Viking involvement in the Norman Conquest

Geoff Boxell

A talk given to the NZ Viking Society October 1998

It is always difficult when looking at the Viking involvement in the Norman Conquest to determine exactly where to draw the line, because the Vikings were a part of every single element that was involved in it. Following the Danish raids and invasions at the time of King Alfred the Great, England had two distinct elements: Wessex and English Mercia and the Danelaw. Although Alfred, his sons, daughter and grandchildren eventually reclaimed the Danelaw and brought it into a greater England, it did remain very distinctive.

One thing that needs to be said is that the Danes within the Danelaw and their corresponding Norwegian and Norse-Irish compatriots in Cumberland complemented rather than replaced the existing populations. The similarity of a social structure and language meant that inter-marriage was extensive. The matter became even more confused during the rule of Æthelred Unread when Swegn Forkbeard and his son Knute invaded England, assumably in revenge for the massacre of Danes on St. Bride's day. The subsequent war involved, interestingly enough, supposedly English forces fighting for Swegn, and distinctively Danish forces fighting for Æthelred. Knute eventually became King of England. This brought a large increase in the number of Danes settled in England. The new comers soon intermarried at all level of society. By the time we get to 1066 almost all of the main characters on the English side are of mixed parentage. Harold Godwinson, who was declared King by the English Witan, was himself half English and half Danish, his mother being a kinswoman of Knute.

It must also be remembered, that the Normans themselves where of Viking origin. The Chronicles tell us that Normandy was founded by a Danish fleet lead by a Norwegian called Hrof Ganger at the time of the French king, Charles the Stupid. Like their cousins across the Channel these Vikings rapidly inter-married with the local population. The main difference between the Danes in England and the Danes in France is that of numbers: in England it is estimated that they may have made up to 20 per cent of the population, whilst in Normandy they were less than 5 per cent. This, combined with the fact that English and Norse were similar as opposed to Norse and French being so dissimilar, meant that the language spoken in England in 1066, even allowing for regional variation, was an Anglo-Norse language whereas the Normans spoke French and indeed had adopted French customs.

After being proclaimed King, Harold faced a challenge to his new throne from the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada. This man was claimed to be Christendom's best warrior. Harald invaded the north of England with a fleet of 360 longships manned by men from all over the Viking world. This Viking world, was quite extensive. It included Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the Faeroes, the Orkneys, the Isle of Mann, the Sundry Isles, much of Highland Scotland, Cumberland, the towns and cities on the East coast of Ireland, Greenland, and indeed may also be claimed to include the Danelaw and large in arrears of Northern England.

After defeating the local army at Fulford, the Viking army took the city of York. King Harold Godwinson marched 200 miles in six days, caught the Viking army off guard at Stamford Bridge and killed Hardrada and most of his men. The English victory was such, that only 24 longships were needed to get the Viking survivors home. Before the army could catch its breath, Harold was given the bad news that another challenger for the throne, Duke William the Bastard of Normandy, had landed. This invasion was not unexpected, and the English fleet and local Fyrd had guarded the coast all summer. The coming of autumn with its accompanying gales had meant that Harold had dismissed the land forces whilst allow the fleet to shelter in harbour. The Norman had indeed suffered from the gales, but William was having difficulties in keeping his mainly mercenary army together so made the most of a lull and crossed the Channel. Harold gathered the remnants of his army together and rapidly marched south to meet the new threat.

Outside Hastings, blocking the strategic roads to the main city of the realm, London, and Winchester, where the treasury was, and with reinforcements still arriving, the English army was defeated. King Harold died and with him fell his household troops and the flower of the English nobility.

The Viking involvement in the resistance to Norman Conquest in the early days had two main elements. The first element was that perennial recruiting ground for troublemakers: the Irish East Coast. It was from there that three sons of the late King Harold recruited a fleet which in 1067 raided the west country, where the Celtic Cornishmen joined them in arms. They plundered and ravished the countryside to such an extent that eventually even the English lost patience and joined with local Norman garrisons to expel them.

The following year two of Harold's sons returned to England to continue raiding. They were no more successful than during their previous attempt. They suffered defeat at the hands of Earl Brian who led a mixed Anglo-Norman army against them. Harold's sons then disappear from history.

The second and main elements of Viking involvement comes from the Danish claim to the English throne. Knute had at least two acknowledged wives. From his Norman wife, Emma, he had a son called Harthaknute, and from his English wife, Ælfgifu, he had two sons, the surviving son was called Harold Harefoot. On Knute's death, Harold Harefoot was declared by the English as being King of England against the wishes of Harthaknute, Emma and Knute's main supporter, Earl Godwin of Wessex. Harold died childless and Harthaknute was declared king. He too died childless. Rather than inviting another Dane, the Witan, with Godwin's approval, invited Edward, later known as the Confessor, to be king. He was another son of Emma, only this time by her first husband Æthelred Unread. Edward was brought from Normandy where he had been raised to be the new English King.

Meanwhile, the succession to the Danish throne was disputed and thus, the claim to the English throne was not persuaded. The new Danish king to emerge from the chaos was Swegn, a son of Knute's sister, Estrið.

William of Poitiers claimed that Danish interest in the English throne was revitalised as early as 1067, when some of the men of Northumberland and the Danelaw approached Swegn and offered to support his claim if he were to lead them against William of Normandy. In the following year of 1068, King William appointed Robert de Comines, Earl of Northumberland, without asking the locals if they would accept him instead of the English Earl Morcar. The result was that the men of Northumberland massacred Robert and 900 of his men whilst they were staying in the city of Durham. Edgar Ætheling, another claimant to the English throne, and one who had in fact been acclaimed by the Witan after King Harold's death, took advantage of this and came from Scotland, receiving the fealty of the men of Northumberland at York. William moved up fast from the south and surprised the Northumbrians. Hundreds were slain and the city torched.

In 1069 William was again dealing with rebellion in Northumberland, this time lead by the deposed Earl, Morkar, and his brother the ex-Earl of Mercia, Edwin. This time the uprising was supported by the Danish king, Swegn Estriðsson. Fighting alongside them were the Earls Waltheof and Gospatrick, both of whom were of Anglo-Norse extraction. Edgar the Ætheling was also there with support from the many English who were refugees in lowland Scotland. Just how he felt about Swegn's involvement is not recorded. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that the Danish fleet consisted of two hundred and forty ships, and that the crews were, not only Danish, but Polish, German, Wendish and Lithuanian. Controlling the fleet were Swegn's sons, and his brother Osbjorn. The allies took York and slaughtered the Norman garrison when they foolishly made an armed sally. Earl Waltheof's exploit of slaying a hundred Frenchmen with his long-axe as they tried to escape through a gate, ending up in heroic verse. William was not amused and moved north, again laying waste as he went. The Danes took to their ships and commenced raiding the East Coast, seeking assistance from their relations in the Danelaw. The fleet settled down to wintered over in the Humber where William couldn't get at them.

With the Danes out of the equation, William dealt with the Northumberland problem, a problem that had grown with the stepping up of revolt in the Fens lead by a local landholder, Hereward the Wake. After a hard march north along a route determined by violent resistance, broken bridges and swollen rivers, William took and re-entered York without a fight. As the Danes had already fled, the men of Northumberland dispirited by William's ability to advance despite the hazards set before him by both nature and English, fled into the hills, pursued by King William's men. With grim determination, William's army set about destroying homes and crops, extinguishing all human and animal life from the Humber to the Wash. Those that avoided violent death died from exposure or starvation. He also spent money on buying the Danes, under their leader, Jarl Osbjorn, off with a large Danegeld. With their boats laden with booty and English silver, the Danish fleet dispersed to their home ports.

In 1070, whilst William and his army were the other side of the Pennines a replacement Danish fleet arrived, this time led by King Swegn himself. The men of the Danelaw and the Fens flocked to him; they believed he was now making a claim for the English crown. This belief may have been reinforced by the fact that Swegn had brought with him many people of his Court, including Bishop Christian. William now learnt that although he had bought off Osbjorn, he had not bought off the Danes!

The new Danish fleet joined forces with those involved with the revolt in the Fens, lead by Hereward. Refugees from the harrowing of Northumberland, including Earl Morcar had already strengthened him. What happened during the years 1070 and 1071 is as much legend as recorded fact. We know that William made at least two unsuccessful attempts, either in person, or through a lieutenant, to take the Isle of Ely where Hereward and his forces were based. We also know that Hereward kept his Danish allies paid by allowing them to sack Peterborough and its Cathedral, now controlled by a Norman Bishop. What we do not know are the exact happenings, or the sequence of events. Eventually Swegn, perhaps seeing himself in a no win situation, allowed himself to be bought off. He come to an arrangement with William whereby he was allowed to keep all of the plunder he had taken at Peterborough, and was also allowed to forcibly take supplies from the English countryside, as long as he avoided direct conflict with the Norman garrison. Swegn's perfidy was punished on the way back to Denmark. After gathered his fleet in the Thames, he sailed for Denmark whilst other ships returned to Norway and Ireland. The Danish fleet ran into a storm and many ships, and their treasure was lost.

Danish involvement in the continued resistance did not materialise again until 1075. Two Earls, both of mixed English and French decent who had supported William in his claim for the throne in 1066, took part in a revolt that, on paper, was the most threatening to William's hold on the English throne. Ralf, Earl of East Anglia, was English on his father's side and had been born in Norfolk, but grew up in Brittany. Roger, Earl of Hereford, English on his mother's side and born in Hereford, was Ralf's brother-in-law. They plotted to bring in Danish support; they also tried to bring in both Edric the Wild and Earl Waltheof. Waltheof declined to be involved in the plot, but also declined to betray them. If successful, the simultaneous rising of the Earls would have cut England in two. Somehow the timing got out of alignment and William was able to crush Roger, before dealing to Ralf. Norwich was besieged. Ralf left his new bride, Emma, to literally hold the fort, which she did for three months. Ralf, meantime, had left to seek aid from the Danes. The fleet of 200 ships raided Kent on the way and arrived days too late to lift the siege. The Danish leader, Knute Swegnsson, and his war leader, Earl Hakkon, ensured that it was not a wasted journey. Finding Norwich lost and the revolt over, they raided York and took away a large amount of plunder. Again the fleet, this time on its way to Flanders, hit a storm and Hakkon and many ships were lost.

In 1076 Swegn died and his son Harold was proclaimed king. He too died and the English claim was forgotten. It was not to be brought to life again until 1085 when another son of Swegn's, Knute who had led the abortive attempt to assist in the revolt of the Earls, was proclaimed king. Knute was married to the daughter of Duke Robert of Flanders, and the two of them plotted to invade England and proclaim Knute king. To counter this threat William the Conqueror acquired a large army of French mercenaries and brought them to England to defend his stolen kingdom. It was reported by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle that this was the largest number of Frenchman to have ever been in England. To assist his defence William had the coastline of England laid waste. However, nothing came of this threat from Knute and Robert, as Knute was murdered whist worshipping in a church.

Till the very end of his reign, the following year, William felt threatened by the Danes as he knew that any landing they made on the East Anglian or Northumberland coasts would find support from their relatives in the Danelaw.

The English throne was a tempting prize for anyone of Viking blood be they Harold Godwinson, Harald Hardrada, William the Bastard of Normandy or Swegn Estriðsson.

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