Early Britain: Viking Age

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13282

After the Anglo-Saxons settled into their cozy kingdoms, the Vikings came! They were fierce raiders from across the North Sea who wanted some land of their own. Who would win the battle for Britain?


World, World Cultures

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

  • Have you ever heard of Ivar the Boneless, Eric Bloodaxe, or Sweyn Forkbeard?
  • What about Guthrum, Ethelred the Unready, Canute, or Harald Hairfoot?

Get ready to meet the winners and losers of Britain's Viking Age!

In 793 AD, a new group of people, called Vikings, arrived in Britain. This was the beginning of the Viking Age, which lasted until the year 1066 AD when the Normans had their turn to invade England.

It's important to remember that the word viking describes what these people did, raiding and pirating on the seas, but not who they were. So, Viking is not a nationality like French or Spanish. The Vikings were from an area known as Scandinavia, which includes present-day Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

map of Scandinavia

Image by Peter Fitzgerald, Stefan Ertmann, Júlio Reis, and Mjchael, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The Vikings were ordinary farming people, until they took to the seas and discovered how easy it was for them to plunder other people's treasures!

The first Viking raid on Britain took place at the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northeast England. The Vikings plundered the monastery treasures, burned it to the ground, and killed many of the monks. The raids on Britain continued for the next 75 years.

At first, the Vikings just raided the area and carried off its treasures. However, they soon realized that they could stay in Britain and take some land for themselves. They found its fertile land to be just what they wanted for an easy life of farming. There was a milder climate and more farmland in Britain than in Scandinavia.

In 865, a large group of Vikings arrived in southeastern England. They had organized what they called the Great Army (also called the Great Heathen Army), led by Ivar the Boneless. Historians don't know exactly how big this army was; however, by the middle 800s, they were attacking and taking over large parts of Britain.

Watch the following video to learn more. Have some paper and a pencil or pen handy to take notes. Write down the important people and events. Pay particular attention to who kept fighting the Vikings when other Anglo-Saxon kings had given in or been defeated.

The Viking Invasion of England | The Great Heathen Army from Knowledgia:

As you saw in the video, there was one Anglo-Saxon kingdom determined not to give in to the Vikings or be taken by them. That was Wessex, in the south of England.

Wessex had taken over much of southern England. King Ethelred of Wessex fought against the Vikings. When he died in 871, his 5th son, Alfred, took over the fight.

statue of King Alfred

After a long struggle, King Alfred the Great defeated Guthrum, the Viking leader trying to take over Wessex. King Alfred made an agreement with Guthrum, which gave him control over Eastern England in the Kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia. This area of England became known as Danelaw. This Viking kingdom lasted from 878 to 954.

map of England , 878

Image by Hel-hama, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

After Danelaw was established, there was peace for a while between the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons.


The Vikings captured York, a very important northern city, in 866. Rule over the city went back and forth between the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons several times. For many years, it was the center of the Viking kingdom in the north (called the Kingdom of Yorvik in Old Norse), and a major port for their trade.

Watch a segment of the following documentary to learn more. Again, make sure you take notes! Listen for answers to the following questions:

  • Why did the Vikings want to take York?
  • What advantages did the Vikings have in fighting the Anglo-Saxons?

Britain's Most Historic Towns Episode 2 Viking York from History and Cosmos:

The last Viking king of Yorvik was Eric Bloodaxe. Not much is known about his real life, but he is portrayed as a hero in the Viking Sagas, which are a mixture of history, stories, and myths about the Vikings. We do know that he was defeated and driven out of York in 954.

King Alfred's son, Edward, and his grandson, Athelstan, fought to drive the Vikings out and united England under one rule.

Second Invasion

Sweyn Forkbeard, son of the King of Denmark, led another Viking invasion in 993. He attacked London and, although he was unable to capture it, continued to terrorize much of England.

King Alfred's great-grandson, Ethelred, was on the throne at the time. Unlike Alfred, Ethelred was a weak king.

He was called Ethelred the Unready (this name means ill-advised). Apparently, he listened to bad advice and tried to deal with the Vikings by giving them gold and land (called Danegeld) instead of fighting them. He made another bad decision when he called for a massacre of all the Danes in England. This, of course, enraged the Vikings even more.

Sweyn Forkbeard's son, Canute, took over as king of England in 1016. Ethelred then fled to Normandy (in what is now France). Canute was a strong ruler, who shared his power with English noblemen, called jarl. This is where we get our English word earl.

Two of Canute's successors ruled England: Harald Harefoot and Hardicanute. And that was the end of the Viking kings of England!

Ethelred's son, Edward the Confessor, finally regained the throne for the Anglo-Saxons. When he died, however, he did not leave an heir. This caused another battle to erupt over the English throne -- this time with three contenders!

Viking Villages

When they weren't fighting, the Vikings settled down into villages and lived like ordinary people. Once they settled among the Anglo-Saxon people, they intermarried with them and adopted a lot of their ways. Even though they initially attacked monasteries, they were also quick to accept Christianity.

Watch a second segment of the documentary to see how a Viking village in England would have looked:

Ships, Navigation, and Trade

One of the keys to the Vikings' success was their skill in ship building and navigation. Listen for the answers to these questions in the next video:

  • How did they make their boats so strong?
  • What does clinker-built mean?
  • How did the way their boats were built affect the teamwork of the crews?

Vikings: Secrets of the Viking: The Viking Longship | History:

With these boats, the Vikings were able to travel to many places and often trade with the people there. Look at this map of their voyages:

Viking voyages map

Image by Bogdangiusca, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

With all that trade, you can imagine the many treasures they brought home!

Get a close-up look at some Viking treasures in The Bedale Hoard, from YorkMuseumsTrust:

That ends our quick tour through Britain's Viking Age.

Now, you can move on to the Got It? section to review the Viking era and plan a trip to a Viking museum!

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