A reasonable attempt at illustrating the larger sized English ships and therefore their crew’s advantage in battle. Alfred responded to the threat by constructing a fleet of large longboats, each of which could carry a hundred men, to meet and fight off the invaders before they landed. This navy’s first battle was against four Danish ships in the Stour Estuary in 882, but it was his victory over the invading forces in the Thames estuary and off the coast of Essex in 897 that won Alfred the epithet ‘the Great’. King Alfred is now considered to be, in a way, the founder of the Royal Navy.
A storm was brewing in the east. In 889 one of the Scandinavian armies, which had enjoyed rich pickings among the fractured Frankish kingdoms in the previous decade, came out of the Seine and, sailing up the River Vire to St Lô, was heavily defeated the following year by a Breton army. The Host now moved north and east, penetrating the River Scheldt, and encamped at Louvain on the River Dijle, a tributary of the Scheldt, 10 miles (16 km) or so east of what is now Brussels. Here it was met by an army of East Franks, Saxons and Bavarians under King Arnulf, son of the late Carloman. The Host was put to flight, its camp overrun. The gloating annalist of the monastery at Fulda recorded that the river was blocked by the bodies of dead pagans.
That winter a severe famine struck the region, ravaging Christian and pagan communities alike. The Scandinavian armies, perhaps sensing that the fates were against them, now decided that their Frankish game was no longer worth the candle. Odo, de facto king of the West Franks since 888, saw an opportunity to be rid of their menace, and gave them sufficient ships to leave. The annalist of St Vaast wrote that ‘seeing the whole realm worn down by hunger they left Francia in the autumn, and crossed the sea’. En masse, and perhaps in collusion with Northumbrian and East Anglian allies, they determined to mount a decisive assault on the Angelcynn.
A highly detailed series of entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the next three years, at precisely the time when it was first being compiled, reads like an almost continuous war narrative, fought for the highest stakes. They crossed the Channel as two fleets: warriors, dependents, animals, the lot. Two hundred and fifty ships entered the mouth of the River Lympne on the south coast of Kent. Lympne, once a Roman port, is landlocked now, its ancient hythe lying high and dry at the foot of the chalk scarp that overlooks the flat expanse of Romney marsh; the Royal Military canal, a relic of more recent invasion fears, is its only access to the sea. During the ninth century the river was sufficiently deep to enable the Viking Host to row as far up as Appledore, now some 8 miles (13 km) from the sea and lying at the east end of the Isle of Oxney whence the River Rother once issued.
At or close by Appledore the Host captured ‘a fort of primitive structure, because there was [only] a small band of rustics in it’ and made of it a winter camp. Thirty miles (48 km) to the north, across the Downs of Kent, a smaller but no less menacing fleet of about eighty ships sailed up the Thames to the Isle of Sheppey; from there they rowed along the muddy channel of the River Swale and a mile or so up Milton Creek to make their winter camp uncomfortably close to the fortress at Rochester.
Canterbury offered rich pickings, as did trading settlements at Sarre and Fordwich and minsters on Thanet and Sheppey. Kent east of the Medway had not been fortified under Ælfred’s burghal plans of the 880s and we do not know what, if any, provision the Kentish administration had made for its defences. Ealdorman Sigehelm seems to have been a loyal ally of Wessex: his daughter became the third wife of Eadweard, Ælfred’s son and presumptive heir. Archbishop Plegmund was a member of Ælfred’s ‘renaissance’ court; a close political and military relationship is implied.
Without the defensive and offensive advantages of garrisoned fortifications, Ælfred could not hope to expel such large forces; nor could he concentrate his attack on one for fear of allowing the other to penetrate west into Wessex with impunity. He had not yet, it seems, installed Eadweard, who makes his first stage entrance in the year of the invasion, as sub-king in Kent. That Eadweard was being groomed to succeed him is in no doubt. He was provided with substantial estates in his father’s will, including all Ælfred’s booklands in Kent and, judging by the frequency with which he witnessed royal charters, he spent much time with the king on his itineraries through the shires.
Ælfred’s response to the arrival of the Continental fleets, early in 893, was to bring his own army to a point more or less equidistant between the two, unsure of their ultimate intentions. He had by this time instituted radical changes in the way his forces were able to respond to external threats. His field army, the was now divided into two, so that one force was always in the field, with a contingency for those permanently on standby to garrison the burhs. The system was now to be tested to its limits.
According to the Chronicle, the Host at Appledore disdained to take the field against Ælfred’s army. Instead its scouts, mounted warriors and foraging parties probed the edges of the vast dense woodland of the Weald: Andredesweald, the haunt of wild beasts, charcoal burners and an ancient iron-working industry stretching across the Downs as far as Hampshire. It was a form of guerrilla warfare: testing, teasing. They moved ‘through the woods in gangs and bands, wherever the margin was left unguarded; and almost every day other troops, both from the levies and also from the forts, went to attack them either by day or by night’.
Only after Easter did they abandon their redoubt and their fleet at Appledore and march west; they kept to ‘the thickets of a huge wood called Andred by the common people, spread as far as Wessex [Occidentales Anglos’. and gradually wasted the adjacent provinces, that is Hamtunscire and Bearrucscire’ and After this campaign of plundering with no attempt, it seems, at conquest, during which they were apparently shadowed but not engaged in open battle, they ‘seized much plunder, and wished to carry that north across the Thames into Essex to meet the ships’.
Sometime during the early summer of 893 they were brought to battle at Farnham ( Fearnhamme: ‘River meadow where ferns grow’) on the River Wey in Surrey. The Chronicle is silent regarding the names of the commanders, but Æðelweard, writing a hundred years later and drawing on material from a lost version of the Chronicle, names the West Saxon leader as Eadweard, the king’s son. Eadweard’s forces inflicted a heavy defeat on the Host, injuring its leader and retrieving all the booty that had been taken during the rampage across Sussex. The mycel here was driven north over the Thames somewhere near Staines, apparently in such disarray that they did not even manage to find a ford. One imagines the pell mell chaos of a rout: baggage, weapons, loot and even armour cast aside; panic, slaughter on the river banks and bodies floating downstream.
The survivors followed the course of the River Colne as far upstream as the island called Thorney (on the north-west periphery of the Heathrow Airport complex, now swallowed by a motorway interchange) and, their commander too ill to flee further, found themselves besieged by Eadweard.
At the point of victory the momentum was lost: according to the Chronicle the levies, coming to the end of their deployment, ran out of provisions and left for home. Æðelweard says that the ‘barbarians’ asked for peace and that the West Saxons negotiated their withdrawal with an exchange of hostages; the Host retired not to Kent, but to East Anglia. But these accounts pose more questions than they answer. After Eadweard’s brief appearance at Farnham and Thorney his role in the war of 893-894 is obscure. Was he written out of the official Ælfredan narrative to ensure that the king stood alone as hero? Or was his inability to keep his levies in the field regarded as a failure of leadership or loyalty? Who were these levies: his own retinue, certainly, and also those of the shires which had been ravaged by the Host, perhaps: Hampshire and Berkshire? But it is an intriguing possibility that, in preparation for his installation as sub-king of Kent, which may have happened in about 898, Eadweard was already in command of the Kentish levies; that they regarded themselves as having gone far beyond the traditional call of duty in chasing the Appledore Host across the southern shires and then beyond the Thames. And then, Æðelweard says that while Eadweard was still at Thorney, his brother-in-law Æðelred, ealdorman and sub-king of Mercia, came from London to his aid. If so, why lift the siege? Despite the contemporaneity of the Chronicle and the value of Æðelweard’s insider information at court, it seems that either the complexities of the 893 campaign were such that no coherent account could be constructed; or, if one wants to detect political undercurrents, the West Saxon spin doctors were already at work to contrive an official account that would cover unsightly stains and keep the narrative focused on Ælfred.
Ælfred’s policy had always been to bargain straight and trust the enemy’s sense of decency: it seems extraordinarily naive. Time and again the Scandinavian armies accepted Ælfred’s terms and defaulted, as they had so often in Francia. Given the otherwise sophisticated strategies displayed during the Viking wars, one must surmise that the underlying rationale of the Angelcynn leadership was always to buy time and limit its own casualties. There is a fine line between appeasement and low cunning.
The West Saxon and Mercian leadership now anticipated fighting wars on multiple fronts. Their principal fear was probably not either Host in isolation but that the two forces should combine and that the slumbering giants of East Anglia, Danish East Mercia and Northumbria might join in. While Eadweard had expelled the Appledore Host from Wessex, Ælfred seems to have concentrated diplomatic efforts on persuading the force under Hæsten, in the Thames estuary, to cross the Thames to Essex. If this war band leader is to be identified with the Viking raider whose name appears periodically like a rash in Continental sources spanning half a century, then the Angelcynn had good reason to fear him. He is implicated in a notorious series of raids deep into the Mediterranean in the years 859-862, with campaigns along the Loire at the end of that decade and into the 870s. Later tradition has embellished his feats and cruelties; even so, he seems to have been an unusually successful and energetic warlord over several decades. Whatever the truth, his career took him to the mouth of the Thames in 893.
In the uncertain political aftermath of Guðrum’s death, Ælfred and Æðelred may have hoped that Hæsten would compete for the East Anglian kingship, killing two birds with one stone. We gather, from events later in 893, that while the Host lay at Milton Regis, Hæsten and his family received baptism. At least, the Chronicle records that his two sons were godchildren of, respectively, Ælfred and Æðelred. No such ceremony is likely to have been conducted without a peace deal ensuring that the Deniscan would leave Wessex alone; they had, it seems, been paid off. Given that Æðelred is recorded as co-sponsor, we might reasonably argue that the venue for both negotiation and ceremony was London, the timeshare capital for Mercia and Wessex and symbol of their alliance.
Hæsten’s fleet duly crossed the estuary and built a fortress in Essex, at Benfleet (Beamfleote: ‘Tree creek’) overlooking the edge of the marshes to the north of Canvey Island, even as their comrades were fighting their way out of trouble across the Upper Thames. Here the remnants of the Appledore Host also arrived that summer and the two forces now combined. The Angelcynn had bought time in exchange for future trouble; and they are unlikely to have anticipated the grim news coming from the West Country. A Northumbrian fleet had sailed south from a port somewhere on the Irish Sea†† and landed on the north Devonshire coast, while an East Anglian fleet, sailing along the south coast, now besieged Exeter.
This turn of events in the west looks like a co-ordinated plan to draw West Saxon forces away from the east and open up a second front. Hæsten, it appears, had successfully enrolled both the East Anglians (Guðrum’s veterans of the campaign of 877-878, perhaps) and those of Guðroðr, the nominally Christian king of Scandinavian York, in his plan to finish what the mycel here had begun in the 860s. If the community of St Cuthbert recorded their reaction to their adopted king’s involvement, it has not survived.
Ælfred’s reaction was to march westwards with the bulk of the West Saxon levies, leaving Eadweard and Æðelred‡‡ behind to confront Hæsten and the, by now, combined forces from Milton and Appledore at Benfleet. They marched east through London, picking up extra forces as they went. When they arrived at Benfleet they found a part of the combined Host in residence; but Hæsten was away on a raiding expedition in Mercia. In a stunning coup, the English put the Host to flight, stormed the fort and took possession of everything inside, including Hæsten’s wife and children. The ships of their considerable fleet were burned, sunk or otherwise taken to Rochester or London. For good or ill the Host could not now retire to the Continent whence they had come.
The Chronicle makes much of the victory at Benfleet and of Ælfred’s magnanimous treatment of Hæsten’s family, restoring them to the warlord in a one-sided gesture of good faith; but Æðelweard ignores the Benfleet episode entirely and, given that the Host was able to take to the field again very shortly, and in dangerous numbers, we may judge that the bulk of its fighting force had been absent with their commander, leaving behind only a small garrison and the baggage train in his new fort. The victory at Benfleet had not, perhaps, been all that glorious.
Far to the west, the East Anglian and Northumbrian forces retired to their ships on Ælfred’s arrival, precisely achieving their broader purpose to draw the main West Saxon fyrð from the east. Hæsten’s combined army, dispossessed of its fort at Benfleet, now took up station in a new stronghold at Shoeburyness ( Sceobyrig on Eastseaxum: ‘the fort on the shoe-shaped spit’) nearly 10 miles (16 km) to the east.
In that whirlwind year of punch and counterpunch, a new phase now opened. With the apparent knowledge that the fyrð was otherwise occupied, the Deniscan once again left their fortress and with extraordinary boldness marched along the entire length of the Thames into Gloucestershire, making a rendezvous with forces from Northumbria and East Anglia that seeped (or swept) through the Mercian border.
Their intention must now have been to wage a final war of conquest, staking everything on a swift victory; but the geography of southern Britain had changed since the campaigns of the 870s. The forts of the Burghal Hidage, with their well-provisioned and trained garrisons, severely compromised the Host’s ability to live off the land, to steal or buy horses and force the submission of shire ealdormen. The old river route, which had enabled deep and swift penetration into the heartlands of the Angelcynn, was closed to them.
At Sashes, Wallingford, Oxford and Cricklade, along the full length of the Thames, they faced opposition secure behind new walls; opposition with the benefit of intelligence forewarning them of the advancing Host. The portable wealth of the countryside, its livestock, was corralled behind ramparts. The formerly overflowing cupboard of the Anglo-Saxon landscape was bare; and, for once, the Host was unsupported by its fleet, having lost the bulk of its ships at Benfleet. Moreover, the West Saxon-Mercian alliance was solid: Æðelred’s loyalty, sealed by his marriage to Ælfred’s daughter, Æðelflæd, was unimpeachable. There is no hint that even disaffected ealdormen would throw in their lot with the invaders.
These were epic campaigns: battle-weary veterans on forced route marches through enemy territory, denied the means to live off the land and at all times watched, pursued and hunted by an exhausted but determined fyrð under active, committed commanders. If Francia had, finally, proved too hot to handle, then Wessex and Mercia were now also too well guarded, too deeply defended.
Avoiding the burhs, then, and no longer tied to the river, the most direct route for the Host would have been to take Akemen-nestraete from London, heading north-west through St Albans and Bicester towards the Fosse Way, which would lead them directly towards Gloucester, avoiding the Thames burhs. Here, perhaps, a gathering of warriors and their jarls from the north and east, even from potential allies among the Welsh and Irish, might have been arranged. The combined army, reaching the River Severn, now traced a route north along the ancient marcher lands of Hwicce (surely avoiding Worcester, already fortified with a burh; but how?), Magonsaete and Wrocansaete, beneath the ramparts of ancient hillforts and past the ruins of Roman towns; and then, as the river turned west and south, into Powys.
Even here the Angelcynn now had allies among those Welsh kings who had submitted to Ælfred after 880. All the time the Host was pursued by Æðelred, supported by the shire levies of Wiltshire and Somerset under Ealdormen Æðelhelm and Æðelnoth, who had long ago stood with Ælfred at Athelney and fought with him at Edington. The stores of the burhs, and their knowledge of the movements of the Host, allowed the pursuing levies to maintain pace and strength.
At Worcester, perhaps, the levies paused to regroup and resupply, to gather intelligence and take counsel. At Buttingtune on Sæferne staðe, a ford just north of Welshpool where the Severn meets Offa’s Dyke beneath the naturally imposing ramparts of the Long Mountain, the Host ran out of steam and built a fortress, as they had so often before. On their long march they had been unable to capture a single major settlement although they had, in all probability, wasted many smaller estates and vills. With Ælfred still occupied on his watching brief in Devon, the combined levies laid siege to the Host on the banks of the river and waited: waited until those inside were half-starved and had slaughtered all their horses for meat.
At last, in desperation, they broke out and, after a fierce engagement, with much slaughter on both sides, marched overland all the way back to Essex. This time, at least, they might retreat north-east into friendlier territory, through the lands of the Five Boroughs, tracking across Danish East Mercia and through East Anglia; Æðelred’s forces were probably able to trace their progress but unable to engage them beyond the line of Watling Street.
It is an old axiom of military strategy that a powerful enemy should be afforded the means of escape. The destruction of the Host’s ships at Benfleet closed its back door to the Continent. Another plan seems now to have occurred to Hæsten. For the third time in twelve months, and with winter’s dark days approaching, he led his forces overland again and this time, according to the Chronicle, they marched day and night, right along the Mercian frontier. At this speed, perhaps, they might use the metalled road of Watling Street and outrun the fyrd. They reached a ‘deserted fortress in Wirral [ Wirhealum: ‘the hollows where the bog myrtle grows’], called Chester’ (þæt hie gedydon on anre westre ceastre on Wirhealum, seo is Legaceaster gehaten).
If Hæsten hoped to buy himself time, to refortify and provision Chester, to make contact, perhaps, with friends in Gwynedd and across the Irish Sea in Dublin, he had again underestimated the capabilities of his enemy. Shortly after the Host’s arrival at Chester, Æðelred’s Mercian levies surrounded the old Roman fort and set about implementing an aggressive scorched-earth policy, stripping its hinterland of cattle, grain and horses and sweeping up unsuspecting foraging parties so that the Host should have no provisions for winter. By now, with corn reaped and threshed and trees losing their leaves it must have been difficult to keep any army in the field. It seems that the fyrð now withdrew; Hæsten, his options diminishing, marched his army into Wales, hoping to scavenge sufficient provisions for the winter. Here again he was denied, the land having been emptied of cattle and grain; instead, he plundered booty: bullion, jewellery, coin—anything to make this disastrous campaign seem worthwhile and satisfy his veterans.
The Welsh raid, diminished by a dismissive account in the Chronicle, was serious: the Annales Cambriae record its progress all through Brycheiniog and Gwent. Hæsten led the Host on a final, dispiriting march all the way across Northumbria and East Anglia out of the reach of the levies, to Mersea on the Essex coast, and relative safety, some time in the New Year of 894. Here they were joined by the remnants of the East Anglian fleet which had invested Exeter and which, raiding along the south coast on its way home, had been put to flight by the burh garrison at Chichester.
Now, at least, the Host had ships again, perhaps even sufficient to carry its forces back to the Continent. But its commanders were not done yet. Once more probing the edges of Wessex and Mercia, testing the mettle of the alliance, the Host left its baggage and camp followers, took to its ships and, during the summer of 894, sailed up the Thames estuary to the mouth of the River Lea opposite what is now Greenwich. The fleet rowed north past Stratford and its tidal corn mills, tracing the western edge of the great forest of Epping; past King Offa’s minster at Waltham (one wonders if it had been pillaged by earlier raiders) as far perhaps as Ware, whose name, literally ‘Weirs’, suggests the highest navigable point, close to Hertford. In 895 they built a new fortress at an unidentified spot, this time with access to their fleet: their escape route. In the late summer of that year the fyrð was sent to dislodge them; it was repulsed with serious casualties including, the Chronicle says, the loss of four of the king’s thegns. The Host’s intention was evidently to threaten London’s rich hinterland.
Ælfred, finally released from his long watching brief in the south-west, now brought his army across the Thames and camped somewhere on the south-west side of the Lea, ‘while the corn was being reaped’. This small detail evokes a vision of labourers in the fields, harvesting wheat with their saw-edged sickles; of oxen grazing on the stubble, stooks drying in hot August sun; of weary soldiers watching, leaning on their spears under shady trees; of barns filling with winter’s grain—like a bucolic passage from John Stewart Collis’s wartime reminiscences of the 1940s, perhaps.
Nothing more perfectly captures Ælfred’s own vision of the duties owed by a king to his people: of the idea of economic security guaranteed by the king’s peace in return for duty and render. Content that the harvest was protected, Ælfred set his mind to a military solution. Inspired, it seems, by the example of Charles the Bald in Francia, Ælfred now sought to block the fleet’s escape. He and his engineers found a suitable spot on the Lea, downriver from the enemy’s camp, and set the fyrð to constructing a bridge that would connect forts built on both banks.
The threat was sufficient; even before the bridge and forts were complete the Host abandoned their new fortress and once again marched west, this time as far as æt Cwatbrycge be Sæfern: Bridgnorth, a key crossing of the Severn in what is now Shropshire, some 13 miles (21 km) south of Watling Street, their likely route. Here they constructed a new fort, most likely on the west bank, and overwintered. Ælfred seems to have used the breathing space to bolster diplomatic efforts to isolate the Host. He sent Æðelnoth, his loyal Somerset ealdorman, to York to broker a treaty with Guðroðr. A year earlier the British chronicler of the Annales Cambriae had noted that Anarawd of Gwynedd ‘came with Englishmen to lay waste Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi’; with Mercia and Gwynedd in collusion against the weaker Welsh kingdoms the Host’s last hope for a northern and Welsh alliance evaporated.
In this year, the Host dispersed, some to East Anglia, some to Northumbria, and those without stock got themselves ships there, and sailed south oversea to the Seine. The Host, by the mercy of God, had not altogether utterly crushed the English people, but they were much more severely crushed during those years by murrain and plague, most of all by the fact that many of the best of the king’s servants in the land passed away during those three years.
It is a salutary lesson for the historian, whose window on the remote past offers mostly the narrow view of great events, to learn that more damage was wreaked by the everyday woes of illness, poor harvests and diseased livestock—by the fates—than by the depredations of the Host. It is little wonder that while the Angelcynn reposed considerable and justifiable faith in their king, they also prayed to their God; and also, perhaps, to those capricious deities who had seemed for so long to favour their enemy: Oðin, Thor, Frey and the rest. Those same gods had run out of patience with the warriors whose apocalyptic thirst for battle, plunder and conquest had not, in the end, brought about Ragnarök, the last battle, and the dawning of a new world order.
The states of Wessex and Mercia, who had entered the lists against their Scandinavian antagonists so seemingly ill-prepared, had paid a heavy price for their education in modern warfare. They had been forced by extreme circumstances to adapt and to learn. Above all, perhaps, their appreciation of economic, military and political geography had undergone a decisive shift: by the end of the conflict they were more than a match for their enemies. They had mastered their own landscape. Ælfred had won his final victory at the age of forty-seven. He had successfully exploited the rules of lordship to embark on a most ambitious programme of military reform, maintaining the support of most of his nobility and attracting the loyalty of Mercians, Welsh and many others including, according to Asser, an assortment of Vikings, Gauls, Franks and Bretons. Now Ælfred was able to enjoy a few last years of peace in which to set the political and cultural seal on his brilliant military legacy.