On the 8th of June 793 AD, Vikings attacked the monastery at Lindisfarne, a small island off the coast of Northumbria. The scale and the nature of the attack shocked the world. Monks were put to the sword, precious religious artefacts were stolen, and the church’s shrine of St Cuthbert was defiled. This event would kick-start what is now known as the Viking age.
The raids continued up till the 11th century. The Anglo-Saxons who lived here tried paying them to leave or gave them horses. Sometimes this worked, often it didn’t. The Vikings wanted more than just to raid and steal away with treasure. They wanted to settle in this land that was much more hospitable than their own.
The Vikings, also known as Norsemen, came from Scandinavia – where Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are today. They travelled over the sea in longships - long, narrow wooden boats that could be sailed in both deep and shallow water. These ships were light enough to carry across land. They had a sail and a mast but also oars for rowing in case the wind disappeared. These boats had one oar at the back of the ship to steer them by. At the front of the ship – the prow – there was often a skilfully carved dragon or snake head to make people fearful.
They left their homeland looking for better places to farm and live. They first attacked Britain in 787 AD. A group of Vikings attacked the Isle of Portland in Dorset but then went back to their homes. The attack on Lindisfarne was the invasion that marked the start of the era when the Vikings began to settle in England.
Fighting and skirmishes continued for many years. In 878 AD, King Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings in battle and had them sign a treaty. This gave them a section of land called the Danelaw and the Vikings were to remain within it. Danelaw became smaller as the Anglo-Saxons took more and more control. Eventually, the Vikings in England agreed to be ruled by the king of England rather than having their own king. But that didn’t mean that the King of England couldn’t be a Viking! The first Viking King of England was King Canute from 1016 to 1035 AD.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that in 895 AD some Vikings built a fortress by the River Lea at a point about twenty miles north of London. There was fighting between Anglo-Saxon forces and the Vikings. King Alfred himself arrived at harvesttime and camped near the Viking fortress to prevent the Vikings from stopping the locals from reaping their corn. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles also tell us that after this King Alfred rode up the River Lea to see where the river could be obstructed to block in the Viking ships. The Chronicles confirm that the river was indeed obstructed and that King Alfred started to build a fortification on either side of the river. The Vikings realised they were being trapped and abandoned their ships. They fled overland all the way to Bridgnorth on the River Severn in what is now Shropshire.
We don’t know if the Vikings actually came to Birmingham – there is no evidence left behind. However, we do know that they passed nearby on their travels to Bridgnorth. Their route very likely took them along Watling Street, the modern A5 which passes through Fazeley near Tamworth.
In 1066 AD, William the Conqueror fought and won a major battle at Hastings. The English King Harold was defeated, as were the Vikings. The Normans ruled. And the Viking Age was over.
Orak the wyrm - the tale
The big square sail, woven from wool, billowed ahead of the wind that drove the longship across the open sea. The choppy waves crested over the boat dripping cold water onto the men below. A man stood firmly at the back of the longship, his sealskin tunic protecting him from the worst of the weather. He battled to hold the steering oar in place, keeping the longship heading towards the Saxon shores.
At last, they neared land. Watchers on the shore fled the shingled beach as they saw the carved figurehead leading the way. The curving neck topped with a dragon snake’s head, mouth open, sharp teeth exposed, could only mean one thing – Vikings.
Orak’s lengthy scaly body coiled around the longship. If the Vikings aboard had noticed his presence, they did not comment. Orak the wyrm had remained still, harmless, with only the occasional puff of fire, throughout the treacherous voyage. Actually, Orak for once had no thoughts of hurting anyone, nor eating them. He was at last on an adventure. He had often watched the boats head out to sea, replicas of his kind proudly leading the way. He longed to go with them, to brave the towering waves, to feel the thrill of racing through the water, to do more than slither on his belly on the ground.
Vikings were fearsome warriors, intrepid travellers, exploring new territories and taking by force what they needed. In truth, they had little option. The cold northern lands from where they originated were harsh and unforgiving. Wresting food from the land was hard, survival itself was precarious. There were easier places to find the supplies that enabled them to thrive, and later, to take the land as their home.
The powerful oar at the back turned the Viking boat, the men using the banks of oars on either side to cruise along the coast till they found the wide mouth of a river. Straining against the river water racing towards the sea, they made their way inland. At last, they stopped, having found a place where they decided they wanted to stay, about twenty miles north of London, on the River Lea, or River Lygan to give it its Saxon name. More Vikings in their longships joined them. They cleared the area of the local people, and built a fortress for protection.
Of course, the people who had lived there were not pleased. Neither was their king. King Alfred himself rode up the river to see if he could create an obstruction to block in the Viking ships, rendering them useless. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record that King Alfred’s plan proved successful. The Vikings abandoned their ships and fled overland. They set out on a long march, heading for Bridgnorth on the River Severn.
Orak was dismayed. The precious boats had been left behind. These valiant men of the sea huh were now walking, carrying their belongings on their backs. And Orak was once again forced to slither on his belly through the grass and mud. He followed the Viking warriors, who ignored him, or at least they tried to. But it was difficult to ignore a wyrm the size of Orak. He may have had no legs and no wings but he was still a fearsome sight, blowing streaks of flame and steam to express his discontent. And of course, no one knew if they would be his next meal.
Marching through a barren countryside does not have the appeal of combatting the towering waves of the sea, nor even gliding on the wide smooth waters of a languid river. Not for fighting Vikings, and definitely not for Orak the Wyrm.
He gradually fell further and further behind, losing interest in the men in front of him, and paying more attention to the countryside around him. It was much greener than the icy north he had left behind. Actually, it was quite nice, the sun warming his scaly coils in a surprisingly pleasant way. He parted company with the Vikings somewhere around Tamworth. They carried on no doubt with a huge sigh of relief. They did not stop to find out what had happened to him.
Wyrms live a long, long life, especially if they are not challenged by great warriors hoping to build a name for themselves. The Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons were too busy making names fighting each other to go looking for glory from a fight with a wyrm.
Orak explored his new kingdom at his leisure. He slithered far and wide. He still does this now, carefully staying away from prying eyes. He even visits this reservoir from time to time to gaze at the boats on the sun-glittered water. There is little evidence of his visits apart from the marks he leaves in the mud when it’s wet and in the long grass of the meadows. These marks look suspiciously like tyre tracks. Do not be deceived. Tread carefully when you see them. Be warned, stay away from the cover of bushes where Orak lies. He may be hungry.