Charlemagne’s Tears


“Braver are many in word than in deed.” 

– The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Legend has it that in the late eighth century Charlemagne once caught sight of some Viking ships from his breakfast table while he was visiting the French coast. His hosts assumed that they were merchants, but the emperor knew better and warned that they were “full of fierce foes”. The Franks rushed to the shore with swords drawn, but the Vikings fled so quickly that it seemed as if they had simply vanished. The disappointed courtiers returned to the palace where they were greeted with an astonishing sight. The great Charlemagne, Roman emperor and restorer of world order, was weeping. No one dared to interrupt him, but after a time spent gazing out to sea he explained himself. 

“Do you know why I weep so bitterly, my true servants? I have no fear of those worthless rascals doing any harm to me; but I am sad at heart to think that even during my lifetime they have dared to touch this shore; and I am torn by a great sorrow because I foresee what evil things they will do to my descendants and their subjects.”

Although this account is obviously apocryphal, Charlemagne hardly needed any prophetic gifts to foresee the danger the Vikings posed to his kingdom. He had, in fact, been preparing his defenses against them for years, and ironically, was at least indirectly responsible for drawing the raider’s attention in the first place. 

Frankish contact with Scandinavia predated him by a century or more. Viking furs, amber, eiderdown, and whetstones were highly prized in Frankish markets, and Danish merchants were common in the great imperial trading centers of Dorestad on the Rhine and Quentovic near Boulogne. With Charlemagne, however, the dynamic changed. Before him, the Franks had maintained a powerful and stable kingdom in what is today western Germany and eastern France. When Charlemagne accepted the Frankish crown in 768, he immediately began expanding his frontiers in all directions. By 800 he had seized part of the Pyrenees, Bavaria, and most of northern Italy, hammering together a larger state than any seen since the time of the Caesars. On Christmas Day that year, in a carefully orchestrated move, Pope Leo III placed a crown on Charlemagne’s head and named him the new Western Roman Emperor – an office that had been vacant for more than three centuries. 

Roman style coins were minted, imperial palaces were built, and Charlemagne even considered marrying the Byzantine empress and making the northern Mediterranean a Roman lake once again. A new Pax Francia seemed to be dawning under the auspices of the all-powerful Charlemagne. Little seemed to be beyond his reach or ambition. The scholar Alcuin, who had written of the first Viking raid on Lindisfarne, hinted that the Frankish emperor even had the ability to bring back the boys / monks who had been kidnapped by the raiders. 

The addition of an imperial title may have burnished the emperor’s credentials, but it also alarmed everyone on his borders. The Frankish tendency towards expansion mixed with Charlemagne’s clear ability was a dangerous combination. “If a Frank is your friend“, went a popular eighth century proverb “he’s certainly not your neighbor.”

If they didn’t think so before, by 804 the Danes would have agreed with this proverb. That year Charlemagne finally crushed the Saxons of northwestern Germany, concluding a war that had lasted for three decades. Franks and Danes were now neighbors, and the Scandinavians had reasons to believe that they were next on the menu. 

The immediate cause for alarm was Charlemagne’s plans to build a fleet, something his powerful land empire had previously lacked. His stated goal was to deny Danish pirates access to the Elbe, the river protecting the empire’s northeastern flank. He had already tried to address this issue by building two fortified bridges to make it easier to move troops across at will. The other great rivers of the empire received similar treatment. A moveable bridge of pontoons connected by anchors and ropes guarded the Danube, the great eastern river that allowed access to the heart of imperial territory, and a canal was started between the Rhine and Danube to allow troops to move quickly to a threatened border.

When the emperor announced the addition of a North Sea fleet, most inhabitants of the Danish peninsula correctly suspected that Charlemagne’s real target was the Danish port of Hedeby, located just over the border on the Schlei Fjord. The town had become the great entrepôt for Viking goods, and a rival for even the largest Frankish markets. The Danes had set up toll booths and a mint – the first in Scandinavia – and were doing a brisk business that had begun to cut into the older, more established imperial trading centers. 

The man responsible for Hedeby’s growth was a Viking warlord named Godfred. Frankish chronicles called him a ‘king’, but he was less a ruler of Denmark than a ruler in Denmark. Many Danes may have recognized his authority, but there were rival figures with their own halls even in the Jutland peninsula that makes up the bulk of modern Denmark.

Godfred – in what would become true Viking fashion – increased the population of Hedeby by importing captured merchants from Frankish towns he raided. To defend it against Charlemagne he began constructing the Danevirke, a massive earthen wall topped by a wooden stockade that would eventually extend across the neck of the peninsula from the North Sea to the Baltic. 

Safe behind these ramparts, Godfred began to harass his powerful neighbor. He sacked several Frankish towns and forced one of Charlemagne’s allies to switch their allegiance. In response, a small Frankish army marched north and the Danevirke was put to its first test. Godfred’s soldiers held their ground, and Charlemagne, who was occupied with revolts elsewhere, decided to buy peace. 

The two sides agreed that the river Eider would form a permanent border, and an apparently chastened Godfred sent hostages to the imperial capital of Aachen as a sign of good faith. This, however, turned out to be a ruse. When Charlemagne left with his army for the campaigning season early the next year, Godfred led two hundred longboats on a plundering raid of the Frisia – what is today the Netherland’s coast. His price for leaving was a hundred pounds of silver, collected from the beleaguered merchants and peasants, and whatever portable wealth his Vikings could stuff into their ships. As a final note of defiance, he announced that he was claiming the northern stretch of the Frisian coast for himself. 

Despite the huge number of ships involved, the raid itself was relatively minor, and Charlemagne was too experienced to believe that any of his borders were permanent. The treaty would have been violated eventually; what really stung Charlemagne was the appropriation of a part of his empire. 

It wasn’t immediately apparent how he should respond. The few ships he had were woefully inadequate for an attack, so naval operations were out of the question, and a land invasion carried its own risks. Charlemagne had just finished a bruising thirty-year war with the Saxons and, now in his late sixties, had no desire to get bogged down in another slow-burning war. 

The first order of business, in any case, was to contain Godfred. The coast had to be protected, and since the Franks lacked a true fleet, the Vikings themselves would have to provide one. Independent groups of Danes had been raiding the Frankish coast for more than a decade, and the larger ones were more than happy to take Charlemagne’s gold in exchange for the promise of protection. While they protected him from the sea, Charlemagne gathered his army to storm the Danevirke

The expedition never left. That summer, as the final preparations were being made, Godfred was cut down by one of his own men. In the chaos that followed, the identity of the killer was obscured. Some later claimed that it was his disgruntled son, angry that Godfred had recently married another woman, and others that the assassin was the king’s housecarl, but either way, the threat vanished. Charlemagne was apparently annoyed to be cheated of his revenge. His biographer Einhard claimed that the emperor remarked, “woe is me that I was not thought worthy to see my Christian hands dabbling in the blood of those dog-headed fiends.” As it turned out, Charlemagne never got the chance to wash his hands in northern gore. He expired four years later and was succeeded by his son Louis. 

Without a strong hand at the helm, Charlemagne’s empire began to fall apart. At first the decay was barely noticeable. His son Louis seemed to be a younger, more cultured version of Charlemagne. The court took to calling him ‘Louis the Debonaire’, both for his refined court and his continued patronage of the arts. Even on the battlefield, he appeared to live up to his famous predecessor. During his father’s reign he had been entrusted with the security of the southwest frontier, and had been vigorous in its defense. He imposed Frankish authority over Pamplona and the Basques of the southern Pyrenees, and sacked Muslim-controlled Barcelona. All threats to his authority were ruthlessly suppressed, especially if they came from his own family. At his coronation he forced all his unmarried sisters into convents to avoid potential threats from brothers-in-law. 

The promising new reign took an unexpected turn in 817, when Louis suffered a near fatal accident. A wooden gallery connecting Aachen’s cathedral to the imperial palace collapsed while he was crossing it after a church service, leaving many courtiers maimed or dead. Badly shaken, the injured Louis began plans for his succession, naming his eldest son Lothair as senior emperor, and splitting the rest between two other sons and a nephew. 

The emperor recovered, but news of the planned partition had reached Italy where his nephew Bernard – currently ruling as king – discovered that he was to be demoted to a vassal. He immediately revolted, but when Louis suddenly appeared in Burgundy with an army, the unprepared Bernard surrendered without a fight. He agreed to meet with his uncle to beg his pardon, and hopefully retain Italy. Louis, however, was not in a particularly forgiving mood. Bernard was hauled back to Aachen and put on trial for treason as an example to any other family members who were considering revolt. He was found guilty, stripped of his possessions and sentenced to death. 

As a sign of his clemency, Louis commuted the penalty to blinding, and two days later the procedure was carried out. The soldiers tasked with performing the blinding weren’t overly gentle. They used their heated iron rods so forcefully that Bernard didn’t survive the ordeal, dying after two days in agony. 

Louis was never quite the same after the death of his nephew. Deeply religious to begin with, his guilt drove him to ever more lavish public displays. Members of the clergy became prominent advisors, and so many churches and monasteries were endowed that he acquired the sobriquet by which his most known – Louis the Pious. When even this failed to alleviate the guilt, the emperor took the extraordinary step of staging a public confession of his sins before the pope and the assembled ecclesiastics and nobles of the empire. As admirable as this conspicuous humility may have been, however, it had the effect of badly undercutting his own authority. 

Contemporary society was dripping with blood. The vast frontiers were surrounded by hostile peoples who could vanish into their forests or out to sea before the imperial army appeared. A good emperor was forced to set off on at least one large military campaign a year, and failure to do so would be interpreted as weakness. 

Where the emperor failed to show the mailed fist, violence flared up. Rebellions had to be met with brutal force. Captured enemies were routinely blinded, maimed, tortured, or hung. At Verdun, Charlemagne had beheaded forty-five hundred Saxon nobles as a punishment for revolt, and relocated entire populations to pacify them. 

All of this was accepted as necessary behavior to impose order. When Louis, therefore, humbly bowed before the Pope and recited a laundry list of sins that included even minor offenses, it diminished the emperor in the eyes of both his subjects and his enemies. This was not the way an emperor was supposed to act. Charlemagne had wanted to bathe in the blood of his enemies; his son seemed to want to join a monastery. 

On the northern frontier, the Vikings were well aware of this situation. Charlemagne’s defenses, particularly the fortified bridges and army, were still formidable enough to blunt a large attack, but there were ominous signs that the situation would soon change. A Frankish bishop traveling through Frisia found help from ‘certain northmen’ who knew the routes up the rivers that flowed toward the sea. The Vikings were clearly aware of both harbors and sea routes, and the empire lacked a fleet with which it could defend itself. 

The Franks, however, seemed oblivious to the danger. Life was more prosperous than it had been in many generations, and they were enjoying the benefits of imperial rule. The archbishop of Sens in northern France, confident in the protection of the emperor, had gone so far as to demolish the walls of his city to rebuild his church. The towns on the coast were equally vulnerable. A lively wine trade had developed along the Seine between Paris and the sea, and the coast of Frisia was dotted with ports. Thanks to the Frank’s access to high quality silver – a commodity largely absent in Scandinavia – coins had replaced bartering and imperial markets were increasingly stockpiled with precious metals. 

The only thing preventing a major attack was the confusion of Louis’ Viking enemies. The Danish peninsula had been in turmoil since the death of Godfred. A warrior named Harald Klak had seized power, but after a short reign had been expelled by the slain Godfred’s son Horik. Harald Klak appealed to Louis for help, slyly offering to convert to Christianity in exchange for aid. The emperor accepted, and in a sumptuous ceremony at the royal palace of Ingelheim, near Mainz, Harald and four hundred of his followers were dipped in the baptismal font. Louis the Pious stood in as Harald’s godfather. 

It was a triumphal moment for several reasons. Louis was clearly not the soldier his father was, but here was an opportunity to neutralize the Danes for the foreseeable future. If Harald could be installed on the Danish throne, and then Christianize his subjects, it would pacify the northern border. 

The first part of the plan worked seamlessly. Harald was given land in Frisia and tasked with defending it against marauding Vikings, while an expedition to restore his throne was gathered. With a Frankish army at his back, he was able to force his rival, Horik, to recognize him as ruler. He then invited Louis to send a missionary to aid in the conversion of the Danes. The emperor chose a Saxon preacher named Ansgar, who immediately built a church in Hedeby. At this point, however, Louis’ grand policy began to collapse. 

The Danes weren’t particularly interested in Christianity, at least not as an exclusive religion. Nor it seems, were they interested in Harald Klak. After a year, he was again driven into exile by his adversary Horik, a stout pagan. To add insult to injury, Harald returned to his Frisian lands and took up piracy, spending his remaining years plundering his godfather’s property. 

With the expulsion of Harald Klak, a dam seemed to break in the north, and raiders began to spill out over the Carolingian coast. Dorestad, the largest trading center in northern Europe and a main center of silver-minting, was sacked every year from 834 to 837. Horik sent an embassy to Louis claiming that he had nothing to do with the attacks on Dorestad, but did mention that he had apprehended and punished those responsible. The latter claim, at least, was probably true. Successful raiders were potential rivals, and Horik had no desire to repeat Harald Klak’s fate.

Individual Vikings out for plunder needed no invitations from the king to attack. The Frankish empire was clearly tottering. Louis’ tin-eared rule – exacerbated by an ill-thought out plan to include a son from his second marriage into the succession – resulted in a series of civil wars and his deposition at the hands of his remaining sons. Although he was restored to the throne the following year, his prestige never recovered. 

The damage it did to his empire was immense. Not only were there lingering revolts – he spent the final years of his reign putting down insurrections – but the distractions allowed the Vikings to arrive in greater numbers. Multiple groups began to hit the coasts at the same time, burning villages, seizing booty, and carrying away the inhabitants, leaving only the old and sick behind. 

In 836 Horik himself led a major raid on Antwerp, and when several of his warriors died in the assault, he had the nerve to demand weregild – compensation for his loss of soldiers. Louis responded by gathering a large army, and the Vikings melted away, but only as far as Frisia where they continued to raid. In 840, the emperor finally ordered the construction of his father’s North Sea fleet to challenge them, but died a few months later without accomplishing anything. 

Instead of unifying against the common threat, Louis’ sons spent the next three years fighting for supremacy as the empire disintegrated around them. On occasion they even tried to use the Vikings to attack each other. The eldest sibling, Lothar, welcomed old Harald Klak into his court and rewarded him with land for raiding his brother’s territory. This turned out to be an exceptionally bad idea, as it gave the Vikings familiarity with and access to Frankish territory. Harald, and streams of like-minded Vikings, happily plundered their way across the northern coasts of the empire. 

These attacks depended on speed, not overwhelming force. By the mid ninth century the typical Viking “army” consisted of a few ships with perhaps a hundred men. Some men would be left to guard the ships while the rest fanned out to plunder. In these early days they weren’t interested in prisoners, and would kill or burn anything that couldn’t be taken. 

The small numbers were a vulnerability, but this was made up for by the speed of the attacks. Most Vikings were reluctant to travel far from the coasts of the sea or river systems, and generally avoided pitched battles. Their equipment was more often than not inferior to their Frankish opponents; Vikings caught in open country were usually overwhelmed. This was partially because they lacked the armor common in Europe at the time. Frankish chronicles referred to them as ‘naked’, and they had to scavenge helmets and weapons from the dead since several Frankish rulers sensibly forbade the sale of weapons to the Vikings on pain of death. 

The one exception to this general inferiority were Viking swords. The original design was probably copied from an eighth century Frankish source, a blacksmith named Ulfberht whose name soon became a brand. The Vikings quickly learned to manufacture the blades themselves, and weapons bearing the inscription Ulfberht have been found all over Scandinavia. They were typically double edged, with a rounded point, made of multiple bars of iron twisted together. This pattern welding created a relatively strong and lightweight blade that could be reforged if broken. They were clearly among a warrior’s most prized possessions and were passed down as heirlooms and given names like “Odin’s Flame” and “Leg-Biter“. 

Aside from their swords, the Viking’s main advantages lay in their sophisticated intelligence gathering and their terrifying adaptability. They had advance warning of most Frankish military maneuvers, and could respond quickly to take advantage of political changes. Most formidable of all, was their malleability. ‘Brotherhoods’ of dozens or even hundreds could combine into a larger army, and then re-dissolve into groups at will. This made it almost impossible to inflict a serious defeat on them, or even predict where to concentrate your defenses. 

The Vikings were usually also more pragmatic than their opponents. They had no qualms about traveling through woods, used impromptu buildings like stone churches as forts, and dug concealed pits to disable pursuing cavalry. They attacked at night, and were willing – unlike the Frankish nobility – to get their hands dirty by digging quick trenches and earthworks. Most of all they could pick their prey and had exquisite timing. Earlier barbarians had avoided churches; the Vikings targeted them, usually during feast days when towns were full of wealthy potential hostages. 

The Christian communities didn’t stand a chance. The monastery of Noirmoutier, on an island at the mouth of the Loire, was sacked every year from 819 to 836. It became an annual tradition for the monks to evacuate the island for the spring and summer, returning only after the raiding season had ended. Finally, in 836 they had enough and carrying the relics of their patron saint – and what was left of the treasury – they fled east in search of a safe haven. For the next three decades they were driven from one refuge to the next until they finally settled in Burgundy near the Swiss border, about as far from the Vikings and the sea as one could get. 

A monk of Noirmoutier summed up the desperation in a plea for his fellow Christians to stop their infighting and defend themselves: 

“The number of ships grows larger and larger, the great host of Northmen continually increases… they capture every city they pass through, and none can withstand them… There is hardly a single place, hardly a monastery which is respected, all the inhabitants take to flight and few and far between are those who dare to say: ‘Stay where you are, stay where you are, fight back, do battle for your country, for your children, for your family!’ In their paralysis, in the midst of their mutual rivalries, they buy back at the cost of tribute that which they should have defended, weapons in hand, and allow the Christian kingdom to founder.” 

The monk’s advice went unheeded. By the time the Frankish civil war ended, Charlemagne’s empire had dissolved into three kingdoms, each with their vulnerabilities brutally exposed. The western Frankish kingdom became the basis of the kingdom of France, the eastern, Germany, and the third – a thin strip of land between them called Lotharingia – was absorbed by its neighbors. Viking raiding groups became larger and bolder. Instead of two or three ships traveling together, they were now arriving in fleets of ten or twelve. More ominously still, they began to change their tactics. In 845 they returned to the island of Noirmoutier, but this time, instead of the usual raid, they fortified the island and made it a winter quarters. The usual practice was to raid in the warmer months, and return home before the first snows fell. Now, however, they intended to stop wasting time in transit, and to be more systematic in the collection of loot. 

Launching raids from their base, they could now penetrate further up rivers, putting more towns and even cities in range. Rouen, Nantes, and Hamburg were sacked, and Viking fleets plundered Burgundy. The next year they hit Utrecht and Antwerp, and went up the Rhine as far as Nijmegen. These raids all paled, however, before one that took place in 845 at the direction of the Danish king. He had not forgotten the Frankish support for his rival Harald Klak. Now Horik finally had his revenge.


The Northman’s Duchy

The entry for the year 885 in the French Annals of St Vaast begins with the chilling phrase: “The rage of the Northmen was let loose upon the land”. It was an all too accurate assessment. As soon as the winter snows had melted, a frenetic series of Viking raids hit the French coast and continued with a ferocity not seen for half a century. This particular year was especially demoralizing because the Frankish population had believed that they had gained the upper hand against the raiders. Four years earlier, the Franks had met the Norse in a rare pitched battle and slaughtered some eight thousand of them. For several years the threat of attack had receded, but then in 885 the Norse launched a full-scale invasion.

Viking attacks were usually carried out with limited numbers. They were experts in hit and run tactics, and small bands ensured maximum flexibility. That November, however, to the horror of the island city, more than thirty thousand Viking warriors descended on Paris.

From the start, their organization was fluid. According to legend, a Parisian emissary sent to negotiate terms was unable to find anyone in charge. When he asked to see a chieftain he was told by the amused Norse that, ‘we are all chieftains’. There was a technical leader – traditionally he is known as Sigfred – but not one the Franks would have recognized as ‘King’. It was less of an army than a collection of war bands loosely united by a common desire for plunder.

The Vikings launched an attack hoping to catch the French off guard, but several days of intense fighting failed to break through the Parisian defenses. The resulting siege, which lasted for a year, was ultimately unsuccessful, but it gave Europe its first glimpse of the man whose descendants would dominate both ends of the continent, and whose distant relative still sits on the English throne. Known to posterity as Rollo (the Latin version of the Norse Hrolf), he was a minor leader, probably of Norwegian extraction. According to legend he was of such enormous size that the poor Viking horses couldn’t accommodate him, and this earned him the nickname Rollo the Walker (Hrolf Granger), since he had to go everywhere on foot.

Like all the Vikings, Rollo had been drawn to the siege by the very real prospect of making a fortune. Forty years before, the legendary Norse warrior Ragnar Lodbrok had sacked Paris with fewer men, returning home with nearly six thousand pounds of silver and gold courtesy of the terrified French king. All of those present had undoubtedly been brought up on stories about Ragnar’s exploits, and there may even have been a veteran or two among the gathered warriors. This was their chance to duplicate his exploits.

If Rollo distinguished himself at Paris, it was in his determination. When it became apparent that an early victory wasn’t possible, many of the Norse began to drift away towards easier targets. By March of the next year, morale among the Vikings was so low that the nominal leader, Sigfred, reduced his demand to sixty pounds of silver – a far cry from Ragnar’s six thousand – to lift the siege. However, a rumor that the Frankish emperor, Charles the Fat, was on his way with a relief army stiffened the will of the Parisians and they refused. Sigfred held out another month, and then gave up, leaving Rollo and the other lesser leaders on their own.

The Frankish army finally arrived in October, eleven months after the siege began, and scattered what was left of the Vikings. Rollo’s men were surrounded to the north of Paris at Montmartre, but Charles the Fat decided to negotiate instead of attack. The province of Burgundy was currently in revolt, and Charles was hardly a successful military commander. In exchange for roughly six hundred pounds of silver, Rollo was sent off to plunder the emperor’s rebellious vassal.

It was an agreement that suited both of them, but for Rollo, the dream of Paris was too strong to resist. In the summer of 911 he returned and made a wild stab for it, hoping smaller numbers would prevail where the great army had failed. Not surprisingly, Paris proved too hard to take, so Rollo decided to try his luck with the more reasonable target of Chartres.

The Frankish army had been alerted to the danger and they marched out to meet the Vikings in open battle. A ferocious struggle ensued, but just when the Vikings were on the point of winning, the gates flew open and the Bishop of Chartres came roaring out, cross in one hand, relic in the other, and the entire population streaming out behind him. The sudden arrival turned the tide, and by nightfall Rollo was trapped on a hill to the north of the city. The exhausted Franks decided to finish the job the next morning and withdrew, but the crafty Viking was far from beaten. In the middle of the night he sent a few handpicked men into the middle of the Frankish camp and had them blast their war horns as if an attack were underway. The Franks woke up in a panic, some scrambling for their swords, the rest scattering in every direction. In the confusion the Vikings slipped away.

With the dawn, the Frankish courage returned, and they hurried to trap the Vikings before they could board their ships, but again Rollo was prepared. Slaughtering every cow and horse he could find, the Viking leader built a wall of their corpses. The stench of blood unnerved the horses of the arriving French, and they refused to advance. The two sides had reached an effective stalemate, and it was at this point that the French king, Charles the Simple, made Rollo an astonishing offer. In exchange for a commitment to convert to Christianity, and a promise to stop raiding Frankish territory, Charles offered to give Rollo the city of Rouen and its surrounding lands.

The proposal outraged Frankish opinion, but both sides had good reason to support it. The policy of trying to buy off the Vikings had virtually bankrupted the Frankish Empire. More than a hundred and twenty pounds of silver had disappeared into Viking pockets, an amount which was roughly one-third of the French coins in circulation. There was simply no more gold or silver to mint coins, and the population was growing resistant to handing over their valuables to royal tax collectors. Even worse for Charles, the Viking raids had seriously undermined his authority. It was impossible for the sluggish royal armies to respond to the Viking hit and run tactics, and increasingly his subjects put their trust in local lords who could offer immediate protection rather than some distant, unresponsive central government. The authority of the throne had collapsed, and now it was the feudal dukes who held real power. If Charles allowed another siege of Paris he would lose his throne as well.  Here, however, was a solution that promised to make all the headaches go away. Who better to stop Viking attacks than the Vikings themselves?  By gaining land they would be forced to stop other Vikings from plundering it. The nuisance of coastal defense would be Rollo’s problem, and Charles could focus on other things.

For his part, Rollo was also eager to accept the deal. Like most Vikings he had probably gone to sea around age fifteen and now, perhaps in his fifties, he was ready to settle down. Local resistance was becoming stronger, and there was little more to be gained in spoils. After decades of continuous raiding the coasts were virtually abandoned, and wandering further inland risked being cut off from the ships. This was an opportunity to reward his men with the valuable commodity of land and to become respectable in the process. Rollo jumped at the chance.

The Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, as it came to be known, created the Terra Normanorum – the land of the Northmen. This treaty of the Northman’s Duchy, or Normandy, was formally agreed to at a meeting between the two protagonists. The Viking warlord agreed to be baptized together with his entire army, and to perform the ceremonial act of homage to King Charles. Unfortunately, this last part was carried out with a certain lack of grace.

The traditional manner of recognizing a feudal lord was to kiss the royal foot, but Rollo wasn’t about to do any such thing. When Charles stuck out his foot, Rollo ordered one of his warriors to do the deed for him. The huge Norseman grabbed the king’s foot and yanked it up to his mouth, sending the hapless monarch sprawling onto his back. It was, had they only known, a fitting example of the future relationship of the Norman dukes to their French overlords.

Charles hoped that his grant of land was a temporary measure that could be reclaimed later. Such things had been done before and they never lasted beyond a generation. In Rollo, however, he had unwittingly found a brilliant adversary. Rollo instantly recognized what he had; a premier stretch of northern France with some of the finest farmland in the country. His genius – and that of his descendants – was a remarkable ability to adapt, and in the next decade he managed to pull off the extraordinary feat of transforming a footloose band of raiders into successful knights and landowners.

Rollo understood, in a way that most of those around him did not, that to survive in his new home he had to win the loyalty of his French subjects. That meant abandoning most of his Viking traditions, and blending in with the local population. He took the French name Robert, married a local woman, and encouraged his men to do the same. Within a generation the Scandinavian language had been replaced by French, and Norse names had virtually died out.

However, the Normans never quite forgot their Viking ancestry. St Olaf, the legendary Scandinavian king who became Norway’s patron saint, was baptized at Rouen, and as late as the eleventh century the Normans were still playing host to Viking war bands. But they were no longer the raiders of their past, and that change was most clearly visible in their army. Viking forces fought on foot, but the Normans rode into their battles mounted. Charges from their heavy cavalry would prove irresistible, and carry the Normans on a remarkable tide of conquest that stretched from the north of Britain to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

One final change took longer to sink in, but was no less profound. Christianity, with its glittering ceremonies and official pageantry, appealed to Rollo probably more out of a sense of opportunity than conviction. His contemporaries could have been forgiven for thinking that Odin had given way to Christ suspiciously easily. The last glimpse we get of Rollo is of a man hedging his bets for the afterlife. Before donating a hundred pounds of gold to the Church, he sacrificed a hundred prisoners to Odin.

Christianity may have sat lightly on that first generation of Normans, but it took deep root among Rollo’s descendants. There was something appealing to their Viking sensibilities about the Old Testament – even if the New Testament with its turning the other cheek wasn’t quite as attractive – and they took their faith seriously. When the call came to aid their oppressed brothers in the East, they would immediately respond; Norman soldiers provided much of the firepower of the First Crusade.

When Rollo finally died around 930, he left his son an impressive legacy. He had gone a long way towards turning his Viking followers into Normans, and turning an occupied territory into a legitimate state. For all that, however, troubling clouds loomed on the horizon. Normandy’s borders were ill-defined, and it was surrounded by predatory neighbors. Its powerful nobles had bowed to the will of Rollo while he was alive, but they saw little reason why they should extend the same loyalty to his son. Most worrisome of all was the French crown, which eyed Rouen warily and was always looking for an excuse to reclaim its lost territory.

Rollo had laid the foundation, but whether Normandy would prosper, or even survive at all, was up to his descendants.

The Battle of Nesjar

The battle of Nesjar between Olav Haraldsson and Earl Svein. This was the biggest sea-battle in Scandinavia in Viking times.


Two famous helmets from central Europe commonly associated with the Viking period are the ‘Olmürz’ helmet. displayed in Vienna, and the ‘St Wenceslas’ helmet from the Treasury of Prague Cathedral. The dome of each is a one-piece forging. While there is no evidence that this technique was used by Norse armourers, the daring of these items and the diverse nature of the equipment used by the Vikings suggests helmets of this type may have been in use. Olaf the Saint is said to have deployed a unit of 100 picked men at the battle of Nesjar armed in coats of mail and ‘foreign’ helmets.

The battle of Nesjar in 1016, between the Viking King Olav Haraldsson and the Earl of Lade, Svein Håkonsson, would come to be seen as the biggest and most decisive sea battle in Norwegian history. During the 11 or 12 years following his victory, King Olav worked to strengthen the king’s power at the expense of the local chieftains and – most important for his subsequent reputation – establish Christianity as the only permitted religion in the country.

Olav directed the battle from his own longship, Karlhode, named for the carving of a king’s head that adorned the bow-stem. According to Snorre, Olav’s tactic was to hold his fleet in tight formation and let the enemy attack first. When the enemy had cast their spears and other missiles against the king’s men’s shields, his men would attack more or less independently wherever they saw the possibility of capturing an enemy ship.

Earl Svein had a significantly bigger army than Olav, and his personal guard possibly numbered up to 200 heavily armed warriors. Olav had 100 men in chainmail on his ship, and he had hand-picked the troops to stand in the front ranks of the leading ships. Olav’s men were battle-hardened by their experience of wars in England, and they easily captured Svein’s ships, whose crews were mostly inexperienced in warfare. Olav’s own ship headed straight for the earl’s ship, and his men held it fast with grappling hooks. Svein responded by having the whole of his ship’s stem cut off, enabling him to flee.

Sea Battles

A runestone in Sweden memorializes the man Geirbjörn, who had been killed in a fight: “Norwegians killed him on Asbjörn’s ship.” It is tempting to think that Asbjörn was a Viking chieftain and that Geirbjörn died during a sea battle, but perhaps the ship was a merchant vessel and Geirbjörn was killed during a quarrel among merchants, or when a cargo ship was attacked by raiders.

Be that as it may, Vikings certainly knew how to fight at sea, although they did not at first have to do it much when they attacked their victims on raids in Europe, for the kings there did not have navies that could meet the Vikings on equal terms. The Europeans eventually learned to challenge the Vikings in their own element, on the water, as when, in 882, “King Alfred went out with ships and fought against four ship-loads of Danish men and took two of the ships, and killed the men; and two surrendered to him, and the men were badly knocked about and wounded before they surrendered.” Still, European navies never became very effective in defending against the Vikings, and the kings preferred to “fight fire with fire,” that is, to rely on Viking mercenaries to defend territory against other Vikings.

In Scandinavia itself, ambitious chieftains and kings often fought one another in great sea battles. The skalds liked to describe such heroic occasions in some detail, so we are happily able to learn much about how Vikings fought on ships. Later saga literature, such as the Heimskringla, tells with great verve exciting stories about sea battles, but they represent simply later authors imaginatively weaving narratives that have very little value as historical sources.

Before the actual sea battle began, the chieftain exhorted his warriors to fight bravely. Before he battled the Danish king in 1062, King Harald Hardruler of Norway, for example, “told the troops of warriors to shoot and strike,” and “the famous ruler said each of us must fall crosswise on top of one another rather than yield.” Ten the ship would be rowed to an enemy ship, preferably the leader’s: it would “lie alongside the ship.” When the warriors “join[ed] together the stems of the longships,” they created a platform on which they could fight.

Then the battle started. As one poet expressed it, with typical northern understatement, “it was not as if a maiden was bringing a man leek or ale”: in other words, it was a horrid experience.  “The bold lord cut down warriors; he walked enraged across the warship.” “We [warriors] went enraged onto the ships under the banners,” the warrior poet Sigvat recounted after fighting under Olav Haraldsson in the battle of Nesjar in 1016. Different poets celebrating different battles fill in the details. Warriors and, especially, their leaders were supposed to be “angry” during the fight- the word shows up repeatedly in the poetry. Their enemies suffered their anger; there was blood everywhere: “Dark blood splashed on the pliant row of nails [= ship], gore spurted on the shield-rail, the deck-plank was sprinkled with blood.” “The army fell on the deck” so that “the slain lay tightly packed on the boards,” unless they “went wounded overboard.” In the end, “the prince won the victory” and could take over the ships of those he had defeated. If they were still in a repairable state, ships were extremely valuable war booty, not surprising considering the amount of work that went into constructing the great longships.

Afterward, the bodies of the dead washed up on the beaches. With their characteristic fascination with gore, skalds like Arnorr jarlaskald did not hesitate to describe the grisly scene, where carrion eaters like eagles and wolves had been given a feast: Sandy corpses of [the loser] Sveinn’s men are cast from the south onto the beaches; far and wide people see where bodies float off Jutland. The wolf drags a heap of slain from the water; Olav’s son [= King Magnus Olavsson of Norway] made fasting forbidden for the eagle; the wolf tears a corpse in the bays.

Sea battles often had momentous effects, with the lives and reputations, not only of warriors, but also of entire kingdoms, hanging in the balance. Many a Scandinavian king and chieftain met his end in battle, like the Norwegian king Olav Tryggvason, who fell in the battle of Svöldr in 1000, fighting a coalition of the Danish and Swedish kings as well as a Norwegian chieftain. His namesake Olav Haraldsson won Norwegian kingship at the battle of Nesjar in 1016. Olav’s half-brother Harald Hardruler tried to conquer Denmark from his rival, King Svein Estridsson, in the battle of Nissan River in 1062, but although the Norwegians were victorious in the battle, Harald did not gain Denmark. The battle was inconclusive since King Svein and some of his warriors managed to escape Harald’s clutches by ignominiously rowing ashore in a small boat. Great sea battles were often the decisive events when Scandinavian rulers fought wars with one another, and the skalds of the victorious ruler would make sure that his lord’s exploits became famous. In the historical sagas of high-medieval Iceland, battle narratives often allow for the most impressive and rousing prose. The Saga of Olav Trygvason from the early thirteenth century ends, for example, with a climactic retelling of the battle of Svöldr. The story has fascinated generations of Scandinavian schoolchildren, and it continues to impress modern readers.

Viking Warrior Women

If a woman served as head of the household in a family which lacked a man to fulfil this role, she could be buried with symbols of manhood. In Sountaka (Hämne) in Finland two decorative swords have been found in a female burial dated to the 11th century. This one has the blade and the hilt made in bronze, decorated in Jelling style.

Warrior women appear frequently in Scandinavian folklore, whether as pirates, fighters, leaders of armies or avengers. In sagas and poetry, women who chose to live as warriors were called ‘warrior women’. These were women who had chosen to stand outside the traditional gender role, and they seem to have been an accepted part of Old Norse society. In many of the stories and the poems they are referred to a ‘shield maidens’, meaning young women who had chosen to work as warriors. This expression is often used in the texts without further explanation, which suggests that the readers and listeners were well acquainted with the phenomenon The shield maidens must not be confused with the Valkyries, who were divine beings associated with the battlefield.

The question is whether warrior women are literary fantasies, myths, or a historical reality. Warrior women are not mentioned in any contemporary Nordic rune inscriptions, but that is perhaps not so surprising if they comprised only a small part of the Scandinavian warrior groups. Also, we know that rune stones often functioned as documentary records of inheritance and were usually raised by widows or mothers of fallen husbands and sons. Nor are warrior women named in French and Anglo-Saxon annals and chronicles.13 They are not mentioned either in the Irish chronicles in connection with the Vikings, but the phenomenon was not unfamiliar to the Irish themselves. The most famous were the protagonists Scáthach and Aífe, who probably had Scottish-Celtic origins and lived in the 5th or 6th century.

Several older sources claim that warrior women were found in northern Europe and Scandinavia around the time of Christ’s birth. Historians such as Strabo and Plutarch (1st century BC), Dio Cassius (49 AD) and Tacitus (100 AD) all say that there were warrior women among the tribes in northern and eastern Europe. In the 1st century AD, Saxon men and women were regarded by the Romans as of equal value. According to Tacitus, when a man married he gave to the woman oxen and a horse with its bridle, together with shield, spear and sword. She gave him the weapons back. Such reports, probably based on witness observation, surely contributed to reinforcing the Romans’ view of Germanic women as warlike. Such a ritual does not automatically imply that all women fought in war, or that all women bore weapons, but it can mean that Saxon men and women had shared responsibility for defending their nearest and dearest if necessary, and that fighting was part of life.

Two particular features recur in all Roman descriptions of the Germans: their appearance, with powerful bodies and reddish-blond hair and beard; and their women. According to the sources, the women supported their men in war and sometimes took part in the battles themselves.

Roman war reports regularly told of warrior women being found among the enemy’s dead. This can mean that some of the women fought in war, especially if the reports are from conflicts where the Romans were attacked, but it can also mean that women defended themselves with weapons when the tribe was attacked, just as Saxon women apparently did. As we do not know what types of conflict were being described, it is difficult to distinguish if these were warrior women who attacked the Romans, or whether they were taking part in a defence, or if they did both.

At the end of the 3rd century AD, 30 captured ‘Gothic warrior women’ were paraded in front of the populace when Emperor Aurelian (emperor 270–275 AD) held a triumphal procession in Rome. It is quite possible that these women really were warrior women, but the Roman triumphal processions were theatre and these ‘Gothic warrior women’ may also have just been the result of the Romans wishing that such women did exist. The Romans, with their severe and puritanical view of women and their double moral standards regarding sex, must have been terrified and aroused at the same time by the thought that they could be attacked by women. Such emotions certainly led to many stories and fantasies being played out in the gladiatorial arenas and the triumphal processions.

Eastern Roman historians also mention warrior women among their European enemies. In Procopius’ account of the war against the Goths (535–552) there is a story about an English princess who led an invasion of Jutland and captured the young king, Radigis, because he had deceived her. This story is characteristic of Saga material, and it can hardly be used as a reliable source to prove the existence of the warrior woman. On the other hand, another Byzantine historian, Johannes Skylitzes, tells in his historical writing from the 12th century that warrior women took part in the fighting when Prince Svjatoslav of Kiev lost a battle against the Byzantines in Bulgaria in 971. He says that the Byzantines were amazed when they found armed women among the fallen warriors.

Even though Skylitzes was writing 200 years after the events, it is possible that he had access to contemporary archives. Just like the West Romans, the East Romans were prolific writers of reports. In this context, we must also consider the social structures among the rus. Svjatoslav and his warriors were almost nomadic. They could be absent from Kiev for years, and therefore would have their women, female slaves and children with them when they went raiding. It may have been these women who were killed in the battles, as they tried to defend themselves and their families.

Nearly all the descriptions of warrior women are in texts from the Middle Ages. They were written several centuries after the events they describe. Some of these reports are of events said to have taken place in the time of tribal migrations, which was even more remote.

The Fornalder sagas (‘Sagas of Earlier Times’) comprise a collection of legendary sagas which were gathered together at the end of the 14th century. Among others, they include Hervor’s and Hedrek’s Saga, which is about the magic sword, Tyrfing, with the action taking place in the 5th century. Hervor, Angantyr’s daughter, dressed like a man and learned to use weapons in her youth, and went on plundering raids in search of valuables.

In Rolf Gautreksons Saga, which was written down in the 13th century, we find Torbjørg the shield-maiden. She was daughter of a King Erik in Uppsala and preferred to spend her days in fighting and athletic activities than in womanly activities. She even had her own guard troops. In oral tradition she was known as ‘King Torberg’.

A number of women warriors also appear in Saxo’s 13th-century Gesta Danorum (‘Chronicle of the Danes’). It is important to note that all the warrior women in the Fornalder sagas and in Saxo’s writings are upper-class women. In fact, this makes the stories appear more authentic. Even if they had wanted to do so, women from other layers of society would not have had the same opportunity to distinguish themselves in masculine arenas. In theory, upper-class women had the time and the authority to be able to assert themselves outside the wholly traditional role model.

According to Saxo, the warrior women were so numerous that he needed to explain to the reader why this was so. In Book Seven, which mainly deals with events at the end of the 8th century and beginning of the 9th, he says that he will explain how some women behaved in older times:

In olden days there were among the Danes, women who dressed like men and used nearly every moment of their time in battle-training so as not to run the risk that the sickness of luxurious life would drain away their courage. They hated luxury, preferring to harden both body and soul with toil and endurance (…) they forced their womanly nature to act with manly ruthlessness. And they absorbed the art of warfare with such zeal that one would not believe they were women any longer. It was especially those with a strong personality or a tall, handsome body who chose such a life.

After his introduction, Saxo turns back to the story itself, which is an account of the line of Danish kings. Warrior women appear again in Book Eight. In the battle of Brävall, between the Danish King Harald Hildetann and the Swedish King Ring, there are among the leaders of the Danish army two woman warriors, Hede and Visna, ‘to whom nature has given manly courage in women’s bodies’. These two women led a force from Slesvig in the battle. Visna carried the unit’s banner and is described by Saxo as ‘a tough woman with good knowledge of the arts of warfare’. Hede led Harald’s right flank.

Vebjørg was another woman warrior who took part on the Danish side. She led a group of ‘battlethirsty men’ and was herself a feared warrior. She felled a giant called Sote during the battle, but when she began to challenge further warriors to individual combat she was killed by a well-aimed arrow. The other women were all killed in the battle too. Among other wounds, Visna had her hand chopped off. On King Ring’s side, it is mentioned briefly among other things that Gerd den glade (‘Gerd the Happy’) fought for him together with a group of warriors from Värmland.

There is nothing in the reports to indicate that a warrior woman lost her femininity in the eyes of men. In the written sources it appears that the warrior women were desired by men and that they married and had children.

Saxo’s histories are exciting reading and good entertainment, but most people agree that his presentation of historic facts cannot be relied upon as accurate. He wrote in ponderous Latin and was inspired by classical texts, and many of his female characters have classic precedents, such as the Amazons and Camilla in The Aeneid. However, Saxo’s warrior women are not just classic models transferred to a Scandinavian scene. Saxo based his material on Scandinavian sources, mainly Icelandic. He himself says that he had copied much of this material in his presentation, especially from the heroic poetry. Many of Saxo’s stories about the warrior women have literary parallels in the heroic poems in The Older Edda and elsewhere. The events in these lays are mostly supposed to have taken place in the time of the tribal migrations, and they are preserved in Icelandic parchment manuscripts from the 13th and 14th centuries.

A good example of such parallel stories is Saxo’s account of Hagbart, who in his struggle to win Signe pretended to be a woman warrior, and the story of Helge in Det andre kvadet om Helge Hundingsbane (‘The second poem about Helge Hundingsbane’). In Saxo’s account, Hagbart is asked why he is so masculine. ‘She’ replies that it is not usual for warrior women to concern themselves with feminine arts. In The Older Edda, Helge is asked the same question when he pretends to be a slave girl. His patron explains that the slave girl is so masculine because she was previously a warrior woman from a noble family:

The grinding-stone groans

On the grinding-bench

When a prince’s daughter

Turns the quern.

Once she rode

Above the clouds;

Ventured to fight

Like a Viking;

Until Helge

Captured her;

Sister is she

To Sigar and Hognes;

Quick and sharp-eyed,

Our quern-girl.

We don’t know who wrote these poems, but they are thought to be survivals from an oral folk tradition that existed for hundreds of years before the Viking Age. We know them from early written sources including excavations at Bryggen in Bergen where a number of runic inscriptions from the 12th century have been found, containing verses from the Edda poems. They are also found in fragments of the German Hildebrandslied (‘Song of Hildebrand’) from the 9th century.

Do the Roman and Norse stories reflect an actual reality, namely that warrior women existed in Germanic tribal culture in northern Europe and Scandinavia until well into the Viking Age? Alternatively, are the stories of warrior women just based on misunderstanding, or are they pure literary fantasy?

Women also feature outside their established roles in the Old Norse sagas about events in Iceland; not directly as warrior women, but as women who take up arms. Here, however, they are often punished for this, or have to tolerate social criticism. In the Laksdøla Saga we hear about Aud, who attacked her husband, Tord, with a sword. She was called Broka-Aud (‘Trousered Aud’) because she preferred to wear men’s clothes rather than skirts. This led to Tord divorcing her, because her lack of femininity offended his manly honour. She herself didn’t think there was anything noteworthy or dishonourable in wearing trousers. When Tord found himself a new woman, Aud took the sword and wounded him as an act of revenge. In Gisle Surson’s Saga, Tordis took upon herself the role of avenger when her family was offended. She wielded a sword against Øyolv and injured him to avenge the killing of her brother.

In The Greenland Saga and Eirik Raude’s Saga we meet Frøydis, who was Eirik Raude’s daughter. She was a very determined woman who didn’t hesitate to take up a weapon. She killed five women with an axe after first having their men killed. In Vinland she grasped a sword and displayed her breasts and pregnant abdomen to show the Indian warriors that she was a woman. She hit herself on the breasts with the flat of a sword when they attacked the new settlements. Frøydis’s aim in doing this was probably not to fight with the Indians, but first and foremost to demonstrate that she was a woman and pregnant, and that she was prepared to defend herself and her child.

Neither Aud, Tordis nor Frøydis were warrior women, but as participants in these dramas they were in a theatre where it was considered legitimate for women to handle weapons. These women were also to a certain extent upper-class women. They were married to independent farmers. In Iceland, where there was no king, the free farmers constituted the upper class and the landless, the tenant farmers, the freed serfs and the slaves made up the lower classes. It is possible that the Icelandic family sagas are pure fiction and should really be regarded as intended to combine the telling of good stories with imparting to the readers the kind of behaviour that was accepted in Icelandic society in the Middle Ages.

Gender roles in Viking times were clearly defined and separated. Men and women each related to their symbolic world of rights, values and attributes. A free man had weapons as his symbol, with which to defend himself and his family. The woman held the keys to the rooms and storage chests on the farm. Another symbolic distinction of both sex and status was clothing and appearance. One Icelandic legal decision specified that women who wore men’s clothing, cut their hair or carried weapons could be condemned as outlaws, and the same applied to men who wore women’s clothes. The distinction was most acute in the social milieu of the warriors, which promoted a purely masculine culture.

In the daily toil on the farm, by contrast, many of the areas of responsibility overlapped. The gender distinctions were manifested instead in cultural practices and symbolism.

Marriage between a man and a woman was one of the most important social institutions of the Viking Age. Getting married was a symbolically important decision which affected the whole extended family, and a man had to consult his friends and relatives before he could choose a bride. In theory the woman had no say in the matter but in practice it was probably usual for both bride and groom to give their consent. Women in the aristocratic classes, though, differed from farming-class women in being largely pawns in the game of politics.

A description of a marriage ceremony tells us that the man gave the family sword to the woman as a wedding present, to be passed on thereafter to a male heir. She also received and gave to the man gifts of weapons, as the Germanic women had done in Tacitus’s time.

Weaponry in female burials

Remains of weapons have been found in many sites of female burial from Roman, Germanic migration and Viking times. In some instances, where there is evidence of more than one weapon, this could be interpreted as indicating that the weapons were actually used by the women. There are several female burials in northern Germany which contain evidence of military gear, shields, spears and swords. Two of these are dated between 450 and 650 AD. More usually, however, the graves contain a single weapon rather than the whole equipment. Moreover, it is often difficult to be certain that the surviving artefacts really are the remains of a weapon.

In 1867 a Scandinavian female burial from the Viking Age was found in Norfolk, England. In addition to a pair of oval brooches this contained an object resembling a sword. This obviously made headlines, but it is equally likely that it was a weaving shuttle.

Weapons have been found with greater certainty in other burials from Viking times. In 1981, during an excavation in the neighbourhood of the village of Gerdrup in Denmark, a female skeleton was found buried with a needle-case, an iron knife and a spear. This grave dates from the beginning of the 9th century. It has been suggested that she was either a warrior woman or a woman with ‘man-status’, serving as head of a household which lacked a man to fulfil this role. In such circumstances it was legitimate for a woman to be buried with symbols of manhood. But this does not tell us anything about whether she actually fought with the spear.

In Sountaka (Hämne) in Finland a decorated sword has been found associated with a female burial dated to the 10th century. Perhaps here too we have a woman carrying out a manly role? However, later investigations seem to connect the sword to a secondary grave and not the female burial. Weapons have also been found in two female burials from Kaupang in Norway. In a boat burial from the last quarter of the 9th century, an axe, eight knives, a quiver for holding arrows and a whetstone were found in addition to a pair of oval brooches and other feminine accessories. In addition to these two, nearly 20 burials have been found in Norway containing both women’s and men’s equipment. Many of these were excavated during the 19th and early 20th centuries and are therefore not so well documented as the Gerdrup and Kaupang graves. As documentation is scantly or entirely lacking, we cannot be sure whether there was more than one skeleton in each of these graves. So they cannot be used as a source.

In the light of corresponding finds, it is not unthinkable that many of these Norwegian ‘undocumented’ burials were single female burials with a weapon. The finds are obviously not evidence that these women were warrior women, but they are evidence that women and weaponry were not incompatible in the Viking Age.

Was it possible for women in the Viking Age to appear as warriors in the battle line alongside men? Even though the Edda poems and many sagas should perhaps be interpreted as allegories conveying moral values in the form of parables rather than as factual accounts, and the warrior women should be seen as fictitious, there are many archaeological finds which associate women with weapons. As we have seen, such finds of weapons can be explained other than as weapons for use by women in battle. We have also seen that the gender roles in Viking society were normally kept strictly separate, and that it was associated with shame and dishonour to break those boundaries, though it was still possible for men and woman to break out of such bonds if the conditions were right.

It is however difficult to say anything about why some women in Viking society wanted to appear as warriors and about how some of them seem to have acquired the right to do so. There is much research still to be done in this area, but the preliminary conclusion is that women warriors would probably have represented too big a deviation from the gender roles of the Viking Age.

Viking Raids of Plunder

Attacks on France and Ireland increased greatly during the last ten years of the 8th century. England avoided the first big series of attacks. That changed suddenly in the 9th century, however, when for many people in northern Europe, Viking attacks became as regular as the cycle of summer and winter.

The first raiding bands consisted of anything from a single ship’s crew of 30–40 men, up to groups of 400. There is no record of larger groups than that. Most of the participants in the early raids were relatively young men. Even though they had good weapon training, these men were not skilled in strategy and tactics. They operated as independent collective groups on the hunt for slaves or booty. Despite the lack of tactical knowledge and the apparently chaotic organisation, the raids gave good returns of wealth and honour. In fact, the lack of formal military training may have contributed to the Vikings’ initial successes. They used unorthodox and unpredictable strategies, especially in combining land and sea operations, which were difficult for more organised forces to contend with.

At the start of the Viking Age, many of the bigger kingdoms in England and France had dismantled their coastal defences. This had reduced their capacity to meet the Viking threat effectively. But even with a well-developed navy and coastal defence system, they would have had great difficulty adapting to the Vikings’ strategies. While under sail, the Viking ships would normally stay out of sight from the land. When the time came to launch the attack, they would drop the mast and row quickly in towards the coast or up the rivers. Without their sails, the low and narrow Viking ships could be almost invisible until they were very close to the coast. Their shallow keels enabled them to land almost anywhere. The result of all this was that they often took sentries by surprise.

It was difficult to organise any effective defence against Vikings arriving in this way. People lived far apart, villages and towns were small, and people would need to be called in from great distances if there were to be any chance of repelling an attack. That took time. To prevent the Vikings from landing in the first place, there would need to be soldiers stationed permanently in forts right along the coast. There were few of these. Fragmented leadership also played a part. Local defence was seldom controlled directly by the king, but was left to the local leaders, who were often ineffective and who lacked the resources necessary to confront the Vikings.

The most important element for the Vikings’ success, however, was their basic strategy – outflank the enemy by approaching from the sea, and attack rapidly and forcefully, with yelling, screeching and clashing of weapons to paralyse the enemy with fear. A modern military expression, ‘shock and awe’, is a good description of what the Vikings tried to do in these raids: dominate the target zone with a rapid and overwhelming attack, accompanied with an appearance of great brutality. By these means they tried to paralyse their opponents and destroy their will to fight. As the raiding parties were usually small, it was important to prevent the population from organising a defence. Once the attack had been carried out, it was a matter of taking hold of the booty quickly and getting back to the ships.

An attack on a larger monastery or a village often followed a fixed pattern. Prior to the attack, the Vikings reconnoitred the area and identified the target. This knowledge could come from previous raids; from traders or others who had visited the area before; or from a reconnaissance party shortly before the attack. The attack had to happen quickly, so as not to scare away the booty of slaves to sell and high-ranking people to ransom, and to thwart attempts to organise a defence. The attack would probably be launched from an overnight camp not far away and would preferably take place early in the morning, before the population had properly started their daily routine.

The attack had to happen with sufficient forces and enough strength to immobilise the target. As the Vikings hoped to take prisoners who could be held to ransom or sold on the slave markets, it was important to prevent people from escaping. One group of warriors would try to take control of all potential escape routes, while another group would herd together the people they could find.

If there was time, they would now separate the prisoners into different categories. Those who could be sold on the slave markets and those they thought could be held for ransom, were taken away. The others were often set free. An ideal slave was usually a young man or woman. Older men and women, infants, the lame, the sick and mature men (who could be a security risk) were not sought after in the slave markets. People taken for ransom were often priests, shop-keepers, local leaders or members of their families. These had to be kept in the vicinity, so that ransom transactions could take place.

It was not unusual for people to be killed in the course of these raids, but outright executions of people who were unsuitable either for the slave trade or for ransom were not as frequent as the Christian sources would suggest. Why would the Vikings kill the prisoners they had no use for? They presented no military threat, and the Norse code of honour gave no credit for killing unarmed prisoners. Nor was there anything in their religion to promote killing for its own sake. Obviously, prisoners did sometimes lose their lives. The Vikings are not the only people who have committed atrocities when fired up for battle and under the effects of alcohol. It happens in all types of conflict.

In several sources there are indications that the Vikings often went to great lengths to spare the lives of the monks in the monasteries they plundered. Moreover, the descriptions of these raids bear witness that many survived. It was often in the writers’ interest to portray the Vikings as bloodthirsty as possible. The attacks were often understood as a punishment from God, a lesson to be promulgated and remembered.

After the Vikings had established control over the area and secured their human prisoners, they would start an organised search for valuables, livestock and other transportable goods. There are reports that they tried to dig up floors and ground in search of buried valuables. When they reckoned they were ready, they set fire to the place and withdrew. There was good reason for the fire. The Vikings believed in all sorts of ghosts and revenants. If you burnt down the buildings you plundered, you could feel confident that spirits would not follow you home to wreak revenge. Fire was considered the best defence against sorcery and dark forces. The whole operation would only take a few hours.

The danger to the monastery or village was not over, however. We know from the sources that the same target was often attacked repeatedly over a relatively short period of time. This suggests that the attacks were not centrally coordinated, but were probably carried out by small, independent groups who did not know where other groups had already raided. In some cases, places were attacked again after only a short time by the same Vikings, who hoped to take the population by surprise after they had taken their valuables out of hiding.

The Vikings rarely sailed by night. They depended on being able to reach land and set up a camp that they could evacuate quickly if they had to. Their preference was to set up camp on an island which would be difficult for an enemy to approach. If they stopped for the night on the mainland, they had to be able to strike camp quickly if necessary. Findings of tents and equipment, in the Oseberg and Gokstad ship-burials and elsewhere, show evidence of a highly developed capacity for mobility.

The Vikings often met tough opposition on their raids. When that happened, they would often react by scattering in all directions instead of fighting. This made it difficult for an enemy to concentrate his forces, but dangerous for him to split his forces and leave men vulnerable in isolated pursuit of individuals. The Vikings’ deployment of troops differed from the methods of the English and French, who usually advanced in large formations that provided some mutual protection for each individual. The Vikings’ main aim, on the other hand, was often to demonstrate personal courage and strength. An enemy who chose to let his soldiers engage the Vikings man to man risked defeat. So the Vikings often escaped by using the tactic of dispersal, retiring in smaller groups and in different directions, forcing the enemy either to split up or to withdraw. The Vikings would then reassemble at a previously decided location when the peril was past, and sail away.

Vikings and Anglo-Saxons

If you look hard enough, it is possible to find some good in any culture (except, perhaps, in certain candidates from the twentieth century), and in recent years, for the best possible motives, historians of the Vikings have been at pains to dispel the mythology that theirs was a sail-and-slash-burn-rape-and-pillage culture. It is known now that it was pressure of population on poor Scandinavian land that got them into their boats in Norway and Denmark and that they came bearing amber, fur and walrus ivory (as well as a bad attitude), and that their sagas were full of epic heroics. It is certainly true that when the Vikings (in the tenth century, for example) settled down as colonizers (and even as farmers) the dynamism of their trade and the beauty of their artefacts perhaps offset their ferocious belligerence. Cities such as Dublin and York thrived under their overlordship, enough for the latter to have recently invented a ‘Jorvik’ theme park, devoted to projecting a warmer, cuddlier image of the Vikings.

But with the best will in the world, the idea of the early Vikings as speedy Baltic commercial travellers, singing their sagas as they rowed to a new market opening, doesn’t ring quite true. Towards the end of the eighth century the reeve Beaduheard in Dorchester went to meet what he innocently supposed was a fleet of peacefully inclined Norse trading ships. He directed them to the loyal royal estate and was thanked for his helpfulness by an axe in the face. The Vikings were certainly partial to one kind of inventory – people (including women), whom they sold as slaves. A thousand such slaves were taken from Armagh in one raid alone in 869. A burial dated to 879 contained a Viking warrior with his sword, two ritually murdered slave girls and the bones of hundreds of men, women and children – his very own body count to take with him to Valhalla.

So it seems likely that the inhabitants of ninth-century Britain would have had some difficulty in finding the Norsemen ethnographically fascinating, being too busy defending themselves against dismemberment or being dragged off into captivity. Just because so many of the tales of their early impact on Anglo-Saxon life are alarmingly violent, and because they come from Anglo-Saxon, Church sources, does not necessarily mean they were untrue. Gaelic sources tell much the same story. At Strangford Lough, the ancient abbey closely associated with St Patrick’s earliest preaching in Ireland was completely destroyed. In 795 another of the iconic sites of the Christianization of Britain – Iona – was sacked, and in 806 sixty-eight of its monks were killed. Houses, then, which were vulnerable to attack from rivers, loughs or coastal estuaries had very good cause to take the Viking threat seriously. A small cathedral at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex, founded in the seventh century by a far-ranging mission from Northumbria, had been built on the foundations of a Roman fortification, and the monks must have been grateful for the solid masonry defences while they waited nervously for Viking raids, which they knew, sooner or later, would strike fast and fierce.

On the positive side, however, there was one thing that the Vikings did manage to do – albeit inadvertently – and that was to create the need for a consolidated kingdom of England and of Alba, too, which eventually became known as Scotland. This was not what they had in mind when their longships sailed swiftly and lethally upstream. What they had in mind, principally, was loot. The Vikings came from a Scandinavian society that was itself a near-anarchy of warrior lords, making gestures of allegiance to their kings in Denmark and Norway, but for the most part being permitted to operate as freebooters, taking as much land, plunder and captives as they wished. Better the marauder away than the marauder at home. The idea, before the Vikings began to settle themselves in occupied areas of eastern and northern England, was to inflict enough violence on a kingdom for its ruler to buy them off, preferably in hard silver. The principle was crude, but the delivery of the violence was efficient, and it hit the Saxon kingdoms at a time when they were themselves divided both between and within each other. The marriage alliances between the Saxon states had proved, under pressure, to be no guarantee of military solidarity, especially when Viking damage might be thought of as a calamity for somebody other than yourself. In fact, some of the Saxon rulers repeated the mistakes of the Romano-British four centuries before, by actually welcoming the invaders as a useful auxiliary.

Before he died in 735 Bede had worried a great deal about whether the Christian tree of belief had been planted deeply enough to survive the threats he saw coming from both pagan resurgence in the shape of the Norsemen and the new militant religion of Islam, which had thrust deep into the heart of Christian Spain and France. But even Bede’s pessimism couldn’t begin to imagine the scale of devastation that the Vikings would inflict on Northumbria, not only on Lindisfarne, but on his own monastery at Jarrow, and at Monkwearmouth and Iona, the capture of York and, most painful of all, the burning of the great libraries of the monasteries. When he heard of the annihilation at Lindisfarne, Alcuin of York, the court scholar to Charlemagne, the great Frankish Holy Roman Emperor, wrote: ‘Behold the church of St Cuthbert, spattered with the blood of the priests of God.’

By smashing the power of most of the Saxon kingdoms, the Vikings accomplished what, left to themselves, the warring kings, earls and thegns in England and the mutually hostile realms of Dal Riata and Pictland in the north could never have managed: some semblance of alliance against a common foe. After two decades of attacks in the north, the Pictish king Constantine I, consciously taking his name from the first Roman-Christian emperor, defeated the Dal Riata and united the kingdoms in 811. Likewise, it took the threat of common, irreversible catastrophe for the rulers of what remained of non-Viking England to bury their differences and submit to the overlordship of a single king, a king of all England. To attract this kind of unprecedented allegiance, such a figure would have to be exceptional, and Alfred, of course, fitted the bill. The Tudors thought him inspiring enough to award him, alone of all their predecessors, the honorific appellation of ‘Great’ in direct analogy with Charlemagne, Charles the Great. And for all the mythology about Alfred, it can’t be said that they were wrong. The Anglo-Saxons called him Engele hirde, engele dirling (England’s shepherd, England’s darling).

When he was born – in Wantage in 849 – the youngest son of King Aethelwulf and the grandson of King Egbert of Wessex, that realm, through the usual combination of war and marriage, had replaced the midland kingdom of Mercia as the dominant Saxon kingdom. The Vikings were still largely thought of as periodic inconveniences, mounting raids, stealing as much as they could from shrines or busy Saxon market towns like Hamwic (the ancestor of modern Southampton), extorting money and then mercifully departing to enjoy the proceeds. But of late their fleets had been getting bigger – thirty, thirty-five ships at a time – and their stays were becoming ominously more protracted. In the 850s they began to stay through the entire winter in Thanet and Sheppey in Kent. In 850 a fleet, which The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put as high as 350 ships, captured Canterbury and London and sent the Mercian king, Berhrtwulf, packing. Nor could silver be relied on any longer to keep them at arm’s length. In 864 the ealdormen (noblemen) of Kent had duly coughed up but the Vikings had decided to put the area to the sword anyway, just for the hell of it. The following year, 865–6, was the year in which the great Christian kingdom of Northumbria was destroyed at the hands of the biggest Viking fleet Britain had yet seen, with York falling in 867. By 876 the Northumbrian lands were being shared out among their principal chiefs. In 869 it was the turn of the king of East Anglia, Edmund, who, sick of making the usual payments, turned to resistance and suffered decapitation and impalement. It was now obvious to Aethelred, the king of Wessex, and to his only surviving brother, Alfred, that they, too, could not avoid confronting the Vikings for very much longer.

Much of what we know about Alfred comes from the biography written by the Welsh monk Asser, invited to the king’s court and doubtless eager to sing his praises. Allowing for idealization, though, the portrait somehow has the ring of truth, even the child already hungry for learning. Asser’s most famous tale of the boy-wonder describes Alfred’s mother offering to give a decorated book of Anglo-Saxon poetry to whichever child could learn the contents. Needless to say, Alfred not only committed the poems to memory but recited them out loud to his mother, half bookworm, half show-off.

But these were not bookish times. In 868, with the Vikings wintering in Mercian Nottingham, Alfred was married, in an obvious tactical alliance, to Eahlswith, whose mother was a member of the Mercian royal family. By 870 the Danes were in Reading, a direct challenge to the kingdom of Wessex. In 871 the two brothers, Aethelred and Alfred, fought a series of battles culminating in the victory of Ashdown. But before he could enjoy the success, Aethelred died, leaving Alfred the kingdom. The news that a second, enormous Viking army had come to Reading was not reassuring. With the collapse ofWessex apparently imminent, the entirety of Anglo-Saxon England seemed about to go the way of Roman Britain.

But then a series of small miracles intervened. The one failing in the otherwise impressive Viking killing machine was its tendency to congratulate itself on victory by splitting itself into pieces; not so much divide and conquer as conquer and divide. Presumably confident it could never be withstood, the great pagan Viking armies of 865 and 871 went their separate ways. In 874 some of the senior class of 865 returned to Norway, the rest settling down in Northumbria for the long term. The junior class of 871, led by a jarl (chieftain) called Guthrum, moved to Cambridge, from where it calculated it would make Wessex, to the south and west, its very own milch-cow. When Guthrum moved on Gloucester, this seemed about to happen.

For the moment, Alfred had no choice but to temporize, making treaties and exchanging hostages with Guthrum in an attempt to get the Vikings out of Wessex and into Mercia. For a while, the tactic seemed to work, even though Alfred must have been pessimistic about holding a pagan like Guthrum to any kind of sworn oath. Sure enough, on Twelfth Night, January 878, in the dead of winter and knowing that Christians like Alfred were distracted with celebrating the Epiphany, the Vikings launched a surprise attack on the royal Wessex town of Chippenham. The plan must have included the capture of the king and it very nearly succeeded. Virtually defenceless, Alfred was forced to take flight.

What happened next is the heart of Alfred’s legend. A fugitive in the bulrush-choked swamps of Athelney, he began to turn the tide against the enemy, using the inaccessible bogs as a defensive stronghold. Asser describes the prototype of the guerrilla fighter, leading ‘a life of great distress amidst the woody and marshy places of Somerset [with] nothing to live on except what could be foraged from raids’, reduced to begging hospitality from peasants, including the swineherd’s wife, who gave him such a bad time for burning her cakes. The stories, both then and later, have the tone of scripture (or at least apocrypha): a proud king reduced to abject destitution and stoical humility (especially when dressed down by an indignant woman); but then, when flattened by misfortune, blessed with the inspiration to take hold of his and his country’s destiny. In one of the many later stories surrounding the wandering king on the run, no less a person than St Cuthbert (who else?) appears and asks to share his meal. The king obliges. The stranger vanishes only to appear in full saintly get-up, promising eventual success and urging Alfred, like Gideon, to trust in God and blow blasts on his battle horn to summon his friends.

By the spring of 878 Alfred had managed to piece together an improvised alliance of resistance, and at King Egbert’s stone, on the borders of Wiltshire and Somerset, he took command of an army that, two days later, fought and defeated Guthrum’s Vikings at Edington. It was a victory so complete that Alfred was able to pursue them all the way back to Chippenham and besiege them for two weeks before the Viking chief capitulated. And this was no ordinary surrender. Guthrum was sufficiently impressed by the power of Alfred’s battle-god that he decided forthwith to enrol in the ranks of the Christian soldiers along with thirty of his warriors. He accepted baptism at the church of Aller in Somerset, where Alfred stood as his godfather, raising him from the font. The hitherto fiercely pagan Viking lords were now clad not in armour but, head to foot, in the soft white cloth of converts; their baptismal garments removed on Alfred’s royal estate at Wedmore as the solemn ceremonies were completed. So the victory over Guthrum was both martial and spiritual. Alfred had made a believer of him and received him into the community of the English Church, so it was now possible to make a sacred, binding treaty (so the king must have hoped anyway) in which Guthrum agreed to be content with his mastery of East Anglia and desist from attacking Wessex, Mercia or the territories of Essex and Kent, also ruled from Wessex proper. And this seems to be more or less what happened. Guthrum withdrew to Hadleigh in Sussex where perhaps he spent a bucolic retirement pottering about in un-Viking-like harmlessness.

Alfred was much too intelligent to be carried away by a premature sense of triumph. A single jarl and his army had been defeated, not the whole of the Viking power in England. By the end of the ninth century it was more than ever clear that the Norsemen were in the island for the long haul, no longer as raiders and pirates but as colonists. Alfred’s best hope was containment, for a modus vivendi with a Christianized and, therefore, relatively peaceable Viking realm. And although it was not quite the epic of historiographical legend, Edington did make the Viking kings pause in their sweep across the island and bought Alfred fourteen years of priceless respite, a period in which he constructed a formidable chain of thirty defensive forts called burhs, permanently manned garrisons, strategically based on the accumulated military wisdom of generations of ancestors: Iron Age hillforts, Roman roads, and Saxon dykes and ditches. His part-time army of the fyrd, raised from the thegns who owed service to his senior lords, was now equipped with horses, and put on rotational shifts of duty, so that whenever and wherever the Vikings appeared, they would always have a serious opposing force to contend with. When the Vikings did return in the early 890s, as Alfred had anticipated, they no longer had the operational freedom they had enjoyed in their marauding heyday in the middle of the ninth century. Alfred’s campaign forced the Vikings to settle for much less than half of the country, and a border running through East Anglia, eastern Mercia and Northumbria hardened into a frontier between Danish and Saxon England.

It was, at best, a stand-off. But when in 886 Alfred entered London (which he had refounded on its old Roman site, rather than the Mercian-Saxon Lundenwic sited near present-day Aldwych and the Strand), something of a deep significance happened. He was, as Asser wrote, acclaimed as the sovereign lord of ‘all the English people not under subjection to the Danes’. And it was at this time that he began to be called ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’. Some coins of the period actually go further and style him rex Anglorum (king of the English), the title with which his grandson Aethelstan would be crowned in 927. So there can be no question that during Alfred’s lifetime the idea of a united English kingdom had become conceivable and even desirable. The exquisite ‘Alfred Jewel’, which was found not far from Athelney, bears an extraordinary enamelled face, perhaps like the similar Fuller brooch, its staring eyes symbolizing Sight or Wisdom, a wholly apt quality to celebrate an omniscient prince. The ‘Alfred Jewel’ is inscribed on its side with the legend Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan (Alfred caused me to be made). The same perhaps could be said of his reinvention of an English monarchy.

In truth, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England was still as much a work in progress as was the mac Ailpin kingdom in Scotland under Kenneth I. But by the time he died in 899, Alfred certainly had transformed the office of kingship itself. What had been a warrior chieftaincy, the giver of rings (and Alfred was still celebrated as the greatest ring-giver of all), was now also an institution of classical and biblical pretensions. The king who was the translator of the psalms could never have been far from thinking of himself as a new David or Solomon. Like David, he would be the right arm of the Church of God – and a sword found at Abingdon suggests just how seriously he took this role. Like Solomon, Alfred assumed that the authority of the king should rest on something other than the arbitration of force, namely justice. So he was the first of the kings to set about combining the different law codes and the penalties for their infraction into a single, coherent whole and having them written and translated so that his subjects (or at least the half of them that were free, for it must always be kept in mind that Saxon England was a slave society) could have access to royal justice as a matter of course. To be sure, the justice that Alfred offered was kept well within the bounds of realism. Aware of the hopelessness of attempting to outlaw the blood vendetta, Alfred merely insisted that the king should regulate it, giving a grace period, for example, to the attacked party to come to terms before he was set upon. Pained by the memory of the Viking burning of monastic libraries, Alfred also saw the king as an educator. In his translation of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy) Wisdom gets the best lines, but Alfred’s commitment to instruction was also of a practical kind. Establishing schools, not just for his family and the court but for all his nobility too, was a statement of intent that henceforth those who presumed to govern in the name of the king should do so as literate, educated men, rather than as the bearers of swords and the takers of purses.

It was an extraordinary thing that Alfred’s most fervent conviction was that the condition of exercising power was the possession of knowledge. Of how many other rulers of British realms could that truly be said?

The Saxon kings had come a long way from the ferocious pagan axemen of the adventum to the makers of libraries! Of course, this vision of a peaceful, studious Anglo-Saxon Wessex was more of a noble ideal than an imminent reality. More than half the country was securely in the grip of the Vikings, and although in the tenth century the sovereignty of the Wessex-based kings of England would extend to the border of the Tweed, it was on condition that the Viking zone of control, the ‘Danelaw’ as it came to be known, would enjoy its own considerable autonomy. By the end of the tenth century a second coming of aggressive Viking raids would once again attempt to reach deep into the territory of Anglo-Saxon England, and early in the eleventh century a Danish king, Cnut, would reign over the whole country south of Hadrian’s Wall. But he would reign largely as the beneficiary of the Anglo-Saxon government established by Alfred and his successors.

Although the dynasty of the house of Wessex was battered and bloodied through all these years of tribulation, and was often on the point of being wiped out altogether, the ideal of English kingship that had crystallized under Alfred persisted. And it is one of the most profound ironies of early British history that it was, at heart, a Roman ideal of rule, which was implanted in the breasts of the Saxon cultures usually thought of as having buried the classical tradition. This was equally true north of the Tweed, where the kings of Alba (as they called the old Pictland after 900) named their sons alternately with Gaelic and Latin names – so that a Prince Oengus would be brother to a Prince Constantine. Alfred had, in many ways, been the most Roman of Saxons. When he was just a child, in 853, his father, Aethelwulf, had sent him on a special mission to Rome where Pope Leo IV had dressed the little fellow in the imperial purple of a Roman consul and set around his waist the sword-belt of a Romano-Christian warrior. In 854–5 he had spent another whole year in Rome with his father, collecting the kind of memories, even of the Palatine hill in ruins, that an Anglo-Saxon would hardly forget. Learning Latin in his adult life and translating Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care finally set the seal on this ardent Christian Romanism. And during the pontificate of Pope Maximus II, Alfred inaugurated the tradition by which every year, in return for freeing the English quarter of the city from taxes, the alms of the king and people of England would be sent to Rome, a tradition that ended only with the reformation of Henry VIII.

Of course, the Rome to which Alfred was evidently devoted was not the pagan empire from which Claudius and Hadrian had sent their legions into the island, inventing Britannia. It was, rather, the new Roman Christian empire. If Alfred had had a model in mind for his own exalted concept of kingship it surely would have been Charlemagne, and Alfred’s policy of bringing learned clerics to court seems to have been in direct emulation of the Frankish emperor. All the same, when his great-grandson, Edgar, was crowned, twice over, in 973 with solemnities designed by Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury (who must have known something about antiquity), the rituals that remain at the heart of English coronation to this day – the anointing, the investment with orb and sceptre, the cries of acclamation, ‘Long live the king, may the king live forever’ – owed as much to the Roman as to the Frankish tradition. And where did those two coronations take place? In the two places in England that most profoundly embodied the fusion of Rome and ancient Britain: Bath and Chester.

For whatever else he understood about this, Edgar was bright enough to know that, if he were to survive, the one thing a king of England could not afford was insularity.

The Great Viking Army in Wessex

The warrior bishop was an idea that interested creator Michael Hirst a great deal, and he saw Heahmund as a great foil for Ivar, the two being such wild cards. His role in the show is largely enhanced from the accounts in the history books. Because Jonathan Rhys Meyers has such an explosive performance in this role, it is likely that he has been given more opportunity to shine than the real Heahmund would have had in the history books.

In 871 the Viking army crossed the frontier of Wessex and occupied Reading. This was a royal residence and so was a collecting point for taxes and the royal feorm (food rents). As such it offered an attractive proposition to the raiders. The Viking army was led by two kings: Bagsecg and Ivar the Boneless’ brother, Halfdan. While two Viking jarls (high-ranking nobles) took a force further into Wessex to forage, the remaining invaders stayed at Reading and, according to Asser, fortified their camp by building an earth rampart between the rivers Thames and Kennet.

The West Saxons reacted swiftly to the occupation of Reading. Æthelwulf, ealdorman of Berkshire mustered the fyrd and attacked the foragers at Englefield (Berkshire), west of Reading and defeated them, killing a jarl named Sidroc. Four days later the ealdorman was joined by the West Saxon king, Æthelred, and his brother, Alfred. With their combined force they attacked the main Viking camp at Reading. In a ferocious battle the Vikings eventually gained the upper hand and the West Saxons retreated, carrying with them the body of Ealdorman Æthelwulf. It was a sharp reversal of the previous West Saxon success.

Within four days they were fighting yet another major battle. This time it was further west at Ashdown, on the Berkshire Downs. The exact location is difficult to ascertain but was probably overlooking the Vale of White Horse and on the line of the Icknield Way, a major routeway into central Wessex from the north-east. It seems that the Vikings reached the battlefield first, since Asser records that they held the high ground. The Chronicle explains that they assembled in two formations: one commanded by their two kings, Bagsecg and Halfdan; the other led by the jarls. Without giving much detail of the battle it goes on to say that King Æthelred fought against the Viking kings’ troops, killing Bagsecg, while Alfred’s troops faced the jarls and killed five of them. Both Viking armies fled before the victorious West Saxons. Asser – probably working from material provided by Alfred himself – adds the detail that Alfred began the battle first, since Æthelred had not yet finished attending Mass. The battle raged around a solitary thorn tree which Asser claimed to have seen. In a memorable phrase, Asser describes Alfred as charging the enemy `like a wild boar’.

Despite this resounding victory, and within two weeks of it, Æthelred and Alfred again faced the Viking army at Basing (Hampshire), but this time the Vikings won and the West Saxons were forced to withdraw. After this the pressure eased a little, but only two months later another major battle was fought at Meretun (the site is unidentified but was probably in Hampshire). There were a huge number of casualties and, once again, the Vikings emerged victorious. Amongst the West Saxon dead was Bishop Heahmund of Sherborne, [1] with Æthelweard’s Chronicle adding that he was buried at Keynsham; situated on the north Somerset border the location may have been chosen as a spiritual marker on the frontier of Wessex. As if these were not troubles enough, the Chronicle informs us that a new Viking force, the `micel sumorlida’ (great summer fleet) came up the River Thames to Reading, where they reinforced Halfdan. This may well have been the first appearance of the three Viking `kings’ Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend, who are named in the Chronicle in its later entry for 875. Given reductions in the size of the micel hæden here due to casualties and the necessary forces required to hold down York and East Anglia, these additional forces must have been very welcome for the Vikings; and the last thing the West Saxons wished to see arriving. King Æthelred may have been seriously wounded at the battle of Meretun since, soon after Easter, he died and was buried at Wimborne (Dorset). By an arrangement that had been made between the royal brothers of the House of Wessex the throne did not pass to one of Æthelred’s young sons. Instead, it passed to Alfred. Wessex was in too great a danger for entering into minority rule and the potential instability that would have accompanied this. This shrewd piece of practical politics may well have been the major factor which saved the kingdom.

Within a month of his succession, Alfred faced a large Viking army at Wilton (Wiltshire) and lost. Asser says that an initial West Saxon advance at the expense of the Vikings was eventually reversed when the Vikings regrouped and turned on their pursuers. While the sources vary as to the exact number, it seems that perhaps nine major battles took place in 871. However, this does not take account of the many skirmishes against smaller groups of Vikings, foraging away from the main army, fought by groups led at various times by Alfred, his ealdormen and king’s thegns. By the end of the year the Vikings made peace with the West Saxons and withdrew.

[1] Anglo-Saxon bishops and abbots led royal armies in 825 and 848, and bishop Heahmund was killed at Meretun in 871. Warrior-clerics were not unheard of in Anglo-Saxon England, a fact that is confirmed by the celebrated military actions of notable clerics in both 1016 and 1066.

While the relatively peaceful nature of English society (or, at least, avoidance of internecine warfare) probably lessened the importance of personal military ability for English clerics, they were still expected to contribute to the defense of the realm, both through their landholding and their personal stature in the kingdom. While some contemporary observers, such as Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, claimed that English bishops did not have the same military responsibilities as their continental counterparts, due to a lack of landed endowments, a glance through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle demonstrates this to be false. The contents, including military hardware, of surviving wills of prelates demonstrate this, as do the attempts by reformers to prevent clerics from engaging in warfare. The simple possession of such items does not, of course, represent evidence of direct military action, nor even an endorsement of such violence by clerics, but it arguably represents a familiarity with warfare and a recognition of the role played by clerics in support of royal campaigns. The earliest of the wills comes from Bishop Theodred of London, and dates from between 942 and 951. He granted to his lord, among other things, `four horses, the best that I have, and two swords, the best that I have, and four shields and four spears.’ The inclusion of the phrase `the best that I have’ indicates that Bishop Theodred not only possessed more swords, horses, etc., than he was leaving to his lord, but that he was also cognizant of their relative value and qualities. Tis theme is reinforced by the terms of Bishop Arfwold of Crediton’s will. Bishop Arfwold left an immense amount of military gear and equipment to a variety of people, including to fellow clerics. His will read, in part, `And he grants to his lord four horses, two saddled and two unsaddled, and four shields and four spears and two helmets and two coats of mail .’ The bishop also left horses and tents to several people, including Alfwold the monk. He left his kinsman Wulfgar three coats of mail, among other valuables. He also left a man named Cenwold `a helmet and coat of mail.’

The amount, variety, and value of the military equipment even elicited a comment from Dorothy Whitelock, the editor of this section of the document. She writes,

Alfwold’s will is remarkable for the amount of military equipment and the number of horses he bequeathes [sic], in addition to his heriot and a large ship. One wonders whether he was a fighting bishop. Homilists would not have needed to preach as they do against the clergy taking part in military affairs if this did not sometimes take place, and two ecclesiastics, Bishop Eadnoth of Dorchester and Abbot Wulfsige of Ramsey, were killed at Ashingdon in 1016.


Elfrida: England’s First Crowned Queen

Ethelred could not have been more than twelve years old at the time of his accession. He was at least three or four years away from political maturity and some sort of regency was required. Elfrida, as a crowned queen and the young king’s mother, was in the best position to take this role for herself.

There was no precedent for a child king in recent Wessex history. Both Eadwig and Edgar, the only other young kings, were both in their mid- to late teens and appear to have been considered fully fit to rule, as was Edward the Martyr. Ethelred, on the other hand, was certainly not politically mature. No direct details survive concerning the regency arrangements but, although a fiction was maintained that he ruled alone, a regency council would have been in place. Elfrida and Bishop Ethelwold took the main places, as well as seeking to reward their own supporters, such as Ealdorman Elfhere and Elfrida’s brother, Ordulf, who returned to court in the early years of his nephew’s reign.

Although the role of queen mother was invariably powerful, the only known Anglo-Saxon precedent for a queen officially taking the role of regent for a minor is Elfgifu of Northampton, the first wife of Cnut, who was sent to Norway in 1029 to rule on behalf of her young son, Sweyn. Elfgifu acted in her son’s name, but it was clear to all in Norway who was behind the new regime: ‘Elfgifu’s time’ is, even to this day, remembered as a time of oppression and disaster. Clearly, she made her authority felt in Norway, introducing a number of unpopular new laws.

Ethelred’s reign is chiefly remembered for the return of the Vikings to England. These attacks by Scandinavian raiders had largely ceased by the end of the ninth century. In 980 the peace was shattered when a Viking raiding army arrived at Southampton and ravaged the settlement there. It was the start of one of the most devastating periods in English history.

The first Viking attack in 980 was during Elfrida’s period of regency and she must have been informed immediately of the new threat, ordering that the coastal settlements be on their guard against future attacks. The attack quickly proved not be isolated, with a raid on Padstow in 981 and then attacks all along the south coast. The following year Elfrida and the rest of Ethelred’s council were shocked to hear that London, one of the country’s principal settlements, had been burned. In the 980s the raids were still small-scale and sporadic, but they soon increased in scope and ambition.

King Edgar and Queen Elfrida’s choice of the name Ethelred for their second son proved unfortunately prophetic, and the people of late tenth-century England were uncomfortably reminded of the reigns of Alfred the Great and his elder brother, Ethelred I, who were plagued by raiders intent on conquest. In 865, the very year that Ethelred I had succeeded to the throne, a great Viking army landed in England and spent the winter in East Anglia, marking the beginning of an attempt to conquer the kingdom of Wessex. Ethelred I’s namesake, Elfrida’s own son, was similarly plagued with raiders looking to settle in his wealthy and hitherto peaceful kingdom.

The Viking raids continued into the 990s and it became clear that they were there to stay. In 991 ninety-three Viking ships arrived off the coast of England and raided first around Folkestone before travelling on to Sandwich and Ipswich. The sight was terrifying, with the best surviving description of a Viking fleet, in the eleventh-century Encomium Emmae Reginae, declaring that

so great, also, was the ornamentation of the ships, that the eyes of the beholders were dazzled and to those looking from afar they seemed of flame rather than of wood. For if at any time the sun cast the splendour of its rays amongst them, the flashing of arms shone in one place, in another the flame of suspended shields. Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. So great, in fact, was the magnificence of the fleet, that if its lord had desired to conquer any people, the ships alone would have terrified the enemy, before the warriors whom they carried joined battle at all. For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, who upon the dragons burning with pure gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force? Furthermore, in this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low-born man, no man weakened by age; for all were noble, all strong with the might of mature age, all sufficiently fit for any type of fighting, all of such great fleetness, that they scorned the speed of horsemen.

This description refers to the Viking fleet commanded by Cnut in 1015, but it is likely that the Viking fleets of the late tenth century fitted a similar description. The raids themselves were no less terrifying, where the raiders ‘fell upon a part of the country, seized booty, attacked and destroyed villages, overcame the enemies who met him, captured many of them, and at length returned to his comrades victorious with the spoil’. The violence of such raids and their destructiveness profoundly shocked the people of England, who were used to the peace of Edgar’s reign.

The Vikings focused many of their attacks on the reformed religious establishments, which were, of course, newly wealthy. This was a particular source of grief to Elfrida, who had worked so hard to increase the prosperity of the Church. According to William of Malmesbury, Vikings burst into the church at Malmesbury Abbey, only to find that most of the treasures housed there had already been removed by the monks to safety. The large shrine of St Aldhelm had proved impossible to dismantle, with the monks reasoning that the saint ‘would protect it, if he wished. Alternatively, he could allow himself to become a laughing stock.’ St Aldhem did not wish to become a laughing stock and when a Viking attempted to cut the jewels from the shrine he was knocked down unconscious by the saint. Terrified by this, the Vikings fled, leaving the shrine intact. The Viking attack on Malmesbury shows something of the violence of the raids but, unfortunately, not all raids had quite such a happy ending.

The Viking fleet of 991 took the appearance more of an organised army than a band of opportunistic raiders. It was also comparable in size to the ninth-century Viking Great Army that Alfred the Great had faced and there must have been at least 2,000 Vikings present in Ethelred’s kingdom. While the king and his advisors discussed how to respond, the Viking army entered the Blackwater estuary and took possession of Northey Island. During August 991, an English army, led by Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, who was the brother-in-law of Edgar’s stepmother, Ethelflaed of Damerham, arrived at nearby Maldon and gave battle there with the Vikings. This battle caught the imagination of the English and inspired an epic poem praising the valour of Byrhtnoth and his men and, essentially, portraying the English action as a heroic last stand, with the ‘stout-hearted warriors’ standing firm in the face of peril. Byrhtnoth, in particular, was portrayed as a valiant warrior, fighting on even when wounded. Finally, the earl’s hand was smashed to pieces by a Viking blow but he still urged on his troops as he lay dying. The ealdorman’s stand was, however, ultimately in vain and both he and most of his men were killed in an encounter that proved to be an important Viking victory. The poem was also intended as a reproach to Ethelred and his government for their inactivity, with Byrhtnoth referred to as ‘one who intends to save this fatherland, Ethelred’s kingdom’.

After the Viking’s victory at Maldon, the raiding fleet spent four months travelling around southern England, forcing local leaders to buy peace from them.15 Paying the Vikings for peace was an established practise in England, with the intention being that the Vikings would then move on to another place to raid. This policy did not, however, always have the desired effect, as an example from Kent in 864 shows:

In the year of the Lord’s Incarnation 864, the Vikings spent the winter on the Isle of Thanet, and concluded a firm treaty with the men of Kent. The men of Kent undertook to give them money to ensure that the treaty was kept. Meanwhile, however, the Vikings, like crafty foxes, secretly burst out of their camp by night, broke the treaty and, spurning the promise of money (for they knew they could get more money from stolen booty than from peace), laid waste to the entire eastern district of Kent.

In this case, the Vikings did not actually accept the money, instead preferring to plunder it. What the people of late tenth-century England found more often, however, was that the Vikings were quite prepared to take the money but would return, regardless of their promises, soon after, seeking more. In spite of this, Ethelred had resolved to pay the Vikings tribute (or ‘Danegeld’) by the end of 991.

Ethelred is chiefly remembered for his attempts to pay off the Vikings with Danegeld payments and this appears to have been yet another policy on which he was badly advised. He held a number of council meetings at court once word had arrived of the defeat at Maldon. According to William of Malmesbury, a solution was finally suggested by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who suggested ‘that money should repel them whom the sword could not; so a payment of ten thousand pounds satisfied the avarice of the Danes’. Ethelred’s council were demoralised by news of the heavy defeat at Maldon and believed that the Vikings were invincible. The king immediately set about organising a tax to provide funds for the payment, as well as sending an embassy to the Vikings to secure their agreement to leave following a payment of £10,000. Ethelred must have waited anxiously for news that the Vikings had accepted the payment and would have been relieved when the fleet sailed away.

Ethelred’s payment to the Vikings in 991 was not as naive as it may first seem. The king was clearly under no illusions that it would mean the end of the Viking raids. Early the following year, amid reports that a raiding army still remained within England, he ordered a royal fleet to be built in the hope of entrapping his enemy and, perhaps, obtaining a victory on the same scale as Alfred the Great at Edington, a battle that had brought the ninth-century Viking threat to an end. Once again, however, Ethelred found himself less well advised than his great-great-grandfather had been and his plans to defeat the Vikings through a military campaign were betrayed. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 992,

here the king and all his councillors decided that all the ships that were worth anything should be gathered to London town, in order that it should be attempted to entrap the raiding-army somewhere outside. But Ealdorman Aelfric, one of those to whom the king had most trust, ordered the raiding-army to be warned; and on the night before the morning on which they should have come together, this same Aelfric scurried away from the army, and then the raiding-army escaped.

With advisors like Ealdorman Elfric and Archbishop Sigeric, who first suggested the Danegeld, it is no wonder that Ethelred recalled his mother to court in 993. By then, rather than remembering the irksome nature of his minority under Elfrida and Ethelwold, he had probably begun to look back at the early 980s as a time of peace and tranquillity. Elfrida was, by the 990s, elderly for the time. Like the rest of the king’s advisors, she was at a loss as to how to respond to the threat. She was never able to regain the influence that she had previously held.

Ethelred’s attempts to fight the Vikings in 992 had ended in failure due to the treachery of one of his own advisors and that, coupled with the memory of the heavy defeat at Maldon, gave the Vikings a popular reputation for invincibility. When a large Viking fleet arrived in England in 994, the king made no attempt to meet them in battle. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘here Olaf and Swein came to London with ninety-four ships; and determinedly attacked the town, and they also wanted to set it on fire’. The Londoners managed to drive the Vikings away, but they then moved through the country ‘and wrought as much harm as any raiding-army ever could, in all things wherever they travelled’. Ethelred and his council again decided on a tribute, paying the increased sum of £16,000. This time, Ethelred also resolved to meet with the leader, King Olaf of Norway, personally, giving hostages to the Vikings so that Olaf would come to him at Andover. This time his policy met with some success, since the Norwegian king promised, truthfully, never to return in hostility, but this failed to solve the problem since there were always other raiders ready for plunder.

Ethelred must have been concerned about the fact that in 991 he had been able to buy the Vikings off with £10,000, but by 994 this figure had increased to £16,000, an enormous amount of money. By paying the Danegeld, Ethelred inadvertently showed the Vikings the wealth of the country and increased their expectations of reward. The Vikings would accept Ethelred’s tributes when they were offered, but they always returned in greater numbers and the money paid to them always increased. The Danegeld may, therefore, have bought the king some time in which to repair the country after the raids. It was, however, only a short-term remedy and merely encouraged the Vikings to return again, seeking bigger and bigger payment.

In 997, a new raiding army arrived in the West Country. For Elfrida, who owned lands in the area and had been raised there, this must have been a grave concern. The raiders made their way around Devon, plundering anything they found, as well as moving into Cornwall and Wales. This raid became particularly personal to Elfrida when the Vikings made their way up the River Tamar and burnt her brother’s monastery at Tavistock, which he had worked so long to build. Tavistock was the great symbol of Elfrida’s own family’s commitment to reform and its devastation was daunting, with the building lying in ruins for several years.

By the late 990s, it must have been clear to everyone in England that the Viking raids were not simply going to go away and that a more concerted policy was required to defeat them. Ethelred was at a loss as to what exactly he should do and, in 1002, he agreed to pay the Vikings £24,000 ‘on condition they should leave off from their evil deeds’. Once again, this payment shows a huge leap in the amounts that the Vikings expected, and finding the money must have been a source of worry across the kingdom. This payment was followed in 1006 by a further payment of £30,000. Although the Vikings kept on coming, for Ethelred, there must have been some small consolation in the fact that they appeared to be content with raiding and accepting the Danegeld. This changed in 1013, when the purpose of the Viking attacks went suddenly from merely raiding to a campaign of conquest, a disaster for Ethelred and his kingdom that his mother mercifully did not live to see.

Ethelred’s entire reign was dominated by the return of the Vikings and it is on his response to these attacks that his reputation principally lies. On her return to court in 993 Elfrida was elderly, although the fact of the Vikings meant that she could not settle down to a comfortable old age.