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The secrets of the Viking Great Army

The Viking Great Army caused chaos amongst the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England between AD 865-878. But how much do we really know about its structure, motivation and impact? Professor Julian Richards of the University of York investigates why the Great Army was unlike any previously known Viking force

The Great Army attacks the East Anglian town of Thetford in this illuminated manuscript from 'The Life of Edmund'. Viking pikemen scale the ramparts on ladders

We know about the Vikings‘ Great Army from very brief references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It says that a ‘mycel hæþen’ – which is Old English for ‘great army’ – landed in East Anglia in AD 865. It then recounts a series of yearly records detailing where the Great Army moved and what battles it fought, and specifically where it spent its winters.

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From this, we know it carried on fighting with different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms around the country until the year AD 878, when it was famously defeated by Alfred the Great at the battle of Edington in the south-west of England.

Speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, Professor Julian Richards of the University of York explained what the Great Army really was and revealed what recent discoveries can tell us about this warring hoard.

The Great Army was unlike any previous Viking force…

What was special about it was that they didn’t follow the same strategy as prior Viking armies. Previous attacks had tended to be hit-and-run affairs, raiding quite isolated and undefended coastal monasteries, particularly on the eastern coast of the British Isles – grabbing slaves and treasure and then going away again.

But the Great Army overwintered in England and clearly had strategic plans to stay for longer. Ultimately, it transformed its activities from raiding, and seizing slaves and silver, to seizing land, which led to permanent settlement. It was a point of marked change in Viking strategy, and subsequent armies generally came for political conquest rather than just arriving as temporary raiding forces.

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 The Vikings seized upon chances in hope of finding success…

I think what caused this change was that they saw opportunities. Parts of the army had been raiding in Ireland and in continental Europe during the AD 850s and 860s, and likely heard that there was a lot of infighting between the four main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England (Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria and Wessex).

During their coastal raids, which were almost reconnoitring raids, the Vikings had also seen the wealth that was available in England, particularly in their churches and monasteries. When things became difficult for them on the continent in the AD 860s, as the Carolingian empire became better organised at defeating their armies, they probably saw the chance of better pickings in England.

The Great Army was not a cohesive army in the way that we might expect…

It was a loose association of different warrior groups that were probably related to individual ship’s companies. They probably originated in parts of Scandinavia, but as they had been raiding in Ireland and on the continent as well, they likely gathered more warriors as they went.

It’s important to note that, though we call it a Viking army, there were likely other mercenaries amongst the force. Each company probably owed their loyalty to the individual leaders who were rewarding them for their service in battle. There was probably a lot of competition between the different leaders of these different war bands.

The Great Army seems to have been joined by other groups during the AD 860s and 870s…

At one stage, there’s a summer army that joins the Great Army to make it even larger, which provides them with strength in numbers so that they are able to stay over the winter period. But we’re also told of an incident, after the army had overwintered at Repton in AD 873–74, when the army splits, and one group heads north and another group heads into East Anglia and then back to Wessex. The army wasn’t always one force.

Amongst the growing  Great Army, there were some colourful characters who all seem to have had different strategies to assimilate into (or takeover) Anglo-Saxon lands…

There’s one name that comes up in the sources, Ubba, but unfortunately, we don’t know a lot about him. We know much more about characters such as Guthrum, one of the original leaders of the Great Army, who comes up consistently through the records.

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When the army splits in AD 873–74, Guthrum goes to East Anglia and is famously defeated by Alfred the Great at the battle of Edington. When Alfred demands Guthrum convert to Christianity, Guthrum ends up being baptised with thirty of his fellow warriors and later becomes a king himself.

There is also Halfdan, who is another leader of the Great Army and was also present at the overwintering of AD 873–74. But he moved to Northumbria when the army splits, where he seizes the land of the Northumbrians, and they proceed to plough the earth to support themselves.

Illustration of Halfdan, one of the leaders of the Viking Great Army
Illustration of Halfdan, one of the leaders of the Viking Great Army (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

Ivar the Boneless also features in this story. We think he was another one of the initial leaders that landed in AD 865 and is possibly at this overwintering in AD 873–74. He tends to be associated with forming a stronghold in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, though he may have gone off to Ireland at some stage. There are some confusions when looking at the sources, as these names keep turning up in different parts of the British Isles in slightly different forms.

The Great Army didn’t always have the upper hand…

The Great Army’s control over the landscape ebbed and flowed. Going back to the earliest stages, they seized York, which was initially the capital of Northumbria, but after being thrown out of York, they had to go back and seize it again. However, the overall picture that we get certainly from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is that they’re winning most of their battles.

That’s partly because England was divided into several kingdoms, and they’re picking on these different kingdoms in turn. According to King Alfred’s biographer, it’s not until AD 878 when he manages to get a lot of the Anglo-Saxon lords on his side and build up an army strong enough so that he can take on this this Viking force. That is really the first major defeat they suffer.

Until recently we didn’t know a lot about the Great Army archaeologically, but that has changed…

There had been one excavation at Repton, which was not initially looking for the Viking Great Army, but a Mercian church and the Shrine of St Wystan. But that dig encountered some Viking burials and evidence that the excavators thought was part of a Viking camp. It was the only one of these camps that had ever been discovered, so it set the agenda for what archaeologists were looking for.

It’s not only archaeology that is developing our knowledge of the Great Army…

We’ve started to learn about the Viking Great Army from items lost, left behind and then found by metal detectorists who have reported them to a scheme run by the British museum.

There’s one particular site that we became interested in at a place called Torksey, in Lincolnshire, which was part of Mercia and, like Repton, is on a river. It’s situated on the River Trent, which is navigable. Torksey is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as somewhere that the Viking Great Army overwintered in the year before they were at Repton in AD 872–73.

Today Torksey is just a small village. There is nothing that would indicate there was a Viking camp there in the late ninth century. But over the years, metal detectorists started to make some incredible finds just north of the village. They were largely silver items, including coins, ingots and fragments of silver jewellery that had been cut up.

These finds are familiar to Viking archaeologists. We call them “hack silver” because they’re cut up and weighed out as part of the bullion economy. It seems the Vikings spent their time overwintering, processing loot from their raids. But, quite unusually, we’re finding Anglo-Saxon coins from Northumbria that don’t usually occur in Mercia and bits of Irish jewellery and book mounts as well.

The finds suggest that the Great Army was much bigger than we first thought…

We worked with the detectorists to plot where the finds were coming from and they were from an area that was much larger than the camp that had been identified at Repton. It covered an area of some 55 hectares, which in modern terms would be around the same size as 75 football pitches!

This really changed our impression of the scale of the army, as the army camped at Repton could only have numbered in the few hundreds. Whereas what we found from Torksey and other newly found camps suggest a much larger scale.

They’ve started to give us a signature, which we can now see other sites in England. We’re now starting to be able to trace the Viking Great Army as it moves around the country. This is all really coming from metal-detected evidence in the last ten years. It’s revealing sites to us that we never knew about before, which are not mentioned in the historical sources. It’s a case of when archaeology and metal detecting is really adding to what we know about history.

Although the Vikings spent their time plundering, this didn’t mean they didn’t have fun…

One of the most interesting finds for us is not necessarily the silver and ingots, but tiny lead gaming pieces. It seems that, when they were overwintering, these Viking warriors were playing some sort of game. In later Scandinavian sources it’s known as hnefatafl, but it was probably a bit like chess, in that one side has a king piece that the other side is trying to capture. We have over 300 of these tiny lead gaming pieces from Torksey.

Julian Richards is Professor of Archaeology at the University of York, and the co-author, along with Dawn Hadley, of The Viking Great Army and the Making of England (Thames & Hudson 2021). Buy it now on Amazon |Waterstones | Bookshop.org

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Julian was speaking to Dr David Musgrove on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast.