The Coming of the Vikings

Strangely no attempt was made to repel the invaders. They spent some months gathering supplies and horses from their defeated hosts moving north to attack York and Northumbria, reportedly seeking revenge for the death of their father Ragnar Lodbrok who had been captured by King Aelle of Northumbria in an earlier raid and thrown in to a pit of snakes. The film “The Vikings” gives a version of this event. In the Norse chronicle Ragnarsson Battr, “The story of Ragnar’s Sons” it is said that the invaders had sworn to subject Aelle to the Blood Eagle, a particularly nasty death which entails breaking the victim’s ribs, separating the lungs and pulling them out of his back spread like wings. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle states however, that in the forthcoming battle, “both kings were slain on the spot” Aelle, thought to be an Irish prince, had usurped both the throne and the wife of the Northumbriam King Osberht who had been deposed by his Eoldermen, but when both men learned of the Viking invasion, they joined forces and marched to York which had been captured by the invaders on 21st November 866AD.

The Histora Regia Angloram records the battle that ensued on the 21st of March, “they fought upon each side with much ferocity and both kings fell. The rest who escaped made peace with the Danes”. Later accounts claim that Aelle was captured and sacrificed to Odin in the Blood Eagle ritual. This is referred to in a lament, written for Canute in 1035AD, which relates that, “Ivar, who ruled at Jorvik, cut an eagle on the back of Aella”. The invaders installed a puppet king called Ecgberht in Northumbria after ravaging the countryside and destroying churches, farms and towns in a great radius around York including the library and school in the city. The cultural life of the north was obliterated and the province devastated for the remainder of the century.

Matters were going no better in the south where the raiders had established a base on Thanet. They agreed a truce with the Kentish in return for money, but, as the Chronicle records, “the army stole up by night and ravaged all of eastern Kent”.

The Vikings moved south and captured Nottingham causing the Mercian king Burhred to ask for help from the Wessex king Aethelred and his brother Alfred. The Wessex force duly arrived and besieged Nottingham, but it is recorded that there was no heavy fighting and the Mercians made peace with the invaders. The invaders, led by Hingwar and the fearsome Ubba Ragnarrson, clearly being able to roam almost at will, moved next against East Anglia, robbing and destroying the churches and monasteries before being met by Edmund, king of the Anglians. He was captured and killed in the ensuing battle of Hoxne on the 20th November 869AD.

However, according to one of Edmund’s earliest biographers, the Abbe of Fleury, he was captured alive and offered the choice of death, or renouncing his Christian faith and serving as a vassal king under the heathens. This version was gleaned from St Dunstan, who reportedly heard it from Edmund’s own sword bearer. The Abbe wrote, “The heathens then became brutally angry because of his beliefs and because he called Christ himself to help. They shot then with missiles as if to amuse themselves until he was all covered as with bristles on a hedgehog. Then Hingwar the dishonourable Viking saw that the noble king did not renounce Christ.  Hingwar then commanded to behead the king and the heathens thus did”. Thus dying a martyr for his faith, Edmund is now venerated as a saint. His body lies in Bury St Edmund’s.

In the north, Olaf the White, “the greatest warrior king of the western seas”, sailed from Dublin and mounted a campaign in Scotland, “and plundered all the territories of the Picts”. In 870AD, Ivar joined him in a siege of the fortified Alt Cluith, the stronghold of the northern Britons. The fortress held out for four months until the wells ran dry, following which, it was plundered and then destroyed.    

In the south the Vikings reached Reading and were met by a force led by two Wessex Eoldermen, Aethelwulf and Sidrac. The Wessex force defeated the invaders, but Sidrac and many warriors were killed. Four days later king Aethelred and Alfred arrived in Reading “with a great force”. Despite large Viking losses, the invaders won the battle. One can only imagine the pace of events during this time when after a further four days, another great battle takes place at Ashdown (old English Aescdun) in Berkshire on the 8th of January 871AD. The exact site is not known, but Compton near East Illesley is a popular contender. It is recorded that the Vikings had split their forces in two, one led by Halfdan and Basecg, described in the Chronicle as “a heathen king” and the other by led by Danish Eoldermen.  Aethelred split his own force to oppose them with Alfred facing the Eoldermen and Aethelred the two kings.

The battle lasted until it was too dark to see, but without any clear winner, but with great losses on both sides. Two weeks later the brothers again fought the invaders, this time at Basing, again without either side winning. Two months later they met at a place called Macredun where the northmen were victorious. There were a further nine skirmishes or mini battles in the year and the war might have continued but for the death of Aethelred at the Battle of Mereton on 23rd April 871AD. His son, Aethelwold, although the rightful heir, did not succeed to the throne, being considered too young at a time when the land needed a strong leader.

It was Alfred who succeeded and, following his defeat at the Battle of Wilton, finally made peace with the invaders by striking a truce and the payment of Danegeld, a bribe to save the land from being ravaged. This form of payment was not new; a similar bribe had been paid some thirty years earlier by the Franks when a Viking army was threatening to destroy Paris. It is said that six tons of silver and gold was paid by the Franks.

In 872AD, Ivor the Boneless died in a fruitless attempt to reinvade Ireland and Halfdan succeeded his brother. He moved his army north to attack the Picts in Strathclyde. The Norsemen divided Northumbria in two, keeping York for themselves and creating an area soon to be known as The Danelaw, a term which illustrates the ever increasing use of the word Dane to describe the Norse invaders and meaning where their laws held sway, effectively dividing the country in two and encompassing all of Northumbria, the Midlands and East Anglia.

The Northumbrian people were not happy with the puppet king Egbert and that summer they revolted against the invaders. The Norse king then installed one Ricsige as puppet ruler.  Halfdan then attacked Mercia, overrunning the country and forcing king Burhred into exile. The “Great Heathen Army” captured Repton and spent the winter there. As in Northumbria, he installed a puppet king, this time one Ceolwulf, described in the Chronicle as “an unwise Thane”.

One year later, Halfdan led his army north to attack the Picts and the Strathclyde Welsh, while the Vikings Guthrum, Oscetel and Anund led their forces south to Cambridge where they planned to attack Wessex.

Alfred meanwhile, had used this respite to build a small navy in an attempt to prevent Viking landings. He had them built to his own design, being larger than those of the invaders and hired Frisians, known for their seamanship, to crew them.  Guthrum moved his army to Wareham where he was joined by reinforcements arriving by sea and landing at Poole. Alfred’s army trapped the invaders and demanded hostages in return for a peaceful settlement. The Vikings swore oaths of peace on a holy ring, which, as the Chronicle says, “they had not done for any nation before” and promised to leave the kingdom quickly. Under cover of night however, they divided, one part to Exeter where they besieged the town and the other part by sea where they encountered heavy seas and the fleet, noted in the Chronicle as one hundred and twenty ships, was destroyed. It is reckoned that up to 5000 men were lost in this disaster although this figure does seem excessive. Alfred forced the surrender of the Exeter besiegers who then retreated to Gloucester.

That same year, Halfdan divided Mercian lands between his nobles who began ploughing and providing for themselves, marking the start of an Anglo Danish England and a surprisingly peaceful mingling of former enemies.

In 876AD, the invaders attacked Wareham and Alfred was once again forced to buy them off. In that year, the puppet Ricsige died and Halfdan formally establishes the Kingdom of York with himself as monarch and the Viking settlement begins. He also took part of Mercia under direct rule and decreed that Viking and Saxon subjects are to be treated equally under him.

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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