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Fighting the Vikings

Ryan Lavelle examines the experience of warfare, in all its many and varied forms, in Britain during the Viking age

Published: January 19, 2011 at 4:42 pm
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The Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poem known as The Battle of Maldon is perhaps the most famous account of warfare before the Norman Conquest known to an Englishspeaking audience. It gives us a taste of the drama of a battle fought outside the town of Maldon, Essex, against a Viking army in August 991. The tension builds as the leader of the English force, Ealdorman Byrhtnoth, orders his warriors to dismount ready for battle, instructing them to hold their shields firmly against their enemies, then takes his place in the line with his best men. Determination is in the air: the Vikings' messenger is told that their demand for tribute will be met, not in silver but as spears and swords, delivered with hard blows.

The poem conveys the blood and fury of the ensuing battle. Many warriors’ wooden shields hold fast against iron weapons; others, including Byrhtnoth, are less lucky. Some of the English then turn to flee; the more loyal, the poem tells us, remain. The poem reports the speeches of those who, having seen that their leader was dead and all hope of victory lost, declare that they will fight on.

These images of warfare are justly well known. The poetry of the Anglo-Saxons is powerfully evocative and it remains a useful source to understand the attitudes and expectations in the last years of the tenth century, a period that saw the violent arrival of Viking raiders and a series of wars fought against different groups of Vikings. But did battles really happen as the poem tells it? Did warfare in Viking Age Britain always take the form of battle?

To consider these questions, we can turn to other contemporary sources. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was begun during the reign of Alfred the Great of Wessex (871–99) and the manuscripts were added periodically until long after the Norman Conquest. The Chronicle records bursts of warfare against Vikings and other peoples during the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, a time when an English kingdom was formed. Campaigns are recorded, with especially detailed accounts of defensive campaigns fought against Vikings in southern England during the reign of Alfred, and shorter – but no less important – records of campaigns of conquest fought in the part of the Midland kingdom of Mercia held by Vikings. Also covered are Scotland, Wales and northern England during the reigns of Alfred's successors, Edward the Elder (899–924) and his sons Athelstan (924–39) and Edmund (939–46).

The Chronicle records individual battles, too. A poem under the annal for 937 is not dissimilar from its Maldon equivalent in its depiction of battle. However, in relating Athelstan's defeat of a combined force of Scots, Strathclyde Britons, Welsh, and Northumbrian and Irish Vikings in the battle of Brunanburh, it is far more triumphalist. (Incidentally, the battlefield of Brunanburh remains unidentified – though Bromborough in the Wirral seems a likely candidate).

The campaign led by Alfred, which ranged across Wessex in 878, was similarly important. Alfred used prestigious places such as the royal estates as sites of assembly in order to reassert his authority, before defeating his pagan Viking adversaries at the battle of Edington in Wiltshire. From the Chronicle we can see that, with the notable exception of a period during the reign of King Edgar 'the Peaceable' (957–75), members of every generation had experience of fighting in some sort of military campaign during their lifetimes.

Military obligations

Charters recording grants of land show how landholding was integral to Anglo-Saxon warfare. Clauses recording the duty of landholders to provide army service, work on bridges (important for the mobility of armies) and on fortifications, had been in English charters since the eighth century. Such records have led scholars to consider the sense of obligation in Anglo-Saxon military forces and to debate the extent to which landholders – or those who actually worked the land – contributed to those military services.

In some cases obligations may have taken the form of payments which could then be used to employ others, including Viking mercenaries, who after all had much in common with Anglo-Saxon warriors. But such obligations are not the whole story. Many charters also include lists of those present at assemblies, which were often convened by rulers for the purposes of demonstrating their position at different places around the kingdom. While many such assemblies may have been concerned with the day-to-day business of the kingdom as well as high politics – from the granting of land to a church to agreeing a law-code – they were also where the army came together to go on campaign. Some assemblies even took place during campaigns.

Those who attended were the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, drawn together by the shared warrior values of the male elite. We should forget the image of an army of peace-loving ‘Saxon’ farmers, driven reluctantly to defend their homeland by bloodthirsty Viking raiders, so beloved in popular culture from the Victorian age to recent years.

Attendance of an assembly gave access to the king and, if status depended on the ability to fight – or at least being seen as able to fight – mustering with the great and the good with the intention of going on campaign lay at the very heart of a warrior aristocrat’s reason for being. Such participation can be seen in two charters from the reign of Athelstan, dating from May and June 934, the same year in which Athelstan launched a campaign into Scotland with a land and naval force. One charter, from the end of May, records the nobles, from archbishop to thegn (a kind of early knight), at an assembly in Winchester. A few days later, another charter tells us that many of the same people were present in Nottingham in northern Mercia, near the edge of the territory under the direct control of the English crown. The next we hear of Athelstan’s force it is campaigning in Scotland. Evidently they did not ride particularly hard to travel the 130 miles between Winchester and Nottingham as the journey had taken just under ten days, but on this occasion (as opposed to, perhaps, the more famous example of Harold Godwinson’s marches between southern England and Stamford Bridge in 1066) strategic surprise wasn’t the point.

In 934, as at other times in the ninth and tenth centuries, warfare was a demonstration of status, of power, by a state harbouring imperial ambitions. A ruler could feed his followers en route in a succession of overnight sojourns as a means of cementing their loyalty. If the followers who made up the retinue, including bishops, in turn fed and rewarded those in their own retinues – who might include the less wealthy or well-armed of the warriors – so much the better. Many historians of the Middle Ages have recognised that warfare was about much more than battle: much of the evidence for Anglo-Saxon England bears that out.

Colourful language

But warfare was not all about eating, drinking, treasure and posturing. The experience of warfare for the vast majority of the population is difficult to ascertain, given the focus of most sources. Monastic chroniclers wrote of the innocent victims of Vikings, often men and women of the church, in colourful language. Yet that language often became more colourful the further the author was from the events that were recorded.

Many such accounts are stereotyped but that does not mean that warfare did not affect ordinary people. Much early medieval warfare was waged with the aim of destroying buildings and seizing crops – especially from estate centres at harvest times. For those who worked the land the seizure of those crops, which they had rendered to a distant estate centre, might not immediately affect their lives but they would have to make up for their lords’ losses in later years.

And we should not forget that seizing slaves was part of early medieval warfare. Such actions were not solely the preserve of rampaging Viking armies: indeed, the economy of late Anglo-Saxon England relied on slavery. Until the middle of the tenth century the Wessex-based English kingdom undertook violent actions against territory in the Midlands and north of England in a type of warfare similar to that of the pre-Viking ‘Heptarchy’ (the name given to the seven main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms across Britain) so famously evidenced by the Staffordshire Hoard. After that time, too, when a unified English kingdom often found itself on a defensive footing against Viking attacks, English warriors launched raids into the territory of neighbouring kingdoms.

And you didn’t have to belong to the thegnly class to experience military service. Many members of the lower classes were obliged to serve in the baggage trains of campaigning armies.

An early tenth-century administrative document known as the Burghal Hidage – which records land assigned to fortifications in southern England – suggests that large numbers of people were obliged to work on fortifications, a duty that appears to have included manning the ramparts. It's difficult to ascertain whether this also included manning look-out points connected with beacon-fires kept ready for signalling. However, there is evidence that networks of men performed watch and beacon duties – a vital role when Viking forces arrived and moved around in fleets of ships.

The extent to which the defenders were ready to act varied greatly over two centuries. To keep a network functioning effectively would have been onerous and expensive and, for many, the experience of Anglo-Saxon warfare would have included long periods of shivering wakefulness and boredom.

But what of the experience of battle? The details provided by the Maldon poem are not the whole story. We can fill in some of the rest if we consider that a ‘battle’ could actually be comparatively small and short, consisting of a few hundred men – as may have been the case in some of the clashes fought by the West Saxon kingdom during the ninth century. Or it could be a hard slog lasting a day, with thousands of men in the front line, as we see in that final battle of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, at Hastings in 1066.

In the ninth-century, what may have defined a battle was whether a king participated in it, and how it was adjudged in the aftermath. But there do seem to have been an almost ritualised set of expectations. Whether that included the practice of sending away horses so that the warriors could stand and fight on foot is still open to debate. Perhaps this took place at Maldon – it certainly did at Hastings – but, as Guy Halsall, professor of history at the University of York, recognised in his recent study of early medieval warfare, standing to fight on foot was a means of making a defiant statement that one would not countenance retreat, appropriate to the circumstances of Maldon and Hastings.

Not all battles were fought from such a defensive footing, and there is some evidence that English warriors fought from horseback when the circumstances were appropriate. This was, after all, an age when the status of a warrior was demonstrated by his horse and its adornments, and even if the sort of distinctions between ‘infantry’ and ‘cavalry’ made by military historians were rarely used by the Anglo-Saxons, horses were treated as weapons in the wills of the nobility. In that respect, the Normans at Hastings may have had more in common with their Anglo-Saxon foes than Norman chroniclers would have cared to admit.

A sense of empathy across a millennium should tell us that the Maldon poet got the sense of tension right. A battle started before the first spear was thrown or arrow shot. A battle was about who could best hold their nerve, to translate that nerve into success in the shock of contact or to endure what could quickly become a long and bloody slogging match with hand-held weapons.

In the tension before a battle in the early years of the 11th century, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to an English leader pretending to wretch to vomit. The writer of the Chronicle, obsessed at this time with the idea of treachery among the nobility of the kingdom, records this as a cunning ruse. It seems far more likely that the small detail of one man's actions gives us a glimpse of the stark realities of combat in the Viking Age.

Facing the threat of invasion

Tactics the Anglo-Saxons adopted to cope with successive waves of Viking attacks

Historians and archaeologists increasingly recognise the fact that many fortifications and fortified towns – known in Old English as burhs – existed in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia during the Viking age. They may have successfully checked Viking mobility at times but it was in Wessex where such defences were employed to their fullest effect.

A network of burhs ensured that no part of the kingdom was more than half a day’s travel from a fortification. Coupled with a mobile army, this meant that small raiding parties could no longer operate as they wished. However, the system was expensive and, during the tenth century, many smaller fortifications fell into disuse. Meanwhile, many towns became thriving centres of commerce, to the detriment of their defences as suburban areas flourished.

Nonetheless, when Viking attacks on the English kingdom resumed during the late tenth and early 11th centuries, towns still played a role in the defence of the English kingdom, even if no longer as a system of fortifications.

But why did the Anglo-Saxons not take the fight to the homelands of the Vikings? After all, Anglo-Saxon ship technology was highly developed, as was the military organisation of the kingdoms. However, we should put aside modern strategic concerns. In the early Viking age, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were in no position to attack Scandinavia because they were not united – and, for that matter, neither were the Vikings.

Indeed, some of the early Viking fleets were just that: fleets which coalesced while they shared a common goal, then dispersed. When Viking armies established themselves in territories, whether for a winter or for longer, they became vulnerable to a more conventional attack of the sort made by one early medieval kingdom against another. This was something which the English kingdom under the West Saxon dynasty was particularly successful at, and although the famous longships specially built for Alfred seem to have been an expensive failure, the English kingdom’s ability to use ships around the British Isles often gave it a crucial advantage in attack.

No part of Wessex was more than half a day’s travel from a fortification

If all else failed, there were other ways of seeing off Vikings. Money was one means – as seen in the infamous 'Danegeld', which was so characteristic of the sense of failure during the reign of Æthelred the Unready (978–1016). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records huge sums paid to the Vikings between 991 and 1018 – from £10,000 to £72,000 – and, though the figures may be exaggerated, they were substantial enough to ensure that large numbers of coins from Æthelred's reign survive in Scandinavia.

But geld was for more than paying Vikings to go away. Contemporary sources record the payments as ‘here-geld’, meaning army payment or tax and – judging by the fact that many Vikings undertook service for Anglo-Saxon rulers – this could be a successful means of defending the kingdom.

And one should not forget that early medieval warriors could – and did – turn to God. Barefoot penance, to win back God’s favour in the eyes of contemporaries, could be just as important as any spear.

Timeline: Wars against the Vikings

793: First blood

Vikings attack (though do not destroy) the Northumbrian monastery of Lindisfarne, causing a sense of shock and outrage in the Christian west.

855: Bed and breakfast

A Viking force winters for the first time in England, remaining on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent (in territory subject to the kingdom of Wessex).

878: Alfred's nadir

Vikings dispossess King Alfred of his West Saxon kingdom, after taking over the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia during the previous decade. Alfred remains at large, emerging to rally his forces and defeat a Viking army at Edington in Wiltshire.

911: Sword queen

The daughter of Alfred, Æthelflæd, rules Mercia after the death of her husband. She leads a successful campaign against the Vikings in Mercia.

937: Major victory

The battle of Brunanburh between Anglo-Saxon forces led by King Athelstan and an alliance of Scots, Strathclyde Britons, Welsh, and Northumbrian and Irish Vikings, results in Anglo-Saxon victory.

980: Next wave

The Vikings launch their first recorded raids of the ‘Second Viking Age’, on Southampton, Thanet and Cheshire, during the reign of Æthelred II, ‘the Unready’.

991: Paid off

An English force led by Ealdorman Byrhtnoth at Maldon (Essex) is defeated by a Viking fleet ravaging south-eastern England. The English make the first of a series of large geld payments.

1066: One out of two

A succession dispute leads to two invasions, one from Norway, and the other from Normandy. After a victory at Stamford Bridge, the English force is defeated by the Normans at Hastings.

Britain at war

Why the Viking raids changed Britain – and the Vikings themselves – for good

The Viking Age saw great upheavals in the kingdoms of early medieval Britain, especially during the ninth century. When Viking raids gave way to the co-ordinated campaigns of ‘great armies’, ruling dynasties were extinguished in the early kingdoms of Britain. Other dynasties, such as the royal house of Ecgbert in Wessex or that claiming descent from Cináed mac Alpin (Kenneth Macalpine) in Scotland, took full advantage of the opportunities presented to them, making war and alliances with Viking leaders as circumstances suited.

The life of the early church was disrupted, too. For example, there are very few records of early charters from religious houses north of the river Thames in England, perhaps indicating the effect of Viking activities and settlement in the ninth and tenth centuries. Viking armies were evidently large and, using ships, mobile enough to have a significant impact. But then such circumstances were not unique to the Viking age. Before the arrival of Vikings in Britain, ruling dynasties had emerged, fought each other, and grew stronger or died out as their fortunes waxed or waned, and the possessions and personnel of the church had not been immune from such politics.

And Vikings did not always remain pagan. The stone crosses of the ‘Danelaw’ – the name given to the area of northern England where Vikings settled – such as that at Gosforth in Cumbria, attest to the adoption and adaptation of Christianity by an aristocratic society which was becoming ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’. This society held interests and ambitions similar to those expressed in Northumbria in the centuries before the Viking raids. Yet Viking ‘settlement’ was not necessarily the result of a Viking warrior giving up his sword and taking up the plough, but of new lords seizing estates and the existing structures of power.


Ryan Lavelle is lecturer in medieval history at the University of Winchester. His latest book, Alfred's Wars, is published by Boydell.


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