Vikings were Germanic raiders/traders, most of whom came from Scandinavia . In the ninth century, Norwegian and Danish viking bands ravaged (and settled in) Britain, Ireland and France, while Swedish vikings raided the Baltic coastline and established trading posts both there and in Russia (Novgorod, Kiev). Vikings fleets even went so far as to attack Italy and Constantinople in the mid ninth century. But who and what were “vikings.” 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 Old English 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. (Because “viking” is a description of a profession or activity and not a proper noun referring to a “people,” the word ought not to be capitalized—although Microsoft Word disagrees!) Even to call vikings Scandinavians is misleading. Most Scandinavian free men did not go “a-viking,” and not all vikings were Scandinavian. The 'nationality' of a viking warband was defined by its leaders. A “Danish viking fleet” meant that the captains of the ships were Danes. The members of a viking boat, however, could well be an ethnically heterogeneous lot. Medieval Irish sources, for instance, tell of 'Irish foreigners,’ natives who decided to join viking armies, preferring the role of predator to prey.
Why did viking
fleets suddenly appear in the late eighth century?
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 and England 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, 1013-1016)
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.
Most explanations of why 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.. Scandinavian boats 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 Scandinavian ship design 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 British living history website, Regia Anglorum, has a nice webpage devoted to the construction of viking ships.) The replica of the Gokstad ship that sailed from Norway to America 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. The Gokstad ship, however, 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 three meters wide; it 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 estuaries. In the late ninth through eleventh centuries, sea-going viking warships ranged in size, though the most common seems to have been a twenty-bencher with forty oars.
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)
Most 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. Archaeologist Martin Biddle excavated one such viking camp at Repton, in Derbyshire, England. In the winter of 873/4, a detachment of the Great Heathen Army rowed down the Trent past Nottingham from its base in Northumbria, seized Repton, Derbyshire, an important Mercian royal centre, the burial place of kings, and proceeded to fortify about 3.5 acres of it with ditches and earthworks. The viking was camp was defended on one side by the River Trent and on the other three by about 160 yards of ditch and earthwork defenses, anchored by St. Wynstan’s Church. Biddle’s team also uncovered the skeletal remains of a Viking chieftain of high ranks surrounded by the remains of 250 other people, presumably also Vikings. The viking force that took Repton was small, probably fewer than a thousand men, given the small size of the camp and the mere 100 yards of enclosed strand available for the beaching of ships. Military historian John Peddie estimates a requirement of about seven yards per boat, which applied to Repton would give a maximum of 30-35 ships, with an average crew size of around thirty. What this viking force lacked in numbers it made up in the boldness and suddenness of action. Viking island bases on the Seine River at Jeufosse (856-7) and Oissel (858-61) were much larger, as were the Irish “long-ports,” viking camps that developed into towns, the most famous of which became Dublin. The viking longport at Dunrally Fort, at the confluence of the Glasha and Barrow Rivers near Kildare, was excavated in the 1990s. The 328 yards of beach were enclosed by a 20 ft wide and 6ft 6 in. deep ditch, behind which was an earthen rampart surmounted by a 6ft 6 inch high oak wall. Within these outer defenses, excavators located a wood fort encircled by a ditch and palisade. Using Peddie’s formula, the longport at Dunrally Fort may have housed as many as 47 longships.
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).
All 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 of Noirmoutier):
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 and Orleans. 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.
Even though 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.
The larger 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 their victims.
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.
"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 around them. The policy of fortified bridges worked, not perfectly, 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 River.
Charles the Bald’s fortified double-bridge at Pont de l’Arche
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
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.
According to the Annals of St Bertin, these same vikings had established themselves the previous 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 fortified island-bases fortress first at Jeufosse and subsequently at 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.
The story 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).
Given the internecine warfare that marked the consolidation of power by royal dynasties in ninth-century Denmark and Norway, 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.
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.
The viking 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.
874: Mercia defeated and a native ally set on throne.
876: Northumbria settled
877: Mercia 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 the battle:
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 insistence 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.
How seriously 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.
Morale 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'.
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 favor 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' labor 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 fortified towns were costly endeavors 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 or stalemated.
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 construction of thirty fortified towns, called burhs (modern: boroughs), along the rivers and Roman roads of Wessex.
2) Reforming the the royal fyrd into a mobile (horsed) field force, consisting of his nobles and their warrior retainers, was divided into two rotating contingents, which alternated every two months between service in the field army and protection of their locality.
3) The creation of a beacon-warning system.
4) The building of a small 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.
Alfred, in effect, had created what modern strategists call a DEFENSE IN DEPTH system, and one that worked. Alfred's burhs 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 burh defenses consisted mainly of massive earthworks, large earthen walls surrounded by wide ditches. The earthen walls 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 burhs varied greatly, from tiny fortifications such as Pilton to large towns like Winchester. Many of the burhs 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-burh 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 burh system without considering the siting of these fortified towns. Alfred's thirty burhs 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 burhs dominated the kingdom's lines of communication, the navigable rivers, Roman roads, and major trackways. Alfred seems to have had "highways" (hereweges--"army roads") linking the burhs to one another. Alfred intended his burhs to work in tandem with the fyrd and with each other. To do this effectively required a “carefully planned system of communication, based on the established routeways, with observation and signalling posts.” An Anglo-Saxon beacon system can be reconstructed from OE placenames with the element bēcun, weard-, tōt , and nodes [atten ad, at the fire]. Archaeologists Stuart Brookes and John Baker of University College, London and a private enthusiast Keith Briggs examined these sites for intervisibility. The results indicate that the beacons in Wessex (but, interestingly, not in Kent) formed a single coherent system in which Cricklade played a critical role as a nodal point connecting Malmesbury to Chisbury or Wallingford. In short, the thirty burhs formed an integrated system of fortification.
Anglo-Saxon Beacon System in the Thames River Valley (reconstructed by J. Baker and S. Brookes)
The presence of well-garrisoned burhs 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 burhs together deprived the vikings of their major strategic advantages: surprise and mobility.
It was dangerous for the vikings to leave a burh 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 burhs to come to the aid of the besieged town. In a number of instances, the hunter became the hunted, as burh garrison and field force joined together to pursue the would-be raiders. In fact, the only recorded success viking forces had against burhs 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 burh system was revolutionary in its strategic conception and extraordinarily expensive in its execution. The cost of building the burhs 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 burh 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 troops!)
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 at
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 everyone 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.
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 burh. 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.
The Danish 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 strengthened 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.
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.
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 burhs, 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.
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 which England experienced a generation of peace and prosperity based upon its military power.
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 burhs 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 councilors 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 and hungrier.
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 worlds.
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 burhs but took steps to remedy this problem. Perhaps as early as the 990s he began an ambitious program of military construction. New burhs were raised on the sites of iron-age hill-forts at South Cadbury in Somerset, Old Sarum in Wiltshire, and Cissbury in Sussex, and the defenses of existing burhs 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 burhs 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 genius.
Impact 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 persistence 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.
Abels, Richard. Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Longmans, 1998.
Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England. U. of California Press, 1988.
"English Tactics, Strategy,
and Military Organization in the Late Tenth Century," in The Battle 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).
"The Logistics of
Fortified Bridge Building on the Seine under Charles the Bald." Anglo-Norman
Studies 11 (1989),
Morillo, Stephen, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History, vol. 1, McGraw-Hill, 2009.
Sawyer, Peter. Kings and Vikings. 1982.