The Assassin’s Creed franchise is a bit like a historical rollercoaster. They have their ups and downs, but the developer’s reverence for source material and a passion for bringing history to life keeps every outing exciting, enticing and, to an extent, educational. This year’s instalment sticks us on a time-travelling longship back to the 9th century. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla chronicles the invasion of Saxon England by the Vikings, a murky period in history known as the Dark Ages. Allow me, a completely unqualified amateur historian, to take you on a trip as we look at the historical context of AC: Valhalla.
They Came From The Sea
Imagine being a priest of early Christianity. Your life is made up of reading, worshipping and tending to your local parishioners. Life isn’t fun, but it’s better than living a life of toil as a farmer. Then one day, as you look out towards the sea, the fog lying on the surface of the water obscuring your view, you hear the sound of a horn. As if born by the fog, ships appear from the void carrying a people scary enough to strike fear into the hearts of a god-fearing populous, just before the stroke of a dagger puts that fear to rest.
It reads like a scene from a movie, but this very thing happened in 793AD when a raiding party raided the small Northumbrian island of Lindisfarne. The raid of Lindisfarne is arguably the first chronicled appearance in England of the people we now call “the Vikings”. History is imperfectly recorded and reeks of the bias of whoever wrote it; This must be understood about the Viking Age, as they never left any written evidence of their lives, beliefs and history. The people who met the brunt of the raiding and pillaging of these pirates (Viking means “to pirate”) have written their history for them.
Almost all of our imperfect knowledge of these warriors come from a document known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which retroactively documented many encounters between Dark Age England and the Vikings from the late 8th century to the 12th. Expectedly, the Vikings have been painted in an almost apocalyptic light, similar to the mysterious sea people of the Bronze-Age collapse. Thankfully, our understanding of this period in history has rounded, so let’s look at just who these Vikings were.
A Land of Ice and Fire
As the Western Roman empire’s influence receded during the 4th century AD, so too did the structures of government across Europe. Much of the continent had been under Roman rule for so long that no living person could remember a time when the SPQR (Senãtus Populusque Rõmãnus) hadn’t adorned every official building or war camp. What was left after this significant retraction of culture and power was the people of the empire who found themselves in a vacuum. Power grabs around Europe carved out kingdoms that we’d recognise today, but in the far north of Europe, things we different.
A variety of peoples inhabited the modern-day countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Their lives were mostly rural, making out a living through agriculture and fishing. As technology advanced, so did the peoples of Northern Europe. A man’s rowing power no longer limited the length of a boat journey. Combining the power of sails with oarsmen allowed longboat to move swiftly through the sea. We don’t know why these people became compiled to raid foreign lands, but there are some prevailing theories. As the population of the countries grew, it became harder to eke out a living in an agricultural manner. Unable to fend for themselves, people banded together under a chieftain, fighting for land domestically and abroad. It could also have been merely the result of news from merchants, retailing their communities of the riches found elsewhere. Regardless, these bands of people soon looked to the west for land, food and wealth.
Between 793AD and 892AD, the Vikings made several surprise attacks on the English coast, even conquering the Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney. These quick, vicious attacks focused on coastal towns and religious establishments. The Vikings were a pagan people who had no love for the monotheistic Christianity that was dominating most of Europe. Priests weren’t known for carrying weapons and monasteries often held jewels and gold, not to mention food, clothes and livestock. Without a standing army or navy, England made for ripe pickings for these enterprising Norsemen.
Prelude to an Invasion
It is here where we must diverge from the path of history into the woods of myth and legend. Written many generations after the invasion of the Vikings, the Icelandic sagas tell the tale of a warrior king called Ragnar Lodbrock whom after a misadventure was captured by the king of Northumbria (a land often targeted for Viking raids). The king had Ragnar cast into a pit of venomous snakes. So enraged were his four sons when they heard of his fate that they mustered up an army of an estimated 3,000 men (a significant fighting force for the time) and sailed for the coast of East Anglia, making landfall in 865AD.
It’s difficult to tell how much of this story is true if any. The tale of Ragnar’s untimely death was written several centuries after the Great Heathen Army invaded the British Isles. We as humans tend to romanticise the past because the truth is either too difficult or boring to come to terms with. A good tale of derring-do is always an excellent way to mask more base objectives like the acquisition of wealth and land. I expect Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla to lean rather heavily on this romantic tale of familial revenge, as it’ll make for a better story. History is often built on the pillars of fact and legend, so there’s no reason AC: Valhalla should be any different.
No game is ever 100% historically accurate. Inaccuracy has nothing to do with developers decrying authenticity or the memories of those who’ve come before; it simply wouldn’t make for a good entertainment product. The Assassin’s Creed franchise exists within that grey area, combining history, science-fiction and mythology to pad out less exciting elements of historical accuracy. AC: Valhalla will stick to these principles, though how deep they’ll probe into each facet remains unknown. After all, isn’t that where the anticipation lies? Much like history, it is the anticipation of discovery that drives the franchise.