Viking Raids of Plunder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vikings and Anglo-Saxons


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Viking Army in Wessex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE RETURN OF THE VIKINGS

Elfrida: England’s First Crowned Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viking Armies Roaming England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Viking Warrior Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vikings in the West

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

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

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

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

Invading Wessex and Mercia

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

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

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

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

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

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translated by Rev. James Ingram

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

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

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

Two-nation State

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

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

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

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

Viking berserkers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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