The Viking “Great Army”

The Operations of the ‘Great Army’ in Britain (865–79)

The term ‘great army’, employed by several contemporary sources to describe this unusually large assemblage of Norse raiders, implies a huge horde of perhaps tens of thousands, but it most probably was not. Although no precise figures are given, it is highly doubtful that it numbered more than a few thousand at best. Noted British historian Gwyn Jones estimates that it could have consisted of only 500 to 1,000 warriors. The truth is that its size vacillated as diverse groups under various Viking chieftains came and went. Accordingly, the ship count of its fleet also fluctuated from a few dozen to several hundred. That said, it was a highly effective entity which had a profound impact on early English and French history. It would operate from roughly 865 to 896 on both sides of the English Channel. The resources of entire kingdoms would be mobilized to contend with it and its exploits would ultimately result in the establishment of Scandinavian-dominated territories both in Britain and on the continent for decades: the Danelaw and Normandy.

The ‘great army’ was essentially a big band of brigands who, in the beginning, operated like a swarm of waterborne locusts. They relied on ships to transport them up navigable rivers to strategic localities deep inland where they either took over old fortifications or built new ones from which they could forage and plunder the land all around, often on horseback. Once they had intimidated the local lords into ‘making peace’ with them (i.e., the provision of tribute and supplies), they moved on. This arrangement, however, soon evolved into conquest. No one knows for sure what prompted the great army’s creation, but legend has it that the original leaders were the brothers Ivar the Boneless, Ubbi and Halfdan, who assembled the host ostensibly to avenge the death of their father, Ragnar Lodbrok, at the hands of Ælla, the king of Northumbria. Ælla allegedly had Ragnar pitched into a pit of vipers. In reality, the motives were probably more mercenary than vengeful. Be that as it may, after the great army ‘made peace’ with the East Anglians in 865, it moved into Northumbria in 866 and took over York, where ‘an immense slaughter was made of the Northumbrians’, including Ælla. The latter was supposedly subjected to the quaint Viking custom of ‘blood eagling’, whereby the victim’s ribs were detached from the spine and splayed outwards so that the lungs could be spread over the back like folded wings.

After over-wintering in Northumbria, where it exacted ‘a peace’ and placed a puppet king on the throne, the ‘great army’ moved into Mercia in 867 and staged out of Nottingham. King Æthelred of Wessex and his brother Alfred briefly besieged the Northmen there at the behest of King Burhred of Mercia, but ultimately the Mercians also ‘made peace’ with the invaders. The Viking army returned to Northumbria the next year, but in 869 rode back through Mercia to East Anglia again, this time with no pretence of seeking ‘peace’. They took winter quarters at Thetford in 870 and ‘conquered all that land’, ruthlessly killing King Edmund in the process. Thus, when the great army rode to Reading in Wessex the next year, Æthelred and Alfred must have had few illusions about ‘making peace’ with it. They attacked the Vikings at Reading in 871. ‘And that year there were nine national fights [pitched battles] fought against the raiding army in the kingdom to the south of the Thames,’ recounted the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘besides those forays which Alfred, the king’s brother, and a single ealdorman and king’s thegns often rode on, which were never counted.’ The Danes apparently won most of these encounters, enabling them to impose a ‘peace’ of sorts on the West Saxons and take winter quarters in London. But an event occurred that same year which would ensure their ultimate defeat: Æthelred died, leaving the crown to his gifted brother Alfred.

For the next few years the men of the great army concentrated on Mercia. They over-wintered first at Torksey in 872 and then at Repton in 873. Once they had ‘conquered all that land’, they banished Burhred and placed a certain Ceolwulf on the throne in his stead as their man. Then, in a seminal moment, the great army separated in 874, half following Halfdan back to Northumbria, where it over-wintered on the river Tyne, while the remainder went with chieftains Guthrum, Oscytel and Anund to Cambridge in East Anglia. It was Halfdan who seemed to engineer the transition to settlement which would eventually lead to the establishment of the Danelaw. The next year, in 875, he ‘divided up the land of Northumbria’ amongst his followers and, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘they were ploughing and providing for themselves’. There was a similar sharing out of land in Mercia in 877.

Meanwhile, Guthrum and the others orchestrated a sustained assault on Wessex, over-wintering first at Wareham in 875, then at Exeter in 876. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that the Scandinavian intruders lost a fleet of 120 ships to a storm at Swanage in Dorset, but managed nonetheless to drive Alfred and the remnants of his forces into the Somerset marshlands at Athelney in early 878. The turning point in the struggle, however, came that spring, just a few weeks after Easter. Alfred took the offensive with a reinvigorated force and decisively defeated the Danes at Edington in Wiltshire. He pursued them to Chippenham, where Guthrum was forced to sue for ‘peace’ on Alfred’s terms, which included baptism for him and thirty of his leading men, along with a promise to leave Wessex. The raiding-army then withdrew in 879 via Cirencester into East Anglia, where it ‘settled the land, and divided it up’. Soon afterwards Alfred and Guthrum came to a formal agreement setting the boundaries for what became officially the ‘Danelaw’.

The Operations of the Great Army in Frankia (879–92)

That was not, however, the end of the great army. Myth and hyperbolic characterizations by medieval chroniclers have conjured up images of Vikings as fierce warriors impervious to fear who deliberately sought out martial challenges, but the truth is that they were basically waterborne bandits who went where resistance was least. Those members of the great army who had no interest in settling down in the Danelaw simply relocated to the continent, where the pickings were easier. While the bulk of the great army humbled by Alfred moved from Chippenham to Cirencester, a contingent over-wintered at Fulham on the Thames. In 879 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that ‘the raiding-army which had settled at Fulham went across the sea to Ghent in the land of the Franks’. Aside from the fact that Alfred had made Wessex inhospitable to incursion, the continent was now a tempting target for Viking invaders because the Frankish Empire had once again fallen into disarray. Louis the German had perished in 876 and Charles the Bald followed him to the sepulchre in 877, leaving Frankia to no fewer than six squabbling monarchs. Wasting little time, the great army group which arrived at Ghent soon sailed up the Scheldt deeper into Flanders in search of fresh plunder.

Having evaded the forces of both West and East Frankia, the Vikings captured the monastery at Corbie and attacked Amiens in early 881. King Louis III of West Frankia managed to slaughter a Viking cavalry contingent at Saucourt near the coast in August, but the incursion progressed nonetheless. The fortress he built at Étrun to prevent the Northmen from moving further up the Scheldt only caused the main body to jump to the Meuse. Once there, the raiders established a stronghold at Asselt, where they anchored their fleet of at least 200 ships. At this point various bands of the great army apparently used the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta complex to infest the entire region like a sort of virulent waterborne plague. The ninth-century Annals of Fulda testified that Cambrai, Utrecht, Prüm, Cornelimünster, Stavelot and Malmedy were all ravaged in 881. The Norsemen burnt Bonn and Cologne as well. They even pillaged the royal palace at Aachen, ‘where they used the king’s chapel as a stable for their horses’. The Annals of St-Bertin documented that the Vikings torched Trier, Tongres and Arras in 882. They even menaced Reims and raided Metz. There were small Frankish victories over individual raiding parties, like that of Carloman II (successor to Louis III) over a Viking band at Reims in late 882, but the rapine activities of the great army continued unabated. One war band went up the Scheldt to Condé that same year, while another (probably that of the notorious Danish chieftain Hasting) sailed up the Somme to Amiens the next. The Frankish kings ended up falling back on an old expedient to get rid of the scourge. King Charles the Fat of East Frankia bribed the Viking chieftains Godfrid, Sigfrid and Gorm to abandon Asselt in 882 for ‘several thousand pounds of silver and gold’. In 884 Carloman II also resorted to buying them off with a tribute of 12,000 pounds of gold and silver.

The great army then split in two: one part sailed back to Britain to lay siege to Rochester in East Anglia, only to be chased off by Alfred, while the other attempted to besiege Leuven in Flanders with equally unsatisfying results. The various components coalesced again, however, in July 885 at the mouth of the Seine for the most menacing Viking campaign in Frankia to date: the 885–6 siege of Paris. The death of Carloman II of West Frankia in December 884 without an heir had rendered the Seine river valley an open road into the heart of the kingdom for the Scandinavian raiders. Reputed to have involved hundreds of vessels and thousands of Norse warriors over many months, it would be the single most serious Viking incursion on the continent ever. As such, it is the subject of a special, in-depth section. The principal chieftain seems to have been a certain Sigfrid, probably the same man who Charles the Fat had suborned with silver at Asselt in 882 along with Godfrid and Gorm. Godfrid was murdered by Frankish nobles in 884 for reneging on his agreement to protect Frisia, while Gorm was never heard from again. The main source for the siege, an eyewitness account by Abbo of St-Germain-des-Prés, also mentioned a man named Sinric as ‘one of the kings of the Danes’, but he drowned in the Seine during the fighting. The siege was ultimately unsuccessful, due in large measure to the spirited defence of the city by Count Odo and Bishop Gozlin of Paris. Charles the Fat, now regarded as the Carolingian Emperor ruling over both East and West Frankia, again used silver to induce the Vikings to move on. They did, sailing further up the Seine to Burgundy, which they bedevilled for the next three years (886–9). Verdun, Toul and Troyes all suffered assaults.

The Danes finally grew weary of rifling the region and sailed back down the Seine to Paris, but they were once again rebuffed by Odo, who had assumed the crown of West Frankia from Charles, deposed for his obvious inability to defend the realm. The Viking army continued on, apparently much diminished, to Brittany, but the Bretons were equally inhospitable: they defeated the Danes at St Lô. The remnants of the great army then made its way back to Flanders and established a fortified camp at Leuven by the river Dyle. It was there that Arnulf, king of East Frankia, surprised the Danes in 891, overrunning their camp and killing Sigfrid in the process. This apparently was the final straw: shortly thereafter, in 892, what was left of the great army boarded 250 ships at Boulogne and then ‘moved themselves over in a single journey, horses and all’ to Britain, sailing up the Rother river to Appledore in Kent. Hasting joined his compatriots in Kent soon afterwards with eighty more ships, settling in at Milton Regis on the Swale river estuary.

The Return of the Great Army to England (892–6)

Alfred, however, was less than welcoming, and he had not been idle in the absence of the ‘great army’. In the intervening decade the able king of Wessex had fashioned a highly flexible and effective defensive system which, though it could not make the kingdom impervious to assault, rendered the experience far less rewarding. First of all, he developed a network of some thirty fortified townships (burhs), and manned them using the ‘Burghal Hidage’ system, whereby each hide (a measure of land for tax assessment) furnished one man to guard 4ft of rampart. These burhs not only provided refuges from raiders, but also housed rapid-reaction forces to run the raiders down. Secondly, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle attested that Alfred arranged for an early form of a standing army: ‘The king had separated his army into two, so that there were always half at home and half out, except for those who had hold of the fortresses.’ Thirdly, and most pertinent to the subject at hand, the Chronicle claimed the king even attempted to counter Viking superiority at sea:

Then King Alfred ordered long-ships to be built to oppose the ‘askrs’ [a Norse word for ‘warships’]; they were well nigh twice as long as others, some had sixty oars, some more; they were both swifter and less flexible, and also more responsive than the others; they were neither of Frisian design nor of Danish, but as it seemed to himself that they might be most useful.

While Alfred’s fleet could boast no major engagements with a Scandinavian counterpart, it probably offered a deterrent benefit which, together with the other military measures, made the plunder of his lands unprofitable and imprudent.

The Danes of the Danelaw, of course, aided and abetted their newly returned compatriots in the great army in violation of existing treaties, otherwise Alfred’s struggle to suppress this last great incursion would not have lasted as long as it did: basically from 892 to 896. Nonetheless, Alfred’s reactive tactics enabled the West Saxons to fight a grinding war of attrition which gradually took its toll on the invaders. He began by dividing his forces to deal with a multi-pronged threat. His son Edward, at the head of one force, confronted a contingent of the great army at Farnham in 893, chasing it onto an islet in the Thames, while Alfred himself rushed with another to the Devon coast to relieve Exeter, which was under assault by a Viking fleet of a hundred vessels. And there were some auspicious triumphs. That same year (893) a large force of Londoners stormed Hasting’s headquarters at Benfleet on Hadleigh Ray off the Thames estuary while the Viking chieftain was leading a raid elsewhere. The English not only seized the women, children and an immense quantity of booty, but also ‘all the ships they either broke up or burned or brought to London town or to Rochester’.

Meanwhile, other elements of the ‘great raiding-army’ gathered at Shoebury in Essex. Together with reinforcements from the Danelaw, this large body raided up the Thames and into the Severn. Garrison troops from the burhs of central Wessex and Wales under several of Alfred’s ealdormen pursued the invaders to Buttington, where they besieged the Vikings with such tenacity that the Northmen were forced to eat some of their own horses to stave off starvation. The siege eventually drove the Danes to fight a pitched battle in which they were badly mauled. The survivors fled, joining what was left of the great army, which then made its way to Chester for the winter. Alfred invested them there, divesting the land all around of livestock and grain. Facing famine, the Viking force had no choice but to winter in Wales instead. The next summer (894) the Vikings evaded Alfred’s armies by marching through Northumbria and East Anglia to Mersea Island off the east coast of Essex, where their fleet joined them. Then, before winter, the great army embarked on its ships and rowed up the Thames and the Lea to winter at Hertford about 30km (20 miles) north of London. It was here that Alfred brought the final campaign of the great army to a close. First, he denied it the autumn harvest, and then he built a fortified bridge on the Lea downstream from Hertford, trapping the Danish fleet. The Vikings therefore ended up abandoning their ships and moving by foot to Bridgnorth on the Severn, where they over-wintered, famished and fatigued. The subsequent end to the great army was announced almost prosaically in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: ‘Then the summer after this year [896], the raiding-army went off, some to East Anglia, some to Northumbria, and those who were without money got themselves ships there, and went south across the sea to the Seine.’

Alfred had essentially stifled the great army by robbing it of its mobility – and, like fish unable to swim, it suffocated. Wessex continued to endure sporadic seaborne raids originating from the Danelaw, but Alfred apparently answered them all, no matter how inconsequential. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described how the king dispatched a nine-ship flotilla in 896 to destroy a Viking squadron of six ships which had been using the Isle of Wight as a base for ravaging the whole south coast. It was a muddled, minor skirmish of little significance, but only one Viking ship survived it. Alfred seemed determined to make every incursion costly.

The Founding of Normandy (911–33)

Those vestiges of the great army that were compelled to migrate back to the continent by Alfred’s successful defence of Wessex were no doubt able to link up with other remnants which had remained in West Frankia – like the band led by Rollo. Dudo of St Quentin, a tenth-century Norman panegyrist, claimed a certain Hrolf (Latinized as ‘Rollo’) had remained to ravage the lower Seine after the 885–6 siege of Paris. While this has been contested by recent scholarship, there can be no doubt that Rollo, who was probably of Norwegian extraction, was active in the area by 905. The Franks eventually defeated him at the battle of Chartres in 911, but Charles the Simple (meaning ‘straight-forward’, not ‘simple-minded’), then king of West Frankia, was looking for a more permanent solution to the problem of Viking attacks on his kingdom by way of the Seine. So he offered Rollo and his companions land centred on Rouen in return for serving as a buffer against future Viking raids up the river. The resultant Treaty of St Clairsur-Epte of 911 codified the royal land grant which is considered the kernel of what would eventually become Northmannia, meaning ‘land of the Northmen’ – i.e., the dukedom of Normandy.

Additional royal concessions were made in 924 and 933, but most expansion came through martial aggression. At the risk of oversimplification, these ‘northmen’ (or ‘Normanz’ as they were called in old French) were a warrior caste superimposed upon an indigenous population of Frankish peasantry ruled by a divided aristocracy. Vastly outnumbered, they intermarried and quickly adopted the Frankish language and customs which included, most importantly, a form of feudalism. And since additional territorial acquisitions, by necessity, had to be inland, they soon traded their ships for horses, taking on the heavy cavalry tactics of the Franks. Resourceful and highly adaptable, the Normans made these tactics their own and perfected them. The hauberk, kite shield and conical helmet became the distinctive accoutrements of the Norman knights who would ultimately claim England and southern Italy for themselves. Ironically, in order do so, they would, by the middle of the eleventh century, have to rediscover their Scandinavian seafaring roots.

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