Post-classical history



… The bird cries,

grey-coat screams, battle-wood resounds,

shield to spear-shaft replies. Now shines the moon

drifting into dimness. Now deeds of woe arise

that will propel this peoples’ malice.

But awake now, warriors of mine,

Seize thy linden-shields, dwell on courage,

Fight at the front, be fierce and bold!

The Fight at Finnsburg1

Although Viking raids would continue to afflict Ireland with almost absurd frequency throughout the 820s and 830s, there is a gap of twenty-nine years after the third raid on Iona in 806 before a Viking raid is again recorded in Britain.2

For historians, knowing what was to come, this can seem like a trivial span of time, a brief hiatus before the hammer would fall with all its force. But for people living at the time it would have seemed very different; they did not know that they were living in the ‘Viking Age’.3 Many of those who were aware of the attacks on Lindisfarne, Jarrow and Iona, including some of the survivors, would have lived out the rest of their lives with the impression that this diabolical onslaught had burned itself out – passing, perhaps, like the fiery whirlwinds and bloody rain that had presaged its arrival. Indeed, for more than a generation after the appearance of the first Vikings in the written record, the overwhelming fear – in southern Britain at least – would have been that, if violence were to come, it would come from people who spoke familiar (if not shared) languages, who lived similar lives in recognizable landscapes and who worshipped the same god in broadly compatible ways.

In 798, for example, King Ceolwulf (newly king of Mercia after Offa’s death in 796) ravaged Kent and captured its king, Eadberht. Eadberht was dragged to Mercia in chains where he had his eyes gouged out and his hands cut off.4 In 815, King Ecgberht of Wessex raided the ‘west welsh’ (that is, the Cornish) from ‘east to west’.5 Ten years later, the same king defeated the Mercians at a place called Ellendun (now somewhere underneath the western suburbs of Swindon), ‘and a great slaughter was made there’.6 A fragment of poetry recalls that ‘Ellendun’s stream ran red with blood, was stuffed up with corpses, filled with stink.’7 In the same year King Beornwulf of Mercia was killed by the East Angles (it was a bad year for the Mercians). These violent convulsions all took place during a period that saw a steady shift in the centre of political gravity in southern Britain, focusing power around the kingdom of Wessex at the expense of Mercia and some of the smaller southern realms. In this reorientation – which would have huge repercussions later on – the Vikings were of little consequence. In the early ninth-century brutality league they would have struggled to make the play-offs.

Ultimately, however, this state of affairs did not hold. The first black clouds reappeared in 835, when ‘heathen men’ raided across the Isle of Sheppey, but even darker days lay ahead. In 836, a fleet of thirty-five ships (one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says twenty-five) arrived at Carhampton on the Somerset coast, and the formidable King Ecgberht – bane of Mercians and Cornishmen – was there to face them. The fighting that ensued was the first setpiece battle (that we know of) that pitched a Viking army against British foes. Once again, and not for the last time, the Chronicle provides the gloomy observation that ‘a great slaughter was made there’, and from what little else is known about it, it seems indeed to have been a grim day’s work. If the number of ships is taken at face value, a Viking army numbering 1,500 men would be a conservative estimate, and it is probably fair to assume a similar number assembled to fight them. Three thousand men engaged in brutal hand-to-hand fighting with axe and sword would have made for a terrifying spectacle.8

Although Anglo-Saxon chroniclers reveal little about the realities of early medieval battle, their poets were less reticent:

The horror of battle materialized. There was cracking of shields, attacking of warriors, cruel sword-chopping and troops dropping when first they faced a volley of arrows. Into that doomed crowd, over the yellow targe and into their enemies’ midst, the fierce and bloody antagonists launched showers of darts, spears, the serpents of battle, by the strength of their fingers. Relentless of purpose onwards they trod; eagerly they advanced. They broke down the shield barrier, drove in their swords and thrust onwards, hardened to battle.9

The opposing armies would have faced up to one another in close formation, huddling together so that each man might benefit from the protection afforded by the large, round timber shield held by the man to his right. The defensive barrier thus created – a sort of clinker-built fence of human-held timbers – is known by poetic convention in Old English and Old Norse poetry as the ‘shield-wall’. Its importance as a military concept has probably been over-stressed by modern historians – it was a product of fear and necessity as much as it was ever a formalized battlefield tactic, its description in poetry a function of conventional semantics (like other evocative constructs such as wíhagen, ‘war-hedge’) – but there is no doubt that an army arranged this way presented a formidable face to the enemy. The shields would have been brightly painted, probably carrying religious symbols or depictions of beasts designed to intimidate enemies and provide courage to those who sheltered behind them. Ninth-century examples, excavated in Norway with their timber still surviving, are around 3 feet in diameter and painted black or yellow. Rimmed with iron, these shields were augmented with a large semi-circular metal boss riveted to the centre. This protected the hand (which gripped the handle attached behind it), but could also blunt the edges of misplaced weapon-strikes or smash the face of an enemy once the shield-wall had broken down into the series of individual duels and knots of vicious combat that the battle would inevitably devolve into.10

The smashing of one’s own face was, obviously, something to be avoided wherever possible. Helmets, like the one discovered at Gjermundbu, were probably more common than their rarity in the archaeological record might imply; the simple psychology of self-preservation would suggest that some sort of head and face protection would be desirable. An Anglo-Saxon helmet, found during the Coppergate excavations in York in the late 1970s, suggests the sort of thing that might have been available to the wealthiest warriors. Although it would have been old fashioned by the 830s (it was probably made in the third quarter of the eighth century), it seems to have remained in use until the first half of the ninth century. Old fashioned it may have been, but it was of exceptional craftsmanship and quality – not least the creatures that are woven into an intricate lattice in the decoration of the brazen nose-guard, and the eyebrows terminating in the heads of fanged serpentine creatures. The equipment of warriors in this period would have been far from homogeneous, and military gifts and heirlooms could be prized symbols of lineage, affiliation and religious persuasion. The Coppergate helmet carries an inscription on the brass crest that runs over the top of the helmet, an invocation to commend protection of its wearer – a man named Oshere – to the care of the saints.11 The inscription enhanced the helmet’s protective capabilities, transforming it into a magical item that conferred mystical as well as physical protection: a reminder that, to the warriors of the Viking Age, supernatural forces could play a critical role on the battlefield: ‘IN NOMINE DNI NOSTRI IHV SCS SPS DI ET OMNIBUS DECEMUS AMEN OSHERE XPI’ (‘In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Spirit of God, let us offer up Oshere to All Saints. Amen’).12

Other helmet fragments, like an eyepiece discovered at Gevninge on Zealand (Denmark) and dated to the cusp of the Viking Age, imply that the finest helmets might still have resembled those recovered from the Vendel, Valsgärde and Sutton Hoo cemeteries. These objects, with their full-face coverings of mask or mail, their swooping dragons and coiling serpents, their images of riders and spear-shakers, are objects to inspire awe and terror in equal measure. They rise up darkly from an age of legend, conjuring images of heroes and kings – dripping with antiquity and the glamour of mighty forebears. If helmets like these did indeed appear on the battlefields of the Viking Age, it would have seemed to contemporaries as though the ghosts of the mighty dead strode among them still, time collapsing amid the blood and chaos of battle, the eternal raven wheeling overhead.13

Several high-ranking West Saxons fell in the fighting at Carhampton: the ealdormen Duda and Osmod (ealdormen were senior nobles, subordinate to the king and often in charge of a shire or, later, groups of shires) and the bishops Herefrith and Wigthegn. They were surely the tip of a bloody iceberg, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was never much concerned with the deaths (or the lives) of the average warrior. Of their enemies we know even less. All we are told, in a phrase that would roll out with grim regularity on the parchment leaves of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is that þa Deniscan ahton wælstowe geweald: ‘the Danes had possession of the place of slaughter’. In other words, they were victorious.14

The attack at Carhampton was a major incident, and it represented a sea-change in how Viking raiders related to the people of Britain. No longer content with the small-scale smash-and-grab raids which had defined Viking activity in the early ninth century (and which had picked up again in Ireland and Frankia from the 820s), the Vikings who attacked Carhampton seem to have done so with a heightened sense of what might be achieved through violence. A settlement of some importance, with archaeological traces dating from the fifth to the eighth centuries, Carhampton seems also to have been the site of an early monastic church – associated with the Celtic saint Carantoc. It may, therefore, have been a place of pilgrimage and a major centre of wealth, and in this it would fit the pattern of the targets of earlier Viking attacks, both in Britain and abroad.15

However, Carhampton was also the site of a royal estate (it is included in the will of Ecgberht’s grandson, Alfred, drawn up sixty years later) and was later the administrative centre for the hundred in which it sits – all of which suggests that it was an important political centre. This might, in part, explain why King Ecgberht himself was there to deal with the Viking threat – for if a king couldn’t hold his own, how could he be expected to defend an entire kingdom? His failure to do so in this case may well have emboldened the people who had sailed against him. Victory against the fearsome king of Wessex can only have awakened Viking warlords to their ability not only to wrest wealth from hapless coastal communities, but also, through sheer force of arms, to win glory, fame and – perhaps – power and dominion of their own.

In 838, King Ecgberht brought his army to Hengestdun, now known as Kit Hill in Cornwall. He had come to head off a new threat to his growing hegemony – an army of Cornishmen and their ‘Danish’ allies who had marched east to contest with the West Saxon king for control of their borders and to make a stand against his increasingly domineering approach to the south-west. The battle that ensued was significant, not so much because of its outcome, but because – for the first time that we know of – a Viking army had chosen to involve itself in the internal politics of Britain, making common cause with the Cornish to fight against the West Saxon king.

It is not known why the Vikings chose such involvement. Perhaps they fought as mercenaries, seeking a share in the spoils, or perhaps they had been promised land or trading rights in whatever new arrangement could be wrested from the English king. Whatever the reason, it was a sign of things to come: over the course of the ninth century, Viking war-bands would increasingly use their military muscle to redraw the map of Britain. On this occasion it came to naught. Ecgberht, as we have seen, was not a king to be trifled with (his heavy-handed treatment of the Cornish in the 820s had perhaps gone some way to inspiring the events of 838). When the king ‘heard of that [the alliance between the Vikings and the Cornish], he then went there with his army and fought against them at Hengestdun, and put both the Britons and the Danes to flight’.16

Rising to the impressive height of 1,096 feet, Kit Hill dominates the valley of the Tamar from which it rises, standing aloof from its comrades that huddle together in the uplands of Bodmin Moor. Up here you can see for miles. From Bodmin to Dartmoor to Plymouth Sound, a vast swathe of Britain’s south-western peninsula opens itself to the eye: rime-scoured boulders and ancient field boundaries, rough delvings and crook-backed pollards, the scars of a tussle between the tough, wilful landscape and its human wranglers that has been fought over millennia. To the south the sea glints in a cleft cut into the horizon by the broad silver band that snakes through green pastures on its way from the hills. It is no doubt the combination of its commanding position and its accessibility by sea and river that gave this place the strategic importance that it seems to have had in the ninth century; whoever held this place could, with good reason, consider himself master of the Cornish borders.

The significance of the formative battle that was fought here was not lost on early English antiquarians. Of the many earthworks and monuments that litter the sides and summit of Kit Hill, one of the most prominent is a five-sided enclosure of low walls, with bastions at four of the five intersections. It looks like the shaggy remains of a fortress. This curious structure was long interpreted as a Civil War-era fortress (1642–51) on the strength of compelling similarities with the plans of other, better-documented forts around England. However, appearances were deceptive. On 27 June 1800, Sir John Call, who owned the adjacent estate and manor at Whiteford, wrote in his will that he desired a ‘tomb of Cornish granate [sic] alias Moorstone’ to be made on top of Hingsdon Down or Kit Hill ‘within or adjoining to the Inclosure of the Castle I have built there’.17

‘[T]he late Sir John’, William Betham explained in the fourth volume of his Baronetage of England (1801–5), ‘erected something like an old Saxon castle on the summit, with large stones of granite found there in great plenty.’ It seems likely that this peculiar endeavour (though not untypical of the folly-building extravagances of his peers) was intended to evoke the battle that was fought there in 838 – a battle of which he seems to have been dimly aware: ‘a Battle was undoubtedly fought at the bottom of that hill some time between the 7th and 8th century [fought in 838, it was in neither of these centuries]’. It is perhaps surprising that Sir John should have been so sketchy about the details – he was, from 1785, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, the learned society set up in 1707 to cater for the growing interest of certain well-heeled gentlemen in the physical evidence of the past. In its early days, the Society seems to have been largely a drinking club for like-minded men of a particular sort, and there were no formal entry requirements. Sir John, for example, seems to have been admitted on the strength of some interesting lithographs he had picked up in India. He had worked there as a military engineer, planning the fortifications at Madras – this, of course, being the reason for his ‘Saxon fort’ looking more like a typical post-medieval redoubt than the Anglo-Saxon stronghold he intended.18

When I visited Kit Hill with my wife and parents, it was a disconcerting experience. Thick banks of dreary mist swamped the landscape and shut down visibility to 20 feet in every direction. I felt as though, rather than standing at the summit of a massive Precambrian abscess on the sedimentary bedrock, we had been washed up on the shores of some weird fog-bound island, its coarse cliff-top vegetation concealing innumerable pits and fissures from which some Cornish Caliban could spring at any moment. The atmosphere was distinctly alien – a landscape stripped of all familiarity; even the cagoule-clad ramblers seemed vaguely sinister. At the highest point a great masonry tower rises through the white shrouds of clinging ether like a star-gazer’s tower, the haunt of some Prospero, rising – to use Mervyn Peake’s immortal words – ‘like a mutilated finger […] pointed blasphemously at heaven’.19 Or, perhaps, like the funnel of some fantastical steamship, ploughing onwards through fog-bound oceans, on its way to a lost world.

This tower is, indeed, a chimney, unusually ornamental for its purpose. An obsolete monument to the industrial mining operations of the second half of the nineteenth century, it once exhaled the by-products of the steam engine which pumped water from the deep delvings below. Mining took place on Kit Hill from the Middle Ages until the early twentieth century, and the seemingly random gouges in the upper slopes are memorials to the earliest, open-mining phases of this activity. In subsequent centuries, workings grew deeper and more elaborate, as miners began seeking out the veins of tin and copper that had seeped into fissures in the granite in some unimaginably ancient epoch, and now the hill is riddled with shafts and tunnels, their lethal openings hidden amid gorse and bracken. These borings reached their climax in the 1880s with the Excelsior Tunnel, an 800-yard gallery driven horizontally into the side of the hill, like the passage to some improbably vast tomb. It was, in fact, constructed to mine the deepest lodes, and was extended on a few occasions in the early twentieth century. In 1959–60, however, the tunnel was taken over by the UK Atomic Energy Authority for bomb testing. Despite rumours to the contrary, these tests never involved any nuclear material, although – despite modern radiation tests confirming the Ministry of Defence’s assurances – rumours to the contrary inevitably persist.20

In the ninth century, Kit Hill was known for other reasons and, as we have seen, by a different name – Hengestdun, the hill of Hengest – and a wisp of its memory still clings to its lower eastward slopes in the tautological place-name Hingsdon Down (‘don’ and ‘down’ both derive from OE dun, meaning ‘hill’).21 The name is important. Hengest would have had a dual meaning in Old English. It means ‘stallion’. But it was also the name of the legendary founding father of the English-speaking people – one half of the alliterative duo who, according to Bede, arrived in three ships from across the North Sea in the mid-fifth century. Landing in Kent, Hengest and his brother Horsa (and later his son Æsc) defeated the unfortunate Vortigern and his sons and began the process of clearing out the degenerate Romano-British order, founding the royal house of Kent in the process.

The story raises all sorts of red flags. The idea of a duo named ‘Stallion’ and ‘Horse’ paving the way, through the might of their arms, for a whole new set of nations, has ‘foundation myth’ written all over it (despite its continued acceptance as fact in some quarters). It may well be that Hengest and Horsa were, originally, a pair of pre-Christian deities who were turned from gods into human ancestors by Christian writers and given prominent roles in the authorized version of English origins. Whatever the reality, it is clear that the name had a great deal of potency attached to it by the ninth century.22

Early medieval battles were often fought at places associated with the names of gods and heroes, some of them burial mounds, others – like Hengestdun – massive hills that might have been imagined in some way to house the oversized remains of superhuman occupants. These were places where the past dwelt and where the memories of mighty warriors could be imagined to confer an aura of legitimacy, rootedness and martial prowess on those who fought in their shadow. These were also, conversely, places where ancient English claims could be challenged and new (or older) associations of landscape inscribed or resurrected – places where symbolic blows could be struck in the struggle for hegemony.23 It must be partly for these reasons (as well as for its strategic significance) that when the Cornish wished to challenge the supremacy of the West Saxon dynasty, it was here that they came to meet King Ecgberht in battle.

The defeat of the Cornish cemented West Saxon authority over the south-west, but it did little to deter future Viking war-bands from chancing their arm in Britain. For the rest of the century, a rising tide of violence was directed towards the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Some of them were raids, directed – just as they always had been – towards concentrations of wealth. However, the battles of Ecgberht’s reign, fought at places of symbolic significance like Carhampton and Hengestdun, signalled a shift in the level of engagement that the Vikings displayed towards their adversaries. From this point onwards, Viking armies were to display an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how power was articulated within the kingdoms of Britain, exploiting, undermining and appropriating the political and physical landscape until they themselves became an integral part of it.


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