King’s College London
The Viking raids and military campaigns began in the late eighth century and intensified during the ninth century. Recent historiography has focused on analysing material evidence to deduce the effect of Viking raiding and settling in Britain, due to the limited availability of written sources from the period. This essay will investigate why the military, political, economic, social and cultural impacts of Viking activity were so different across Britain. The sources that will be used are annals, coins, hoards, types of settlements, place-names and burials. Although the countries ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’ did not exist in the Viking Age, these terms will be used synonymously with the terms northern and western Britain for the sake of simplicity.
This essay will argue that Viking raids had a more significant economic effect on Ireland than in northern and western Britain because, trading was the primary focus of the Vikings in Ireland. In contrast, raiding had a great political effect on northern and western Britain because, interest here was driven by the desire of Dublin leaders to expand their territorial gains in the Irish Sea. To understand why the social and cultural legacy of Viking raids varied across Britain, it is important to analyse Viking activity in Ireland, in relation to their activity in other regions.
Written texts imply that Viking raids had a devastating military impact on the existing populations of Ireland, western and northern Britain. The Vikings have been described as ‘heathens’ who burned monasteries and caused destruction in the lands they invaded. Chronicles give the impression that contemporaries saw the Vikings as a divine punishment for the weaknesses that existed within the pre-Viking Christian societies, for instance, the feuding between Scots and Picts.
The Vikings first invaded the Irish west coast, targeting a monastery in Iona between 795 and 811. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle accounts 793 as a catastrophic year of ‘immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning’. It was in this context that the first ‘heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne’. In Shetland, hoards have been found buried beneath the church floor of St Ninian’s Isle. This could be a sign of priests fleeing from churches or resistance in giving up church wealth to invaders. It reveals that monasterial wealth and population sizes was what fist enticed Vikings to attack coastal areas. Overall, historical sources imply that early raiding created an atmosphere of heightened economic and religious distress across Britain.
Viking raids had different political impacts across Britain. Although the Vikings were not a unified force of raiders, the Viking settlers in different regions had considerable links. Twelfth century sources provide evidence for the political effect of Viking raids in Ireland. Birchy argues that the fragmented Irish society of tribal kings meant that there was no central government that the conquerors could collaborate with. As Irish kings like the Ui Neills had a long history of fighting over the possession of monasteries in the eighth century, the Vikings needed to establish a firm political holding to protect their urban settlements at Dublin.
The Annals of Ulster highlights that the years 848 to 873 were marked by the arrival of new Viking conquerors from Scotland who established political rule over Ireland. Dublin was an important source of income through taxation, as well as a base from which Viking leaders could expand trading networks in the Irish Sea.
Its leaders were able to make conquests in Anglo-Saxon York and create new sea routes to the Isle of Man and western Britain. O’Corrain argues that the political significance of Dublin was downplayed by the defeat of the Vikings in the Battle of Clontarf. Nevertheless, Dublin remained an important trading centre for the Vikings of Ireland. The search for new trading centres as well as the need to politically defend Dublin, meant that Viking raids had a more prominent political effect in northern and western Britain.
In northern and western Britain, Viking interest was primarily driven by motives to expand territorial gain. Historical sources provide clear evidence for the high level of Viking political engagement in Scotland. The Chronicle of the Canons of Huntingdon mentions the establishment of new political entities like the kingdom of Alba, which unified the Scots and the Picts during the second half of the ninth century. The Orkneyinga saga narrates the tenth century military conquests of Shetland, Orkney and Hebrides.
Furthermore, the creation of the Earldom of Orkney is a recurring theme in many chronicles. In western Britain, the political effect of the Viking raids can only be seen from the tenth century onwards. Redknap argues the Red Bay hoard-containing five silver arm rings-is suggestive of gift-giving, rewards and patronage between Viking leaders and Welsh royal dynasties. This evidence closely coincides with the mention of the time when Ingimund was expelled from Dublin with his fellow Viking leaders in chronicles. The absence of trading centres in Scotland and Wales, meant that political gain became a key focus for Viking military campaigns beyond Ireland.
The Vikings created a commercial economy in Ireland by the mid-tenth century because of the significant trading interest here. Sheehan argues that longphuirts and towns in Ireland show that Viking trading activity here had a distinct effect on the economy and forms of settlement. The site of Black Pool of Dublin appears to have been a longphuirt, evident from burial remains: ‘on the south-east shore …on the east side of an islet. Ships’ rivets were recovered from the gravel of the Pool along with a bearded axe’.
Blackburn suggests that the silver in numismatic hoards made them economically functional, whereas hoards that only contained arm rings seem to have been used to store or display wealth. From the mid-tenth century onwards, the number of coins in silver hoards increased which coincided with the establishment of Dublin’s own mint in the year 997. Hence, increased Viking commercial activity in the second half of the tenth century led to the monetarisation of the Irish economy.
In Scotland, many hoards like Skye (Storr Rock) contain hacksilver, dirhams, Anglo-Saxon pennies, whole ingots and ‘ring money’, however, the element of coins is small. Blackburn points out that these hoards suggest a continued use of silver bullion for exchange and the storage of wealth in the tenth and eleventh century.
In Wales, there is an increase in the number of hoards found on the north-west coast from the tenth century onwards. This implies that Vikings did engage in trade in Wales however, this was limited to coastal areas which naturally lent themselves to commercial activity due to the presence of monasteries. Also, the Vikings were arriving from a pre-established base in Dublin so settling on coastal areas meant they could easily move to other bases.
Hoards found at Llanbedrgoch contain a mixture of weights, hack-silver and arm-rings of Scandinavian descent, indicating that it was a crucial strategic site linking up other bases that had been raided by the Vikings. Similarly, the graves of merchants who were trading off the coast of Argyll are illustrative of the multiple interconnections of North Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, western Scotland and Norway. Overall, the economic effect of raiding in western and northern Britain was limited as Viking interest was driven by the need to make territorial gains rather than to engage in trade.
Viking raids left a different cultural and social legacy in Ireland, northern and western Britain. Excavations of burials, types of settlements and place-names give a good indication of these variations. Once the Vikings arrived in Ireland, they were able to manipulate pre-existing ecclesiastical institutions for the use of slave trade and commerce. This allowed Vikings to learn Irish ‘building, farming and animal husbandry’ and the Irish to adopt Norse art, ship-building and fishing practices.
For instance, the ‘Irish urban variant’ was a settlement built by local materials, but it took the Norse housing style of a ‘rectangular three-sided building’ This evidence suggests that by the mid- tenth century, the Vikings had largely assimilated in to the indigenous Irish population, creating a hybrid culture. Abrams points to the loss of the term genti, meaning ‘heathen’, in late ninth century Irish chronicles. However, this was used synonymously with the term Gaill, meaning ‘foreigners’, indicating that these terms may not have had much religious significance.
Despite this, contemporary sources tend to exaggerate the division between Viking pagans and the Christian Irish due to their ecclesiastical origins. Even burials come with the problem of ambiguity over dates and using grave goods as symbols of religion. As Christianity was deeply entrenched in to Irish society, the Vikings were largely absorbed in to this culture, just as they were assimilated into Irish political culture, evident from the adoption of Irish titles and names. Ireland’s coastal monasteries made them convenient locations for drawing up trade links with Scandinavia and other parts of Britain. Therefore, in these areas we see the greatest evidence of the integration of Vikings in to Irish culture.
The lack of material culture and written evidence showing close Cambro-Norse relations, demonstrates that the Vikings left a short-lived social and cultural impact on Wales. Redknap argues that ‘the Vikings initiated no urban developments, and the Welsh were effective in limiting Viking settlement to certain areas’. This is perhaps with the exception that in 930, the monks of south Wales called on other Scandinavians to help expel the English from Britain. In Scotland, there was a greater Norse influence in the Northern Isles and the Outer Hebrides than in the South.
The presence of Viking cemeteries in locations where Pictish burials have been found suggests integration between the locals and settlers. Moreover, those buried in the graves had a marine diet, characteristic of Scandinavian lifestyle. Barrett argues that the identity of the Vikings changed as they became more integrated into the local population. The Genocide model suggests that the local populations of the North and the West were eradicated by Vikings due to the absence of pre-Norse place names.The Myhre model is more convincing as it advocates that there was already a presence of Scandinavians in northern Britain, and that the arrival of Vikings, made a more prominent mark on material culture. For instance, longhouse architecture in the Northern Isles is made from Norwegian materials like mixed-stone and turf construction.
In Quoygrew, even the house of an ordinary fisherman was built from such materials showing that Norse settlement had spread down to even the lowest levels of society. Conversely, there are no signs of Scandinavian style settlement in Argyll, and the creation of the kingdom of Alba in the south-west of Scotland coincided with a decline of the Pictish place-names, largely replaced with Gaelic. Place-names and other archaeological evidence largely imply that Vikings were most engaged in local affairs in the North and West of Scotland. In Wales, Vikings had an external political interest from Dublin, that solely involved political alliances so any assimilation in culture was limited to elite structures.
In conclusion, Viking raids and military campaigns had different effects in Ireland, western and northern Britain because the motives for raiding and settling varied. Written texts strongly suggest that raiding led to a sense of fear that the Vikings would cause economic and religious destruction across Britain. The Vikings were attracted to Ireland due to its monasterial centres that could act as trading ports for commerce and slave trade.
By the mid-tenth century, Viking trade in Ireland had led to the establishment of Dublin’s own mint, and a shift from the use of silver bullion to coins. This shift is not evident in hoards found in Wales or Scotland as here Viking interest was dictated by the desire of Dublin leaders to extend their political authority across the Irish Sea. Material evidence and written texts show that Vikings had a great political impact on these parts of Britain, through the establishment of new political structures and alliances.
The social and cultural impact of the Vikings was most prominent in Ireland where there was an exchange of local and foreign practices through architecture, the Viking adoption of Irish political titles, and the absorption of Viking leaders in to the Irish religious sphere. In Wales, there is hardly any evidence to suggest acculturation between local and settler populations as settlement was limited to coastal areas.
In Scotland, there was a significant linguistic influence of the Viking settlement in the North and West, evident from Norse place-names, architecture and objects found in Scandinavian burials. This was not the case in southern or eastern parts of Scotland, as here political and social engagement with indigenous populations was limited. Ultimately, Dublin’s role as a commercial centre meant that the Vikings had an immense economic influence over Ireland. The Viking expansion from Dublin to northern and western Britain was driven by the political interest to create a network of Viking-ruled lands that would span the Irish Sea.
From the Anglo-Saxon chronicle (Old English), under the year 793
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