The Coming of the Northmen: from Coastal Raids to Inland Battles in Britain & Ireland, 789-871.

Pirates or Merchant Adventurers?

Out of the North, they came, more warriors from the fringes of the Baltic. Norsemen, Vikings, Danes, many names, but one overriding characteristic – they came first to raid and plunder in tall-prowed sailing ships that had carried these sea-rovers to the Mediterranean and the coasts of a new world across the northern ocean. Driven by poverty and discontent, these pagan warriors set forth in search of plunder and adventure. For more than half a century their sporadic visits devastated small coastal areas as they probed the strengths and weaknesses of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This was the beginning of what has been called the Viking Age, which lasted from the end of the eighth century until well into the eleventh century. From the late eighth century, the Argyll coast was continually ravaged by Vikings, while in the east more sustained raids on the Picts from 839 undermined the Pictish élite, paving the way for their take-over in 844 by a new Gaelic dynasty, headed by Cináed mac Alpín (‘Kenneth MacAlpin’, died 858), king of the Scots of Dál Riata, who now seized the kingship of the Picts. Before the end of the ninth century, this new kingdom had become known as ‘Scotia’ and it was not long before the Picts, together with their language and most of their cultural traditions, had disappeared from the history of the islands. This eastern Gaelic kingdom, with its new ceremonial centre at Scone, provided the basis for a Scottish state, which survived throughout the Middle Ages.

By around 800 it is possible to identify five or six kingdoms within Britain with the social and administrative characteristics of a state, while in Ireland large regional polities were being formed. However, we will never know how these kingdoms might have developed had they been left to their own devices. Viking raids and settlements led to cataclysmic upheavals and disintegration and transformation of the political landscape. Of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, only Wessex survived. In the north, the Vikings were instrumental in the birth of the kingdom of Alba out of the dying ashes of the Pictish-Gaelic kingdom. In Ireland, the effect of the Vikings was to disintegrate attempts to create a unified Ireland until the eleventh century. Only Wales was to emerge from the Viking era battered and bruised, but little changed in territorial terms.

A carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, written and illuminated in Northumbria towards the end of the seventh century.

There had been many illuminated manuscripts produced in Britain and Ireland during the late seventh and eighth centuries. All the skills which had gone into creating a piece of convoluted animal ornament on something like the golden buckle from Sutton Hoo were redeployed in the creation of these illuminations.  Gold and enamel-working techniques were used for making the fittings for the covers of books, and the leather was probably also ornamented. Looking at a carpet page from one of the Lindisfarne Gospels, it can be seen that the overall pattern is made up of many tiny, intertwined animals. The manuscripts represent a fusion of Celtic, Germanic, and classical styles, with ornaments of beasts and spirals. Similarly, the sculptured stone crosses carry ornament of vine scrolls, clearly Mediterranean, with Germanic beasts sitting in their branches. Churches of this period may have been built of timber, much like ordinary houses: traces of post-holes under later stone-built churches are all that remain of these. In addition, a handful of stone buildings remain from the period, mostly in Canterbury or Northumbria, though it’s difficult to be sure which parts of these can really be eighth-century.

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In or around the year 789, a band of Norwegian Vikings killed a royal official at Portland in Wessex. Within a few years, Danish and Norwegian Vikings, ‘plunderers’ in Norse, had launched raids around the entire coastline of Britain and Ireland, as well as through the Channel and the coastlines of the Frankish empire. In 793, they attacked the monastery on Lindisfarne, the burial-place of St Cuthbert (634-686). Alcuin of York chronicled the attack on Lindisfarne:

Never before has such an atrocity been seen… The church of St Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God, stripped of all its furnishings, exposed to the plundering of pagans – a place more sacred than any in Britain.

He was clear that the reason for the visitation was the wickedness of the English, the explanation Gildas had given three centuries earlier, except that then it was the Englische who had been the instrument of God’s wrath upon the British, and now, according to Bede’s prediction, it was the peaceful, Christian English who had, within one generation, laid aside their weapons, preferring… to take monastic vows rather than study the arts of war and whose ‘pacifism’, or lack of preparedness, was to be rewarded by northern sea pirates assailing them in the next generation. With the benefit of hindsight, later chroniclers expressed a similar view, as the raids spread all around the coasts of Britain, Ireland, and France. For the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the year 793 was one of awesome significance:

In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne with plunder and slaughter.

Manuscript D.

The Viking attack on Lindisfarne was not the first Norse raid on Britain but to contemporaries, it was the most dramatic example yet of a force that was to become a deadly threat to the English kingdoms. Monasteries were the favourite targets of the Vikings, as the attacks on Iona and Lindisfarne had shown. Sited as they were on or near the coast or on navigable rivers, monasteries were rich, but also virtually defenceless and, being pagans, the Vikings were not deterred by the spiritual sanctions that protected the Church when Christians were at war with each other. Exploiting the speed of their longships to the full, the Vikings could attack, plunder and disappear over the horizon before local defenders could launch a counter-attack. The earliest Viking raids were carried out by small fleets of up to about a dozen ships, but the numbers recorded in contemporary annals began to increase in the 830s until, by the 850s, fleets of several hundred ships are reported.

The ship was excavated at Gokstad in Norway, now in the ship museum in Oslo. A replica of this was made in the nineteenth century soon after it was found and it was sailed from Bergen to Newfoundland in only twenty-eight days.

For at least another generation after these initial raids, however, the threat to the English kingdoms remained unfulfilled, and although isolated raids took place they did not become the major focus of Viking attention until 835. Continuing into the 840s, the sea-rovers raided and plundered the coasts around the British Isles in their tall-prowed sailing ships, probing the strengths and weaknesses of the Irish, British, Scottish, and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Their main areas of activity reflected the locations of their homelands, the Norwegians concentrating on Scotland, Ireland, and Cumbria, while the Danes focused on eastern and southern Britain. It was probably Ireland that suffered most severely during this first phase of Viking activity, partly due to its division into some half-dozen competing provincial kingdoms whose kings exercised a loose sway over dozens of quarrelsome tributary sub-kingdoms. This extremely decentralised power structure made any kind of coordinated defence difficult. Beginning in 836, the Vikings began to build fortified bases, called longphorts by the Irish, that were occupied only briefly, but a few became permanent settlements, which in the tenth century developed into Ireland’s first true towns. Dublin, founded in 841, was the most successful of these, owing much of its early growth to Viking slave trading. But it was to be the impact of the Danish Vikings on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was to prove most dramatic.

Marauders & Murderers?

A typical school textbook picture from the 1980s.

Viking raids were shocking to their victims, not only for their violence and unpredictability. Early medieval Christians confidently believed in the power of the saints: that they had not intervened to protect their monasteries from impious pagans surely meant that the Viking raids were an expression of the wrath of God against a sinful people. The raids were in reality caused by social and political developments in Scandinavia itself. Eighth-century Scandinavia was experiencing the early stages of state formation, and competition for power had created a violent, predatory society.

The popular image of the Vikings has followed that of the Christian chroniclers in painting them as wholly savage pagan marauders and murderers, whose only aims were slaughter and pillage, and whose path could be tracked and traced by the burning churches and the blood of martyred saints. These warriors fought without fear, since death in battle was their desired end, rewarded by eternal feasting in Valhalla. The familiar picture (above right) used to be of a giant axe-wielding Scandinavian, complete with winged helmet, blood dripping from his fulsome blonde moustache, with captive women slung over his shoulder, appearing suddenly out of the sea mist, then disappearing with equal speed to his wild northern homeland. The monastic commentators were even more biased than they had been about previous incursions and invasions since they were naturally especially appalled by the pagan raiders’ totally indiscriminate violence at holy places. Of course, in this respect, and in their own terms, they were very discriminating, since these places were full of wonderfully undefended heaps of loot for the taking. Accounts of numbers of ships and men were often also exaggerated by the chroniclers, especially when recounting defeats of the defenders, which they made seem less ignominious by laying stress on the overwhelming odds against their faithful few.

Kilpeck, Herefordshire. The door to this small church which contains some of the most important sculpture of the early twelfth century. Celtic, Nordic, and older indigenous symbols are brought together here in a remarkable synthesis. Note the chevron device on the lintel with the tree of life in the tympanum.

In Anglo-Saxon law, the definition of an army was more than thirty men, so the Danish armies which later began to invade eastern England and France probably numbered only hundreds, not thousands or tens of thousands, such as those mustered by the French-Norsemen, or Normans, at the end of the eleventh century. There is also the question as to how many warriors could fit into a ship, particularly relevant to the period of invasion and settlement, rather than that of the early raids. A ship bearing wives and property, bags and baggage, would not have had room for many warriors and their weaponry. Excavations of various Scandinavian towns and settlements have focused attention on domestic life, and the achievements of craftsmen and artists, while their travels have been redefined in terms of merchant adventure rather than piracy. In their long, narrowboats, the raiding parties made their raids all along the coasts of Europe, as the map below shows, carrying terror and destruction wherever they went. Ireland, an outstanding centre of Christian culture hitherto, recovered only slowly from the calamities which overtook it. Following the death of Charlemagne, no power was strong enough to withstand the raiders. They did much to destroy the civilization which had been so painstakingly rebuilt after the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire. The map shows the lands attacked by the Northmen, extending from the Caspian Sea, in the east, to the west coast of Ireland, and even across the North Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and Labrador. It also shows the lands in which they ultimately settled. In Russia, Swedish adventurers, under a leader called Rurik, established trading centres at Novgorod and Kyiv in 862. From this merchant kingdom, they attacked the wealthy city of Constantinople.


During the continuous and devastating attacks of the Northmen on Europe, law and order broke down. As there was no strong central government to help coastal village communities to defend themselves, they sought protection from powerful counts and nobles whom Charlemagne had entrusted with power. In return for this, those who could not protect themselves gave up their lands. There were thus a number of petty rulers all over western Europe acting almost independently from the Holy Roman Emperor, and the common people lived by working for these rich and powerful men, who gave them back sufficient land to meet their immediate needs. This was the beginning of the new order of society that historians have referred to as ‘feudalism’. Among the Northmen, initially, piracy was primarily a way for ambitious men to gain wealth, reputation, and an armed following to pursue their ambitions at home. However, the ineffectiveness of the opposition soon persuaded some Vikings that it would be possible to seize land as well as plunder. The earliest Viking raids were carried out by small fleets of up to about a dozen ships, but the number recorded in contemporary annals began to increase in the 830s until, by the 850s, fleets of several hundred ships are reported. But the extent and frequency of the Norse raids increased showing that their object was still to plunder rather than to settle.

Picture stone from Gotland in Sweden, showing scenes (probably) from Norse mythology, including representations of a boat and a larger ship.

The relatively orderly and peaceful progress of the eighth-century English towards Christian civilization was disturbed at the beginning of the ninth century by these attacks of the Northmen. The raids were widespread and included attacks on Northumbria, Lindsay, Mercia, and East Anglia, with the heaviest raids falling on the southern and eastern coasts. The attacks were not always successful, and several of their expeditions were met by strong English forces. A joint Norse-British army was defeated by Egbert of Wessex in 838 at Hingston Down and in 851 his son, Aethelwulf wiped out a Viking force transported by 350 ships at the Battle of Aclea, somewhere south of the Thames.

The Invasions of the Eastern Kingdoms:

Following the Battle of Ellandun, the Anglo-Saxons stopped fighting each other and turned their attention to fighting battles against the new invaders. The next half-century, up to 871, saw a succession of disastrous and bloody battles against the Danes. The dates and details of these encounters are not available, largely because there were few survivors among the Saxons to tell the tale. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had just settled into becoming Christian kingdoms with their peoples living in peaceful agricultural communities. The cruelty of the ‘Vikings’, their wholesale destruction and heathenism, caused them to be branded as uncivilized barbarians; however, in recent years, archaeological discoveries, like those at York but also throughout the British Isles, have established that the various Scandinavian groups had well-developed cultures of their own. But there is little doubt that to the eighth-century Saxons at least, they were an appalling problem. In their long, graceful boats, they could range far and wide, and it was not unusual for them to cover two hundred miles in twenty-four hours. On land they were able to appropriate horses, of which there were plentiful supplies in East Anglia, enabling them to raid further inland. When they were victorious they continued to raid towns and churches, monasteries and villages; if by any chance they encountered strong resistance they would simply move on to carry on their brand of destruction on areas where they would not have been expected. Their complete disregard for the lives of their ‘victims’ was matched by their fearless attitudes to their own deaths. In a storm they would drive their boats at full speed, glorying in the danger, often allowing them to be smashed against the rocks because they refused to shorten sail.

No wonder, then, that the Saxons soon included in their Christian services the words, From the Fury of the Norsemen, good Lord deliver us (A furore Normanorum libera nos). As the news of the vulnerability of England travelled back to Scandinavia with the early raiders, raids became more continuous and were made by larger bodies of men. Soon too, short of land in their homelands, they came to England to settle. From 841, we read that the Saxons began to turn their attention away from their own internecine squabbles:

In this year Ealderman Hercbehert was killed by heathen men and many were killed in Lindsay, East Anglia and Kent.

In 842 many were killed in London and Rochester.

In 843 King Aethelwulf fought against the crews of 35 ships at Carhampton, and the Danes had possession of the battlefield.

In 845 the people of Somerset and the people of Dorset fought against the Danish army at the mouth of the Parret and there made a great slaughter and had the victory.

This ‘fightback’ seemed to teach the Saxons that their survival and salvation lay in unity, difficult as that might be for them to achieve. But then, for the year 851, we read:

In this year the men of Devon fought against the heathen army at Wicgeanburg and the English made great slaughter there and had the victory. And the same year, 350 ships came into the the mouth of the Thames and stormed Canterbury and London and put to flight Brihtwulf, King of the Mercians, with his army, and went south across the Thames into Surrey. And King Aethelwulf and his son Aethelbald fought against them at Aclea with the army of the West Saxons and there inflicted the greatest slaughter that we ever heard of until this present day, and had the victory there.

Aethelwulf had obviously learnt something from his previous defeat enabling him to win this victory. Unfortunately, however, it was not enough, since the Danes continued to filter through defensive lines in all directions. Some had fortified themselves on the isles of Thanet and Sheppey and could not be driven out. In desperation, the West Saxons deposed Aethelwulf and elected his son in his place, but this did not change the downward spiral of events. The Danes burnt Winchester and sacked York, occupying large parts of Northumbria and making its surviving population serfs.


The Danes had wintered in East Anglia in 850 and on the Isle of Thanet in Kent in 854 but their expeditions had ended in a return to Scandinavia. In 865, however, a new and more dangerous situation arose with the arrival in East Anglia, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, of a ‘great heathen army’ from Denmark. Led by the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, including Healfden, Ubba, and Ivar the Boneless, being already of royal blood, their object was conquest rather than plunder. They spent their first year subduing East Anglia and equipping themselves with horses so that they could undertake the conquest of Northumbria as a mounted force. The terrified East Anglians fell back before the invaders. King Edmund sought peace and by the terms of the treaty, the Danes were allowed to winter in Suffolk and were given horses to carry their baggage. Edmund’s speedy capitulation may have lacked valour, but it saved his people much suffering. For several months the Norsemen consolidated their position and prepared for the next campaigning season. In the Spring, Edmund and his subjects watched as their unwanted guests went westwards to attack Northumbria and Mercia. By seizing horses from the East Anglians, the Danes enjoyed the same mobility on land as their longships had given them at sea. First to succumb was Northumbria, which was engaged in a civil war at the time: In 866 they captured York and in 867 defeated a Northumbrian army which had succeeded in storming the Roman walls of the city. Two Northumbrian kings perished in the attack and the Danes installed an Englishman named Egbert as their puppet ruler. The whole of the kingdom between the Humber and the Tees was occupied. This northern thrust had been made by the ‘Great Army’ under two kings, Guthrum and Bagsaeg, but even after this, they were still set on further conquest.

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An Anglian helmet, excavated in the Coppergate, York. It includes a nasal (nose guard) and a mail protective skirt for the warrior’s neck.

In 869 they returned to East Anglia laden with spoil, flushed with triumph, and heedless of their former treaty with the East Anglians. They wintered at Thetford and used it as a base from which to ravage the monasteries and countryside of the region. Edmund could no longer honourably allow this rampage to go unchecked. He came forth to do battle and thus an insignificant king became a martyr, saint, and a legend, achieving greater fame in death than life. According to Roger of Wendover, a great battle was fought near Thetford, lasting from dawn till dusk, till the stricken field was red with the blood of the countless number who perished. Edmund, seemingly, won the day, but not long afterwards he and his bodyguard found themselves besieged in the Saxon fort at Framlingham, on top of the mound where the Norman stone-built castle now stands. He escaped northwards, and the rest is the stuff of legend, much of it confused. Some accounts portray him as a deliberate martyr, surrendering himself to save his people from further suffering. Others recount how he escaped his enemies by cunning, but before long was caught, tortured, and executed. Historians seem to agree that the site of his martyrdom was Hellesdon near Norwich. However, the people of Hoxne claim that their village was the scene of the sainted king’s last days. Apparently, he was hiding beneath a bridge when a bridal party happened to cross it, and the bride noticed a golden gleam in the water below, the king’s spurs. She exclaimed, and the king was taken by the Danish warriors guarding the bridge.

The details of Edmund’s death are more extensive yet shrouded in legend. The King’s standard-bearer was with him to the end and related the events to Bishop Dunstan, so that they were then incorporated into the tenth-century Passion of St Edmund, according to which, Edmund was brought to a tree in the neighbourhood, tied to it, and for a long while tortured with terrible lashes. Despite this brutal treatment, the Bishop relates that his constancy was unbroken, while without ceasing he called on Christ with a broken voice. This offended the pagan sensitivities of the Danes still further, apparently, and they began shooting arrows at various parts of his body, demanding that he renounce his faith. Know you not that I have the power to kill you? demanded the Danish warlord, to which Edmund replied, know you not that I know how to die? At last, they silenced him by cutting off his head, at which point legend takes over again. When the body was moved to Beodericsworth (Bury St Edmund’s) in the tenth century, it was claimed that the head and body had somehow perfectly reunited themselves, neither showing any signs of decomposition. By then, Edmund had become a folk hero for all the ‘oppressed’ Anglo-Saxons. Churches were dedicated to him and King Alfred issued memorial coins bearing his image. These stories surrounding Edmund reveal the apparent barbarism and ferocity which accompanied the Danish invasion, savagery made worse by the clash of religious cultures.

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By the later ninth century, many Vikings were as interested in settlement as in plundering. The Danes settled in the largest numbers, after their conquest of much of eastern England in 865-74.

The sheer, persistent violence of the Danish attacks broke up the old Heptarchy of the English kingdoms. Only Wessex survived, fortunate in the leadership of its kings, like Egbert and Aethelred. But then, in 871, it too met the full force of the Danes and it needed an exceptionally able king to first halt and then eventually repel them.

A Parallel Narrative of the Vikings – ‘Raiders into Traders’:

The Coppergate Dig in York.

From this point, however, another side to the Viking story also emerges. Quite naturally, modern Scandinavians have preferred to stress the more constructive aspect of their ancestors’ lives, and many British scholars have followed suit, especially the archaeologists who excavated the Viking settlement of Jorvik in York’s Coppergate in the 1970s. The excavations produced a sequence of buildings dating from the time when York was under Viking rule, from 866 to 954 (with a gap from 927 to 939). After the excavation, the York Archaeological Trust managed to persuade the developers to incorporate the imaginative Jorvik Museum in the basement of their new buildings.

Remains of a tenth-century wooden house with a sunken floor from York. This was probably a workshop, with perhaps a shop at the front,
but the modern street lies too close for the early street to be excavated.

Visitors can experience a literal journey back in time into a recreation of part of the tenth-century city, with its authentic houses, shops, pots and pans, people and clothes, animals, and even part of a ship. There are even attempts to replicate sounds, speech in Old Norse, and smells of all kinds of rubbish, even human excreta. In the 1980s this kind of museum was an entirely new experience, and a remarkable one too. It certainly changed our view of the Vikings. It also demystified the work of archaeologists for the general public, showing the exact processes of excavation and scientific analysis of finds. It was followed by Viking exhibitions in the British Museum and elsewhere which have pursued the same theme of the domestic Viking life with accounts of Scandinavian towns and trade, craft, industry, and art. Excavations in Scandinavia itself, like those in Britain, have begun to show a much clearer picture of what life was like in the ninth and tenth centuries. The small populations of Sweden and Norway mostly lived in farmsteads scattered along the shores of lakes or fjords, communicating by boat rather than overland. In Denmark, there were larger villages, neatly laid out along streets. There were also some more extensive settlements, which might even be described as towns. It is possible, therefore, to write books about the Vikings which concentrate on such things as their houses, art, and skill in woodcarving, with foreign travel thrown in as mostly peaceful trade or exploration. However, we know that whole families migrated and settled in Britain and Ireland and that armies of various sizes continued to maraud across Britain and Europe for generations. Why did this happen and what was their impact on the countries they invaded and settled in?

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Wooden bowls from the Coppergate excavations at York.

The Danish Conquest of the English Kingdoms, 870-71:

There is no clear, agreed answer to the first question. Medieval Norse sagas tell of oppression by kings which drove men from their homes, and centralisation of authority under stronger royal dynasties might well have led to conflicts as a result of which the unsuccessful contestants could well have decided to make their fortunes elsewhere. There may also have been pressure on land, caused either by rising populations or fluctuations in climate. The realisation that there were richer and more fertile lands of the British Isles and France which could not just be raided for wealth, but taken over altogether, would have been a powerful motivating factor for the younger sons of farmers scratching for a living on a narrow strip of land on a fjord. This would have been less true of Denmark, however, where the pressure might be better seen in terms of political or population pressure. In many cases, as with later great migrations, there was probably a complex of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors at work. Eventually, the invasion of eastern Britain became part of an expansionist, imperial exercise on the part of the Danish kings.


Having ravaged East Anglia, the Norse army next turned against Mercia but was content to come to terms when confronted by a joint Mercian and West Saxon force. The following year Wessex was invaded. Since it had overthrown the hegemony of Mercia at the battle of Ellendun in 825, Wessex had been the strongest Anglo-Saxon kingdom and the Danes were repulsed only after five hard-fought battles. For the next thirty years, the dominant struggle was between the Danes and Wessex, the strongest of the surviving Saxon kingdoms. After the deposition of Aethelwulf as King of Wessex in circa 855, his three elder sons, Aethelbald, Aethelbert and Aethelred ruled in succession, but with no greater success in stopping the incursions of the Danes. In 870, when the ‘Great Army’ sailed up the Thames and launched itself into Wessex, Aethelred came out to meet them, aided by his youngest brother, the eighteen-year-old Alfred. Aethelred’s contribution to what happened next tends to be overlooked in comparison with the deeds of Alfred, but this does not do him justice. Brilliant though Alfred turned out to be, he would have had no chance to display his abilities without Aethelred’s capabilities. Alfred was, of course, an exceptional individual in his time who had been sent as a child to be baptised by Pope Leo. From early youth, he had shown great promise as a scholar and had been given that special type of leadership that brings out the best in men whatever their abilities and interests. Vitally important at this time, however, were his military skills. He was an inspiring figure on the battlefield but also knew that there was a lot more to winning a war than a single victory. Thus when the Danes moved into Mercia, taking up winter quarters at Nottingham, Burgred, King of Mercia appealed to Aethelred and Alfred to help him. Alfred was just sixteen at the time, but already a veteran of many battles and skirmishes.

By this time the Danes were a large, well-organised force. But their size and scale conferred disadvantages on them as well as advantages. Smaller raiding forces could live off the land far more easily, had few factional or disciplinary difficulties, needed few orders and did not need to hold ground. this new ‘Great Army’ therefore had a major logistical problem, that of needing to be near adequate supplies of food. It also needed sufficient space to deploy under a unified command. Furthermore, it was no longer operating against unprepared monasteries or villages; it was now confronted with an armed countryside, full of look-outs, a place where food would be difficult to obtain and where stragglers or small foraging parties would be cut off and exterminated. They had lost the element of surprise along with much of its mobility. It could indeed send raiders on horseback for isolated forays but the mass of the army’s ranks was bound to be slow-moving and cumbersome. Alfred would have noted that. Like the Saxons, the Danes fought with swords sometimes, but their favourite weapon was the battle-axe. It was a two-handed weapon and in the hands of a skilled warrior could be used adroitly for thrusting and parrying. Nevertheless, although the axe was a far more versatile weapon than is usually believed, it carried one considerable disadvantage: it needed space. It could not be brought into action rapidly in a surprise attack unless those under attack were in open order (widely spaced). There is, of course, a peculiar fascination about a weapon which is swung, whether an axe or a broadsword, but there was often that it may do more damage to your own side than to your foes, Alfred would have noted this when he went with his brother to assist the Mercians at Nottingham and fought in a drawn battle with the Danes. The axe was much loved by the Danish warriors since they could slice a man in two in half with it, and literally carve their way to victory. But sentimentality about their weapons could also blind them to their limitations and the need for change.

The Battle of Ashdown, 871 and all that:

The Danes, flushed with their successes against the Northumbrians, East Anglians and Mercians, marched from Thetford to set up headquarters at Reading, where in late December they established a fortified camp between the Thames and the Kennet. They realised that they had not yet met the full power of Saxon resistance and that it would be concentrated somewhere west of them. They sent out a foraging party, which was scattered by a force under Aethelwulf, the Eolderman of Berkshire. Apart from all other strategic considerations, the Danes realised that they would be outnumbered, and they were already experienced enough in their hinterland campaigns to know that a disparity in numbers could be nullified if the inferior force was able to fight from behind defences, or at least from prepared positions. There were, of course, other factors that could mitigate being outnumbered: weapons, experience, training and tactics, but the most consistent was to build a fortification. They, therefore, made a rampart between the rivers Thames and Kennet on the right side of the royal city. We have two different accounts of these and subsequent events, one from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the other from Bishop Asser, Bishop of Sherbourne, and Alfred’s contemporary. While some of the Danes were making the defences, others ‘scoured the countryside for plunder’. They were soon proved right, however, in their expectations of resistance, for:

They were encountered by Aethelwulf, the eolderman of Berkshire, at a place called Englefield, both sides fought bravely and made long resistance. At length, one of the pagan jarls was slain, and the greater part of the army destroyed, upon which the rest saved themselves by flight, and the Christians gained the victory.

Four days later, the main Saxon army joined Aethelwulf and together they drove the Danish outposts into Reading and attacked the enemy camp, but their attack failed and Aethelwulf was killed. The Saxons retreated to the northwest, where King Aethelred and his brother Alfred attempted to rally their men. The twenty-two-year-old Alfred already held the rank secundarius, heir to the throne, or Aetheling, and his authority over the Saxon Army was already considerable, as Asser later recorded:

Four days afterwards, Aethelred, King of the West Saxons, and his brother Alfred, united their forces and marched to Reading, where, on their arrival, they cut to pieces the pagans whom they found outside the fortifications. But the pagans, nevertheless, sallied out from the gates and a long and fierce engagement ensued. At last, grief to say, the Christians fled, the pagans obtained the victory, and the aforesaid eolderman Aethelwulf was among the slain.

Bishop Asser

This was a disaster for the West Saxons and the Danes realised it. They themselves had sent out strong reconnaissance parties which had been beaten. The Saxons, over-confident perhaps, had thereupon attacked the Danes in their new stronghold. The Danes had not planned such a clever strategy in that they had drawn the Saxons to fight in a disadvantageous position, but once it had happened they had taken full advantage of it. Now was the time to follow up their victory and carve Wessex in half. Four days later – a day to recover and bury the dead, a day to regroup, a day to confer and get ready, and on the fourth, 7 January 871, the Vikings marched out of their camp to attack the Saxons. Marching the ten miles from Reading to Streatley, they came up the long slope of to the Ridgeway. No doubt they kept a wary eye to the right as they went diagonally up the track, and no doubt they still had their look-outs along the skyline. But nothing appeared and they would have concluded that Saxon morale had been destroyed at the barricades and there would be no more resistance in that part of the country. Once on top of the Ridge, they were safe from surprise attack; doubtless, the Saxons would now keep well out of their way.

Ordnance Survey Map

But the Saxons were there, in their hundreds, if not ‘thousands’, as they had remained within fifteen miles of Reading. Chroniclers have a loose way of describing the size of an army or the numbers killed in battle as ‘thousands’. On this occasion, it is doubtful whether either army numbered more than a thousand, for the Danes would have to have left a garrison to defend its base and the Saxons would have found it difficult to concentrate their forces until they knew exactly where and when the Danes would move. It seems probable that Aethelred and Alfred had received local fyrd reinforcements, if not those that they had awaited from Mercia, and that they had also used the short breathing space since the attack on Reading to revitalise their army. The Danes and the Saxons spent the night of the 7th-8th January camped just a thousand yards (900m) apart astride the Ridgeway on the Berkshire Downs to the northwest of Reading. The entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recording the subsequent battle is brief, so we are fortunate to have a fuller account in Bishop Asser’s Life of King Alfred (supposedly) written only some twenty years after the Battle of Ashdown. Although Asser was not himself present at the battle, his friendship with Alfred, established in 885, must have meant that he heard an account of the battle from the King himself. Asser certainly visited the site of the battle and though his account must be regarded as somewhat partisan, he provides vital detail of the terrain and deployment of the armies.

Despite their recent defeat at Reading, Saxon morale was high and they were determined to fight. Alfred’s problem was to manoeuvre the Danes’ invasion column into a trap. It was no good fighting in a head-on clash along the Ridgeway. The Danes were hard to beat at the best of times and in a straightforward fight were as likely as not to come out the winners as they had, he knew only too well, at Reading. Alfred needed to be able to lure them into a position where they would be too cramped to make full use of their weapons. This would not be easy, though his army was deployed along the Ridgeway by Roden Downs, and just to the north of the Ridgeway and south of Lowbury Hill, site of an old Romano-British temple, was a superb battlefield, like a parade ground. It was an open piece of slightly hollow ground, and it still has what Asser described as a rather small and solitary thorn tree in the middle of it. The Danes would like that, as it would give them room to swing their axes. Alfred used a decoy party to draw them towards it: the Danes thought that this was the rest of the Saxon army and moved forward on them, but the Saxons fell back. At dawn on the 8 January, the Danes formed their battle-line. They divided their forces into two divisions, one commanded by the kings Bagsaeg and Healfdan and the other by the Danish earls. The Saxons conformed to this disposition, forming their army into two columns. So, it was very necessary for the Saxons to decoy all the Danes into the right position before they launched their attack. If the Saxons went in too soon the Danish rear party would come in behind and they too would be trapped. The column commanded by Aethelred was opposite that of the Danish kings and the column led by Alfred was opposite the earls. A pause then ensued and Aethelred decided to use the time in prayers for victory. When warning arrived that the Danes were preparing to attack Aethelred refused to move from his tent before he had finished hearing Mass, declaring (according to Asser) that he would not forsake divine service for that of men.

As they deployed on the battlefield which had been chosen for them, the Danes suddenly noticed that the main Saxon force was not in front of them but had suddenly appeared from behind them, cutting off their retreat. They suspected that they were the object of a tactical plan and they hastily re-formed, putting the two kings in the middle and positioning the earls, jarls and lesser chiefs at the front and on the flanks. They put stakes in the ground, as this was the tried and tested way of holding up an enemy charge; then they waited for the next Saxon move. The Saxons came forward and also put stakes in the ground against a possible Danish charge. Aethelred remained in his tent, praying, and took so long over his devotions that the Danes had already begun the battle when he finally arrived with his column. Alfred was in a desperate position until then, for without Aethelfred’s division he had not enough men for the tactical thrust he had planned. Alfred had to act quickly to avert a major crisis. The Danes had deployed on a ridge higher than that of the Saxon position and if he allowed them to charge down upon the Wessex forces, only half of whom would be ready to receive the attack, so defeat would be certain. Alfred decided that the only chance of victory lay in taking the initiative and attacking the Danes with his own column. His men gave a tremendous shout and charged into the advancing Danes. The battle lines met at a point marked by the thorn tree referred to above. As Asser put it,

Alfred, though possessing a subordinate authority, could no longer restrain the troops of the enemy unless he retreated or charged upon the them without waiting for his brother. At length he bravely led his troops against the hostile army, as they had before arranged, but without waiting for his brother’s arrival; for he relied on the divine counsels, and forming his men into a dense phalanx, marched on at once to meet the foe.

Asser also describes Alfred as acting courageously, like a wild boar in the furious melée that followed in which Aethelred’s troops soon joined. The king himself may still have been at his devotions even then, but it is possible that his late arrival with his immediate retinue was a useful and fresh reinforcement, tipped the balance of fighting in favour of the Saxons. What Alfred knew, and the Danes as yet did not, was that to the east of Lowbury Hill, and behind the Danish position, was a precipice falling to what is now marked on the map as ‘Dean’s Bottom’. ‘Denu’ is the Old English word for a ‘dene’ or valley, but it could also have derived from ‘Dane’. As Danish weapons have been discovered at the bottom of this steep valley, it seems as if at least part of Alfred’s plan worked. Driving with tremendous force onto the Danish lines he made them fall back to give themselves more room. The Saxon casualties would have been very high as they charge up the slopes onto an army that was prepared to receive them. Only superb leadership could have taken that Saxon force to the point at which the retreating Danes, unfamiliar with the countryside, would find a precipice behind them if they were not already over it. As their rear line steadied and came forward involuntarily the swinging axes would do as much harm to their own side as to the Saxons. Something like panic would infect the Danes for there are few more unnerving experiences than trying to confront an enemy who is trying to push you over a precipice. It was at that point that Aethelred’s men, heartened by the successful conclusion of his prayers, hurled themselves into the battle. To the Danes, it must have looked as though fresh tides of reinforcements were on the way.

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From Smurthwaite’s OS Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Left: Part of the battle site on the downs along the Ridgeway, as it appears today, showing the features described, including the Thorn Tree, Dean’s Bottom and Lowbury Hill.

As their casualties mounted, the Danes began to give ground until they suddenly broke and fled from the field in what became a complete and bloody rout. Bishop Asser described the way the battle ended:

And when both armies had fought long and bravely, at last the pagans, by the divine judgement, were no longer able to bear the attacks of the Christians, and having lost the greater part of their army, took to disgraceful flight. One of their two kings and five jarls, were there slain, together with many thousand pagans, who fell on all sides, covering with their bodies the whole plain of Ashdune.

There fell in that battle King Bagsac, jarl Sidrac the elder and jarl Sidrac the younger, jarl Osbern, jarl Frene, and jarl Harald, and the whole pagan army pursued its flight, not only until evening but until the next day, until they reached the stronghold from which they had sallied. The Christians followed, slaying all they could reach, until it became dark.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the death of two kings, not one, and the same number of earls. It says that many thousands were killed and they continued fighting until night. The remnants of the Danish army did not regroup until they were safely back among the earthworks at Reading. Although we can still not pinpoint the exact location of the Battle of Ashdown, the most likely area is that shown on the maps around Lowbury Hill northwest of Streatley along the Ridgeway. But although the Saxon victory was complete, it provided little strategic advantage since two weeks later Aethelred and Alfred were defeated by a Danish army at Basing to the south of Reading. A further defeat followed at a site called Meretun, as the following entry in the Chronicle reports:

And two months later, King Aethelred and his brother Alfred fought against the army at Merton, and they were in two divisions; and they put both to flight, and were victorious far on into the day, and there was great slaughter on both sides, and the Danes had possession of the battlefield. And after this battle a great summer army came to Reading.

In April 871 Aethelred died, perhaps as a result of wounds received in battle. Alfred succeeded to the throne and although he continued to fight, success eluded his armies. After a year of heavy fighting, the Danish threat was as strong as ever and Alfred was forced to buy peace. His efforts to drive the Danes out of Wessex met with very moderate success, though he and his brother had at least prevented the Danes from annexing part of the kingdom and had successfully defended their own royal capital. Clearly, there was some characteristic in these Danish armies on which the chroniclers omit to comment. The reason why they won so many battles both before and after Ashdown was not simply a matter of numbers. Both sides suffered enormous casualties. At Merton, the Saxons put the Danes to flight, but still somehow lost the battle. All in all, the course of the campaign in Wessex suggests that there was far more subtlety in these battles than simply a series of contests between spear-throwers and axe-swingers. It looks as if the Danes were more than capable of fighting delaying actions and then committing vital reserves at the critical moment.

Alfred was a highly intelligent general who never underrated his enemies nor the scale and scope of his task. The war was one of constant mobility and Alfred was constantly harassing and diverting the Danish invaders. Occasionally, as at Ashdown, his strategy brought him into a pitched battle and there were doubtless occasions when, unlike at Ashdown, he made a mistake and the Danes held the initiative. The Danes should not have had superiority in numbers, however, for the population of England was less than a million (probably 900,000) at the time; but Alfred may have known only too well that in a pitched battle the Danes were, man for man, better warriors than the Saxons. After losing Aethelred, Alfred – still a very young man – had to fight a war in which he dare not commit all his forces. One great defeat and his kingdom would be lost. At Wilton (near Salisbury), still in 871, a year of battles, the Saxons took on another huge Danish army and put it to flight, but had to retreat hastily when the Danes rallied. The cost to both sides was punitive. The Saxons were fighting for their kingdom so, even though outnumbered and often outfought, they made the Danes respect them. Eventually, after heavy losses on both sides, a truce was signed at the end of the year 871. Alfred was to emerge as the greatest of the ‘Old English’ kings; we may compare his work, albeit on a smaller scale, as equivalent to that of Charlemagne. He first drove the Danes back into East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. He paid them to leave Wessex in peace, and they did so for seven years until 878. During those years, he began to reorganise his kingdom, overcoming great internal difficulties.

Early Viking Settlements:

The Norwegians made early settlements in Ireland and the Faroe Islands, and we remember this because it was the latter, in the twelfth century that the eddas and sagas, the stories for which the Northmen were famous, were first written down. They told of gods and heroes, handed down for generations by word of mouth alone. They give us a glimpse into ancient society in northern Europe. Wherever they settled, the Northmen enriched the people they conquered with some of their best qualities – energy, courage and independence. They were very adaptable, quickly mingling with the people among whom they settled, absorbing their language and customs.

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The earliest substantial Viking settlement in the British Isles was probably in Shetland, Orkney, and the Hebrides: the exact date is unknown but it was certainly underway by about 850, and soon after Orkney had become the centre of a powerful Norse earldom. The isles were convenient bases for raiding the mainland. These raids were certainly destructive but sometimes native leaders were able to benefit from them. The British kingdom of Strathclyde was also weakened when the Dublin Vikings sacked their capital at Dumbarton in 870-71 and from that point, it fell increasingly under the influence of the Scots. Thus the early growth of the Scottish kingdom was largely the result of the Viking description of the ethnic relations of northern Britain. Its strategic position in the middle of the Irish Sea made the Isle of Man attractive for Viking settlement. Though the native Celtic population was not wiped out, the distribution of archaeological sites and Scandinavian place names shows that the settlers seized the best land for themselves. The many silver hoards suggest that the island prospered by its proximity to Dublin’s important Viking trading centre.


Meanwhile, York became perhaps the most significant ‘Viking’ settlement in Britain. It had been a legionary fortress and thriving civilian settlement on the Ouse in Roman times. A provincial capital in the third century, like other British towns, it fell into decay with the end of Roman rule, and the local Romano-British kings were supplanted by Anglian kings. Despite the demise of its empire, Rome retained residual prestige as a ‘badge’ of authority, which helped to ensure York’s survival as a power centre, if not as a fully functioning town. York’s revival as an urban centre of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria began with the growth of trade between Britain and the Continent in the seventh and eighth centuries. This stimulated the development of trading ports or wics, on navigable waterways, including Hamwic (Southampton), Gipeswic (Ipswich), Lundenwic (London), and Eoforwic (York). At York, the site of the legionary fortress continued to be occupied as a royal and ecclesiastical centre with an international reputation for learning, but the main focus of settlement was to the south, on the banks of the Ouse and its tributary, the Fosse. Both archaeological and literary sources suggest that the town’s main trade links were with Frisia and the lower Rhine.

The pointer on the left-hand side points to Coppergate, the site of the major archaeological dig carried out in 1976-81.

In England, the process of assimilation was made easier, as the languages spoken by the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes were similar enough to be mutually intelligible with a little effort. Though it was the Danish who finished up speaking English, English vocabulary was greatly enriched by loan words from Danish, including ‘sky’, ‘egg’, ‘sister’ and ‘skin’. The Danish settled areas of England later became known as ‘the Danelaw’ because of Danish influence on the legal customs there, which persisted until the Norman Conquest. In the Hebrides and southwest Scotland, a hybrid Gaelic-Norse population emerged, known to the Irish as ‘Gall-Gaedhil’ (‘foreign Gael’ ), from which Galloway gets its name. It was only in Orkney and Shetland that the settlers escaped assimilation to the natives – here it was the native Picts who adopted Scandinavian ways and speech. Almost all placenames here are Scandinavian, suggesting a particularly dense Viking settlement. Norn, a Scandinavian dialect, continued to be spoken in the northern isles until the eighteenth century when it was replaced by English.

A Pictish stone house at Buckquoy, Orkney. The oval, lobed shape is very different from later Norse rectangular buildings.

The revisionist view of the Vikings as peaceful traders and settlers has not always won support. Archaeologists like Anna Ritchie, working in the Orkneys, have argued for integration between the native Picts and the incoming Scandinavians. She excavated the settlement shown above where the objects found in both types of houses, Pictish and Viking, and what they revealed about the way of life of their inhabitants, did not seem to have changed much, if at all. On the island of Birsay, there are remains of both Norse houses and earlier Pictish ones, but the relationship between the two is not very clear. Of the Picts on Birsay, nothing now remains except a replica of a carved stone, shown below.

Carving of three Pictish warriors from Birsay, Orkney.

The island was later the home of the Earls of Orkney, so it may have been a Pictish centre of some importance since considerable amounts of metalworking debris have also been found there. Elsewhere, however, north of Galloway, it was not until the twelfth century, that the assimilation of the Viking settlers to the native Gaels was complete. In the Hebrides, excavations have also shown that native houses were succeeded by Norse, but in this case, the transition is seen as violent: the natives were displaced or suppressed. So similar evidence can be read to tell a rather different story. In northern and eastern England, there is surprisingly little direct evidence of Viking violence. There are signs of burning on the bishop’s throne from North Elmham in Norfolk, and an ingot mould from Whitby might have been used in melting down Viking loot. The stone from Lindisfarne which shows warriors waving axes may well commemorate a raid, and the monasteries at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth seem to have been burnt down at some stage. But this is not a very long list, and alternative explanations for all of these incidents could be found.

After it was captured in 866, York was made the capital of an important kingdom. By the end of the century, the area of the old Roman colony was being resettled and the population had reached about ten thousand, making ‘Jorvik’ a large city by contemporary standards and, in the British Isles, second only to London in size. Though they were pagans, the Scandinavian kings did not interfere with the Church, and they adopted other institutions of the Northumbrian kingdom, such as the mint, which continued to produce coins with both pagan and Christian symbols. York’s Roman walls were refurbished, and evidence suggests effective urban planning and the laying out of parts of the city into regular tenement blocks and streets in the early tenth century. To York’s established Continental trade links, the Vikings brought new connections with Scandinavia and Ireland. Viking settlement in Ireland remained limited, partly due to Ireland’s relative decentralisation compared with the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. There were no pre-eminent power centres to capture and the extended royal families of each of the main provincial kingdoms and sub-kingdoms meant that the Vikings had an endless succession of ‘kings’ to fight. The Vikings remained confined to their fortified coastal settlements, such as Dublin, from where they also raided the coasts of Wales as far as Swansea, named after one of their leaders, but there were few permanent settlements and no discernable cultural impact.

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A scene (and below) from the Jorvik Museum.

York would not have impressed visiting merchants from the more urbanised Mediterranean world. Only its churches were built of stone, and these were modest structures, mostly lacking towers even in the eleventh century. Most other buildings were built of timber, wattle, clay and thatch. Life in the crowded waterfront was damp, muddy and unhygienic – latrines were often dug within ten feet of wells used for drinking water. Settlement in other parts of the city was far less dense, allowing space for fields, vegetable gardens and orchards. The end of Viking rule in 954 did not interrupt York’s prosperity. The city’s Scandinavian population was not expelled – it had begun to assimilate with the native English through intermarriage and conversion to Christianity – and York retained an Anglo-Scandinavian character until well after the Norman Conquest.

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Certainly, the two decades after 865 were truly terrible for the Christian English of eastern Britain. Churches and monasteries were razed to the ground all along the east coast; holy books were burned and torn (the recently discovered Lindisfarne Gospel of John survived in Cuthbert’s grave); wayside altars were broken; monks, nuns, and priests became fugitives; the Anglo-Saxons either abandoned their Christian faith or met in secret to celebrate the holy mysteries in what could still be made to look like pagan shrines from their pre-Christian period. At the end of the eighth century, England had become a united, prosperous country, with towns and major ports, literature and liturgy, churches and abbeys, kings and bishops. If we then ‘fast-forward’ to the end of the ninth century, however, following the Viking raids, invasions, and settlements, given that it is not possible to date with certainty much of the archaeological evidence precisely, it is clear that the country had passed through a period in which much had been destroyed and lost. But turning away from the documentary evidence, or rather the lack of it, for the arrival of the Vikings in England, another way of assessing their longer-term impact is to try to find out, from archaeology, just how, and how far society changed between the eighth and tenth centuries in both the British Isles and Scandinavia.

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The stones at Jellinge in Denmark. The larger one, set up by Harald Bluetooth, carries a rather Nordic version of the crucifixion. Harold proclaims on the stone that he was the Harold who had won all of Denmark and Norway, and who had made the Danes Christian. He also probably transferred his father’s body from the pagan mound to the new Christian church at Jellinge. The runestones of Scandinavia and the crosses of northern England both lie firmly within the native traditions of their respective countries, but both show signs of a relationship between the pagan Vikings and the Christian Saxons which must have been far more complicated than the overrunning of one people by another.

Even if one does not take all of Harald Bluetooth’s claims on the Jellinge stone (pictured above) at face value, he does seem to have had a notable effect on the landscape. It was probably he who built the strange round forts which still show their form on the landscapes of Jutland, Seeland and Odense. These are all built to the same geometrical plan, with crossing streets and bow-sided houses laid out in squares. The siting of some of these forts shows little regard for topography. They were once interpreted as barracks for troops invading Britain under Harold’s son, Svein Forkbeard, but the dating is wrong for this and their location does not seem sensible for attacks on England. It is more likely that they were to do with imposing and maintaining internal control. There was already a tradition of large-scale engineering in Denmark before the tenth century, and it is interesting to speculate whether the English and Danish states would have developed anyway, without the stimulus provided by the need to organise for attack or defence. Taken altogether, however, the nature of the archaeological evidence for the North Sea region from the eighth to the tenth centuries does show that it was a time of great insecurity on both sides of that sea. The threat came from Scandinavia and was directed against the relatively peaceful and wealthy lands of Britain and the Carolingian empire. In her book, Blood of the British, Catherine Hills concludes that the Viking raids would have emerged even without documentary evidence, based on the archaeology of the period, but it would be less clear whether there was any kind of substantial settlement of Scandinavians. The weight of historical and linguistic material does point to a noticeable influx in some areas, but this has not left us with evidence of a sustained, widespread and substantial impact on the country they invaded.

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Aerial view of the Viking fort at Trelleborg in Denmark, with the foundations of large bow-sided houses shown laid out in regular blocks.

Appendix: ‘The Last Kingdom’ – Bernard Cornwell’s historical note on his novel.

Map prefacing Bernard Cornwell’s book, The Last Kingdom. Cornwell employed whatever spelling he found cited in the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names for the years nearest or contained within Alfred’s reign, 871-899 AD.

Alfred, famously, is the only monarch in English history to be accorded the honour of being called ‘the Great’ and Cornwell’s novel, and the ones that followed, have attempted to show why he gained that title. Broadly speaking, Cornwell wanted to demonstrate that Alfred was responsible for saving Wessex and, ultimately, English society from the Danish assaults, and his son Edward, daughter Aethelflaed and grandson Aethelstan finished what he began to create a political entity called ‘Englaland’. His intention was to involve his main fictional character Uhtred in the whole story. The first book begins in Northumbria in 866 and ends in 877 in the first decade of Alfred’s reign, which began in 871. Cornwell presents Alfred, following the record of him, as a very pious man who was frequently sick. A recent theory suggests that he suffered from Crohn’s Disease, which causes acute abdominal pains, and from chronic piles, details we can glean from Bishop Asser’s book.

Asser knew Alfred very well but came into the King’s life after many of the events he described had taken place, and there is an ongoing debate among historians as to whether Asser did write the biography, whether he based much of what he wrote on Alfred’s own records and recollections, or whether it was written a century after Alfred’s death. But even if it was ‘forged’, it still contains much that has ‘the smack of truth’, in Cornwell’s view, suggesting that whoever wrote it knew a great deal about Alfred. Certainly, the author wanted to present the King in a glowing light, as a warrior, scholar and Christian, but he does not shy away from his hero’s youthful sins. Alfred, he tells us, was unable to abstain from carnal desire until God generously made him sick enough to resist temptation. Whether Alfred did have an illegitimate son, Osferth is debatable, but it seems very plausible. More importantly in his novel, Cornwell rarely describes the Danish raiders and invaders as ‘Vikings’ but follows the early English writers who also rarely used the word which describes the activity of raiding, ‘to go viking’ rather than a people or tribe. The Danes who fought the ‘English’ in the ninth century were pre-eminently invaders and occupiers, or conquerors. As the novelist points out,

much fanciful imagery has been attached to them, chief of which are the horned helmet, the berserker and the ghastly execution called the spread-eagle, by which the victim’s ribs were splayed apart to expose the lungs and heart.

The latter, he also points out, was a later invention. The same seems to have been true of the berserker, the crazed naked warrior who attacked in a mad frenzy. Doubtless, there were insanely frenzied warriors, but there is no evidence that lunatic nudists made regular appearances on the battlefield. Neither is there a scrap of contemporary or archaeological evidence for the horned helmet. Danish and Norse warriors were far too sensible to place a pair of protuberances on their helmets which might enable their opponents to knock it off easily. Although iconic for many children and football supporters, they did not exist. What is well recorded is the Northmen’s assault on Christian shrines, churches and monasteries. The invaders were often described as ‘pagans’ who saw no reason to spare churches and religious houses from their attacks, especially because they often contained considerable treasures. But whether there were concerted attacks on northern monastic houses is debatable. Some of the sources for this are extremely late in origin, like the thirteenth-century chronicle written by Roger of Wendover, but what is certain is that many bishoprics and monasteries did disappear during the Danish assault of 866-78 which was not a great raid like the series of raids which had begun in the 790s and continued into the 870s. The ‘assault’ was a deliberate attempt to eradicate English society and replace it with a pagan Danish state.

Ivar the Boneless, Ubba, Healfdan, Guthrum, the various kings, Alfred’s nephew Aethelwold, Ealdorman Odda, who feature in the novel, are all historical figures. It is not certain exactly how King Edmund of East Anglia died, though he was certainly killed by the Danes and in one ancient version, the future saint was riddled with arrows, as described in the novel. The Ragnar of the novel, not to be confused with Ragnar Lothbrok (see the text above), is fictional, like Uhtred of Bebbanburg, though a family bearing the name of Uhtred did hold what became Bamburgh Castle later in the Anglo-Saxon period. Most of the major events described are historical; the assault on York, the siege of Nottingham, the attacks on the four kingdoms, all are recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or in Asser’s Life of King Alfred which together are the major sources of the period. Cornwell used both these sources and also consulted a host of secondary works. Alfred’s life is remarkably well documented compared with those of other kings of the period, some of that documentation written by Alfred itself, but even so, as one academic has commented in the context of historical fiction, arrows of insight have to be winged by the feathers of speculation. Cornwell admits that he has ‘feathered lavishly, as historical novelists must’, but reasserts that much of his novel is based on real events. Guthrum’s occupation of Wareham, the exchange of hostages and occupation of Exeter all happened, as did the loss of most of his fleet in a great storm off Durlston Head near Swanage. Cornwell concludes with this assessment of Alfred’s legacy:

Alfred was the king who preserved the idea of England, which his son, daughter and grandson made explicit. At a time of great danger, when the English kingdoms were perilously near to extinction, he provided a bulwalk which allowed the Anglo-Saxon culture to survive.


Bernard Cornwell (2004), The Last Kingdom. London: HarperCollins.

Philip Warner (1976), Famous Battles of the Midlands. Glasgow: Fontana/ Collins.

Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (1936?), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe to 1485. London: Harrap.

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British: From Ice Age to Norman Conquest. London: Guild Publishing.

William Anderson & Clive Hicks (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles: A guide to the legendary and sacred sites. Lobon: Ebury Press.

David Smurthwaite (1984), The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Exeter: Webb & Bower.

John Hayward, et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.


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