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Vikings, Normans & Englishmen

A brief history of Viking Conquests

Manley surname spelled out in "Runes"

You might wonder why I've included this page. The easiest explanation is that during my research I learned that a great many of my ancestors, those we've debated endlessly over "English" or "Irish" origins, were in fact neither! Not strictly speaking that is.

Most of my English/Irish ancestors (more than likely yours too) were in fact of Viking origin.

Trying to sum up several hundred years of world history is a bit daunting, to say the least!

I decided it was best to go to the "experts" to explain it properly.

I have "borrowed" from the BBC and Boise University for this purpose, providing links to them. For the sake of "space", I have not (in some instances) included the full texts, but have paraphrased them. Please visit these sites to learn the entire history.

"The Viking Diaspora

PBS provides the following information on the "Diaspora" or Distribution of the Vikings

From the eighth to the eleventh centuries, the Vikings, comprising mainly Danes and Norwegians, shot around the Northern Hemisphere, plundering vast swaths of territory with the rapacity of a Genghis Khan. The Norsemen raided throughout the British Isles and the Frankish empire, and even attacked North Africa. They headed west to Iceland, Greenland, and what is now Canada, becoming the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas. And they traveled east into what is now northern Russia, ultimately lending their own name Rus, the Slavs' name for them, to that great country.
Physical and social traces of the Vikings' lightning-like passing remain in sites stretching from Newfoundland to north Russia. On the map at left, click on Norse sites and get a feel for the sheer breadth of the Viking diaspora. "

1. Kaupang | 2. Hedeby | 3. Paris | 4. Noirmoutier | 5. Dublin | 6. York | 7. Orkney and Shetland Islands | 8. Faroe Islands | 9. Iceland | 10. Greenland (Eastern settlement) | 11. Greenland (Middle settlement) | 12. Greenland (Western settlement) | 13. Cape Porcupine | 14. L'Anse aux Meadows | 15. Birka | 16. Staraja Ladoga | 17. Novgorod | 18. Bulgar | 19. Kiev | 20. Constantinople | 21. Baghdad

The Vikings in Normandy, France

From Boise State University

Originally a part of Charlemagne's empire, Normandy was fairly wealthy, with lots of monasteries and small towns. Lying on the northern coast of France, it became a favorite and easy target for Vikings in the 9thc. It lost most of its monasteries and was not much of a prize when a Viking came to the King of the West Franks in 911 with a proposal.
The Viking was Rolf, a Norwegian with many men at his command. He offered to defend the coast against other Vikings in return for a title. And, naturally, he and his people would convert to Christianity. So, Rolf the Viking became Duke of Normandy, and the King of the West Franks breathed a deep sigh of relief.

The inhabitants were Vikings, but most people simply referred to them as the North Men. The land given to them took their name: Normandy.

The new duchy was a frontier land, filled with constant warfare. Viking raids continued, of course, but the Normans fought among themselves and with their neighbors. And Normandy became stronger, gathering territories and becoming one of the more powerful duchies in France. The Norman dukes owed allegiance to the King of the Franks, but the French king was a weak, shadowy figure in these years, and the dukes were essentially independent.

England was a Saxon state that still bore many of the characteristics of the older Germanic kingship. The earls were as powerful as the king himself, and were rivals as often as allies. The king's army consisted of his household, his barons and their retainers, and a general levy of the Saxon peasantry. The Church was centered more on the monastery than on the cathedral. And England looked more to the North Sea than across the Channel.
Normany, on the other hand, was developing as a feudal state, at least under William. He held his barons under much closer control, and was both wealthier and more powerful than any of them. The duke controlled the Church, too, through its central power of the Archbishop of Rouen.

Born 1028 at Falaise in Normandy, William was the son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and Herleve, a girl of Falaise of uncertain parentage. Although illegitimate, he was, nevertheless, a direct descendant of Rolf the Viking and had a good claim to the throne. His claim was all the stronger when his father went on a pilgrimage in 1034 and died on the return trip, making William duke in 1035 at the age of 7. Before leaving, Robert brought forward William and had him recognized as his heir.

By 1060 William had a considerable reputation as a warrior, for he was generally successful in his wars. He was a tenacious opponent, brutal at times. Many of the wars were fought against great odds, increasing both his reputation and his confidence in the field.

By the early 1060s, Edward the Confessor was faced with three powerful forces contending for the English throne: the Normans, who could claim the throne by right of bequest; the Saxons, who claimed it by right of tradition and nationality, and who had the advantage of being on the spot; and the Norwegians, who had a better legal claim than the Saxons, but who realistically could win it only by conquest--something Vikings were rather good at.

The Vikings in England

From the BBC

The Vikings attacked Britain's holy places, slaughtered its monks and carried away countless treasures. Well-designed boats and convenient winds helped the Vikings come and go as they pleased. Britain was devastated as the raiders divided the land amongst themselves.

Terror from the sea
In 789, three Viking ships arrived on the Wessex shore. The local reeve had been sent to greet them but he was killed on the spot. This event was recorded in a short entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But worse was to come. Four years later, Lindisfarne, one of Britain's most sacred sites, was sacked. Word of the Viking threat spread throughout Europe.

'Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples...'.

Letter from Alcuin to Ethelred, king of Northumbria
The first Viking raids were hit-and-run affairs. There was no co-ordination and no long-term plan behind them. Raids were not even a new hazard in a society well-used to warfare on any scale from local skirmishes to great battles. The Vikings' sin was to attack and pillage the holy monasteries, the sacred places of the Christian world. And the leaders of that world were quick to condemn them. One of those leaders whose words have come down to us was Alcuin of York.

Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry

The Battle of Hastings

From Boise State University

Harold took a position on some low hills and the Normans attacked that position. It was a hard fought battle that lasted the entire day, neither side able to get the better of the other.

As the day wore on, however, superior Norman discipline began to tell. Some of the Saxon forces began to melt away. Toward evening, Harold himself was killed by an arrow, but by the time he died the battle was clearly lost.

The story of the Battle of Hastings, and the events surrounding it, are told in the remarkable Bayeux Tapestry. Norman knights pursued Saxons well into the night, and by the next day there was no one to stand against the invader. William called his men back and set about securing his position. He had won a great battle, but he had not yet won England, and he needed to keep his army together.

William sent out news of his victory and invited the Saxon lords to recognize him as the legitimate king. He waited for five days and none did. Instead, they withdrew to their own lands, to defend their own interests.
By the end of November William controlled most of the old lands of Wessex. In December he took London. More and more lords now submitted to him, yielding to events. He was crowned king on Christmas Day, 1066.

One of his first acts was to build a fortress in London, a tactic he used in several towns. This one became famous though: the Tower of London, the Norman core of which still stands.

Now that he was a crowned king, William set about imposing his rule on England. He spent five years quelling rebellions and establishing Norman authority, building many castles and stocking them with men brought from Normandy. Those who fought with him at Hastings did very well, receiving lands all over England as fiefs.

Music on this page "Sweet Lullaby" by Deep Forest.