A storm is brewing in the North. Whispers of unbeatable, giant like men. Painted skin with long braided hair wielding sword and axe and shield.
Creatures that no good Christian can bear to imagine. Could these men really exist? Are they simply horror stories to embolden our hearts and solidify our faith in God?
They are no such thing, and they are very much a reality.
Allow me to introduce the Norsemen, the bane of the Christian kingdoms of England, of Francia; Our reckoning.
The impact of Scandinavians upon European history is often overlooked despite their role in the Middle Ages being enormous. Their lust for plunder, their combat techniques, their seamanship; all unrivalled.
They were not the mindless barbarians they are often portrayed as in cinema and television. Their own societies and cultures were vibrant, individualist and proud and they acted no differently to their forefathers or other peoples of the time. The ultimate opportunists, the sharks in the water and blood was present, their victims; the weak and petty kingdoms of England.
Middle-Age England was a far different picture to what we see today. The Kingdom of England – as we know it – had not arisen yet, and the land was divided between several smaller kingdoms.
A time known as ‘The Heptarchy‘. Any fans of the television series Vikings, or The Last Kingdom will have a brief understanding of the political, economic and cultural complexities of this era in British history; Wessex, Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and more – each with their own kings and customs, each with their own ambition. It sounds like Westeros, without the dragons, zombies, incest and…wait, perhaps a dash of incest.
These divisions left Britain weak. One unified kingdom may have had the might to repel incursions by the Norsemen. However the individualist nature of each kingdom left Britain particularly vulnerable to attack. Communication as you can imagine was rather primitive at the time and relations between rival kingdoms complicated matters further.
On the Winds of a Storm They Travel
“Terrible portents appeared over Northumbria and miserably frightened the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine followed these signs; and a little after that, in the same year on 8 June, the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 793AD)
The first raid on Saxon England is acknowledged as being the attack on Lindisfarne in Northumbria, 793AD. It was here that a band of Viking raiders landed, plundered the monastery of its wealth and killed several monks, enslaving many more.
Some were said to have been drowned in the sea and the others simply butchered where they stood. The apparent barbarism of the Vikings shocked not only Saxon England, but the Christian world to its core. Who would dare desecrate the house of god and harm his people?
Panic set in among the Christian peoples of England; was this a one off event, or would these demons return on the winds of a storm once again?
They would return, and the decades and centuries to follow would fundamentally change Britain. Word would spread throughout Scandinavia of the riches that the Saxon kingdoms possessed. Their places of worship teaming with gold, their cities ripe with plunder and wealth. For every fearful whisper on the wind throughout Christendom, there was a battle cry resonating through the Fjord’s of the North.
Although this era is largely portrayed as one in which Norsemen plundered England and beyond, it runs far deeper than this, it was nothing short of a mass-migration. England was not merely a booty-rich land. For the Norsemen, it was a land of promise. Fertile lands represented far greater riches than gold alone – A chance to expand and start afresh. The following centuries would change the face of the British Isles and lay the groundwork for dynasties that would reign for centuries more.
A near century had passed since the raid on Lindisfarne and the reach of the Norsemen had grown far beyond what anyone could have imagined. The seafaring nature of their culture allowed them to travel enormous distances, with Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland all having been colonised by Scandinavian peoples or would see their boot prints upon their shores.
The Norse were now feared across Europe, and in Britain, raids had escalated swiftly into a full-scale migration and conquest. By 878 large areas of England had been conquered and were now under the direct control of the Norse, these lands were now simply known as ‘Danelaw‘.
This shift in power occurred in around 865 and would change the shape of Britain forever. Saxon England would be on the receiving end of the greatest invasion since their ancestors had descended upon the shores of Roman Britain. The Great Heathen Army had arrived.
This cataclysm is shrouded in myth and legend. It is said that the invasion was led by the three sons of legendary Norse figure Ragnar Lodbrok – although this has often been contested. What is known however, is that the force – believed to have been the largest of its kind – arrived in England with the intention of conquering the region and declaring it as their own.
Landing in East-Anglia, the force was not met with the response one would imagine. The Saxon ruler of the kingdom bribed the Norsemen with horses in order to maintain peace. A truce was established and the army wintered in the kingdom, after which they set out for Northumbria in late 866.
The force settled in Eoferwic, a town now known as York, and despite lying within the kingdom of Northumbria, once again the invasion force was bribed with gold and silver.
This becomes a common occurrence throughout this time period, Saxon kingdoms flexing their economic might to prevent bloodshed. However Northumbria can be described as the ‘sick man’ of Saxon England. The kingdom itself was large, but lacked in might what it possessed in land. Like others before them, they would empty their coffers to save their own skin.
After a rather uneventful period by Norse standards, the Great Heathen Army returned to East Anglia in 869. This time however, events would unfold far differently to their last meeting.
No formal peace agreement was declared, and the East Anglian king, Edmund – tired of Danes, raiders and pirates in his kingdom – decided to fight. The outcome was nothing short of a bloodbath. Edmund was defeated, captured, and killed. The Great Heathen Army had taken its first significant scalp of their incursion on British soil, and bolstered by fresh numbers in the form of the Great Summer Army, they turned their attention to Wessex.
Arise, Alfred the Great
The West Saxons are portrayed in English history as the defenders of Saxon England. The valiant last kingdom whose destiny it was to ultimately unify the nation and lay the foundations for one of Europe’s great kingdoms.
Unlike his counterparts from Anglia, Mercia or Northumbria, King Aethelred of Wessex was unwilling to succumb to the Viking invaders so readily. Bribes of gold and plunder would not stop this invasion, and the very existence of his kingdom was at stake – this was a time for action.
On the 8th of January 871, the battle of Ashdown seen the Great Heathen Army defeated not at the hands of King Aethelred, but his brother Alfred. It is said that upon sight of the Danes, King Aethelred took to praying, placing Alfred in command of the force; a hardly encouraging action
The pawns were set however, and Alfred would take his first perilous steps toward his destiny.
An advantage in numbers bore well for the Saxons, however the high ground was held by the Danes. Unwilling to wait Alfred ordered the advance of the Fyrd shield wall. What was to follow would be a vicious battle of attrition, with heavy loses on both sides.
Sword and shield, axe and spear, the ground drenched with blood and littered with dead. One can imagine the scene resembling that of a Hollywood film. This was not fiction, nor was it television either, it was a bloody affair, and one that Wessex would prevail in.
In disarray with King Bagsecg dead and their lines broken, the Danes fell back. Scattered among the fields and farms of southern England they wreaked havoc throughout their retreat, finally taking shelter at Reading.
Ashdown was a monumental and long awaited victory for Wessex and Saxon England. Defeat at Reading some time before had weakened the Saxon force and emboldened the Danes; From the jaws of defeat, Wessex has struck a stunning victory.
This success was to be short lived though. After regrouping at Reading, the Danes marched forth once more, and this time Wessex was brought to its knees. The battles of Basing and Marton were pushing the Saxon kingdom to its limit, and King Aethelred was slain.
The kingship of Wessex now passed to Alfred, whose name will echo in history.
In the second part of this piece I will explore the events throughout Alfred’s reign, and the impact of Norse culture in Saxon England.