The Coming of the Vikings

The Danes, realising that things were not going their way, decided to return to what they considered the easier option of England and in 892AD landed their entire force, including women and children in two hundred and fifty ships in the mouth of the River Lympne in Kent, clearly intending to take and settle the land. They took their ships four miles up the river which runs through the great forest of Andreadsweald and attacked and overran a fort being erected by Alfred’s forces and as yet, only half built near Appledore. Shortly afterwards, another force of eighty ships, led by Haesten, arrived at the mouth of the Thames and built himself a fort at Milton.

Notwithstanding the treaties and oaths given by the Danes in Northumbria and East Anglia not to enter Alfred’s territory, frequent raids were made by the them and the newcomers soon joined in, sometimes by themselves and sometimes with the aid of the occupiers of the Danelaw. Alfred again gathered his forces and moved to a position to watch the two groups in Milton and Appledore, rotating his troops so that half his men were at home and half on duty with the Fyrd. Despite these measures the Danes did make a number of sorties into the surrounding area and in 893AD, started north to meet up with a Danish ship force in Essex.

Alfred’s force pursued them and halted them at Farnham with the Danes being put to flight and losing much of their plunder. They fled across the Thames, then up the Colne onto an island where they were besieged by their pursuers. Alfred’s army were by now short of provisions and much of the force had done their term of service. They lifted the siege and began the long march home, not knowing that Alfred was on his way to join the fight with the men of the shires.

The Danes could have now made their escape, but their king was wounded and could not be moved.

The Danes in East Anglia and Northumbria raised a fleet of some one hundred ships and took the opportunity to attack Wessex while Alfred was marching east. Half the fleet raided the coast of North Devon and the other half besieged Exeter. Alfred was now in trouble, he had his enemies making two attacks in Wessex and a large enemy force still at large in Essex. The Danes on the Colne were finally able to move their leader and marched to a fort they had built at Benfleet.

Alfred marched west, but sent a force under his son Edmund the Elder and his son in law Aethelred of Mercia to face the Danish leader Haesten and his forces at Benfleet. The English put the force to flight and broke into the fort. They captured the women, children and all the plunder that had been collected there. They also captured the invader’s ships, destroying some and taking the rest to London and Rochester. Haesten’s wife and two children were brought to Alfred as hostages, but Alfred chivalrously sent them back to Haesten because one of the children was Alfred’s godson and the other Ealdorman Aethelred’s, both children having been accepted by the Saxons at the time of Haesten’s baptism.

Alfred now marched west to raise the siege of Exeter. While he was thus engaged, two other groups of raiders gathered at Shoebury and built forts there. They were joined by reinforcements from Essex and Northumbria and began raiding up the Thames estuary while another force travelled up the Severn, leaving their wives and families in the relative safety of East Anglia. Alfred’s system of regional command and fortified towns now proved its worth. The Ealdormen in charge of the region, named as Aethelred, Aethelhelm, Aethelnoth, plus the king’s thanes, gathered their forces and moved to besiege the invaders who had built themselves a fort at Buttington on the mouth of the River Wye. The Saxons laid siege to fort for many weeks until lack of food forced the defenders to attempt a break out, but the Saxon line held and they were defeated.

Those able to escape fled to their friends at Shoebury and together they marched to Chester and occupied the town behind its ruined Roman walls. The English did not attempt to besiege them but instead destroyed all available supplies in the surrounding area. The Chronicle records, “they seized all the cattle that were outside, killed the men they cut off from outside the fort and burnt the corn”.

The Danes, without food, could not stay in Chester. They moved west into North Wales, burning and plundering and gradually crossed into the Danelaw territory of Northumbria to shake off their pursuers and thence to Essex and camped on Mersea Island.

Meanwhile, the other raiders that had besieged Exeter, having been driven off by Alfred, made another landing in Sussex and ravaged northwards to Chichester. Once again Alfred’s planned mobilisation of the Fyrd and the fortifying of towns enabled the local people to rally quickly and drive the invaders out, “killing many hundreds of them and seizing some of their ships. It must have started to dawn on the Danes that their days of easy plunder were coming to an end.

In 894AD, the Danes on Mersea pulled their ships up the Thames and then some miles up the River Lea where they built a fort. In the following summer a great force described as “city dwellers and other people” composed of Fyrdmen and Shire levies attacked the Danish camp. The attack was driven off, but local troops were left to watch the fort and ensure that there was no breakout. That autumn, Alfred brought a force to the area to protect the local population as they brought in the harvest and to ensure that the Danes did not intervene.

During this time, Alfred noted a part of the river that could be blocked and thus prevent the Danes from escaping. He began the building of forts on both sides of the river, but before their completion the Danes, seeing that escape by water was impossible, broke camp and moved west to Bridgnorth where they built yet another fort. As soon as they were seen to have left, the men of London grabbed the Danish ships, taking them to London and breaking up those that were damaged.

The Danes wintered in Bridgnorth and in 896AD began to drift back to Northumbria and East Anglia. Those without family ties left for easier spoils in Frankland.

The Chronicle laments the loss of life and property over these terrible years of invasion. Many of Alfred’s senior Eoldermen and commanders were killed and much of the land wasted. Despite their losses and setbacks, the Danes were still not finished. From their bases in Northumbria and East Anglia they harassed the Wessex coast with raids. Alfred commanded the building of more ships to prevent these landings, once again using his own design being nearly twice as long as those of the invaders. They were swifter and stronger, but being correspondingly heavier, were more likely to run aground in shallower waters. This became evident later in the year when, as the Chronicle records, “six ships came to the Isle of White and did much evil there, both in Devon and all along the sea coast”.

Alfred sent nine of his new ships to fight them and found three of the invader’s ships beached in an estuary and a further three out in the open sea. The English attacked these three, killing the crews of two and the third escaping with only five crew left alive to sail her. The English ships then ran aground on the ebb tide and the Danes from the beached ships charged out across the mud and fought with them. Sixty two English and one hundred and twenty Danes died in these battles according to the Chronicle. The three beached Danish ships managed to row out to sea on the turn of the tide, but they were so damaged that two of them were “thrown up on the land” and the crews captured. They were taken to Winchester where the king commanded them to be hanged. The third ship made it back to East Anglia.

Alfred died, worn out by his years of fighting, died on the 26th of October 899 or possibly 900 AD and was buried in the Old Minster in Winchester. The cause of his death is unknown but he was thought to have suffered throughout his life from a painful and debilitating illness, possibly Chrohns Disease. He had come to the throne when the whole country was being torn apart by the savage incursions of the Northmen and had spent his reign in constant struggle with them. His aggression and tactics had won him many friends and allies throughout England as well as pacts with the Welsh kings, all of whom were now beginning to realise that the only way to defeat the invaders was by uniting against them.

His far seeing plans in creating Burghs (boroughs) for defence, his gifts of space within them in exchange for military service as witnessed in the Burghal Hidage, his regular rotation of the Fyrd, his assembling of a Legal Code based on the laws of Offa and other predecessors, his introduction of the concept of Shires and his work on the translation of Latin books into Anglo Saxon all stand testament to his wide ranging mind and leadership. His words come down through history to us when he writes of his legal codes, “I collected these together and ordered to be written many of them which our forefathers observed, those which I liked and many which I did not like I rejected with the advice of my councillors, for I dared not presume to set in writing at all many of my own, because it was unknown to me what would please those who should come after us”.

By the time of his death Alfred could call himself the first true King of England, his charters and coinage naming him as such. His body was later moved to New Minster (possibly built to receive his body) and, later still in 1100 when the monks moved to Hyde Abbey, he was again moved. In 1788 the grave was excavated during the building of a prison and his bones were scattered. However, bones found on the site in the 1860s were deemed to be his and were reburied in Hyde churchyard.

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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