From Vikings to Normans in England and Ireland

Article publié dans le dossier thématique – actes de la journée d’étude du 20 novembre 2015, Les transferts culturels dans les mondes normands médiévaux I – Des mots pour le dire ?

From Vikings to Normans in England and Ireland

David Griffiths

University of Oxford, England, UK

In this short piece, I address the ways in which historians and archaeologists have approached, interpreted and described the Viking and Norman presences in England and Ireland. These are treated as very different phenomena, yet in many ways have similar origins and effects. ‘Vikings’ (a word hardly used in near-contemporary historical sources, which use ‘Northmen’, ‘Gentiles’, Foreigners’) became a feature of English and Irish historical consciousness from the 780s AD, with raids followed by more sustained semi-systematic warfare coupled to settlement and assimilation, and ultimately dynastic rivalry and competing claims on statehood. The latter are exemplified in England by the successful attempt by Svein Forkbeard of Denmark to wrest the crown and make way for his son Cnut’s accession in 1016, and in Ireland by the creation of the kingdom of Dublin and the failed attempts by external powers in the Norse world to invade Ireland in 1014 and by Magnus Barelegs of Norway in 1098/1103. Duke William of Normandy, it will need no reminder to say, invaded southern England in 1066, and over the following 20 years (expensively and often bloodily) established Norman rule over the majority of the country. An important dimension to the Norman invasion is its coincidence with the Northumbrian rebellion against Harold II and the Norwegian invasion led by Harald Hardraði, which narrowly failed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066, three days prior to the Norman fleet landing at Pevensey, Sussex. Following William’s success at Hastings, and his assumption of the crown, further unsuccessful Danish campaign was mounted against England in 1069-70. Subsequently in 1169-71, led initially by Norman settlers from West Wales, and representing the king Henry II (also Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and Count of Anjou), an Anglo-Norman army landed (initially by Irish invitation) in south-eastern Ireland, rapidly effecting a take-over of the towns and then the Irish countryside.

The Norman invasions therefore fit very much with the dynastic phase of external involvement and match contemporary ‘Viking’ or Scandinavian exploits within Britain and Ireland in their ambition and completeness. The pace and opportunism of ‘Viking’ and ‘Norman’ inroads are complementary in the eleventh century. Perhaps surprisingly, however, there is much less apparent evidence and scholarly historical focus on the networking and involvement of Vikings from northern France in earlier phases of Scandinavian raiding, settlement and assimilation in England and Ireland, and vice-versa (see e.g. Fellows-Jensen 2004). The foundation of the Duchy of Normandy was not undertaken in isolation from comparable events across the Channel yet the two histories remain poorly linked. This may be counted as a strange historical lacuna. The history of Viking involvement on the Seine and Loire in the ninth century is a complex and rich one (Sawyer 1997). The first recorded Viking ‘attack’ on English territory was not the famous raid on Lindisfarne in 793 but the violent scuffle on the beach at Portland, Dorset, in 789, in which the assailants were described as ‘three ships of Northmen [from Horðaland] (Whitelock 1979, 180), but the southerly location and the backdrop of the Channel are liminal to the Frankish world. Prior to the early Viking period, there had been considerable exchange and interaction across the Channel and Celtic Sea through ecclesiastical contacts, and trade in pottery, glass and other fine goods, which saw its zenith in the emporia or (Old English –wics) of Hamwic, Quentovic, Lundenwic, Dorestad and other sites further north and east (Hill and Cowie 2001). Thereafter, until the build-up to 1066, the role of France, and Normandy in particular, is arguably under-stressed in English and Irish history and archaeology.

It is however possible that archaeology may have the capability to provide an answer to the question of balance and coverage in terms of external involvement in ninth and tenth-century Britain and Ireland. Many of the objects found in early Viking graves in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia are of Frankish, Carolingian manufacture (Thomas 2012), some traded but others evidently obtained during military and temporary settlement in France and the Low Countries in the ninth century (see Sawyer 1997). The early Viking phase of activity in France begs detailed comparison in terms of material culture, settlement, clashes with native secular and ecclesiastical authority, and interaction with local populations, with the activities of Vikings in Ireland, founding longphorts (river or ship camps) and engaging in raiding and trade for slaves, silver and other commodities (Griffiths 2010). A detailed, integrated study of the use of rivers in particular as corridors of influence, covering France, England and Ireland, is a pressing necessity.

Judged on archaeological grounds alone – using typologies refined by Jan Petersen and others for swords and brooches (Petersen 1919, 1928) – a strong continental European dimension to the Viking presence in Britain and Ireland could be predicted. Isotopes and aDNA may yet expand the picture, and such research that has already been done on contemporary human remains confirms a heterogeneity of origins in this most fluid of state-formation periods (e.g. Symonds et al. 2015). The main divergence in argument between historical and archaeological approaches concerns terminology, and this keys into the ways in which the period is approached. In terms of written history, whilst many details of events are clearly true or an approximation of the truth, the emphasis is upon events which merit recording and describing in the limited register of contemporary sources: invasions, conquests, battles and treaties. The claims and counter-claims of kings and candidate kings are prominent, as are dynastic marriages and recruitment of allies amongst the noble aristocracy. Historical terminology stresses narrative, single events, and explanation of outcomes in terms of the retrospective interests of those commissioning or patronising the history at hand. Historical scholarship emphasised reactivity to events, causation followed by consequence, and has a contemporary or later moral and political dimension.

Archaeology, by contrast, is more heavily based on social science thinking, borrows a good deal of its terminological means from anthropology, and confers a complementary but distinct perspective on the period. Archaeological interpretation tends more towards describing and modelling social processes, such as acculturation (Barth 1969), assimilation and the creation and development of diaspora (Griffiths 2004, Abrams 2012, Jesch 2015). Because it deals with material culture, which (except where inscriptions are available) is largely a mute, unwritten source, rather than analysing a pre-formed message as in documentary history, it emphasises pro-activity – the creation of tableau of meaning, as opposed to critiquing a given narrative. Archaeology is more diffuse in its concerns, stressing the factors of communal life, domesticity, trade and technology, most of which go unremarked in the historical sources. Archaeology is arguably better suited to address the longue durée concept developed by the Annales School (e.g. Braudel 1949) and its potential for illuminating societies and landscapes, subtle long-term change in which lies temporally beyond the short-term attention-span of contemporary historical sources. Thus we may find, in a creative fusion of archaeologies, much in common between ninth and tenth-century Normandy and England, and between these areas and Ireland, whereas national histories of a more tradition character have acted to separate and distinguish these polities into competing national narratives.


As a rhetorical outcome of this piece, I argue for a multi-vocal approach to comparing and contrasting the Viking and Norman presences – all divided by national history, but open to other approaches. A combination of integrated social and technological analysis, landscape investigation, sampling and economic modelling is a useful counterpoint and adjunct to traditional/national historical approaches. Such trans-national research approaches have worked well in linking English early medieval period to the near continent in Belgium and Scandinavia (e.g. Loveluck 2011). Language and educational training sometimes get in the way of true potential of multi-vocal exchange, but the effort must be made nonetheless. Conferencing, web publishing (as here) are key facilitating media. I write this, with sadness, on a day when it has become clear that the UK has voted to leave the European Union. International interchange and integrated research must be developed and allowed to proceed in the face of such retrograde actions. I commend the Caen organisers for creating this series and look forward to its future development.


Abrams, L. (2012) ‘Diaspora and Identity in the Viking Age’, Early Medieval Europe 20, 17-38.

Barth, F. (1969) Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, the Social Organisation of Culture Difference (Little Brown: Boston).

Braudel, F. (1949) La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II (Armand Colin: Paris).

Fellows-Jensen, G. (2004) ‘Scandinavian Settlement in the British Isles and Normandy: What the Place-Names Reveal’ in Adams, J. and Holman, K. (eds) Scandinavia and Europe 800-1350 (Brepols: Turnhout) 121-36.

Griffiths, D. (2003) ‘Settlement and Acculturation in the Irish Sea region’, in Hines, J, Lane, A. and Redknap, M. (eds) Land, Sea and Home: Settlement in the Viking Period, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 20 (Maney: Leeds), 125-38.

Griffiths, D. (2010) Vikings of the Irish Sea: Conflict and Assimilation AD 709-1050 (Stroud: History Press)

Hill, D. and Cowie, R. (2001) Wics, the early medieval trading centres of Northern Europe (Sheffield Academic Press).

Jesch, J. (2015) The Viking Diaspora (Routledge, Abingdon).

Loveluck, C.P. (2011) ‘Problems of the definition and conceptualisation of early medieval elites, AD 450-900: the dynamics of the archaeological evidence’, in Le Jan, R, Bougard, F. and Goetz, H-W (eds) Theories et Pratiques des Elites au Haut Moyen Age. Conception, Perception et Realisation Sociale, Haut Moyen Age 13 (Brepols: Turnhout) 21-67.

Petersen, J (1919) De Norske Vikingesverd (Christiania); (1928) Vikingetidens Smykker (Stavanger).

Symonds, L, Price, T.D., Keenleyside, A. and Burton, J (2014) ‘Medieval Migrations: Isotope Analysis of Early Medieval Skeletons from the Isle of Man’, Medieval Archaeology 58, 1-20.

Sawyer, P.H. (1997) The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford: OUP).

Thomas, G. (2012) ‘Carolingian culture in the North Sea world: rethinking the cultural dynamics of personal adornment in Viking-Age England’, European Journal of Archaeology, 15 (3), 486-518.

Whitelock, D. (1979) English Historical Documents, Vol.1 (London: Eyre Methuen).

Citer ce billet
Craham (2016, 15 novembre). From Vikings to Normans in England and Ireland. Mondes nordiques et normands médiévaux. Consulté le 18 mai 2024, à l’adresse

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