The Great Heathen Army

In 793, the raid on the island of Lindisfarne on Northumbria’s east coast began the Viking Age. For the next 70 years, Viking raids terrorized the Angle, Jute, Saxon, and Celtic settlements and petty kingdoms of the British Isles. Seasonal raids by Danish and Norwegian Vikings arrived off the coast in the longships and plundered any settlement within riding distance of the coast. Most settlements paid them the “danegeld” or ransom for their lives which the Vikings accepted enthusiastically. It was safer, and destruction of a settlement was counterproductive. Raiding was more lucrative if the inhabitants were able to pay again next raiding season. You do not kill sheep, you shear them. In any case, by the time the local eorl or military leader assembled a force large enough to defeat the raiders, the Vikings loaded back on their ships and disappeared. With rare exceptions (King Aethelwulf of Wessex defeated a large Viking raid in 851), this pattern remained unchanged until 865.

In 865, the Vikings no longer came to the British Isles to raid but to conquer and settle. The land was so much richer than their own in Scandinavia. They stole vast wealth from there every year; it seemed more efficient to just work and lord over the land themselves for the riches. That year, the sons of the semi-mythical Ragnar Lothbrok gathered a massive force to invade the British Isles. With hundreds of ships and 3000 warriors, Ivar the Boneless (he was either crippled or impotent, historians have evidence for both) Halfdan Ragnarrson, Bjorn Ironside, and famed warrior Ubba, gathered a coalition of Viking warbands from all lands bordering the North and Irish Seas to defeat the inhabitants of the petty kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy.
Since the Germanic invasions of the British Isles in the 500s, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes established seven Germanic kingdoms among the Celtic remains and rump states formed after the departure of the Romans. In the north was Northumbria. In the east, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, and Sussex, whom took the brunt of the Viking raids. In the west was Wessex. And the most powerful was in the center, Mercia. The kingdoms were fierce rivals and abhorred the Viking raids, but nevertheless used Viking mercenaries in the wars against each other. The divided nature of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy left them vulnerable to the Viking army, which they deemed “The Great Heathen Army”.

The Great Heathen Army landed in Kent on 26 March 865. They ravaged the small kingdom and spent the winter enjoying the spoils encamped on an island off the coast. In 866, they invaded East Anglia and establishing a permanent danegeld, known as the Danelaw, in Kent, effectively turning it into a puppet kingdom. King Edmund of East Anglia bought off the Viking horde by stripping his kingdom of horses and bribed the Vikings to ride north, against Northumbria. According to legend, King Aella of Northumbria killed Ragnar Lothbrok (or worse, converted him to Christianity) and the sons exacted revenge. They captured York in 867 and again established the Danegeld. The Great Heathen Army turned south and invaded Mercia later that year. They captured Nottingham, but were in turn besieged by a combined army from Mercia and Wessex under the King of Wessex and Lord of Eastern Mercia, King Aethelred. At Nottingham, both sides were fought out, and Aethelred bought off the Vikings, who returned to Northumbria. In 868, the Great Heathen Army returned to East Anglia to establish the Danegeld, and were met by King Edmund again. But this time he wasn’t there to bribe them but to fight them. The East Anglian army was defeated and Edmund was captured. He was tied to a tree and told to renounce his faith. Edmund refused to the Vikings used him for archery practice. King Edmund was later canonized St. Edmund the Martyr and became the first patron saint of England, until St. George was chosen a hundred or so years later.

In 869, the Great Heathen Army was weakened by casualties, so consolidated the Danelaw for the rest of the year to gather their strength. In 870, the Great Heathen Army was joined by Viking warlord Bagsecg and the Great Summer Army. The Great Summer Army was comprised of the usual seasonal Vikings, but when Bagsecg heard of the Great Heathen Army’s massive success, he convinced them to band together and join the sons of Ragnar. The reinvigorated Great Heathen Army invaded Wessex and set up a joint camp at Reading with Bagseg and Halfdan sharing command. A local force under Ealdorman Aehelwulf defeated a Viking foraging party at the Battle of Eanglefield, which gave the Aethelred the confidence to attack the Vikings’ main camp at Reading. With the main West Saxon Army, Aethelwulf, King Aethelred and his little brother Alfred initially defeated the Vikings outside the main camp at Reading. But once they reached the camp gates, they were struck by Vikings who rushed out. Defeated, but not decisively so, the West Saxon army withdrew. Under Alfred, the West Saxon army turned and defeated the pursuing Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Ashdown four days later on 7 January 871, while his brother the king heard mass, killing Bacsecg and a number Viking chieftains. Aethelred died three months later, and newly crowned King Alfred of Wessex bought off the Vikings. The Great Heathen Army rushed north to put down a rebellion in Northumbria.

Alfred could only play for time. The Vikings wouldn’t settle until they were crushed or took all of the British Isles. Over the next eight years, the Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ubba, Bjorn Ironside and the Great Heathen Army conquered six of the seven kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, with only King Alfred and Wessex resisting by 878. Nonetheless, the Great Heathen Army reduced the Kingdom of Wessex to a single hut in the Sommerset swamps, where Alfred and his retinue fled after the Vikings defeated him at Chippenham. For a brief period in 878, almost the entirety of the British Isles were effectively part of Scandinavia. That they are not so today is the reason that there is only one monarch in England’s history with the epithet “the Great” – King Alfred the Great.

But that’s a story for another time.

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