The first recorded violent contact between Vikings and England was in 789 when a Saxon coastal patrol lost a man in a skirmish with otherwise unidentified Danes. Experts are unsure if this was indeed Viking aggression versus just a misunderstanding at a customs checkpoint. It is widely thought that these Vikings might have been “casing the joint” or scouting for upcoming raids.
The first major recorded raid was in 793 when the famous (and wealthy) monastery at Lindisfarne (modern northeast England, then the Kingdom of Northumbria). Many monks were murdered, and a tremendous amount of wealth and captives were carried away. This shocked Europe, for such a brazen attack had come out of nowhere and had targeted a holy shrine off-limits to Christian warriors. This 793 attack marks the beginning of the Viking Age for many scholars.
The whole truth is a little more complicated. Indeed, Danes (the term for Vikings often used by the English) had been coming as traders and mercenaries to Britain for decades – even centuries. The Jutes – a tribe from Denmark who would later become Vikings – invaded post-Roman Britain along with the Saxons and Angles. The English hero, Beowulf, was a Geat (from Sweden), and much of the action in that English classic takes place in Denmark. So the ties go back a long way.
The full-scale invasion of Britain was in 865. Vikings from all over Scandinavia (but referred to as Danes by English sources) descended on the east coast of Britain. This force became known as the Great Army or Great Heathen Army (or later, simply “the Army”). For more on these events, see these articles.
The Great Army was eventually contained to the north and east of Britain by Alfred the Great and his descendants. But another invasion of England by Sweyn Forkbeard in the early 11th century would see all of England ruled by Vikings for about a generation. For more on these events, see this article.
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