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An Onslaught of Spears
The Danish Conquest of England
By Jeffrey James
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Jeffrey James
All rights reserved.
Reports in twelfth-century histories of 'horrible lightnings and flashes of fire, glancing and flying to and fro' heralded the first appearance of the Vikings in England. They invoke images of fierce, heavily armed and opportunistic freebooters arriving in shield-bedecked longships, slaughtering and plundering at will. But this highly romanticised view is unlikely to be true. Norse raiders, who arrived in three ships – the first recorded raid – and who bludgeoned a king's reeve (customs officer) to death on Portland beach, Dorset, in 789, had been mistaken by their victim for commonplace traders. Viking appearance cannot therefore have been in any way remarkable.
At the religious centres at Lindisfarne, Jarrow and Iona (all in the far north), raiders knew beforehand that their victims were rich and undefended, having had commercial dealings with them in the past. At each, the Viking marauders are said to have dug up the altars and plundered the church treasures: gold, silver and other precious objects. In the case of Iona (off the west coast of Scotland) the religious community there was attacked several times in the space of a decade. On one occasion sixty-eight of its monks were slain. On another the abbot was killed when he refused to disclose the location of the hidden shrine of St Columba. A letter sent by the cleric Alcuin to the King of Northumbria bewailed, 'Never before has such terror been seen in England as we have suffered from heathen people.'
Further fierce 'heathen men' – both Norse and Danes – began arriving in ever greater numbers on the coasts of England at the turn of the ninth century. Viking war-bands were campaigning in Kent as early as 804. When confronted by a resolute defence, these forays could be driven off and the Vikings defeated and destroyed, but not always. King Egbert's West Saxons were defeated at Carhampton in Somerset in 836. Carhampton was one of several Saxon royal estates located between Minehead and the estuary of the River Parrett. Others included Williton and Cannington. Carhampton was also at one time a Celtic monastic site; its name is thought to derive from little-known St Carantoc. Other monastic centres lay nearby at Porlock, St Decumans, Timberscombe and Cannington. Two years later Egbert got his own back, crushing a combined Viking and Welsh army at Hingston Down beside the River Tamar. Southampton and Portland were assaulted in 840; the men of Wessex prevailed at the former, but were defeated at the latter. The terrified inhabitants of Romney Marsh in Kent were slaughtered or enslaved the following year. London and Rochester were both broken into and sacked. Then, in a repeat encounter at Carhampton, thirty-five shiploads of Vikings raided the royal estate there in 843, defeating King Aethelwulf's Devon array. But when the Vikings struck the South-West Coast later in the decade, the West Saxons butchered them in a bloody encounter at the mouth of the River Parrett.
The great victories won at the midpoint of the century stemmed the tide of Viking attack for a decade of so. One occurred at Wigborough in Somerset, where the men of Devon came out on top; another took place in the South-East at the unlocated battlefield of Aclea (Oak Leigh). On this second occasion the locals were faced by an exceptionally large army of Vikings arriving up the Thames in 350 ships, ten times the number that assaulted Carhampton in 843. Once they had plundered London and Canterbury, the invaders travelled into Surrey, where King Aethelwulf of Wessex and his son Aethelbald faced them. The hardy West Saxons are said to have made the greatest slaughter of any heathen army ever heard of at that time. The Battle of Aclea was a major encounter by the standards of the day. King Aethelwulf was a formidable leader, just as his son Alfred would become.
Three ambitious brothers – Ivar (known as 'the Boneless'), Ubba and Halfdan – fronted the first successful and concerted Danish onslaught on England, dismantling the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia within a decade of their arrival in 865. They had been militarily active in Ireland and on the Continent for some time; the motivation of these particular men and others of their kind was the forcible occupation and exploitation of lands richer and more fertile than their own. The term 'great' used by the chroniclers to describe their army differentiates it from many of the earlier war-bands plaguing England throughout the first half of the ninth century. Only the Viking army at Aclea and perhaps another which devastated Winchester in 860 can have rivalled it in living memory. Behind a protective screen of spears, Scandinavian settlement proceeded apace between the years 865 and 870, and the 'great army' gained military control over much of the north and east of the country.
In Northumbria a puppet king was established and whole swathes of territory east of the Pennines fell under Viking control, later to be settled by Scandinavian incomers. The northern and eastern lands were not occupied without a fight, and much savagery was enacted. Two Anglian claimant kings of York and eight northern ealdormen were slain attempting to wrest York back from heathen clutches in the spring of 866. One of the kings – Aelle – was reputedly 'blood-eagled' by Ivar – sacrificed to the Norse god Odin; the dying king's ribcage was shattered, and then his lungs drawn out in a cruel parody of an open-winged bird. Legend has it this was done to avenge the death of Ivar's father – the semi-mythical Ragnar Hairybreeks – who had earlier been thrown alive into a Northumbrian snake pit on Aelle's command.
Three years later, Ivar's mounted war-bands are described as 'falling like wolves' on King Edmund's East Anglian kingdom, while Ubba with the Viking fleet harried the coastline. Villages were burned and monasteries destroyed. At the religious centre at Peterborough the abbot and all his monks were brutally killed. Edmund, retrospectively lauded as 'the most saintly and glorious King of the East Angles', having fallen at the Battle of Hoxne (c. 870), suffered martyrdom. Although variously alleged to have been blood-eagled, decapitated or tied to a tree and executed by a firing squad of archers in the manner of St Sebastian, more likely he died fighting. Whatever the manner of his death, the East Anglian king had made the mistake of withholding his submission and any tribute demanded by the Vikings until Ivar and his brothers accepted Christianity. Unfortunately for Edmund it was a tactic that worked better for Alfred the Great, and later for Aethelred II, when faced by opponents less committed to a pagan way of life than the sons of Ragnar.
Ivar's name disappears from Anglo-Saxon records around this time. The chronicler Aethelweard claims he died in 870, shortly after martyring King Edmund of East Anglia. Yet someone called Imhar (Norse for Ivar) is recorded in the Annals of Ireland as having ended his days in Ireland in 873. A decade or so earlier this same Imhar is said to have won a great victory against rival Scandinavians and their Irish auxiliaries in Munster. After further battles, he descended on the rich Boyne valley in the company of a mixed band of plunderers and looted the revered royal tombs of Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange. The outrage this engendered forced him out of the country and the Irish chroniclers lose track of him at this point.
If Imhar was the same person as Ivar 'the Boneless', he spent the next few years dismantling the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia. He then switched his attention to Strathclyde and the Scottish lowlands. After capturing the stronghold of Dumbarton, on the Clyde, he is claimed to have brought away with him into captivity 'a great prey of Angles and Britons and Picts', and to have arrived back in Ireland in 200 ships. He died soon after. Whether he enjoyed a natural death or suffered a violent one is not known. What fate awaited his captives, sold on in Dublin's bustling slave marts, can only be imagined, and such unsavoury activities should serve as a salutary reminder of the appallingly destructive nature of Dark Age aggression at this time. Ivar was hailed grandly as 'king of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain' and many of the kings at Dublin and York in the first half of the tenth century would claim to be directly related to him, later becoming known as Clan Ivar. Slave trading and tomb raiding aside, his activities represented an astonishing and unique achievement. The Dublin–York axis he helped to create would prove to be a long-standing and powerful political counterweight to later English unification attempts; this is testament to Ivar's restless energy, and, if the traditional stories about him are to be believed, to his unbounded cruelty.
Having first occupied London, the great heathen army – now led by Ivar's brother Halfdan – marched against the kingdom of Wessex and set up their winter camp at the West Saxon royal manor at Reading, in Berkshire, in the winter of 870–71. Situated on an island at the confluence of the Thames and Kennet, the Viking base there benefited from strategic attributes beloved of Vikings. Naturally moated, with good communications eastwards to the sea and a rich hinterland to plunder, it was an ideal site. During the year that followed – sometimes referred to as Alfred the Great's 'year of battles' – the men of Wessex are described as often 'riding out' on horseback against the enemy. The Vikings did the same, in their case on horses seized or bartered from the terrified locals. The seizure of horses had been a feature of Viking warfare in Europe for some time. Once they were unable to penetrate further inland by ship, the raiders used stolen or purchased horses to travel deeper into the interior. For this reason the Frankish king, Charles the Bald, having seen his lands almost overwhelmed by Viking incursions, forbade the sale of horses to the Northmen on pain of death.
The Battle of Ashdown – January 871
After suffering an initial setback outside the gates of Reading, the Wessex forces, led by King Aethelred I, met the Vikings in battle a day's march to the west, at Ashdown in east Berkshire. A day's march westwards from Reading is Lowbury Hill, the highest point on the East Berkshire Downs, and a likely rallying point for the West Saxon forces. The momentous battle which followed would in large measure determine the fate of the kingdom. Though no battle plans from this period exist, accounts in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser's history agree that both sides formed up two divisions apiece, squaring up to each other across a shallow valley. King Aethelred was opposed by forces led by the Danish kings Halfdan and Bagsecg; Aethelred's younger brother Alfred faced a force led by a number of 'jarls'. Asser deliberately embellished Alfred's role in the battle, while at the same time downplaying Aethelred's. He portrayed the king as reluctant to fight immediately, stubbornly waiting to hear Mass in his tent until battle was joined, leaving his younger brother to make the first move against the heathens.
Attending to spiritual needs was an essential adjunct to martial preparedness in medieval times. Yet surprisingly Asser – a churchman – appears to make this a point of criticism. Both Aethelred and Alfred must have taken considerable time preparing themselves prior to the battle, and it is much more likely Mass was over and done with when they – together – co-ordinated their efforts against the Viking divisions, closing with them simultaneously. The stronger of the two Danish units would have been the kings' force. Even the biased Asser admitted the 'core' of the army had been assigned to the command of the two heathen kings; the rest were assigned to the jarls confronting Alfred.
Aethelred I's army would have comprised his own and Alfred's war-bands, embattled together with the armed retainers of other noblemen and prominent landowners from the shires of Wessex, the latter levied based on formalised military obligations. The call-up rate was based on one fighting man per five 'hides' of land – a 'hide' being a measure based on a quantity of land capable of maintaining a family unit. The absolute size of the army is difficult to gauge, but must have been at least equivalent to the Viking army opposing them; the latter comprised a large part of the force which had already overrun Northumbria and East Anglia, and which may have been reinforced since then. Some idea of its size can perhaps be gained from another better-documented Viking force that arrived in south-east England from the Continent in the 890s in two fleets. Frankish chroniclers reckoned the smaller of the two fleets to contain around 400 warriors. The other force, described as a 'great army', was larger still. The two fleets comprised vessels of all shapes and sizes, the craft having been procured in an emergency triggered by famine and the threat of Carolingian retribution. Some were described as merely light 'barks', transporting not just warriors but also horses, womenfolk, children, weaponry and provisions. If the army arriving in eighty ships was 400 strong (much of the space on board being taken up by dependents and belongings), the other Viking force, arriving in 250 ships, might have fielded 1,250 warriors on the same basis, making the size of the combined army around 1,650 – a not unreasonable number for the time. The complement of a Viking longship in wartime might normally be in the region of forty men, but the two fleets which arrived in 892 were not war fleets, and might better be described as 'boat people'. The Viking forces at Ashdown may have numbered little more – 2,000 men perhaps. That the West Saxons defeated them implies their numbers to have been at least comparable, if not greater.
If it was made up of semi-professional soldiers, Aethelred and Alfred's army might have been assembled at short notice. If the participants also worked the land, they would take longer to be gathered, as they would be spread out across the countryside. Additionally, farmers could only be relied upon to fight outside of the busy planting and harvesting seasons, otherwise everyone would starve. Society was broadly split between those who prayed, those who laboured and those who fought. Common shire-folk could hardly be expected to down tools and ride the length and breadth of the countryside when the need arose, although locals might on occasion have acted as gofers, fetching supplies for the army and tending the wounded after battle. Terms such as 'the great fyrd' have been used in the past to describe the way Anglo-Saxon and later English armies were called up. Countering this, David Sturdy, in his book Alfred the Great, asserts that the belief that peasants and small farmers ever gathered to form a national army or fyrd is a strange delusion dreamt up by Victorian antiquarians; he argues instead that such armies comprised the henchmen and bodyguards of noblemen (landowners).
Both Anglo-Saxon and Viking armies throughout the ninth and tenth centuries appear to have routinely dismounted before battle, and tethered their horses to the rear; they remounted only to pursue or flee. Leaders emulated their men, demonstrating their resolve to stand and fight. Cavalry in the strictest sense of the term, with drilled units of horsemen charging together in open or closed order, did not feature in English warfare until the arrival of the Normans, mainly because the wherewithal in terms of suitable mounts, training and accoutrement was lacking. Tactical units – war-bands or divisions – comprised discrete groups of men owing allegiance to one or more nobleman or leader. Larger musters were led by a king or by his delegated appointee. For the Anglo-Saxons this was often a grandee known as an ealdorman, the equivalent of a regional overlord, sometimes called a 'half-king', later an earl.
When the king or his ealdormen took the field, mailed thegns were required to follow them into battle. Noblemen and landowners in their own right, thegns were first and foremost battle-hardened warriors. Post-Norman Conquest, they would become better known as knights or barons. Viking armies followed a similar organisational structure, with kings and sub-kings, jarls and housecarls mirroring the Anglo-Saxon pecking order. Alfred the Great's will made reference to payments to 'the men who serve me', and a sixth of all Alfred's revenue was paid to his well-armed fighting retinue. Warriors such as these 'rode out' with the king on a day-to-day basis.
Excerpted from An Onslaught of Spears by Jeffrey James. Copyright © 2013 Jeffrey James. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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