How England rode the Viking storm

The BBC's Anglo-Saxon drama The Last Kingdom returns for a second series this week. Here, Ryan Lavelle, historical advisor on the show, argues that Alfred the Great’s relationship with the Danes was defined by compromise as well as the power of the sword...

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Alexander Dreymon plays Uhtred in The Last Kingdom. (© BBC)

An early scene in series one of the BBC TV series The Last Kingdom sees the hero (or anti-hero) Uhtred, dispossessed claimant to the Northumbrian fortress of Bamburgh, entering the city of Winchester for the first time. Uhtred and his companion, both raised in a Danish household and in many ways more habituated to Danish customs than Anglo-Saxon ones, gain rapid access to the royal court of Alfred of Wessex. At the heart of the court, the pagan Uhtred is granted an audience with the Christian prince – and their discussions range from knowledge of the world to military strategies. From this, we get an insight into Alfred’s relationship with Uhtred, how each sees the other – and, crucially, how each intends to use the other.

Could such a scene have played out in ninth-century Winchester? Why was a prince of the West Saxons extending the hand of friendship to a pagan – a Dane, no less – at some point in the early 870s? The stereotypes dictate that a Danish Viking was too intent on pillaging to engage in any communication but violence. Received opinion also has it that the West Saxons were far too pious to accept Scandinavians as anything but the scourge of God, to be resisted by warriors and suffered by holy men.

 

Viking onslaught

In many ways, the West Saxons’ attempts to defend their realm in the face of the Viking onslaught – particularly under Alfred ‘the Great’ in the final decades of the ninth century – is a story of conflict, of battles and stratagems, peace treaties made and broken, and of military leaders straining for victory in the direst of circumstances.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Life of King Alfred – the West Saxons’ main courtly products telling the story of these years – that military leadership was provided by Alfred himself. But no matter whether Alfred can really be personally credited with the successes of the West Saxon kingdom in repelling the Viking threat, there is more to the story than conflict and the imposition of a West Saxon peace. Compromise, trust and understanding between the two peoples – as portrayed by the fictional Uhtred and Alfred in The Last Kingdom – was also at the heart of what it meant to be English in the 9th and early 10th centuries.

Where early medieval ‘Englishness’ was once regarded as binary – either you were English or you weren’t – and the West Saxons’ defence against the Vikings was seen as a part of the making of that Englishness, there is now room for a more nuanced story. The Vikings who came to England in the ninth century were woven into this story in a way that made them so much more than the pagan ‘other’.

That is not to say that Danes did not represent an existential threat to Anglo-Saxon rulers and their kingdoms, particularly Wessex. During the later part of the ninth century, the West Saxon kingdom was defined by its difference to the Danish-held territories – and the need to defend themselves against the Danish threat drove much of the West Saxons’ policy forward. The Danes launched numerous attacks on Wessex, and the kingdom itself was almost lost to at least one well-organised incursion.

From the introduction of military service to the building of ‘burhs’ (fortifications), the character of the West Saxon kingdom was determined by a Scandinavian threat outside it.

One of the terms that Christian writers most often employed to describe the pirates who exploded upon the western European scene in the late eighth and early ninth centuries was ‘Northmen’, a word that, while (mostly) being more geographically accurate, recalled the apocalyptic idea, trumpeted in the Book of Jeremiah, that evil would come from the north. To many religious writers, it must have seemed that these ‘Northmen’ indeed did herald the end-time. But by the late ninth century, we see fewer ‘Northmen’ in Anglo-Saxon sources, as the term gave way to ‘Dane’. And the reason for this may lie in the increasing representation of Vikings as people who you could do business with.

St Edmund is captured by Danes in a c1130 illumination. His death in 869 would go down in infamy yet, despite this, Vikings and Anglo-Saxons would learn to co-operate. (© Topfoto)

 

Danes and Northmen

It seems that this was a meaningful distinction – and one that may have been reflected in the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. While an early English text had labelled the instigators of an attack on Dorset in c789 as ‘Northmen’, a later account of the very same incident in the Chronicle refers to the aggressors as ‘Danes’. It was perhaps a telling editorial modification.

This important, if tentative, change in attitude was reflected in the growing number of peace agreements that the two sides signed in the late ninth century. The most important of these was the ‘Alfred-Guthrum’ treaty, sealed following Alfred’s 878 victory at the battle of Ethandun (Edington, Wiltshire) which shattered the Vikings’ ambition of conquering Wessex . The surviving document that records Alfred’s triumph probably represents a renegotiation of the territory between the two leaders.

In many ways, this treaty recognised how ‘Danes’ and ‘Englishmen’ were separated and subjected to different legal systems. However, the fact that both groups were subject to the same law – which was agreed by two sets of leaders, “confirmed with oaths, for themselves and for their subjects, both for the living and for the unborn” – created a sort of unified identity that had not before existed in the area that is now referred to as England.

That sense of peace was important. The Venerable Bede, the eighth-century Northumbrian author of a work long recognised as providing Alfred’s ‘blueprint’ for the idea of an Angelcynn (English realm), had reported that an early Anglo-Saxon king, Edwin, had provided the conditions in which a woman could travel with a newborn child from sea to sea without fear. Whether the conditions in late ninth-century England really allowed for such journeys is immaterial. Alfred’s allusion to those “unborn” might have been intended with Bede’s sense of peace in mind; a king who provided peace for an Angelcynn was one who recognised ‘Danes’ as potential subjects. There was precedent to be followed here, but it was not an English precedent. Instead it came from across the Channel, in the land of the Franks (roughly equivalent to modern-day France).

Historians have largely debunked the old myth of there being a great chasm between the dealings of the Western Franks and Alfred with the Vikings – the former traditionally damned as a failure; the latter hailed as a spectacular success. In fact, Frankish treaties with Vikings not only worked but also enhanced the standing of a number of rulers – these were not embarrassing episodes of compromise but moments to be celebrated. And they may have influenced Alfred – who had visited the court of Charles the Bald in West Francia as a young boy in the 850s – for he, too, was aware of the value of bringing Vikings into the Christian fold.

Although not particularly successful in the long term, the baptism by Charles the Bald’s father, Emperor Louis the Pious, of the Danish ruler Harald Klak in 826 had been a seminal event in the Carolingian court. Here we might trace the transformation from ‘Northmen’ to ‘Danes’, as Frankish authors took the event to their hearts as a means of depicting the imperial idea of Frankish kingship.

Around this time, Frankish writers started to take a serious interest in who ‘Danes’ were, and, given the Anglo-Saxons’ preoccupation with Frankish affairs, it is perhaps not surprising that this is echoed in England a generation or two later. Charles the Bald had been a young boy at the ceremony and it evidently had a major effect on him, just as Alfred’s visit to the Frankish court had an impact on the Anglo-Saxon ruler’s life.

 

Moment of triumph

An example of how a spirit of compromise had permeated Alfred’s Wessex is provided by the fact that Vikings were serving in the community of the Somerset monastery of Athelney, a site founded to celebrate Alfred’s great moment of triumph in 878. The famous biographer of Alfred’s life, Asser of St David’s, described them as “pagans” (pagani). Yet clearly they were not really pagans in the religious sense – they were, after all, part of a Christian community.

Around the same time, Alfred received the Scandinavian sea captain, Óttarr (Anglicised as Ohthere), at court. Óttarr is described in an Old English text as “most northern of the North-men”. Just as the fictional Uhtred comes to the West Saxon court in The Last Kingdom, this ninth-century view of Alfred has the king using Óttarr to discover more about the lands and peoples of Scandinavia. This provides further evidence that, though the Viking threat had by no means disappeared, these ‘North-men’ were very different from those who had perpetrated the apocalyptic attacks of a few decades earlier.

The lands they lived in were no longer mysterious. The understanding of them was more subtle, more complex, and far more human. Indeed, an object similar to the so-called ‘Alfred Jewel’, an artefact described by an Old English text as an æstel, has been found during excavations of a chieftain’s complex at Borg on the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway. Did Óttarr carry the ‘Borg Æstel’ back home after his stay at the West Saxon court? If so, it showed that a symbol of Alfred’s lordship – these objects were, after all, closely linked with Alfred’s court – had huge resonance in Scandinavia.

Óttarr was not an ‘Englishman’ but in some respects his relationship with “his lord Alfred” demonstrates that relationships between peoples were about more than just ties of blood and clearly-defined nationhood.

This remained the case well into the 10th century. For though the West Saxons’ expansion in the early 900s saw English Christians forcing Danes and other Vikings into submission through strongarm tactics, ‘Danes’ and ‘English’ continued to make agreements and negotiate over territory in a way that mirrored their predecessors’ diplomacy.

In fact, the descendants of ninth-century Scandinavian lords became the ‘men’ of English rulers – particularly Edward the Elder (899–924) and Æthelstan (924–39) – who allowed their new subjects to keep their lands in return for a submission to lordship.

So this was not purely a story of nationhood or of the triumph of one group over another. Instead, the Vikings’ role in the making of ‘England’ demonstrated that different peoples’ dealings with one another needed to be defined by flexibility as much as by factionalism and conflict.

 

“I became a historical helpline”

Being the historical advisor on The Last Kingdom meant working fast and remembering that the story comes first, says Ryan Lavelle...

I have been a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s books on early medieval England since my student days, so it was a great pleasure – and an honour – to work with Carnival Films on The Last Kingdom, their adaptation of his Saxon novels.

Cornwell often uses an outsider to tell a story, like his famous Napoleonic creation, the working-class British Army officer Sharpe. In The Last Kingdom, it is the Saxon Uhtred, whose Danish upbringing creates a conflict of identity that propels the storyline. It’s been fascinating to witness the production developing as the book’s first-person narrative and biographical storyline has had to pick up a pace for a series of TV episodes.

Alexander Dreymon and Emily Cox star as Uhtred and Brida in the “entertaining, interesting and thought-provoking” The Last Kingdom. (© BBC) 

While I would love to take some credit for that, my own role meant leaving the storytelling to the experts, and simply being available to respond when needed to provide some costume advice, comment on scripts, and make occasional set visits. In many ways I became a historical helpline, getting questions like “tell us how a marriage would be arranged”, “what could happen at a coronation?”, “how should this name be spelt/pronounced in Old English?”

To answer such questions meant putting what I’ve learned about the early Middle Ages beyond rarefied academia into a ‘real’ world of creative imagination populated by such real historical characters as Alfred ‘the Great’ (not always a likeable fellow, it appears). I’ve had to avoid the historian’s temptation to respond to questions with a list of footnotes and caveats leading into a range of other possibilities based on the slimness of the surviving evidence. That sort of thing cuts no ice in a multi-million-pound production.

I quickly learned that, because what happens in one version of the script can change quickly – and change again a dozen times before it is shot – clear and concise answers are essential.

I have also had to keep reminding myself that The Last Kingdom is not a historical documentary series. The overriding principle has always been to drive the story forward, but I’ve constantly had to think: “Is this possible – does it work on screen?”

What the team came up with didn’t always match my interpretation of Anglo-Saxon history, but that usually needs footnotes! However, the production is a valid interpretation: it’s entertaining, interesting and, for me as a historian of the period, it’s thought-provoking. To that end, I couldn’t have asked for more.

 

Living in the shadow of the Vikings

From Cornish rebellions to puppet kings, our map shows how the Norsemen’s raids impacted on the kingdoms of Britain in the ninth century…

Strathclyde
A Welsh (‘British’) kingdom whose territory ranged across modern-day Scotland and Cumbria in north-western England, it was dealt a blow when Dumbarton Rock was besieged by Dublin Vikings in 870. With Govan (now in Glasgow) as its likely religious centre, Strathclyde still continued as a political force well into the 10th century.

Welsh kingdoms
A range of kings with a variety of extents of power and layers of lordship appears to have been the order in early Wales, with Gwynedd in the north-west coming to the fore. Although Rhodri Mawr (‘the Great’) suffered at Viking and English hands, probably killed by Mercians in 878, his successors asserted dominance over many of the neighbouring kingdoms, making alliances with Vikings and Anglo-Saxons according to circumstances.

Cornwall
Cornwall was coming under the West Saxons’ direct control in the ninth century. At least some Cornishmen resisted, including allying with Vikings in 838. The death of the last known Cornish king is recorded in a Welsh annal in 875 but the survival of Celtic place-names in Cornwall shows how the old kingdom never became a full part of the Anglo-Saxon world.

Alba
By the late ninth century, the areas controlled by kings of the Picts and Scots were beginning to be referred to as Alba, the Gaelic word for ‘Britain’, suggesting change was in the air. The kingdom of Alba was controlled by a line of rulers, of the house of Alpín, who emerged during the ninth-century upheaval of Viking attacks to assert domination over large swathes of territory which would form the core of a later Scottish kingdom.

Northumbria and the Kingdom of York
The kingdom of the Northumbrians had been created by the merging of the southern kingdom of Deira, focused on York, and the northern kingdom of Bernicia. Vikings controlled York from the 860s and settled soon after, while Bamburgh remained a seat of continuing Anglo-Saxon power in the north.

Mercia
Kings of Mercia had held overlordship over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms during the eighth century, but remained a force to be reckoned with in the ninth. Years of hard campaigning led to the replacement of the Mercians’ king in 874 by a ruler who may have been a Viking ‘puppet’, then by Æthelred, an ealdorman (governor) likely to have been subordinate to King Alfred.

East Anglia
The last independent Anglo-Saxon king of the East Angles was killed by Vikings in 869 and is remembered as St Edmund. East Anglia became a Viking kingdom under the control of Guthrum, christened Æthelstan in 878. A decade of peace led to control by other Vikings after Guthrum’s death, but their coins bearing the name of St Edmund reveal how they ‘bought into’ Anglo-Saxon politics.

Wessex
Ruled by the descendants of Ecgberht, who had seized power at the start of the ninth century, the West Saxon kingdom controlled much of the south of England by the time of Alfred the Great (reigned 871–99), who managed to hold onto his throne in the face of Viking attacks.

Ryan Lavelle is reader in medieval history at the University of Winchester. He has co-edited Danes in Wessex (Oxbow, 2015)

The Last Kingdom will return to BBC Two on 16 March 2017.

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