The lost battles of Viking Britain

From Anglo-Saxons slaughtered by Vikings in East Anglia to the Norse king ambushed and slain in the Pennines, Britain's Viking age saw bloodletting on a huge scale. Thomas Williams introduces five forgotten battles that helped shape a nation's destiny...

Detail of the carved portal of Hylestad stave church, 12th century. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

The Viking age gave us some of the most iconic battles in British history. There was Edington, Alfred the Great’s against-the-odds triumph in AD 878 over part of a massive Danish invasion force; Brunanburh (AD 937) in which Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan stamped his authority on the British Isles; and Stamford Bridge (1066), where the bones of Harald Hardrada’s Viking army were left to whiten on the field, picked clean by carrion birds.

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But the Viking age lasted for almost three centuries: from the end of the eighth until deep into the 11th. Over this period, in England alone, sources document at least 50 pitched battles, plus as many raids, sieges and naval encounters. Most of these have been all but forgotten over the centuries.

Many of them, however, played a critical role in shaping the nascent kingdoms of England and Scotland. Here, then, are five battles of the Viking age: clashes that – though uncelebrated and often unremembered – helped to shape the destiny of Britain.

The crushing of the Cornish

The battle of Hengest’s Hill (AD 838)

Combatants: A Cornish–Viking alliance against Egbert’s kingdom of Wessex

Outcome: Victory for Wessex

King Egbert of Wessex was not a man to be trifled with. In AD 825, he established himself and his kingdom as the pre-eminent power in Britain, crushing the Mercians at a place called Ellendun, just outside Swindon. It was a memorably bloody business. A fragment of poetry recalled that “Ellendun’s stream ran red with blood, was stuffed up with corpses, filled with stink”.

This was only one front in Egbert’s campaign to subdue the other kingdoms of Britain. In AD 815, he had raided Cornwall “from east to west” – a reminder to the still independent Cornish kingdom of the limits of their autonomy. In AD 838, however, the Cornish decided that the time had come to push back against West Saxon domination. This time they had allies – Viking allies.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that, in AD 838, a “great ship-horde came to Cornwall”, which combined forces with the native Cornish and immediately set about challenging King Egbert’s power. Egbert led an army into Cornwall, bringing his strength to bear at a place called Hengest’s Hill. This was most probably Kit Hill, the massive prominence that dominates the valley of the Tamar, one flank of which is still known as Hingsdon.

We know very little about what happened, except that the Vikings and the Cornish were put to flight. This was to be the last gasp of Cornish independence. The people of Britain’s south-western peninsula would never again pose a military threat to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The same cannot be said of their erstwhile Viking allies.

Since the AD 790s, Viking fleets had been striking from the sea without warning, raiding monasteries and coastal settlements and capturing slaves and treasure. By the AD 830s, these attacks had become increasingly brazen, targeting substantial settlements like Carhampton in Somerset and defeating Anglo-Saxon armies. But this was the first time (that we know of) that Vikings had marched to war alongside a native people in Britain. Although (and sadly for the Cornish) it was not a successful experiment, it would certainly not be the last.

Ravens and ramparts

The battle of Cynwit (AD 878)

Combatants: Odda and the men of Devon against the Vikings

Outcome: Victory for Wessex

In AD 878, things were looking grim for Egbert’s grandson, King Alfred. A Viking army, led by the warlord Guthrum, had burst into Wessex, occupying Chippenham and driving Alfred into exile in his own kingdom.

For several months the king was on the run, living as a fugitive in the marshes and wild places. Eventually he set up camp on the Isle of Athelney in Somerset, from where he orchestrated guerrilla raids on the Viking occupiers. When, however, another Viking army, led by the warrior Ubbe, arrived in the south-west of England, it must have seemed likely that the days of the West Saxon dynasty were numbered in double-digits.

Ubbe’s army was met by forces commanded by Odda, the ealdorman of Devon. The battle that followed, one of the great military reversals of the early Middle Ages, was fought at an unidentified hillfort in the south-west of England called ‘Cynwit’. King Alfred’s biographer, Bishop Asser of Sherborne, explained how the West Saxons, having retreated within the earthen ramparts of the fortress, found themselves trapped inside by the Viking army without food or water. But, as Asser tells it, rather than allow themselves to become enfeebled by a siege, the West Saxons chose to seek victory or a glorious death. At dawn, they hurled themselves down the slopes towards their erstwhile besiegers, overwhelming them with their ferocity and driving the survivors to their ships. Perhaps 1,200 Viking warriors, including Ubbe, were slain.

Defeat for the Vikings was made worse for them by the capture of their raven banner – a magical talisman (said to have been woven by Ubbe’s three sisters, the daughters of the semi-legendary Ragnar ‘Hairy-pants’) that was believed to foretell victory if the raven’s wings caught the wind before battle. Its loss was a bad omen for the Vikings in Wessex.

Alfred would go on to win a famous victory over the Viking forces of Guthrum at Edington in Wiltshire, setting the West Saxon royal house on a path that would lead to the throne of a united kingdom of England. Had it not been for the victory at Cynwit, Alfred – caught between Ubbe and Guthrum – might have met a very different fate indeed.

Æthelwold perishes in the fens

The battle of the Holme (AD 902)

Combatants: King Edward against his rebel cousin and the Vikings

Outcome: (Sort of) Viking victory

Violence between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings didn’t end with Alfred’s death in AD 899. In fact, no sooner had Alfred’s son, Edward, taken his seat on the throne than he was facing a military crisis. Alfred’s nephew, Æthelwold – feeling that he had been unfairly passed over – rebelled against his cousin Edward before fleeing to the parts of England under Viking control (swathes of the north and east of the country sometimes referred to as ‘the Danelaw’). There he was apparently welcomed with open arms and acclaimed as “king of the pagans; king of the Danes”.

Æthelwold began his campaign in the summer of AD 902, bringing an army out of Viking East Anglia and harrying throughout southern England as far as Cricklade and Braydon in Wessex. This was a provocation, and Edward (known later as ‘the Elder’) wasted little time in assembling an army to pursue his cousin back into the bleak and unforgiving fens of East Anglia.

The battle that followed was fought in a place known as the Holme (‘island’) and was a catastrophe for almost everyone concerned. Edward, perhaps realising the difficulties of the terrain, ordered a retreat, but the Kentish contingent refused the summons. In mounting panic, Edward dispatched rider after rider (seven in total) to order his men to fall back. For reasons we will never know, they failed to withdraw.

The only description we have of the fighting proclaims grandly that the belligerents “clashed shields, wielded swords, and shook greatly the spear in either hand”. But to fight in the sucking peat marshes of the fens would have been to live through a waking nightmare. When the men of Kent broke and ran, throwing aside shields and weapons in their desperation, they would have slipped and fallen, trampled in the clawing fens, drowning in mud and brackish bog-water, floundering through the reed-beds into disaster. And, for the men of Kent, disaster it assuredly was: the Kentish ealdorman Sigewulf, and his kinsman Sigehelm, and almost all of the Kentish lords were slain.

For King Edward, however, there was a silver lining: Æthelwold, the pretender, was dead. Who can say what the future might have held in store for Æthelwold had he emerged from Holme victorious. Instead, a serious challenge to Edward’s authority and legitimacy had been removed, and it would be he – Edward – who in the subsequent decades would go on the offensive, conquering all of Viking-held England south of the Humber.

Carnage in the shadow of the forest

The battle of Dane’s Wood (1016)

Combatants: Cnut Sveinsson and Edmund Ironside

Outcome: Cnut and Edmund make peace

The year 1016 was a bloody one. It saw the Anglo-Saxon king Edmund ‘Ironside’ taking up the sword wielded so ineffectively by his father, Æthelred the Unready, and standing resolute against the challenge posed by the Danish prince, Cnut Sveinsson. Edmund and Cnut met in battle no fewer than seven times that year – six of these clashes are well known, but the final one was almost lost to history.

Cnut’s father, Svein Forkbeard, had briefly made himself king of England in the winter of 1013/14. Svein had died suddenly – slain, so it was said, by the murderous ghost of St Edmund, the king of East Anglia martyred by the Vikings in AD 869 – and the English crown had reverted to the West Saxon dynasty. Cnut, however, was not a man to drop a claim to power lightly.

In 1016, Cnut and Edmund fought major battles at Penselwood (Somerset), Sherston (Wiltshire), London, Brentford (Middlesex) and Otford (Kent). Edmund prevailed against the Danish challenger in all of these struggles (apart from Sherston, which had ended in stalemate), and it must have seemed that Cnut’s campaign was on the brink of sputtering out.

But at Assandun (probably Ashingdon in Essex), the Danish warlord brought his army to bear once more, and – thanks to the disloyalty of the perfidious West Saxon nobleman Eadric Streona (who fled at the beginning of hostilities) – Cnut pulled off a stunning victory. It was a calamity for the English. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported it: “There Bishop Eadnoth was killed, and Abbot Wulfsige, and Ealdorman Ælfric, and Godwine the ealdorman of Lindsey, and Ulfcetel of East Anglia, and Æthelweard, son of Ealdorman Æthelwine, and all of the English nobility was destroyed there.”

The battle of Assandun is generally assumed to have been the decisive moment of the war, and the event that paved the way for Cnut to eventually reclaim the throne prematurely vacated by his father. But Edmund was not yet dead, and there was to be one more battle before the English king would lay down his arms and come to terms. It is mentioned only in a single stanza of poetry composed in praise of Cnut by the Viking skald Ottar the Black: “Prince, you won fame with the sword north of mighty Danaskógar, and it seemed a slaughter to your followers.”

Danaskógar means ‘forest of the Danes’, and nowhere in England is known to ever have had such a name. However, it is known that Edmund had retreated with his army towards Gloucestershire, where – beyond the river Severn – the Forest of Dean might have provided arboreal refuge. It is possible that the Old Norse speakers of Cnut’s army, pursuing Edmund’s battered forces into these western woods, heard the word ‘Dean’ and interpreted it, not as Old English denu (‘valley’), but as Old English dena: ‘of the Danes’. Retranslated into Old Norse, the Forest of Dean became the Forest of the Danes – a place won and renamed with the sword.

In the aftermath, Edmund and Cnut made peace. Within a few months, Edmund was dead and Cnut succeeded him as king of all England.

Thomas Williams is curator of early medieval coins at the British Museum and author of Viking Britain: An Exploration (William Collins).

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This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.