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, shedding the first drops of blood in a tide that would follow.
The Viking Sagas tell of how the full invasion of England by the Vikings was a result of the Northumbrian King, Aella, killing 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 Aglo-Saxon Chronicles, across the sea to take revenge upon Northumbria and, in time, the whole of England.
Here are three of the key battles of the time. They are three amongst many hundred of skirmishes and other battles of the time, but each has its own importance in the story of England’s making.
1. The Battle of York
Landing first in East Anglia in 865 AD Ivar’s army was quickly sued for peace by the East Anglians, given treasure, shelter, food and horses in return for not attacking. This suited the Scandinavian forces as they awaited more ships from north and east, until, in late autumn of 866 AD, Ivar marched his forces north. On All Saint’s Day, 1 November the Vikings completely routed the town of York. They were unsuspecting as no forces joined battle in the winter months. Ivar’s tactic worked and whatever defence that was stationed there 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 ancient Roman walls. The Northumbrian army quickly followed and found the 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. 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. The Northmen set out defences there and began raiding to 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 assaulted the Saxons up a hill while the other 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 houshold were housed in the winter months) and consequently captured it. 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 guerilla 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 openly in the 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, forcing a pitched battle on his terms. Guthrum’s main fort was arrayed within the old ramparts of the iron age fort, just mounds of grass covered earth, but still an obstacle for an armoured man to clamber up, and before it a ditch. There is little detailed description of the battle, despite its fame and importance, but the monk Asser, Alfred’s biographer and advisor wrote that:
‘[Alfred] moved his forces and came to a place called Edington, and fighting fiercly 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.’
What this does tell us is 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 would 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 and showed that the Vikings could be beaten. The reclamation of Wessex began a series of events for the lineage of Alfred that would see them become rulers of a united England, but there were still many battles to come.