Viking Settlement in England (History in a Nutshell No.6)

Updated on January 30, 2019
Stephen Austen profile image

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

In the years 874 to 875 AD the invading Danes (or Vikings) under the leadership of Halfdan, had begun to settle in Northumbria, Northern England. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they won the land they settled on through the sword, as always.

The northern territories now came under Danish rule and became known as the Danelaw. That meant that any pre-existing laws of Anglo-Saxon origin were wiped out and replaced with the feudal system and laws which governed the Danes in their own homelands. The existing English peoples in these regions were subjugated under these laws.

The Danelaw basically covered the north-eastern parts of the country, and English rule covered the south-west. If an oblique line were drawn from London to the westernmost parts of Northumberland, cutting the island in half diagonally, that line would describe the area roughly covered by the Danelaw. It would include all of East Anglia and most of the Midlands, which was once under the Kingdom of Mercia. Wessex ruled the entire southern hemisphere of the country and Mercia ruled the western parts of the Midlands.

Further to the historical evidence for Viking settlement in these lands, we can see the genetic inheritance amongst the people born and raised in these locations, to this day; the predominance of blonde or red-haired people with blue eyes is marked compared to that of the South. In the north-east to this day, ceremonies are still held which reflect the Scandinavian past of the people there, who regularly dress up in Viking costume, brandishing flaming torches and blowing on Viking rams' horns.

Map of the Danelaw in England  Attribution: Philip Van Ness
Map of the Danelaw in England Attribution: Philip Van Ness | Source

King Alfred's Navy

Meanwhile, in the South in the Kingdom of Wessex, King Alfred was not idle. Although not yet powerful enough to completely defeat the invaders, Alfred had been busily developing a stronger naval force of his own. Having examined some of the captured Danish longships, Alfred ordered that his shipbuilders copy the longship design but to improve upon it by building his ships larger, sitting higher out of the water.

In the year 875 Alfred put his ships to the test and sailed them out to meet the Danes at sea. The strength of his new navy was such that he put seven Danish longships to flight, and captured one of them. The average Danish longship could hold about 30 men, so although this was not a numerically strong force of marauders, the King had stopped them before they had a chance to land and create havoc. It demonstrated that England could have a strong sea-going force of its own.

Alfred's efforts in developing the first real British fleet, later gave him the epithet "Father of the English Navy" and is likely the reason why the British navy is called The Royal Navy to this day. It is also known as the Senior Service of all the military services in Britain, being the oldest to develop into a regular fighting force.

King Alfred had recognised the value of fighting the enemy at sea, to beat them at their own game before they could land and disappear into the countryside. He perceived, wisely, that if the navy was strong, the island would be safe from invasion. This keen observation would hold true for hundreds of years to come, up to the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada, to Napoleon and Nazi Germany in later centuries. It could be speculated that if King Harold, in 1066 had met William the Conqueror at sea with a powerful navy, there might have been a completely different outcome for the nation of Britain. But that remains for another time in this series.

Attribution: J.W. Kennedy
Attribution: J.W. Kennedy | Source

The Vikings Defeat King Alfred

In early January of the year 878 the Vikings, under the leadership of Guthrum, invaded Chippenham in Wiltshire, Wessex. King Alfred was taken by surprise as he had been celebrating Christmas in this Royal estate, and the victory was so overwhelming that he and his surviving forces were forced into exile. This was a severe reversal of fortunes for the king and for the peoples of southern England.

Many of King Alfred's prominent men fled to France, and the Kingdom of Wessex was put into complete disarray. Alfred, with his family and loyal supporters, fled into the marshes of Somerset. Here, Alfred set up camp on the Isle of Athelney which was an area of raised land, rather like a small hill, that was almost perpetually surrounded by regular flooding from the marshes. It was a cold, lonely and desolate isle encircled by a natural moat. However, this afforded the king and his followers some natural protection and a chance to regroup and reorganise.

The Burning of the Cakes?

It is during this period of utter defeat, that the story of King Alfred accidentally burning the cakes (likely to be small loaves of bread) occurs. The legend, recorded by Alfred's loyal monk and close advisor, Asser, is that Alfred was in disguise, along with some companions, and attempting to find out Guthrum's plans in the neighbouring area. Alfred and some of his followers came upon a herdsman's hut, and Alfred, seeming no more than a mere serf, was told to watch the cakes of bread. The story goes that he fell asleep, and the herdsman's wife upbraided him for burning the cakes.

Whether the burning of the cakes is a work of fancy or not, we cannot know for certain. I like to think that this is a true account, faithfully recorded by Asser, who documented the life of the king he loved meticulously in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It illustrates just how hard things had become for him, and how desperate the situation was for England.

King Alfred Burns the Cakes. Attribution: Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810 - 96)
King Alfred Burns the Cakes. Attribution: Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810 - 96) | Source

Alfred Rallies his Forces

In May 878 King Alfred rode to Selwood Forest, near Salisbury Plain, where stood ancient Stone Henge, which still stands to this day. In the forest there was a large stone known as Egbert's Stone, (King Egbert was Alfred's Grandfather) a rallying place of his grandfather's time. The local men from the neighbouring areas came in force to meet their king, rejoicing that he still lived. A new army was gathered into the fyrd, or local militia, and Alfred led these forces to Ethandune (modern Edington) in Wiltshire, near Salisbury Plain. Here, he met Guthrum's forces in a massed battle and defeated them.

King Alfred then pursued the Danes all the way to Chippenham, which they were using as their stronghold. He besieged it for two weeks until the Vikings gave in and surrendered. He took prisoners as 'hostages' which was common practice in those times, but gave no hostages in return to Guthrum. This was unprecedented, showing that the Danes had no room for bargaining, such was their complete defeat. Not only that, King Alfred made Guthrum a Christian and he was baptized. Alfred was the victor. Guthrum and his army departed for East Anglia, where they settled under oath never to attack Wessex again.

The Siege of London

By the year 886, the Vikings had captured London itself. London had been under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Mercia, and was not the capital city in those days. Winchester in Wessex was the capital city, but London remained as it always has been, an important trading city and an easy passage for ships up the Thames. Therefore, it was relatively easy for the Viking longships to negotiate the often shallow waters of this great trading river.

King Alfred dislodged the encamped Danes from London by setting fire to the city and besieging it. After defeating the Vikings of London, Alfred re-fortified the city and set up a permanent garrison force there, and for the first time London became a fortress against future Viking raids. Its importance as a defensive city began to be realised.

Now that the Kingdom of Mercia had become severely weakened, King Alfred was regarded as the High King or Bretwalda of all England. He was now King Alfred the Great.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 S P Austen

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      • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

        S P Austen 

        7 weeks ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

        Thanks Linda,

        To me history is so vitally important, as it shows where we have been and hence suggests where we might be going. The story of King alfred is particularly fascinating and inspiring to me.

        Best Wishes,

        Steve

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        7 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for sharing this information. I always enjoy learning about British history. King Alfred's story is interesting.

      • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

        S P Austen 

        6 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

        Thanks again, John, for your generous comments. I'm so glad that you are following my History in a Nutshell hubs, and I shall continue to try my best to keep it interesting, informative and exciting!

        Best Wishes,

        Steve

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        6 months ago from Queensland Australia

        This was another wonderful instalment in the saga, Steve. Alan's additional input in the comments was also welcome. You have a way of making a history lesson very interesting.

      • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

        S P Austen 

        7 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

        Yes, I agree; it's interesting too, that I briefly covered my surname in another of my history hubs. I'm no relation to Jane, as far as I know; if so, I'd like some healthy Royalties please!

        Best Wishes,

        S.P. Austen

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        7 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        Stephen, with detail comes credibility. A 'nutshell' contains more than a mere kernel. It contains some of the body-building nutrients we need to keep us going. Detail keeps the mind going, and can be condensed. Accurate detail sustains the thought process, and can be applied educationally - otherwise why write?

        It's like entering another world where our roots are tangible. 'Austen', for instance (like 'Austin') stems from 'Augustine', as in the 'Austin Friars', the Augustinian monks who took in foundlings and gave them a surname they needed to function in a society that paid well to those who had 'roots', aka 'standing' in society. You share yours with the Regency authoress Jane. "The devil is in the detail".

      • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

        S P Austen 

        7 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

        Thank you Alan, for the extra detail, and for the appreciation; it's always interesting to fill in even more information on historical events. But obviously I am trying to keep to my 'Nutshell' format to keep the writing basic but with enough to hold interest.

        S.P. stands for Stephen Paul; I just prefer to keep it to initials and I use it for all my writing found elsewhere.

        Best Wishes,

        S.P. Austen

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        7 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        Shame no-one's left their mark on this page... yet. It's an often misunderstood era. Some people pass over it in the way schoolkids are taught, 'over and out'.

        Halvdan (or Halfdan) secured his Kingdom of York in AD 866, and died fighting within half a decade. His boundary was that of the old Anglian kingdom of Deira (sometimes with the greater Northumbria, but at the time of the Danes' invasion separate due to Aella's perfidy in usurping the throne). The northern boundary of Halvdan's kingdom was the Tees in the east and the Pennines in the north-west (beyond which was the Kingdom of the Strathclyde Britons). The Danelaw lay to the south-east, English Mercia to the south-west. The Anglian kingdom of Bernicia was isolated from the rest of the Anglian fold by Halvdan's kingdom. Guthrum, self-styled king of East Anglia after (St) Edmund held sway over much of the east as far into London as the River Lea after Aelfred secured the west bank. Wessex only had power over the western side of Mercia, where Aelfred's son-in-law was Ealdorman (and smarting over being his father-in-law's underling). An illegitimate son sided with the Danes against Aelfred's son Eadward 'the Elder'. Much of the story is fairly accurately covered in Bernard Cornwell's 'The Last Kingdom' series until he says through one of his characters, "We are all Saxons" (typical Essex man, like Tony Robinson!)

        England's history is built on narrow escapes, just a shame the legends about Harold after October 14th, 1066 are just that.

        Nicely written. By the way, what does the "S.P" stand for?..

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