793 AD saw the first coming 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 Lothbrook. His sons, Ivar, Ubba and Halfdan were those who lead the ‘Great Heathen Army’, as it was called 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 AD and the local East Anglians quickly sued for peace. They provided them with treasure, shelter, food and horses – so long as the Vikings did not lay waste the kingdom. This suited the Scandinavian forces while they awaited reinforcements. Then in late autumn of 866 AD, Ivar marched his forces north.
On All Saint’s Day, 1 November the Vikings routed the Northumbrian forces in York. They had taken the defenders by surprise as it was custom that no forces joined battle in the winter months. Ivar’s unconventional tactic worked and York’s defence was washed away.
It wasn’t until the following spring that the feuding Saxon claimants to the throne of Northumbria, Osberht and Aella (the man who had killed Ragnar), joined forces to evict the Northmen 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, due to their levying of the country’s peasant labourers, was entirely negated in the tight streets of York. Here numbers would count for nothing.
Farmers found themselves facing skilled mercenaries in single combat. The result was a bloodbath. Almost the whole of the Northumbrian army was killed and the few that escaped would have no stomach for future battle with the warriors of the North. Ivar’s first campaign was a success; Northumbria belonged to him.
2. The Vikings target Wessex
At the end of 870 the Great Heathen Army had control of Northumbria and East Anglia. Ivar had taken a force to Ireland while his brother Halfdan remained, with a large portion of the army in England. He struck out from their base in East Anglia at Wessex, seizing the town of Reading with relative ease and transforming it into a Viking base. From there they began to raid and plunder the rich countryside of Wessex.
A Saxon victory
Before the year’s end Halfdan and another powerful chieftain, Bagsecg, were out raiding 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 band slaying both Halfdan and Bagsecg, two very important men within the army, and sending the survivors back to Reading with stories of the first decisive victory for the Saxons.
3. The loss of a kingdom
In 878 AD Saxon England was on the verge of annihilation. At the opening of that year Vikings, lead 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 and his household were housed in the winter months). Chippenham consequently fell.
The army of Wessex was scattered and leaderless as Alfred was forced to flee from Guthrum’s forces. He took refuge in the marshlands of Somerset where he, his wife and children, some of his household and a few retainers, fortified their 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.
Alfred the Great
By the spring of 878 AD King Alfred had gathered a large enough force to meet Guthred in the open field. It was a roll of the dice. Instead of earning small sections of his country back piece by piece, Alfred the Great chose to confront the Viking leader directly. If he lost, England, as it was, would be gone – replaced by a Daneland in the annals of history. But if he won, he would regain his kingdom with one victory.
The Battle of Edington – a grim ordeal
The 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 still an obstacle for an armoured man to clamber up. Before the fort there was also a ditch. 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.’
This tells us that Alfred assaulted the fort and that the battle was lengthy. 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.
Where they met men screamed face to face and stabbed at exposed feet, groins, limbs and faces in a bloody heaving mess until one side or the other were killed or gave up. This is the scene that unfolded upon the hills above Edington, a grim ordeal for all involved. Many hundreds, possibly thousands, must have died.
The Vikings break
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 (Chippenham), 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.