Did the Vikings Attack England in 1138?

The reign of King Stephen (1135-1154) has been referred to as the Anarchy because of the ongoing civil war which ravaged England during this period. However, almost no history book of his reign note that the English ruler had to fight off an invasion of the Danish Vikings. A new article offers an intriguing theory that such an event did happen in 1138.

15th century map showing the British Isles and Denmark

Writing in the Journal of Medieval Military History, Thomas Heebøll-Holm takes a closer look at an entry from a chronicle written in Flanders. One of the continuators of Sigebert of Gembloux’s Chronicon sive Chronographia wrote this for the year 1138:

When the king of the Danes heard that the king of the English was dead he gathered many ships and an army of knights and footmen and ravaged the borders of England in a most cruel manner, saying that due to his ancestor’s hereditary right and [the two kingdoms] close connection via the sea between them he had a greater claim to the throne of England than king Stephen and the Normans who had acquired it through William the Bastard’s invasion. Considering that it would be dangerous to meet such a fierce enemy head on in an unequal battle the king of the English held back and waited for an advantageous moment and when they had dispersed their forces far and wide gaping at the easy plunder, he defeated them in a battle, killed and captured many of them and forced the rest to go home in disgrace.

There are no other historical works, including from England or Denmark, that mention such an attack taking place, and historians have usually dismissed this chronicler’s account as fiction. However Heebøll-Holm, an adjunct professor at the University of Southern Denmark, suggests this entry might be accurate and was prompted by lingering Danish claims to the throne of England, and by the desire of the country’s new ruler, Erik III (1137-1146), to consolidate his position and have his magnates direct their energies against an external foe.

The historian also believes that the attack was connected with a Scottish invasion of England that took place that same year. He writes:

It is likely that the Danes, if they indeed attacked England, would have aimed for the Humber estuary, and ultimately eastern England around York. This was where King Sven Forkbeard landed in 1013, and in 1069 and 1075 the Danish armies who sought to assist the Anglo-Saxon uprisings against the Normans did the same. All these landings had the explicit purpose of securing York, the old capital of the Danelaw. At least in the eleventh century, the Danes received a warm welcome from the local magnates, and while by 1138 more than sixty years had passed since a Danish army had set foot in England, it was still likely to be the most receptive part of England to a Danish invasion. Based on the above-mentioned campaigns, the Danish attack is most likely to have occurred in the period from July to September, which would make the attack coincide with the Scottish invasion of Yorkshire in July and August. It thus possible that the Danish attack was somehow coordinated with the Scots, and perhaps also with disgruntled northern Anglo-Norman magnates, some of whom had joined the Scottish invasion army.

If this theory is accurate, the attack on northern England would have suffered a severe blow because of the Scottish defeat at the Battle of the Standard on August 22, 1138. Once King Stephen’s forces regained control over Yorkshire, the Danish army would have vulnerable to a counterattack. Ultimately, the threat from the Norse warriors was not as dangerous as it was in centuries previous.

Heebøll-Holm also analyzed why no English or Danish chroniclers would have written about this episode, and finds compelling reasons why the successors of Stephen and Erik - King Henry II and Valdemar I - would have wanted this attack to be forgotten.

The reason why no one wrote about it in either England or Denmark was that after the 1150s both countries had new regimes, eager to legitimize their rule. Thus, in Angevin England any notions of Danish claims were repressed, while in Denmark the Valdemarians sought to erase and pass over the reign of Erik III as a mere interim period of regency before the rightful heir to the throne reached maturity. Furthermore, for the Valdermarians, who wanted to present themselves as pious warriors on the Christian frontier, there was no need to be reminded of a military failure against a fellow Christian country. Thus, independently of each other, the Angevins and the Valdemarians repressed the history of the attack.

Thomas Heebøll-Holm’s article, “When the Lamb Attacked the Lion: A Danish Attack on Engalnd in 1138?” can be found in the Journal of Medieval Military History, Volume 13 (2015). You can also also read more about the Vikings in the latest issue of Medieval Warfare magazine.

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