The Vikings in England (Or were they Danes?)

From small raids to conquest and colonization, England was a prime target for the Vikings, whose actions changed the course of English history.

Mar 11, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

danes or vikings in england


For almost 300 years, England was an epicenter of Viking activity. From raiding in small groups to launching massive armies carried over the seas in hundreds of boats, England suffered at the hands of heathen warriors out to plunder, pillage, and destroy the Christian institutions that underpinned English authority. It was a time of great upheaval when thousands suffered, new fortunes were struck, and lands switched hands as the kingdoms of England fell afoul of the greedy invaders. The Vikings in England were brutal and without mercy. This was the age of Vikings, and Anglo-Saxon England was the focus.


A Note on Terminology…

A Viking longboat, via


Technically, “Viking” means raider. It was, thus, a term originally meant to describe the people who went raiding. In modern parlance, however, the term has become a catchall to describe everybody from Scandinavia during the Middle Ages who spoke a North Germanic language. Alternatively, it can be used to describe just those who left Scandinavia to raid, conquer, and settle.


The term “Dane” generally refers to the Vikings from Denmark, while “Norse” typically refers to Vikings from Norway. During the Middle Ages in England, however, there would have been little distinction, and the term “Dane” was used to refer to all Scandinavians or Vikings in England, or those who had their eyes on raiding, conquering, or settling in England.


As far as history is concerned, it was mainly the Danes from Denmark who focused on England, while the Norse from Norway raided and settled in northwestern Scotland and Ireland.

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On the other side, “English” and “Anglo-Saxon” are used interchangeably to describe the people of Anglo-Saxon England.


Lindisfarne: The Viking Age Begins

The raid on Lindisfarne, via


Although England was sure to have been subjected to a number of unrecorded raids before the events that unfolded at Lindisfarne, June 8, 793 is traditionally regarded as the beginning of the Viking Age, especially as far as England is concerned. From this date, Vikings in England would be a constant, almost permanent feature.


Like many monasteries, Lindisfarne was isolated and undefended. It was situated on an island off the northern coast of Northumberland and was easy pickings for raiders. The Vikings descended like a storm, slaughtering many of the monks. Other victims were enslaved and taken back to Norway. The following year the Northumberland Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey was sacked, and the years that followed saw raids extending to the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.


As the years went by, the raids became more widespread, and in 835, the Isle of Sheppey, off the coast of Kent in southern England, was the target of a large raid.


Nowhere in England was safe. With their shallow-bottomed longboats, the Vikings in England could sail far up rivers and attack virtually anywhere and at any time. For the most part, the Anglo-Saxons were at the complete mercy of these vicious reavers who had no respect for the Christian doctrines that would have kept many other enemies away.


The Great Heathen Army

The Viking leader, Guthrum, surrendered to Alfred the Great and agreed to be baptized by Alfred himself, via


From 865 onwards, the Vikings reconsidered their attitude towards the British Isles, and instead of viewing England simply as a source for plunder, they began to see its potential for colonization. For a people that had grown up in cold climates with limited land for farming, England’s arable lands made it a tempting target for people wishing to prosper. From Denmark came a huge army known as The Great Heathen Army, which would ravage the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and set up a permanent presence of Vikings in England.


The Vikings began arriving en masse with armies intent on conquest. These armies were led by Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan, and Ubba, three of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, who had been killed by the Northumbrian King Ælla. The first English city to fall to the invaders was York, conquered in 866. The Northumbrians tried in vain to retake the city, and King Ælla was killed in the process. One-by-one, other Saxon realms capitulated until virtually all of north and eastern England was under the direct control of the Danes.


At this point, the strongest Anglo-Saxon kingdom was Wessex, and upon the death of its king Æthelred, Alfred succeeded the throne and took the fight to the Vikings in England, who had begun annexing huge chunks of Mercia, an ally of Wessex. Alfred’s initial campaign against the Vikings was, however, a complete failure. Anglo-Saxon military tactics and defenses were incapable of dealing with Viking raids, and Alfred was eventually forced into hiding in the Somerset Marshes. The Vikings in England had succeeded in opening up the whole of Anglo-Saxon England to their mercy.


Routes of the Great Heathen Army up to 878 when King Alfred launched the Anglo-Saxon counter-offensive, via


In 878, King Alfred came out of hiding and met with the lords still loyal to his cause. During his time in the Somerset Marshes, he had carefully planned a major counter-offensive against the Danish Viking army under Guthrum. Alfred’s campaign was successful, and Guthrum’s army was beaten, first in the field at Edington and then starved into submission at Chippenham. Several years later, a boundary was established, dividing England in two, with one half under Anglo-Saxon control and the other half, known as the Danelaw, under the control of the Vikings.


King Alfred organized better defenses, as well as a powerful free-standing army better equipped to deal with Viking tactics. As a result, subsequent raids and a major invasion attempt were thwarted. The Vikings who were part of this invasion attempt either ended up settling in Danelaw or sailing to Normandy and settling there.


England After Alfred

A monument to Lady Æthelflæd of Mercia, via Tamworth Borough Council


King Alfred’s policy against the Viking invaders was perpetuated by his children. His daughter, Æthelflæd, married the Ealdorman (ruler) of Mercia and continued to strengthen Mercia’s defenses. Æthelflæd was so loved and trusted by her people that upon her husband’s death in 911, she became the ruler of Mercia in what was a highly unusual example of a woman becoming a ruler in the Middle Ages.


Alfred’s son Edward became king of Wessex and, along with Æthelflæd, led a successful campaign to retake southern England from the Vikings. When Æthelflæd died in 918, her daughter Ælfwynn briefly became the ruler of Mercia before Edward took her to Wessex and imposed direct rule on Mercia, effectively uniting the two kingdoms under one ruler. By Edward’s death in 924, only the very north of England remained under Viking control. This was the Viking Kingdom of York, which ran from the east to the west coast of northern England and comprised much of the former Kingdom of Northumbria.


A coin stamped with ERIC REX (King Eric) from Eric Bloodaxe’s second reign in the Viking Kingdom of York, via


In 927, the Viking Kingdom of York was reconquered by Edward’s son, King Æthelstan, who led to an invasion of Scots and Vikings from north of the border. In 937, the Anglo-Saxon victory of Brunanburh broke the back of Viking power in England. However, two years later, Æthelstan died, and the Vikings managed to retake York. In the following decades, control over the kingdom switched between Anglo-Saxon and Viking rule a number of times until 954, when the Anglo-Saxon King Eadred finally expelled the last Viking king of Northumbria, Eric Bloodaxe.


Although defeated in the field, the Vikings still had significant populations that came to be part of the societal makeup of England, and Viking power would rise again to threaten Anglo-Saxon rule.


Vikings in England: Invasion & Conquest

A 1000-year-old grave in Dorset where the bones of 50 decapitated Danes were found in October 2020, via


From 959 to 975, England was ruled by Edgar the Peaceful, and during this time, England was characterized by a sense of political unity that extended even to the social spheres. After his death, however, Edgar was followed by Edward the Martyr, who was murdered, and then by Æthelred the Unready. During these reigns, the unity of England would unravel.


The animosity between Anglo-Saxons and Danes flared up again, and in 980, the Vikings resumed their attacks on England. The English decided the best course of action was to pay them off, but this only resulted in the Vikings in England becoming greedy for more.


Æthelred levied a tax known as “Danegeld” in order to raise funds for tribute, but the Vikings became increasingly bold until Æthelred and the English had had enough and decreed that all Danes in the kingdom would be executed. This led to the St. Brice’s Day Massacre in 1002, in which an unknown number of Danes were killed.


King Cnut, who was a Viking but also a Christian, via The Times


Fearing that his sister may have been one of the victims, King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark organized a series of devastating raids against England, plundering Thetford and sacking Norwich before returning back to Denmark.


In 1009, Thorkell the Tall led an invasion of southern England. His army captured Canterbury and the archbishop, Ælfheah. Thorkell demanded huge sums of money to be paid, but Ælfheah refused to be ransomed. The archbishop was held captive for seven months. During this time, he took the opportunity to convert as many Vikings as he could, which created tension among the invading army. Eventually, Thorkell’s men murdered the archbishop, despite Thorkell trying to stop them. Sensing that he had lost control of his army, he took some of his loyal followers and defected, becoming mercenaries in the employ of the Anglo-Saxons instead.


In 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard returned and invaded England. King Æthelred fled to Normandy, and Sweyn took the throne, reigning as king until his death less than a year later. Æthelred returned to England but was forced to confront another invasion in 1016 under the command of Sweyn Forkbeard’s son Cnut. This time, the Vikings in England were more permanent, and Cnut reigned from 1016 until he died in 1035. Cnut’s son Harold ruled until 1040, and then his other son, Harthacnut, ruled from 1040 to 1042.


Viking reenactment, via


Upon the death of Harthacnut, his adoptive Anglo-Saxon brother, Edward, became king. Edward the Confessor ruled until 1066 when he died without an heir. The Anglo-Saxon Harold Godwinson made a successful bid for the throne, but he faced two invasions.


In the north, Harald Hardråde, a Norse Viking, landed with his army in a bid to take the English throne. He was, however, defeated by King Harold at Stamford Bridge, bringing a decisive end to the Viking Era in England. A few weeks later, Harold was defeated by the descendants of Vikings, the Normans, at the Battle of Hastings, and William the Conqueror became king, putting an end to Anglo-Saxon rule in England. Although no longer a military threat, the Vikings in England became a permanent feature of England’s populace.


Viking reenactment, via


While racism wasn’t necessarily a recognized issue a thousand years ago, differences in culture and religion played a huge part in the conflicts in England during the Viking Era. Even small things were cause for animosity. The Vikings in England, for example, bathed far more regularly than the Anglo-Saxons, and it was believed that they had better success with Anglo-Saxon women! This caused much resentment; it was a time of constant strife.


Nevertheless, the two groups intermingled genetically, culturally, and linguistically. The Vikings in England left an indelible mark on the history of England. The struggle for the English throne(s) played out over England for hundreds of years. Vikings in England were a constant threat, with power shifting back and forth. In the end, it wasn’t the Vikings who put a final termination to Anglo-Saxon rule in England, but rather their descendants, the Normans, who had adopted much French culture, including the French language, which they took with them to England.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.