The main (original) sources for the evidence cited here were written by monks and priests who have usually been cited by modern historians as being biased against Vikings.

However, recent research into raids on monasteries in Ireland seems to indicate that at least half the raids were not carried out by Vikings. This source quotes the following statistics:

A.T. Lucas dispelled the notion that the Vikings alone were the despoilers of monasteries. He cited the fact that on the 309 occasions when ecclesiastical sites were plundered between the years 600 and 1163, the Irish were responsible for half of the attacks and in nineteen instances the Irish and Norse combined forces.

Another source (M & H. Whittock) says that, in Ireland between 795 and 820, only 26 of 113 attacks were carried by Vikings. The authors then add

We should not expect anything different for Anglo-Saxon England. As early as the late seventh century, Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury (Wiltshire), had been forced to negotiate a special arrangement with the kings of Mercia and Wessex to prevent them targeting his monastery, since it was sited in a border zone between the two rival Christian Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Although it is well established that the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms spent a lot of time raiding and fighting each other, much of the conflict between between kingdoms which led to the smaller ones being overrun by neighbours took place before the Vikings arrived on the scene. Thus, I'm wondering about M&H. Whittock's view that England was little different from Ireland.

Concerning the above, I have two supplementary questions to the main question:

  1. Has there been a similar analysis of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles which will back up M & H. Whittock's assertion that "We should not expect anything different for Anglo-Saxon England", and has there been any statistical analysis of the Frankish chronicles?

  2. The statistics refer to raids on ecclesiastical sites. Is there any indication in the chronicles / annals as to whether non-ecclesiastical sites were more or less likely to be attacked by Vikings than by local rulers?

My ideas on the answer to the main question include (1) chroniclers' descriptions of Viking raids 'accuse' them of being more vicious, (2) they were pagans so that makes them the real bad guys, and (3) they were 'foreigners' i.e. let's blame the alien. However, I don't know to what extent any of these factors may be relevant.

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    The situation in Ireland was rather unique (as I explained in another answer. I'm on a phone, so can't post a half-decent answer with sources right now. I think Aldhelm was an exception because of the location of his monastery on the border between 2 warring kingdoms. Viking raiders targeted monasteries (starting with Lindisfarne in 793) because they were rich, isolated, and largely unguarded ("easy pickings"). The chroniclers were mostly monks - the ones being targeted by the Vikings. – sempaiscuba Oct 4 '17 at 17:43
  • Mind you, the passage about Aldhelm on page 61 of Wessex in the Early Middle Ages by Barbara Yorke seems to suggest that the wording chosen by M & H Whittock is rather misleading in context. – sempaiscuba Oct 4 '17 at 18:03
  • @ sempaiscuba. My impression is also that the Irish situation was rather unique, That's why I'm wondering if anyone has come up with numbers for attacks in England to see if M&H. Whittock's assertion can be backed up by statistics. I certainly wouldn't be surprised if monasteries were targeted by local rulers / raiders for (as you noted) they were rich and easy to attack. – Lars Bosteen Oct 4 '17 at 22:01

The situation in early medieval Ireland was rather unique, as I explained in an answer to another question. The situation there was largely a legacy of the fact that the early monasteries had been founded under Irish Brehon Law.

The point made by M & H. Whittock about the attacks in Ireland seems reasonable, although the comment about Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, seems slightly misleading in that context. In fact, as Barbara Yorke explains in Wessex in the Early Middle Ages:

"In the 680's Malmesbury received land grants from Baldred, a West Saxon sub-king, and from Cenfrith and Berhtwald, respectively kinsman and nephew of King Aethelred of Mercia ..."

These land grants meant that Malmesbury Abbey was built on land that was partly in the kingdom of Wessex, and partly in the kingdom of Mercia. This was a situation that could be potentially beneficial, but that also came with a degree of risk, in the event of war between the two kingdoms:

"Although Malmesbury's position in the border zone meant that it might benefit from the patronage of both sides, there were potential dangers as well. Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, obtained a grant of privileges from Pope Sergius I which he got both Ine of Wessex and Aethelread of Mercia to ratify and further secured their agreement that Malmesbury should not suffer in wars between the kingdoms."

  • [Yorke, 1995, p61]

That is not quite the same thing as being "forced to negotiate a special arrangement with the kings of Mercia and Wessex to prevent them targeting his monastery".

The conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in what would later become "England" was largely complete by the end of the 7th century. Which I accept that it is quite likely that there may have been attacks on Christian churches by raiders from neighbouring pagan kingdoms prior to that, I can't think of any targeted attacks on Abbeys or monasteries by neighbouring Christian kingdoms after that date. I spent a little time this evening reviewing the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries in my copy of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, but couldn't find an example. I am less familiar with the Frankish chronicles, but I did a brief check online, and I believe the same is true there.

Viking raiders, however, certainly did seem to target monasteries. The first raid was on the monastery on Lindisfarne in 793:

"... on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter."

  • Anglo Saxon Chronicle

It is easy to see why Vikings would target monasteries. They were rich, isolated, and largely unguarded, or as we might say today, "easy pickings". The chroniclers who were recording these attacks were mostly monks - the very people being targeted by the Viking attacks. It is hardly surprising then that the Viking raiders were portrayed as "vicious".

The early Viking raiders in England were certainly "foreigners", travelling from Scandinavia to carry out their attacks. By the mid ninth century, larger armies were arriving with a view to conquest, rather than raiding. In 851, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that:

"The heathens now for the first time remained over winter in the Isle of Thanet. The same year came three hundred and fifty ships into the mouth of the Thames;"

It is at this point that non-ecclesiastical sites - which were likely to be better defended - were being increasingly targeted. These were no longer raiders, but conquerors. In 867, one of these Norse armies captured York, which was then the second city in Anglo Saxon England:

"This year the army went from the East-Angles over the mouth of the Humber to the Northumbrians, as far as York. And there was much dissension in that nation among themselves; they had deposed their king Osbert, and had admitted Aella, who had no natural claim. Late in the year, however, they returned to their allegiance, and they were now fighting against the common enemy; having collected a vast force, with which they fought the army at York; and breaking open the town, some of them entered in. Then was there an immense slaughter of the Northumbrians, some within and some without; and both the kings were slain on the spot. The survivors made peace with the army."

  • Anglo Saxon Chronicle

These new Norse kingdoms in what would become the Danelaw were pagan. We know that there were raids from these kingdoms into the remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It is probably appropriate to refer to these raiders as "Vikings". They did attack monasteries, they were certainly "pagan", although perhaps not necessarily "foreign".

So, to answer your questions.

1. Why are Vikings singled out for raids in Britain and Ireland when records may indicate most raids were by local rulers?

While this is certainly true for Ireland, there is no evidence to suggest that "most raids were by local rulers" elsewhere in the British Isles. For the rest of the British Isles, it seems that Vikings were singled out for raids because it was actually the Vikings who were carrying out those raids!

2. Has there been a similar analysis of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles which will back up M & H Whittock's assertion that "We should not expect anything different for Anglo-Saxon England", and has there been any statistical analysis of the Frankish chronicles?

There doesn't seem to be any evidence in the Anglo-Saxon chronicles for the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries to support that assertion. I'm not aware of any statistical analysis of the Frankish Chronicles for this period, but I couldn't find any evidence to support the assertion there either. Furthermore, the quote from M & H Whittock's book in regard to Abbot Aldhelm seems to be rather misleading in that context, as discussed above. I'm not at all convinced that the assertion stands up to scrutiny.

3. The statistics refer to raids on ecclesiastical sites. Is there any indication in the chronicles / annals as to whether non-ecclesiastical sites were more or less likely to be attacked by Vikings than by local rulers?

For the most part, outside of Ireland, "Viking" attacks on non-ecclesiastical sites are rarely recorded in the rest of the British Isles in ninth century chronicles or annals. Bear in mind that the term "Viking" actually meant something like "raider" or "pirate". Clearly, Viking raiders would tend not to attack well-defended, or fortified sites. However, these sites might very well be targeted by local rulers intent on expanding their territories.

Outside of monasteries, high-value items were likely to be held in well-defended, fortified sites, so Viking raids targeted monasteries for their wealth, and smaller undefended settlements for slaves. We have nothing in the chronicles to suggest that local rulers attacked monasteries, or that they raided neighbouring Christian kingdoms to capture slaves.

When the Norse armies begin to arrive with a view to conquest, the term "Viking" is no longer really appropriate. It is at this point that we do begin to see attacks on non-ecclesiastical sites appearing in the chronicles. However, this is a very different situation from that in Ireland, where there are a number of Norse coastal settlements, but where there was never a concerted effort to conquer the island.


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    Overall, this is an excellent answer which supports my own (more limited) findings. Your reviewing of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle is particularly appreciated (I have a copy but it's on the other side of the world!). I also feel that M&H. Whittock's comment and 'evidence' for Anglo-Saxon England is misleading. – Lars Bosteen Oct 5 '17 at 0:29

One reason is because the Vikings were from more remote places, came further, and "foreign," so their depredations were remembered better. The "local" raiders were considered "bandits" as opposed to the more fearsome Vikings.

The chances of getting hit by lightening or bitten by a shark are far less than those of getting hit by a car, and yet most people remember (and fear) the occasional lightning or shark strike more than car accidents. Speaking of which, many Americans were more concerned about the total 55,000 deaths in the Vietnam War than the larger number of annual deaths on American highways.The Vietnam deaths were at the hands of an identifiable enemy, the evil Viet Cong, while the highway deaths were perceived as "random."

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    Were all the Vikings from afar? There were many Viking colonies in Ireland, i.e. Dublin. And many went native while maintaining a proclivity for raiding.. – TomO Oct 4 '17 at 17:39
  • @ TomO. The sources I have don't say where the Vikings were from. – Lars Bosteen Oct 4 '17 at 22:06

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