Christianity among the Vikings

Of the three Scandinavian peoples in the Viking Age, it is the Swedes who most successfully remain hidden behind the swirl and chaos of history. Among the Svear and Gautar the art of skaldic poetry was not cultivated to anything like the extent it was among Norwegians and Icelanders; and in the centuries following the Viking Age no Swedish Snorri Sturluson or Saxo Grammaticus took it upon himself to write their early history. What the Swedes did have, by way of compensation, was a culture of raising rune-stones to commemorate the dead, and sometimes the living, to a degree that far exceeds anything in Norway or Denmark. The little we know of Viking Age Swedes derives largely from the histories and poems composed by other Scandinavians in which their kings and leaders play a part, from Rimbert’s ‘Life’ of the ninth-century missionary Anskar, and from what can be gleaned from the inscriptions on these rune-stones. The dramatic flourishing of the fashion, from the middle of the tenth century to its decline around the beginning of the twelfth century, has been attributed to the renown of King Harald Bluetooth’s Jelling stone, in Jutland in Denmark; but it was among the Swedes that the art reached its apotheosis. About 2,500 examples from the period have survived in Sweden, compared with some 220 in Denmark, a mere handful in Norway and none at all in Iceland.

Where the Ingvar stones are most evocative of our conventional ideas about the Viking Age is in their terseness and monumentality; the carving of an eagle’s head on one stone intensifies its aura of Heathen exoticism. But it stands guard alone, heavily outnumbered by the references on at least eleven other stones to the Christian God, as well as the Christian crosses carved on several of them. The saga’s depiction of Ingvar as an exceptionally pious Christian is an obvious exaggeration, but there is no reason to doubt that he and the majority of his party were baptized men. And yet, to a much greater degree than among either the Danes or the Norwegians, both of whom were by this time irrevocably members of the community of Christian peoples in Europe, Christianity among the Swedes was still struggling to establish the exclusive dominance which its dogma required. Perhaps it was that the territory was more remote; or that the spiritual centre of the whole cult of the Aesir was located at the temple in Gamla Uppsala (Old Uppsala) in Sweden.

The rapidity and scale of the conversions carried out under Harald Bluetooth in Denmark, and Olaf Tryggvason and Olav Haraldson in Norway, owed everything to the fact that they were native kings. Adam of Bremen quotes Sven Estridson, who succeeded Magnus the Good as king of Denmark in 1047, as advising the Hamburg-Bremen Bishop Adalbert against carrying out a plan to undertake a great missionary journey through the Scandinavian lands, on the grounds that ‘the Heathens are more willing to be converted by someone who speaks their own language and who observes the same customs as themselves, than by foreigners who object to their way of life’. By the middle of the eleventh century, no such determined, native, missionary king had yet risen among the Swedes, though there had been kings, like the Emund mentioned by Adam of Bremen, who were favourably disposed towards Christianity; and Erik Segersäll, or ‘the Victorious’, whose victory in 988 over Styrbjørn Starke, in a battle near Uppsala, is referred to on rune-stones. Ingvar’s saga makes the credible claim that Erik was the great-grandfather of Ingvar the Far-Travelled.

It is with Erik Segersäll that the more or less continuous history of the kings of Sweden begins. Adam tells us that he was baptized in Denmark, but reverted to the old religion on his return to Uppsala. On his death in about 995 he was succeeded by his son Olof Sköttkonung. Olof was the first known king to rule over both the Svear and the Gautar of the Mälardalen and Västergötland regions of Sweden. He was also the first Swedish king to be baptized who did not later revert to Heathendom, and the first to practise the other major innovation associated with Christian modernity besides writing in Latin, the minting of coins to be used as coins and not as hack-silver to be judged by weight. He married Estrid, the Christian daughter of an Obodrite prince, who bore him a son, Jakob. He also had three children by his mistress Edla. His name ‘Sköttkonung’ probably derives from the fact that his profit from the battle of Svolder in 1000, at which Olaf Tryggvason of Norway was killed, was control over the Bohuslän district, on the eastern side of the Vik, which he ruled as Sven Forkbeard’s tributary king. Other explanations on a stimulating roster of possibilities that depend upon different translations of the first element of his nickname include the ‘sheet-’ or ‘lap-’ king; an interpretation that may suggest a caesarean birth; the possibility that he spent some time in Scotland; and that, as the first Swedish king to mint coins, he was remembered as ‘the tax king’.

By the late 990s these coins, minted in his name by English moneyers in Sigtuna, bore Christian motifs, suggesting that King Olof was baptized earlier rather than later in his life, and almost certainly not as late as the 1008 given in the legendary ‘Life’ of St Sigfrid from the beginning of the thirteenth century, which ascribes his baptism to an English bishop Sigfrid, known as the apostle of Sweden. An intriguing suggestion that offers to settle a number of the problems connected to the dating of Olof’s baptism, as well as the identity of the man who baptized him, proposes that the ‘Anlaf’ who raided in England with Sven Forkbeard in the early 990s, and whom the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us was baptized at Andover in 994, was not the Norwegian Olaf Tryggvason at all but the young Olof Sköttkonung. Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury was urgently involved in raising the money used to pay off the Viking armies in 994, and it was very likely he that baptized ‘Anlaf’ at the ceremony in Andover that year. A subsequent confusion over the names ‘Sigfrid’ and ‘Sigeric’, as well as the ‘Sigurd’ mentioned by Snorri Sturluson in his reference to the event, may have become embedded in the traditions relating to Olof Sköttkonung’s baptism. The uncertainties are entirely characteristic of Swedish history of the period.

Adam of Bremen, who greatly admired Olof, tells us that at some unspecified point in his rule he proposed to pull down the temple at Uppsala as part of a campaign to convert the whole population of his regions, but that the Svear who formed the dominant majority in the coastal east remained as firmly attached to their Heathen beliefs as ever and would not allow it. In a solution that would probably not have appealed to Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi in Iceland, Olof’s authority was limited to control of the Götar of the Västergötland region in the west of the country, the region of present-day Gothenburg, which had been converted in the second half of the 990s and become a point of entry for missionary priests travelling in Sweden: ‘If he wished to be Christian himself he might choose the best part of Sweden and have full power there. He might build a church and introduce Christianity. But he must not force people to abandon the old faith. Only those who wished to should be converted.’ It seems that the arrangement was followed and as a possible result – for the chronology is uncertain – a bishopric was established at Skara in Västergötland in about 1013. Snorri adds that Olof’s long and futile attempt to exploit the volatile situation in Norway at this time led him to neglect and finally lose his tributary rights over tribes on the other side of the Baltic, and that this was another factor in the dissatisfaction that led to his demotion.

For the last years of his reign, Olof ruled only over Västergötland, as a tributary king under his young son Jakob. As the name indicates, Jakob, too, was a Christian, but not one overly imbued with the missionary imperative. In an inversion of the practice we have become familiar with over the centuries of dealings between Christians and Heathens, Jakob adopted the local and traditional name ‘Anund’ at the request of his Heathen subjects, who made it a condition of his rule. On his death in 1050 he was succeeded by his half-brother, Emund the Old, also called Emund the Mean, also a Christian. At about the same time, and as a reminder of how far Sweden still was from anything approaching a modern monarchy, Christianity was introduced into the province of Jemtland in north-central Sweden, with Norway on its western border, by a local chieftain about whom very little other than this is known. The documentation is the inscription on the Frösö stone, the most northerly rune-stone in Sweden:

Austmaðr, Guðfastr’s son had this stone raised and this bridge made and he made Jamtaland Christian. Ásbjôrn built the bridge, Trjónn (?) and Steinn carved these runes.

Scholarly debate over the conversion of the Scandinavian peoples has long concerned itself with the competing claims to decisive involvement of German bishops associated with the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, and of missionary priests and bishops from England sponsored by Olaf Tryggvason and Olav Haraldson. Adam of Bremen writes that Emund the Old was baptized but that he was not much interested in religion, an ingenuous observation that may have been occasioned by the fact of Emund’s open opposition to the German political influence in Sweden that the power of the Hamburg-Bremen see in Scandinavia entrained. He seems to have rejected the see’s attempts to establish itself at Sigtuna, in Mälardalen, and to have driven its prospective bishop out of the country, on the grounds that there was already a bishopric in Mälardalen, complete with incumbent. Adam complains that this ‘unofficial’ appointee, Bishop Osmund, ‘led the newly converted savages astray with his false teaching’. Indeed, in the deaths of all the members of Ingvar’s expedition Adam saw only God’s just punishment for this particular effrontery.

Adam’s condemnation of the ‘false teaching’ of both the king and his bishop may relate to a tradition that Emund provoked the German missionaries in Sweden with his attraction to eastern forms of Christianity, and a recent theory from Sweden on the origins, dating and significance of the so-called ‘Lily-stones’ suggests that the influence from Constantinople on the arrival of Christianity in Sweden may well have been underestimated. These stone rectangles carved with stylized lilies, a familiar image of the resurrection, are among the earliest examples of Christian art known from Västergötland. Their original purpose is not known, but they are believed to have been used at some point as gravestones. The prevailing view is that they were influenced by English and German religious art and were carved in about 1100, at about the time the first stone churches were built. The radical hypothesis behind the new theory is that Viking Age Swedes who joined the Varangian Guard as the emperor’s personal bodyguard were compelled to accept baptism before enrolment, and that the Christianity these returning Varangian mercenaries brought back with them when they returned to Sweden was accordingly neither the Hamburg-Bremen variety nor the Canterbury, but the Greek Orthodoxy of the Byzantine empire. The stones were then made to the commission of these homecoming warriors around 1000, thus a full century earlier than the date traditionally given for them, by local stonemasons whose influences were from the east. Finds of a number of other objects associated with eastern Christianity, such as resurrection eggs, as well as the occurrence of Greek crosses on rune-stones, can be used to support the theory. Its most dramatic proposal, however, is that Heathendom as a ‘state religion’ had effectively disappeared from Sweden as early as about 1000, and that when Adam of Bremen writes of conflict between ‘Heathens’ and ‘Christians’ and of attacks on ‘Heathen temples’, he is referring to a Swedish version of the conflict between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches that was raging on the larger stage outside Scandinavia at this time. On this analysis, Adam’s ‘Heathen priests’ were the Catholic Church’s Orthodox competitors, and his ‘Heathen temples’, on the same analysis, the first churches to be built in the country in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries – rectangular wooden buildings, often elaborately decorated, with staves set directly into the ground. The break between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches that occurred in 1054 finally compelled the triumph of Roman Christianity among Swedes and the theory proposes that a century of Greek Christianity in Sweden was thereafter edited out of Swedish history. If further evidence emerges in support of this then the history of Christianity in Sweden will have to be rewritten. In the eleventh century that history has to be put together from some notoriously unreliable sources, but as things stand the general picture suggests that the Heathendom which Christianity struggled to overcome was the original, native version rather than imported, Byzantine Christianity.

Emund, son of Edla, a mistress of Olof Sköttkonung, proved to be the last of his line. Following his death in 1060, his son-in-law, a Västergötland earl named Stenkil, became king. Stenkil was an active promoter of Christianity who did not share his father-in-law’s hostility to the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen, and it was probably he who established the see at Sigtuna, near the site of the great Heathen temple with its statues of Thor and Odin and Frey. Since at least the time of Anskar’s mission in 829, the major trading centre in the east of Sweden had been Birka, but by the end of the tenth century its role had been taken over by Sigtuna, as rising land-levels made the old town increasingly inaccessible from the sea. Though Stenkil facilitated the work of Adalvard the Younger, the next German bishop to be appointed to the see, he prudently advised him against carrying out a plan to burn down the temple at Uppsala, predicting that he and his associate Egino would certainly be killed in revenge and he himself driven from the country as the sponsor of the men responsible for the act. Instead, the two bishops turned their attention to Götaland and the lesser violence of destroying Heathen images there. With Adalvard’s death, however, the work of conversion was once again held up. Adam of Bremen tells us that his successor, a bishop named Tadiko from Ramelsloh, was a man too fond of his food who was more concerned ‘to curb hunger at home than proselytize abroad’.

Our knowledge of the events following the death of Stenkil in 1066 is, if anything, still more hazy than it is of events preceding it. Though Stenkil founded a dynasty that endured until the 1120s, it did not re-establish itself with any certainty until 1080 and the long reign of Inge the Old. The intervening twenty years see the appearance of a number of pretenders and phantom kings, whose existence is attested only in sagas with little claim to historical credibility. Even where doubt surrounds the very existence of these kings, the roles and actions ascribed to them in the legendary material seem to sound clear echoes of an intense phase of religious conflict in Sweden, in which Heathendom mounted a last and ultimately doomed campaign of defiance against the engulfing tide of Christian religious culture.

Rivals, both named Erik, engaged in a struggle for the succession so bloody that Adam of Bremen, our only reasonable source for the period, says that most of the leading men of the country were killed, including the two Eriks. The violence precipitated another crisis for the Christian Church as the bishops appointed to the sees at Skara and Sigtuna stayed in their homes in Germany in fear for their lives rather than travel. Halsten, a son of King Stenkil, was then chosen as king; but nothing is known of his reign other than that it was brief and that he was driven out and replaced by a certain Anund, whom the Swedes had invited from Russia, and whose reign turned out to be equally short. Adam gives as the reason for his rejection his refusal, like Håkon the Good in Norway over 100 years earlier, to enact to the full the role of a Heathen king at the Thing meeting. After so many decades of Christian influence and Christian institutional presence in the Mälaren region, the trenchant nature of the demands made of their king invites the suspicion that these Svear were still a largely syncretic people, who continued to ignore the Christian demand that the old gods be rejected as part of the acceptance of the new one. It may be eloquent of the tensions in the region that, in 1066, a Heathen reaction among the Obodrites, from the coastal region of what is now northern Germany, between Denmark and Poland, led to the killing of the Obodrite ruler and the destruction of all three Obodrite bishoprics, and that it took the institutional Church over fifty years to re-establish itself there.

Håkon, known as the Red, as obscure as any of his immediate predecessors, seems to have succeeded Anund. We know nothing of his reign and can only presume that he was, if not Heathen himself, then at least tolerant enough of Heathen practices to go through the required motions at the sacrificial ceremonies. If, as seems likely, he remained in power for much of the 1070s, then a relatively long reign in such volatile times probably does indicate flexibility in the matter of religious faith and, most pertinently, in religious practice.

Of the circumstances of his death nothing is known, only that the succession of King Inge the Older saw the return of the Stenkil dynasty and a renewed attempt to impose Christianity or, equally, to eradicate Heathendom. A letter from Gregory VII, dated 4 October 1080 and addressed to ‘the glorious king of the Svear’, expresses the pope’s satisfaction at the conversion of Inge’s people to Christianity. A second letter in the following year addressing ‘I and A’ – only initials are used – as ‘the glorious kings of the people of Västergötland’ is a likely indication that there was a period of joint rule in which power was shared between Inge and his brother Hallsten. Ominously for the stability of the region, the letter concerned the payment of tithes to the Church. There seems to have been more turbulence, obscure but certainly of a religious nature, in which Eskil, the English bishop of Strängnäs in Södermanland, was stoned to death after an incident in which a Heathen ceremony was disrupted and the altar destroyed. The scene might have been Birka, the year 845, the murder that of Anskar’s chaplain Nithard.

Now history, literature and myth once again dissolve into each other. At the Assembly in 1084 Inge, like Anund before him – though confusion in the sources may well have conflated the two kings – is said to have refused to enact the king’s part in the ceremonies. Sven, Inge’s brother-in-law, who may only have been the fictional or symbolic creation of the compiler/author of the legendary, thirteenth-century ‘Saga of Hervar and Heidrek’ that tells the story, rose to address the enraged Heathens and promised that, if they would elect him king, he would carry out the sacrifices required of a king. Sven was duly elected. The saga then describes a scene in which Sven led the Assembly in a ritual repudiation of Christianity as a horse was led out, sacrificed, cut up and its flesh passed around to be eaten. By common assent, the rituals of sacrifice to the old gods were reintroduced, and King Sven acquired a nickname – ‘Blotsven’, or Sven the Sacrificer.

Orkneyinga Saga turns aside from its main concern with the doings of the earls of the Northern Isles to describe Earl Håkon Paulson’s visit to Sweden in the time of King Inge and offer a rapid résumé of what happened after Sven came to power. ‘Inge was forced into exile and went to West Götaland, but eventually managed to trap Sven inside a house and burnt him there.’ Back on the throne again, Inge was able to press through the re-introduction of Christianity to the Svear. Finally, in about 1090, he presided over the long-postponed destruction of the great Heathen temple at Uppsala. With that, the last true refuge of Odin, Thor, Frey, Freyja and the rest of the Aesir was gone.

Throughout the Viking Age, kings had founded towns. Hedeby’s rise to prominence as an international trading centre began when the Danish king Godfrid compelled the tradesmen and merchants of Reric to relocate there in 808. Ribe, a little south of Jelling and on the west side of the Jutland peninsula, seems to have been founded at about the same time. Birka thrived for two centuries as the main trading centre in Sweden before the merchants moved their activities to Sigtuna. The cultivation of Kaupang, for a century and a half the major trading centre in southern Norway, and the goal of Ottar the merchant’s long journey along the west coast of Norway, was probably the work of Danish kings such as Godfrid. Trondheim is believed to have been founded by Olaf Tryggvason in about 997, and Oslo’s transformation from small settlement to large town began in the middle of the eleventh century and was the work of Harald Hardrada.

The origins of Lund in Skåne are obscure, but the church that was built there in about 990 was almost certainly the work of King Sven Forkbeard. By the turn of the century, Lund had a markedly cosmopolitan character, as a Christian centre, as the site of what would later become the largest mint in Scandinavia, and as the home of a large community of foreign artisans and craftsmen. Both Sven and his son and successor Cnut conceived of Lund as a kind of ideally modern Scandinavian town. Paradoxically perhaps, in view of their military activities in the west, this involved for both the cultivation of a pronounced anglophilia. Sven’s appointment of an English bishop to his church, Gotebald, was an early indicator of this.34 After his death in England in 1014, Sven was buried in York. The author of the Encomium Emmae Reginae (‘In Praise of Queen Emma’) tells us, however, that he had previously chosen a burial site for himself in Lund, and in due course his remains were disinterred and taken over the sea to be reburied in the church built by himself. Recent excavations have revealed what seems to have been a grave beneath the floor of the church. It was empty, probably because Sven’s remains were removed when the church was pulled down to make way for a stone church. The circumstances sound a poignant echo of the transfer, some fifty years earlier, of the remains of his grandfather, Gorm the Old, from the North Mound at Jelling to a Christian grave beneath the floor of the Jelling church. Pre-mortem funeral and burial arrangements may have been a family tradition among the Jelling kings. As we speculated earlier, the empty South Mound at Jelling was possibly intended by Harald Bluetooth as his own grave, with the circumstances of his death somehow making this impossible.

Following Sven’s death, Cnut continued to develop and expand Lund. According to Adam of Bremen, it was Cnut’s bold ambition to make the town ‘as important as London’. As well as employing English bishops in his church, he imported moneyers and designers from England, like the Leowin who signed the elegantly carved penholder found during the excavations of 1961. A moneyer with the same name was employed at the Lund mint around the turn of the tenth century and may well have been the same man. Also found was a walking stick, the intricate carvings on its handle in the form of a snake or dragon in the so-called Winchester style. Ulfkil, the maker’s name, is etched on to the stick in runes, and the name is also found among the Lund moneyers active in the middle of the eleventh century. Across a large central area of the city, shards of Viking Age pottery have been found that are unique to Lund and to London.

Lund’s growing status presently demanded something more imposing than Sven’s original wooden church and the larger stone church that replaced it was built by about 1050. In about 1060 the see of Lund was established, and its first incumbent was an English bishop, Henrik. Adam of Bremen who was, we must remember, writing a house-history of the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen, describes him as a drunken sybarite who choked to death on his own vomit. At about the same time as Lund was established, a German bishop named Egino was appointed to a second Danish see at nearby Dalby, and he took over at Lund on Henrik’s death. By Adam’s account a much more pious and learned man than his predecessor, Egino struck up an alliance with his colleague Adalvard at Sigtuna that, in the name of missionary Christianity, stretched right across geographical Sweden and ignored its political divisions. As we saw earlier, the two had to be dissuaded by King Stenkil from a plan to burn down the Heathen temple at Uppsala.

Back in 831, the see of Hamburg had been created to civilize the peoples of the north by bringing Christianity to them. We saw that, as a result of the Viking sack of the settlement in 848, Hamburg had been joined to Bremen and relocated there, with its missionary aims unchanged. Some two and a half centuries later, it would seem, the job was done, with the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians formally enrolled as members of the union of Christian peoples. And yet, in what should have been the hour of its greatest triumph, the see endured the bitter humiliation of having its authority over the region removed. The so-called ‘investiture controversy’ began when Pope Gregory VII, determined to reform a Church that turned a blind eye to clerical marriage and simony and to free it from the corrupting influence of the political world, neither notified nor sought the approval of the German King Henrik IV on the occasion of his consecration as pope in 1073. His reforming programme would put an end to royal control of the appointment of bishops, but Henrik defied him and continued to select bishops over whom he knew he had control. Rebuked by Gregory, he convened a synod of bishops at Worms in 1076, which obediently deposed his turbulent pope for him. Gregory responded by excommunicating Henrik, suspending his royal power and releasing his subjects from their oath of allegiance to him. Henrik feared the move might precipitate a rebellion among his nobles, and in the extraordinary aftermath to this exchange walked barefoot across the Alps, wearing the hairshirt of a penitent, in search of an audience with Gregory at Canossa, and of his pardon. For three full days the pope kept him waiting and fasting in the snow outside the gates of the fortress where he was lodged before granting him an audience. Though Gregory revoked the excommunication, he upheld his deposition of the king as the lawful ruler of Germany. Henrik remained intransigent, and in 1080 Gregory lost patience with him and again excommunicated and deposed him, recognizing his rival Rudolf as the lawful king of Germany. Henrik’s response was to appoint the first of that flock of anti-popes that would keep the institutional Church in a state of disarray for much of the next two centuries.

Gregory died in 1085, but Henrik had had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor the year before by his anti-pope, Clement III, and the investiture controversy continued to sully the relationship between Henrik and Gregory’s successors for years to come. For most of this crisis, Archbishop Liemar at Hamburg-Bremen had sided with the king against the reforming pope. In choosing to send his letter of congratulation and Christian welcome directly to King Inge in Sweden in 1080, Gregory had delivered a deliberate snub to the archbishopric on this account. His letter to Inge the following year, on the requirement to pay tithes to the Church, reflected his urgent need for both new friends and new sources of funds, and a feeling that both might be found among the newly converted peoples of the north.

For a long time Hamburg-Bremen had held the moral right to exercise institutional authority over the Church in Scandinavia, but with the support of its leaders for the German king and emperor in his struggle with the papacy it disappeared. Along with Lund’s burgeoning status as a Christian and royal centre in the far north of Europe, this led the papacy presently to take full account of the fact that the people of the north were now firmly committed to a modern, Christian civilization. Hamburg-Bremen was an irrelevancy and the Scandinavian Church could now be trusted to manage its own affairs. The first archbishopric with responsibility for all Scandinavia was established at Lund in 1103, with Asser as its first incumbent. New archbishoprics established at Nidaros in Norway in 1153 and Uppsala in 1164 moved the institutional Church ever further north. In St Olav, the Norwegians had had their patron saint since about 1034. The Danes, who had accepted Christianity at the monarchical level some sixty years earlier, had to wait a little longer for theirs. In 1086 Cnut II of Denmark was planning an invasion of William the Conqueror’s England with a fleet which, somehow, never quite managed to leave the waters of the Limfjord. It was almost as though the memory of how such things were done was fading. Before it had returned he was dead, murdered by his enemies in the church of St Alban, in Odense. As St Cnut he was canonized in 1101. The canonization of the first saint-king of the Swedes was, in view of their enduring reluctance to join the fold, a suitably confused and ambiguous affair. In about 1155 Erik of Sweden, later known as ‘the Holy’, led an expedition into the southern tip of Finland. Brief and without discernible result, the spirit of the age nevertheless identified it as a crusade following his death in 1160 outside the church at Uppsala, allegedly against overwhelming odds and after a session at prayer inside the church. Erik was thereafter venerated as a saint by a local church anxious to achieve parity with its neighbours in the north, but his canonization was never official, for the papacy was persuaded by other stories that told of a drunkard who had met his death in a drink-fuelled brawl, so much so that in 1172 Pope Alexander III actively tried to forbid Erik’s veneration.

But in the context of the Viking past of these Scandinavian kings, perhaps the starkest symbol of the demise of one culture and its replacement by another was the adventure of the Norwegian King Sigurd, known as Jorsalafarer, the Jerusalem Traveller, who led a crusade to the Holy Land in 1108 and was the first European ruler to do so. When he returned to Norway three years later he brought back with him a splinter of the True Cross, given to him by Baldwin of Boulogne, first ruler of the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem. It was the most prized Christian relic of the age. We can be sure that Sigurd’s Viking forefathers, had they come across it during a raid on a church, would have tossed it without a second thought into the flames of the fire they started on their way out.

The great raid of Hastein and Björn Ironsides




The greatest of all Viking expeditions to Spain was led by two of the most famous of all Viking leaders, Björn Ironsides and Hastein. Björn was later believed to be one of the many sons of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok. When he was a child, Björn’s mother was supposed to have given him a magical invulnerability to wounds for which he earned the nickname ‘Ironsides’. Hastein was the wily Viking chieftain who later proved to be such a thorn in the side of Alfred the Great. Björn and Hastein left their base on the Loire in 859 with a fleet of sixty-two ships to raid along the coast of Galicia and Asturias. Finding local resistance too strong, the Vikings moved on to pillage the emirate’s west coast. Here they evidently enjoyed greater success. The emirate’s coastguards captured two longships scouting ahead of the main fleet and found that they were already full of treasure, provisions and captives. The fleet suffered another defeat when it landed at Niebla near Huelva in south-west Spain. The fleet next put into the mouth of the Guadalquivir, perhaps with the intention of sacking Seville for a second time, but it was confronted by the new Moorish fleet. The Vikings had no answer to its incendiary weapons and they fled after several longships were burned. The Viking way was always to move on if resistance proved too strong in one place, knowing that they would eventually catch somewhere off-guard. Finally, at Algeciras, a few miles from Gibraltar, they achieved complete surprise, taking and sacking the town and burning its main mosque.

Björn and Hastein took their fleet through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. Though Vikings had never plundered in the Mediterranean before, the sea was no stranger to piracy, and Italy and Francia suffered frequent raids by Arab and Moorish pirates based in North Africa. The Vikings landed first on the African coast, at Nakur in the vicinity of modern Melilla. Local forces put up only a little resistance before fleeing and the Vikings plundered freely for a week, capturing the harem of a local ruler, which was later ransomed by the emir of Córdoba. The Vikings also captured some black Africans, who they described as blámenn (‘blue men’), who had probably been brought to North Africa by Arab slave traders. The Vikings found them so exotic that they kept some of them. They were eventually sold again as slaves and finished up in Ireland. From Melilla, Björn and Hastein returned to Spain, plundering the coast of Murcia and then the Balearic Islands. Returning to the mainland, the Vikings continued north along the Mediterranean coast, sacking Narbonne and then setting up a winter camp on an island in the Camargue, a marshy delta of the River Rhône. In the spring, Björn and Hastein sailed over 100 miles up the Rhône, sacking Nîmes, Arles and Valence. After the Franks defeated them in a battle, the pair judged it wise to head back to the open sea and sailed east along the Côte d’Azur to Italy.

Hastein’s mistake

According to a colourful but surely legendary account by the Norman monk Dudo of St Quentin, Björn and Hastein landed at the Ligurian port of Luni and mistook it for Rome. Luni had enjoyed modest prosperity in the Roman period as a port for exporting the pure white Cararra marble from the nearby Alpi Apuane, but by the ninth century it was little more than a village and the scant ruins that remain today make it hard to imagine that anyone could ever have mistaken it for Rome. But why spoil a good story? The glory-hungry Vikings were determined to capture the most famous of all cities. Judging the city’s defences to be too strong to storm, Hastein came up with a plan to gain entry by a ruse. Viking emissaries approached the townspeople, telling them that they were exiles seeking provisions and shelter for their sick chieftain. On a return visit the emissaries told the townspeople that their chieftain had died and asked permission to enter the city to give him a Christian burial. The unsuspecting townspeople agreed and a solemn procession of Vikings followed their chief’s coffin to the grave at which point Hastein, still very much alive and fully armed, leapt out of the coffin and slew the city’s bishop. In the resulting confusion, the Vikings sacked the city. When he was told that he had been misinformed, and that he had not after all, sacked Rome, Hastein felt so disappointed that he ordered the massacre of Luni’s entire male population. This story was repeated by many later Norman writers and the same ruse was attributed to later Norman leaders such as Robert Guiscard, Bohemund of Taranto and Roger I of Sicily. It is evidence that medieval warriors admired cunning as much as bravery and skill at arms. The Vikings moved another 60 miles down the Tuscan coast to the mouth of the Arno, sacking Pisa and then, following the river upstream, also the hill-town of Fiesole above Florence. After this the Viking fleet disappears for a year. Björn and Hastein must have wintered somewhere and it may be that they sailed into the eastern Mediterranean to raid the Byzantine Empire. Late Arabic and Spanish sources claim that Vikings raided Greece and Alexandria. If they did it was probably Björn’s and Hastein’s fleet.

The fleet reappears in 861 when it passed through the Straits of Gibraltar again, this time homeward bound. The straits are only 9 miles wide so the chances of the Vikings slipping through unobserved were slim and the Moorish fleet was ready and waiting for them. Of Björn’s and Hastein’s remaining sixty ships, only twenty escaped the ambush the Moors had prepared for them. Björn and Hastein may have been unaware that a strong surface current flows constantly through the straits from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean Sea. During the Second World War, sixty-two German U-boats entered the Mediterranean undetected by riding this underwater current with their engines turned off. Not one was ever able to get out again against the current. Björn and Hastein may have had the same problem, their slow progress against it giving the Moors plenty of time to intercept them.

Undaunted by this disaster Björn and Hastein continued raiding as they sailed homewards. Just before they left Spanish waters, they raided the small Christian kingdom of Navarre and sacked Pamplona. In a spectacular coup they captured its King Garcia I, and ransomed him for the incredible sum of 70,000 gold dinars (approximately 679 pounds /308 kg of gold). The survivors of the expedition returned to the Loire in 862 very rich men. After the expedition, Björn and Hastein split up. Björn headed back to Denmark, perhaps intending to use his wealth and reputation to launch a bid for the throne. He never made it and died in Frisia after losing everything in a shipwreck. Hastein stayed on the Loire: he still had a long and profitable career ahead of him.

The daring nature of Björn’s and Hastein’s expedition secured their reputations as legendary commanders but the cost had been very high: less than a third of those who had set out three years earlier had made it back. This must have given other Vikings pause for thought for, though they continued to raid the Iberian Peninsula until the early eleventh century, there was no return to the Mediterranean. The Straits of Gibraltar had proved to be a dangerous and unavoidable bottleneck for any fleet trying to get into or out of the Mediterranean and in the future the Vikings kept well clear. The Moors defeated major raids in 889, 912 – 13, 966 and 971. The raiders in 889 got as far as Seville before they were defeated, once again, on the fields of Tablada. The survivors of the raid settled in the surrounding countryside and many subsequently converted to Islam. This was the only known Viking settlement in Iberia. During the course of their expeditions to Iberia, Vikings may have accidentally discovered the Atlantic island of Madeira. The evidence for this comes from an unusual source, the DNA of Madeiran house mice, which indicates that they were introduced to the then uninhabited island from Northern Europe, probably as stowaways, some time between around 900 – 1050.

An embassy to the king of the Majus

There probably were also more peaceful contacts between the Vikings and the Moors. There was strong demand in the Emirate of Córdoba and in the Moorish states in North Africa for Frankish, Slavic, English and Irish slaves, and many of these would have been supplied either directly or indirectly through middlemen by Viking slave traders. Many of the younger male captives were destined to be castrated: al-Andalus was famous as the main supplier of eunuchs to the Islamic world. In 845, after the Viking attack on Seville, the emir Abd al-Rahman sent an embassy led by al-Ghazal to visit the king of the Majus with gifts for him and his queen. Al-Ghazal described the land of the Majus as an island, three days journey from the mainland. There were other islands in the vicinity, which the king ruled too. Before his audience, al-Ghazal insisted that he should not be asked to kneel before the king. This was agreed, but when he arrived at the king’s hall he found that the entrance had been lowered so that he would be forced to enter on his knees. The perfect diplomat, al-Ghazal resolved the difficulty by lying on his back and pushing himself in, feet first. This would very likely have impressed rather than irritated his hosts, who would have recognised something of themselves in his determination not to be humiliated. The king’s wife Noud took a fancy to al-Ghazal and seduced him, assuring him that the Majus did not suffer from sexual jealousy and that women were free to leave their husbands at will. Al-Ghazal was correct that Scandinavian women had the right to divorce, but as for the absence of sexual jealousy, this was wishful thinking. A wife’s adultery was usually taken very seriously by her husband and in some parts of Scandinavia he had the right to kill both her and her lover if they were caught together: he may actually have mistaken a favoured concubine for a queen. It is not known which king al-Ghazal visited. If he had mistaken the Jutland peninsula for an island he may have visited the Danish king Horik. Alternatively, he may have visited a Viking warlord in Ireland, possibly Turgeis, whose wife was called Auðr, which is not too different to Noud. The purpose of al-Ghazal’s embassy is not stated either but it was almost certainly to do with trade – slaves if he had gone to Ireland, furs from the northern forests if he had gone to Denmark.

Ultimately the Vikings had no great impact on the Iberian Peninsula. Their raids were bloody and destructive but both the Christians and the Moors were able to contain them. As a result, the Vikings did not act as a catalyst for change by upsetting the local balance of power as they did in so many other places that they raided. Writing in the 1150s, the Andalusian geographer al-Zuhri summarised the Vikings as: ‘fierce, brave and strong, and excellent seamen. When they attacked, the coastal peoples fled for fear of them. They only appeared every six or seven years, never in less than forty ships and sometimes up to one hundred. They overcame anyone they met at sea, robbed them and took them captive’. So, just another bunch of barbarians.

Dark Age Warfare


655 Battle of Winwaed: Penda of Mercia was defeated by Oswiu of Northumbria. Although the battle was said to be the most important between the early northern and southern divisions of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, few details are available. Significantly, the battle marked the effective demise of Anglo-Saxon paganism.

Battle was a high-risk strategy. It brought matters to a decision and could save the country from the horrors of rampaging armies. On the other hand, if one lost a battle one risked losing everything, including, of course, one’s life. No quarter was given to high-status prisoners in the Dark Ages. Even kings were summarily knocked on the head. A sensible commander therefore did everything possible to avoid battle unless he was confident of winning. Battles tended to happen when two forces were more or less equally matched, or thought they were, or when the commander had run out of other options. The Dark Ages have plenty of examples of desperate measures taken to avoid battle with a superior force. King Oswy of Northumbria offered to buy off his enemy King Penda in 655. A few years before, his rival King Oswin of Deira had disbanded his army and sent them home rather than face Oswy in battle.

Once battle had become inevitable, Dark Age commanders would choose their ground carefully. When Penda refused to be bought off in 655, Oswy reduced the odds by deploying in a strong position on high ground, forcing Penda’s forces to advance through a flooded river valley. A striking number of Dark Age battles were fought by fords in rivers. Perhaps the river not only secured at least one flank but enabled the army to be supplied by boats. At Brunanburh one flank of Athelstan’s army was secured by a stream and the other by a wood. Finding a short line with secure flanks enabled a smaller army to negate the enemy’s superior numbers and create several lines of defence. Another consideration was to have somewhere to retreat if things went badly. For example, at Dyrham in 577 the British commanders probably fought in front of their hillfort, retreating behind its stout walls as they were pressed back. Not that, in this case, it did them much good.

Dark Age battle tactics are difficult to reconstruct for want of evidence. The only detailed account of a real battle is Maldon, where tactical considerations went no further than standing firm. The commander ‘bade his men make a war-hedge (wihagen) with their shields and hold it fast against the foe’. Like a hedge, the line would be long, straight and thin, and bristling with thorns – a thicket of spears. The more usual name for Maldon’s war-hedge was the shield-wall (bordweall). The line would stand to receive a charge behind overlapping shields with spearpoints projecting. The advancing enemy would see a line of wood and metal, eyes glinting between helmet and shield, and the only flesh on display being the lower legs. Breaking through this human wall would be akin to breaching the walls of a fort, and one source did indeed compare the Battle of Hastings with a siege.

Since everyone, whether Saxon, Briton or Viking, adopted shield-wall tactics in battle, the challenge was how to break through. If the commander had chosen his ground well, it would be impossible to outflank him. Sometimes, perhaps, the opposing shield-walls simply advanced towards one another and fought it out. However there is evidence that Roman tactics were familiar to Dark Age commanders through tracts such as that of Vegetius, written down in the early fifth century. As a means of breaking through, Vegetius recommended the wedge, a tactic particularly favoured by the Vikings who compared it with a charging boar and called it svinfylking or ‘swine-array’. Well-trained troops would mass in front of the shield-wall in wedge formation some ten lines deep. The wedge would then charge forward, keeping formation in order to penetrate the line with great force at a narrow point. Once the wall was broken more men would flood in and the enemy would be outflanked or even attacked from behind.

The correct way to prevent this, according to Vegetius, was to ‘swallow the charge’ by receiving it in a curved formation known as the forceps. It was easier to do this in a dense formation, but of course required training and a cool commander. Both the wedge and its countermeasures depended on firmness under fire and on fighting together as a well-drilled unit. How well drilled, in fact, were Dark Age armies? No drill manuals have come down to us. On the other hand, re-enactment experience suggests that formations can be taught basic proficiency in spear-and-shield warfare very quickly. Mastery of the basic moves – open order, forming ranks, advancing from column to line and turning about (in which the shield is passed over your head) – can be learnt in a day. In terms of basic drill, levied men could be turned into soldiers in a short time. To create a soldier who would stand firm in battle was another matter. There are many instances of a Dark Age army disintegrating under pressure. Morale depended on strong leadership and a sense of comradeship. Other requirements were personal fitness, which was probably high among the yeoman class, and courage. Re-enactments have confirmed another contemporary aspect of fighting – that, as the shield-walls lock together, it helps to shout! As anyone who attends football matches or has marched in large, noisy demonstrations will know, you lose your individuality in a pack, especially when you yell with the rest.

How did Dark Age armies find one another? Although hard evidence is scarce, it seems that armies of the period were highly mobile. King Harold famously marched from London to York in twelve days at some seventeen miles per day. This implies two things: that at least the flying columns of the force were mounted and that the roads and bridges were kept in good repair. From the striking correlation of Dark Age battle sites with Roman roads and major ancient tracks like the Ridgeway, it is evident that Dark Age armies made good use of roads. Perhaps this explains how kings like Oswald and Ecgfrith could campaign far from home without maps or a compass. They simply followed the roads. They also used scouts and presumably enlisted local people as guides, though recorded instances are hard to find from this period.

Shire armies seem to have been mustered at traditional outdoor assemblies or moots, such as Swanborough Tump in Wiltshire during Alfred’s Ashdown campaign or at Egbert’s Stone somewhere on or near the border of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire at the start of Alfred’s victorious campaign of 878. The shire reeves were responsible for ensuring that the men arrived on time and properly equipped. National service lasted for sixty days and, as the levies showed time and again, not a day longer. On more than one occasion, Alfred’s commanders had to let the Danes escape because the shire levies insisted on their rights and went home. This alone might explain why Dark Age commanders often seemed anxious to get the fighting over and done with.

To maintain speed the army marched as light as possible. Heavy war gear was carried in the rear in carts or by packhorses. Towns were expected to supply the army with food and other necessities as it marched. Bede confirms this with his story of the man who escaped death at the Battle of the Trent by pretending to be a civilian ferrying food supplies to the army. We are in the dark about living conditions on the march, but it seems that armies did bring tents with them. In Egiil’s Saga, Athelstan used his city of tents to confuse the enemy about his battle deployment. The saga might be fiction, but it would make no sense to its listeners had not tents been a normal part of army life.

We know little about battle formations in the Dark Ages. Large armies were evidently divided into sub-units, serving under different lords. From the ninth century, the shire levies were led in battle by their respective reeves, as at Ringmere in 1010 when the men of Cambridgeshire and East Anglia fought in separate divisions. Men of the top social class, royalty or ealdormen, fought among their hearth-troops who were expected to defend their lord to the death. Ealdorman Byrhtnoth at Maldon probably acted in the way expected of Dark Age commanders by putting himself in a prominent position in the centre of the line where his banner would be visible to the rest of his force.

Victory or defeat in a Dark Age battle depended on moral as well as physical strength. The professional Dark Age warrior, hearth trooper or mercenary, married late, if at all. The prime of his manhood was spent in the service of his lord, and he spent his leisure in the company of men, hunting, hawking and drinking. He lived on the cusp between the fiction of the sagas and praise poetry and the hard facts of military life: the former informed him of the way he was expected to behave, the latter of how heroic ideals worked out in practice. He repaid the mead he drank and the gifts he received by absolute loyalty and devoted service. One is bound to wonder: did the Dark Age warrior fear death in battle? It has been suggested that he was a fatalist: what will be, will be, and better to die gloriously than to live dishonourably. To fall in battle was considered an honourable death. Some warriors, especially the Welsh, thought that to die in bed was a disgrace. The trouble is that we do not know these people very well except through the doubtlessly idealized form of poetry. Although they might have been expected to conform to a heroic stereotype, the Battle of Maldon shows us that there were good and bad apples in every barrel. Some did indeed live and die according to their oaths. Others, it is clear, did not.

Sea Battles of the Vikings


The tale of the battle of Svöldr mentions one Einar Tambarskelve, who stood beside King Olaf Tryggvasson. After he had narrowly missed Eric Haakonsson, a leader of the enemy, his bow was broken by an arrow hit. Olaf asked him what had burst with such a noise: he replied, “It was Norway, Sire, that sprang from your hands.” King Olaf Tryggvason,s last stand. Battle of Svolder, 999 or 1000. Painting by Angus Mcbride


The Battle of Svolder (Svold, Swold) was a naval battle fought in September 999 or 1000 in the western Baltic Sea between King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway and an alliance of his enemies. The backdrop of the battle was the unification of Norway into a single state, long-standing Danish efforts to gain control of the country, and the spread of Christianity in Scandinavia.


The sea battles of the Vikings were fought according to the same principles as battles on land. Each side roped most of their ships together side by side to make a platform on which to form a shield wall. The attackers tried to storm this platform, as e. g. in the battles of Hafrsfjord in 872, Svöldr in 1000 and Nissa in 1062. Ship after ship was taken and then detached from the formation to drift away. Both fleets used to keep some ships outside the formation to manoeuver; these were used to attack the enemy by going alongside and boarding, in a hailstorm of arrows, stones and spears from both sides. If the defenders succeeded in killing the attacking rowers, or if the oars of the attacking ship were broken, the attack often failed through inability to manoeuver. However, the elements of a real naval battle of the Classical age – outmanoeuvering, ramming, forcing the opponent to sail against the wind, or the use of catapults – were unknown among the Vikings. Most sea battles took place in quiet coastal waters or river mouths, where there was no space for such tactics.

When fighting amongst themselves, the Vikings’ major battles almost invariably took place at sea- witness Hafrs Fjord in 872, Svöldr in 1000 and Nissa in 1062, to cite but three examples. Nevertheless, they made every effort to ensure that a naval action was as much like a land battle as possible, arranging their fleets in lines or wedges; one side-or sometimes both-customarily roped together the largest of their ships gunwale to gunwale to form large, floating platforms. The biggest and best-manned ships usually formed the middle part of the line, with the commander’s vessel invariably positioned in the very centre, since he normally had the largest vessel of all. High-sided merchantmen were sometimes positioned on the flanks of the line too. The prows of the longer ships extended out in front of the battle-line and some of them, called bardi, were therefore armoured with iron plates at stem and stern, which bore the brunt of the fighting. Some even had a series of iron spikes called a beard (skegg) round the prow, designed to hole enemy ships venturing close enough to board.

In addition to this floating platform there were usually a number of additional individual ships positioned on the flanks and in the rear, whose tasks were to skirmish with their opposite numbers; to attack the enemy platform if he had one; to put reinforcements aboard their own platform when necessary; and to pursue the enemy in flight. Masts were lowered in battle, and all movement was by oar, so the loss of a ship’s oars in collision with another vessel effectively crippled it. Nevertheless, the classical diekplus manoeuvre, which involved shearing off an enemy vessel’s oars with the prow of one’s own ship, does not seem to have been deliberately employed, and nor was ramming.

The main naval tactic was simply to row against an enemy ship, grapple and board it, and clear it with hand weapons before moving on to another vessel, sometimes cutting the cleared ship loose if it formed the wing of a platform. The platforms were attacked by as many ships as could pull alongside. Boarding was usually preceded by a shower of arrows and, at closer range, javelins, iron-shod stakes and stones, as a result of which each oarsman was often protected by a second man, who deflected missiles with his shield. On the final approach prior to boarding, shields were held overhead ‘so closely that no part of their holders was left uncovered’. Some ships carried extra supplies of stones and other missiles. Stones are extensively recorded in accounts of Viking naval battles, and were clearly the favourite form of missile. The largest were dropped from high-sided vessels on to (and even through) the decks of ships which drew alongside to board.


King from 995, probably brought up in Russia after the killing of his father. He took part in raids in the Baltic and on expeditions to England. He was probably the victor of Maldon in 991. He allied with Sweyn Forkbeard. Olaf converted to Christianity in England, promising not to return. He overthrew Hakon to become King of Norway, encouraging the conversion of Norway and Iceland. He was killed at Svöld, fighting an alliance of Danes and Swedes. It was said that, recognising defeat, he leaped from his ship the Long Serpent (the largest ship recorded in the sagas) and drowned. Olaf Tryggvason’s Saga is part of the Heimskringla. There were tales that he survived.


King from 987, son of Harold Bluetooth from whom he seized the Danish throne. He led raids against England in 991 and 994 with Olaf Tryggvason. He opposed his former comrade in Norway. Sweyn’s ally, Jarl Erik of Lade, defeated Olaf at Svöld in 1000. As king Sweyn took over Hedeby and dominated the Wends. He led expeditions to England in 1003 and 1006. In 1013 he came to defeat Aethelred II, who fled. He controlled England but died in February 1014 at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. In Denmark his son Harold succeeded but his most famous son was Cnut the Great.


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.

Anglo-Saxon England and Welsh Armed Forces Against the Vikings


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.


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.



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

The berserkers are one of the most interesting and least understood aspects of the Viking warrior society. These were individuals who fought in such a blinding fury that they lost all sense of self and became unconscious killing machines without dis crimination.

The term berserker has a disputed derivation. It has been suggested that it comes from the term “bare-sark,” meaning “bare of shirt,” or without armor. Many references to the berserkers mention their lack of body armor. The other primary suggestion is “bear-sark,” describing the wearing of animal skins. Bear skin would seem to be the logical choice of fur, but in some of the sagas the berserkers are called “Wolf Skins” or “wolf-coats” (ulfhedinn). The berserkers are often associated with the Norse god Odin, or Wodan, whose name possibly comes from the German “wut,” meaning “rage” or “fury,” and the Gothic “wods,” meaning “possessed.”

This kinship with the chief Norse god is illustrated in many of the legends concern ing berserkers. One is that, like Odin, they could alter their form and become animals, or at least assume wolf-like or bearlike qualities. Hrolf’s Saga describes the hero Bjarki taking the shape of a bear during battle and killing more men than any five warriors. Georges Dumezil, in Gods of the Ancient Northmen (1973), describes this phenomenon as the hamnigja, the spirit or soul of the animal appearing in dreams or visions as well as (so the Vikings believed) in reality. The berserkers were also reputed to have had an immunity to weapons, either naturally or through the performance of incantations. This quality is described in many of the sagas. It could possibly be explained by the thickness of the animal skins they wore as protection or their blind rage that dulled any feeling of pain or wounding. Either way, the sight of berserker warriors receiving what should be mortal wounds and continuing to fight certainly had a strong psychological effect on their enemies.

The berserkers may have belonged to a cult of Odin, whose practices and spells would have been revealed only to initiates. Emperor Constantine VII of Byzantium, who employed Vikings in his Varangian Guard, noted a dance his men engaged in while wearing animal skins. This could indicate the performance of cultish rites. Such a dance is also recorded in artwork on Swedish helmets, scabbards, and bracelets. A newly accepted member of the cult is sometimes described as having to undergo an initiation into a warrior band whereby he has to fight a bear. Such combats are also shown in artwork inscribed on Swedish helmets. In such a cult, a member probably would have learned the secrets of bringing on the fighting frenzy, and it has been suggested that the fury was a product of drugs or alcohol. One drug proposed to bring about this condition is the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita mucaria. Other researchers put the killing frenzy down to mental illness, epilepsy, or self-induced hysteria.

The appearance of the berserker was also important in instilling fear in the enemy. The animal skin itself, especially if the head was still attached and worn over the warrior’s head, could present a frightening sight. This, along with an already established reputation as shape changers, provoked fear in the berserkers’ own forces at times. Sagas tell of warriors who in the evening would become moody and quiet before going off by themselves, and many in camp saw in this hints of a werewolf. Berserkers are also often described as being particularly ugly, to the point of being mistaken for trolls. Whether this came from genetic makeup, or intentional actions to make themselves look worse, is unknown.

Once battle was joined, the warrior would go into his frenzy, called berserker- gang. The flow of adrenaline must have been immense, because the aftermath of the fight always left the berserker drained. Hrolf’s Saga describes it thus: “On these giants fell sometimes such a fury that they could not control themselves, but killed men or cattle, whatever came in their way and did not take care of itself. While this fury lasted they were afraid of nothing, but when it left them they were 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 fury lasted about one day” (Fabing, 1956). The berserkers screamed like animals and showed incredible strength. This also over time could have contributed to their reputation as shape changers who turned into bears. Indeed, many of these warriors would assume a “bear name,” by adding “bjorn” or “biorn” to their given names, for example, Arinbjorn or Esbjorn. They also are reputed to have drunk bear or wolf blood in order to take on some of the animals’ characteristics.

The berserkers were admired as warriors, and in battle they were often the vanguard. Their ties to Odin gave their commanders some elevated status as well, for Odin was seen in many societies as patron of rulers and chieftains. However, the potential for killing their own comrades was great. This put the berserkers in a kind of social limbo, for killing ones’ fellows was looked upon in Norse society as the meanest of crimes. Thus, in many sagas the berserkers are portrayed as villains. They were often accused of raping maidens or even other mens’ wives. It is probably this factor that brought about the end of the berserkers. In 1015 King Erik had them outlawed, along with duels. Prior to this reform, berserkers often challenged men to duels and then killed them while in berserker-gang. They then took their victims’ possessions and families, as was allowed under Viking law. In Iceland, the church outlawed the practice as well, stating that if anyone went berserk they would receive three years’ banishment. Being a berserker was equated with being a heathen and practicing magic, neither of which a Christian church or society would allow. Finally succumbing to these civilizing pressures, berserker-gang came to an end in the twelfth century.

References: Dumezil, Georges, Gods of the Ancient Northmen (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973); Fabing, Howard D., “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry,” in Scientific Monthly, November 1956, vol. 83; Jones, Gwen, Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961)