them had particular preferences) as to my knowledge there were no convents on the island, but the raiders would have been able to slaughter at will, collect up all they could hold in their brawny arms, fire up the monasteries (Vikings liked a good blaze) and then fuck off back across the sea, hoping their Mark II’s didn’t sink under the weight, and considering perhaps checking out the new issue of What Longship? to see if those Mark III’s were worth looking into.

Yes, Vikings were almost the epitome of guerilla warfare. They struck hard and fast, and then disappeared as quickly. They would have pitched battles, especially as the Anglo-Saxons got their shit together and began defending themselves, but they did not hang around. They might make a base camp for a short while, but once the battle was over they would head off back home. They weren’t about settling in England, and they certainly were not about ruling it. Plunder, rape, burning, pillage, booty, no problem, do that all day. Passing laws though? Keeping order? Balancing budgets? Ah, no thanks. Feeling a little homesick as it goes. Catch you next time. Probably with the blade of my axe.

Mind you, the Vikings didn’t have it all their own way. I’m sure it wasn’t the monks themselves who resisted, but the year after Lindisfarne was done over another band of the raiders headed up north, across the Tyne to take out the monastery at Jarrow. Here they met with stiff opposition, and their leader was even killed. It seems they were ambushed on their way home, carrying their ill-gotten gains, as related here in, again, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 'And the heathens ravaged in Northumbria, and plundered Ecgfrith's monastery at Donemuthan , and one of their leaders was killed there, and also some of their ships were broken to bits by stormy weather, and many of the men were drowned there. Some reached the shore alive and were immediately killed at the mouth of the river.'

So they not only lost their leader - what effect that had on morale I don’t know but it surely could not have been expected, given the easy time the other group had had on the island the previous year - but also their ships, which would have been of greater concern. After all, without their longboats they couldn’t get back home, and I imagine, as sea raiders, the loss of their ship might have been viewed as more of a dishonourable event than that of losing their leader, who they surely believed was living it up in Valhalla with a maiden on each side.

Due to this, perhaps humiliation, Viking raids on England stopped for a while as they concentrated on the “softer” targets of Ireland and Scotland. It would be decades before a proper Viking raiding party would attack England, and when they did, well, it would be an army, and in the words of the Venerable Bede maybe, they were not fucking around.
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