The Coming of the Vikings

Coenwulf also had more trouble brewing in East Anglia. With his attentions on the Kentish problem the East Anglians broke away from Mercian domination and, for a while, regained their independence, going so far as to issue their own coinage bearing the head of their new king  Eadwald. By 805AD however, Coenwulf had obviously retrieved the situation and his own image again appeared on the Anglian coinage.

In Northumbria, Aethelred was murdered by his own nobles and was succeeded by Osbald who only lasted twenty seven days before he was exiled. He in turn, was replaced by Eardwulf, a much tougher character.

This then was how the various mini states, increasingly being referred to as Angles or English by others, had coalesced into the three main kingdoms when the Viking raids began.  England or Angloland was a geographic term rather than a state and it was to be another hundred years before the country was united under a Wessex king. Viking raids, first in small groups of two or three ships and later with fleets more than fifty, raiding and looting coastal towns and settlements, but soon realising that much more loot was available in the churches and monasteries, causing much outrage in the land at the desecration of God’s property.

The raid on Lindisfarne was followed by further attacks on the Irish coast and the establishment of bases from which sorties could be made to Britain. They sacked the monastery of Iona in 794AD and returned to attack it again in 802AD, this time burning it to the ground.

Despite these rich pickings, the Vikings did not make any further raids on Britain for some thirty years, concentrating their efforts on Ireland and the European mainland and creating bases from which they could extend their raiding.

In 799AD, Vikings started a series of attacks on the towns of South West France and nine years later, in the east, the Viking Gudfred destroyed the Slav town of Reric, taking all the tradespeople and craftsmen from the town and forcibly removing them to Hedeby in Denmark where a major trading centre was being established. Two years later there are reports of the same Gudfred ravaging the Frisian coast. Raids increased in number and intensity throughout Ireland and Europe with Britain being spared the worst of them until 835AD when the Chronicle notes that “heathen men ravaged Sheppey” and heralds the start of further Viking raids on the island and one year later a force of thirty five longships is recorded as landing in Devon.

The Wessex king Egbert (or Ecgbyrht) fought with them at Carhampton, but was defeated “with great slaughter”. It is ironic that with the growing incursions of the Vikings, the English continued to squabble and fight among themselves instead of joining forces to repel the invaders. In 820AD, Ecgfrith fought the Mercian Ceolwulf at Cherrenhul and at Ellandun and also attacked the Celts of Cornwall, ravaging it from “east to west” in retaliation for their raiding.

The Vikings again came to Devon in 838AD, this time supported by Celtic warriors from Cornwall who were always happy to cause damage to the Saxons.

King Egbert hid his troops in thick woodland in the Teign Valley and surprised his enemies on the march “putting them to flight” Egbert is noted in the Chronicles as “Bretwalda” or ruler of Britain and it was during his reign that  the centre of power shifted from Mercia to Wessex.

By 840AD, Vikings had established Dublin as a base for raiding the west coast and northwest France, but the increasing strength of the Frankish kings made raids on England more profitable. In 851AD the Vikings again raided Devon, landing at Wembury near Plymouth. They were met by the new Wessex king Aethelwulf, son of Egbert who drove them off.

The Wessex kings were by now a very powerful dynasty. Aethelwulf wielded power over all of southern England and reckoned himself king of Wessex, Essex, Sussex, Cornwall and Kent. There followed a sea battle of the Kentish coast, where the Vikings were again defeated, this time by Aethelwulf’s son Athelstan. Further landings were made along the Thames from where raids were made throughout the south. This fleet was said to number three hundred and fifty ships. The raiders ravaged Canterbury and saw off an attack by the Mercians led by King Burhred.  They were then met by a Wessex army led by Aethelwulf and his son Aethelbald who defeated the invaders “and there made the greatest carnage of a heathen army that we ever heard of” with not even enough left alive to bury the dead.

The Britains, or English, were clearly learning the lessons of sea power and later that year Aethelstan led a sea battle against a Viking fleet and in the words of the Chronicle “destroyed a great force at Sandwich, they took nine ships and put the others to flight”. For the first time that winter, some Viking raiders did not return home as usual for the winter but stayed on in England, making camp on the Isle of Thanet.

The Vikings, however, were not having things all their own way. Their southern neighbours from Denmark now began to make an appearance, raiding both English and Viking settlements. In 851AD these “dark haired heathen”, according to the Annals, raided Ath Cliath, (the Norse name for Dublin) where the Vikings had built a fortified base and “and made a great slaughter of the fair haired foreigners and plundered the encampment”.

In 853AD, Aethelwulf, together with his son in law Burhred, King of Mercia attacked the Welsh king Cyngen Ap Cadell and made the Welsh subject to him. In the same year he gave his daughter in marriage to Burhred. A year later he travelled to Rome on pilgrimage to ask God’s help in his fight against the ever increasing raids by an enemy “so agile, numerous and profane”. His Eoldermen in Kent and Surrey fought the invaders on Thanet where the Chronicle relates that “many were killed on both sides”. Viking raids in Europe became bolder and that year Paris was attacked.

Raids continued along the south and western coast and in 855AD, the Vikings again over wintered, this time on Sheppey. Aethelwulf in a bout of religious fervour chartered a tenth of all his land to the church and to “God’s Glory”. He then travelled to Rome with his fifth son Alfred, where he lived for the next year. On his homeward journey he married Judith, the daughter of the Frankish King Charles, a move which did not please his existing family, notwithstanding that his first wife Osburga had died some years earlier, the family felt that marriage to a Frankish princess could weaken their right of succession.

His eldest son Aethelstan had died and the next eldest, Ethelbald, formed an alliance with the Ealdormen of Somerset and the Bishop of Sherborne to deny Aethelwulf’s resumption of the kingship. There was enough support for both sides and the king, fearing civil war, divided up the kingdom, giving Ethelbald the western half. In “The History of the Anglo Saxons”, Hodgkin writes, “That the king should have consented to treat with his rebellious son and to resign his rule over the more important half of the kingdom testifies to the fact that Aethelwulf’s Christian spirit did not exhaust itself in the giving of lavish charities to the church, but availed to reconcile him to the sacrifice of prestige and power in the cause of national peace”.

Aethelwulf reigned for a further two years and, on his death; the kingdom was divided between his two eldest sons. Ethelbald held Wessex and Aethelbert held Kent, Essex Surrey and Sussex. It is interesting to note that Aethelbert then married his stepmother Judith. Ethelbald only lived a further five years and, on his death, his brother received the kingdom. That year a great ship force of Vikings raided Winchester and was met in battle by Aethelbert leading an army of men from Berkshire and Hampshire who defeated the invaders and drove them off.

Aethelbert died in 865AD, his brother Ethelred became king and appointed his younger brother Alfred (later known as The Great) as his deputy. Alfred was to become the catalyst that united the Anglo Saxons against the Northmen. Things were not going entirely the Norsemen’s way however and in 866AD the Irish High King Aed Finliath succeeded in driving the Viking invaders from the north of the island.  It was this defeat that is believed to be the cause of the next phase of Viking attacks on England and Scotland as they looked for new territories to settle. Later that year a “Great Army” of Vikings, led by the ex King of Dublin, Ivor the Boneless, or Bone Loose, so called due to his extreme thinness or perhaps his being double jointed, plus his brother Halfdan, self styled King of the Danes, landed in East Anglia, not for the usual summer raids, but this time as an army of occupation.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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