Q: From AD 793 onward, the peoples of the British Isles suffered from raids by seaborne Scandinavian aggressors, the Vikings. Sometimes they were able to fight back and even overcome their attackers. But they never, so far as we know, attempted to take the fight back to the Scandinavian homelands. Why was this?
John E. Stokes IV
A: Between the eighth and the eleventh centuries, the peoples of Britain and Scandinavia were on approximately parallel cultural tracks, and at a broadly similar level of technological sophistication in terms of their tools, weaponry, and everyday items. Where the Scandinavians excelled, however, was in shipbuilding, sailing, and long-distance navigation. The Brits did venture across the seas, but the journeys they made were relatively short. Ships crossed the Irish Sea that separates Britain from Ireland, and the North Sea from the British east coast to what is now France and Holland. These short sea crossings were all that was needed for the purposes of politics, religion, and trade. The English, in particular, had easy access to continental Europe, where they could acquire all the foreign goods (such as wine) that they wanted. They didn’t need to venture farther afield.
For the occupants of the Danish islands or the Norwegian fjords, however, the sea was the preferred natural highway to richer lands beyond their southern borders, where they could sell products such as animal furs and pelts, and obtain luxury items like drinking glasses, wine, etc. The Scandinavians came to know the coastal trading places of Western Europe such as the Frisian emporium at Dorestad, near the mouth of the Rhine River. Once there, they could pick up intelligence about other, more distant trading centers, including some in Britain. They also realized that there were other rich sites—Christian monasteries—often in isolated locations on or near the coast, which held ecclesiastical treasures. The Scandinavians’ superior experience in long-distance travel, and their increasingly sturdy craft, put these sites within the range not just of merchants but of Viking raiders, whose specialty, at least in the early phase of their operations, was the quick smash and grab of the hit-and-run attack.
When, in the 896, the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred was faced not just with raiders but with invaders, he decided to beef up his own fleet. In the words of a contemporary, the new ships were to be bigger, swifter, and steadier, and not of Frisian or Danish design but built to Alfred’s own specification. Thus, in popular English sentiment, was the Royal Navy born. But still, even with better ships, neither Alfred nor his contemporaries or successors anywhere in the British Isles mounted retaliatory attacks on Viking Age Scandinavia. One main reason for this was that there were few, if any, obvious targets to hit. It would have been necessary to sail around the treacherous Jutland Peninsula and into the Baltic Sea to reach any of the handful of large-scale, permanent coastal trading settlements that existed in Scandinavia; there were no equivalents to the Christian monasteries to attack (even if devout Christians such as Alfred would have contemplated such an onslaught); and Viking kings, like their counterparts in Britain and Ireland, were largely peripatetic, moving their circle of retainers from one place to another like a herd of browsing animals. They were unpredictable and difficult to catch. Even if English kings had sufficiently sturdy ships and could sail to Scandinavia, their journey might well turn out to be a wasted effort.
So, in the end, it was a mixture of logistics and, perhaps, intelligence that deterred retaliatory raids. Instead, the effort was put into defeating the more static and vulnerable target of those Vikings who had settled in parts of the British Isles. The Anglo-Saxons, the Irish, and to some extent the Scots were successful in subduing and finally integrating with their former attackers.
RICHARD HALL, director of archaeology at the York Archaeological Trust, is the author of The Viking Dig, Viking Age York, and The World of the Vikings (Thames & Hudson, 2007).
Originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.