793 saw the arrival of the Scandinavian Vikings to English shores. A relatively small contingent was seen disembarking on the south west coast and the local shire reeve went to greet them, thinking they were merchants. They slaughtered him and his retinue – a symbol of things to come.
The Viking Sagas tell how their full invasion of England was because Aella, King of Northumbria had killed the famous Danish king, Ragnar Lodbrok. His sons, Ivar, Ubba and Halfdan were those who lead the ‘Great Heathen Army’ (as it was known in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) across the sea to take revenge upon Northumbria and, in time, the whole of England.
Here are three key battles of the time.
1. The Battle of York
Ivar’s army landed first in East Anglia in 865 and the local East Anglians quickly sued for peace. They provided the Vikings with treasure, shelter, food and horses – on the provision that they did not lay waste the kingdom. The Vikings acquiesced: they were awaiting reinforcements. Once they arrived in the late autumn of 866, Ivar marched his forces north.
On 1 November, the Vikings routed Anglo-Saxon forces in York, which was the capital of Northumbria at that point. They had taken the defenders by surprise as it was customary for no battles to be fought in the winter, and Northumbria was in the midst of a civil war at that time. Ivar’s unconventional tactic worked and York’s defence was washed away with relative ease.
It wasn’t until the following spring that the feuding Saxon claimants to the throne of Northumbria, Osberht and Ælla (the man who had killed Ragnar), joined forces to evict the Vikings from their country.
The assault began well. Those Vikings arrayed before the city were routed and sent fleeing back behind York’s Roman walls. The Northumbrian army quickly followed, finding the ancient wall crumbling and the defences in disrepair. Tearing down the flimsy palisade, they charged into the narrow streets after Ivar’s retreating army.
The Vikings are often portrayed as fearsome and brutal in war, but rarely as intelligent tacticians. The battle of York, however, is evidence to the contrary. Any advantage that the Northumbrians had in numbers (helped by their levying of the country’s peasant labourers) was entirely negated in the narrow streets of York.
Farmers found themselves facing skilled mercenaries in single combat. The result was a bloodbath: a large percentage of the Northumbrian army was killed. Ivar’s first campaign was a success; Northumbria belonged to him. He quickly installed a puppet king, Ecgberht, to rule on his behalf.
2. The Battle of Englefield
By the end of 870 the Great Heathen Army had control of Northumbria and East Anglia. Ivar’s brother Halfdan struck out from their base in East Anglia at Wessex, seizing the town of Reading in late December 870 with relative ease and transforming it into a Viking base. From there they began to raid and plunder the rich countryside of Wessex.
Before the year’s end Halfdan and another powerful chieftain, Bagsecg, were out foraging in the countryside along the banks of the river Kennet. An advance force of Wessex’s army, lead by the Ealdorman Aethelwulf, met them in battle, taking them completely by surprise.
The battle was short and the Vikings were routed. They made two mistakes in the battle: splitting their forces and underestimating their opponent. One half of the army had assaulted the Saxons up a hill while the other had moved to strike at the advancing force.
Through a combination of surprise and fearsome resolve in the defence of their own country, the forces of Wessex destroyed the Viking forces and sent the survivors back to Reading with stories of the first decisive victory for the Saxons. It was short-lived however, and several other battles occurred in quick succession, leaving the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in something of a stalemate.
3. Alfred the Great and the Battle of Edington
In 878 Anglo-Saxon England was on the verge of annihilation. At the start of the year, the Vikings, led by Guthrum (one of many self-proclaimed Danish kings) broke previous terms of peace between him and Alfred and launched a surprise attack on Chippenham, where Alfred was staying over the winter.
Chippenham was ill equipped to deal with the surprise attack: Alfred was forced to flee from Guthrum’s forces and his army was scattered and leaderless. Alfred took refuge in the marshlands of Somerset, where he fortified his position and launched guerrilla raids against the Danish occupiers.
Hearing news of their king’s survival and courage in fighting on against the invaders, many from Wessex, lords and ordinary men alike made for the hidden islands of the Somerset marshes to join Alfred.
By the spring of 878, King Alfred had gathered a large enough force to meet Guthrum in the open field. It was a roll of the dice. Instead of earning small sections of his country back piece by piece, Alfred chose to confront the Viking leader directly. If he won, he would regain his kingdom with one victory. If he lost, it could be catastrophic.
This seminal battle was fought upon the hills by the village of Edington, namely the old iron age fort of Bratton. Guthrum chose the ground, placing himself between Alfred and Chippenham and forcing a pitched battle on his terms.
Guthrum’s main fort was arrayed within the old ramparts of the iron age fort – by then just mounds of grass covered earth, but with a ditch in front of it, it still provided a decent obstacle. Little detailed description survives of the battle, despite its fame and importance, but the monk Asser, Alfred’s biographer and adviser, wrote that:
‘[Alfred] moved his forces and came to a place called Edington, and fighting fiercely with a compact shield wall against the entire Viking army, he persevered resolutely for a long time; at length he gained victory through God’s will.’
The way open battles were fought at this time was two walls of shields pressed against each other – the sheer weight of the opposing forces crushing those at the centre together. It would have been bloody and brutal, with huge numbers of both sides injured or dead.
In the end Guthrum chose to flee and fight another day. As he left the battle the Viking shield wall crumbled and,
‘Alfred destroyed the Vikings with great slaughter, and pursued those who fled as far as the stronghold, hacking them down.’
With one battle Alfred had won back his kingdom; more importantly however, he had shown that the Vikings were not unbeatable. The reclamation of Wessex began a series of events that would end in Alfred’s descendants becoming rulers of a united England. But there were still many battles to come.