How to cope with Viking attacks?



Historians and archeologists increasingly recognize the fact that many fortifications and fortified towns – known in Old English as burhs – existed in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia during the Viking age. They may have successfully checked Viking mobility at times but it was in Wessex where such defences were employed to their fullest effect.

A network of burhs ensured that no part of the kingdom was more than half a day’s travel from a fortification. Coupled with a mobile army, this meant that small raiding parties could no longer operate as they wished. However, the system was expensive and, during the tenth century, many smaller fortifications fell into disuse. Meanwhile, many towns became thriving centres of commerce, to the detriment of their defences as suburban areas flourished.

Viking invasion in 919

Viking invasion in 919

Nonetheless, when Viking attacks on the English kingdom resumed during the late 10th and early 11th centuries, towns still played a role in the defence of the English kingdom, even if no longer as a system of fortifications.

But why did the Anglo-Saxons not take the fight to the homelands of the Vikings? After all, Anglo-Saxon ship technology was highly developed, as was the military organisation of the kingdoms. However, we should put aside modern strategic concerns. In the early Viking age, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were in no position to attack Scandinavia because they were not united – and, for that matter, neither were the Vikings.

Anglo-Saxon warrior, illustration from Punch magazine

Anglo-Saxon warrior, illustration from Punch magazine

Indeed, some of the early Viking fleets were just that: fleets which coalesced while they shared a common goal, then dispersed. When Viking armies established themselves in territories, whether for a winter or for longer, they became vulnerable to a more conventional attack of the sort made by one early medieval kingdom against another. This was something which the English kingdom under the West Saxon dynasty was particularly successful at, and although the famous longships specially built for Alfred seem to have been an expensive failure, the English kingdom’s ability to use ships around the British Isles often gave it a crucial advantage in attack.

Æthelred's coin

Æthelred’s coin

If all else failed, there were other ways of seeing off Vikings. Money was one means – as seen in the infamous ‘Danegeld‘, which was so characteristic of the sense of failure during the reign of Æthelred the Unready (978 – 1016). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records huge sums paid to the Vikings between 991 and 1018 – from £10,000 to £72,000 – and, though the figures may be exaggerated, they were substantial enough to ensure that large numbers of coins from Æthelred’s reign survive in Scandinavia.

Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred the Unready

Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred the Unready

But geld was for more than paying Vikings to go away. Contemporary sources record the payments as ‘here-geld‘, meaning army payment or tax and – judging by the fact that many Vikings undertook service for Anglo-Saxon rulers – this could be a successful means of defending the kingdom.

A painting of a Viking longship from a 10th C. Anglo-Saxon manuscript (unknown)

A painting of a Viking longship from a 10th C. Anglo-Saxon manuscript (unknown)

And one should not forget that early medieval warriors could – and did – turn to God. Barefoot penance, to win back God’s favour in the eyes of contemporaries, could be just as important as any spear.

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