A storm is brewing in the North. Whispers of unbeatable, giant like men. Painted skin with long braided hair wielding sword, axe and shield. Devilish creatures that no good Christian can bear to imagine.
Could these men really exist? Or are they simply horror stories to embolden Christian hearts and solidify one’s faith in God?
Allow me to introduce the Norsemen, the bane of the kingdoms of England.
The impact of Scandinavians upon European history appears somewhat overlooked, despite their critical role in the Middle Ages. Their seamanship, ability in combat and pioneering attitudes toward trade and exploration were all unrivalled.
They were not the mindless barbarians they are often portrayed as in cinema and television. Their societies and cultures were vibrant, individualist and proud, and 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 warring petty kingdoms of England.
During the Middle Ages, England differed vastly 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 a lot like Westeros, except without undead hordes or fire-breathing dragons.
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 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)
One of the first major raids on Saxon England was the attack on Lindisfarne in Northumbria, 793AD. It was here that a band of Norse raiders landed, plundered the monastery of its wealth, killed several monks and took others as slaves. Some were said to have been drowned in the sea and the others simply butchered where they stood. This shocking act of violence shocked Saxon England – an indeed the whole of Christendom – to its core.
Who would dare desecrate the house of god and harm his messengers?
Throughout England, rumours and accounts of the atrocity drifted from village to village like pollen on the wind. Was this a one-off event, or would these demons return once again?
They would return, and the decades and centuries to follow would fundamentally change Britain and Ireland. Throughout Scandinavia, word spread 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 reverberating 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 Norse, 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.
Almost 100 years had passed since the raid on Lindisfarne and the reach of the Norsemen had grown far beyond what anyone could have imagined. Their seamanship was unparalleled, and their small, sturdy vessels enabled them to travel great distances. Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, despite their remoteness, were all colonised by Scandinavian peoples during this era.
The Norse were feared and renowned in equal measure across Europe. And in Britain, raids had escalated into a full-scale migration and conquest. By 878, large areas of England had been conquered and were under the direct control of the Norse, these lands were referred to as the ‘Danelaw‘.
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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. However, what is known is that the force, believed to have been the largest of its kind, arrived in England with the intention of conquering rather than plundering and leaving.
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 parting with vast sums of gold and silver to prevent violent confrontations and certain death.
However, Northumbria could 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 an uneventful period by Norse standards, the Great Heathen Army returned to East Anglia in 869.
This time, however, events would take a darker turn. No formal peace agreement was declared, and the East Anglian king Edmund – who by this point may have grown 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. Bolstered by fresh numbers in the form of the Great Summer Army, they turned their attention to Mercia and 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 states.
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 saw 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.
The pawns were set however, and Alfred would take his first perilous steps toward his destiny.
An advantage in numbers bode 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 losses 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 a bloody engagement, and one in which Wessex prevailed.
In disarray, with their lines broken and their king dead, the Vikings fell back. Scattered among the fields and farms of southern England they wrought havoc during their retreat before 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 pushed the Saxon kingdom to its limit, and in 871AD King Aethelred died.
The kingship of Wessex now passed to Alfred, whose name will echo in history.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this short series, in which I will explore the events throughout Alfred’s reign, and the impact of Norse culture in Saxon England.