Ha-haaaaaaar! This year London is about to be invaded by the Vikings again, though this time they’ll be in the safe confines of the British Museum and hopefully their London experience will be a little less eventful than before! From the 800s to the 1000s London was periodically attacked by Viking raiders, mainly from modern-day Denmark, and evidence of these raids can still be found at the Museum of London.
In the 600s the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Lundenwic was established to the west of the abandoned Roman town. It was a very successful trading centre – by the 730s Bede described it as ‘a market for many nations coming by land and sea’. But its success ultimately led to its failure. From 842 there were a series of Viking attacks – in 871-2 they spent the whole winter in London – probably a bit warmer than back home! By the end of the 800s, under the direction of King Alfred, the settlement moved back inside the protection of the old Roman walls. However, Viking raids began again in the late 900s and became more serious over the next 20 years. In the summer of 1016 the English king Edmund Ironside defeated an army led by the Danish prince Cnut at Brentford, west of London. Edmund’s victory was only a temporary setback for the Danes, however; a few months later he was dead, and Cnut was proclaimed king of all England.
The Museum of London has a collection of Viking weapons – battle axes, swords and spears, which were found at a number of sites along the river Thames, from Runnymede in the west to Bermondsey in the east. The Viking attacks on London were mainly concentrated along the river and weapons have been found at a number of sites on the Thames, often recovered during dredging of the river. At least some must have been lost during the many battles and skirmishes that were fought.
It is also possible that the weapons may have been thrown into the river as offerings to the gods. Whilst swords and spears were commonly used by the Vikings in battle, it is the battle axe with which they are most popularly associated. Many battle axes have been found in the River Thames, including a group of eight, found with spears and a grappling iron at the north end of London Bridge in the 1920s. This group dates to the 1000s and is now on display in the Medieval London gallery at the Museum of London. They are thought to have been lost during one of the many attacks that took place around the bridge in the early 1000s. At this time London Bridge, the only bridge across the Thames, was well defended and was a major barrier to the advancing Viking ships. In 1016 Cnut was forced to dig a channel around its southern end in order to drag his ships beyond it.