The great Viking terror: how Norse warriors conquered the Anglo-Saxons

Until AD 865, Viking raiders’ modus operandi in the British Isles was simple – they came, they saw, they plundered, and then they sped away back over the sea. But that year something changed. Small bands of looters evolved into a massive armed force and, worse still for their terrified victims, they had every intention of staying put. Julian D Richards and Dawn Hadley describe what happened when the ‘Viking Great Army’ arrived on English shores

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

This detail from the side of a sledge in a ninth-century Viking burial shows two

This detail from the side of a sledge in a ninth-century Viking burial shows two men fighting. In the 860s and 870s, the Vikings would bring war to England’s four kingdoms on a massive scale. (Bridgeman)

 

During the winter of AD 873–74, a Viking warrior met a gruesome death, probably in an attack on a Mercian royal shrine at Repton. He was a big man, almost 6 feet tall, and at least 35–45 years old. But in the shieldwall his head was vulnerable. He suffered a massive blow to the skull and, as he reeled from that, the point of a sword found the weak spot in his helmet – the eye slit in the visor, gouging out his eye, and penetrating the back of the eye socket, into his brain. While he lay on the ground, a second sword blow sliced into his upper thigh, between his legs, cutting into his femur and probably slicing away his genitals. 

After the battle, the slain Viking warrior’s comrades buried him next to the Mercian shrine in what is now the parish church of St Wystan, where he lay for over a thousand years – until excavated by archaeologists. 

The man in Grave 511 was buried with his head to the west, his hands together on his pelvis. He wore a necklace of two glass beads and an amulet in the shape of a Thor’s hammer. Around his waist was a belt, from which had probably been suspended a key and two knives – one of a folding-type, like 
a modern Swiss-army penknife. 

The other warriors had placed his sword back in its wooden fleece-lined scabbard, and laid it by his left side, where it had doubtless hung in life. They also carefully put the tusk of a wild boar between his thighs, to replace what he had lost in battle; he had died a warrior’s death, and was destined for the pleasures of Valhalla. More mysteriously, they rested the wing bone of a jackdaw lower down, between his legs. 

A younger man, perhaps the warrior’s shield-bearer, was buried adjacent to him in order to accompany him to the next world.

Finally, the burial party built a stone cairn over the graves, incorporating fragments of an Anglo-Saxon cross that they had deliberately smashed. They also erected a wooden marker between the graves so that all would know who lay there. There the burials remained undisturbed, and perhaps still visible, for generations.


A coin depicting King Alfred, who defeated Guthrum’s marauding army. (Bridgeman)

 

Game-changing tactic

Taken in isolation, these Viking graves tell us little about ninth-century England – they are merely the grisly results of one bloody incident in a period characterised by violence. Yet viewed alongside a succinct reference to the events that led to the Vikings’ deaths in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they soon become something more powerful altogether – a rare insight into the arrival on these shores of a force that would change Anglo-Saxon England for ever, the Viking Great Army.

“In this year,” the Chronicle declares, “the army went from Lindsey to Repton and took up winter quarters (wintersetl) there, and drove King Burgred across the sea… And they conquered all that land… And the same year they gave the kingdom of the Mercians to be held by Ceolwulf, a foolish king’s thegn; and he swore oaths to them and gave hostages.”

The excerpt is full of references to this game-changing development. We know that King Burgred fled to Rome after his kingdom was attacked by marauding Vikings. And we believe that Ceolwulf was a puppet king, put on the Mercian throne by the Vikings for the very good reason that he would do what he was told.

Yet it is the use of “army” and “winter quarters” that make this particular Viking attack stand out from all that had gone before. This was no small band of raiders launching 
a lightning strike on an unsuspecting population before disappearing with its loot back to Scandinavia. No, this was a mighty military force made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of warriors, and the fact that it decided to bed down on what is now the grounds and cloisters of Repton school, suggests that it was here to stay. 


Women and children flee as Vikings launch an attack, in a medieval illustration. (Alamy)

 

Rival powers

In the mid-ninth century, England was not a single kingdom. Instead it was made up of four rival powers: East Anglia, Wessex (in the south and west), Mercia (including London and the Midlands), and Northumbria, to the north. Anglo-Saxon England was mainly rural and its wealth was derived largely from the wool trade. There were a few trading sites, or wics, that we might call towns. These include Ipswich, Eoforwic (York), Hamwic (Southampton) and Aldwych (the Anglo-Saxon trading port of London, now the Strand). But the majority of the population lived in dispersed rural settlements, as part of large estates owned by the king or the church.

Although capable of great works of manuscript and metalwork art, England was not industrialised. There were some imports, including German wine and lava millstones, but most everyday items were made locally. Most pottery, for example, comprised crude handmade and low-fired wares for local consumption. However, the Anglo-Saxon kings were Christians, and their rich monasteries – often placed in vulnerable coastal locations such as Lindisfarne, Monkwearmouth, and Jarrow – had been targeted by Viking raiding parties from the end of the eighth century.  

Initially these were hit-and-run affairs, focused on portable wealth – church silver and slaves – and the forces involved were fairly small. The Vikings hailed from across present-day Scandinavia, and their slender longships – swift and shallow – allowed them to cross the North Sea and sail upriver to attack the heartland of England. 

Occasionally the Vikings overwintered in England – on the Isle of Thanet in 850, and the Isle of Sheppey in 855. However, the so-called ‘Great Army’ that landed in East Anglia in 865 – the one that put Burgred to flight and over-wintered in Repton – was of a different magnitude, and had a different strategy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that it had previously been campaigning in continental Europe but Charles the Bald, Holy Roman Emperor, strengthened 
Frankish defences and established a mobile cavalry force. The Viking leaders therefore appear to have decided that England, 
divided by internecine warfare, would provide easier pickings.

They were right. Soon after landing in 
East Anglia, the Viking Great Army took horses and travelled north, seizing York in 866. Next it swept south to Nottingham in 867, before returning to York the year after. Over the following three years it would 
attack Thetford (869), Reading (870) and London (871). 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says little of this period beyond recording where the army took wintersetl. Yet there can be little doubt that this was a crucial decade for English history. It witnessed the transformation of the Great Army from raiders to settlers, hastening the demise of the separate kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. In 876, one Viking force “shared out the land of the Northumbrians, and they proceeded to plough and support themselves”. 


An amulet in the shape of Thor’s hammer – similar to this one – was found in the grave of a Viking leader killed at Repton in 873–74. (Alamy)

 

Hunger, cold and fear

The remainder of the Great Army, led by Guthrum, continued its campaigns, dividing out Mercia, and seizing the West Saxon royal estate at Chippenham in 877. Then it was suddenly stopped in its tracks by King Alfred of Wessex. Alfred had initially retreated into the marshes of Somerset to avoid capture but it wasn’t long before he was launching a counterattack: constructing a fortress at Athelney, rallying the men of Wessex to arms, and in 878 defeating the Vikings at Edington in Wiltshire. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, records that: “After 14 days the Vikings, thoroughly terrified by hunger, cold and fear, and in the end by despair, sought peace.” 

As part of the ensuing negotiations Guthrum accepted Christianity, and “three weeks later Guthrum… with 30 of the best men from his army, came to King Alfred… and Alfred raised him from the holy font of baptism, receiving him as his adoptive son”. In 880 Guthrum’s army went to East Anglia “and settled there and shared out the land”. 

Soon after, Guthrum and Alfred formally divided out their areas of jurisdiction, and made arrangements for relations between their followers over legal disputes, trade and the movement of people. Guthrum minted coins in his realm, some of which were copies of those of King Alfred, while on others he used his baptismal English name of Æthelstan. These initiatives were part of the process by which Guthrum became a Christian king in England.

Of the Great Army that precipitated these changes, we know little. Although we are given the names of the places where they over-wintered, the camps themselves remained elusive – until, that is, the archaeological work described in this article. 

On the European mainland, Viking armies are known to have based themselves on islands in major rivers. A late ninth-century account by Abbot Adrevaldus of Flavigny Abbey in France of a Viking army on an island in the Loire hints at the advantages that this conferred. The Vikings, we are told, “held crowds of prisoners in chains and… rested themselves after their toil so that they might be ready for warfare. From that place they undertook unexpected raids, sometimes in ships, sometimes on horseback, and they destroyed all the province.” 

Other sources suggest that the Vikings were trading as well as raiding. For example, the Annals of St Bertin record that in 873 a Viking army besieged by Frankish forces at Angers was permitted to hold a market on an island in the Loire before departing in February. That armies were associated with trading is reinforced by the entry in the Annals for 876, which describes the “traders and shield-sellers” that followed the army of Charles the Bald. We also know that Viking armies were accompanied by women. A late ninth-century account by Abbo, a monk of St-Germain-des-Prés, refers to the presence of women alongside the Viking force that besieged Paris in 885 and 886. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that a few years later a Viking army “placed their women in safety in East Anglia”.

 

Nine-foot giant

Archaeological investigation has revealed more still about the Viking Great Army. Excavations of a mound in the vicar’s garden at Repton revealed the disarticulated remains of at least 264 people, of whom 80 per cent were robust males. They had been placed within the stone foundations of a Mercian mortuary chapel, and covered with a stone cairn. The deposit had been disturbed in the 17th century, when most of the stone walls were robbed, and Thomas Walker, a labourer, described to Simon Degge of Derby how the bones had originally been laid out around 
a central stone coffin, in which the remains 
of a “nine-foot giant” had been discovered. Exaggeration aside, this has been suggested 
as the grave of another Viking leader, surrounded by the mass grave of bodies reinterred from the battlefield. 

It is also important to consider the landscape around the camp at Repton. Some 2.5 miles to the south-east, and overlying the flood plain of the Trent, archaeology has revealed the only known Viking cremation cemetery in the British Isles – in Heath Wood. Here, there are over 60 burial mounds in four groups, perhaps reflecting different warbands, and a different burial strategy. Excavation has revealed that some of the mounds were erected directly over cremation pyres. The hearths had been swept clean, but fragments of swords and shields remained, as well as the cremated bones of sacrificed horses and dogs, required for hunting in Valhalla. 

The graves contained women and children as well as men. But, unlike the warrior in Grave 511, who may have been hedging his bets by being buried adjacent to the location of saintly relics and holy pilgrimage, these Vikings seem to have had no such reservations about their faith.


Trail of destruction: our map shows how the Viking Great Army
traversed England from AD 865–78.

 

The kingdoms’ demise


The term ‘Great Army’ suggests that the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were being assailed by one massive, unified force. However, documentary and archaeological evidence reveals that the army comprised multiple warbands drawn from different parts of Scandinavia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account of the Vikings’ battles with West Saxon forces in 871 records that the army was led by at least two kings – Halfdan and Bagsecg – and many jarls (chiefs), and it was reinforced later in this year by a “great summer army”. The contrasting burial strategies adopted at Repton and Heath Wood may reflect different factions within the Great Army, which divided into two after spending the winter at Repton.

While Guthrum continued to battle against Alfred in Wessex, Halfdan took part of the army to Northumbria and proceeded to settle. This process is witnessed archaeologically by another excavation at Cottam, in East Yorkshire. Here, an Anglo-Saxon farmstead was abandoned before being replaced, in the late ninth century, by what we now describe as an Anglo-Scandinavian farmstead, its occupants adopting a new hybrid cultural identity revealed by, among other things, the style of their jewellery.

This farmstead is just one example of the many ways in which the Viking Great Army transformed England. As well as changes in land ownership, its arrival precipitated the demise of the distinct English kingdoms and the emergence of Wessex, under Alfred, as a united Anglo-Saxon kingdom. It also witnessed the establishment and growth of towns, initially as defended burhs (fortified settlements) against the Vikings, many of which grew into major trading and manufacturing centres. 

In the wake of the Great Army, the Anglo-Saxons established a town at Torksey in modern-day Lincolnshire. Torksey was home to a mint and at least four churches, yet it would would earn its fame as the centre of a major pottery industry. This settlement near the banks of the Trent became one of the engine rooms of what has been described as England’s first industrial revolution. And, as the wheel-thrown and industrial-scale kiln technologies that were employed here were unknown in Anglo-Saxon England, they can only have been imported by continental potters travelling in the ‘baggage train’ of the Great Army. In other words, without the Great Army, that first industrial revolution may have looked very different indeed.

After 865, England would never be the same. The Vikings were here to stay, and left their legacy on all aspects of English life.  


Overwhelming force

The Viking Great Army’s winter camps were among the largest settlements in England, as Julian D Richards and Dawn Hadley discovered when they investigated a site at Torksey

The theory that the Viking Great Army was small – its size exaggerated by Anglo-Saxon scribes for propaganda purposes – has been well and truly exploded by the discovery of a Norse winter camp at Torksey. 

Our investigations of the site nine miles north-west of Lincoln – occupied by the Viking army over the winter of AD 872–73 – have recovered a wealth of plunder. This includes 26 ingots of silver and gold, as well as 60 pieces of broken-up silver jewellery, known as hacksilver. The Torksey investigations also uncovered fragments of broken-up Anglo-Saxon jewellery, ready to be melted down for recasting. The Vikings were trading, as well as processing their plunder. 

The site contained more than 120 fragments of Arabic silver coins, or dirhams (the largest collection of its kind in the British Isles), which arrived here from the Middle East, via Scandinavia. 


The Viking winter camp at Torksey, as shown in the recent BBC One documentary Vikings Uncovered. Archaeological fieldwork has revealed that, over the winter of 872-73, its many residents were busy trading, repairing weapons and ships, and making jewellery. (© Compost Creative)

 

There are over 350 weights, as well as Anglo-Saxon silver and copper coins. It is the English and Arabic coins that enable us to date the camp so precisely to 872–73. 

The Vikings, who did not use coinage in Scandinavia, operated a dual economy in England: sometimes they paid in money; at other times, by weight of silver. They were also forging coins on the camp, as well as making jewellery. 

Other objects found at Torksey include needles and tools – as the army repaired its ships, weapons and clothes – and gaming pieces. No doubt wives and mistresses inhabited the camp too. 

But it is the extent of the camp that makes the discoveries significant. The camp would have been an island, created by the river Trent to the west, and low-lying marshes to the east. It extended over 55 hectares (more than 75 football pitches), far larger than the enclosure at the Vikings’ winter camp at Repton. 

The force that over-wintered at Torksey in 872–73 numbered in the thousands, 
not hundreds, and was larger than the population of most Anglo-Saxon towns.

Julian D Richards is professor of archaeology at the University of York and author of The Vikings: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2005). Dawn Hadley is professor of medieval archaeology at the University of Sheffield and is the author of Everyday Life in Viking-Age Towns (Oxbow, 2013). Together they are co-directing the Viking Torksey project. 

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