THE RETURN OF THE VIKINGS

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.

Advertisements

Viking Armies Roaming England

The events of 1006 were typical of the calamity that befell England between 980 and 1016: a generation of escalating misery during which time Viking armies roamed practically unopposed across the rolling hills of southern England, looting and burning at will. A sense of the scale of the violence can be gauged simply by the number of conflicts recorded, particularly once the eleventh century got under way. Across England, there were (give or take) eighty-eight instances of armed violence recorded in the written record in the thirty-five years up to and including 1016; this compares with fifty-one conflict events recorded over the whole of the preceding eighty years. For the people of southern England, whose experience of Viking incursions had dissipated in the early tenth century, it would have felt as though a forgotten nightmare had dragged itself upright from the mire – a revenant horror, long thought staked and buried, stalking abroad once more.

There are, of course, some issues here about the trustworthiness of the written record – chroniclers sometimes had a vested interest in minimizing or exaggerating the travails of various monarchs – but it is evident that the quarter-century after Eric Bloodaxe’s death in 954 had been noteworthy for its stability, its lack of dramatic incident. This seems, in large part, to have been down to the firm grip of one king – a man largely forgotten today, but with a good claim to being one of the most successful and impressive of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England: Edgar pacificus – Edgar the Peaceful. It is a name that conjures up images of quiet and contemplation, a just and gentle ruler whose benevolent rule would usher in the golden age of peace and plenty that twelfth-century chroniclers imagined he and his subjects had enjoyed. It was they, however, and not his peers, who conferred the epithet pacificus upon him: his contemporaries would take a rather different view.

King Eadred died in 955, one year after seeing his rule extended, formally and finally, to include Northumbria within the English kingdom. He was succeeded by his nephew Eadwig, Edmund’s son, but he died in 959 and was succeeded by his brother, Edgar. The most famous achievement of Edgar’s reign – and the one incident for which he is chiefly remembered – came towards the end of his life. In 973, he arrived at Chester with – according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – his entire naval force, there to meet with the other principal rulers of Britain. Different Norman historians give varying lists of the potentates who were present, but probably among them were Kenneth II of Scotland, Malcolm of Strathclyde, Iago ab Idwal Foel of Gwynedd and Maccus Haraldsson, whom William of Malmesbury called archipirata (‘arch-pirate’) and others referred to as plurimarum rex insularum (‘king of many islands’ – probably Man and the Hebrides). No doubt there were serious and practical issues to discuss – matters of borders and security and the safety of shipping and trade and so on. What Anglo-Norman historians saw fit to record happening there, however, was a most extraordinary spectacle: at least half a dozen of the most powerful men in the islands, cowed into submission by Edgar’s majestic presence (or, more likely, the menacing presence of his enormous war-fleet), rowing the English king in a barge down the River Dee. It was a very physical, and very public, demonstration of what it meant to be a ‘little kinglet’ in Edgar’s Britain.

It may be that the way this incident was reported in Anglo-Norman sources was deliberately intended to promote an anachronistic idea of English superiority – issues of insular power dynamics were very much alive in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and, indeed, have never really gone away. But there is little doubt about who was at the top of the British political food chain in the 970s and, regardless of the details of what took place, it seems likely that the meeting was partly concerned with thrashing out issues of precedence, of putting lands, people and princes into their rightful places; for Edgar seems to have been a king who was obsessed with order. His laws reveal an administration that was determined to regulate and reform – creating nationwide standards of weights and measures and ensuring that coinage was made to uniform standards everywhere it was produced: gone were the idiosyncratic designs of the old Viking kings at York. Edgar’s coinage would look and weigh the same, whether it was minted there, or in Exeter, Chester, Canterbury, Lincoln or Norwich (or anywhere else that coins were made). He was also interested in bringing the whole of his realm into administrative harmony and ensuring that justice was both available and correctly applied. Wessex had long been organized by shires and hundreds, but everywhere else had had different (though perhaps similar) systems of organization. Edgar – perhaps drawing on precedents set by his immediate predecessors – formalized this system, creating new stipulations for the way that courts were held at the hundred (or wapentake in ‘Danish’ areas) and shire level, making attendance obligatory for the land-holding class.

What really cemented Edgar’s legacy, however, was the unprecedented period of peace and stability that England seems to have enjoyed until his death in 975. It was a peace that was achieved to a certain degree at the expense of others: repeated punitive raids into Welsh territory demonstrate that Edgar, despite his nickname, was no pacifist. (Indeed, pacificus can be translated as ‘Pacifier’, just as it can as ‘Peaceable’ or ‘Peaceful’.) It was also a peace paid for through unprecedented investment in the kingdom’s naval defences: during his reign the number of English warships, according to later accounts, reached an improbable 4,800, and it is likely that reforms to the manner in which ships and mariners were recruited and obliged to serve the king began during Edgar’s reign. It also seems likely that the king’s naval power was founded in part on paid fleets of Viking mercenaries. The swelling of English royal authority may have meant that, for some Viking war-bands plying the seas around Britain, the risks of plunder were becoming intolerably high, while at the same time the wealth that the English king commanded may have become an increasingly attractive source of patronage to those prepared to work for him.

All of these achievements added up to what most medieval writers felt constituted a ‘Good King’: he enforced justice, brought prosperity, upheld the Church and bullied and humiliated all the other (non-English) inhabitants of Britain – especially the Welsh. This was the sort of thing that was guaranteed to ensure a favourable write-up, and indeed his obituary in the D text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is largely comprised of effusive praise. And yet, in the eyes of the chronicler – almost certainly Archbishop Wulfstan II of York (d. 1023) – all of his achievements were undermined by the ‘one misdeed […] he practised too widely’. King Edgar, Wulfstan disgustedly reveals, ‘loved foul foreign customs and brought heathen habits into this land too firmly, and he enticed outsiders and lured dangerous foreign-folk into this country’.

This censure may have stemmed in part from the pragmatic and conciliatory approach that Edgar adopted. Large parts of his realm had been settled by people of Scandinavian origin for over a century, producing a mixed population whose tastes, trading connections and family ties were as intimately tangled with the wider North Sea world as they were with the populations of Winchester, London or Canterbury. Edgar understood that local interests and national cohesion could be jointly served by recognizing the distinctiveness of local laws and customs in those regions which had become – in Anglo-Saxon parlance – ‘Danish’. In his fourth major law code, Edgar promised that ‘there should be in force amongst the Danes such good laws as they best decide […] because of your loyalty, which you have always shown me’. The sudden shift from third to second person feels clumsy when written down, but read out loud at a Northumbrian wapentake or north Mercian thing-site, it may have had real dramatic force: that sudden turn to the camera, the steady eye contact that the pronouns imply, delivered a disarmingly direct and personal address from the king exclusively to his Danish subjects.

In some ways, this recognition of a separate and parallel legal tradition stands at odds with Edgar’s stated intention (in the same code) to create laws for ‘all the nation, whether Englishmen, Danes or Britons, in every province of my dominion’. But, seen more broadly, this limited concession (it does not seem to have overruled all the king’s other edicts relating to coinage and administration) can be understood as the product of a keen political intelligence, one that recognized that – in the long term – the cause of national unity was better served by establishing trust and mitigating grievance than by lumbering authoritarianism. The result was the real ‘Danelaw’, a practical solution intended to bring the most reluctant of his new subjects willingly inside his vision for a coherent and cohesive English state.

Attitudes towards strangers in Anglo-Saxon England had not always been kind, but xenophobia seems to have peaked in the late tenth century, perhaps buoyed by the rising sense of English identity that had been growing since the reign of Athelstan but conditioned over two centuries of Viking depredations of one sort or another. For his own part, the king seems to have been alive to any threat that such sentiments could pose to the peace of his realm (and his revenues). In 969, ‘King Edgar ravaged across all of Thanet,’ apparently because the locals had roughed up some Scandinavian traders. Hostility to foreign nationals on England’s estuarine outposts has a distressingly long history, but few have responded so robustly as Edgar. According to the Norman historian Roger of Wendover, the king was ‘moved with exceeding rage against the spoilers, deprived them of all their goods, and put some of them to death’.

It was presumably this sort of thing that so offended Archbishop Wulfstan. In 975, however, he would doubtless have been relieved to discover that no longer would he have to endure the ‘foul foreign customs’ that Edgar had so perversely enjoyed. For in that year the king died. He was thirty-one years old. There followed a disputed succession and the short reign of Edgar’s son Edward, known as ‘the Martyr’ – the last of the long line of ‘Ed’ kings. When Edward died in March 978, he was replaced by his brother Æthelred. The new king was only a boy of twelve, but he came to the throne already in shadow, his people divided in their loyalties: Edward had died, not of natural causes like their father, but at the hands of men loyal to Æthelred, done to death at Corfe (Dorset). Whether the new king was himself complicit in the killing has generally been doubted by historians, but it can have done little to endear those people to him who had supported his brother’s claim. Even as stories of Edward’s (improbable) sanctity and martyrdom began to spread, so Æthelred’s reputation was stained – like Eric’s – with fratricide. Little that occurred over the following forty years would help to restore it.

Thirteen years into Æthelred’s reign, in 991, a Viking fleet arrived on the River Blackwater in Essex or, as it was known then, the Pant (OE Pante). These were not the first Vikings to return to England after Edgar’s death; raids are recorded from 980 onwards and continued with little pause thereafter. The crown’s authoritarian grip seems to have slackened with mortality and inter-familial strife and it is possible that, distracted by a succession crisis, the English administration had become a less reliable paymaster than it had been in Edgar’s day, leaving swarms of unemployed marauders plying the coastal waters. Southampton, Thanet and Cheshire were attacked in 980 (the latter menaced Norwegenensibus piratis, according to John of Worcester) and Padstow (Cornwall) in 981. Portland, the scene of the first recorded Viking raid in Britain, was raided in 982, two centuries after the first ‘Northmen’ had spilled Ealdorman Beaduheard’s blood on the Portland strand. In the same year London was burned. In 986 Vikings attacked Watchet (Devon), and in 991 a fleet arrived that harried Folkestone and Sandwich (Kent), before sailing north to assault Ipswich (Suffolk). This fleet – of ninety-three ships – was led by a warlord named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as Olaf. Most would agree that that individual can be identified as Olaf Tryggvason, a Norwegian aristocrat who would later – as king – be instrumental in the (often brutal) Christianization of Norway.

Olaf’s army was met on the Blackwater by an army led by the Essex ealdorman Byrhtnoth at Northey Island, a chunk of land adrift in the estuary, connected by only a narrow tidal causeway. Seen from above – as no one in 991 could have seen it – the frayed edges of the land are an alien wilderness, a madness of trackless patterns and dark pools, spiral rivulets and twisting gulleys, the rising and falling tidal waters cleansing and hollowing banks and channels, depositing the salts and nutrients that sustain a complex ecology of insects and wading birds; it is a dying landscape – swallowed by the rising waters, obliterated by accelerating climate change. A thousand years ago, the land was higher and Northey Island was closer to the mainland. But it would have presented a similar panorama – mud and water, brine and seabirds, the yellowing marsh-grasses and the cushions of dank moss, a flat and broken vista under an endless sky. The English were assembled on the mainland. Out beyond the flooded causeway, the Viking host stood arrayed on the island, their ships moored across the estuary – a hundred masts jutting from the still water like the ruins of a forest, blasted and drowned in the river waters. And there they stood, facing one another, bellowing their insults across the salt-flats as the gulls wheeled overhead.

We would know very little about what happened at the Blackwater were it not for the survival of an extraordinary poetic fragment, The Battle of Maldon, which offers in 325 lines of Old English verse a detailed and dramatic account of what transpired. The poem lacks its beginning and its end, a loss that predates the early eighteenth century, but it is remarkable that the poem survives at all. It formed part of the Cotton library (named after its collector, the MP and antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton, 1571–1631), an enterprise of far-sighted bibliophilia undertaken in the wake of the Dissolution of the Monasteries of the 1530s. Cotton’s efforts preserved the Lindisfarne Gospels and the vast bulk of surviving Old English poetic literature, among many other priceless works, but all were nearly lost in 1731 when the building in which the library was preserved – the aptly named Ashburnham House – caught fire. Much was saved – including the badly singed Beowulf manuscript, but The Battle of Maldon was destroyed. Thankfully, however, the poem had been transcribed in 1724 – less than seven years before the fire. It is this version that now provides the basis of all modern versions of the poem.

The poem begins with a Viking spokesman shouting his demands across the water, for rings (beagas) and speedily sent tribute (gafol) to avert the inevitable killing. The response that the poet places in Byrhtnoth’s mouth is the father of all doomed declamations of defiance, words that find their echo in every steadfast utterance delivered throughout England’s pugnacious history: the resolve of a proud nation – in the first century of its self-consciousness – to choose death before dishonour. ‘Out spoke Byrhtnoth,’ the poet proclaims,

lifted his shield, shook his slim ash spear, held forth with words and, angry and single-minded, gave him answer:

‘Do you hear, sea-wanderer, what this nation says? They will give you spears as tribute, the poison-tipped javelin and ancient swords, those warlike accoutrements which will profit you nothing in battle. Seamen’s spokesman, report back again; tell your people much more distasteful news: that here stands a worthy earl with his troop of men who is willing to defend this his ancestral home, the country of Æthelred, my lord’s nation and land. The heathens shall perish in battle.’

There would be blood. And yet, to fight across the causeway was impossible; for a proper battle to take place, the Viking army had to be allowed to cross, and this is precisely what Byrhtnoth, on account of ofermod, determined to do. This word – ‘over-mood’ rendered literally into modern English – has stimulated an enormous amount of speculation and learned wrangling over its precise meaning. Tolkien saw it in almost irredeemably negative terms – as hubris, overweening pride and misplaced confidence, a personal flaw that doomed Byrhtnoth, his men and his nation to destruction. Others, however, have stressed the connotations of exceptional courage, unusual reserves of energy and spirit. The ambiguities are obvious – does ‘over’ in this context imply ‘too much’ or an exceptional quantity? What, precisely, does ‘mood’ mean when it is left unqualified? My personal view is that the ambiguity is deliberate, that the poet has chosen to use a term that is essentially an empty vessel, ready to be filled with our own value judgements; all we see is Byrhtnoth, overflowing with spirit, with gusto, with eagerness to go head on with fate – it is up to us, readers or listeners, to judge his motives and his wisdom.

Across the river ‘the slaughter-wolves waded, caring not for the water, the Viking war-band; they came west over Pant, bearing shield-boards over bright water and up onto land, linden-wood braced’.

Some have observed the strategic sense of allowing the Viking army to cross; it was perhaps the only opportunity to bring this Viking horde to battle and prevent them from continuing the coastal rampage that had already struck Folkstone, Sandwich and Ipswich. This may be so, although it is worth remembering that this is a poem – a self-consciously literary product – and may not reflect reality with any great accuracy. Its purpose was to emphasize Byrhtnoth’s courage, his stoicism and the resolve of his closest followers to stand and die beside him rather than face the ignominy of surrender or retreat.

Byrhtnoth, for all his valiant leadership, was struck down by a spear and died a prolonged Hollywood death – fending off foes until finally slumping to the earth. Some of the English fled the battlefield, the poet ensuring that their names (Godric, Godwine and Godwig) would live for ever in infamy for what was – in reality – probably the wiser path in the circumstances. But wisdom was not what was at stake here: the animating ethic was one of loyalty, even in death, and of the moral courage that the English shared with their Viking enemies – the idea that to face death unflinching, though it came at them up the salt-flats as inevitably as the tide, and to die in heaps around the body of their slain lord was the greatest end to which a warrior could aspire.

The words that the poet gives to the elderly retainer Byrhtwold, steadfast despite Byrhtnoth’s demise, echo down the centuries as the unparalleled expression of heroism in defeat, the determination to go down fighting while all around ‘fighting men dropped down dead, exhausted by wounds’:

‘Will shall be harder, hearts the keener, our mettle shall be more as our strength lessens. Here lies our leader, all hewn down, goodness on the ground. He has cause to mourn whosoever from this fight thinks to flee. I am old in life. I will not leave this place, but I will lie me down by my lord’s side, by the man I think so dear.’

Maldon is a better poem than Brunanburh, a paean to heroic defeat that transmits pathos and emotional heft through the bitter-sweet song of hard-fought failure – sorrow and glory entwine together, pride and despair. These qualities are nowhere to be found in the crude triumphalism of Brunanburh, its poetic force squandered on surface glitter and hollow bluster, an English retort to the skaldic verses prepared for Viking warlords. And for all of the older poem’s proto-nationalism, it is Maldon that speaks more deeply and with greater truth to sentiments that the British have enduringly valued: that to face one’s opponent on a level field and to play the game fairly – to play with heart and courage no matter the outcome, to fight until the bitterest of ends – is where true glory resides, worth a thousand hollow victories or a thousand weaklings sent sprawling in the dirt.

The Battle of Maldon was, however, an anachronism even when it was written, a recapitulation of a heroic ideal that was growing old, couched in language that harked back to the ideals of a vanished past – to the sixth-century world of Beowulf, a legendary lost past. Perhaps this was the poet’s intention – to inspire his audience to hold themselves to a higher standard, to raise their spears in the face of unfolding calamity, a call to arms to resist the tidal wave of aggression, whatever the cost: a renewal of the heroic values of Old England. Now, however, the monsters were real, and the heroes were dying. As one scholar remarked, ‘the poem looks with longing eyes at a vanished world where heroes could act like heroes’ but in the context of ‘a world that was rapidly spinning out of English control’ – passing, as another Old English poet might have put it, into ‘dark beneath the helm of night, as though it had never been’

 

Viking Warrior Women

A number of women warriors show up during the Viking age. There is not a wealth of information available about each one, but the very fact that the literature is peppered with so many of them sends a message. Unfortunately, the tales have been taken from their Norse roots and rewritten through a Christian lens, which spins many of them as cautionary tales to be heeded by good Christian women. Jo Stanley, in an essay about Viking women in her book Bold in Her Breeches, claims that “society was being persuaded that lethal, wild, vengeful, and free-roving ways of living should be given up and that women should accept a meek and home-based role, and a Christian one at that.”

The Norse and Icelandic sagas, passed down orally but eventually written down, offer another option to explore the Nordic view of women, although the stories were almost certainly meddled with by Christian scholars, whose work reflected contemporary worldviews rather than true accounts of the Viking age. They do not for the most part cover pirate women, instead relating the tales of Aud the Deep-Minded, who was known as a settler; Freydis, the sister of Leif Erikson; and other women. Viking women wove tapestries, which have newly been the subject of research: textile as text. Stories told in cloth, although they do not always feature women, are presented from a woman’s perspective and are a compelling window into the mind of the storyteller. The stories that exist about these women may have been put down with a clear agenda in mind, but the reader is free to imagine what the authors left out and to attempt to construct another version of these tales, one free of religious or political motive.

In book 3 of the Gesta Danorum, the reader is presented with Sela, who we are told is a “skilled warrior with experience in roving.” Her brother, Koll (sometimes called Koller or Kolles), king of Norway, is jealous of the pirate Horwendil’s (or Orvendil) success and wants to eclipse him in popularity. (It is telling that a king could feel envy for the life of a pirate.) Koll sets off with his fleet to find Horwendil, and eventually the two run into each other. Rather than decimate their fleets in battle, the two men decide to settle their difference in single hand-to-hand combat. They promise to fight with honor and bury the loser as befits his station. When Horwendil bests Koll, he decides (for reasons not given in the narrative) to chop off another limb of their family tree and fight Sela, too, who is called in some translations “a warring Amazon and an accomplished pirate.”

Why was Sela in close proximity to the fight? Was she sailing in Koll’s fleet at the time? Did Koll choose her as a sort of second in the duel with Horwendil? Saxo’s account leaves out all these details. Some versions of the story claim that Sela and Koll were bitter rivals, one on each side of the law. Whether or not they disliked each other, it is generally agreed that both siblings were slain by the pirate Horwendil, although the lavish funeral rites bestowed on Koll are not mentioned in Sela’s case.

Book 8 offers another case of sibling rivalry—this time between Tesondus (also known as Thrond) and his sister Rusla. In some translations, Rusla is called Rusila, although Rusila appears to be a different maiden who, along with her sister Stikla, fought King Olaf for his kingdom. Rusla is also sometimes linked to the mythological figure Ingean Ruadh (the Red Maiden). Tesondus had lost the crown of Norway to the Danish king Omund, which galled Rusla to no end. She could not bear to see her beloved country taken over by Danish rule, and she was annoyed that her brother seemed content to let it happen. So she decided that if her brother was not going to take any action, she would have to do it herself. Rusla declared war on her people who had declared allegiance to the Danes. Omund was not pleased with this dissension and sent a unit of his best soldiers to put an end to her rebellion. Rusla destroyed the Danish contingent, and that gave her a brilliant idea. Why not aim a bit higher than independence from the Danish? Why not take over Denmark and rule both nations herself instead?

Fortune turned her back on Rusla, whose invasion of Denmark did not go well, forcing her to turn tail and run to save herself and her troops. As she retreated from the Danes, she ran into her brother, whom she overpowered in short order, stripping him of all his ships and troops but refusing to kill Tesondus himself; that decision would prove to be her fatal mistake. King Omund sent his fleet to Norway to attack Rusla’s fleet, and again she was defeated by the Danish forces. As she retreated for a second time, her brother Tesondus attacked and killed her. Some stories claim that he beat her to death with oars. For taking care of Rusla for him, Omund gave former rival Tesondus a governorship.

This story has more meat to it than Sela’s story, but there are not enough details to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. What was Rusla’s life like before she took to the sea? Did she regard the repulsion of Danish forces as her patriotic duty or a splendid adventure? When Omund’s forces followed her back home to Norway for a second battle, did she realize that she would not beat them? Did surrender ever cross her mind? And why did she spare Tesondus’s life? Could she have believed that, when their places were reversed, he would do the same for her?

Book 8 also tells of three women longship captains, who, although they had the bodies of women, had been blessed with “the souls of men.” Wisna, Webiorg, and Hetha were all fighters by land as well as sea. Each woman receives only a few lines of text devoted to her. Wisna is said to have been made a standard-bearer in battle and then to have lost her right hand in combat. Webiorg felled a champion before being killed in battle, and Hetha was appointed the ruler of Zealand (part of modern-day Denmark). Although there is almost no information about these women, the scanty tidbits are juicy enough to pique the reader’s interest.

While it may be initially surprising that this warrior culture, packed to the hilt with testosterone-laden images and heroes, had so many women warriors, a look at the religious structure at the time reveals that women were always, at least symbolically, part of battle. Yggdrasil, the tree of life, was the center of the Norse world. At the tree’s roots lived the Norns, mythical women who shaped the destinies of humans and even gods. These women were similar to the Fates of ancient Greek mythology. The powerful male gods, such as Thor and Odin, were subject to the whims of the Norns. In their hands they held life, death, and everything in between. It seems that, in Norse mythology, women ran the world.

Besides the Norns, Norse mythology also includes the Valkyries. These attendants of Odin moved among the Viking battlefields, selecting who would live to fight another day and whose battle was permanently ended. Among the slain, they also chose who would go on to glorious Valhalla, the big dining hall in the sky where warriors prepared to help Odin during Ragnarök, which is the Viking end of the world. The unselected dead were escorted to Fólkvangr, a field of the afterlife ruled over by goddess Freyja. The Valkyries are portrayed as beautiful and noble, helping weary warriors to their final destination, but they are also sinister—some early tales show them gleefully cackling while weaving a tapestry of fate made of human entrails and severed heads. They exist in various permutations across many pre-Christian traditions but have remained in Western popular culture almost exclusively as Viking Valkyries. These women, existing alongside men and performing a vital part of the battle rituals, demonstrate an acceptance by the Old Norse that women did have a part to play in war.

Modern research suggests that Valkyries were neither male or female but a third unnamed gender, which had masculine attributes while being physically female. Original depictions of Valkyries support this assertion and are a far cry from the sexy, undeniably female bodies shown in art today. Mortal Viking women seem to share this mix of masculine traits and feminine bodies, much more so than originally thought. Marianne Moen’s study of grave sites suggests that the positioning of grave sites and grave goods suggests a smaller difference between men and women than originally believed. She cites Cedrenus, an author from 970 BCE, who witnessed a battle between the Rus and the Byzantines and claimed that the Byzantines were surprised by the number of women they found among the dead on the battlefield. Even the traditional roles held by women, keeper of the keys or lady of the house, may have been more public (male) than private (female) than previously thought due to the role of houses in trade; a Viking woman would have been more like a store or factory manager than a housekeeper, since houses were used as trade centers by the Vikings. Moen’s research presents some new possibilities for understanding Viking life that are worthy of continued study.

#

A major pirate woman from this era was Ladgerda (also called Lagertha). Book 9 of the Gesta Danorum tells her story, which starts inauspiciously. According to Saxo Grammaticus, Swedish king Frey kills a Norwegian king and, in an especially cruel move, puts the dead king’s womenfolk into a brothel so that they might be publicly humiliated. Ragnar of Denmark is moved by the women’s plight and goes to Norway to break them out—and cause some havoc for the Swedish king Frey. When the news of Ragnar’s coming reaches the brothel, many of the women dress as men, sneak out, and join his army. One of them is Ladgerda, who “fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders.”

Ragnar must have been shocked upon arriving at the brothel. He expects to be hailed as a strong and handsome hero by the bound and nearly nude women, who would weep in gratitude for his selfless rescue plan. Instead, he finds an armed team of warriors already in place, ready to aid him. Even if he weathered that change of plans, he would have been really surprised to discover that his fierce new comrades were actually the very women he was meant to be saving. It was enough to knock any man down a few pegs, but it appears Ragnar did not worry too much about it; he was too busy engaging in a furious battle—with the women’s help, of course.

Ragnar and the women win the skirmish. Afterward, taking a leaf from the fairy-tale playbook, he goes on a hunt, asking everyone he can find who the mystery woman was: the one who had caused him to “gain the victory by the might of just one woman.” When he discovers that she is Ladgerda, who is not only brave and gorgeous but also of noble birth, he resolves to woo her. She is unimpressed with him but seems to know that rejecting him outright is not particularly safe, so she allows him to woo her as she installs a vicious dog and a bear in front of her dwelling to protect herself from any unwanted visitors (namely, suitors). Ragnar, apparently unable to take a hint, goes to her, kills the bear, chokes the dog, and grabs Ladgerda in his arms. The two marry and have three children.

Lest the reader worry that Ladgerda suffered an ignoble fate, be assured that the story is not over. Her husband leaves her for another woman, apparently realizing at last that a wife who puts out wild beasts to keep men away might not be that into him. However, when Ragnar gets embroiled in a civil war back home in Denmark, he sends to Norway for help. Guess who rides in and saves the day? Ragnar’s ex-wife, Ladgerda, who turns the tide of the battle with her 120 ships, ensuring a victory for Ragnar. However, the reunion of the old lovers is not a sweet one—after the battle, Ladgerda stabs her former husband with a spearhead she has concealed in her dress. She then wipes the blood off herself and claims the Danish throne, for, as Saxo Grammaticus tells us, “this most presumptuous dame thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him.”

Ladgerda’s story includes many more details than do the accounts of most of the other women who are featured in the Gesta Danorum, but it still does not feel like enough. Her actions demonstrate clearly just how she felt about being forcibly married, abandoned, and then summoned to help her ex-husband. But what happened in between all these episodes? What became of this remarkably gutsy woman? Some scholars have pointed out the similarity of her tale with the story of the goddess Thorgerd, the subject of several myths. If Ladgerda is in fact a goddess and not a mortal woman, her story makes a bit more sense. She alone among the warrior maidens is able to get the better of a man who desires her and rule a kingdom. She is the only one who gets a happy ending. A little pagan divine intervention might have been the only way for a Viking woman to come out on top in this collection of stories about bringing wild women in line with Christian values. Goddess or mortal, Ladgerda’s pluck, skill, and ambition make her an irresistible heroine.

Vikings in the West

A map showing the areas where Viking raiders and their descendants commonly settled. The true scope of their influence is of course impossible to record, as generations of Vikings became assimilated into the local cultures of England and Normandy.

A map showing the Danelaw, a region of England controlled by the Danish Vikings under an 886 agreement made with Alfred the Great. Like Viking Scandinavia, the Danelaw was politically fragmented and it was not destined to last. By the mid-tenth century the Anglo-Saxons had won the territory back.

There were two things that made the Viking raids stand out among the rest: first, they were pagans; and second, their attacks came from the sea. It is this combination that prompted the bewildered and terrified accounts from monks who were otherwise seeking a life of spiritual solitude on remote, rocky coastlines. For Christians, the Viking attacks were incomprehensible sacrilege – but the warriors themselves did not have the slightest understanding of monasteries, or the curious, defenceless men inhabiting them.

The terror was carried by the Viking longship: the most lethally efficient weapon of the Medieval era. The image of the sleek ship, sailing swiftly into shore laden with bearded warriors howling for blood, retains a dreadful fascination. But the raids were never the product of a coherent Viking policy; instead they belonged to the warrior ideology that promoted adventure, warfare and the forging of lasting reputations. The Vikings were great opportunists who often had no idea where they were sailing to or what they would find when they arrived. Instead, they would form a plan when they landed, based on whatever circumstances the local situation presented. This could mean a smash-and-grab raid, taking local inhabitants for ransom or slavery, or setting up a trading emporium. Later, the Viking raids extended to invasion, migration and settlement.

Invading Wessex and Mercia

With Northumbria and East Anglia under Viking control, only the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex were left to be conquered. But standing in the way of the Great Heathen Army was King Æthelred and his younger brother Alfred. The legendary Alfred first made a name for himself by taking sole command of the Wessex army at the 871 Battle of Ashdown. This nearly ended in his death when he rashly ordered a premature charge of his warriors at the Viking front line. But Alfred was saved by the timely appearance of Æthelred (late for battle because his prayers overran, according to legend) and his mounted reserves. This was fortunate indeed for the fate of England: Æthelred died in the same year and Alfred was crowned king of Wessex.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that thousands of Vikings were killed at Ashdown and their army put to flight, but after resting in East Anglia the Vikings won two major victories against the armies of Wessex at the battles of Basing and Meretun. The Viking numbers had also been bolstered by Guthrum, the leader of a new “Great Summer Army”, and now he and Halfdan’s Great Heathen Army (Ivar had returned to Dublin to seek out opportunities there) combined against one of the two remaining English kingdoms still resisting them: Mercia.

The invasion of Mercia was swift and merciless, and in 874 the Vikings installed a puppet king at Repton, the Mercian seat of power. Now the Great Summer Army led by Guthrum prepared for a full assault on Alfred’s Wessex. At first the invasion was something of an anti-climax. The Vikings attacked Wessex’s border and then marched around its fortifications to set up a camp in Dorset. With his kingdom breached, Alfred hastily sought a peace treaty, but it was soon broken and more military manoeuvres and diplomatic initiatives followed. In the end Alfred paid the Vikings to go away, and Guthrum withdrew to overwinter in Mercia.

Guthrum, however, was not finished. He was still intent on conquering Wessex, and to dismember the state he would first have to cut off its head. Guthrum knew that Wessex’s powerbase lay with its leader, Alfred. Alfred was Wessex: while he was alive men would still rally to him. So, during Christmas 878 Guthrum went straight for the kingdom’s beating heart:

878. In this year in midwinter after twelfth night the enemy army came stealthily to Chippenham, and occupied the land of the West Saxons and settled there, and drove a great part of the people across the sea, and conquered most of the others; and the people submitted, except King Alfred.”

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translated by Rev. James Ingram

With Alfred having escaped, Guthrum had missed his chance for an easy conquest. While Alfred was alive he was a threat, as the young king proved. Hiding in the marshes of Somerset, Alfred had no option but to conduct a type of guerilla warfare against Guthrum, now the oppressor of Wessex.

Alfred would mount sudden, surprise attacks and then fall back into the shadows of the swamp. It was here that the legendary story of Alfred burning the cakes originates. The story describes a disguised Alfred taking refuge in a forest cottage. Here it was, brooding in his darkest hour over the fate of his kingdom, that Alfred burned the cakes that the mistress of the house had asked him to watch over. Alfred accepted his sharp rebuke, and the episode represented the king’s lowest moment and the turning point in his campaign against Guthrum.

In the spring of 878, Alfred was joined by men from Somerset, Hampshire and Wiltshire, who were fresh from sowing their crops and ready for battle. This new army, which was a force large enough to rival Guthrum’s own, marched towards the Viking base at Chippenham, the place of Alfred’s ousting during the midwinter. The two armies would face each other a few miles south of Chippenham, on a slope of land near Edington.

Two-nation State

By cutting a deal with the defeated Guthrum, Alfred had forged the way for a two-nation state: one Anglo-Saxon and one Viking. In 886, the borders of these kingdoms were formalized. The Viking kingdom, or “Danelaw”, would occupy the north of England; the territory roughly south of the Rivers Thames and Lea was Anglo-Saxon. Alfred immediately set about building “burghs”, or fortified towns that his people could take refuge in during times of attack. Alfred’s agreement with Guthrum was shrewd. However, it did nothing to address the rest of the Viking population outside the Danelaw and many new bands of raiders soon tried their luck on Alfred’s shores.

The largest of these armies came aboard a fleet of 250 ships. It landed in Kent and confronted Alfred in a series of engagements before being chased into the Midlands and dispersing. Other Viking fleets were discouraged by Alfred’s new navy, which saw off another Viking force in 893. To many marauding Vikings, England at this time must have simply seemed like too much trouble. Instead, they turned their attention across the English Channel to the land of the Franks.

Svein Estridsson’s 1069 attacks on England were a classic example of Viking improvisation. Svein departed Scandinavia with invasion in mind and the possibility of whipping the newly oppressed Anglo-Saxon inhabitants into a countrywide rebellion. When this proved too difficult, Svein was happy to be paid off with the same silver and gold his predecessors sought nearly 300 years earlier at Lindisfarne. With Svein, however, the great Viking raiding tradition came to an end.

Raiding had brought a floodtide of wealth into the Viking homelands, which both encouraged and enabled their expansion overseas. Before the raids began, Scandinavia had been an insular, isolated society formed far away from wider view. At its peak a few centuries later, Viking influence stretched from America in the west to Constantinople in the east and the Mediterranean in the south. In this time, the Vikings had ruled over realms in Russia, Normandy and England; they had colonized Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Shetlands, Orkney and the Isle of Man; they had built settlements from Newfoundland to Kiev; and Viking blood flowed through the veins of Europeans everywhere as the warriors and their families became assimilated into native populations.

Viking berserkers

Individual Viking warriors known during the eighth through eleventh centuries for their ferocity.

A sixth-century bronze matrix depicting berserkers. Berserkers were associated with shape changing or the wearing of animal skins, such as the wolf costume shown here.

The berserkers were the semi-mythological Viking warriors who foamed at the mouth and fought with a strength and frenzy that made their foes tremble with fear. It is the berserker that has given us the popular image of the Viking warriors. Some, however, dispute that they even existed. Still, stories about berserkers litter the Icelandic sagas, where they are both venerated as the most powerful of all Viking warriors, and also despised as ugly, unreasonable psychopaths.

The word “berserker” may stem from “bare of shirt”, for going into battle without armour, or “bear-shirt” because of the animal skins that they wore. In the sagas, berserkers were also often associated with shape changing, and could take the form of a bear or wolf, or at the very least assume the qualities of these beasts before they went into combat. In Haraldskvæði, a skaldic poem about Harald Finehair, his berserkers are called “wolf-skins” and in battle they “bear bloody shields and red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.”

Berserkers are often recorded as being immune to injury or having “weapons glance off them”. It is unclear if this is to do with the animal skins they may have worn or a greater tolerance to pain achieved by entering into a frenzied state. This state is often described as a fit of madness, a fury known as “berserkergang”.

Berserkergang seized men with a chill that caused shivering, chattering of the teeth, a hotheadedness and a red swelling of the face. The berserkers then entered a great state of rage, where they howled like animals, bit the edges of their shields and attacked anything that moved. A berserkergang warrior was scared of nothing and would cut down anyone who stepped in his way – friend, family or foe.

An incident where a berserker fails to recognize his family is told in Egil’s Saga. In the story, Egil’s father Skallagrim is taken by a berserkergang – called a “shape-strength” – as he played a ball game with his son and another boy, Thord:

Thord and Egil were set against Skallagrim in the game; and he became weary before them, so that they had the best of it. But in the evening after sunset it began to go worse with Egil and his partner. Skallagrim then became so strong and he caught up Thord and dashed him down so violently that every bone was broken and he died. Then he seized Egil. Now there was a handmaid of Skallagrim’s named Thorgerdr Brak, who had nursed Egil when a child; she was a big woman, strong as a man, and of magic cunning. Said Brak: ‘Dost thou turn thy shape-strength, Skallagrim, against thy son?’ Whereat Skallagrim let Egil loose, but clutched at her. She broke away and took to her heels with Skallagrim after her. So went they to the utmost point of Digraness. Then she leapt out from the rock into the water. Skallagrim hurled after her a great stone, which struck her between the shoulders, and she never came up again.”

– Egil’s Saga, translated by W.C. Green

According to Hrólf’s Saga, the great strength and immunity from pain experienced by the berserker was immediately followed by a depleted state, where the warrior was “so powerless that they did not have half of their strength, and were as feeble as if they had just come out of bed from a sickness. This lasted for about a day.” One way of killing a berserker, according to the sagas, was to wait until his fury had left and then attack him in the enfeebled state that followed. In the sagas, berserkergang was a condition that could seize men without warning. At other times it came over a warrior just before combat. There are many theories about how warriors harnessed the power of a berserkergang. Alcohol, hallucinogenic mushrooms or self-induced hysteria have all been suggested. It has also been hypothesized that warriors underwent a ritual, which included a sacrifice to Odin and the drinking of wolf or bear blood.

It is known that Harald Finehair used berserkers as shock troops within his army, and other Viking kings employed them as personal bodyguards. It may be that these elite warriors were able to induce berserkergang at the required moment through ritualistic means. Reports of berserkers in battle variously describe them as fighting naked, or dyed in blue or covered in bear or wolf-fur – the latter was known as ulfheðnar, or “men clad in wolf skins”. However valuable berserkers were within the theatre of conflict, outside of it they were often described as a blight on society. The Viking warrior code demanded loyalty and fidelity to one’s leader and comrades; berserkers, on the other hand, were known to turn indiscriminately on their friends and loved ones.

Outside of their role on the battlefield, the sagas often record berserkers as brutish murderers and sex offenders who lived outside the rules of Viking society. They are described as looking like trolls, with “black eyes and eyebrows joined up in the middle”, and being “more like monsters than men.” It is perhaps no wonder that as Viking Scandinavia converted to Christianity, berserkergang became unacceptable. In 1015, Erik Bloodaxe banned berserkers and made the practice of berserkergang punishable by outlawry. Later, the duels known as holmgang were also prohibited. This prevented berserkers challenging a warrior to a duel so he could take his property and women. The Icelandic Egil’s Saga records such an incident:

Gyda went to Egil and said: ‘I will tell you, Egil, how things stand here with us. There is a man named Ljot the Pale. He is a Berserk and a duellist; he is hated. He came here and asked my daughter to wife; but we answered at once, refusing the match. Whereupon he challenged my son Fridgeir to wager of battle; and he has to go tomorrow to this combat on the island called Vors. Now I wished, Egil, that you should go to the combat with Fridgeir’ … On the morrow Fridgeir made ready to go, and many with him, Egil being one of the party. It was now good travelling weather.

They soon came to the island… Soon came thither Ljot and his party. Then he made him ready for the combat. He had shield and sword. Ljot was a man of vast size and strong. And as he came forward on the field to the ground of combat, a fit of Berserk fury seized him; he began to bellow hideously, and bit his shield… Ljot sprang swiftly to his feet. Egil bounded at him and dealt at once a blow at him. He pressed him so close that he was driven back, and the shield shifted from before him. Then smote Egil at Ljot, and the blow came on him above the knee, taking off his leg. Ljot then fell and soon expired. Then Egil went to where Fridgeir and his party stood. He was heartily thanked for this work.”

– Egil’s Saga, translated by W.C. Green

There are few recorded accounts of berserkers from the mid-eleventh century onwards. Like all pagan traditions such as spell casting and shape changing, berserkergang was considered a dangerous heathen practice that had no place in Christian society. Berserkers, alongside the god Odin they were dedicated to, disappeared from view.

The Danish Kings of England

historys-vikings-season-4-part-2-trailer-great-heathen-army-670x343

998px-england_great_army_map-svg

13205836_f520

The most famous of these Scandinavian kings is Cnut or, as most of us know him, Canute. Even today, the story of his vain attempt to turn back the tides over a thousand years ago is still told (although this story is based on a misunderstanding), but what else do we know about him and his eighteen-year rule of England? Cnut’s father was the Danish king Svein Forkbeard and his mother was probably the widow of Erik the Victorious of Sweden. He had one older brother, Harald, who became king of Denmark upon his father’s death in England in 1014. Cnut was with his father, Svein, when he died at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, but although Svein had just driven the English king, Æthelred II, into exile and had received the surrender of ‘the whole nation’, Cnut was forced to fight on in the confusion that followed his father’s death. Early in 1017, this young Danish prince was crowned king in London’s Westminster Abbey. There was certainly a degree of luck involved in Cnut’s capture of the throne: the English king Æthelred II died during the battle for his throne, and the machinations and eventual defection of Eadric Streona, a powerful Mercian noble, seriously weakened the rule of Æthelred’s son and successor, Edmund Ironside. Following Eadric Streona’s flight and a Danish victory at the unknown place called Assandun, Edmund came to terms with Cnut at Olney near Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, agreeing to give a substantial slice of his kingdom to the Dane. In the same way that Alfred the Great had given land to the Viking leader Guthrum, Edmund offered and Cnut accepted control of Mercia. But just over a month after this meeting, Edmund died and Cnut lost no time in claiming the entire kingdom for himself. That he was able to make good this claim shows very clearly, however, that Cnut owed his victory to more than luck. He saw off the threat of several rival claimants to the throne: Edmund’s sons and wife were exiled; Edmund’s brother, Eadwig, was exiled and then murdered; and Cnut married Emma, Æthelred’s widow and the mother of Edmund’s young half-brothers, Edward and Alfred, who had fled to the safety of their uncle’s court in Normandy. Cnut managed to neutralize politically the most powerful of his remaining opponents through a skilful blend of diplomacy, bribes, threats, and outright violence: the Viking leader, Thorkell the Tall, who had fought for Æthelred II against Cnut’s father was given the earldom of East Anglia and, ultimately, the position of regent in Denmark; while the treacherous Eadric Streona was first given Mercia and then conveniently murdered at the Christmas gathering at Cnut’s court in 1017, along with three other prominent nobles.

Although we might expect this victorious Viking to set about plundering further wealth from his newly conquered kingdom and to run it as some kind of military protectorate, Cnut appears to have done everything possible to avoid alienating his new subjects and disrupting political life any more. To this end, the new law-codes he drafted with the help of the Anglo-Saxon archbishop of York, Wulfstan II, were to all intents and purposes identical to those of Æthelred, and contained the promise to observe zealously the laws of Edgar established in the mid-tenth century. At the same time, most of Cnut’s army was disbanded, eliminating the need for heavy taxation of his new kingdom and providing an important psychological step in helping to restore a sense of normality to English political life. The men that Cnut gathered around him at court included English nobles, although many of these were new men who owed their rise to power and therefore their loyalty to Cnut. The most famous of these was Godwine (d. 1053), who was given the prestigious earldom of Wessex by Cnut in the early 1020s and who, before his death, was said to have ‘been exalted so high, even to the point of ruling the king [by then Edward the Confessor] and all England.’ Godwine married Cnut’s Danish sister-in-law, Gytha; his daughter Edith married king Edward the Confessor in 1045; and his son Harold became, however briefly, king of England in 1066. The family provides an outstanding example of the mixed Anglo-Scandinavian aristocracy that emerged during Cnut’s reign, with three of Godwine’s and Gytha’s children bearing Scandinavian names (Swein, Harold, and Tostig), and four of them bearing Old English names (Edith, Leofwine, Gyrth, and Wulfnoth).

Such was Cnut’s concern to set his throne on a firm footing that he wrote two open letters to his people explaining his absences from England in 1019 and 1027 – an unprecedented move by an English monarch, which underlines the importance Cnut attached to popular support for his reign.

 

Then I was informed that greater danger was approaching us than we liked at all; and then I went myself with the men who accompanied me to Denmark, from where the greatest injury had come to you, and with God’s help I have taken measures so that never henceforth shall hostility reach you from there as long as you support me rightly and my life lasts.

In the letter that he sent following a visit to Rome in 1027, Cnut seems even more anxious to justify his absence from England and to inform his subjects of his achievements on their behalf, his concern suggesting that all was not well at home:

I make it known to you that I have recently been to Rome to pray for the remission of my sins and for the safety of the kingdoms and of the people which are subjected to my rule […] I therefore spoke with the emperor [Conrad] and the lord pope and the princes who were present, concerning the needs of all the peoples of my whole kingdom, whether English or Danes, that they might be granted more equitable law and greater security on their way to Rome, and that they should not be hindered by so many barriers on the way and so oppressed by unjust tolls; and the emperor and King Rodulf [of Burgundy] consented to my demands […] Now, therefore, be it known to you all, that I have humbly vowed to Almighty God to amend my life from now on in all things, and to rule justly and faithfully the kingdoms and peoples subject to me and to maintain equal justice in all things; and if hitherto anything contrary to what is right has been done through the intemperance of my youth or through negligence, I intend to repair it all henceforth with the help of God […] And therefore I wish to make known to you, that, returning by the same way that I went, I am going to Denmark, to conclude with the counsel of all the Danes peace and a firm treaty with those nations and people who wished, if possible for them, to deprive us of both kingdom and life.

Looking at the documents that have survived from Cnut’s reign, it is very easy to forget that Cnut was a Scandinavian conqueror who had no hereditary claim on the English throne. Interestingly, many of the Norse skaldic poems composed at his court, which must have been intended for a Scandinavian audience, emphasize both his right to the English throne and his godliness (see, for example, Hallvarðr Háreksblesi’s Knútsdrápa). Cnut clearly saw skaldic poetry as an important form of propaganda, legitimizing his rule of the kingdom he had conquered by force. The poets who composed these stanzas recognized the importance of these issues to their king.

His reign was a time of stability for many of his English subjects, who were now spared the threat of Viking attacks and the punitive taxes needed to fund defences against the raids. This is clearly seen in the fact that there is no indication of any serious rebellion or popular opposition to his rule, such as that which followed the Norman Conquest of 1066. Rather ironically, Cnut’s control of England instead coincided with a period of political turmoil in Scandinavia, as Cnut sought to extend his control over his Scandinavian neighbours. In a remarkable turnaround, the king of England was no longer preoccupied with defending his kingdom from Viking attacks; he was attacking them in their homelands of Norway and Sweden. And he appears to have enjoyed some, admittedly short-lived, success, for in the 1027 letter to his English subjects, Cnut describes himself as ‘King of England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden’.

However, the North Sea Empire that Cnut carved out for himself rapidly disintegrated following his death at Shaftesbury in Dorset on 12 November 1035, during the short and turbulent rules of his two sons and successors, Harold I Harefoot and Harthacnut. Harold and Harthacnut had different mothers – Harold’s mother was the Mercian noble lady, Ælfgifu of Northampton, whom Cnut had married before he became king of England, while Harthacnut’s mother was Cnut’s Queen, Emma of Normandy. The two half-brothers were bitter enemies and, immediately after their father’s death, there was a battle for power. Harold won the first round in this contest, and was crowned king of England in 1036, while Harthacnut was securing his throne in Denmark, where he had been brought up. Here, Harthacnut was preoccupied with an invasion by the Norwegian king Magnus the Good and, in 1036, was forced to sign a peace treaty in which Harthacnut renounced all Danish claims to Norway, recognized Magnus as king of Norway and, most humiliating of all, made Magnus Harthacnut’s heir (incidentally, it was this treaty that Harald Hard-Ruler later claimed gave him the right to the English throne, and which triggered the (unsuccessful) Norwegian invasion of 1066).

Although he had the support of Earl Godwine of Wessex in England, Harthacnut’s absence in Denmark meant that he was unable to press his claim to the throne over that of his half-brother, and he only succeeded to the English throne following Harold’s death from a mysterious illness in 1040. One of the first acts of his reign was to have Harold’s body dug up and unceremoniously thrown into a bog. In contrast to his father’s reign, Harthacnut’s rule in England was short and unpopular: he levied a tax of 21,000 pounds of silver to pay for the expansion of his fleet from 16 to 62 warships, and he was accused of murdering Earl Eadulf of Northumbria. Danish rule over England came to a rather inglorious end just two years after Harthacnut’s succession: he died at a wedding feast on 8 June at Lambeth in present-day London where, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was seized by convulsions as he drank. Who poisoned him is not known, but there was certainly no shortage of discontented candidates. Harthacnut was succeeded by his half-brother, Edward the Confessor (d. 1065), the son of Æthelred II and Emma. Edward, who had been bought up at the Norman court, was keen to cut off all links with the Scandinavian past, and even forced his Norman mother, Cnut’s widow Emma, into political obscurity amid rumours that she had promised to support an invasion by Magnus of Norway. Yet the Anglo-Scandinavian Godwine family, who had enjoyed an extraordinarily rapid rise to fame under Cnut, remained powerful despite Edward’s attempts to reduce their influence. He had them exiled following a dispute in October 1051 but was reluctantly forced to welcome them back in 1052. Only Edward’s cousin (once-removed, through Emma of Normandy), William, was able to finally remove the Godwines from power and to reorient English politics away from the North to Normandy in the South in the bloody conquest of 1066.

While a good deal is known about Cnut’s reign and those of his two sons, the history of Viking rule in the Danelaw over 100 years earlier is much more shadowy and elusive. As early as 876, one of the leaders of the ‘Great Heathen Army’, Halfdan, is said to have taken some of his warriors and settled in Northumbria (north-east England), where they set about the very un-Viking-like activities of ‘ploughing and providing for themselves.’ This is the first recorded Viking settlement in England, but little more than these bare facts are known, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was more concerned with the continuing atrocities performed by Viking armies further south than with the peaceful ploughing by Viking farmers in the far north of the country. Clearly, however, Halfdan must have wielded some political power in the area where he settled. The most likely candidate for Halfdan’s seat of government is York, the capital of the kingdom of Northumbria, which had been captured by the Great Army in 866-67 and whose warring kings, Ælla and Osberht, had both been killed by the Vikings. York certainly became the most important seat of Scandinavian power in northern England in the following years, and the first definite reference to a Scandinavian king of York was made by The Chronicle of Æthelweard, which noted the death of a king called Guthfrith (also known as Guthred) on 24 August 895. Guthfrith seems to have become king of York at some point between 880 and 885, and was converted to Christianity around 883. Like Cnut, he enjoyed the support of the Church – in this case, the important monastic community of St Cuthbert, which had relocated from the vulnerable monastery of Lindisfarne to Chester-le-Street in County Durham. It may seem startling to us that these monks had such short memories and were willing to support a Viking usurper, whose countrymen had wreaked such bloody havoc upon their holy monastery of Lindisfarne less than a hundred years previously. But, in the complex web of political rivalries in the north, it seems that ethnicity never mattered as much as we might suspect. What was important was that political and economic privileges were secured for the monks, and a Viking king, dependent on the monastic community for his power, was much less likely to interfere than the Saxon kings of Wessex, who were currently adding the non-Scandinavian areas of Mercia to their own kingdom and were threatening to swallow up the rest of England.

Coins minted in York provide the names of two kings with Scandinavian names, who probably ruled York shortly after Guthfrith: Cnut and Siefrid. These coins, with Latin legends and modelled on the coinage of the kings of Frankia, provide an important illustration of how, already, these conquerors were absorbing and adapting west European customs to their own advantage. No Scandinavian king minted his own coinage in Scandinavia until around 995, and these early coins in Denmark, Norway and Sweden were essentially copies of Anglo-Saxon ones, but the new Viking kings of York recognized the enormous propaganda value of circulating their own proclamation of victory and power. Every time someone used one of these coins, they were reminded who was king of York. The names of the people who produced these coins, which were normally given on the reverse of the coin, were predominantly Anglo-Saxon or Frankish during the early years of Viking power in York, which demonstrates the conquerors’ dependence on the expertise of native or ‘imported’ craftsmen at this point – as well as these craftsmen’s co-operation with their new rulers. This was to change dramatically over the following century and, by around 1000, some three-quarters of moneyers had Scandinavian names. At the time of the Norman Conquest, all moneyers operating in York had Scandinavian names – a clear testimony to the popularity these names had enjoyed in the town following its capture by the Great Army in 866.

Although York was remote from the West-Saxon court, the Viking rulers of the north were inevitably drawn into the political struggles of the south. Indeed, it is likely that they encouraged them and tried to use them to their own advantage. Perhaps one of the most significant threats to the rule of the kings of Wessex in the period after the Scandinavian settlements was reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 899. Æthelwold, the nephew of King Alfred the Great, revolted against his newly crowned cousin, Edward the Elder, and was accepted as king of Northumbria by the Danish army. The young prince was later also acknowledged as leader by the Vikings in Essex and incited East Anglia to rebellion before being killed by Edward the Elder’s army. His threat to Edward’s throne, rather than his alliance with Vikings, was probably the greater of his crimes and in its description of Æthelwold’s death one version of the Chronicle, compiled at Winchester in the heartland of Wessex, stresses that it was Æthelwold who had incited the Scandinavian king of East Anglia, Eohric, to hostility. Interestingly, the so-called northern version of the Chronicle has slightly different wording at this point, and simply states that the Scandinavians had chosen Æthelwold as their king. To the southerners, emphasizing Æthelwold’s treachery was the most important fact because he was so close to the throne that he could pose a real threat. A number of other significant facts underlie the Chronicle’s account of Æthelwold’s defection: clearly there was serious political unrest in Wessex and the Scandinavians in the north of England were quick to take advantage of it. Interestingly the Chronicle still describes the Scandinavians of Northumbria as a Danish army, an alien force to be reckoned with, despite its earlier talk of ploughing and settling down. Were the descendants of Halfdan’s army still really organized into an army over twenty years after they settled in Northumbria, or did the court-based chronicler want to play up the treachery of Æthelwold and the threat that Northumbria posed to Wessex in order to justify and glorify Edward’s actions and achievements? The Anglo-Saxon word for army is here, and as late as 1013, when describing Svein Forkbeard’s campaign of conquest in England, the Chronicle refers to the Scandinavian settlers of the Danelaw in this way:

And then Earl Uhtred and all Northumbria immediately submitted to him [Svein Forkbeard], and all the people in Lindsey, and afterwards the people of the Five Boroughs, and quickly after, all the raiding army [here] to the north of Watling Street.

Dorothy Whitelock notes that the word here seems to be ‘used in the sense of the organised inhabitants of an area of Danish settlement.’ Clearly, almost 150 years after the first Scandinavians settled in northern and eastern England, the colonists were no longer the soldiers of a Viking army, but memories of their ancestors lived on in English minds.

The episode of Æthelwold’s rebellion neatly demonstrates that the Viking Age in England was more than the straightforward clash of Scandinavians and English: there was north-south rivalry and, more particularly, conflict between Wessex and the rest of England as Alfred the Great’s descendants sought to unite the country under their own rule. In the north of England, this brought them into conflict with the Scots as well as the Vikings. Edward’s ‘reconquest’ of the Danelaw was a campaign to strengthen his own position rather than an idealistic or ethnically driven crusade to put England under English kings again – the fact was that the kings of Wessex had never before held power in northern England. The presence of the Vikings in the north provided a convenient excuse and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to extend southern power into the north, where longestablished English dynasties had been driven out by the Scandinavians and where the new rulers were not yet properly or securely established.

As the Æthelwold episode and the ‘reconquest’ show, however, the Viking kings of York were not the only force to be reckoned with in the Danelaw – East Anglia, the Five Boroughs of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford, and Lincoln, and areas of the present-day counties of Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire had each been occupied by different ‘armies’ which recognized different leaders and rulers, some of whom are named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account of the reconquest of the Danelaw. Many of these men bore the title of jarl, the Scandinavian word for earl, or hold, a lesser noble, but some are called king: for example, Eohric of East Anglia who was killed in 904 with Æthelwold; Eowils and Halfdan of Northumbria who were killed in the Battle of Tettenhall in 910; and an unnamed king killed at Tempsford in 920. The geopolitical fragmentation of the Danelaw is also reflected in the way that Edward and his sister, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, won territory from the Vikings bit by bit: the southern part of Danelaw (Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire) had fallen to Edward and Æthelflæd by 914; East Anglia was brought under English control in 917; the reconquest of the Five Boroughs was accomplished in the period 917-920; while, despite the capture of York by Æthelflæd in 918, the southern part of Northumbria, the old kingdom of Deira, remained intermittently independent until the death of its last Scandinavian king in 954.

Anglo-Saxon England and Welsh Armed Forces Against the Vikings

sxdscx

xcwdeewdc

sddf

The core of an army in Anglo-Saxon England was the king’s military household, whose members served their lord in return for reward, by the seventh century increasingly given as landholdings. Nobles and royal officers had their own households, which could be summoned to the army. Young warriors served a form of apprenticeship in these households before they married and settled on their lands. In another parallel development with Francia, changes occurred in the methods of raising armies in England in the eighth and ninth centuries. At the time when the Viking “Great Army” appeared in England there may have been a problem with increasing amounts of land being donated to the Church, both by kings and by aristocratic families. In the late seventh century Bede had claimed that this was diminishing the amount of land providing warriors in Northumbria. It may be that ecclesiastical land was held by the family in perpetuity, rather than being dependent on good service to the king. Alternatively, many earlier landholdings were also held in perpetuity, but the granting of them by charter, which made them “bookland,” enabled a lord to bequeath it to a person or persons of his choice rather than being compelled to divide it amongst his inheritors.

Charters of late eighth-century Mercia and Kent make it clear that there were three common obligations to the king: fortress work, bridge work, and military service. Church lands were obliged to provide labor services such as repair of fortifications and bridges, even if they were exempt from military service. Whether any were totally exempt is unclear. Kings like Offa of Mercia began to specify in their charters that Church lands were not exempt from military service, in order to maintain their military manpower. Offa used the obligations to create a network of forts and probably the Dyke on the frontier with Wales as well. By the ninth century these charter practices had spread to Wessex. It seems that it was around the end of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth centuries that kings began to specify the amount of military service required from a given amount of land: for instance, a Mercian charter of 801 says the owner of a thirty-hide estate should provide five men to the army, in other words one man per six hides, or more likely the owner and five men, one man per five hides. The five-hide unit is referred to in early eleventh-century tracts on social status as a designation of thegnhood. It also appears frequently in the listed military service requirements in the Domesday Book of 1086, but the variations it records in military obligation between shires tell us that this was not a universal standard throughout England. Notably, the five-hide shires largely correspond with those of Wessex and western Mercia. Given these variations, it seems unlikely that the obligations of Edward the Elder’s time were identical to those of Edward the Confessor’s, even if there was considerable continuity.

Many of the Wessex charters purporting to be ninth-century are forgeries. However, the reference made in many of these to two decimations of land by King Æthelwulf in 845 and 855 may have a basis in truth, as the ASC and Asser’s Life of Alfred also refer to the 855 decimation. The object was to provide a tenth of his lands to the Church, but probably also to give lands to thegns, who were the mainstay of his army. He, Alfred and Edward the Elder almost certainly built upon the one man per five hide requirement when they reorganized the military defenses and forces of Wessex and Mercia. Both Asser and Hincmar of Reims say that Church lands were exempt from military service in Æthelwulf’s kingdom. It is likely that the increasing Viking threat brought about some of these changes in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. When they overran most of Northumbria, East Anglia, and a large part of Mercia, and almost defeated Wessex as well, the Vikings gave the impetus for even more far-reaching reforms by Alfred of Wessex. The basis was the construction of a series of burhs, so that no one lived more than a day’s journey from one. Each had an administrative district that was to provide its garrison and maintain its defenses. The Burghal Hidage, a document which dates from the reign of Alfred’s son Edward the Elder, indicates that each hide was responsible for defending and maintaining approximately 4 feet of wall. This appears to correspond well to the length of many of the known burh ramparts and their districts. In all likelihood the system, which Edward and his sister Æthelflæd extended into Mercia as they reconquered land from the Danes, was little changed from that instituted by Alfred after his victory at Edington (878).

Alfred also wished to have an army available at all times. According to the ASC: “The king had divided his army into two, so that there was always half at home and half out, except for those men who had to hold the burhs.” The entry is made under 894, but the reform, if it was more than a temporary arrangement, was presumably carried out before this and after Edington. It is more likely to mean a division of the army into three, rather than the two parts normally envisaged, in which case a man liable to service would spend a third of the year on his land, a third garrisoning the burh of his district and a third with the field army. As Guy Halsall points out, apart from making a reasonable demand on the thegn’s time, this would enable the assembly of the field army straight from the burhs, rather than from innumerable individual landholdings. This would save time and mean that the men of each district were already familiar with each other and had probably trained together in preparation for field service. The ASC entry of 917 mentions burhs as assembly points for armies. While garrisoning the burhs men could also carry out fortress and bridge work. Both the ASC and Asser mention on several occasions that these men rode horses. This is additional evidence that these men were a select levy (fyrd). The levy of one man per hide of the Burghal Hidage must have been something else, perhaps called up in situations of imminent danger. Alternatively, they functioned as a “support force” for the real warriors, sequestered on the basis of the burghal system. Each man was supposed to provide twenty shillings for two months’ maintenance in the event that he was called up: this was presumbly the payment raised from the five hides for the support of the warrior (the ‘man’), perhaps on the basis of one per hide. Æthelstan’s Grately law-code states that “each man” should have two mounted men per plow (sylh). The latter would have been a heavy burden, even if the sylh referred to is equivalent to the Kentish sulung of the Domesday Book, which was two hides, rather than a single hide or even less. Again it may refer to the support for the “man” (warrior), who needed to be mobile to keep up with the army. Æthelstan needed to respond to threats further afield and more often than any of his Anglo-Saxon predecessors.

Even the warriors who remained “at home” might be called upon to fight if their lands were threatened. The Vikings were a mobile enemy who could strike at various points along the coast with little warning. In late 893 three ealdormen, Æthelred of Mercia, Æthelhelm of Wiltshire and Æthelnoth of Somerset, raised the garrisons and the “king’s thegns who were at home near the burhs” to attack a Viking army encamped at Buttington by the River Severn. The problem is that the terminology used by those who wrote our records is rarely precise enough to tell us exactly who was being called up to fight—for instance, the other folc who joined the garrison of London to defend it in 895 need not be read as “common folk,” but as men required to do service as soldiers who were not “on duty” at the time, or as commoners who aided in various capacities other than combat. London appears not to have been included in the Burghal Hidage, perhaps because it was on the boundary between former kingdoms. Despite the problems and uncertainties, we can be sure that it was the wealthier men who were expected to serve as warriors. Thus the military system required the service of a large proportion of the male population of England, but the fighting was (preferably) done by a minority. As in the case cited in Germany above, when “support troops” did encounter the enemy they were not up to the task. For instance, ceorls working on a fortification proved totally incapable of defending it against the Vikings in 893.

Whatever the exact functioning of the system, what we do know of it does not suggest a mass peasant levy. There are no signs of exemption for harvesting periods and the like, which suggests that the levy was not primarily made up of those who labored on the farms. The need to cultivate the land cannot have been the primary reason for leaving some of the men subject to the levy at home for half the year, as this would still have seriously depleted the agricultural labor force when it was most needed. The idea was presumably that some thegns remained at home to keep order and ensure that normal farming activities could be maintained without internal disorder or external attack. At the same time the system ideally provided a fighting force that was sufficiently large as a field army, but not so large that it could not be provisioned for any length of time.

Alfred’s (or Edward the Elder’s) reforms represent an attempt to exact military service from a wide class of landowners. As in the case of the contemporary Franks, in the burhs and on campaign the troops are likely to have been commanded by officers of the royal household. The reform therefore represents a significant shift from a system in which the king was largely dependent on the highest nobility, who were summoned by him and then turned up with their households and any other men they chose to bring, which they then commanded. We know that there was some opposition to Alfred’s reforms: in the 870s there had been some who preferred to submit to the Danes, and there must have been many landowners who were displeased with the measures he took after Edington. It was presumably the scale of the threat to Wessex that enabled Alfred to carry out his reforms, which may have involved seizure of Church property as well.

Alfred’s reforms did not make the king less dependent on the nobility, but created a greater bond between many of them and his court. Those who served the household directly were provided for and in return would have owed service. Others may have been granted land in return for service. All this increased the status of the king. However, as Richard Abels made clear in his work on lordship and military obligation, many nobles were “sub-contracted” to raise fyrdmen in districts where they, and not the sheriff or other exactor of royal service, had jurisdiction. One such was the Bishop of Worcester, who held one hundred of three hundred hides at Oswaldslow in this way “by a constitution of ancient times” when the Domesday Bookwas compiled. Elsewhere abbots and other churchmen, as well as thegns, had similar rights, if generally over less lands and inhabitants.

There were thus two groups of fyrdmen: those who held their land of the king by book-right and had rights of jurisdiction by royal favor, and those who held land as a loan from another lord or under his seignory. The first category of fyrdman was heavily punished for not attending a summons by the king, usually with loss of his possessions. Although the word fyrdwiteappears in the Laws of Ine, it is not clear what this means, and no reference to it as a fine for failure to perform fyrd service (or as a commutation of it) imposed by the king occurs before Cnut’s time. Thereafter the term appears only rarely, suggesting that its use was infrequent. The second category of fyrdmen was not directly the king’s concern: all that concerned him was that the lord who was obliged to provide a certain number of men per hide fulfilled this provision one way or another. Abels emphasized that the situation in Worcestershire may not have been typical of England as a whole, but there are indications that it was similar to some other shires, if not necessarily the majority. There would have been important consequences of such a system—firstly, many of the king’s most important lieutenants would have had to command their own contingents in the battle line and could not have stayed close to the king, and secondly, a considerable number of those provided by lords with their own jurisdictions may have been mercenaries, paid for to make up the quota for their hides, but not necessarily levies of the hides. Such commands would also have perpetuated the existence of regional contingents that had a distinct identity and perhaps ancient privileges as to position in the battle line. John of Salisbury claimed that the men of Kent held the right to strike the first blow, and the men of London the right to protect the king.

The “men of London” may in fact have been the housecarls. This group of warriors has attracted a great deal of attention, without any certainty as to who they actually were and how they served the king. They have been seen as a form of military brotherhood like the Jomsvikings (in any case of doubtful historicity) or as an early standing army. Alternatively, it has been suggested that there was little difference between them and other thegns. There is no doubt that the term “housecarl” is of Scandinavian origin, and that Cnut’s conquest altered the nature of the king’s household. Even in Domesday Book sixteen of the eighteen thegns recorded as landowning housecarls had Scandinavian names, but this does not necessarily mean that that a new type of guard corps was imported wholesale to help Cnut maintain his rule over a conquered land. The question may simply be one of a change in terminology, as we know that previous English kings maintained royal thegns, for which “huskarl” may have been a translation. Domesday Book may similarly have used “housecarl” simply as a synonym for royal thegn. Like Cnut, his predecessors as king had sometimes had to use their followings to enforce their rule, and some of these were Scandinavians, at least at the courts of Edgar and Æthelred II. If not quite to the same extent as in heroic poetry such as The Battle of Maldon, chroniclers such as Asser probably gave a somewhat idealized view of the relations between Anglo-Saxon kings such as Alfred and their followings, representing them in terms of gift exchange rather than the hiring of soldiers. The import of men from “outside” had advantages, as they had no link to vested interests in the kingdom.

Housecarls, perhaps like the royal thegns before them, appear to have had a special relationship with the king and his immediate entourage. For instance, the “housecarls of her son the king” protected Queen Emma in 1035, and they were used to impose taxes by King Harthacnut in Worcestershire in 1041. As such they were provided with high-quality equipment, would have been well trained and must have lived within close proximity of the court. In this sense they were an elite and may have received a royal stipend, but their status need not have differed significantly from earlier royal household thegns who served as soldiers.

The Welsh

Despite the great outpouring of material that stresses supposedly pan-Celtic traits in warfare, religion and culture generally, it is debatable whether the remaining Celtic-speaking regions of the Viking Era—Ireland, the Pictish and Scottish kingdoms, Strathclyde, Wales, and Brittany—had much more in common with each other than they did with their Germanic neighbors, except their linguistic affinity. The evidence for military organization in all these regions in the early Middle Ages is sparse, but there is enough to show that there were many similarities with Frankish and English kingdoms.

The military household of the Welsh kings was the teulu, rendered familia in Latin, like the households of their English and later Norman neighbors. In early sources such as the Triadsand the Gododdin, we also find gosgordd: if not the same as the teulu, it may have been the household generally as opposed to the personal bodyguard. Here the term teulu will be used to mean “household.” As in the case of other early medieval households, the size of the teulu must have varied. Literary references sometimes give numbers in the hundreds, while the Brut says that Gruffudd ap Llywelyn lost 140 men of his teulu in 1047, clearly not all of them. However, even if this was not an exaggeration, it must be noted that he was a ruler of exceptional power (in Wales) at this time. Earlier sources give lower numbers—for instance, the ASC mentions that Brocmail of Powys fled the field at Chester with his fifty men. At Mynydd Carn in 1081 Trahaearn ap Caradog was killed alongside twenty-five of his teulu when many had already died in the battle, which indicates a similar strength.

Like the households of other Viking Age rulers, the teulu could include men of all ages and social rank, including leading nobles, with the probable exception of unfree bondmen. The members had horses, although their equipment may have varied according to wealth, and many had “squires,” such as the daryanogyon (shield-bearers) who attended uchelwyr, the aristocracy. These positions became offices, and were certainly of pre-Norman period origin. The teulu could also include foreigners, hostages from the households of other nobles or rivals, and, like the Frankish households, sons of nobles sent to receive training. Gruffudd ap Cynan seems to have employed an exceptional number of Irishmen, but it is not certain that these were thought of as teulu members: for instance, they are probably the “pirates” blamed for excessive ravaging in the Life of St. Gwynllyw.

The person responsible for mustering the teulu was the penteulu (head of the teulu), who was supposed to accompany the king at all times except when sent on a specific errand. Naturally, the office of penteulu had great prestige and the laws list many privileges, including a larger dwelling than others and a share of the proceeds from judicial proceedings paid to the king. Other members were appointed subordinate commanders of the llu, the military levy, should it be summoned. The teulu maintained the tradition of the comitatus, and Welsh poetry reflects the same traditions as Old English “heroic” poetry—it was supposed to stand by its lord to the last, as indeed Trahaearn’s seems to have done at Mynydd Carn. On the other hand the Triads describe the two war-bands which abandoned their leaders on the eve of battle as earning everlasting infamy. Since the teulu was also supposed to follow its lord even if he rebelled, this gave any lord the power to mount a rebellion, with consequent disruptive effects on Welsh society. A Welsh ruler had to secure the support of his nobles (uchelwyr)—as elsewhere in Europe, whatever the laws said about a king’s rights to summon his nobles and their followings, their support had to be earned. Many Welsh rulers ran into trouble while trying to impose their will on their subject lords. In 984 Einion ab Owain of Deheubarth was killed trying to do so.

As noted, the usual word for the general levy was llu, but a variety of other terms were used for “army,” such as byddin. Usually the levy was drawn only from certain districts, but Gruffudd ap Llywelyn may have been able to assemble a host from the whole of Wales at the height of his power, if this is what John of Worcester meant by “his whole realm.” Numbers are almost impossible to assess. Historia Gruffudd vab kenan gives figures that appear realistic, the highest being in the hundreds. Davies estimates his army as something under 1,000 in 1075, as he is said to have had 160 men of Gwynedd and numerous foreigners (perhaps 500), especially Irish and Danes, and suggests that the rival armies at Mynydd Carn were each over 1,000 men. Earlier, at the height of his power in 1055, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn had enough men to trouble the English and to force Edward to assemble the host of all England.

Although Wales was never unified, it did undergo a process of reduction of the number of kingdoms in the early medieval period, as happened everywhere in Europe. Several scholars have found evidence of a change in military organization around the beginning of the Viking Period: for instance, the abandonment of some political centers, including hill-forts. In poetry of this period there are hints that free men (eillion) were being called up for service. In the laws supposedly codifed by Hywel Dda (d. 950) freemen have to attend musters and pay duties. Not all the codes imposed this duty on free men, and while some spoke of a “levy of the land,” this must in practice have been selective, as in Anglo-Saxon England. Presumably the king called up those he needed. The Brutiau claim that Maredudd ap Bleddyn gathered “about four hundred kinsmen and comrades and a teulu of theirs” for a campaign in 1118. The same source makes one of the very rare references to a general levy (of Meirionnydd) in 1110, which may even have included bondmen. With the exception of one referred to in the Life of St. Cadog (a fifth-century saint), all general levies are recorded as meeting with defeat. Bondmen had certain duties to construct encampments for the king’s men and to provide pack-horses (and supplies?), but it is unclear whether they were expected to fight or not.

In Wales mercenaries (alltud—“aliens”) were certainly used in many armies. Apart from the Irish mentioned above, John of Worcester mentions Viking mercenaries employed by Gruffudd ap Llywelyn in his attack on England in 1055. The laws also mention the billeting of armed foreigners on the local populace.

There is little evidence that Church lands were exempt from military service in Wales. There are hints that the early medieval clas church functioned in a similar way to the Church in Ireland, its senior men maintaining retinues and providing military service. Given the amount of land owned by the Church and the limited resources available to any ruler, exempting it would have made the raising of forces almost impossible. Most claims to exemption are made in later saints’ lives and many of these are dubious.