Our Viking Forefathers


The Vikings . . . Embroidery by Eileen Phelps – 2013


(Or perhaps it should be ‘FiveFathers’?)

Kirk, Ulf, Dag, Garth and young Sven,
Five fierce and intrepid Norse men,
All were keen for a spot of adventure,
And some philand’ring as well now and then.

These five Vikings set off from their fiord,
Their longboat just bristling with gear;
Spangenhelm, chain mail and hatchets,
They thought they had nothing to fear.

But the North Sea didn’t prove easy,
They rowed until practically dead,
Till at last they spotted the Orkneys
Then got ready some Scots’ blood to shed.

They’d set out equipped to do battle,
To plunder, to pillage, despoil,
But they could not decide where to settle,
Where best to create more turmoil.

So they carried on rowing southwards
And kept their eyes skinned for a village;
For any old Saxon encampment  
With people and pastures to pillage.

Before long they came to an island
That was covered in seaweed and priests;
They decided to stop and replenish,
While the priests signalled, clear off you beasts.

At first they weren’t kind to the natives;
They took all their women and corn,
But they could not abide all the chanting
And treated the abbot with scorn.

But in time they took to the island,
Found some fair Saxons to wed;
Even started attending the chapel,
Word of their atonement soon spread.

When I think of my Norsemen forefathers
Now I don’t see foreign insurgents;
I think of them solely as tourists,
Who created a bit of disturbance.


I am indebted to the artist, Eileen Phelps, for permission to use a photograph of her embroidery, first exhibited at the Barn Arts Centre, Surrey, in 2013.

Because Eileen’s embroidery on which I based these verses is clearly light-hearted, jocular and whimsical, I have followed that approach with my verses.  I apologise to the historians of the period of British history for seemingly making light of the violence and deprivation which the Viking raids wreaked on coastal communities in and around Britain.

The Vikings first invaded Britain in AD 793 and last invaded in 1066 when William the Conqueror became King of England after the Battle of Hastings.

The first place the Vikings raided in Britain was the monastery at Lindisfarne, a small holy island located off the north-east coast of England. Some of the monks were drowned in the sea, others killed or taken away as slaves along with many treasures of the church.

Following many years of incursions by the Vikings, eventually, King Alfred of Wessex was able to confront the Viking ‘Great Army’ at Edington, in 878, when his victory enabled him to establish terms for peace, though this did not put a complete stop to Viking activity which continued on and off for several more generations.  Alfred had to concede the northern and eastern counties to the Vikings, where their disbanded armies settled, created new settlements and merged with the local populations.  Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford and Leicester became important Viking towns within The Danelaw (or ‘Scandinavian England’), while York became the capital of the Viking Kingdom of York, which extended more or less over what we now call Yorkshire.

These areas were gradually reconquered and brought back under English control by Alfred’s successors, but not before the Scandinavian influence had been locally imprinted to an extent which is still detectable today in place names as well as the DNA of many of its inhabitants.


Lindisfarne Castle


Lindisfarne Castle viewed from Lindisfarne Priory . . . Photo … WHB  – 2008

Lindisfarne is the Anglo-Saxon name of the island off the North-East coast of England which is more generally know as Holy Island, or as ‘The Holy Island of Lindisfarne’.   It is a tidal island and is cut off from the mainland twice each day.  A paved causeway connects it with the mainland for a few hours at low tide.

For many centuries the island was subject to raids from marauding Vikings.  It became an important centre of Celtic Christianity, and the saints Aidan, Cuthbert, Eadffrith and Eadberht were prominent figures in its ecclesiastical history.  It was St Aidan, coming from Iona in Scotland, who founded the first Priory on the island in the 7th Century. This became the base for the spread of Christianity throughout the North of England.  St Aidan lived on the island until he died in 651.   The famous illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels was created at the Priory during the early years of the 8th Century.

Perhaps the most prominent, if not the most significant, feature on the island is its castle, positioned on an outcrop of rock at the water’s edge.   Following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, it was built in 1550 in defence against attack by Scotland and their Spanish allies.  In the 19th Century, in private ownership, the castle was renovated by Arts and Crafts architect Edwin Lutyens, and a small but enchanting walled garden was created there by Gertrude Jekyll.

The idyllic location of the Castle has intrigued and inspired for centuries. The view from the top is truly magnificent.   The castle is now managed and maintained by the National Trust.



The Gallery below contains some of my own attempts to capture the unique nature and character of this fascinating place.   Click on any one of the images to open a slide show containing 3 of my photographs and 3 of my pen and wash sketches, all with a view of Lindisfarne Castle . . .