God Deliver Us from the Wild Northmen!

This was a prayer added to the church litany during the so-called “Dark Ages” as Viking marauders raided monasteries and farmsteads along the coasts of England in the 800s and 900s CE.  In 834, Londoners witnessed Danish longboats heading up the Thames. These were pirates, looking for booty. But by 1003 CE, the Vikings were no longer just plundering, the Scandanavian hard men now fancied their chances at ruling the place.

King Swein of the Danes marched through southern England and headed for London. Unable to breach the old Roman walls, he camped his forces in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames. The only way to cross the river and access the city was via London Bridge, the city’s one bridge up until the eighteenth century. The bridge Swein encountered had been built in 994 and was made up of wooden planks, roughly hewn.

King Olaf
King Olaf – pulled down London Bridge

The Saxons, who had been ruling England more or less since the Romans had departed, now mustered an army under Ethelred the Unready and his ally, King Olaf of Norway. For some reason, the Norwegians had fallen out with the Danes! They rushed Southwark but were repulsed with some loss of life. They then decided to oust the Danes from the bridge where they were encroaching.

Olaf took his boats and – according to a later Icelandic chronicle – protected them with wicker shields from stones being rained down by Danes on the bridge. Unfortunately, the stones were hurled with enough force from above to kill many men and damage the boats. But, Olaf’s forces slowly managed to get through the attach ropes to the piles of the bridge. They’d calculated correctly on the tides and the boats were able to pull the bridge’s foundations away with the whole structure crashing into the water.

As the Icelandic chronicler put it in praise of Olaf:

And thou hast overthrown their bridges, O thou Storm of the sons of Odin! Skilful and foremost in battle!

Olaf went on to be canonised as a saint for his role in Christianising Norway (though some historians dispute his importance in this regard). There is still a Saint Olaf’s church in the City of London that dates back to those far off times.

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