Alfred the Great and Æthelred II
'the Unready": the Viking Wars in England, c. 850-1016
I. Who and what were the vikings?
Vikings were Germanic raiders/traders who came from Scandinavia. The meaning of the word 'viking' is obscure;
some have derived it from the Norse word for fjords, others think that it
refers to the men of the Viken region of Norway around Oslo, still others have argued that it meant
pirate (its meaning in Anglo-Saxon). The verb 'to go viking' meant to engage in
piracy. Vikings are best thought of as pirate bands, not unlike the buccaneers
of the Spanish Main in the seventeenth
century. Norwegians ravaged northern Britain, islands, Iceland,
Ireland and France.
Danes ravaged Francia and settled in northern England in the second half of the
ninth century. Swedes established trading centers in Russia
and even went so far as to attack Constantinople
ca. 860. The 'nationality' of a viking warband was defined by its leaders. The members of a viking boat, however, could well be a heterogeneous lot. In
late ninth-century Ireland,
for example, some natives decided that they would rather be predators than prey
and joined viking bands. They became known as the
'Irish foreigners.' (There are a number of interesting academic links on
Why did the vikings suddenly appear in the late
The viking age began in the late eighth century with reports in
chronicles of raids upon the coasts of Britain and Francia:
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s.a. 787: And in [King Beohtric's] days came for the first time three ships: and
then the reeve rode thither and tried to compel them to go to the royal manor,
for he did not know what they were, and they slew him. These were the first
ships of the Danes to come to England.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s.a. 793: "In this year terrible portents
appeared over Northumbria,
and miserably frightened the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of
lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon
followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 June the
harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God's church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter."
In 830s the size and frequency of viking raids on France
increased. In 834 vikings attacked Frisia,
laid waste the important trading town of Dorestad (on mouth of Rhine),
and returned for the next three years in a row to pillage this port city. From
841-892 West Francia was subject to wave upon
wave of viking raids.
The sudden appearance of the vikings is difficult to explain. It may have had to do with
a) overpopulation in Scandinavia (there is some archaeological evidence for new
farmsteads established in sparsely populated areas of Sweden and Norway
in the late eighth and ninth centuries); b) the endemic warfare between the
many petty kingdoms in Scandinavia, which resulted in exiles, rebels, etc.
becoming adventurers; c) new mining (extraction of iron) and naval technology
(the true keel, which made ocean going voyages possible); d) the increase of
trade in the north sea in the ninth century that attracted the attention of
enterprising pirates. It should be emphasized, though, that raiding and
slaving were normal early medieval activities for Christian as well as pagan
warrior societies. The prosperity of Charlemagne's kingdom was based on his
constant and usually successful wars, which produced enormous numbers of slaves
and portable booty, as well as large territorial additions to his Frankish
empire. That the Vikings raided Europe needs
no explanation. When and how they did, does.
The types of activities of the vikings included:
a) pirate raids (small bands, 830s
& 840s, and large armies, England 991-1013)
b) colonizing ventures (esp. in Ireland and England, 860s-895)
c) political expeditions (royal warbands, such as
King Swegn's and King Cnut's conquest of England,
d) commercial penetration (Russia)
One ought not to draw too distinct a
line between these activities. Vikings came both as traders and pirates. If a
town was strongly held, or if the viking party was
laden with booty it wished to trade, the vikings would sell their goods. If a
town was easy prey, they would sack it.
Viking ships ( internet links )
Most explanations of why the vikings suddenly appeared in the late eighth and early ninth
century emphasize the development of a special type of vessel that was capable
of sailing up rivers and crossing oceans. The vikings
were known for their seafaring, and in order to understand their military
expeditions as well as their explorations, one must know something about their
ships. Sea going war ships were longships, which
ranged in size, though the conventional longship was a
"twenty-bencher" with forty oars. The early viking
ship, that of the sixth and seventh centuries, lacked a true keel and thus
could not support a mast. These were rowing vessels, ships that were not
suitable for long voyages. By the late eighth century and the ninth century the
viking ship had evolved considerably. The
ninth-century Gokstad ship, buried in Norway as part of a ship burial
ritual, provides us with the dimensions of one Norse longship. The Gokstad ship was 23.3 m. in length and 5.25 m. amidships.
The height from keel to gunwale is 1.95 m. Her dead weight, unloaded, is about
9 tons; fully loaded with crew and equipment, probably closer to 18 tons. The
draught of the fully loaded ship would probably have been only about a meter.
The hull is built of overlapping strakes that were first nailed together and
then lashed to the frames by means of pliable spruce roots through holes in
cleats left free standing when the plank was smoothed. In other words, the boat
was almost sewed together. The keel is T-shaped, and the two lowest strakes of
the ship were attached to the keel by nails. The planking, keel, and mast were
all made of pine. The mast was about 10 m. high. The ship was steered by a
large oar attached to the starboard side.
The great characteristic of this vessel
is her elasticity and lightness of weight. Because the frames were attached to
the strakes by spruce roots the vessel was less rigid than a nailed ship; fewer
ribs were needed and she was therefore lighter. The replica of the Gokstad ship that sailed from Norway
in 1893 was recorded to
have undulated with the waves; the bottom and keel rose and fell by as much an
inch and the gunwales twist as much as six inches out of true.
ship was not a war vessel but a chieftain's ceremonial ship. A warship would
have been had a higher length to beam ratio, and, in fact, would have been
almost canoe like. Riverine vessels such as the Ladby ship or the Skuldelev
Wreck 5 were about 18-20 meters long and about 3 meters wide. They could
accommodate a crew of fewer than 30 warriors. Such ships were not ocean-going
vessels, but would have been used in coastal waters and for raiding up
Viking Naval and Land Warfare
“Like Mediterranean galleys, longboats’
striking power was most effective in their bows, with their mobility used to
pick a vulnerable target and aim the ship at it. As a result, when faced with
battle the defenders (often the weaker or smaller fleet), if they were unable
to avoid the fight, would try to lash their ships together in line abreast,
bows to the attackers, presenting as solid a target as possible. Creating one
large fighting platform out of a line of ships also allowed reinforcements to
be moved most easily to threatened spots in the line. Where possible, one end
of the line would be anchored to rocks, protecting that flank.
The attacking ships, operating individually, rowed to
the attack, attempting to pick off isolated defending ships, if any, or to
concentrate their attack on the weakest point in the line and get around the
flanks. As the ships came in range of each other, missile fire opened the
battle followed by attempts on the part of the attackers to grapple and board
the defenders. When the battle reached this stage of hand to hand fighting, the
architecture of the ships themselves played a crucial role in the outcome. It
was here that big ships had a definite advantage. For one, their larger crews
could wear down the less numerous contingent of a smaller ship. For another,
their higher gunwales provided better protection against enemy arrows and an
advantageous platform for firing and boarding.(Shields
were hung over the sides of the ships only for ceremonial entrances and exits
from harbor, and so would not have added to the defensive value of the
gunwales.)Warriors on a small ship might have trouble boarding a very large
ship at all. Finally, larger ships could stand rougher conditions. As a result,
the number of ships in a fleet or even the number of men in a fleet might not
be an effective measure of its strength: at Roberry
in c. 1044 30 large ships defeated 60 smaller ones, for example. Especially
large and strong boats might even be “barded”: sheathed in iron at
the bow, increasing the strength of the ship at that vital spot even further.But like larger crews, barding was a tactical
device that entailed strategic penalties in terms of range and seaworthiness,
as well as being quite costly.
Viking sea tactics were designed to capture ships, not
to sink them. A ship was valuable in itself and was
likely to be carrying valuable cargo. Viking tactics were effective in
their home waters, mostly against other Vikings. But when Viking fleets,
admittedly of smaller ships, reached the Black Sea in the tenth and eleventh
centuries, the Byzantine navy was capable of dealing with them without much
trouble (see above).Scandinavian warriors were useful enough to the Greeks to
form the backbone of Basil II’s Varangian
Guard, which drew Vikings and Anglo-Saxons to imperial service for a century
after the 980s, but their utility was as much in their lack of political
connections as their fighting ability.” (Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black,
Paul Lococo, War
in World History, vol. 1, pp. 188-9)
viking warfare took place on land. The vikings mainly used their ships as transport vessels. When
they arrived at a convenient location, often up river, they would beach their
ships and set up a defended camp. They would then obtain horses, either through
purchasing or seizing them from the locals, and would fan out first to obtain
supplies and then to loot “soft, rich targets” of opportunity such
as monasteries. Towns and royal estates were also fair game. Vikings on raiding
expeditions preferred to avoid general engagements. There was no profit in
fighting battles against well armed and dangerous opponents, and viking expeditions were all about profit. (Viking armies intent upon territorial conquest, however, were a
different matter.) When confronted by a superior army and unable to escape, viking armies typically took refuge in field fortifications.
There they would attempt either to outwait their besiegers or take them by
surprise with a sudden sortie. Vikings
were notorious for laying ambushes and using woods to lay
in await for armies approaching along established roads.
But vikings were also capable fighters if push came to shove and
could be formidable in battle. One reason is that, unlike most of the
Anglo-Saxons they faced in battle, vikings were “professional”
warriors, not in the sense that they sought to fight battles or wage war but in
that they made their living from the employment or threat of violence. The
average viking was probably better armed than the
average Anglo-Saxon soldier and was certainly more practiced at inflicting (and
tolerating) violence. Vikings prized in particular those warriors known as berserkers, who would lose themselves in
a battle frenzy that made them seem impervious to fear and harm. Vikings fought battles in the same
manner as Frankish and Anglo-Saxon armies. They would draw up their forces into
dense formations called “shield walls” that were several ranks deep
and often divided into two or three cohorts led. Viking forces in battle were
organized along the same lines as the fleet, by crews and captains of
individual ships, with “sea-kings” and jarls (nobles) in overall
command. The vikings sometimes used a wedge formation,
with the best men at the point, to rush an enemy and drive through its lines.
Once in battle, however, a commander’s ability to maneuver his troops or
to exert any sort of tactical control was limited. The typical battle began
with an exchange of missiles, usually thrown spears but sometimes arrows as
well, which was followed by the two forces closing together and fighting hand
to hand with shield, thrusting spear, and (for the wealthy) sword, until one
side broke and ran.
Vikings and commerce
The recent trend in historiography is to
downplay the destructiveness of the vikings, noting
that the raids were small in size and the devastation was only local. Wallace-Hadrill has caricatured this view of the vikings
as "long-haired tourists who occasionally roughed up the natives."
The vikings were
interested in trade, and did establish important permanent trading centers. By
the early ninth century Scandinavian trading ports such as Hedeby,
Birka, and Truso were
flourishing along the coast of the Baltic Sea.
The Rus vikings established
a long network of trade routes along the Russian river systems, trading with
the Constantinople and with the Moslems, selling
their furs and slaves for silver coins. They also had a complex, hierarchical
social system at home, with a well developed legal
institutions. And, as the historians of the vikings were "good
guys" school emphasize, they were also excellent workers in metal,
skillful in the use of stone and timber for building, and boasted a distinctive
and elaborate artistic style that emphasized animal motifs (gripping beasts,
stylized animals, intricate interlacing designs, etc.) They also settled Iceland, explored Greenland, and perhaps the
coast of North America, and
left an impact on the political and social development of Ireland and Britain.
The Irish city of Dublin was a viking
settlement. First settled in the 840s, viking Dublin had become a
center of commerce and industry as well as a stronghold by the mid tenth
century. Probably the most important commodity exported from Dublin, though, was slaves (as noted by
contemporary Irish annals).
One historian, Peter Sawyer, recently
argued that the growth of trade between western Europe
and Scandinavia actually produced the viking
age. "It was the western European demand for northern products [e.g.,
amber, ivory, furs], and the parallel Scandinavian demand for western goods,
that caused close contacts between the two areas, and encouraged Scandinavians
to search for new supplies in the far north or east of the Baltic. This trade
enhanced the power of some Scandinavian rulers, by increasing their wealth.
Others who were less successful or even exiled could resort to piracy, first in
the Baltic and later in the west, an extension that was facilitated by the
adoption of the sail. ...This trade also tempted pirates, and the competition
between traders and merchants must have speeded up the development of the remarkable
sailing ships that are indeed the key to the Viking Age" ("The Causes
of the Viking Age,"in The Vikings, ed. R.
Farrell, Phillimore, 1982, p. 7).
II. Viking raids on Francia:
that having been said, the vikings were, nevertheless,
brutal marauding pirates who created devastation wherever it suited their
purposes. As one monk writing in the 860s lamented (Ermentarius
The number of ships increases,
the endless flood of vikings never ceases to grow bigger. Everywhere Christ's
people are the victims of massacre, burning, and plunder. The vikings over-run all that lies before them, and none can
withstand them. They seize Bordeaux, Perigueux, Limoges, Angouleme, Toulouse; they
make deserts of Angers, Tours
Ships past counting voyage up the Seine, and
throughout the entire region evil grows strong. Rouen
is laid waste, looted and burnt: Paris, Beauvais, Meaux are taken, Melun's stronghold is razed to the ground, Chartres
occupied, Evreux and Bayeux looted, and every town invested.
this account is exaggerated, and even though a monastic chronicler would be
more sensitive to the rampage of the vikings who loved
to prey on monasteries and churches, one cannot ignore the reality behind Ermentarius's lament. The vikings
did attack and devastate West Francia and Britain. Viking chieftains such as Ragnar Lothbrok and his son Bjorn
Ironside terrorized the lands of the Seine, Loire, and Trent basins. If their devastation was not
greater than it was, it was less because of restraint on their part than the
lack of a sophisticated technology of destruction.
From 841 to 892 hardly a year went by in
which a Frankish chronicler did not record a viking
attack. The long list of murdered Frankish bishops and enslaved clergy--Frobald of Chartres, Ermenfrid of
Beauvais, bishop of Nantes
with all his clergy--testifies to the havoc wreaked by the raiders. As one
scholar recently put it, "the vikings were
masters at attacking the defenseless--monks, people going to markets,
merchants" (Rosamond McKitterick).
Viking fleets varied in size according
to the number of viking chieftains who decided to join
together. Ordinary viking captains led small forces of
a few dozen ships These forces, however, might join together under the command
of one or several "sea kings" for larger raiding expeditions.
Peter Sawyer, distinguishing between the exact small numbers and round large
numbers of ships reported in the contemporary chronicles, contended that the
largest viking armies consisted of, at most, one to two thousand
warriors. He bolsters this argument by citing the logistical difficulties that
larger fleets would have encountered. Nicholas Brooks and others, while
admitting that the round chronicle figures are approximations, note the
consistency with which Frankish, English, and Irish chronicles report the size
of fleets. This suggests to them that viking fleets of
200-350 ships are credible. My own sense is that the largest fleets may well
have been that large. The "Great Armies" that operated in England in the
860s and in Francia in the 880s and early 890s might well have consisted of a
few thousand men. But such "armies" and fleets had little cohesion.
They were constantly changing in composition and leadership as various chieftains
joined and left them when their appetite for loot was sated.
armies were fleeting affairs. Most raiding bands were smaller, no more
than a few hundred men. What made them dangerous was their mobility. They used
the rivers of France and Britain as arteries for their attacks, rowing up
the Loire, Seine, or Thames. Nor were they
tied to these rivers, for they were quite capable of beaching their ships (or
of carrying them over land), building makeshift fortifications, and seizing (or
buying) horses, which they used to raid inland. Most historians have assumed
that their success was based on their large numbers and hit-and-run tactics.
This may not be true. Carroll Gilmor ("War
on the Rivers: Viking Numbers and Mobility on the Seine and Loire,
841-886," Viator 19 , 79-109) has
carefully studied the evidence afforded by contemporary Frankish chroniclers
and concluded viking forces in the mid and late ninth century numbered only in
the hundreds and low thousands, and moved extremely slowly up the
rivers. For example a Norse fleet in 885 entered the Seine on 25 July and did
not reach Paris
until 24 November--four months to cover 234 kilometers. Ordinarily, viking fleets seem to have rowed about 16 km. a day at a
rate of about 1-3 knots. This leisurely pace was necessary not only because of
currents but because of the need to forage along the way. In other words, the
vikings did not engage in a blitzkrieg, descending
upon surprised and unprepared populations. Their success was NOT based on
surprise. Rather, they profited from the inability of Frankish kings and counts
to mount organized defenses against them. They may have helped on the collapse
of central authority in Francia, but they also benefitted from a process of
internal political collapse.
From the mid 830s on the Frankish
kingdom was rife with civil war, as the sons of Louis the Pious turned against
him, and then, after his death, fought among themselves.
The king of West Francia between 848 and 877,
Charles the Bald, found himself fighting his brother Louis at the same time he
was trying to mobilize against the vikings. The West
Frankish nobility, moreover, saw little reason to rally behind the king. Many
were intent at saving their own regions, even at the expense of the rest of the
kingdom; some went further and collaborated with the vikings
in order to promote their own political ends. Count Lambert of the Breton
march, for example, seems to have invited a viking
band to sail up the Loire in 842 and attack the city of Nantes. He even provided them with Frankish
pilots to guide their ships upstream. Lambert had sacrificed the city (along
with its bishop and great many citizens) in order to secure Nantes for himself. In 862 the Breton count Saloman hired twelve Danish ships from the Seine vikings to assist him against Count Robert the Strong on the
Loire. Robert responded by allying himself
with local vikings, the Loire
vikings. Pippin II of Aquitaine, a grandson of Charlemagne, even went so far as
to turn pagan to secure the help of vikings against
Charles the Bald.
This use of vikings
to aid aristocrats' personal ambitions was common in England
as well as in France.
In 900, for example, the nephew of the recently deceased King Alfred attempted
to overthrow his cousin, King Edward. To do so, he sought the aid of the vikings of East
Anglia. In Ireland some locals went so far as
to become vikings themselves, to go a viking and enter
into the game of raiding, pillaging, and looting. These men received the name
the Gael Gaidhil, the "Foreign Irish," from
The point to be made is that the vikings could and did find allies among the peoples that
they attacked. King also used viking mercenaries to
counter other viking bands. In 860-1 King Charles the Bald hired one viking band operating on the northern fringes of his kingdom
to wipe out another viking band that was ensconced on the Seine River,
threatening his heartland. In 911 another king of West Francia, Charles the
Simple, made a treaty with the leader of the Seine vikings,
Rollo, which recognized his control over the lower Seine region around Rouen. By this treaty
Rollo became a royal "duke," and the land he occupied became his
duchy, the duchy of the Northmen, that is Normandy. In return for
this honor, Rollo promised to aid the Franks. In fact, what Charles the Simple
had purchased through his concession, a concession that cost him nothing since
the vikings controlled what was given anyway, was a
chieftain loyal to him who would use his warriors to defend the interests of
the king against other vikings.
The Fortified Bridges of Charles the Bald,
king of West Francia (848-877)
"If once you've paid him the danegeld
/ You will never get rid of the Dane."
One way of dealing
with the vikings was to pay them off. Charles the Bald
even discovered how to make a profit on the deal. Charles invented a graduated
tax on farms and land, on churches, and on merchants to raise the money he
promised Weland. He took so long that his viking confederate raised his price from 2000 to 5000 pounds
of silver; Charles, however, raised more than 5000 and kept the difference. His
viking ally, Weland,
attacked the raiders, and then let them withdraw for the sum of 6000 pounds.
Everyone did well. Charles the Bald, however, was not so fortunate throughout
his reign. Recent estimates of the tribute that Frankish kings paid the vikings
in the ninth century is in the neighborhood of 40,000 pounds, an enormous sum,
most of which came from the kings' vassals. England was to adopt this approach
to the vikings. Even King Alfred paid tribute to the
Danes in order to convince them to leave his kingdom alone.
The other way to deal with the vikings was to face them in war. Here both Charles the Bald
and King Alfred of Wessex
(871-899) came to the same conclusion. To defeat the vikings
one had to control their lines of communication. In other words, one had to be
able to impede their progress along the rivers. Charles's solution was to build
fortified bridges. The Capitulary he issued at Pitres
in 864 announced this policy, and the bridge at Pont de l'Arche
became the first of these new fortified bridges. Despite its capture in 865,
Pont de l'Arche was indeed the correct strategic
response to the vikings. Charles now had to convince
his nobility to aid in the building and defense of the fortified bridges he
ordered built along the Seine and the Loire.
Here he ran into difficulty. His nobility had long been reluctant to aid the
king in his defense of the kingdom, preferring to secure their localities
instead. In July of 856, for example, Charles summoned his noblemen to attend a
general assembly, in other words, a levy of the royal army. Most refused to
come because they did not want to abandon their own lands in the face of the
Norse fleet that was then on the Seine. In 857
Charles, acknowledging reality, issued a capitulary that required his nobility
to send troops only to the borders of their county. The burden of building and
defending the bridges was hardly going to sit well with such recalcitrant
magnates. Charles realized this and in 869 shifted the burden to his
ecclesiastical magnates, bishops and abbots, who became responsible for raising
men to man and repair the bridges. These poor men became military colonists,
royal free men, who not only defended the fortified bridges but farmed the land
The policy of fortified bridges worked,
not perfectly, mind you, but well enough to lessen the viking
threat. In fact, from 876 to the great viking invasion
of Paris in 885 there were no major viking
incursions along the Seine
The siege of Paris began in late November 885 and was
maintained for a year. Odo, count of Paris, and Abbot Joscelin
led the defense. The king, Charles the Fat, was conspicuously absent from the
affair. For the Danish king Sigfrid what started as
an expedition for booty became a desperate trial of strength.
The Paris bridges barred the viking
fleet; realizing the dangers of his situation, Sigfrid
offered to leave Paris
in peace in return for free passage. Odo rejected the offer, with the result
that in Jan. 886 the vikings attacked the bridges,
forced their way through them, and invested Paris. But the city held out, and eventually
the vikings, faced with the appearance of Charles the
Fat's army, withdrew. The siege of Paris
proved the value of Charles the Bald's bridges.
Still, the bottom line for Francia was
that the viking invasions cost the monarchy power. It
promoted localism and decentralization. Many historians see it as a critical
factor in the emergence of a "feudal society."
Who were the viking raiders? The case of Weland
The vikings who sacked Winchester
in 860 were typical of the larger raiding bands that preyed upon Francia and England before
865. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's account of their activities and defeat
is brief. After landing in Hampshire and sacking Winchester, the raiders ravaged further
north, pushing perhaps as far as the Berkshire Downs. The West Saxon
military response fell to Ealdorman Osric of
Hampshire, an experienced war leader who as ealdorman of Dorset fifteen years
before had helped defeat a Danish army in Somerset
and to the Mercian-born ealdorman of Berkshire,
Æthelwulf. The combined military forces of the
two shires intercepted the marauders as, laden with booty,
they slowly made their way back to their ships. The West
Saxons won a great victory. Asser related that, ‘the
battle having been joined in earnest, the heathens were cut to pieces everywhere.
When they could not resist any longer, they took to flight
like women, and the Christians had mastery over the field of death'.
Who were these viking raiders and what prompted them to raid Wessex in
860? Contemporary Frankish chronicles, in particular the Annals of St Bertin,
permit us to track in unique detail the movements of these vikings before and
after they undertook their ill-fated expedition to Wessex and to glimpse the complex
political reality underlying contemporary sermons. The tale that emerges
from the pens of Bishop Prudentius
and Archbishop Hincmar is far more complicated than a
simple story of heathen predators and Christian prey. It tells, rather,
of Frankish princes, predators themselves, who were not above hiring vikings to fight other vikings or even Christian
rivals. In Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, too, the raiders sometimes found allies
among the local nobility; Alfred's nephew, Æthelwold, for example, sought the
support of the vikings of East Anglia in his revolt against
Alfred's son Edward.
the Annals of St Bertin, these same vikings had established themselves the previus
year near the Somme
River. There they
had come to an agreement with King Charles the Bald to drive off or kill a
different band of vikings who had built a fortress on
the island of Oissel in the Seine,
from which they had conducted raids deep into the countryside. Charles
the Bald, to the consternation of clerical chroniclers, was far more interested
in securing his throne against the threats of his brothers, nephews, and counts
than in dealing with viking depredations. But Oissel was too near Paris
and the heartland of his domain to be ignored. Charles agreed to pay the
Somme vikings three thousand pounds of silver, weighed
out under their watchful eyes--these would-be mercenaries no more trusted
Charles than he them-- and they undertook to drive out the Seine
vikings. While Charles raised the cash by taxing the treasures of
churches and the houses and moveable wealth of landholders and merchants, the Somme vikings took hostages from
the Franks and struck out across the Channel. Their rough reception at
the hands of the West Saxons persuaded them to return to Francia where, under
the leadership of a chieftain named Weland, they
finally fulfilled their bargain with Charles by besieging the Oissel stronghold of the Seine vikings,
who in the meanwhile had sacked Paris
in January 861.
While Weland and his men, their numbers swelled by the addition
of forces from a newly arrived fleet of sixty ships, settled down for a siege,
Charles raised silver and gathered livestock and corn for his viking allies so that the realm would not be looted.
Finally, the besieged Seine vikings,
‘forced by starvation, filth and general misery', surrendered. They
agreed to pay Weland 6,000 lb of gold and silver, and
then joined up with him. With winter coming on, Weland's
forces chose not to brave the hazards of the North Sea
and wintered over in Francia. Splitting up into smaller bands (sodalitates), they scattered among the ports and abbeys of
the Seine basin as far upstream as St. Maur-des-Fossés,
southeast of Paris.
Eventually they left Charles' kingdom, but only after Weland's
son led the former Oissel vikings
from their base in the deserted monastery of Fossés
in an attack upon Meaux. For Bishop Hildegar of Meaux, Charles's
forbearance in allowing the vikings to ravage the
Seine basin was a disgrace and his permission for them to winter upstream from Paris nothing short of
treachery. The raid upon Meaux may, in fact,
have had Charles's tacit approval, as a warning to his rebellious son Louis the
Stammerer and Louis's powerful guardian, the queen's
uncle Adalard. As one historian commented,
‘if Charles did not actually let the Fossés vikings loose on Meaux, their
activities there would not wholly have displeased him. In the ashes of Meaux's buildings, late in 862, Louis the Stammerer and Hildegar would have
seen daily reminders of the wages of sin'.
Whether or not
Charles winked at the Danish attack on Meaux, it gave
him an opportunity to enhance his prestige through decisive action. It
had already provoked a near rebellion among the peasantry of the Seine-Loire
region, who in 859 had attempted to take matters into their own hands by
forming a sworn association to resist the Danes by force of arms. Though
the local magnates (potentiores) had quickly and
forcefully put an end to such presumption, by 862 they must have come to share
their dependents' frustration. Charles responded by
raising an army and stationing troops along both banks of the Oise,
Marne and Seine, threatening to cut off viking
escape to the open sea. By spring 862 Weland,
who had done fealty to Charles, and the leaders of the other viking
bands agreed to return the captives they had seized and to depart the
kingdom. The great fleet broke up into smaller bands, many of which
sailed to Brittany
to take service with the Breton chieftain Salomon. Others signed on with
Salomon's rival, Robert the Strong of Anjou. Weland
himself returned to Charles' court within the year, having apparently lost
command of his fleet. He, his wife, and their entourage accepted baptism,
presumably in order to secure the Frankish king's favor. But in an odd
turn of events, the viking chieftain was accused by
one of his own men of ‘bad faith' and of having sought baptism ‘as
a trick'. He proved his accusation by killing Weland
in single combat in the presence of Charles and his court.
of the viking Weland sheds a
great deal of light upon the viking menace that King Alfred faced. The
vikings who ravaged Francia and Britain in the mid and late ninth century were
not a ‘people' and their war bands were not well regulated
‘armies'. Though the chronicle sources often label viking fleets as
‘Danish' or ‘Norse', these terms better describe the leaders rather
than their crews, who probably were a heterogeneous and variable lot. The
viking ‘army' of the Somme
quite clearly was a composite force made up of various warbands.
Like flocks of migrating geese that join together under one leader, only to
break up and reform under another, the viking ‘armies', or heres as they were termed in the English sources,
represented fluid and shifting combinations of small fleets.
Some viking raiders undoubtedly were men like the Orkneyinga Saga's Svein Asleifarson, who went a-viking in the Hebrides
every spring after he had overseen the sowing of his fields, and every fall
after the harvest. But the ship crews that crossed the Channel in search of
loot seem to have been a different sort. By the 850s these vikings practiced piracy as a profession. In many
respects their lives and exploits resembled those of the buccaneers who
plundered merchantmen and sacked towns throughout the Caribbean
in the late seventeenth century. Exquemelin's
observations about his shipmates might serve equally well for the vikings: ‘They live in no particular country; their
home is wherever there is hope of spoils, and their only patrimony is their
bravery'. A viking was as much at home in his
long ship as he was in Jutland, Vestfold, Skane, or any of the Danish islands of the Kattegat. Many were young bondi,
the sons and brothers of lesser landowners. Population growth, spurred in
part by pagan polygamy, combined with inheritance custom to threaten this class
of middling farmers with eventual impoverishment, leading the more adventurous
to renounce their share of the patrimony and seek fortunes abroad. Piracy
was a time-honoured way to acquire resources to establish oneself as a man of
substance. By joining a lith, a ship or fleet
under the command of a chieftain, a viking bound
himself to his captain by ties of fellowship and lordship, becoming in essence
a member of a seaborne household of warriors. Unsurprisingly, their
leaders often came from the class of
jarls. Some even claimed royal blood and styled themselves ‘king'
(though Alfred would more readily have recognized them as æthelings).
internecine warfare that marked the consolidation of power by royal dynasties
in ninth-century Denmark and
there was never a lack of noble exiles to lead expeditions. A few, such
as Godrum, nephew of King Horic
I of Denmark,
practiced piracy in order to obtain the wealth and followers necessary to renew
their pursuit of royal power at home. Most probably did not. Certainly by
the second half of the ninth century, viking
chieftains were in search of new lords to serve and lands to rule. Though some
of the sea-captains may have had royal or noble blood, or at least claimed the
right to be called ‘king' or ‘jarl', leadership of these bands was
precarious in the extreme. Weland appears to
have been raised up by the captains of the various liths
or sodalites and cast out by them when he ceased to
be successful. What held the fleets together was little more than the
prospect of plunder. Perhaps most crucially, the history of the raiders
who sacked Winchester in 860 reminds us that the viking raids on England were
part of a larger story of viking depredations in western Francia (as well as in
Ireland and Wales). The bands that raided the shores of Britain were the same vikings who looted and pillaged along the rivers of Charles
the Bald's kingdom.
III. Alfred the Great’s Viking Wars, 871-899
King Alfred and the vikings in England.
England was a
different story. Here King Alfred of Wessex (871-899), faced with
the same problems that Charles the Bald had encountered, managed not only to
preserve his kingdom but increased the power of his monarchy. He, in fact,
ended by CREATING England.
He started in 871 as king of Wessex,
one of the great Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which in 871 extended over England south of the Thames and parts of
southern Essex. When he died in 899 he claimed
the title "King of the Anglo-Saxons," a title which perhaps
exaggerated his actual power--he ruled only Wessex
and western Mercia-- but
which accurately reflects the new status of kingship in England.
raids in England began
toward the end of the eighth century and intensified in the 830s and 840s (the
period of viking settlement in Ireland).
The raids on England
were largely the work of Danish warbands. The nature
of these raids changed suddenly in 865 when a large warband,
described by the ASC as the great heathen army, landed in E.
Anglia. Its leaders were the sons of Ragnar
Lothbrok (Leather-Breeches), especially Iv ar the Boneless and Healfden and Ubba. There was,
however, no unified command and the most important element in the leadership was
the personal authority of the individual sea-captains who commanded individual longships and the loyalty of their crews. Captain with
royal blood were known as kings and could exercise authority over small fleets.
Other powerful chieftains might be known as jarls or earls.
From the evidence of deposits of hoards
in England the peak of viking activity
was in the decade 865-875. After 875, raiding gave way to conquest and
settlement. Between 866 and 877 viking warbands ravaged and conquered Northumbria,
East Anglia, and Mercia:
866-867: conquest of Northumbria, which had been
weakened by civil war.
867: ravaged Mercia, and forced its king Burgred to buy peace from them.
869: defeated and killed E. Anglian king Edmund, who
later was to be honored as a Christian saint and martyr.
defeated and a native ally set on throne.
shared out among viking chieftains.
Alfred (871-899) was the fourth
son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex. He ascended the throne
after each of his brothers had reigned (briefly) before him. He became king at
the age of 22 or 23, after having served as the right hand man of his brother
King Aethelred. One of the first acts that he did as
king was to buy peace from the Danes, who had secured control of the Thames
estuary and of London and who had defeated him
at Reading and Wilton.
Between 871 and
878, the Danes had the initiative. Alfred ascended the throne in 871 in the
midst of a viking invasion of Wessex. In the
preceding winter, a viking army under the command of
their kings Halfdan and Bagsecg
had suddenly crossed the Thames and seized the strategically important royal
estate at Reading.
From this point they had easy access to the major lines of communications,
Roman roads, trackways, and rivers, in the middle Thames valley. King Aethelred
and his brother Alfred raised forces to meet the threat. The year was marked by
a series of battles, skirmishes, and raids. The West
Saxons managed to win a major victory at Ashdown on the Berkshire
Downs, but were unable to capitalize on it. Upon his brother's sudden death on
15 April, Alfred ascended the throne and immediately confronted the vikings at Wilton.
A contemporary chronicler, Alfred's court priest and confidant Asser, described
When both sides had been fighting violently and
resolutely on all fronts for much of the day, the pans realized of their own
accord the complete danger they were in, and unable to bear the onslaught of their
enemies any longer, they turned tail and fled. But alas, scorning the small
number of pursuers, they advanced again into battle, and seizing victory they
were masters of the battlefield.
As would happen to another English army in the Battle of
Hastings two centuries later, the West Saxons at Wilton, sensing victory and
booty, abandoned the safety of their shield-wall to pursue an apparently routed
foe, and paid for their rashness when the enemy reformed and rounded upon them.
878 proved to
be the decisive year. During Christmas 877, Danish king Guthrum seized the
royal estate at Chippenham and overran the greater
part of western Wessex.
Alfred was taken completely by surprise. He barely managed to escape capture at
Chippenham. To save himself and his family, he took
refuge in the marshes of Somerset.
There Alfred built a fortress at Athelney, which he
used as a base for raiding. The Danish victory had been due in part to the
speed with which they acted, and in part due to the collaboration of some of
the West Saxon nobility.
The decisive Battle
of Edington in the spring 878 saved the throne for Alfred, and the Treaty
of Wedmore with Guthrum provided Alfred with some
breathing space. The terms of the treaty included Guthrum's
conversion to Christianity and the recognition of a territorial border between Wessex and the Danelaw, a border that ran
through the old kingdom of Mercia (roughly Alfred held territory south of Thames). Alfred's insistance
that Guthrum and his chief men convert is significant. He himself stood sponsor
for Guthrum at his baptism and, hence, became his spiritual father. Guthrum
adopted the 'Christian' name 'Athelstan,' which had been the name of Alfred's
deceased older brother. Carolingian rulers such as Louis the Pious and Charles
the Bald also demanded conversion to Christianity as an essential precondition
for peace and recognition of territorial authority, as was the case when the
aforementioned Weland sought to become a vassal of
Charles the Bald. By standing sponsor for Guthrum at his baptism, Alfred
was recognizing the Danish king's legitimacy as ruler of East Anglia. He
was welcoming him into the company of 'civilized' rulers.
Guthrum took the conversion is unknown. We do know that he issued coins as king
of East Anglia
under his baptismal name Athelstan. If Guthrum truly converted it was because
Edington had persuaded him of the great power and majesty of the Christian God,
the Lord of Battles, and of his agent on earth, King Alfred.
nature of ninth-century Anglo-Saxon and viking warfare
and discipline, rather than technology or even tactics, determined the outcome
of Edington and most of Alfred's other battles against the vikings.
The viking and the West Saxon forces were, very likely, nearly evenly matched
in terms of numbers and equipment, so a sudden counter-attack, such as that
launched by the Danes when besieged at Reading in 871, could well prove
decisive. The ordinary warrior on both sides was armed with an ash wood
spear, perhaps six to eight feet in length, surmounted with a leaf-shaped, iron
spear head, suitable for either thrusting or hurling. He bore on his left
arm a round wooden shield, either flat or slightly concave, that protected him
from his shoulder to his thigh. His shield, which constituted his main defence, was made of wood perhaps faced with leather and
reinforced with a band of iron around the rim. A central iron boss
protected the hand-grip that lay under it. Warriors of higher status and
wealth, whether West Saxon or Viking, were distinguished by their splendid
pattern-welded swords, the aristocratic weapon par excellence. ‘I
am a wondrous creature', an Old English riddle has the sword boast,
‘shaped in strife, loved by my lord, fairly adorned'. Several
of these ‘wondrous creatures' survive from Alfred's time, double-edged
blades, 70 to 90 centimeters long, made out of hardened carbonized iron and
graced with elaborately decorated guards and pommels. The wealthiest may
also have worn chain-mail byrnies and simple conical
helmets with nose guards, though there is little trace of either in the
archaeological record of the period. It is unlikely that the vikings, at this time, used battle-axes, the weapon that
would characterize them in the eleventh century, or that either side made
extensive use of archers. Given the weapons at their disposal, it is not
surprising that battles between West Saxon and viking
armies were in large measure pushing and thrusting matches, not unlike the
hoplite warfare of Classical Greece. The standard battle formation was
the ‘shield wall', in which the warriors closed rank in preparation for
rushing or receiving the enemy's attack. Battle tactics were rudimentary at
best. In a typical engagement the armies would approach in open order.
At about twenty five meters, each side would let loose a volley of spears,
then close ranks and engage. In the battle itself ‘winged' spears,
used like poleaxes, swords, and shields became the main weapons, as warriors
pushed and struck at one another in an attempt to disrupt the enemy's lines. As
death depleted the front ranks, the solid formations would again open,
providing enough space to permit warriors to throw spears, slash with long
swords and parry blows with their shields. A battle was won when one side
broke ranks and fled, leaving their opponents in possession of the field and of
anything of value that could be looted from the dead and dying. As the
Judith-poet observed, victory over the Assyrians brought the Hebrews
wealth: ‘The dwellers in the land had a chance to spoil the most
hateful ones, their ancient foes now lifeless, of bloody booty, beautiful
ornaments, shields and broad swords, brown helmet, precious treasures'.
Alfred's military reorganization of Wessex
The near disaster of the winter of
878 even more than the victory in the spring left its mark on the king and
shaped his subsequent policies. It was one thing to win a battle; quite
another to secure a lasting peace and to ensure the common weal. The latter
called for hard work and resolution, and the course Alfred chose for himself
and his people was not easy. Over the last two decades of his reign,
Alfred undertook a radical reorganization of the military institutions of his
kingdom, strengthened the West Saxon economy through a policy of monetary
reform and urban planning and strove to win divine favour
by resurrecting the literary glories of earlier generations of Anglo-Saxons.
Alfred pursued these ambitious programmes to fulfill,
as he saw it, his responsibility as king. This justified the heavy
demands he made upon his subjects' labour and
finances. It even excused the expropriation of strategically located
Church lands. Recreating the fyrd into a standing army and ringing Wessex with
some thirty garrisoned foritified towns were costly endeavours that provoked resistance from noble and peasant
alike. Alfred, lacking the institutions of bureaucratic coercion, was
forced to persuade and cajole the magnates of his realm to fulfill his
vision. It is a testament to his greatness that they did.
If Edington highlighted Alfred's
ability to inspire and lead troops in battle, the events that preceded the
battle illustrated just as dramatically what was wrong with the military system
that Alfred had inherited from his father. It had been shaped by the sort
of warfare that prevailed among the kingdoms of early England.
Though the goal of the vikings--the acquisition of
wealth in all its forms--was familiar to equally predatory Anglo-Saxon kings,
the manner in which they waged war was radically new and disconcerting.
While Anglo-Saxon commanders sought battle, vikings
avoided it, much preferring to loot an undefended monastery or town to risking
their earnings in a battle that promised little in the way of profit. As
Alfred discovered, their modus operandi involved seizing a defendable site,
often a royal estate, and then fortifying it further with ditches, ramparts and
palisades. From that base they would ride through the countryside,
plundering as they went. If confronted by a superior military force, they
would retreat to their camp. As slight as its makeshift defenses were,
they nonetheless proved effective against an enemy unfamiliar with warfare and
saddled with a logistical system designed for short, decisive campaigns.
A besieged viking army would simply outwait the enemy,
knowing that once the besieging force exhausted its supplies, it would either
have to leave or offer a profitable peace. Or, if the besiegers grew
careless, the vikings might burst out suddenly from
behind their defenses in a furious counter-attack or sneak away under cover of
night. Anglo-Saxon commanders, thus, often found themselves outmaneuvered
The logistical inadequacies of the
existing West Saxon military system were further exacerbated by the manner in
which armies were raised. Assembling ad hoc levies of local landowners
and their followers was time-consuming. Viking raiders could ravage an
entire region before the king's army appeared in the field. There was another
drawback to relying upon the military obligations of landowners. The
private interests of such men might well favour
collaboration with the enemy. In 878 many West Saxon landowners had found
it expedient to submit to Guthrum, just as the Mercian prince Ceolwulf and his followers had done in 874.
‘Nationalism', after all, was no impediment to dealing with the Northmen, and even their heathenism could be conveniently
overlooked if the threat or the payoff was great enough.
Alfred had won no more than a
respite with his victory at Edington. His flight into the Somerset marshes impressed upon him the need
to reorganize the military resources of his kingdom. And this he did.
Thirteen years later when the vikings returned in
force they found the kingdom defended by a standing, mobile field army and a
network of garrisoned fortresses that commanded its navigable rivers and Roman
roads. Alfred had analyzed the problem and found a solution. In outline,
Alfred's military reforms consisted of:
1) the building of thirty fortified towns, boroughs,
along the rivers and Roman roads of Wessex.
creation of a mobile (horsed) field force, consisting of his nobles and their
warrior retainers. This field
force was divided into two
contingents, each of which was to be in the field for a half year.
beginnings of a royal navy.
Each element of
the system was meant to remedy defects in the West Saxon military establishment
exposed by the viking invasions. If under the existing
system he could not assemble forces quickly enough to intercept mobile viking raiders, the obvious answer was to have a standing
field force. If this entailed transforming the West Saxon fyrd from a
sporadic levy of king's men and their retinues into a mounted standing army, so
be it. If his kingdom lacked strongpoints to
impede the progress of an enemy army, he would build them. If the enemy
struck from the sea, he would counter them with his own naval power.
Characteristically, all of Alfred's innovations were firmly rooted in
traditional West Saxon practice, drawing as they did upon the three so-called
‘common burdens' of bridge work, fortress repair and service on the
king's campaigns that all holders of bookland and royal loanland
owed the Crown. Where Alfred revealed his genius was in designing the
field force and ‘burhs' (as these fortified sites were called) to be
parts of a coherent military system. Neither Alfred's reformed fyrd nor
his burhs alone would have afforded a sufficient defence
against the vikings; together, however, they robbed
the vikings of their major strategic advantages: surprise and mobility.
effect, had created what modern strategists call a DEFENSE IN DEPTH system, and
one that worked. Alfred's boroughs were not grand affairs like the massive
stone late Roman shore forts that still dot the southern coast of England (e.g.
Pevensey and Richborough
'Castle'). Rather, the borough defenses consisted mainly of massive earthworks,
large earthen walls surrounded by wide ditches. The earthen wall
probably were surmounted with wooden palisades, which,
by the tenth century were giving way to stone walls. (The Alfredian
defences are well preserved at Wareham,
a town on the southern coast of England.)
The size of the boroughs varied greatly, from tiny fortifications such as Pilton to large towns like Winchester. Many of the boroughs were, in
fact, twin towns built on either side of a river and connected by a fortified
bridge--much like Charles the Bald's fortifications a
generation before. Such a double-borough would block passage on the
river; the vikings would have to row under a garrisoned bridge, risking being
pelted with stones, spears, or shot with arrows, in order to go upstream.
One cannot fully appreciate the
military significance of Alfred's borough system without considering the siting of these fortified towns. Alfred's thirty boroughs
were distributed widely throughout the West Saxon kingdom and situated in such
a manner that no part of the kingdom was more than twenty miles, a day's march,
from a fortified center. They were also sited near fortified royal villas, to
permit the king better control over his strongholds. What has not been
recognized sufficiently, is how these boroughs
dominated the kingdom's lines of communication, the navigable rivers, Roman
roads, and major trackways. Alfred seems to have had
roads") linking the boroughs to one another. In short, the thirty boroughs
formed an integrated system of fortification.
The presence of well-garrisoned boroughs
along the major travel routes of Wessex presented an obstacle for viking invaders, especially those laden with booty. They
also served as places of refuge for the populations of the surrounding
countryside. But these fortresses were not mere static points of defense. They
were designed to operate in conjunction with Alfred's mobile standing army. The
army and the boroughs together deprived the vikings of
their major strategic advantages:
surprise and mobility.
It was dangerous for the vikings to leave a borough intact astride their lines of
communication, but it was equally dangerous to attempt to take one. Lacking
siege equipment or a developed doctrine of siegecraft,
the vikings could not take these fortresses by storm.
Rather, they reduced to the expedient of starving them into submission, which
gave the king time to come to their relief with his mobile field army, or for
the garrisons of neighboring boroughs to come to the aid of the besieged town.
In a number of instances, the hunter became the hunted, as borough garrison and
field force joined together to pursue the would-be raiders. In fact, the only
recorded success viking forces had against boroughs in the ninth century
occurred in 892, when a viking stormed a half-made, poorly garrisoned fortress
up the Lympne estuary in Kent.
Alfred's borough system was
revolutionary in its strategic conception and extraordinarily expensive in its
execution. The cost of building the boroughs was great in itself, but this
paled before the cost of upkeep for these fortresses and the maintaining of
their standing garrisons, which together amounted to 27,071 troops. (We know
this because a remarkable early tenth-century document known as the Burghal Hidage provides a formula for determining how many
men are needed to
garrison a town based on the basis of one man for every 5.5 yards of wall.)
Even if we assume that the mobile forces of Alfred were small--perhaps 3,000 or
so horsemen--the manpower costs of his military establishment were
considerable. Given that the population of Wessex in 890 could hardly have
been greater than 550,000, the approximate population of this region in 1086
according to Domesday Book, the borough garrisons alone must have constituted
5% of the kingdom's total population. To put this in historical perspective,
the Prussian military at the height of the Napoleonic Wars only absorbed 4% of
that state's population. (An American military comprising 5% of the present
population of the United
States would be in excess of 12,000,000
Alfred also tried his hand at naval
design. In 896 he ordered the construction of a small fleet, perhaps a dozen or
so longships, that, at 60 oars, were twice the size
of viking warships. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicler
flattered his royal patron by boasting that Alfred's ships were not only
larger, but swifter, steadier, and rode higher in the water than either Danish
or Frisian ships. Alfred had seapower in mind: if he
could intercept raiding fleets before they landed, he could spare his kingdom
from ravaging. In conception Alfred's ships may have been superior, but
in practice they left a bit to be desired. His ships proved to be too large to
maneuver well in the close waters of estuaries and rivers, the only places in
which a 'naval' battle could occur. (The warships of the time were not designed
to be ship killers but troops carriers. A naval battle
entailed a ship coming alongside an enemy vessel, at which point the crew would
lash the two ships together and board the enemy. The result was a land battle
In the one
recorded naval engagement, Alfred's new fleet intercepted six viking ships in the mouth of an unidentified river along the
south of England.
The Danes had beached half their ships, either to rest their rowers or to
forage for food. Alfred's ships immediately moved to block their escape to the
sea. The three viking ships afloat attempted to break
through the English lines. Only one made it. Alfred's ships intercepted the
other two. Lashing the viking boats to their own, the
English crew boarded the enemy's vessels and proceeded to kill evreyone on board. The one ship that escaped managed to do
so only because all of Alfred's heavy ships became mired when the tide went
out. What ensued was a land battle between the crews of the grounded ships. The
Danes, heavily outnumbered, would have been wiped out if the tide had not
risen. When that occurred, the Danes rushed back to their boats, which being
lighter, with shallower drafts, were freed before Alfred's ships. Helplessly,
the English watched as the vikings rowed past them.
But the pirates had suffered so many casualties (120 dead according to the
Chronicle), that they difficulties putting out to sea. Two of the three ships
were driven against the Sussex
coast. The shipwrecked sailors were brought before Alfred at Winchester and hanged.
vikings return: 892-896
Alfred's military reforms were
undertaken in the 880s. In 886 with the aid of the native Mercian nobility led
by Alfred's son-in-law Ealdorman Aethelred, Alfred
restored London-which entailed reoccupying and refurbishing the Roman walled
city, building quays along the Thames, and laying a new city street plan--and
assumed the title of King of the Anglo-Saxons to emphasize that he ruled not
only West Saxons but all English not under Danish control.
In the 880s the vikings
were involved in raids in Francia. Their failure to take Paris
in 886 and other difficulties led them to cross back to England in 892.
A force of 250 ships sailed across the channel carrying horses with them and
landed in southeast Kent.
A second (probably independent) viking fleet of 80
ships followed and sailed into the Thames estuary and made camp in northern Kent.
Opportunistic vikings settled in East Anglia and Northumbria
broke the peace to raid Wessex
once more. For the next four years Alfred waged war on several fronts against
invaders. Alfred's defensive measures were not yet complete, and the vikings even captured one ill defended, half built borough.
But Alfred had created a strong enough defensive system to harry the vikings and negate their threat. In 896 the viking army dispersed and returned to Francia.
invasion had failed not because the English commanders were cleverer or their
men more resolute, but because of a complex and sophisticated military system
that permitted the English to fight a multi-front war. The vikings
had discovered that English towns were no longer easy prey. It was dangerous to
leave a garrisoned burh intact, but it was equally
dangerous to attempt to take one. Possessing neither sieve engines nor
doctrine, they could not storm burhs protected by ditches, earthworks strengtehened by wooden revetments, and plaisades.
If they attempted to starve a town into submission, the hunter was likely to
become the hunted, as the English field army and garrisons from neighboring
burhs would come to the relief of the besieged. The very geography of his last
war attested to the effectiveness of Alfred's military reforms. In the
invasions and raids of 871, 876, and 878, the Danes had attacked and ravaged
the heartland of Wessex.
In 892-896, an even larger army with allies in Northumbria
and East Anglia, had to content itself with raiding along the frontiers of Wessex and Mercia. Only once had viking raiders penetrated the country-side of Surrey or Hampshire, and those marauders had paid for
their daring in a defeat at Farnham. When the men of Somerset and Wiltshire
fought, it was well beyond the borders of their shires.
In 896 the
viking army dispersed, and for the last three years of
his reign Alfred ruled in peace.
War and Wisdom
In the 880s, at the same time that he
was 'cajoling and threatening' his nobles to build and man the burhs, Alfred,
perhaps inspired by the example of Charlemagne a century before, undertook an
equally ambitious effort to revive learning. It entailed the recruitment of
clerical scholars from Mercia, Wales and abroad to enhance the tenor of the
court and of the episcopacy; the establishment of a court school to educate his
own children and those of his nobles; an attempt to require literacy in those
who held offices of authority; a series of translations into the vernacular of Latin
works the king deemed 'most necessary for all men to know'; the compilation of
a chronicle detailing the rise of Alfred's kingdom and house; and the issuance
of a law code that presented the West Saxons as a new people of Israel and
their king as a just and divinely-inspired law-giver.
This enterprise was to Alfred's mind as
essential for the defence of his realm as the
building of the burhs. As Alfred observed in the preface to his translation of
Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, kings who fail to obey their divine duty to
promote learning can expect earthly punishments to befall their people. The
pursuit of wisdom, he assured his readers of the Boethius, was the surest path
to power: 'Study Wisdom, then, and, when you have learned it, condemn it not,
for I tell you
that by its means you may without fail attain to power, yea, even though not
desiring it'. The portrayal of the West Saxon resistance to the vikings by Asser and the Chronicler as a Christian holy war
was more than mere rhetoric or 'propaganda'. It reflected Alfred's own belief
in a doctrine of divine rewards and punishments rooted in a vision of a
hierarchical Christian world-order in which God is the Lord to whom kings owe
obedience and through whom they derive their authority over their followers.
The need to persuade his nobles to undertake work for the 'common good' led
Alfred and his court scholars to strengthen and deepen the conception of
Christian kingship that he had inherited by building upon the legacy of earlier
kings such as Offa as well as clerical writers such as Bede, Alcuin and the
other luminaries of the Carolingian renaissance. This was not a cynical use of
religion to manipulate his subjects into obedience, but an intrinsic element in
Alfred's world-view. He believed, as did other kings in ninth-century England and Francia, that God had entrusted him with the spiritual as
well as physical welfare of his people. If the Christian faith fell into ruin
in his kingdom, if the clergy were too ignorant to understand the Latin words
they butchered in their offices and liturgies, if the ancient monasteries and
collegiate churches lay deserted out of indifference, he was answerable before
God, as Josiah had been. Alfred's ultimate responsibility was the pastoral care
of his people.
of King Alfred's reign
Alfred's military reforms saved his
kingdom from Scandinavian conquest, while the Alfredian
Renaissance not only revived learning but helped create a strong, theocratic
conception of kingship that helped Alfred and his successors rule more
effectively. Alfred's burghal system provided
the West Saxon monarchy with islands of royal power throughout southern England. The
boroughs, which were to serve as sites of royal mints and as trading centers as
well as fortresses, gave Alfred and his successors more wealth and a greater
amount of coercive power than their predecessors have enjoyed. In short, the
response to the viking invasions in England was NOT
the destruction of central authority, as it was in Francia, but was in the
consolidation and growth of kingly power. England
did not become decentralized as did France. Instead, the king managed
to control his nobility and to exact from their lands taxes and military
service. Both the taxes and military service were based on the value of the
land. The result was a monarchy that was able to exploit systematically the
wealth of its realm. Alfred's son,
Edward the Elder, and his grandsons used their wealth and military resources to
conquer the areas of Viking settlement ('the Danelaw') north of the Thames. By the reign of Edgar 'the Peaceable' (959-975)
the kings of Wessex had
fully become kings of England
and lords of Britain.
Æthelred II 'the Unready" and the second viking invasions, 980-1016 (based
on Richard Abels, "From Alfred to Harold II: The Military Failure of the
Late Anglo-Saxon State," pp. 22-29, in The Normans and their
Adversaries at War, ed. Richard Abels and Bernard Bachrach,
Boydell & Brewer, 2001)
Alfred's military establishment was
worth the money and manpower. Not only did it prove the salvation of Wessex in the
890s, in the hands of Alfred's successors, it became a finely honed instrument
of aggression. The result was the creation through conquest of a unified kingdom of England. The true fruit of Alfred's
success was the halcyon reign of his great-grandson Edgar the Peaceable during
experienced a generation of peace and prosperity.
The history of Anglo-Saxon military
institutions during the mid tenth century is difficult to reconstruct.
The archaeological evidence suggests that the Alfredian
burhs of Wessex
were gradually transformed into market towns, their defenses slighted to allow
better access. Some of the forts were abandoned entirely. The same
process probably occurred in the Midlands with consolidation of West Saxon
control over the Midlands in the 940s and
950s. This is not to suggest that Edgar’s England was
defenseless. Though John of Worcester’s assertion that Edgar had a
fleet of 3,600 ships deployed in three equal fleets is clearly an exaggeration,
there can be little doubt that English naval power lay behind the
chronicler’s boast: “there was no fleet so proud, nor raiding-army
so strong, that fetched itself carrion among the English race, while the noble
king governed the royal seat.” Edgar’s hegemony over a maritime
empire was symbolized by the ceremony in which Edgar piloted a boat rowed by
eight British sub-kings on the Dee
River during the
king’s formal consecration in 973. There is good reason to believe
that it was during Edgar’s reign that ‘ship sokes’
were first established to provide the king with the warships he needed.
What remained of Alfred’s
military arrangements were abandoned during the
turmoil that marked the reign of Edgar’s son Edward the Martyr (975-8).
To go by the evidence of the Bishop
Oswald’s leases, in particular the account of services owed given in S
1368, even in Edgar’s reign the military quotas of bishops and abbots
were being withdrawn from the contingents led by the shire reeves and eladormen and placed under the command of archiductores appointed by these prelates. This
‘privatization’ of the military forces of the kingdom appears to
have become generalized in the period following Edgar’s death, as secular
nobles obtained the same privilege to raise and lead troops as enjoyed by
ecclesiastical lords. Late tenth- and
early eleventh-century texts such as Libellus Æthelwoldi,
The Battle of Maldon, and Byrhtferth’s Vita
Sancti Oswaldi depict a world in which powerful
nobles expressed their status and advanced their interests by maintaining
impressive military households and affinities.
When the vikings
suddenly returned in 980, they found a peaceful and wealthy England ripe for
pillaging. It was certainly a well administered, or at least a highly
administered, kingdom, in which the central government had in place effective
mechanisms for the maintenance of order and the raising of revenues. But one
must not mistake bureaucratic efficiency and ideological sophistication for
military strength. It was in this aspect of governance that Æthelred's England fell
short. Here a comparison with contemporary West Francia
is illustrative. Francia, which had suffered so much from Viking raids during
the previous century, was now to enjoy relative immunity from attack. The rise
of the powerful Norman and Angevin states
blocking access to the Seine and the Loire
Rivers had seen to that. Indeed,
whereas viking raiders had in the previous century
crisscrossed the Channel in pursuit of plunder, now they were more likely to
use Norman ports for safe harborage to plan assaults on England.
Even before Æthelred II assumed the
throne, Alfred's standing army had given way to ad hoc levies summoned to meet
crises. Town defenses had been allowed to erode; the defensive ditches of some
boroughs had even been filled in to facilitate commercial expansion. Many
towns, of course, continued to maintain their defenses, but without permanent
garrisons acting in tandem with the field army they could do little more than
offer refuge to the civilian population and they often failed to do even this.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells of town after town sacked and burnt (by my
count 21 between 980 and 1011). London's
successful resistance against the invaders in 994 was glorious precisely
because it was so exceptional. The very memory
of Alfred’s burghal system had been forgotten.
The Chronicler does not bemoan the disintegration of town defenses in
describing the viking attacks. It is almost as if they
never had existed at all.
When the battle of Maldon was
fought in August of 991 King Æthelred had no clearly defined strategy for
dealing with the vikings. This is not at all
surprising, for at first the threat must have seemed modest. The raids of the
980s certainly caused local devastation, but they were sporadic and seemed a
problem for local authorities rather than the king. Byrhtnoth's
disaster at Maldon in 991 convinced Æthelred and his councillors
of the gravity of the situation and of the wisdom of purchasing peace. The
10,000 pounds offered the raiders in 991 was only the first of many such
payments that became increasingly expensive as the invading armies grew larger
As with Alfred, Æthelred's payment
of danegeld was meant to buy time as well as peace.
From the early 990s on Æthelred used diplomacy and cash to divide his enemies
and deprive them of foreign support. Unlike Alfred, whose wartime diplomacy
focused on neighboring Mercia
and Wales, Æthelred's
foreign policy was conducted against the backdrop of continental politics,
reflecting how much more England--and
Scandinavia--was now integrated into the
medieval European state system. The dukes of Normandy, for example, were alternately
threatened and courted, as the king tried to close their ports to his enemies.
Though Alfred was well informed about Viking activities on the continent and
knew that the same bands were ravaging both kingdoms, he apparently did nothing
to coordinate defences with his West Frankish
contemporaries, probably because his overall policy was to make Wessex a less
inviting target than Francia. This was not an option for Æthelred, which should
serve as a reminder that the two kings lived in quite different political
King Æthelred also played a
Norwegian card against the Danes. In 994 he
managed to separate the Norse chieftain Olaf Tryggvason from his erstwhile ally
the Danish King Swein, even standing sponsor at the savage young chieftain's
confirmation. In return for twenty-two thousand pounds, gifts of friendship,
and provisions for his men, Olaf agreed to aid Æthelred against his enemies.
That year Olaf, with Æthelred's
blessings, departed England
never to return. Although Olaf never served Æthelred as a mercenary captain,
his activities in Norway
drew Swein's attention and kept the Danish king occupied until the battle of Svold in AD 1000. Fourteen
years after Olaf Tryggvason's defeat, Æthelred helped
another Norwegian Olaf, St. Olaf, obtain the throne,
undoubtedly with an eye toward creating mischief for his enemies at home.
Æthelred's policy of turning
marauders into allies bore its greatest fruit in 1012, when the Danish
mercenary captain Thorkell the Tall, with a fleet of forty-five ships, took
service with the king whose realm he had been pillaging for the previous four years.
Although Æthelred's dealings with Thorkell proved to have mixed results, his
general policy of divide and survive was on the whole sensible.
Archaeological excavations over the
last two decades also warn us against accepting too readily the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle's picture of a desperate and incapable monarch. Apparently, Æthelred
not only recognized the vulnerability of the boroughs but took steps to remedy
this problem. Perhaps as early as the 990s he began an ambitious program of
military construction. New boroughs were raised on the sites of iron-age
hill-forts at South Cadbury in Somerset, Old Sarum in Wiltshire, and Cissbury
and the defenses of existing boroughs were refurbished, as stone walls replaced
timber revetments and palisades.
The disasters of the 980s and 990s
also led Æthelred to reevaluate and strengthen his naval and military forces.
In 1008 he extended the ship soke system throughout
his kingdom, creating naval districts of 310 hides to facilitate the
construction and manning of a great armada, and simultaneously ordered a helmet
and a corselet to be provided from every eight hides 'unremittingly over all
England.' If we go by the hidage total of
Domesday Book (about 70,000 hides for all of England
south of the Tees), this would have meant a
fleet of about 200 ships and an army of almost 9,000 fully armed warriors.
Though the institution of the 'shipsokes' in this annal has attracted the lion's share of scholarly attention,
the provision for the production of body armor is of equal military interest.
Æthelred and his advisors apparently recognized that their troops were
'outgunned' by the Vikings, and took the necessary steps to upgrade the
equipment of their warriors. That this royal order was more than an exercise in
paper-work is underscored by an interesting change in the composition of heriots before and after 1008. As Nicholas Brooks observed,
mail coats and helmets are not normally found among the heriots
[death payments owed to a lord by his deceased man] of tenth-century wills; in heriots of wills issued after 1008, however, body armor
appears as a matter of course. One can
only speculate where the king's armory or armories were, and how and to whom
his officers distributed the weapons stored there. What is certain, though, is
that Æthelred used the powerful institutions of governance of late Saxon
England to remedy the deficiencies in the military forces he had inherited.
In 1009 Æethelred
ordered his new fleet to be stationed off Sandwich
to guard against the return of the vikings. But the
naval preparations came to nothing. In the words of the chronicler, "we
had not the good fortune or honour that the naval force was of use to this
country, any more than it had been on many previous occasions."
In the end, the new boroughs and ship-sokes no more saved England from conquest than did the
vast sums the king paid his conquerors. As impressive as Æthelred's military
measures were, they were not enough to deter or defeat the armies of Swein
Forkbeard and his son Cnut the Great. And while it is true that Æthelred had a
much larger territory to defend than Alfred--one more analogous to Charles the Bald's sprawling kingdom--, his
measures failed to ensure the security of even the core of his kingdom, Wessex.
(And one must also consider that if Æthelred’s realm was larger, so were
the resources he had to defend it.) If this failure was due in part to the
strength of the Scandinavian forces, it was also owed to the lack of an overall
coherent defensive strategy. Alfred's system was a synergy; Æthelred's was just
the opposite. The individual parts of his military system were more impressive
than the whole.
Nor can one ignore the role played
in the defeat by the treachery and incompetence of the men whom Æthelred
appointed to lead his armies. About this, at any rate, the Anglo-Saxon
chronicler was right. Alfred's success was predicated upon his ability to bind
the West Saxon (and Mercian) nobility to him. Certainly, not all were willing
to bow to his demands, and we know of at least one ealdorman who forfeited his
possessions because he betrayed his oath of loyalty. Still,
when the West Saxon nobility could have abandoned the fugitive Alfred in the
winter and spring of 878, they did not. Whether or not Alfred's plight was
exaggerated by the Chronicler to point up more clearly the analogy with David
taking refuge in his cave, it is clear that Alfred was in desperate straits. By
contrast, Æthelred lost the support of even the West Saxon thegnage
in 1013, this in spite of his successful resistance to Swein's siege of London. There can be no
more dramatic a commentary on the pitiful ending of Æthelred II's reign than
the activities of his eldest son Edmund Ironside in 1015 and early 1016.
Edmund's defiance of his father's judicial judgments and his independent
conduct of military campaigns are as much evidence of a monarchy in disarray as
Alfred's joint military actions with his son Edward reflect the stability of
that king's rule.
Æthelred had institutional
authority far surpassing that enjoyed by Alfred. Alfred 'cajoled and
persuaded.' Æthelred had the power to do much more. In terms of kingship,
Æthelred's failure cannot be explained as the result of institutional weakness.
Royal rule in late tenth- and early eleventh-century England could be, in the words of
one recent commentator, 'arbitrary, bordering on
tyranny' (though, in practice, the powers of the king usually would have been
circumscribed 'by the problem of enforcement and the consequent need to rule as
the nobility expected'). The decade spanning 1006 and 1016, however, was hardly
business as usual. It has become fashionable to minimize the tensions and
treasons in Æthelred's court and the king's sometimes brutal responses. Still,
one cannot ignore entirely the litany of executed and exiled ealdormen and
thegns that appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. True, we cannot assess the
merits of the judicial punishments handed out to them; nor can we know whether
the chronicler was exaggerating the disloyalty of Eadric Streona and his ilk.
But we can render our judgment of Æthelred on the basis of the pledge he was
forced to make before his nobility would allow him to return in 1014, that he
would rule more justly than he had. Anglo-Saxon kings governed through a
"tightly knit aristocracy bound to one another and to the king through
ties of kinship, marriage, lordship and close association." In this
personal network lay the true unity of the kingdom. Æthelred’s inability
to inspire confidence in these men and to command their loyalty was the true
key to his ultimate failure.
As the Chronicler observed, quoting
a contemporary aphorism, "When the leader gives
way, the whole army will be much hindered.' One could say with equal justice
that if a king gave way, his whole kingdom would suffer. One cannot emphasize
enough the importance of the Crown in the unity of 'England' in the late tenth and the
early eleventh centuries. It was royal courts, royal administration, royal fyrds, and loyalty to one's cynehlaford,
one's 'royal lord,' that bound together not only the great nobility of the
court but the local landholders of what had been Mercia, Wessex, East Anglia,
and Northumbria. What unity there was resided in the person of Æthelred. As Archbishop Wulfstan was to enjoin in the law
codes he drafted in the dark days of 1008 and the even darker ones of 1014,
'And let us loyally support one royal lord, and all of us together defend our
lives and our land.'
We cannot recover Æthelred's
personality and character from the diplomas, law codes, and chronicle accounts
of his reign. That he was neither irresolute nor a coward seems evident even
from the unflattering portrayal of the king in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
However else one wishes to characterize it, the St. Brice's Day massacre was a
decisive act. Nor can one fault Æthelred's resolution following the death of
Swein in 1014, when he returned from exile to drive Cnut out of England. Even
the manner in which Æthelred abandoned his kingdom to Swein in 1013, surely the
nadir of his reign, reflects well on the personal courage of the king; rather
than flee to Normandy with his wife after the submission of the Londoners, he
stayed with the fleet in the Thames, arranged for safe passage of his children
to Normandy, and then, defying Swein to attack, sailed to the Isle of Wight,
where he held court and celebrated Christmas before crossing to the continent.
But personal courage alone does not
make a military leader. For whatever reason, Æthelred was a reluctant
warrior-king who preferred to entrust his armies to others rather than lead
them himself. In ordinary times this probably would have mattered little
(as Edward the Confessor's reign attests), but given the series of defeats
suffered by his generals and the regional tensions that were emerging in the
kingdom under the punishment inflicted by the Vikings, Æthelred's lack of
martial spirit or prowess sealed the fate of his kingdom. In 1016, when the
presence of the king was most necessary, Æthelred was most conspicuously
absent. The king's eldest son, Edmund, could not compensate for his father's
reluctance to take the field; he was still only an ætheling,
and one whose loyalty to the king was perhaps suspect. The two armies Edmund
assembled in the winter of 1016 dissolved, the first because 'the Mercians
would not join with the West Saxons and the Danes' in the absence of the king,
and the second because Æthelred, fearing treachery, abandoned the host to
return to the safety of London.
Edmund ended up waging war on his own.
Æthelred's military problems stemmed, in part, from the inadequacies of the
military system that he had inherited from his father. This, however, is not
the whole story. The failure was also Æthelred's. Personal royal
leadership was as critical and irreplaceable in the age of Æthelred as it had been
in the age of Alfred. Despite a flurry of activity that culminated in a full
scale military reform in 1008, the king and his advisors were, in the final
analysis, unable to devise and implement an effective military policy that
could correct these deficiencies. Just as critically, Æthelred himself was
unable to inspire the loyalty and confidence among the nobility that was a sine
qua non for successful military resistance. In contrast, King Alfred had
survived the debacle of Chippenham in the winter of
878 because of his force of character. Despite his flight into the Somerset marshes he was
still capable of rallying his nobles so that they flocked to him at
Egbert’s Stone when he emerged to fight Guthrum in the spring.
Alfred was perhaps not a great general in the sense of his tactical
abilities. But he had courage and political acumen, as well as strategic
of the viking raids
impact on West Francia (what was to become the kingdom of France)
has been greatly debated. The most evident impact was the foundation of the
duchy of Normandy,
though it is debatable how long the Scandinavian elite that took control over
that territory in the early tenth century retained a "Scandinavian
identity." David Bates voices the opinion of most historians in seeing the
swift waning of Scandinavian identity and the full integration of the ruling
elite into the French aristocracy. Others, notably Eleanor Searle, have argued
for a persistance of Scandinavian identity and ethos
in the eleventh century.
Although Peter Sawyer has attempted to minimize the
devastation wrought by the vikings (smaller forces mean less destruction) and
to dismiss the chronicle accounts of destruction as ecclesiastical propaganda
against a pagan enemy, most historians still take seriously the impact that the
vikings had on the economy and political structures of
north-western Europe. Most still see
the vikings as aiding in a process of economic and
political collapse. Georges Duby, however, in his Early
Growth of the European Economy, somewhat perversely makes the
counter-intuitive argument that the viking raids
helped clear the way for the great European economic development and expansion
of the eleventh century by facilitating urban development and destroying the
old structures of Carolingian economic production and exploitation.
Many textbooks and surveys, including Marc Bloch's highly
influential Feudal Society, see the viking
raids as facilitating the political decentralization of West
Francia and the growth of private lordships. In other words, the vikings helped give birth to Marc Bloch's "first feudal
age." Some even see castle building as a consequence of local lords
attempting to defend their regional holdings. But chronology militates against
this. The great age of viking raiding on the Continent
ended in the early tenth century. The great age of castle building did not
begin until the end of that century. The question of the impact of the vikings thus remains an open one.
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"English Tactics, Strategy,
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of Maldon A.D. 991. Ed.
D. Scragg. Blackwell, 1991.
"From Alfred to Harold II:
The Military Failure of the Late Anglo-Saxon
State," pp. 15-29,
in The Normans and their Adversaries at War,
ed. Richard Abels and Bernard Bachrach. Boydell & Brewer, 2001
Farrell, Robert, ed. The
Vikings. Phillimore, 1988.
Foote, P.G., and Wilson,
D.M. The Viking Achievement. Sidgwick, 1970.
Gillmor, Carroll. "War on the Rivers," Viator 19 (1988).
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under Charles the Bald." Anglo-Norman Studies 11 (1989),
Morillo, Stephen, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo,
War in World History, vol. 1,
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