The Vikings Invade England (History in a Nutshell No.5)

Updated on December 16, 2018
Stephen Austen profile image

History is one of S.P. Austen's favourite topics and he is fascinated how it has shaped us all.

When we hear the name Viking there is a temptation to think of images of huge, blond-headed and red-bearded, horn-helmeted individuals raiding in massed numbers up and down the coast of Britain. Well, some of that is absolutely true, but certainly they did not wear horned or winged helmets as was fancifully supposed in Victorian times. Initially, they often did not even invade in massed numbers, and normally they landed a few ships and raided and disappeared quickly. However, pitched battles were fought eventually against them by the English, and their raids did become much larger, until they became a threat to Christian civilization in England. But this comes later in our account. To begin with, there was no massed, planned invasion at all.

What does Viking even mean? Well, the word was never used by the people of the day, and the English principally referred to them as the Danes, as the majority of them came from Denmark. Others though, were from Norway and Sweden. The word Viking basically means a sea-rover, pirate or freebooter. To go a Viking, is basically to go on a raid of pillage and plunder. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called these raiders "black men" because they wore black leather armour for the most part, rather like ancient forerunners of Hell's Angels with long beards, tattoos and dark clothing studded with metal as additional armour.

From "Stories of Beowulf" By J.R. Skelton-Marshall and Henrietta Elizabeth
From "Stories of Beowulf" By J.R. Skelton-Marshall and Henrietta Elizabeth | Source

The First Assaults

We do not know precisely when the Viking raids on the English coast began, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives us the first date as 789 AD, when King Offa of Mercia was Bretwalda, or High King of the English. Four years later, in 793 the Danes returned, and destroyed the church of St. Cuthbert on Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, on the Northumbrian coast. In the following year the Vikings returned, but the English defeated them and put their chieftain, or king to death. The Danes that managed to escape took a terrible tale back with them and this left the coasts of England safe for around 40 years.

In the year 829 AD Egbert was crowned King of Wessex. King Offa of Mercia had died in the year 796 and since that time, Mercia had gradually lost much of its power and prestige. Wessex, meanwhile, was on the ascent. At this time, the churches and monasteries of England were great storehouses of wealth and riches. Under Catholic England, those who had any wealth to give, gave it to the church as a means of absolution from their sins and to buy their way into Heaven.

The Vikings were fully aware of just how much wealth they could gain from raids on these churches and monasteries, and indeed, this store of wealth was likely to be the prime motivator for many of the Vikings who came over to England in their longships. In addition, there were still in the island discontented Britons, those Celtic descendants who had wanted to get rid of the Anglo-Saxons. Some of these Celtic bands living in Western England joined with the Vikings and fought against Egbert. However, Egbert proved victorious against them. In 836 he died, and the crown of Wessex passed to his son, Ethelwulf.

The Rise of Wessex

The Danes were now becoming increasingly emboldened, and sailed up the Thames in London and pillaged the city. They also attacked Rochester and Canterbury. They had already burned Paris and ravaged the coasts along the Mediterranean. Against this new and more dangerous onslaught, the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia united against this common foe. Ethelbert's eldest son, Athelstan, the king of Kent, had assisted him in the defeat of the Danish raids. Ethelbert had other sons too, in order of age, being Ethelbald, Ethelbert, Ethelred and Alfred, the latter being born in the year 849. All of them would become King of Wessex in turn, and Alfred would later be known as The Great, the only English monarch to ever have such an appellation.

In the year 865 "a great heathen army" as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it, arrived in East Anglia. Their leader was the terrible Ivar the Boneless, so named due to being born with deformed and crippled legs. He was one of the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, who had been killed by the king of Northumbria by being thrown into a pit of snakes, and Ivar was seeking bloody revenge. The latter means of execution seems almost doubtful, as the only poisonous snakes in England are adders, and they mostly do not kill. However, perhaps if enough of them were gathered in one place such as a pit, they might suffice to kill a man.

In the year 866 Ivar and his Vikings besieged the city of York. A battle was fought and the Vikings emerged as the victors. This victory over the English was followed in 869 by the conquest of East Anglia, accomplished by the brothers of Ivar, namely Halfdane (or Halfdan) Hingwar and Hubba (or Ubba). The king of the East Anglians, Edmund, was savagely murdered and subsequently made a saint. All that stood against the Danes now was the remaining kingdom of Wessex. At this time, the king of Wessex was Alfred's brother Ethelred. Both he and Alfred, now a young man of 22 years old, fought several battles against the Danish invaders.

From Richard Doyle, The Vikings invading the Kingdom of Wessex.
From Richard Doyle, The Vikings invading the Kingdom of Wessex. | Source

King Alfred

In January of the year 871, the English fought and defeated the Danes at the battle of Ashdown in Berkshire, Wessex. But it was young Prince Alfred who won the day, losing patience with his older brother Ethelred, who was busy at prayer before the battle commenced. It was said of Alfred, by the monk Asser, that Alfred charged the Vikings with his army "like a wild boar." The English had the disadvantage of having to climb uphill where the Danes held a high point. Fighting in those days was generally carried out on foot by both sides, and horses were only used to carry men and provisions into battle for the most part.

An old hawthorn tree grew alone in that place, and the battle was mostly fought around it. The Danes were thoroughly routed, and the English pursued them as they fled back to Reading where they held camp. All through the night the Danes were chased and slaughtered, leaving bodies strewn across the countryside. This battle was of particular importance, because at this point, only Wessex stood against the might of the Viking forces. If the Danes had won at Ashdown, the entire country would have been overtaken by them and paganism would most likely have dominated Christian England. So religious belief and practice in England was held in the balance by this decisive battle.

In the same year, just after Easter, Ethelred died of wounds inflicted in the battle of Ashdown, and a second Danish army was currently invading. Prince Alfred now became king of Wessex. His father and all of his brothers were dead. He stood alone, with his council of advisors and clergymen, (known as the Witan) whilst Northumbria and Mercia collapsed under Viking subjugation. Only Christian Wessex remained.

PD-Art (King Alfred, after a painting in the Bodleian Library)
PD-Art (King Alfred, after a painting in the Bodleian Library) | Source

The Danegeld

Historically, according to the records provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, it appears that although the English were sometimes able to defeat the Danes or Vikings, such as at Ashdown, there were times when they were unable to do so, and the Danes would occupy some part of the land and set up camp. Negotiations with the English then went ahead, and the Danes demanded to be paid in Danegeld, which means that the English had to give them silver and gold to keep the peace. However, being ever treacherous and greedy, the Danes nearly always broke their faith with the English and made more raids, clearly thinking that they could gain more booty by conquest than by negotiation. Apart from that, the Viking culture was such that glory and success in battle was considered heroic and necessary to their pagan beliefs in gods of warfare and chaos.

In these early days of Alfred's reign, he too, like the kings of Northumbria and Mercia, paid the Danegeld to buy some time whilst he strengthened his army. In those days, warriors did not form a regular force of professional men at arms who could be called upon at any time. These men were farmers mostly, and had fields and animals to tend to, so men were raised to go on campaign for only short periods of a few months and then they returned home. Such companies of armed men were known as the fyrd, an Anglo-Saxon term for a levy of troops. There was no 'standing army' as such. The Danes however, engaged in battle for a living, and as part of their culture. This was the marked difference between the two opposing forces.

A New Kind of King

The challenge for King Alfred now, was how to maintain his forces as a viable opposition to the Danes, and to improve upon their fighting skills and tactics, both on land and at sea. Above all, he was a Christian king, with a deeply held reverence for his faith and a magnanimous love for his people. It was Alfred who would finally have The Bible translated into English so that it could be read by all who could read the mother tongue (this is the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons) and he promoted learning and scholarship throughout the land, inviting many learned foreigners from other countries to sit in his court. Alfred read widely, he translated, and he studied, with an insatiable craving for knowledge and learning. He was both warrior (the Wild Boar) and scholar.

Yet, the heathen menace was growing relentlessly as more Vikings poured into the small island of Britain. What could possibly stem such a tide?

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 S P Austen

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      • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

        S P Austen 

        6 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

        Thanks so much, John, I truly appreciate this, and thank you too for following this short history series of mine!

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        6 months ago from Queensland Australia

        I found this quite riveting reading, Steve. It appears Alfred was quite rightly given the title "The Great." Moving on to the next part.

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