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What do we think of the Vikings and what did the Vikings think of Cleveland?
By Jo Shortt Butler
The Vikings in Cleveland, edited by Heather O’Donoghue and Pragya Vohra (University of Nottingham, 2014)
Introduction: Despite evidence of Viking Age settlement in Cleveland, there are few written sources for Norse interaction with this specific part of the country. However, two moments stand out from the sagas of Norwegian kings, compiled in Iceland from the twelfth century onwards. The first, and most well-known, incident is one that records the appearance of King Haraldr harðráði of Norway (Harald Hardrada) off the coast of ‘Klíflönd’ in AD 1066. Prior to his famous defeat at Stamford Bridge, Haraldr raided inland, subjugating the locals before returning to the coast and burning the settlement of Scarborough.
The next time we hear of such an attack is in c. AD 1151–2, led by King Eysteinn Haraldsson of Norway – a man who was, in fact, born in Scotland. Eysteinn raided down the east coast, starting in Orkney and then moving down to Aberdeen, Hartlepool, Whitby and possibly as far as Lincolnshire. The Latin chronicler Reginald of Coldingham (also known as Reginald of Durham) is our only native source for these events, and he only mentions a raid on the Farne Islands by Eysteinn. Whilst the Scandinavian sources claim that Eysteinn sought revenge for the defeat of his great-great-grandfather, Haraldr harðráði, the lack of information from British sources is suggestive of another motive: that of opportunity. Whilst England and its commentators were occupied largely with internal disputes, the east coast was easy pickings for raiding parties. During this period, the country was embroiled in a civil war known as the Anarchy and Eysteinn’s raids took advantage of an England ill-prepared to deal with this sort of attack. The raids were spread out, just far enough apart that no defence could be mounted to keep pace with them, and thus in many ways they resemble the earliest Viking raids that so incensed Anglo-Saxon commentators in the eighth and ninth centuries.
The popular perception of Vikings is that they were pagan warriors, picking on the rich Christian settlements of the British Isles with impunity. Even though both Haraldr and Eysteinn were Christian kings of a Christian state, they were behaving in a manner comparable to the Vikings who raided Lindisfarne in AD 793. Yet these later raids have not impacted evidently upon local conceptions of what constitutes a Viking. Vikings are still bloodthirsty, pagan warriors. A key feature here appears to be the religious affiliation of the raiders and there is, therefore, an interesting parallel with perceptions of the Reformation-era plunder of priories, abbeys and Church property in the same region. With comparatively little Norse presence in the local archaeological record, it is easy to see how the destructive side of Scandinavian interaction has dominated locally and contributed to a lingering mistrust of all things Viking.