The Ire of the Danes

English Language Study for Russian Orthodox Learners

The Ire of the Danes*

Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the north an evil
shall break forth on all the inhabitants of the land.
- Jeremiah, 1:14

The Norsemen, or “heathen men,” were known in England as traders since the middle of the eighth century.  However, as time went, encounters with the “people from the North” became threatening.  One of the earliest attacks of the Norsemen is recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  Three long, narrow ships arrived in the harbour of Portland, Wessex.  A group of Saxon horsemen met them at the shore.  Assuming that the foreigners were travelling merchants, the Saxons asked them if they had the king’s permission to land.  The strangers killed the horsemen on the spot.

Plundering was the basis of the Danes’ life.  They knew no other occupation than war, no other way of acquiring wealth than by the sword. A Viking’s life was centred around the ship that was his home, his means of survival, and his vehicle of aggression.  Very often, a Viking “king” owned nothing but a ship and the few men who operated it.  Not just the love of piracy drove the Norsemen out of their own countries:  there was not enough farmland, and people could not support themselves.  For many, the choice was either to move out or starve.  In England they saw a country of vast fertile lands full of riches.

On June 8, 793, several Danish ships sailed to the shore of Lindisfarne, or Holy Island.  The island had a monastery that kept sacred and valuable items:  ancient manuscripts, illuminated Gospels, ornate Bibles, silver vessels and candlesticks.  The monastery stood exposed without protective walls and was an easy target for the raiders.  The peaceful scholar-monks of Lindisfarne could not defend themselves.  Most of them died a martyr’s death on that day.  The fierce Vikings had no mercy for the clergy.  Blood was pouring on the altar; the bodies of the slain monks filled the churches and streets.  Many holy brethren were taken to sea and drowned; the ones who survived were carried off in chains to become slaves.  Everything of value was plundered or destroyed.

Next year, the Vikings started a series of raids on Iona.  A great centre of learning and Christian art, Iona shared the fate of Lindisfarne.  The cruelty with which the raiders treated monks and holy places shocked the nation.  “Never before was such  horror seen in Britain,” Alcuin of York, a scholar of the time, wrote.  Continuous attacks over the next few decades devastated the monasteries and dealt a severe blow to the English monastic tradition.

The raids on England increased every year, and, by the middle of the ninth century, the Norsemen had subjugated the kingdoms of East Anglia and Mercia.  In 851, 350 ships of the “Great Heathen Army” came to plunder London; York was taken in 866.

Many Danes settled on the English mainland as farmers, gradually adopting the Anglo-Saxons’ faith, language, and way of life.  Meanwhile, new hordes of Vikings kept coming to kill and plunder.  England fought for her independence from the Norsemen for two hundred and fifty years.

* England suffered from attacks by both Danes and Scandinavians.  However, ancient English sources use the word Danes (sometimes Norsemen) for all north-Germanic tribes, regardless of the land from which they came.  The term Vikings appears in documents of a later period; in present-day texts it is used in reference to any sea pirates of that time.  The word Viking is of Scandinavian origin.  It means “a sea warrior who explores far-away lands.”

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