More on the Anglo-Saxons/Danes

having recently been discussing the ango-saxons and the danelaw I have decided to take two of the short entries in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and use them together with various secondary texts to see if I can piece together some idea of how accurate the records are.

Analysis of the Entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the Years 789 and 793.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides a history of England from the Roman invasion to the eleventh century. It consists of a series of chronicles written in Old English by monks. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was begun during the reign of King Alfred but the various manuscripts were subsequently maintained and added to by later generations . The Authors of the document remain anonymous however we can fairly assume that they were all sympathetic to Alfred’s agenda, at least until his death. It could be argued that Alfred’s production of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle could have been an attempt to encourage the readers of the document to learn from the events of the past and to provide a warning to the English to ignore Alfred’s counsel at their peril. Alfred had after all, been successful in defending Wessex at least against the depredations of the Vikings (Danes), an enemy who appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the first time in the entry for 789. Julian Richards explains that
“At the beginning of his reign Alfred had successfully defeated a Viking army but, at the time the Chronicle was started, the Vikings were once again becoming a threat. This would have been quite a good time for Alfred to remind his subjects just what he had achieved so far.”

The first entry which concerns us describes the events of the year 789 and in a rather matter of fact manner gives us an interpretation of the circumstances surrounding the arrival of three Danish Ships and the murder of an English Reeve. The entry is somewhat brief and gives us little factual information. We are not given the name of the Reeve, nor are we told where the Danes landed. We are told that in this year “King Brihtric married Offa’s daughter Eadburh” which does help to clarify the date of this Danish visit. This date however conflicts with another account of the event. The later Chronicle of Aethelweard records the date of King Brihtric’s wedding to Eadburh as 792 . Quite why Aethelweard has altered the date recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is unclear. It is possible that Aethelweard wished to correct an earlier mistake or that for whatever reason the date of 789 was inconvenient to his own chronology of events. It is probable that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was to provide Aethelweard with much of his source material. If the two accounts do not agree on the date they at least agree on the events surrounding the arrival of the Danes including the number of ships and the death of an official.

Aethelweard’s writings give us the name of the murdered Reeve, Beaduheard, and tell us that he was the “King’s reeve” at the town of Dorchester . It would be fair to assume that the Danes landed somewhere nearby. These are details which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle fails to mention, indeed the entry for 789 is most remarkable in it’s lack of detail.

The Record tells us of three Ships, a number with which Aethelweard and others agree. If we use Magnus Magnusson’s archaeological interpretation of the remains of Scandinavian Longships ,we can assume then that this party could have consisted on anything between an approximate figure of ninety and one hundred and fifty warriors depending upon the size of the ships and indeed the intention of the crews. If these ships were traders and importantly there is no evidence to suggest they were not, their numbers would have been significantly lower. This force would have been a sizeable raiding force but it certainly does not constitute an invading army. Why the Reeve was killed is unclear. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives us no explanation but does suggest that the reeve was far from friendly when he attempted “to force them to the kings residence.” This could be interpreted as an attempt to ‘arrest’ the Danes. Magnusson describes the event which he places at Portland.

“All they wanted was a friendly welcome and a few beers.”

Magnusson goes on to explain the death of Beaduheard.

“They [the Danes] found themselves being pushed around by an officious bureaucrat who tried to order them to Dorchester, nine miles away. The result was inevitable: fists started flying, and then weapons started swinging. The… incident… was probably not a ‘Viking raid’ at all but merely an ordinary quayside brawl that got out of hand, magnified by hindsight because Scandinavians had been involved.”

Magnusson’s own ‘Viking’ heritage cannot be ignored as an influential factor in trying to play down the incident however his interpretation does not seem unreasonable. Aethelweard’s account does claim that Beaduheard was under the impression that these ships were “merchants rather than marauders” and even if we do not wholly believe Magnusson’s interpretation of events it makes sense that the ‘Vikings’ had, on this occasion at least, some kind of provocation. The fact that they were prepared to go as far as Killing Beaduheard proves one thing. The Vikings did not acknowledge the Authority of the English King, Brihtric.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for the year 793 is as brief as the entry for 789. The entry begins with a description of ill omens or as the chronicler puts it “dire portents” which were believed to be an indication of God’s displeasure. We are told of “fiery dragons” appearing in the sky. Undoubtedly a description, in the parlance of the age, of comets. This Astronomical occurrence is useful to the historian as it does help to provide confirmation of the date. The Chronicler also tells us of Whirlwinds and thunderstorms followed by a great famine. To the Anglo-Saxons this must have been a sign that God was truly angry at them and wished to punish them for some transgression. The Viking raid on Lindisfarne in the same year is viewed in much the same way and this entry into the Chronicle begins what is to become a recurring theme. That the Vikings were a plague, sent by God.

The idea that the inhabitants of Lindisfarne had in some way deserved God’s wrath was shared by the contemporary Northumbrian Scholar, and guest of Charlemagne, Alcuin who used the misfortune of the Lindisfarne community as an excuse to preach. In Alcuin’s letter to the survivors of the raid he claimed that the attack was

“A direct visitation of divine wrath against the sins of the English: Sins that included peccadilloes like fornications, adulteries and incests; avarice, robbery… [and] long hair.”

When compared with Alcuin’s letters the account of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle seems fairly unbiased and the factual style of the work suggests to the historian that the authors were aware that they were writing an historical record and seem to have for much of the document kept their personal views to themselves, however in the entry for 793 emotive adjectives are used to describe the raid on Lindisfarne.

“Heathen men miserably devastated God’s church on Lindisfarne.”

This can be excused when one considers that Lindisfarne was, in the eighth century, much more significant than it is today. The Lindisfarne community was a recognised centre of learning and any attack upon it could be construed as an attack on Christian civilisation itself . These Authors were however part of the English institution under threat and we cannot assume that they are giving us an accurate account of the conduct of the Vikings. The chroniclers were largely responsible for giving the Vikings the bloodthirsty image they have today. The Anglo-Saxons had come to Britain in much the same way, two and a half centuries earlier.

Magnus Magnusson, Vikings! (London, 1980)
Julian Richards, Blood of the Vikings. (London, 2001)
A. Campbell (Ed.) The Chronicle of Aethelweard. (Edinburgh, 1962)
J.A. Graham-Campbell, The Vikings in England, History Today 32/7 (1982)
R. Fleming, Monastic Lands and England’s Defence in the Viking Age, English Historical Review 100 (1985)
J. Campbell, The Early Medieval Trading Centres of Northern Europe, English Historical Review 119 (2004)
Another most intresting artical.
"The Lindisfarne community was a recognised centre of learning and any attack upon it could be construed as an attack on Christian civilisation itself."

But would it be a deliberate out and out attack on Christianity or as I would think just a raid on a large source of tresure and plunder.
From the point of view of the Danes, Lindisfarne was an easy target for plunder.

However all of the contemporary sources were written by literate clergy. From the christian perspective (and therefore the English one by this period) The Danes were seen as being sent by God as punishment for their transgressions.

The English authorities were keen to villify the Danes despite the fact that they shared a common heritage and spoke a simelar language. The Danes were a threat and it was as well to encourage hatred/fear.

Here began a reccuring theme throughout all of the contemporary English Sources (There are no surviving Danish accounts) that the Vikings were a plague sent by God to test them/punish them.
Its a pity we have little from the Danes themselves about this period in history.

Yorkshire was created by an invasion of Northumbria by Vikings mainly coming from 'English Juteland' (East Midlands). Obviously Denmark today also includes Jutland. The English Jutes had suffered invasions from Angles from Mercia (creating Jute Mercia).

Was the attack on Lindisdarne related to this (Jute/Dane brothers helping out the English Jutes?). How strong was the Jute/Viking relationship, a few army's rested 'English Juteland/Derby' before attacking the Anglo-Saxons.
The Jutes by this period had, along with the Saxons and angles evolved to become the English. The Vikings (Danes in this case) Probably attacked lindisfarne because it was an isolated and pretty much defenceless target. By this time Yorkshire, as we know it, did not exist as it does today. Modern yorkshire covers an area which crosses the boundaries of the old kingdoms however in Anglo Saxon times there was a Shire based around York. the word Shire is a corruprtion of an anglo-saxon word.

A lot of people ask about the influence of the jutes (culturally simelar to the saxons) but by this period any differences between the tribes had vanished. The English were the new nation even though england as a unified nation did not yet exist.
Lairdx said:
By this time Yorkshire, as we know it, did not exist as it does today. Modern yorkshire covers an area which crosses the boundaries of the old kingdoms however in Anglo Saxon times there was a Shire based around York.
Yorkshire would always be a strong area, most of its borders are quite strong, North Yorks to the North, Pennines to the West and Numerous rivers running East to West on the South.

The Jute area (Staffs, Derbys, Notts, Lincs & Leics?), would have been fought over many times as it was Northumbrian route into Mercia and visa versa. I would guess it would have had to have had 'Northumbrians/Mercians' in charge (and an army?).

Liked the way Bernard Cornwell mentions Derby as Mercian (the name is Danish). But his UK based books tend to have a South-West bias.

Similar threads

Latest Threads