The fear of Viking invasion loomed over the coastlines of England, Scotland, and Ireland for centuries. From raiding coastal towns and monasteries to the siege and sacking of major cities - the Viking expansion repeatedly carved a path of destruction and carnage across the British Isles and Western Europe. Here are five of the fiercest Viking raids and how they changed our history forever.
1. Portland 789
When three Viking longships landed on the shores of Portland, Dorset in 789, they couldn’t have known the history they’d be making. The first recorded Viking raid on British soil, it heralded the new age of Viking expansion in Britain.
While little is known about that landing, its record in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is essential not just because it’s the first recorded raid on British soil but because it tells the story of Beaduheard, the King’s Reeve who intercepted the invading Vikings.
Imploring them to go to the King of Wessex to explain their presence, Beaduheard became the first recorded person to be killed in England by Vikings.
2. Lindisfarne 793
On 8th June (or January - scholars are divided), a small raiding party landed on the shores of Lindisfarne, a small island off of the Northumbrian coast. Viking raids had been on the rise across Britain over the past four years, but the raid at Lindisfarne would signify the beginning of attacks on monasteries and Christianity, that would continue for centuries to come.
Home to the church of St Cuthbert, Lindisfarne was considered the spiritual centre of the Christian faith in the Kingdom of Northumbria. A sight of extreme religious importance, St Cuthbert was a sight of pilgrimage for many and home to monks and holy men.
It was said that the church was ‘spattered with the blood of the priests of God, stripped of all its furnishing, exposed to the plundering of pagans’. The raid on Lindisfarne may have been small, with only three longships landing on the shores, but the ferocity of the attack and the island's religious importance meant that accounts of the raid reached as far as the court of Charlemagne.
3. London 842
Having been steadily raided since the 830s, London was no stranger to sudden Viking invasions. However, nothing could have prepared the blossoming city for the Danish raid that hit the city in 842.
While little was recorded about the looting and sacking of the city, one chronicler referred to it as ‘the great slaughter’. Just nine years later, in 851, another fierce raid of 350 ships hit London, looting and burning most of the city.
4. Paris 845
When the Vikings first raided Paris in 799, they caught King Charlemagne by surprise. Determined to keep the raiders from returning, Charlemagne fortified the city and managed to repel the invading armies until long after his death.
When the Vikings returned in 845, they brought with them a flotilla of more than 100 longships to sack the city. On Easter Monday, the Vikings managed to catch the city unprepared once again. Infiltrating the city, the invaders held it to ransom until King Charles the Bald paid them a ransom of over 2,500kg of gold and silver.
5. York 866
Caught in a civil war between brothers Ælla and Osberht (who each contested the claim to the crown of Northumbria,) when the city of York was raided in 866, it’s no surprise that the Vikings were able to take the city.
Led by Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Ragnarsson, sons of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, the Great Heathen Army infiltrated the city walls with relative ease. In early 687, Ælla and Osberht combined forces to push the invading Vikings out and reclaim the city. However, the Battle of York didn’t turn in the Anglo-Saxon’s favour, and they were thoroughly defeated. York would remain under Viking rule as the Kingdom of Jorvik until 910.