Viking Warfare II

917 - Battle of Tempsford



Vikings are rarely recorded besieging mere forts: at the unidentified site of Wigingamere in south-eastern England a large Danish army attacked ‘long into the day’ in the critical year of 917, but gave up when it met with stiff resistance. Quite the opposite occurred at defended towns that were full of loot, for Vikings were capable of mounting and maintaining prolonged sieges. An early example is Bordeaux, beginning in 847. In the following year the besiegers were beaten off by Charles the Bald’s forces, but subsequently, possibly by means of a night attack, the Vikings broke through the defences and ravaged and burnt the town. Their persistence had been rewarded. Danes made elaborate preparations for a siege of London in 1016, digging a large ditch parallel to the southern bank of the Thames and dragging their ships upstream of the bridge. The town on the northern bank was then surrounded by another ditch, with the result that no one could get in or out. Time and again towns in Western Europe were targeted. Their usual fate was to be subjected to plundering and burning, like Bonn and Cologne in 881; occasionally they were captured and taken over for lengthy periods, as happened to York in 866 and London five years later. Viking siege techniques were probably similar to those of their contemporaries: exotic strategems, such as Harald Haardrada’s supposed use of small birds fitted with burning shavings of fir tied to their backs, whereby to set fire to a Sicilian town, belong firmly to a saga writer’s imagination. In due course Vikings built defences for their own urban creations, as at Birka and Hedeby in the homelands, or at Dublin in Ireland. The two Scandinavian ones were abandoned during the Viking Age itself and their mid-tenth-century ramparts can be traced in their entirety. At Dublin, on the other hand, the fortifications have been only partially revealed by archaeological excavations, notably at Wood Quay. There the sequence consisted essentially of earthen banks, reinforced by timber, dated c.950 and c.1000, culminating in a stone wall of c.1100.

Viking attacks of all kinds were heavily dependent for their success on Scandinavian mastery of shipbuilding and navigation. Ships conveyed not only warriors and sometimes horses, but also that element of surprise which has always been decisive in military history. The bewildering mobility of Vikings that so struck contemporaries owed much to their ships. That mobility was demonstrated spectacularly in 859–60, when Danes sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and up the Rhône as far north as Valence, before retreating to an island base and then setting off for Italy where they attacked Pisa and other towns. In 1005, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ruefully remarks, the Danish fleet left England for home, yet ‘let little time elapse before it came back’. Scandinavians in the Viking Age deployed many types of ship, as the extensive vocabulary in Old Norse implies, but the classic warship of the first half of the period is probably still best represented by the one discovered at Gokstad, in southern Norway, in 1880. With its sixteen pairs of oars it would have had a crew of about 35 men. This ship was built in the last years of the ninth century, at precisely the time when King Alfred was experimenting with ‘longships’ that were roughly twice as big as those of the Danes and equipped with 60 or more oars. These details from a Norwegian ship-burial and from an English text are in perfect accord. Later ships were probably bigger, like that which Earl Godwin gave to King Harthacnut in 1040 and which was manned by 80 warriors. In an incident off the north-east coast of Ireland in 986 the crewmen of three Danish ships were captured; 140 of them were executed and the rest were sold into slavery, implying a complement for each ship of at least 60 and possibly more. Ships of both types were deployed on the open sea and along the greater rivers: in 844, for example, Vikings sailed up the Garonne as far as Toulouse. In more confined spaces their crews took to the oars, as on the Lympne in Kent in 892 and on the Lea north of London two years later.

By the twelfth century there was an obligation on the inhabitants of coastal districts in the Scandinavian homelands to build and man ships for both defensive and offensive purposes. This obligation, known as leidang (lei∂angr), is probably to be interpreted as an expression of growing royal power, along with other developments such as the foundation of bishoprics, the protection of townspeople, and the minting of coins. The antiquity of this system of naval military service is highly uncertain, again for lack of contemporary evidence. Warships were sophisticated in their construction and required carefully selected timber that had to be transported, materials such as rivets, ropes, and sail-cloth, and skilled craftsmen. In one English reference we have a precise indication of the average cost of building a warship—£345 5s. In terms of late Anglo-Saxon notional prices, this was the equivalent of over 4,000 cows. Since a typical Norwegian farmer may have had only a dozen or so, Scandinavian warlords would have disposed of considerable tributary resources in order to assemble a fleet of any size. Social mechanisms of military obligation must be presumed to have lain in the realm of customary dues, which were incurred by the war-band itself when fleets operated abroad. This we can deduce from allusions to ship repairs and even ship construction in Western European sources. In June 866, for example, a group of Vikings moved from their island base near the monastery of St-Denis and sailed down the Seine until they reached a suitable place for both purposes, as well as to take delivery of tribute from the local Frankish population. Four years earlier Weland’s warriors had chosen Jumièges on the same river in order to repair their ships and to await the spring equinox, before making for the open sea.

Memorial stone from Smiss, Gotland, showing a ship full of Viking warriors. Though crudely represented, visible features of the vessel include ornamented stem- and stern-posts, the steering oar to starboard, the mast and supporting stays, and the interwoven sail-cloth. The crewmen wear conical helmets and carry shields. The upper panel depicts two men in single combat.

There has been much debate among scholars about the size of Viking fleets. Contemporary written records offer two types of figure. One is small, precise, and usually associated with circumstantial details. Thus a mere six crews inflicted severe damage on the Isle of Wight in 896, while seven ravaged Southampton and killed or captured most of the inhabitants in 980. The other type of figure is much bigger and normally a round number, suggestive of an estimate. The more conservative of these figures are perfectly credible: the Norwegian fleet that menaced eastern Ireland in 837 in two equal halves clearly heralded a change of policy and the 67 shiploads of warriors who sacked Nantes six years later may have been part of it. Large fleets needed correspondingly large resources: a Danish one based on the Isle of Wight in 998 was exploiting Hampshire and Sussex for its food supply. Sea battles may be distinguished in the same way. Most were probably small-scale skirmishes of the kind that we hear about in Alfred’s reign, as in 882 when the opposition consisted of four ships’ crews, two of which were killed and the others captured. Land-based chroniclers have little to say about major naval battles fought among the Scandinavians themselves. In 852 a Norwegian fleet of 160 ships was attacked by Danish Vikings off the Irish coast over the space of three days and nights, whilst in 914 a ‘naval battle’ (bellum navale) was fought between the rival grandsons of former kings of Dublin. Two large-scale naval battles in Scandinavia had important political consequences for Norway: at Hafrsfjord, near Stavanger, Harald Finehair defeated a coalition of rival warlords c.870, and at Svold, in the Baltic Sea, Olaf Tryggvason lost his life in a contest with his Danish contemporary, Sven Forkbeard, in the year 1000.

Of greater importance than the role of the Viking ship as a mobile platform for conventional fighting was its utility as a mode of conveyance. As we are informed in 1003, ‘Sven went back to the sea, where he knew his ships were’. Armies campaigning among hostile populations depended on their ships as a means of departure as much as they did for their arrival. Their opponents would naturally endeavour to deny them access: only those raiders who could swim out to their waiting ships were able to escape from English pursuers in north Devon and Somerset in 914. In 855 and again in 865 Vikings based on the Loire tried to reach Poitiers about 75 kilometres away on foot, on the first occasion unsuccessfully. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle cites the distance that loot and provisions were carried back to the coast in 1006—over 50 miles—the Danes taunting the inhabitants of Winchester as they marched past their gate. On big Continental waterways the progress of a Viking fleet could serve as an advance warning to the local people, as in 853 when relics and treasures were removed to safety from Tours. Such predictions were less possible further away from the main rivers: six years later the townspeople of Noyon were subjected to a night-time attack by Vikings based on the Seine, at least 85 kilometres to the south-west, and the bishop and other noblemen were taken captive. Fleets sometimes lent support to land-based forces by co-ordinating their movements: this happened along the south coast of England late in 876 as the Danish great army proceeded overland from Wareham to Exeter, though a substantial number of these ships were lost in a storm off Swanage. But the essential role of the ship was to facilitate raiding and profit-taking. The Fulda annalist wrote sorrowfully in 854 about Vikings ‘who for twenty years continuously had cruelly afflicted with fire and slaughter and pillage those places on the borders of Francia which were accessible by ship’.

That military activity shaded off imperceptibly into economic activity was characteristic of the Viking Age. The classic early nineteenth-century view of warfare enunciated by Carl von Clausewitz is that it amounts to a continuation of political intercourse with the admixture of different means; in the case of the Vikings we might see warfare as often as not as a form of economic intercourse. In the autumn of 865, for example, Vikings took over the great monastery north of Paris at St-Denis and spent about twenty days stripping it of movable wealth, carrying booty to their ships each day before returning to base-camp not far away. A similar operation by Dublin Vikings at Clonmacnoise on the Shannon in 936 required only a two-night stopover. In cases such as these, there was no overt political agenda; the motive was easy profit and most of the loot from Britain and Ireland that has been discovered in western Norway in particular must have originated in this way, the beneficiaries including womenfolk whose grave-goods betray the piratical inclinations of their menfolk. Stolen goods could find a ready market elsewhere, as when Danish raiders in Kent in 1048 subsequently made for Flanders where they sold what they had stolen and then went back home. One plundering tactic, therefore, was simply for Viking raiders to turn up, in the words of the Annals of St-Bertin, ‘with their usual surprise attack’. For Christian communities major church festivals were a time of danger: in 929 Kildare was raided from Dublin on St Brigid’s Day, when the place would have been full of pilgrims; in 986 Iona was attacked by Danes on Christmas night, when the community was preoccupied with its devotions. Another tactic was more complex—to threaten destructive violence with a view to exacting tribute. Vikings engaged in this process in the west Frankish kingdom in 866 had come equipped not only with weapons, but also with their own balance-scales for weighing the 4,000 pounds of silver.

The profits of Viking warfare assumed several different forms. Most basic were food and drink, for such provisions enabled warriors to continue to pursue their warlike activities. In 864, for instance, Rodulf Haraldsson and his men received as tribute not only cash, but also flour, livestock, wine, and cider. In Ireland cattle on the hoof were the standard tribute among the native population and Vikings took advantage of this tradition as early as 798. Norwegians, on the other hand, were accustomed to exploiting their own seas for large creatures, which accounts for ‘a great slaughter of porpoises’ by them off the east coast of Ireland in 828. A second form of profit was human beings. High-status people would be ransomed whenever possible; low-status people and others for whom payment was not forthcoming would be retained or sold as slaves. A spectacular ransom was paid in 858 for Abbot Louis of St-Denis and his brother, Gauzlin: 686 pounds of gold and 3,250 pounds of silver. The upcountry bishop of Archenfield, on the Anglo-Welsh border, was delivered at a cost of £40 donated by the West Saxon king in 914. The alternative was death, as in the case of Archbishop Ælfheah of Canterbury who was brutally murdered in 1012 when payment of the Danes’ demand for £3,000 was not forthcoming. A third form of profit was land on which to settle. The entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 896 may imply that Vikings might purchase property, but land must often have been obtained by force of arms. Large-scale political takeovers would have facilitated the acquisition of farmland, as in Northumbria (866–7), East Anglia (869–70), and Mercia (873–4), all of which were to receive Danish settlers in due course. Even earlier, land-taking had occurred in the Scottish Isles and the kingdom of Dublin had been established c.853. Accordingly food and drink, bullion and cash, land and labour were among the considerable profits of Viking warfare.

In effect Vikings were competing among themselves, and with the natives of the countries in which they raided, traded, and settled, for wealth. Amid all the aristocratic and dynastic competition of the Viking Age, the greatest prize was the kingdom of England, which was won initially by the West Saxons in 910–27, by the Danes in 1013–16, and by the Normans in 1066–71. A final Danish challenge failed to materialize in 1085–6. Behind the aggression, brutality, and destructiveness, there was calculating rationality. From our own distant perspective, filtered through external sources for the most part, it has become fashionable to portray Vikings as catalysts of economic and political change. By dishoarding monastic treasuries, wealth was released for more productive purposes, even though some of it was simply rehoarded in Scandinavia. There is an element of truth in this argument, but any temptation to glamorize Vikings should be resisted. Vikings divested of bear-coats, horned helmets, a predilection for blood-eagling, and devilishly ingenious siege tactics are Vikings demythologized, yet they become all the more credible as brave and resourceful fighters. As such they were celebrated by contemporary skalds and their deeds were further elaborated to the point of fictionalization by later generations of saga writers. With that in mind, the modern Icelandic author, Halldor Laxness, published a subtly satirical novel entitled Gerpla in 1956; two years afterwards this appeared in English as The Happy Warriors. According to the book’s own publicity, ‘the inescapable conclusion is that the legendary heroes were not larger than life after all; they were what would nowadays be called misfits, and a nuisance to everyone’. More than that, their historical antecedents brought untold misery, injury, and death to tens of thousands of men, women, and children. But warfare was not a Viking monopoly; Vikings were a Scandinavian manifestation of a universal scourge.

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