The sack of Lindisfarne in June 793, which caused Alcuin such anguish, had in modern terms been a catastrophe waiting to happen. The coastal site, so convenient for the raiders, had been chosen, like that of many another monastic community from Whitby in the east to Iona in the west, as a rugged retreat ideal for the contemplative life and remote from interruptions by the secular world. In the century that was to come the British Isles, like the rest of Europe, would become accustomed to incursions by alien and brutal raiders who targeted church properties as they would treasure hoards, and pillaged the countryside for supplies as well as for plunder. Richard Abels, a specialist in military history, estimates that a war band numbering in the upper hundreds would have consumed at least a ton of grain a day and its horses up to seven times as much in fodder.

These raiders terrorized the peasant population and displaced ruling dynasties; in the end they seemed likely to overturn the entire cultural project of Christian England. The tradition of fine script and manuscript production in Northumbria, such as the accomplished Roman display scripts (uncial and half uncial), for which Monkwearmouth-Jarrow was noted, appears to have been broken by the half-century of Viking disruption between 835 and 885.1 Writing a century after the event, and one suspects with the wisdom of hindsight, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speaks of the year of Lindisfarne as one of dragons in the sky. The Vikings’ dragon-prowed ships on the seaways would cause much more havoc.

This chapter aims to trace the history of devastation, warfare and resistance that saw the evolution of these raiders into settlers, like the Anglo-Saxons before them. The great work in which military planning, social restructuring and governmental initiative made possible the restoration of that culture during the reign of Alfred the Great of Wessex will be the principal theme of chapter 8. Here the king features as war leader against the raiders.

Many monks were killed at Lindisfarne and many treasures lost, but the relics of St Cuthbert and the great Gospel book survived, though we no longer have the original binding and cover. A ‘book shrine’ worthy of the sacred words it enclosed, it was adorned with ornamentation in gold, precious stones and silver gilding, the work of Billfrith the Anchorite. This, too, seems to have escaped the raiders of 793, judging by a note in the book in a mid-tenth century hand. Evidently the monastery’s great treasure had been well guarded. Did it perhaps, have a full-time guardian? After all, the attack on that June day came, almost literally, out of a clear sky. If the great jewelled book had been seen by one of the plunderers, at the very least the encrusted cover would have been hacked off. Elsewhere, in later raids, the massive parchment volumes of religious and cultural manuscripts, with their gold leaf and gilded lettering, were incinerated so that the precious metal could be poured off and harvested from the ashes. This made good sense. Unable to read and in no sense multiculturally aware, the sea robber may have been fearful of magic spells in the strange black tracings on the page, but he certainly valued gold.

Archaeology indicates that life of a sort continued at Lindisfarne once the raiders had gone on their way. The surviving monks no doubt gave a decent burial to those of their brothers slaughtered by the barbarians, tidied up their ruined buildings and set about the business of restoring lost treasures, supposing they had the inventive genius and the technical capacities needed. For their part, the cottagers in the lee of a ravaged minster would return to work their land and possibly replace torched wattle and daub homesteads. Given a good growing season and good crops the material impact of the disaster would fade soon enough. ‘For the ordinary person in Britain’, to follow Julian Richards, such raids ‘may have had little impact’. But ordinary people rarely leave much of interest. And whether or not such raids had much or little impact on them, the Viking age in general had a catastrophic impact on the general cultural life of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

The eighth century has been called the ‘age of the minsters’, as it was also the flourishing time of the emporia, at home and abroad – London and Alcuin’s York in England, Dorestad in Frisia. The merchant centres diminished almost to extinction during the ninth century and many of the great churches disappeared (the first abbey at Peterborough was destroyed in the 870s). This coincided with an upsurge in Viking incursions.

The invaders, raiders and origins

Early contacts of the Scandinavian homelands with Western Europe and the Mediterranean involved trading in the traditional products of the region, such as amber, skins, furs and, no doubt, slaves. It has been argued that Sutton Hoo and some of the objects found there indicate links between the East Anglian dynasty and Sweden from the very beginnings of the Anglo-Saxon period. Beowulf tells of a raiding expedition from southern Sweden to the lands of the Rhine basin dated to the sixth century. In the fifth century Swedish settlements on the island of Gotland were reaching across the Baltic. Here, in the region of Stockholm and in parts of Denmark, huge finds of Islamic coins running into the thousands testify to vigorous exchanges, whether by way of war or of trade in the ninth and tenth centuries.

Of course, the prime military secret of the sea rovers’ success was the long double-ended ship that they used, with dragon-headed prow and (sometimes stern) posts. Developed over centuries, it had evolved by the eighth century into one of the most beautiful of human artefacts, as is clear from the famous Gokstad ship. This was an open long boat, clinker built (that is, with overlapped planking, secured with iron nails), upwards of 45 feet (14 m) long and powered by a square-rigged sail and some forty oarsmen.

For the victims a Viking raid was terrifying enough, even without the Hollywood-style horned helmets of tradition. If they wore helmets at all, and hardly any have been unearthed by archaeologists, these were most probably conical in shape, like those shown on the Bayeux Tapestry. The raiders struck fear wherever they went and, thanks to England’s many rivers, whose meandering reaches were navigable to the shallow-draft dragon ships far inland, were often able to achieve near total surprise – especially when they were able to seize horses. Grave goods in Danish burial sites often include stirrups and harness fittings, suggesting that Danish Vikings at least were experienced horsemen, capable of hard riding across country. In 860 a ‘great pirate force’ crossed the Channel from raiding in Francia and appeared before the West Saxon capital of Winchester, which lies 12 miles (19 km) inland. Winchester was saved from the sack by a combined force drawn from the counties of Hampshire, under its ealdorman Osric, and Berkshire under Ealdorman Æthelberht. The raiders sailed back to their interrupted campaign in Francia.

The Vikings’ reputation has been sanitized over the past thirty years or so, and attention has turned to their home lives and trading activities in Dublin, York or Scandinavia. From an English point of view they represented a murderous marauding banditry. Back home they were those adventurous seafaring heroes bringing back wealth and honour to their communities. Silver hoards more than 100 pounds (45 kg) in weight have been found buried in the Viking homelands. Why is not obvious. One supposes that enemy raids were not to be feared here! Maybe, in the absence of bank vaults, burial was the only solution. Julian Richards, in his Blood of the Vikings, intriguingly suggests that ‘maybe it was just simply showing off, burying so much wealth being the ultimate way to demonstrate to your neighbours that you had silver to spare.’ One thinks of the ‘potlatch’ ceremonies among the Kwakiutl Indians of the Northwest Pacific coast of North America, in which great quantities of wealth, measured in blankets, are disposed of in competitive status displays; in another type of potlatch valuable sheets of copper were actually ‘destroyed’ when sunk out at sea.

The origin of the term ‘viking’ (generally spelt with a capital ‘V’) is debated. One theory derives it from the southern stretch of the Oslofjord, known as the Vik, and the supposition that the first ‘Vikings’ came from there. According to another view, it was used in the Scandinavian homelands to describe (usually) young ‘pirates’, who went ‘a-viking’ for a season or two in search of adventure and riches, under a captain or chieftain of a ship or flotilla. For as long as the leader was successful his followers gave allegiance, very much as a household warrior did to his lord. As always the point of view is vital. In the villages and fjords to which they returned laden with wealth and treasures, the term denoted adventurous young tearaways, violent perhaps but above all heroic members of the war band, a credit to the homeland. Their victims, possibly prejudiced, did not share this view. For a start, profit and plunder were the purpose of their ventures, not heroism. The raiders preferred to operate from a fortified encampment from which they could pillage and terrorize an unarmed (it was to be hoped) population and to whose protection they could return should fighting men come on the scene. In the words of Patrick Wormald, the Vikings, if not actually mad, ‘were probably bad and certainly dangerous to know’.2 In any case the victims had various words for their oppressors: ‘heathen’, ‘pagans’, ‘North men’, even ‘Danes’were just a few. In a famous entry for the reign of King Beorhtric (d. 802), the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speaks of the first of ‘the Danish men who sought out the land of the English race’.3

Perhaps the terminology hardly mattered, since in both the English Danelaw and French Normandy the raiders did eventually settle in conquered territories. Little wonder if Frankish and English chronicles tended to view the Vikings or Nortmanni as a scourge from God as punishment for the failure of their societies to live according to his precepts. Did not the Old Testament warn ‘Out of the north shall an evil break forth upon . . . the land’ (Jeremiah 1:14)?

The northern world: Ireland, Isle of Man, Orkneys

The Vikings’ countries of origin are not always clear, though the ‘Vikings’ of Russia came from Sweden, while the colonizers of Iceland towards the end of our period, and from there to Greenland and then on to ‘Vinland’, the Scandinavian colony on the mainland of North America, were mostly Norwegians and of Norwegian descent. The same is true of the Scandinavian populations of Ireland, the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the Hebrides, the Faroes and the Isle of Man. Excavations in the 1990s by a team from the University of York at the village of Tarbat, on the north-east coast of Scotland, revealed smashed sculpture and charred building rubble together with sword-hacked skeletal remains, all of which together pointed to a religious site – a Pictish monastery probably – sacked by Vikings.

Ireland soon came under attack. The written sources record Vikings raiding no fewer than fifty sites, but one assumes many more places suffered without benefit of memorial. For the general memory endured. Written in the twelfth century, the Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh (‘Wars of the Irish with the Foreigners’) keened over the depredations of ‘this ruthless, wrathful, foreign, purely pagan people . . . upon the suffering folk of Ireland . . . men and women, lay and priest, noble and base, old and young . . .’4 Sometimes, regrettably, it seems that Viking followed in the footsteps of Christian. The rival kings of the island and their war bands traded rapine and slaughter with an even hand, recruiting ‘the foreigners’ as mercenaries both on land and sea. Between the 840s and the 940s the monastery at Clonmacnoise in the heart of Ireland was ravaged six times by the Vikings and eleven times by Christian cohorts.5 Expelled from Ireland in 902, the ‘foreigners’ returned in 917; lured by slave trading, the Scandinavian presence was reestablished on the river estuaries at Dublin, Wexford, Cork and Limerick.

In Britain, too, slavery was endemic. In the west ‘stock’ was acquired in raiding among Welsh princes, in tribute paid by these princes to ‘foreign’ raiders, by princely claimants sometimes allied with the slaving fleets,6 and from cross-border raiding between England and Wales. In the 1060s and 1070s Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester campaigned long and hard to stop the slave trade from Bristol to Ireland.7 From the late ninth century Anglo-Saxon wills contain instructions about the freeing of the testator’s slaves, while the Lichfield Gospels contains some such texts in Welsh for the early tenth century. Apparently the powerful Wessex dynasty of Godwine profited from the trade in the eleventh century.

The European dimension

From the 780s or 790s, when three shiploads of sea raiders landed on the south coast and pillaged into Wessex, to 1016, when Cnut of the royal house of Denmark became king in England, the country was subject to sporadic attacks of plunder and settlement of greater or lesser intensity from ‘Viking’ sea rovers. The period of the attacks can be divided between the ‘First Viking Age’, from about 780 to about 900 and the ‘Second Viking Age’ from the 980s onwards. This chapter deals with the first, chapter 11 with the second. During that first age England shared a common fate with the coasts of Scotland and the Isles, the kingdoms of Ireland, the territories of the Carolingian empire and its successor states, and the river networks of Russia from Novgorod to Kiev and from west to east. According to the early twelfth-century Povest Vremennykh Let (‘Account of Years Gone By’), also known as the Chronicle of Nestor or Kiev Chronicle, which covers events in the land of Rus from the 850s to the 1110s and is the only European vernacular annals to match the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in scope, the country owed its name to a Scandinavian people under their leader Rurik. Invited in by the feuding citizens of the northern emporium of Novgorod to sort out their differences, Rurik extended his influence southwards to found the city of Kiev.

In Western Europe things were bad enough in Charles the Great’s later years for the emperor to order the construction of a fleet of ships to patrol the coast north of the Seine estuary against the pirate shipping there. Warfare amongst his descendants and the decline of Frisian sea power in the ninth century opened the way to worse depredations. From the 830s to the 880s we find records of raids into the Low Countries (the great emporium of Dorestad was sacked as many as four times in the 830s alone), into Provence, down the Gironde and Garonne to Bordeaux and up the Dordogne, up the Loire as far as Orléans, up the Seine to Paris and beyond, raids into Picardy as far as Amiens, and up the Rhine as far as Cologne.

Did these raiders, one wonders, sometimes enjoy the tacit approval of their own authorities, so to speak – rather like the English privateers of Queen Elizabeth, who robbed the Spanish treasure fleets lumbering back across the Atlantic with their plunder from the Amerindian civilizations? In the 830s we find King Harthacnut I of Denmark assuring the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious that he would execute the ringleaders of a Viking band that had been raiding in Francia the previous year. At this time the pagan Danes and Danish Vikings did not necessarily observe undertakings made to Christian rulers – no doubt, like later Christian crusaders in dealings with Muslim powers, they did not regard pledges made to nonbelievers as binding. Louis’s son Charles the Bald tried to buy off one war band, only to find its leader making a deal with another. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle comments on certain of these raids, notably in northern France, in some detail (though it has much less to say about the Viking presence in the northern Isles and Ireland). The Annals of St Vaast, compiled at the monastery near Arras, fill out a harrowing picture of ramparts in ruins, people led off for slaves, houses in flames:

Along the open streets the dead are lying – priests, laymen, nobles, women, youths and little children. Everywhere tribulation and sorrow meet the eye, seeing Christian folk [killed or] brought to utter ruin and desolation.8

By strengthening old Roman forts or building new forts and combining pagi or districts in the area, the counts of Flanders would lay the basis of their power as protectors in the region.

Reports by European chroniclers tell of rapid raiders switching pressure points at will, their flotillas banking well up the river courses, delivering warrior troops that seized horses and rode and looted at will across country. If superior forces arrived the raiders quit the region and in the last resort would retreat back to their ships and depart for some other land – only to return once an army had been disbanded and the territory was defenceless again. The Winchester–Francia pattern noted at the head of this chapter was typical. The ideal defence was attack, with a standing army at the ready, fortified defence positions and, ideally, a specialized fleet standing by. This was precisely the defensive formula Alfred the Great of Wessex was to adopt, as we shall see in the next chapter.

The Wessex front

King Beorhtric of Wessex (786–802), who, it will be remembered, had been married to the notorious Eadburh of Mercia and was almost certainly a client king to her father Offa, was followed on the throne by King Ecgberht, described as the eighth bretwalda by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.By 830 he had extended the sway of Wessex northwards to the Humber and eastwards into Essex. The triumph was brief. Not only did Wiglaf of Mercia claw back his position but in mid-decade Ecgberht (who died in 839) confronted a new danger – a seaborne attack by Viking raiders on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames, the first such since the death of Beohrtric’s reeve at Portland some forty years before. After Sheppey, thirty-five shiploads descended on the coast of Somerset; the king ‘held the place of slaughter’. Two years later a great pirate ‘ship army’ came to Cornwall and found eager allies among the local British. Once again the West Saxons were victorious under their king, crushing the combined force at Hingston Down on the Cornish side of the Tamar river. For the next thirty years Ecgberht’s son and grandsons faced almost annual fire-fights against such coastal incursions from what the Chronicles variously call ‘heathen men’ and Danes. Southampton, Winchester, London were just some of the places to suffer.

In 851 a force of 350 ships sailed into the Thames estuary, sacked London and put to flight a Mercian army under King Beorhtwulf. He was succeeded by Burgred. The same year Æthelwulf of Wessex and his two eldest sons won their famous victory over the Danes at Aclea, possibly in Surrey, and then a great sea victory off Sandwich. This raised the king’s stock on the Continent and two years later, in alliance with Burgred of Mercia, he won a great victory over the Welsh. But the Viking threat was relentless. Before Æthelwulf’s death in January 858 the raiders had over-wintered on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent and pillaged at will in East Anglia. Over the next two decades, in the words of Richard Abels, to whom much of this account is indebted, the struggles of his sons ‘were to be ceaseless, heroic, and largely futile’.

In 860 raiders sacked Winchester before moving northwards to the Berkshire Downs, trawling the countryside with fire and sword for plunder. The men of Dorset and Berkshire under the command of their ealdormen were ready for them as they headed back to their ships, slowed down by loot-laden pack animals. Those raiders who stood their ground were cut to pieces; the rest, according to Asser, ‘fled the place of slaughter like women’. Wessex had been the victim of an overspill from Viking activity in the basin of the River Seine. A major pirate expedition had set up its headquarters on the Isle d’Oissel, dangerously near to Paris. Charles the Bald had come to a deal with another company of pirates operating along the Somme to pay them well if they would turn gamekeeper and deal with the Oissel company. Having taken hostages, the Somme Vikings took time off across the Channel while he raised the cash from his hapless subjects.

The Battle for England

In 865 the men of Kent promised money to a force that had landed on the Isle of Thanet, but the enemy exploited the truce to overrun the entire eastern part of the kingdom. In that same year a number of Danish sea armies led by Ivar the Boneless and his brothers Halfdan and Ubba, joined forces seemingly for a massed campaign against England. They wintered in East Anglia ‘and were provided with horses’, the Chronicle records. It dubbed this new force the ‘micel hæðen here’, ‘great heathen army’ or ‘raiding army’. Sir Frank Stenton, the doyen of twentieth-century Anglo-Saxon studies, saw 865 as a turning point: a time when what had been uncoordinated bands of raiders coalesced into an army in the formal sense of the word with a thought-out strategy of conquest. For more than a decade major forces ravaged the country from York to Wessex.

During this period two of the great historic kingdoms of the Angles, Mercia and Northumbria, were removed from the map as independent Anglo-Saxon states to be replaced by the Viking territory or ‘kingdom’ of York and a region of effectively autonomous communities subject to Danish law in the eastern half of England. For this region of ‘Danelaw’, the depredations of the raiders were such that virtually no charters survive from the pre-Scandinavian invasion era. Only in the kingdom of Wessex and the Lordship of Bamburgh in the extreme north did Anglo-Saxon sway hold. It hardly seems too much to describe the late ninth century as the age of ‘the battle for England’. The winning of this battle would occupy most of the reign of Alfred the Great of Wessex, at this time a serious-minded but warlike teenager, who was to become king in six years time.

In the spring of 866 the great army headed first for York. We do not know why they made this rather surprising switch of target away from the heartlands of England. Scandinavian legend was to claim that it was to avenge the memory of Ivar’s father, the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, tortured to death at York some years earlier. Though why, if that were so, the army did not sail direct to the city and its emporium the previous year is left unexplained. It may be relevant that Northumbria’s neighbour, the British kingdom of Strathclyde, was at this time coming under attack from the Norsemen of Dublin and Man.9

At all events the army was tidying up the old Roman defences of York by November 866 and the following spring faced an English force, led by the two current contenders in Northumbria’s seemingly interminable civil conflict, momentarily united against the common foe. There followed a bloody and protracted battle among the ruinous structures of Roman York. The Northumbrians, we are told by the Peterborough Chronicle, did great slaughter there but when their two ‘kings’ fell, surrounded in death by loyal companions, the rest came to terms. The English kingdom of Northumbria was, bar a couple of puppet reigns, at an end.

That autumn the army marched south into Mercia where they prepared to winter in Nottingham. The Mercian king Burgred appealed to his brother-in-law Æthelred of Wessex for help but the combined English forces were unable to force the issue and the army was able to retreat on York and winter there. The following year, 869, the army marched south from York, following a Roman road for part of the route to make winter camp at Thetford in East Anglia. In November the men of East Anglia under their king, Edmund, went out to Hoxne to fight the heathen. But the Danes had the victory, killed the king and conquered the land. In such bald words the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it seems, would mean to tell us that Edmund died in battle. Alfred’s biographer Asser, writing some twenty years after the event, took that to be the case. King Edmund of the East Angles, he wrote, died fighting fiercely with a great part of his army. This was the fitting death for a Christian hero king in the tradition of St Oswald and many another. Edmund’s hagiographer, writing more than a century later, has it otherwise – as does tradition.

From the evidence of his coinage Edmund had reigned for some years. A generation after his death, commemorative coins were being struck to ‘Saint’ Edmund. A further fifty years on, during his stay at Ramsey Abbey (985–7), the Franco-Flemish monk Abbo of Fleury wrote his ‘Passion of St Edmund’. He had the story from St Dunstan, who in turn had heard it from Edmund’s armour-bearer, ‘a very old man’. According to him, rather than be the cause of the shedding of Christian blood by giving battle, Edmund chose martyrdom. Like Jesus Christ he was mocked by the Danish soldiery; like St Sebastian he was shot full of arrows. John Blair tells us in The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (2005) that by the early eleventh century Europe’s kings were being urged to emulate the suffering Christ, not Christ in majesty.

Alfred:Warlord against the Danes

After Hoxne the army laid waste the country round about and utterly destroyed the abbey of Medeshamstede/Peterborough, killing the abbot and all its monks and bringing ‘to nought what had once been mighty’.10 The site would remain a wilderness landscape for the best part of a century. The following year, led by Halfdan, Ivar’s brother, the army crossed over into Wessex and made its base at Reading, a well-provisioned and strategically placed royal vill. King Æthelred and his brother Prince Alfred raised an army and marched on Reading, while Æthelwulf the ealdorman of Berkshire led the shire levies against a Viking foraging party and defeated it. But a few days later the main Viking army defeated the full West Saxon force and Ealdorman Æthelwulf was killed. A native of Mercia, his body was rescued from the battlefield and taken back to his home town for burial. The two royal brothers barely escaped with their lives – and yet they rallied their forces again. In January 871 on the chalk ridge at Ashdown on the Berkshire downs, possibly near Streatley, they avenged the humiliation with a resounding victory. The West Saxons attacked in two forces, Alfred leading the first charge up the hill, ‘like a wild boar’, at the enemy shield wall; his brother King Æthelred had remained to hear the end of mass in his tent, before coming up with the main body to deliver the decisive blow. Halfdan’s brother ‘King’ Bagsecg and five Viking jarls (earls) were among the dead. Yet two weeks later Alfred and Æthelred were defeated ‘in open battle by the Danes at Basing’.

Alfred came to the throne with the death of his brother Æthelred in April 871. He had reason to be apprehensive. Recurring warfare was sapping the kingdom’s manpower; the enemy by contrast could expect reinforcement with every new fleet. Early in May he was in action near the royal vill of Wilton, in the heart of historic Wessex. Towards the end of a hard-fought day, the enemy turned as if in rout. It was a feint. The English broke ranks in pursuit and were defeated. The young king had failed to win victory in his first general command. As in their dealings with Frankish rulers, the Danes were able to enforce a cash payment as the price of peace. They pulled back to winter in London in Mercian territory.

In 875 Halfdan with a part of the raiding army went north from Repton and wintered on the River Tyne. The other part of the army under ‘King’ Guthrum and two others marched from Repton to Cambridge. (That summer the Chronicle records a sea victory against seven ships’ companies.) At this period the defence of Wessex depended on land forces called to the king’s service in response to an actual threat, and the muster took time. The Danes, being in an almost permanent state of war-readiness, could strike without warning. In early autumn 875 they were able to march virtually unopposed halfway across West Saxon territory to occupy the royal burh of Wareham in Dorset. Bounded by rivers and with its halls and outbuildings protected by palisaded defence works proper to such a site, it was an ideal base for Viking operations against the surrounding countryside, and its capture was a telling demonstration of the kingdom’s vulnerability. Such sites were hardly castles in the Norman sense, but rather a kind of fortified premises against outlaws and robbers; any attempt to breach them attracted a scale of penalty or burgbryce in the law code of King Ine.

Alfred assembled his army and laid siege. The Danes gave their pledge, sworn on a ring sacred to the god Thor, to abandon hostilities; Alfred gave hostages as surety for his good faith. Evidently Thor did not hold his devotees bound by any oath sworn to unbelievers. Breaking the oath and slaughtering the hostages, the enemy made good their escape from Wareham and struck south to Exeter. They evidently anticipated the arrival of reinforcements from a fleet coasting down the Channel. When it was wrecked by storms off the Dorset coast, they found themselves encircled at Exeter with no escape. Again the Vikings swore oaths, but this time they kept them – for the time being. They crossed back into Mercia, where they made Gloucester their base and where their client king Ceolwulf made over part of the kingdom to them.

Wessex was still under dire threat. Guthrum ruled in East Anglia and controlled Mercia. No help could be expected from the distant north where the Anglian royal houses were split by now meaningless rivalries and the Vikings of York dominated the old kingdom of Deira. After decades as raiders, the Scandinavian invaders were settling in as colonialists. And Guthrum, now the sole commander of Viking forces operating south of the Humber, still had Wessex in his sights.

Soon after Twelfth Night and the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 878, and taking advantage of the long Christmas holiday, he led a large army into Wessex and, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘rode over [the kingdom] and occupied it’. Specifically, the Viking army seized the heartland royal vill and estate of Chippenham. The mead hall where King Alfred had but lately caroused with his courtiers, his ealdormen and household thegns was now the property of such of those Viking war bands who were not harrying the English population. Many of those, we are told, ‘fled across the sea’. Many also, among the landowners, submitted to Guthrum as their lord. The situation was dire indeed. If Alfred could be caught and killed the Vikings would have little difficulty in finding a puppet as they had in Mercia and the age of the independent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England would be over.

In these dark days the heroes were not at first Alfred the king and his companions, but men of Devon, king’s thegns and their households, under the local ealdorman, who routed an attack by a force of some twenty-three ships launched from a winter base in Dyfed in south Wales. The defenders were able to fall back on the earthwork of Countisbury Hill, a former British hill-fort. They slaughtered more than 800 of the enemy, killed their leader and captured the fabled ‘Raven Banner’ of Ragnar Lothbrok.

At this time Alfred, his family and a little party of retainers and household thegns were on the run among the marshes and woodland wastes. While Guthrum lived in his halls and off his food rents, the king lived more the life of an outlaw and marauder – to the Vikings, little better than a terrorist. In the spring he established his base of operations on the Isle of Athelney in Somerset, a low eminence above the surrounding marshlands, little more than 350 yards (320 m) long and barely 50 yards (46 m) wide, and accessible only by punt and hidden paths. The name, literally ‘nobles’ island’, suggests a favourite haunt for hunters and wild fowlers, and no doubt for the king himself in his youth. With approaches camouflaged and fortified as best as possible, it offered a precarious refuge from which he and his men could sally out, raiding for supplies, harassing the enemy, reconnoitring his positions and keeping in touch, one supposes, with a network of partisans. At least one other West Saxon notable followed his lord’s example, for we are told that Æthelnoth, the ealdorman of Somerset, headed a group of resistance fighters in the wooded country of Somerset and helped with the defences of Athelney. Here, about 880, Alfred would found a monastery as part of the fortified complex defended at its approach by ‘a very strong fort . . . of most beautiful workmanship’, built most probably under his direction.

For all involved this must have been a time of intense planning, logistical preparation and coordination of effort. In view of the triumphant victory with which the year was to be capped, it is testimony to the deeply motivational leadership of which King Alfred was capable. It was also the time of national myth and legend. Three stories, all reported generations later and each calculated to trigger useful responses, either suggest PR of conspiratorial genius or embody a genuine national sentiment. In one, the fugitive king snatches a roadside lunch with a poor beggar, who turns out to be St Cuthbert. The anecdote associates the West Saxon leader with Northumbrian tradition. In another the king and his assistant, disguised as wandering minstrel and jongleur, entertain the Danish camp with fooling and songs and in the process overhear essential military intelligence. Minstrel perhaps, but the harp as an emblem of monarchy reaches back to King David and the Bible. Significantly we are told two generations later that Olaf Sihtricson, Norse king of York, seeking intelligence before the battle of Brunanburh, spied upon the camp of Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan disguised as a minstrel and indeed received largesse for his singing from his unwitting enemy.

Finally, the most famous of all: the story of the cakes. Mentioned in the tenth century, it was only fully recorded in the twelfth-century Annals of St Neot’s. Nevertheless, it has the ring of truth. We find the king seated by the fire in a swineherd’s hut ‘preparing his bows and arrows and other instruments of war’. The housewife has set some loaves, or griddle-cakes, to rise by the fire and comes in to find them burning while her visitor sits by, day-dreaming, unaware. The wretched woman berates him, ‘little thinking that this was the king, Alfred, who had waged so many wars against the pagans’, and who was now pondering the country’s drastic plight. A king on the run always makes good copy and, because there is no mention of his great sword, a badge of high birth and the emblem of the hero, his anonymity is believable. It is also one of the few reports about Alfred that does not reach us through a document written by him or a member of his circle.

In the seventh week after Easter 878, Alfred and his followers rode to ‘Ecgberht’s Stone’ (probably a traditional rendezvous point) on the edge of Salisbury Plain and Selwood Forest; here he was joined by ‘all Wiltshire and Somerset and that part of Hampshire this side of the sea’. The term may have been meant to exclude, as Asser believed, those men of Hampshire who had fled overseas ‘for fear of the pagans’, but there seem to have been deserters from other parts of Wessex. Perhaps ‘the sea’ referred to was not the English Channel but Southampton Water, which divides coastal Hampshire between east and west. Presumably only forces and their leaders contactable by agents operating out of Athelney would have had news of the muster. After just one day at the assembly point Alfred led his army northwards and just two days later they were facing the ‘whole army’. Guthrum occupied a defensive position, probably on the Iron Age hill-fort of Bratton near the village of Edington. The West Saxons advanced with the morning light, shield to shield.

The shield wall or getruma used by Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons alike was, as the name suggests and as it was to be used at Hastings, a natural defensive formation but, like the Roman testudo (the Latin word Asser uses) or ‘tortoise’, could be used on the march. Alfred had also deployed it offensively at Ashdown, advancing only when the wall had been ‘formed up in orderly manner’ (ordinabiliter condensata).11 Lines in the song of the Battle of Brunanburh indicate that in the contest between sword and buckler a poorly seasoned lime-wood shield might be hacked through by a well-tempered blade, and it was in any case desperate work to keep the line as comrades fell to right or left, felled by the sword or ‘killed over the shield by spear’ or arrow, for the Bayeux tapestry shows shield men wielding spears. At the Battle of Maldon in 991 Ealdorman Byrthnoth required his men to hold their shields properly to form the ‘war hedge’ and it is clear that shire levies must have received training if they were to join professionals in this specialized battlefield technique.

At Edington Alfred’s men drove the enemy from the field after hard fighting and pursued the fugitives to a fortification presumed to be Chippenham. Not all the enemy found refuge in time and, again according to Asser, Alfred killed men, horses and cattle that he found outside the fort. After a siege of just fourteen days Guthrum capitulated. In the treaty that followed he offered hostages; Alfred offered none. Guthrum agreed to accept baptism, taking the Christian name Æthelstan, with thirty of his chief men. Alfred stood as his sponsor and the new converts wore their white baptismal robes for the following eight days. This was an impressive ceremony of submission by any measure. Even so it has been pointed out that Guthrum was now accepted into the circle of Christian kings. If he had accepted Christianity, however, presumably many of his followers were still pagans. From the terms of the agreement it seems that Guthrum and his band were now a permanent element in the new political geography of England.12 He had agreed to leave Wessex and withdraw to his lands in East Anglia; in fact he fell back only to Cirencester, just over the border in Mercia. It was not until a full year later that he finally withdrew to East Anglia, where he settled and ‘shared out the land’.

The following year another force rowed up the Thames beyond London as far as Fulham on the Mercian side of the river. If it had been intended to join up with Guthrum and deliver a deadly blow to the Anglo-Saxon presence its leaders thought better of the idea. The fleet made its way back down the Thames and throughout the 880s its army campaigned in the lands of Francia.

The Danelaw

In the winter of 872 Burgred of Mercia was forced to negotiate a peace deal with the Danish main force now at Torksey in Lindsey. Late the next year, a detachment of the army had rowed down the Trent, past Nottingham, and seized Repton in Derbyshire, the great Mercian royal minster, burial place of kings and fortified residence. Here they proceeded to fortify three and a half acres (1.5 hectares) with ditches and a 130-metre semicircle of earthworks that incorporated the Anglo-Saxon church and used the river as the base of the ‘D’. With this as their base they raided the surrounding countryside. After a reign of twenty-odd years Burgred abandoned the rearguard defence against the barbarian invaders and fled England; two years later he died in Rome, where he was buried in St Mary’s church in the English borgo.

And yet, suggests John Blair, perhaps these pagans ‘recognized the cultic and symbolic prestige of their victims’ holy sites’.13 Excavations led by Martin Biddle at Repton revealed not only the camp bounded by the Trent and its earthworks, but also Scandinavian-style graves from the 870s, including skeletal remains of a Viking chieftain of high rank buried with an amulet and a Thor’s hammer pendant. The body was close to the relic crypt of the church and surrounded by the remains of 250 other young male bodies in what is now the vicarage garden. At the village of Ingleby nearby there is a site of cremations, indicating pagan rites, and on the hillside fifty-nine barrows.

The increased level of raiders and invaders from the mid-860s onwards produced changes in the human geography of eastern England across the regions we know as Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, the East Midlands and East Anglia. Scandinavian and specifically Danish place names are numerous, but their occurrence is sporadic. So the extent and depth of the changes is difficult to estimate. Even burial practices, though diverse, are not conclusive. We find inhumations with and without grave goods: sometimes in church grounds, sometimes in specially raised barrows, as at Heath Wood Ingleby; sometimes Anglo-Saxon style swords feature in apparently Scandinavian graves. These and other factors may simply indicate the influx of a conquering elite imposing name changes on a subjected population. If there had been a large movement of peasant farmers from Denmark into lands cleared by a ‘Great Army’ or by warlords, then one would expect some trace in the archaeological record. So far there are few Viking grave sites, whether of great men or lesser folk, and nothing like enough to support the thesis of a massive, or even substantial, population shift across the North Sea.

In the absence of archaeological back-up another avenue of research for what one might call the missing ethnic factor has been tried in the form of extensive DNA trialling nationwide. Even here, it appears, the results are inconclusive. So, whatever it was that the ‘Danish men’ featured by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sought in the lands of the English race, it does not seem to have been what Germans of a later age called Lebensraum (‘living space’).

But they left their mark on the social institutions. Where the English divided their shires into hundreds and measured their tax assessments by hides, the people of the Danelaw, whether conquered English peasantry or ethnic Danes, tended to work in ‘wapentakes’ (apparently from Old Norse vápnatak, meaning a ‘taking [i.e. counting] of weapons’) and ‘carucates’ (a measure of ploughland). A local assembly where assent was signified by the brandishing of arms fits well with one’s image of the invaders.

Above all, the Danelaw was just that, a territory where Danish, not English, law and customs could be expected to apply, particularly with regard to land rights. However, uniformity was hardly to be expected. Viking war bands were essentially ships’ companies each under its own ship’s master or commander. As the time of raiding passed and the time for settlement came it was surely organized by the military leaders, whose voices were no doubt decisive when it came to decisions as to the details and the distribution of property.14

Danelaw was never a political entity with a fixed boundary. When King Alfred and Guthrum signed their treaty, one part of Danelaw, that part where Guthrum ruled, comprising parts of modern Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, the whole of Essex, Cambridgeshire and East Anglia, was pretty well demarcated. Any Englishmen who lived here were awarded the same compensation rights or wergilds to buy off feud vengeance as Danes of equal status.

North of these territories lay the lands of the Five Boroughs (Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford and Lincoln), which were Danish strongholds conquered by Alfred’s son Edward the Elder and his sister Æthelflæd. The area of Northumbria controlled by Viking York, or Jorvik, was fully independent of English control for the best part of fifty years, though subject for a time to the Vikings of Dublin and later the Norwegian prince Eric Bloodaxe. A map to show England at the time of the Danelaw can hardly represent reality. A line drawn diagonally across the country from London up to the region of Chester awards a huge swath of territory to the customs of the incomers. In fact the whole area is best understood in terms of a scatter of separate regional communities, each with its own roots back to the English past and a ruling stratum sharing for the most part a common Danish inheritance.

East Anglia is a case in point. The cult of Edmund the Martyr was fostered, indeed may have been launched, by Danes ashamed of the perpetrators. There are signs that Guthrum/Æthelstan, who ruled for a decade after his treaty with Alfred, may have ‘gone native’, that is to say may have identified himself with the traditions of English kingship following his conversion. It is also suggested that the Danish ruling stratum conformed to the religion of the surrounding population inspired by their leader’s example. Archaeological evidence of the cult of St Edmund is provided by commemorative coins struck in the king’s name by East Anglian mints from the 890s to the 910s. They may mark a genuine gesture of atonement for any atrocity of 869/70 or, as Julian Richards has proposed, be part of a policy to mollify smouldering English resentment and pacify any thoughts of rebellion.

Viking York

In the following decade a raiding army was ravaging the banks of the Tyne and doing battle with the Picts and the Britons of Strathclyde. Their leader, Halfdan, then descended on York once more and with no effective rivals to his lordship distributed this region of Northumbria among his followers. That year they were ‘ploughing’ and fending for themselves, the Chronicles tell us. This was settlement in progress and, as if to point up the significance of the annal, someone has added at this point in the Peterborough Chronicle a Latin note to the effect that in this year too Rollo, founder of the duchy, invaded Normandy and ruled there for fifty-three years. Halfdan is generally credited as the founder of Viking York.

To many in the north of England surveying the scene in the 860s, the battle of England must have seemed lost. After 867 the venerable city known to Alcuin by its Roman name of Eboracum, seat of England’s northern archbishops, a great home of learning, and northern Europe’s first post-Roman ‘city of culture’, would be renowned as Jorvik. Until 954 the region of old Northumbria between the Humber and the River Tees witnessed the fluctuating fortunes of a succession of Viking leaders or rulers of a territory of uncertain and shifting boundaries, now generally known as the ‘kingdom of York’. Noting that contemporary sources never use the term, David Rollason has observed in his Northumbria 500–1100 (2004) that there is no evidence that Halfdan’s conquest inaugurated a Viking or indeed any form of kingdom. In terms of cultural continuity he considers that ‘the Viking kingdom of York’ is perhaps better understood as the revival of the separate southern identity of Northumbria (between the rivers Tees and Humber), namely the old kingdom of Deira.

For a time Guthred of Viking Dublin held sway, to be followed by three shadowy figures until, about 899, it acknowledged a ruler of the house of Wessex. In that year Alfred died, leaving the crown to his son Edward. But Edward’s cousin Æthelwold challenged the succession and looked for allies where he could find them, even among the national enemy, the Vikings. York opened its gates to him and may even have recognized him as king. Why, if York had a well-established line of Viking kings, it should accept a West Saxon malcontent is unclear. From there, he went into Essex with a fleet of ships and was soon recruiting men among the East Angles and raiding into Mercia and Wessex. The sequence of events is confused but the turmoil in the Wessex dynasty could have boiled into a civil war that, because the national enemy was now involved, could have overturned the burgeoning English state. As it was, although Æthelwold lost his life at the Battle of Holme (Holmesdale) in 902/3 the Vikings ‘held the field of battle’. Eight years later at Tettenhall, near Wolverhampton, Halfdan II of York and two other ‘kings’, Eowils and Ivar, were killed, but in what sense the title meant anything more than war chief is not clear. In 937 Æthelstan of Wessex crushed a combined army of Vikings and others at Brunanburh, but when he died two years later Olaf Guthfrithsson re-established a Dublin Viking monarchy there and extended the kingdom’s hegemony back over the ‘Five Boroughs’. It was ephemeral. His successor Olaf Sihtricson was soon ousted (943/4) by Edmund of England, and returned to rule in Dublin. Norse rule in York had barely a decade to run. It was spent in rivalry between Sihtricson and a member of the Norwegian royal house, Eric, called Bloodaxe. For a Viking to earn such a sobriquet clearly called for something exceptional. Briefly king of Norway, Eric is said to have killed a number of brothers. Fittingly he was ousted by a half-brother and driven into exile. A sea raider among the Scottish Isles before coming to York, Erik, the last Viking ruler of York, was driven from the city by the English king Eadred in the mid-950s.

In the forty years before Eric seized the place we hear of six more warlords who held sway in Deira. Of these, Olaf Sihtricson, who held power in York for two brief periods, was also a ‘king’ of the Dublin Vikings and the Dublin connection recurs more than once. But it is hard to believe that men such as these, including Bloodaxe himself, were rulers of a calibre to make York ‘one of the great cities of the Viking world’.

Perhaps, Professor Rollason has proposed, we should see York as ‘essentially an ecclesiastical city ruled by its archbishops, comparable to Trier or Cologne’. Wulfhere, the archbishop ejected by Halfdan, was restored to office only six years later, perhaps precisely so that he would direct the governance of the region. In such a context the superb Coppergate helmet, war gear with a seemingly incongruous Christian inscription, might be read as emblematic of the entwined sinews of secular and ecclesiastical power. In 1069 the Normans of the post-Conquest garrison, as befitted their Viking ancestry, set a fire that destroyed the great York library. Maybe, Rollason surmises, the archival evidence that could have confirmed the hypothesis of a church-led administration also perished in the flames. Whoever actually ran the place, Viking York was highly prosperous despite the Byzantine and bloody power politics that absorbed its ‘kings’.

Archaeology has revealed the construction of substantial defence works, such as the strengthening of the dilapidated Roman fortifications. Excavations from the 1970s in the Coppergate district uncovered the presence of a major commercial and craftworking centre in the fork at the confluence of the Ouse and Foss rivers. By about 900 there was a grid pattern of long narrow plots divided by wattle fences and built up with post and wattle structures, running back from open shop fronts on the street line. Some fifty years later a large rebuilding project replaced these structures with houses, workshops and occasional warehouses built of robust oak squared uprights clad in oak planking. Archaeology reveals that York was importing honestones from Scandinavia, pottery perhaps with wine in it from the Rhineland, even silk from the Far East. Its workshops were turning out leather goods, wooden household vessels, textiles and grave slabs and other stone work in the region’s own characteristic ‘Jelling’ style of decoration, incised in double outline animal motifs. Furnaces and stocks of ore, crucibles and other equipment testified to working in iron, copper and precious metals. There were jewellers working in (imported) amber, shoemakers and skate makers among other artisans. Wells, drainage channels and purpose-built latrines complete the picture of a well-planned new business quarter. Coppergate was part of a much wider piece of town planning, but York was a thriving emporium before the Scandinavian settlement. Elsewhere in the city, for example at Fishergate, there are indications of merchants’ quarters laid out in the late eighth century and the presence of Frisian traders.

The York mint was busy in the early decades of the tenth century producing coins for the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan, who occupied the place for a time in the 930s, and for the Viking Olaf Guthfrithsson, the last but one Scandinavian ‘king’ of York. Moneyers were part of the social elite and descendants of these Norse artisan dynasties were still at work in the time of William the Conqueror.

North by northeast and the province of St Cuthbert

It seems the Vikings quickly converted to Christianity. The cemetery of the ‘Viking’ period under the present York Minster shows uninterrupted Christianity at the heart of the city. To the northwest, Northumbrian hegemony over the Britons of ancient Cumbria, a region that in addition to the modern county of that name embraced districts along the northern bank of the Solway Firth in Dumfriesshire, modern Scotland, was disrupted and supplanted by raiders from Viking Dublin and also from Norway. In the tenth century a shadowy succession of rulers, beginning with Owain (c. 915–c. 937) and called the kings of the Cumbrians, is occasionally mentioned by northern sources.

Any account of the confused and shifting events and peoples in this northern part of England, based as it is on fragmentary chronicle references, disputed place name evidence and isolated archaeological finds, must largely be speculation, though there are some tempting allusions in sagas and bardic literature. The name ‘Cumbria’, related of course to the Welsh cymry, proclaims its British origins, but who these tenth-century kings of Cumbria might be is not clear. One theory starts from the fact that its northern neighbour, the British kingdom of Strathclyde, with its fortress of Alclyde (Dumbarton), was annexed by the kings of the Scots; it proposes that they used their new province as the base for further expansion southward. On this thesis, the title ‘king of Cumbria’ should be seen as the designation for the Scottish sub-kings of Strathclyde. The names of Owain’s successors, Dunmail (Donald), expelled by the English king Edmund in 945, and Malcolm, who died in 997 and was perhaps also the ruler known as ‘king of the Britons of the North’, certainly have a Scottish ring. With the death of another Owain (Owain the Bald) in 1018 the Strathclyde Cumbrian regime was absorbed by the kings of the Scots. The situation would be contested for generations by border warfare that seems to have determined that British Strathclyde should remain Scottish, and British Cumbria remain English.

An alternative thesis argues that the king of Cumbria was not the Scottish king of Strathclyde under another name but rather an independent British ruler. According to this view, the British population submerged by the original Anglo-Saxon conquests was liberated by the collapse of Anglian Northumbria to reassert its identity under its own line of kings. Central to the debate are the numerous place names in the area of undoubtedly British origin. Were they planted in southward expansion from Strathclyde in the tenth century or were they in fact survivals from the pre-Anglian conquest period? The expert jury is still out, though a layman might suggest that Scottish kings of Strathclyde would hardly name captured or newly founded settlements in the language of their own subject British population.

The situation in the region northwards from the Tees to the River Tyne is a little easier to unravel. It would come under the sway of the monastic community of St Cuthbert. Rich in lands gifted by King Guthred, whom they believed owed his peaceful throne to their intervention, in 875 the community had set off with its patron’s corpse from Lindisfarne in search of more secure premises. Its peregrinations, first to Norham in Cumbria, then to Crayke and eventually to Chester-le-Street, became woven into the tapestry of the community’s tradition. The brethren of St Cuthbert, far from being a ‘band of ragged exiles clinging to their precious burden’, were in fact ‘rather, a prosperous religious corporation responding to political change by making a series of planned moves between estates which they already owned’.15 After twelve years of peaceful prosperity (883–95) at Chester-le-Street, the bishop and community made their final move to Durham. Thus the core of the later palatinate and the powers of its prince bishops was planted in the huge estates acquired by followers of the humble saint in the wake of the Viking invasions. They reflect the territories of the former kingdom of Bernicia south and north of the Tyne. North of the Tyne in the early 900s we find a dynasty of earls ruling from the former royal palace of Bamburgh: the Annals of Ulster calls the first of them ‘king of the North Saxons’. They held their lordship up to the Norman Conquest, as we note in chapter 12.

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