1066 and Before All That

This is a sample of 1066 and Before All That; you can buy the whole thing here. (And if you like it – don’t forget to review on Amazon.)

In April 1066 an elderly, eccentric monk called Elmer noticed a shooting star in the sky from his Abbey of Malmesbury in Wiltshire. Seeing it as a bad omen, Elmer is supposed to have muttered: ‘You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country.’

Few people reached old age in the eleventh century, but Elmer was one of them, and as a boy in September 989 he had seen the same ‘hairy-tailed star’ in the sky. Soon afterwards the Vikings had returned to England after almost a century, and so the comet’s arrival now was not entirely welcome.

Three months before the star reappeared King Edward had died, having first shouted wild and rather unhelpful prophecies about the country’s destruction. During his long reign the slightly weird monarch had promised the throne to a number of very violent men, and the country was now in a state of deep foreboding even for the standards of the time. The heavenly body, identified six centuries later by astronomer Edmund Halley, was indeed a bad omen, for 1066 would turn out to be a terrible year for England, with two invasions, three battles, and thousands of deaths. In the most famous of these clashes two armies of between seven and eight thousand men faced each other outside Hastings on October 14.

Elmer was lucky to have seen Halley’s Comet a second time. Fifty years earlier the monk was so inspired by the Greek legend of Icarus that he built wings from willow trees and parchment, and proceeded to launch himself from the abbey’s sixty-foot-high bell tower in a rather optimistic early attempt at manned flight. But even the fact that he broke both his legs and never walked again didn’t dampen his cheery demeanour and enthusiasm (in fairness he did stay airborne for two hundred yards before crashing, or so he claimed).

Edward’s successor King Harold II had had a hell of a year since being proclaimed king in January. By the time of Hastings he had just spent a month marching an army two hundred miles up to the north of England, where his men had seen off another invasion, from the flamboyant Viking maniac Harald Hardraada, before marching back again. Now he faced Duke William of Normandy, the humorless, hard-faced ruler of the most militaristic people in the known world, descendants of Vikings who had settled in France a century and a half before. Few battles in history have had such catastrophic consequences for the losers, for as historian Elizabeth van Houts put it: ‘No other event in western European history of the central Middle Ages can be compared for its shocking effects: the carnage on the battlefield, the loss of life and the consequent political upheaval.’

By the end of William the Conqueror’s reign twenty-one years later only two major English landowners were still in possession of their homes, one Englishman held a senior position in the Church, and just 5 per cent of land was still owned by natives, while an entire class of five thousand thegns, England’s aristocrats, had been killed, driven abroad or forced into serfdom or something similarly awful. In the worst instance of Norman violence over one hundred thousand people were killed in Yorkshire, an event known as the ‘Harrying of the North’ which left whole regions deserted for a century afterwards. One-third of the entire country was set aside for royal forests, with large numbers of natives evicted from their homes which now became these Norman pleasure gardens.

Countless houses were demolished to make way for castles to enforce Norman authority and the natives were collectively punished if any Norman was found dead in their neighborhood (while a Norman who killed an Englishman would go unpunished). The English language itself, which perhaps had the richest body of literature in western Europe at the time, would be suppressed for three centuries, by which time it would re-emerge heavily influenced by the conquerors. Today between a quarter and half of all words in the dictionary come from French, including almost everything to do with the law, government and war.

It’s easy to cast the Normans as preeminent medieval bad guys, callous imperialists who oppressed everyone, stole their land, and forced them into serfdom. And on top of invading England, and later Wales and Ireland, they also had more conservative views about women and religion, and their approach to interfaith issues in the Middle East would not be entirely fashionable today. Indeed the word ‘bigot’ was originally a Parisian insult for Normans, and came from their habit of using the Germanic oath ‘bei Gott’ or ‘by God’.

They are also blamed for introducing the idea of feudalism, whereby most people were tied to the land and had to work for their master half the year in exchange for a penny or some dung. In England, Norman ancestry has become synonymous with elitism, so that French-sounding names suggest privilege, while Anglo-Saxon ones appear humble. In the most popular British book and film series of recent years, the heroes have the very Anglo-Saxon sounding surnames Potter and Weasley, while the baddies go by the Normanesque Voldemort and Malfoy. It’s shorthand for humility versus entitlement.

The Normans sound like cartoon Hollywood upper-class English villains, blamed for creating long-standing class divisions, and to an extent this is true. To take one example, when Gerald Grosvenor, the multibillionaire 6th Duke of Westminster, was asked by a journalist what advice he’d give to a young entrepreneur hoping to become rich, he suggested ‘make sure they have an ancestor who was a very good friend of William the Conqueror.’

Indeed the duke’s forebear Hugh Lupus, ‘le gros veneur,’ or chief huntsman, had been granted lands by William in the county of Cheshire in order to keep the Welsh under control. In the 1170s his descendent Robert le Grosvenor had been given the manor of Budworth in the county, which is still home to the Grosvenor seat, the Eaton Estate. When in 2016 the duke died he left £8 billion ($10 billion) to his son.

But of course the Normans weren’t all bad. There were huge class divisions in English society in 1066, and feudalism was already in place; the Godwin family, of whom Harold was head, were absurdly wealthy, possibly richer than his grasping successor. And as well as building many beautiful cathedrals and castles, the Normans abolished slavery, maintained and improved Anglo-Saxon England’s system of government, while their customs were in many ways more civilized. They tended to ransom their aristocratic opponents, while the English just killed them, which is partly why by 1066 the country had been worn down by several decades of feuding and murder. And it all began when the last comet visited, and with the doings of an evil stepmother.

Chapter One
Read any national history from this period, whether it’s Ireland, Italy, Spain or even Egypt, and you’ll find the Normans turning up at some point. And England made an awfully tempting target. By the mid-11 century the country was one of the most prosperous in western Europe, with wool from the Cotswolds and East Anglia exported across the continent and a system of minting coins and collecting taxes that was way ahead of its rivals.

This was all quite impressive since only five hundred years earlier their ancestors had been illiterate raiders noted largely for the cruel deprivations they carried out on prisoners. The tribes known as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had crossed the North Sea from Germany and Denmark to Britain in the fifth century after the Romans left, conquering the south and east of the island. Converting to Christianity in the seventh century, the ‘Garmans’ (as natives called them) had gathered into a number of kingdoms that slowly absorbed each other until by the ninth century there were just four—Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex.

However at this point new barbarians from Scandinavia arrived, known to us as the Vikings (‘raiders’), and in the 860s their armies overran three of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until in 871 just Wessex remained, ruled by a young, inexperienced and very neurotic king called Alfred. Against the odds he fought off the invaders and fifty years later his grandson Athelstan had conquered all of what is now England, roughly on its modern borders.

England had become a rich and sophisticated state under the House of Wessex, culminating with the relative golden age of Alfred’s great-grandson Edgar the Peaceful (959–975), who established full authority over the island’s various warlords, despite being less than five feet tall. With peace came a huge growth in trade and learning, most of it done through the Church and its monasteries. The Angles and Saxons, despite being terrifying pagan barbarians to the Britons they conquered, had very quickly become very devoted to Rome; partly, it has to be said, because they were so far away they didn’t have to encounter the squalid reality of the place.

And so England in 1066 had law courts, counties, a tax system and a very rich body of literature. Its people were in many ways more civilized than the Normans, who according to one contemporary ‘found English prisoners well-dressed, long-haired and beautiful, much given to combing their locks–unlike the Normans’ own shaven and crop-headed style.’ The English were ‘a people greater, richer and older’ than the Normans, according to Orderic Vitalis, a mixed Norman-English writer of the time. The language, what we call Old English, had flourished in the century previously so that before the conquest some one thousand ‘writers and copyists in English have been identified’, and along with Irish it was ‘the most developed of Europe’s vernaculars’, with a literature far in advance of French.’

Much of this was down to Alfred, who as well as beating the Vikings encouraged everyone to learn to read and also set up the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a series of books recording (the mostly depressing) events of the period written in five different locations. King Alfred had built the first English cities since the Romans left, creating a system of ‘burhs’ that were fortresses where people could hide when the Vikings turned up, and these soon grew into towns. In the tenth century, London had property magnates for the first time—the Abbess of Barking, with twenty-eight apartments in the city, was the biggest.

With peace, overseas trade increased, and England was connected to the global economy revolving around Pavia, northern Italy, through which goods from as far away as modern day Indonesia turned up in England. A tourist trade sprang up in religious centres, centred around novelties such as St Swithun’s relics in Winchester, although ‘pilgrims’ were often just merchants pretending to be on religious missions to avoid customs duties. Almost every big town in the country claimed to have some saint’s remains, which could be very lucrative, and many were rather dubious.

Largely thanks to King Alfred’s literacy drive, as well as modern forensics, we know quite a lot about life in urban tenth-century England—and it was mostly grim. We know that hygiene was not of the highest standard, and that only monasteries had neccessariums, or toilets. We also know that the people suffered from parasites, the most sinister being the mawworm, a twelve-inch-long monster that sometimes popped out of the corner of people’s eyes, Alien-style. The Anglo-Saxons almost never washed, and remarked upon how strange it was that their Viking neighbours would comb their hair and bathe themselves (with soap made from conkers) before their Saturday night activities; it improved their chances with the ladies, observed one monk.

The weather must have made all of this even more unpleasant. England was far hotter in the tenth and eleventh centuries than it is now, with London enjoying the same climate as central France does today. There were almost forty vineyards in the south of Britain, spread as far north as Suffolk, not considered by wine buffs today as great grape country.

As for food, we know something of what the early English ate from a Latin vocabulary by Elfric, archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the millennium, which discusses the roles played by the baker, ploughman, fisherman and shepherd. Elfric’s Colloquy consists of a series of discussions between monastic master and young pupils designed to improve their conversational Latin, but it is also an insight into teaching methods and jobs.

It suggests that although the Anglo-Saxons kept pigs, goats and deer, they ate them rarely, as meat was expensive. Fish was more popular, although herring was also very costly. People mainly ate carrots, leeks, garlic, fennel and kale; kale was so popular that February was called sproutkele in Old English before the introduction of the Roman calendar. In fact the calendar was different to the one we have today in many ways. While January 1 was merely the day of Our Lord’s circumcision, New Year’s Day was on March 25, or Lady Day, a feast in honour of the Virgin Mary and her immaculate conception (nine months before Christmas). This calendar lasted until the seventeenth century, and may be the origin for the European custom of April Fool’s Day, whereby people following the old system were laughed at.

Some ancient superstitions and bits of folklore survive from this era: ‘If the sky reddens at nights, it foretells a clear day; if in the morning, it means bad weather,’ goes the wisdom first written down by Bede in the eighth century; or ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’, as people still say in England. Other bits of wisdom did not last so well, including one claiming that thunder on Wednesdays ‘presages the death of idle and scandalous prostitutes’; you don’t often hear people say that these days. Among the few other things a visitor to the tenth century might find familiar are noughts and crosses—the only game of the period that we still play.

If you wanted to look after yourself you could read the ninth century Bald’s Leechbook, the first English medical guide, although it’s not quite as medieval as it sounds, laeceboc meaning medicine book, rather than referring to leeches. Among the cures recommended was cutting the eyelid open to calm a swelling, treating a spider bite with crushed black snails and lower back pain with ‘smoke of goat’s hair’. It also suggests one might lash oneself with a whip made out of dolphin to cure insanity (at what point does someone doing this think ‘my mental health is definitely improving’?)

Alternatively chicken soup was used as an ailment for sickness, and a thick, porridgey beer was drunk as much for its cleanliness (although most people did have access to clean water, at least outside of cities) as for its alcohol content, which was low by today’s standards; still, a few pints would certainly dull reality. The Leechbook also deals with headaches, baldness, virility or lack of it, and ‘talkative women and evil spirits’, declaring: ‘If a man be over-virile, boil water agrimony in Welsh ale; he is to drink it at night, fasting. If a man be insufficiently virile, boil the same herb in milk.’

There is lots of standard medieval gibberish: ‘If a man’s hair fall out, make him a salve; take great hellebore and viper’s bugloss, and the lower part of burdock, and gentian . . . If hair fall out, boil the polypody fern, and foment the head with that very hot.’ It also suggests: ‘Against a woman’s chatter: eat a radish at night, while fasting; that day the chatter cannot harm you.’ And, ‘make this a salve against the race of elves, goblins and those women with whom the Devil copulates; take the female hop-plant, wormwood, betony, lupin, vervain, henbane, dittander, viper’s bugloss, bilberry palants, cropleek, garlic, madder grains, corn cockle, fennel.’ Among the other folk remedies suggested at the time was drinking wolf’s milk for problems in pregnancy and childbirth, or alternatively trying a dried and pounded hare’s heart.

For an epidemic of plague, take a ‘hand of hammerwort’ and some eggshell of clean honey and add some more herbs. Meanwhile hearing troubles could be dealt with by pouring ‘juice of green earthgall or juice of wormwood’ into the ears. As for bladder problems, get some ‘dwarf dwolse’ and pound it, and then down it with two draughts of wine. You’ll at least forget about your problems. For baldness, ‘collect the juices of the wort called nasturtium’ and rub a bit in.

We may laugh but this was not especially irrational: before the scientific method and modern medicine in the late nineteenth century most active medical treatment was more likely to kill you than make you better, so you could do worse than eating some herbs and hoping for the best. Anyone who actually thought himself knowledgeable about medicine was probably a menace and would just try making a hole in your head to see what happened. But this is if you could get your hands on food, for starvation was a frequent event.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded grimly:
975 ‘Came a very great famine.’
976 ‘Here in this year was the great famine.’
1005 ‘Here in this year there was the great famine, such that no one ever remembered one so grim before.’

During the worst of these a group of forty or fifty people were seen jumping off Beachy Head in Sussex while holding hands. And one of the oldest surviving English jokes says as much about their tragic lives as their humor.

Q: What makes bitter things sweet?
A: Hunger.

Another Anglo-Saxon joke goes like this:
Q: What has two ears and one eye, two feet and 1,200 heads, one belly, one back, one pair of hands and one neck?
A: A one-eyed garlic seller with 1,200 heads of garlic.
You probably had to be there.

Almost every July the food ran out, and the poor would often feed themselves on ergot, the fungus that grows on rye bread and which in bad times is the only thing available. Unfortunately this produces an effect similar to a bad acid trip, and medieval famines are probably not the best environments to experiment with recreational drugs; ergot-eaters would describe feeling anxious and dizzy, with a burning sensation in the arms and legs, strange noises in the ears, and uncontrollable twitching. A somewhat more enjoyable-sounding subsistence food of the time was ‘Crazy Bread’, a mixture that included poppies and hemp.

Life was often so bad that fathers would sell children younger than seven into slavery, and there was even a word in Old English for people who volunteered to give up their freedom, which at least ensured you got fed as a part of the livestock, since one man was worth eight oxen. Slaves, also called ‘live money’, still accounted for over 10 per cent of the population by 1066, and 25 per cent in more remote areas like Cornwall, so it wasn’t quite the social democratic paradise that anti-Norman historians make out.

In fact it was the Normans who phased out slavery, replacing it with the somewhat better condition of serfdom (which was still pretty awful, obviously). Slaves were often poor people who had gone down in the world, or they were native Britons (or as the Saxons called them, ‘Welsh’, which means ‘slave’ as well as ‘foreigner’), but sometimes they were there as a punishment, which was more practical than prison. In the case of incest, the man convicted went to the king as his slave and the woman to the local bishop. Sleeping with another man’s slave was also a crime: anyone who deflowered a virgin slave of the royal family had to pay fifty shillings, a huge sum; if she was a slave of the royal flour mill, it was half this amount, and for an underslave, the lowest class, only twelve shillings.

Bishop Wulfstan, a cleric and lawmaker at the turn of the millennium who was fond of delivering damning sermons on how everyone was going to hell, painted a grim picture of life when he slammed Englishmen who ‘club together to buy a woman between them as a joint purchase, and practise foul sin with that one woman, one after another, just like dogs, who do not care about filth; and then sell God’s creature for a price out of the country into the power of strangers.’

Even for free people poverty was the norm; the vast majority in 1066 lived in the countryside, which for most people before the modern era meant a life of relentless toil and misery. It was also a closed world, and unless they were forced into joining the army, or fyrd, most men would rarely even visit the next village, let alone other parts of the country. People even two counties away might speak incomprehensibly to them, and since violence was far more common than it is today, a stranger would by law have to blow a horn before entering a village to show he wasn’t up to no good.

Most free people were classified as ceorls, that is peasants, from where we get the word ‘churlish’. Dressed in the simple tunics worn by most—there were no buttons at the time—they worked the land, and often owned a small plot, although fields would not be enclosed for centuries to come. The common meadow was ploughed in strips of a ‘furrow’s length’, or furlong, 22 yards wide and 220 yards long; this would become the length of a cricket pitch as that game evolved in the medieval countryside to become the quintessential sport for the English man of leisure; furlong is also still a measurement used in horse racing.

There were various different classes of peasant, each signifying an extra gradation of misery and burden, such as the wonderfully named drengs in the north of England, free peasants who only had to give military service in exchange for land. Below them were the lowly geburas, origin of the word ‘boor’, who had ‘a formidable burden of rents and services’ and had to work two days a week for their lord, plus three days a week during harvest and between Candlemas (February 2) and Easter. A gebura also had to plough an acre a week ‘between the first breaking-up of the soil after harvest [late August] and Martinmas [November 11], and to fetch the seed for its sowing from the lord’s barn’. In total he had to labor on seven acres a year for rent, on top of extra ‘boon work’, and also be a watchman from time to time. In return for this he got ten pence a year at Michaelmas [September 29], 23 bushels of barley and two hens at Martinmas, and a sheep or two pence at Easter (two pence was obviously worth a bit more back then).

And they were relatively privileged; compared to actual slaves, who could expect a punch in the face every Michaelmas if they were lucky, they were living the dream. And shepherds got some perks in return for their two-days-a-week obligation, including twelve night’s dung for Christmas. It might not sound like a great present from a twenty-first-century point of view, but they were happy (probably).

Above the coerl were the thegn, the Anglo-Saxon nobility, of whom there were about four to five thousand men. To be considered of this rank one had to own not just a relatively nice house and five hides of land, but also your own church; but even a thegn’s house wouldn’t have been what one thinks of as a medieval pile, as most people lived in buildings made of wattle and daub, and it was only in the twelfth century when the wealthy began living in houses built of stone. The Romans had left large stone buildings, but many people considered them to have been a race of giants, and some actively avoided Roman ruins as they thought them haunted.

Even free men had certain duties towards their lords. Everyone was required to do physical labor and to take up arms. If the country was invaded, they would be required to join the fyrd, although most people would try to get out of this so that their crops didn’t rot or something awful didn’t happen to their women folk while they were away. It was this fyrd which was called in the summer of 1066 as the threat of foreign invasion materialized.

Chapter Two
The origins of the disaster ultimately lie with the complicated love life of King Edgar. The great-grandson of Alfred the Great had come to the throne after his brother Eadwig had died at just nineteen; Eadwig had ruled for four years and was best remembered for missing his own coronation because he was in bed with a ‘strumpet’ and the strumpet’s mother.

Edgar was just sixteen when he became king and seems to have had a similarly active interest in the opposite sex. After his first wife died in 963 he carried off Wilfrida, a nun from Wilton Abbey, making her his mistress; as atonement for this the king was made to do penance for seven years by not wearing his crown and fasting twice a week, hardly a death-defying punishment (in fact now considered to be superb health advice and the basis of a fashionable diet).

However Wilfrida escaped from her convent and went back to her lover, and eventually they had a daughter, Edith, although for whatever reason it didn’t last and soon Edgar found love again. (Edith would later become a saint after a holy but short life). According to legend the widowed Edgar now heard about a young woman called Elfrida who was famously beautiful and so sent one of his noblemen, his foster brother Ethelwald of East Anglia, to go out to report on whether the story was true. Ethelwald found that she was indeed very beautiful and so married her himself. Edgar naturally wasn’t too pleased about this, and came to visit, killing his love rival in a hunt and marrying Elfrida.

It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts to a relationship, and Elfrida would later be accused of witchcraft, a power which supposedly allowed her to take the form of a horse. She was allegedly seen by a bishop ‘running and leaping hither and thither with horses and showing herself shamelessly to them,’ although strangely no one else corroborated the bishop’s story.

By now the last Viking-controlled areas of England had been absorbed, and under Edgar the country already had the basis of a legal system and a fixed currency, as well as counties that roughly correspond to today’s. However the smooth-running of the state depended on having a stable, healthy and not unhinged man on the throne, and Edgar alas died aged just thirty-one; the previous monarchs had passed away at nineteen, thirty-two and twenty-five, so he’d done relatively well to get that far.

He left two sons by two different wives, one of his heirs violent and angry and the other meek but useless. The crown passed to his eldest, Edward, who was aged only thirteen or at most sixteen. Edward was known for having uncontrollable rages and would strike fear into everyone around him and ‘hounded them not only with tongue-lashings, but even with cruel beatings’, while his younger half-brother, Elfrida’s son Ethelred, ‘seemed more gentle to everyone in word and deed’. However Edward’s reign didn’t last very long, and ended as they tended to in this period, violently. After four years on the throne he was stabbed to death during a fight, after being dragged from his horse in a courtyard.

No one’s sure if it was premeditated, or as a result of a spontaneous brawl outside a royal residence (spontaneous brawls were frequent in medieval history). According to one unlikely story Elfrida herself stabbed him, and the wicked stepmother immediately put her own son on the throne; he was apparently so ungrateful at having been made king that she hit him over the head with a candlestick. After this Ethelred was apparently left with a phobia of candles for the rest of his life, which must have been debilitating when it was the only source of artificial light.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said of Edward’s murder that ‘no worse deed than this for the English people was committed since they first came to Britain’, and inevitably in death Edward ‘the martyr’ became more popular than he was in life. After an initial hasty burial, the former king was reinterred at Shaftesbury convent where a couple of unfortunate crippled peasants were apparently cured after visiting his remains; after some further miracles by his grave, he was dug up a second time and buried at the more prestigious abbey church. His cult mainly grew because of the awfulness of his brother, hopelessly ineffective half the time and viciously brutal the rest.

Ethelred became known as ‘the Unready’, literally ‘badly-advised’ in Old English, a pun on his name, which meant ‘well-advised’. He is best remembered for paying the Vikings to go away in an enormous protection racket called Danegeld, and, as Rudyard Kipling wrote with the benefit of nine hundred year’s hindsight, ‘That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld, And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!’ Ethelred never did.

As well as the Danes, it was also a time of intense conflict within the realm. A chronicler called Byrhtferth wrote: ‘Strife threw the kingdom into turmoil, moved shire against shire, family against family, prince against prince, ealdormen against ealdormen, drove bishop against the people and folk against the pastors set over them’.
Historians of the time are harsh to Ethelred. Apparently at his coronation Bishop Dunstan supposedly ‘could not restrain himself, and poured out in a loud voice the spirit of the prophecy with which his own heart was full.

“Inasmuch”, he said, “as you aimed at the throne through the death of your own brother, now hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God: the sin of your shameful mother and the sin of the men who shared in her wicked plot shall not be blotted out except by the shedding of much blood of your miserable subjects, and there shall come upon the people of England such evils as they have not suffered from the time when they came to England until then!”’ It must have been very awkward.

On the day Ethelred was crowned ‘a bloody fire was seen in the sky’, according to the Chronicle, signalling what a disaster he would be. Another incident from the start of his reign taken as a bad omen was the disaster which befell England’s first and at the time only two-storey building, the royal house at Wiltshire, which collapsed during an assembled royal get-together, leaving only the local bishop standing in a Buster Keaton–style wreckage. Hanging over the king was the cult of his murdered brother, which grew ever more popular during his reign, encouraged at every opportunity by Ethelred’s enemies (that is, most people).

The twelfth century chronicler William of Malmesbury said of Ethelred: ‘the king was always ready for sleep and it was what he did best.’ But his reign was also one of seedy and squalid murder, with a death toll in his court so high George RR Martin would balk at it. During his rule so many leading courtiers and noblemen were stabbed, blinded or hacked to death, with the king’s permission or tacit agreement, that when a Danish pirate claimed the throne many Englishmen gave their support—and when you’re losing in a popularity contest to a Viking you know you’ve really hit rock bottom.

The first Viking onslaught, perhaps triggered by population pressure in Scandinavia and the invention of new sailing technology, hit Britain in AD 786 and accelerated with the ‘Great Heathen Army’ of 865. Large areas of eastern England had since been settled by Danes who had ruled semi- independently in York until the 950s— some 40 per cent of villages in Yorkshire have Norse names so presumably there were a lot of them.

But Scandinavia continued to produce huge numbers of excess violent men to sail the seas, restlessly travelling the world to find new lands. In the east the Swedes settled along the rivers flowing down to the Black Sea where they created the first states in the region; the locals called them ‘rowers’ or Rus, and so their kingdom was named Kievan Rus, and later Russia.

In the West, around the turn of the millennium Leif ‘the Lucky’ Ericsson became the first European to set foot in the Americas, a fact celebrated every October 9th on Leif Ericsson Day in the Scandinavian-dominated Upper Midwest states.

Leif’s father Erik the Red had also been an intrepid explorer who discovered Greenland, and on top of this seems to have been an all-round awful human being. Erik’s own father had been exiled from Norway for a murder and Erik followed in his footsteps, forced to leave the country for ‘some killings’ and so heading to Iceland, which was where desperados at the time turned up. He then had to flee from the main settlement in Iceland after killing another man and afterwards once again from this more remote western colony where he murdered yet another three guys.

He ended up in Greenland, a name he gave to attract settlers despite its most conspicuous characteristic being snow and ice (Iceland was already taken as a name and they could hardly call it Icierland). However the Vikings by this stage were already being pacified, and the days when you could just merrily move house after murdering people were numbered—for Christianity was finally taking root. Even Erik’s wife, the incomprehensibly named Thjodhildr, became a Christian and would not sleep with her husband until he abandoned the old gods, which was ‘a great trial to his temper’ apparently; their son Leif would also become a Christian.

Since the time of Alfred the Great, when the Vikings were notorious for cruel and convoluted pagan torture rituals, the Danes and Norwegians had slowly embraced the new faith, although it hardly seemed to make them better behaved. What mainly happened is that the veneration of their goddess Frejya was adapted into worship of the Virgin Mary, and the word Thor was replaced with Jesus on statues; other than that the religion’s pacifism seems to have largely passed them by.

Driven out of England, the Vikings had also successfully established themselves in Ireland, which was hopelessly divided between countless different micro-kingdoms, although the Norwegians (whom the Irish called ‘the fair foreigners’) spent much of their time there fighting the Danes (known as ‘the dark foreigners’). The Norwegian Vikings had established a number of cities there, chief among them Dublin in 988, which soon became the centre for their slave trade. Many Irish people were captured and sold off to the Middle East, while others were forcibly taken off to Iceland with Viking men; roughly half of Icelandic mDNA, which is passed through the female line, is Irish in origin. The Dublin slave market was also where many unlucky English people would end up before being sold off to far flung places to live God-awful lives of misery.

During this period the Vikings travelled far, and many of their domains remained Scandinavian for some time. The Isle of Man, in between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, was Norwegian until 1266, and the island’s parliament, the Tynwald (from thing, a Nordic council) is the oldest on earth. Likewise with the Orkneys and Shetlands, which had been heavily colonized by Norwegians and today use many Norse words in their dialect. According to the thirteenth-century Historiae Norwegia, the Vikings wrestled control of the islands from their two indigenous inhabitants, the Picts and a mysterious group called the Pape. The Picts, the author thought, were only a bit taller than pygmies and they could do amazing things in the morning and evening but at midday they lost all their strength and hid in underground caves. The author also believed that the Pape were Africans who practised Judaism, so one can’t be entirely confident in his primary sources.

The Scandinavian lands were also now forming into states. Norway had been united by a sort of semi-mythical king, Harold Finehair, who got his nickname after he fell in love with a princess who would not marry him until he was king—so he vowed to not cut or comb his hair until he had done it. Finehair went on to have twenty sons, although that number was somewhat reduced by fratricidal killing.

Something of the reasonable Scandinavian character was already in evidence in the way that Christianity was introduced. In most societies once the monarch became Christian followers of the old religion were soon ruthlessly persecuted but only the Scandinavians had sought to make some sort of compromise. When Iceland voted to change religions it allowed pagans to continue to eat horse flesh and expose their children to the elements, like in the good old days.

Hakon the Good, king of Norway from 934, offended some countrymen because he wanted to chart a middle course over the pagan festival of Yul-tide honoring the old gods. The pagans wanted him to take part but, although as a Christian he couldn’t, he didn’t want to be too fanatical about it, and so instead inhaled the smoke from the boiling horse meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods without eating it. When pressed he agreed to eat some of the horse’s liver as a halfway measure. Luckily the controversy was eventually resolved when Hakon was killed by Erik the Red’s sons over something else.

Viking leaders certainly didn’t entirely abandon pagan ideas about sex, and Scandinavian rulers continued for some time the traditional practise of having a second sexual partner, called a handfast or ‘Danish wife’, who was not quite a second wife but neither exactly a mistress either. The Rus king St Vladimir, who acquired his halo after converting his people, had an exhausting seven wives and eight hundred concubines. Realising the Rus would have to adopt one of the Abrahamic faiths for political reasons, Vladimir chose Christianity over Islam largely because the latter prohibited alcohol, which was never going to sell well with the Russians.

Their adventurers in Russia had brought the Vikings into contact with the Middle Eastern world. One Arab explorer called Ahmad ibn Fadlan spent much time with the Rus, noting their tattoos, long hair, poor hygiene and general barbarism, including their music, of which he said: ‘I have never heard anything more horrible than their singing. It is more like the barking of dogs only twice as beastly.’ The Norse world was connected to the Islamic through the slave trade, and the rise and fall of Viking activity in England was linked to far away events. One theory is that the Viking revival of the 980s was affected by an African slave uprising in modern-day Iraq, in which black soldiers sided with the rebels, which resulted in the Muslim world wanting more European slaves instead.

There were one or two cultural misunderstandings along the way; in one incident the Emir of Cordoba in Spain, Abd ar-Rahman II, sent an embassy to a Viking called Jorik of Denmark, which turned into something of a disaster. The Danes tried to make him bow but the Arab refused to, and eventually it ended with the visitor showing his backside to the king, who had tried to lower the entrance to force him to genuflect. The Viking queen also took a liking to the ambassador, a handsome poet called Yahya ibn Hakam al-Jayyani, which increased tension. Obviously the Viking fondness for eight-day-long drinking binges that ended in comas did not impress the Moors too much, although it was not entirely boorish as a society; the Vikings loved poems, or scalds, but they tended almost entirely to revolve around fighting.

Among the most important Scandinavian raiders was Olaf Tryggvason, nicknamed Crowbone because he was obsessed with reading omens (Viking leaders were often very superstitious, but being seaborne raiders, their lives were directed by chance). His Swedish aristocrat mother Astrid was lucky to survive after Olaf’s father was murdered by a rival, the sinister-named Greycloak, whose lackeys searched the countryside for the pregnant widow in order to kill her and her husband’s heir.

One version has them fleeing to Russia and being sold into slavery after they were intercepted by pirates. Then, reaching as low as he could get when he was exchanged for a single goat, Crowbone grew up as a farmhand in Estonia, before being discovered and freed by his uncle Sigurd. Now he became a great seafarer, and went on to own the largest Viking warship we know of, the hundred-foot Long Serpent, and also circumnavigated the British Isles; in 981 he turned up in Padstow in Cornwall.

Although the formation of Norway, Sweden and Denmark would ultimately lead to the pacification of Scandinavia, it also made these new Viking armies much larger and stronger than previous ones. And with a young and weak king on the throne of England, the Viking raids began again in the 980s, met by Ethelred with incompetence and cowardice.

Olaf Tryggvason was one of the leaders of a fleet of ninety-three longboats that attacked the east coast of England in the summer of 991, hoping to go from town to town demanding money. A force this big could devastate a huge area before any help could arrive, and people usually just gave the Vikings silver in the hope they would go away. However after they turned up in Maldon, Essex, the local lord, Byrhtnoth, insisted on fighting them, despite being well into his sixties. When the Norsemen arrived at the shore and demanded money, the ageing warrior replied: ‘We will pay you with spear points and sword blades.’

This all sounds very heroic, but showing characteristic English fair play, Byrhtnoth refused to attack the Vikings while they were still on the causeway and agreed that they should be allowed to make their way ashore for a fair fight. The unsporting Vikings then slaughtered their English opponents. (Another explanation is that had the Vikings not been allowed over they would have just sailed away and he would rather engage them now when he was ready). Although the old warrior died, along with some of his followers—many also ran off—he took a lot of Vikings with him, and the poem of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ became an inspiring tale of English courage. It had an important national message, since Byrhtnoth’s men came from across the country; while in reality England was disintegrating, and as the Chronicle recorded, no county would help the next. In the poem Byrhtnoth tells the Vikings:
‘Listen, messenger! Take back this reply . . . that a noble earl and his troop stand here— guardians of the people, and of the country, the home of Ethelred, my prince—who will defend this land to the last ditch.’

Unfortunately the only copy of the poem was burned during a famous 1731 fire at the Ashburnham Museum in Westminster, along with half of all manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England, and though the deputy keeper of the collection had just made a copy, which otherwise would have been lost, he hadn’t got around to finishing the last fifty lines. So like someone who’s borrowed a library book only to find out that the previous user has ripped out the last page, we’ll never know how it ended. At any rate Byrhnoth died.

As a result of the battle and the subsequent raids, Ethelred paid Olaf £16,000 to leave, on condition that he convert to Christianity. That was a huge amount of money in those days (literally 16,000 pounds in silver), and naturally Olaf spent the rest of his very comfortable years very much loving Jesus. Olaf in fact forcibly converted large numbers of his subjects when he became king of Norway, maiming and torturing people who didn’t embrace Christianity, which is perhaps slightly missing the point.

Despite this, like many newly Christian Vikings, he maintained the custom of having two wives. However it didn’t have a happy ending, and eventually he was killed in battle with a Norwegian rival, Earl Erik.
After Maldon Ethelred began the policy of paying off raiders, with at least £250,000 raised during his reign, with the money going up from £10,000 in 991 to £24,000 in 1002, £36,000 in 1007 and an astonishing £45,000 to £48,000 in 1012 alone. But the country could afford it, for at the time sterling was a valued currency accepted and imitated all over northern Europe (the word comes from steor, Latin for stable, at least according to one theory).

England had seventy royal mints that produced the ten million coins that were at any one point in circulation, each of which was 92.5 per cent silver. In recent years more of Ethelred’s money has turned up in Scandinavia than in England. And having seen Olaf come home with enormous sums of money, the other Vikings got the impression that England was a rich and cowardly country.

Attacks continued in 993 with Bamburgh in Northumbria destroyed and ‘much war-booty taken’. In 994 another Viking fleet arrived with a combined force of ninety-four warships and two thousand fighting men; that year London was successfully defended, and so the Vikings moved on to Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. In 997 Devon, Cornwall and Wales were assaulted and the following year Dorset and Isle of Wight got hit, while in 999 Norsemen landed in Rochester in Kent and defeated a local army. The army in Kent fled in the face of superior numbers, because (according to the Peterborough version of the Chronicle) ‘they did not have the help they should have had’. The Canterbury Chronicle recorded ‘the ship-army achieved nothing, except the people’s labor, and wasting money, and the emboldening of their enemies’.

These were all none-too-subtle criticisms of the king, who had failed to provide any sort of leadership. On the one occasion, in 992, when Ethelred got all the leading nobles together to organize an army to fight the Vikings, the man he put in charge, Elfric, went and betrayed the secret to the enemy, for whatever reason. Afterwards, the king had Elfric’s sons blinded. In another one of his depressing sermons Wulfstan the Homilist noted English warriors watching helplessly while the Danes gang-raped their wives and daughters, while on another occasion a large group of townspeople did nothing while just three or four Vikings brought English people onto their boats for a life of slavery.

While England was powerless against the invaders, and with the millennium approaching, it seemed to confirm people’s worst fears about the end of the world. The coming of the year 1000 was met with something approaching dread in some quarters, but Old English culture had a strong sense of doommongering at the best of times, which considering events was understandable. Much of what we know of the Anglo-Saxons comes from their poetry, which would have been played around the fire of great halls accompanied by the six-stringed harp. Although only a handful of poems survive, they tell us something of their world, among them ‘Deor’, about a poet who has lost his position among a tribe called the Heodenings, and which recounts how the poet, or scop, was the living memory of the tribe.

On a similar, depressing note, ‘The Wanderer’ is about a man who loses his lord and is mournful, lamenting:
‘The prudent man should underhow ghastly it will be,
when all this world’s wealth shall stand waste,
as now divers over this mid-earth,
with wind shaken walls stand,
with rime bedeck’d: tottering the chambers,
disturbed are the joyous halls,
the powerful lie of joy bereft,
the noble all have fall’n,
the proud ones by the wall.’
Probably not something you’d quote when volunteering for the Samaritans.

Then there was ‘The Fortunes of Men’, dating to the late tenth century, which lists all the way people will die—crippled, falling from a tree, exiled, hanging and ‘one a jabbering drunkard’, which says something about the life quality of most people.

‘Hunger will devour one, storm dismast another’ One will enjoy life without seeing light One will have no choice but to chance remote roads, to carry his own food and leave drew tracks among foreign people in a dangerous land.’
The poem concludes, however, that one will reach old age and a reasonable level of happiness; and everything in life, whether we are talented, good at throwing or clever, is all in God’s hands, so there is no point worrying about it.

‘The Fortunes of Men’ comprises one part of the Exeter Book, a collection of ninety-six riddles still in the city’s cathedral library where in 1072 it was given to the bishop. It is a precious record of early medieval England, although it has since been damaged, having been used down the years as a cheese board, breadboard and beer mat.
Of the riddles, a dozen concern war, and some reflect ideas about the Christian faith, but most however describe everyday life with humor that is often quite lewd. One goes:

‘I’m a wonderful thing, a joy to women, to neighbors useful. I injure no one who lives in a village save only my slayer. I stand up high and steep over the bed; underneath I’m shaggy. Sometimes ventures a young and handsome peasant’s daughter, a maiden proud, to lay hold on me. She seizes me, red, plunders my head, fixes on me fast, feels straightway what meeting me means when she thus approaches, a curly-haired woman. Wet is that eye.’

The answer is: an onion. The whole thing has a 1970s British sex comedy feel to it. Another poem of the period goes:

‘A youth came along to where he knew she stood in a corner. Forth he strode, a vigorous young man, lifted up her own dress with his hands, thrust under her girdle something stiff as she stood there.’

Anyway. The year 1000 did not mean the end of the world as expected—in fact they had miscalculated Christ’s birth by six years—although the king’s wife died soon afterwards, at which point someone at the court came up with an ingenious plan of fighting off the Vikings by forming an alliance with a group called the Normans. What could go wrong?

What do you think?

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