Having been to see the brilliant Vikings exhibition at the British Museum, I thought it would be interesting to do a bit of research on the impact of these sea raiders on Dorset.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was in 787 that the Scandinavian raiders first appeared on the English coast. Three ships landed in Dorset, probably at Melcombe or Portland and the King’s reeve, Beaduheard, thinking that they were traders, rode from Dorchester to meet them. He ordered them to be taken to the king’s town, as was the custom, but instead they killed him and his attendants. It was a sign of things to come.
A few years later, the country was shocked by another violent attack when ‘the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne through brutal robbery and slaughter’. Sporadic raids occurred for the next few decades as groups of Scandinavian pirates armed with swords, spears and axes, descended on coastal communities to kill, enslave, plunder and destroy. For young men from Denmark or Norway a couple of season’s raiding could help them break out of poverty and set them up for life. For their victims the appearance of the dragon-headed longships heralded terrible and traumatic events.
Saxon society was not a peaceful one but the seven kingdoms were mainly involved in fighting each other rather than facing external threats. The kings had to prove themselves in battle and reward their followers, particularly the ealdormen who were their main war leaders. The military culture at the top of Saxon society also inspired literature and craftsmanship in the form of heroic poetry and finely made weapons and other articles.
In contrast to this elite, most people were tied to the annual round of subsistence farming and producing enough food to survive. The country was dotted with small agricultural settlements or manors, the forerunners of the towns and villages that exist today. Each manor consisted of a cluster of rectangular thatched wooden buildings, animal enclosures and three large open fields, divided into strips. Some larger settlements contained a grander building, the hall of a lord or even the king, which he would visit periodically. Twineham (Christchurch), Wareham, Shaftesbury, Dorchester and Bridport were probably the most important centres in the Dorset area.
Christianity had been reintroduced into Britain in the late 6th and early 7th century and gradually adopted by the kings who became sponsors of churches and monasteries. The diocese of Sherborne was created in 705 by Ine, King of Wessex with Aldhelm as the first Bishop. Around the same time, Ine’s sister, St. Cuthberga founded a monastery for nuns at Wimborne. Later, King Alfred is credited with founding the abbey at Shaftesbury as a religious house for women. The church leaders offered revenue, advice and support in return for royal patronage and as part of Christendom, Saxon Britain was linked to an international community of religion, learning and art.
During the reign of Ecgbrycht, King of Wessex (802-839) the balance of power between the kingdoms shifted from Mercia to Wessex and Ecgbrycht gained the title of ‘Bretwalda’ or leader of Britain. It was towards the end of his reign that the Scandanavian attacks became more organised and threatening. Instead of isolated coastal raids by small flotillas of ships, they became mass incursions, backed by royal authority, with the aim of invasion and conquest. The reigns of Ecgbrycht’s sons and grandsons would be dominated by the desperate struggle against the invaders.
For the next few decades, battles were fought all over the country without either side winning decisively. In 840, the men of Dorset under ealdorman Æthelhun were defeated by the Danes at Portland and the ealdorman was killed. Four years later they were again involved in a battle at the mouth of the Parrett in Somerset, under ealdorman Osric and Ealhstan, the Bishop of Sherborne. This time they were victorious and ‘there made great slaughter’. In 851, the Vikings were secure enough to over-winter in England. The year 865 marked a turning point when a great heathen force arrived in East Anglia as a permanent army of occupation. From this base they took York, Nottingham and Peterborough, killing many and destroying churches, schools, libraries, and all the ancient records and chronicles. ‘They made that which was very great such that it became nothing.’
By 871, the invaders were ready to turn their attention to Wessex. Dorset men called up to fight in the Saxon army must have wondered whether they would live to harvest their crops, or whether their families, houses, crops and livestock would even survive. In that fateful year, Ecgbrycht’s grandson, King Æthelred and his brother Alfred fought nine battles against the Vikings, besides other skirmishes ‘which no-one counted’. Nine Danish earls were killed and the conflict cost Æthelred his life. He died after Easter and was buried at Wimborne, leaving the throne to Alfred as his son, Æthelwold, was still a child. Both sides having fought themselves to a standstill, or at least a stand-off, Alfred made peace with the Vikings.
Alfred knew that the conflict was not resolved and in 876, the Danish leader Guthrum with part of the Danish army slipped past him and took up winter quarters in Wareham from where they could plunder the country around. Unable to attack the invaders, Alfred negotiated peace terms and Guthrum gave him hostages and promises to leave Wessex, instead of which he slipped away and installed himself in Exeter. However luck favoured Alfred when the Viking ships, sailing westward, encountered a storm off Swanage and 120 ships were lost. Again the two sides had to negotiate a cease fire.
The low point in Alfred’s reign came in 878 when Guthrum attacked in winter and drove the king into exile. Most of the West Saxons submitted to him and for the first time Wessex, including Dorset, had a Viking ruler. However, the men of Devon were still fighting and news soon came that Alfred had not gone far. From a stronghold in the Somerset marshes he gathered a force to harry the Danes and eventually to attack and defeat them at Edington on the edge of Salisbury Plain. The decisive victory meant that Guthrum was no longer a threat to Wessex.
Alfred now had the chance to improve the defences of the knigdom. He created a small fleet of ships to challenge invaders and also introduced a system of burhs, fortified settlements in which the local people could shelter from attack and launch resistance. These burhs were usually less than 50 kms apart and in Dorset, the sites were Bridport, Wareham, Twyneham (Christchurch) and Shaftesbury. Sometimes the defences were based on existing walls but elsewhere as at Wareham, timber-fronted earthen ramparts and ditches were constructed. The defences were maintained and manned by local people, based on land holding, one man being provided for each hide of land held.
After Alfred had taken London in 885 and converted it into a burh, ‘all the English people that were not under subjugation to the Danes submitted to him’. He was now in effect the King of England (apart from the Danelaw) but he did not claim this title, respecting regional identities and consulting with non-Wessex leaders. In 886, he made a treaty with Guthrum which acknowledged the settlement of the Danes in the east of the country and gave members of both communities equal rights in law. For the next 13 years Wessex (and Dorset) was at the centre of Saxon England as Alfred drew up a law code, restored churches and monasteries and encouraged learning, himself translating five works from Latin into English. He died in 899 and was succeeded by his son, Edward.
Much had happened since the first appearance of the Viking raiders in England but the saga was not yet finished.
To be concluded . . . .