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Trisha Hughes

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When we speak of Britain’s monarchs, most of us would agree that early periods of time are clearly muddled. Many of the early British kings are hidden in the mists of time while some, the ones who lost crucial battles, have almost completely disappeared when the victors erased their rivals from all surviving records. There are kings who ruled for only a few months and there are some who ruled for over fifty years. There are also some who should never have ruled at all.  They include, among their number, the vain, the greedy and the downright corrupt. There were adulterers, swindlers and cowards. Yet this group also shares one thing in common. In their own lifetimes, they were the most powerful individuals in the land. Their stories span fifteen hundred years and are full of lust, betrayal, heroism, murder, cruelty and mysteries.

Through the centuries, the kings and queens who triumphed made sure the records showed their better claim to the throne and their better prowess in battle, true or false. 

But Britain’s history goes back much further than this. It begins with a race of people who were struggling to survive. Copper and tin was discovered and the Bronze Age began when men with bronze could easy beat up other men who only had sticks and stones to protect themselves. Being simple farming people, they were not organised for warfare.  

Then the unimaginable happened. Bronze was dumped when iron was discovered and it could not be disputed that for smashing skulls, iron was certainly best. It was a time of huge transformation in Britain and a time when tribal leaders began to believe they were more than just chiefs. They were kings. Tribes were beginning to rub up against each other with only one consequence: hostility. 

This new age was a ferocious time throughout Europe as local tribes tussled for power and the country descended into bloody conflict where the need to fight and defend became the main focus of their lives.  So the fighting and defending increased.  It was a time when men who could wield swords could also expand their territories. It was the age of warriors and Britain was becoming the land of ancient myths and folklore with warrior heroes on horseback armed with highly decorated, glittering Celtic swords.  They built forts and everything about these forts said ‘keep out’.  

But for all their hard work to survive, the Celts came up against an incredible force and Britain fell to the greatest empire the world has ever seen. The Romans were on the march and things had turned ugly.   

If ever there was a time when the Britons should have stood together, shoulder-to-shoulder, this was it. The trouble was some of these tribes hated each other more than they hated the Romans and while many Britons banded together, some sided with Rome seeing it as an ideal opportunity to get rid of their rivals.  

But if there was one thing the Romans quickly learnt, it was that you don’t stand still when a Brit was coming at you on his horse waving his sword. Always duck because the Britons were very proficient with their swords. As it turned out, it just wasn’t enough.  The Britons fought – and lost – and they were to find that Rome’s rule was more violent than their own. If you got in the way, heads would be cut off and put on spikes for all to see just what would happen if you didn’t do it the Roman way.

By the time the Romans left Britain, they had changed everything: governments, laws and taxation. They built towns, cities and roads and they introduced the written language. But if the Britons thought that they could finally live in relative peace, they were wrong. It was all coming to a terrifying end.  There was a new enemy surfacing and life would change for everyone. The Saxons had arrived and of all the Germanic races, Saxons were the most appalling. Their very name was supposed to have come from the use of a short, one-handed sword. The English now lived under a worse menace, more cruel and bloodier, coming from the sea. Wave after wave of Saxon invaders began landing on Britain’s shores. These were the days of Cerdic and his son Cynric.

Saxons brought with them their structure of Germanic life: fighting for life and control against men as hard-pressed as they were themselves and only winning because of their butchery as war-leaders. With this new lifestyle came a long and intricate rivalry for leadership between various Anglo-Saxon kings and they all strived for mastery by force and savagery. To understand these days and their constantly changing monarchs, we have to understand time frames. Five years was a lot in those days. Twenty years was the far horizon and fifty was antiquity.  

Up to the end of the 4th century, we see signs of fear spreading throughout the whole country. A dark time had fallen on Britain and dawn rose with a poor, barbaric and divided England. The light of Christianity burned in Ireland with the efforts of St Patrick, and followers of his doctrine flowed into Wales and England.  But after 400 years where there had been law and order and a respect for property during the Roman occupation, all had vanished. Where craftsmen had once been nourished and merchants had been welcomed, now barbarism reigned. People were losing the art of writing and a form of scribbling was the only means of conveying their thoughts or wishes to anyone at a distance. Provinces were popping up everywhere and in the confusion and conflict, petty ruffians who called themselves ‘kings’ took over in each province. But these kings weren’t content in their own kingdoms. They wanted more. It almost seemed that they were addicted to violence and savagery.  

By then, after countless attacks from the Picts and Scots to the north and the Saxons from Germany, Britons had finally had enough.  Instead of waiting for the Romans to help them, they took matters into their own hands and began fighting for themselves as they had done centuries before.  

We can only view these early days through dim telescopes across the span of two thousand years. In this dimly recorded history, there are stories of a British knight who won countless battles in those savage times. In mythology, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table loom romantically. Around him and all his deeds, romance and bravery abounds. Stories of twelve separate battles (all untraceable) against people (all unknown) are told. They cannot say where, or even if, Arthur actually lived at all, though it is assumed he was alive at the time of the Saxon invasion in 495 AD.  

But all of this savagery was just a foretaste of what was to come and York had a terrible shock coming. Britain was waking to a new nightmare, not just from the savage hordes to the north but a different force stirring beyond the seas. The Age of the Vikings was beginning and the force moved slowly but surely towards Britain.

At the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Scandinavia stood on the brink of the Viking Age. This period in Scandinavian history is important as we now see the first powerful people who were not chiefs anymore but a dynasty of kings. It is also important as this was the emergence of a violent religion that included animal and human sacrifice. It was a reminder that this world was different from a Christian religion.

What we know about the Vikings is more myth than reality as they were basically warriors and not writers.  What we do know is they didn’t just spring out of nowhere, fully formed.  They were the product of thousands of years of a cultural evolution with a dynamic and violent history.  

These men had the sea running through their veins. For many turbulent centuries, the glimpse on the horizon of a square sail and dragon-headed prow churned by oars, blue water foaming around the hull of the mighty ship, must have struck terror into the hearts of medieval Europeans. These golden-haired, blue-eyed savages were shaped by the land, sea and previous civilisations and it is only by understanding their ancient ancestors that we can hope to see why and how this terrifying phenomenon ever came to be.

These Vikings weren’t just expert sailors and ship builders: they were warriors in every sense of the word.  Even to the dark-age standards, Vikings were very adept in the messy business of killing.  Their long boats were stunning craft, packed with two dozen men, that could sail up rivers and anchor in creeks and bays and their beautiful lines and construction could ride out the fiercest storms of the Atlantic Ocean. Every male Viking had a sword, an axe and a knife on him at all times but when going to war or on a raid, equipment like shields, spears, bows and arrows was added.   On top of that, these heavily tattooed men held no semblance of a moral code.  

And so it probably comes as no surprise that when those first Viking raiders attacked a monastery in Northumbria, they thought they had nothing to fear from a Christian God because as far as they were concerned, he was no match for their own gods, Odin and Thor.  

The Vikings arrived in Britain in 793 AD in their long boats on a cold miserable January morning while the English people were enjoying their tranquillity. The raid was planned with care and knowledge and executed with complete surprise in the dead of winter. Britain just didn’t have a chance.

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