Viking apocalypse: the invasion that spelled doom for the Anglo-Saxons

England at the end of the first millennium was on its knees, plagued by Norse raiders. Laura Ashe tells the story of this turbulent era through the voice of an Anglo-Saxon bishop who would help rebuild his nation

An 11th-century depiction of the Anglo-Saxon priest Wulfstan, who feared that Viking raids on England signalled the end of the world. (Image by Mary Evans)

This article was first published in the February 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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At the end of the first millennium, England was under attack. For a decade or more, Viking raiders had been landing at will on the coast or sailing their longships upriver. The men from the north plundered settlements and villages. They took all goods of value, seized women and children to be sold as slaves, and killed those who fought against them.

We get a glimpse of what it was like to face the Vikings in the 325 surviving lines of the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon. It recounts how, in 991, Ealdorman Byrhtnoth and his men met a Viking army on the Essex coast. The two forces stood at stalemate on the shore, divided by a narrow causeway, until Byrhtnoth invited his enemies to advance onto firmer ground, where they fought, and he was killed.

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The February 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine

The unnamed poet tells us that Byrhtnoth’s men, loyal beyond death, stayed to fight to the end after their lord had fallen, declaring their determination never to falter: “Mind must be the harder, heart the braver, spirit the greater, as our strength diminishes.” The poet suggests that Byrhtnoth allowed his pride, his ofermod, to lead him into a desperate conflict, but in reality he had little choice but to fight. Even successful attempts at defence were only temporary because the Vikings simply returned to their ships, regrouped and made landfall elsewhere.

There was, of course, nothing new in this. Norse raiders had plagued England’s Anglo-Saxon kingdoms for two centuries, and had continued to do so after King Æthelstan united those kingdoms into an English nation in the early 10th century. Yet rarely had the Viking raids been the cause of such chaos, discord and destruction as in the years that brought the first millennium to a close.

As the relentless years of conflict wore on, the raids only became more frequent and more intense. The North Sea was a zone of warring Scandinavian kingdoms, in which any man defeated or expelled from his own country could seek allies, wealth and spoils by raiding elsewhere, building his power for a return assault. What hope was there of a conclusion to the killing?

Beset by horrors

A man named Wulfstan was appointed bishop of London in 996. He must have been a monk before his election, but we know nothing of his birth or early life. What we have from his time in London and later, however, is far more valuable than any biography: an outpouring of his words, his vividly expressed thoughts on the horrors that beset the English. In the early 11th century, as priest, writer and statesman, Wulfstan would be central to reestablishing order in the kingdom, serving English kings and Danish conquerors in turn. But as the year 1000 approached, he wrote, this chaos might even signal the end of the world:

“Now must it necessarily become very much worse, because it is nearing very close to his time, just as it is written and was long ago prophesied: ‘After a thousand years Satan will be unbound.’ A thousand years and even more have now passed since Christ was among men in human form, and now Satan’s bonds have become very loose, and Antichrist’s time is very near, and so the world weakens the longer it goes on.”

In this reading, England wasn’t just a Christian country beset by pagan invaders and suffering a series of crushing defeats. Its people were living through the approach of judgment day. And with the apocalypse nearing, it wasn’t enough for Wulfstan to be merely a prophet of doom. He called himself Lupus, the Wolf, and he launched savage verbal attacks on the sins of the people, certain that their travails were a punishment from God.

The Wolf was not alone in seeking God’s aid and trying to win his forgiveness. The failure of English armies, even when they as Christians fought to defend their homeland against pagan enemies, seemed to suggest that God’s wrath was turned against all violence and sin. Men who fell in battle were not guaranteed salvation – not for another century would warriors be promised God’s favour in their crusades in the holy land.

In England at the turn of the millennium, the only way to please God was to achieve peace and repent of all sins. In the aftermath of the battle of Maldon, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the Vikings accepted 10,000 pounds from Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred – known as unræd, ‘ill-advised’, although he’s subsequently been dubbed ‘the unready’ – to cease their attacks. But if truce was made with one group of raiders, there were always more to replace them.

Apocalypse averted

In 993, the Vikings defeated a large English army and, in 994, Æthelred made another treaty with the Viking leaders, paying them the vast fortune of 22,000 pounds in gold and silver. With this treaty, though, came a breakthrough: Olaf Tryggvason was baptised as a Christian, with King Æthelred standing as his sponsor. Olaf returned to Norway, where he was crowned in 995. He then embarked on the conversion of his people and never again attacked England. It seemed the answer to England’s woes might lie with the faith. If the Vikings could be persuaded to accept baptism and make peace with their fellow Christians, perhaps the apocalypse could be averted.

But the ‘ill-advised’ king tried other strategies too. Alongside his Christian diplomacy and political bribery, Æthelred also paid Viking warriors to join his own army as mercenaries, defending England against their compatriots. It is difficult to assess how effective these forces might have been, but mercenaries among civilian populations have caused havoc and dissatisfaction in all places and times.

Wulfstan drafted sermons and homilies that thundered out the need for repentance from sin

In 1002, Æthelred attempted another, more violent, tactic: he ordered the killing “of all the Danish men who were in England”. This became known as the St Brice’s Day Massacre, carried out on 13 November. We cannot now know how terrible an exercise this was intended to be, nor how many people were slaughtered – whether this was the suppression of a few bands of Viking mercenaries, or a widespread, royally sanctioned attack on a people who had long made up a great part of England’s population.

One chilling piece of evidence for the killings on St Brice’s Day comes from Oxford. Æthelred issued a charter two years later in 1004, describing his restoration of St Frideswide’s Church. When he had ordered the killing of all Danes, he stated, some of them had fled for sanctuary into the Oxford church, and when their pursuers could not reach them they set the whole church on fire. In 2008, an archaeological excavation in St John’s College found a pit containing the heaped-up skeletons of about 36 young men, most of them younger than 25, all thought to be the victims of this crime. With striking complacency, at the end of his charter Æthelred piously noted that “with God’s aid” he had rebuilt the church.

Ever-greater destruction

Over these years, Wulfstan’s influence continued to grow. In 1002, he was promoted to become bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, holding both sees (ecclesiastical seats of authority) at once. At a stroke, he became King Æthelred’s right-hand man in the north, where the Danes had long held greatest influence, while the wealthy bishopric of Worcester made him a power in England’s heartland.

A famine across northern Europe in 1005 offered a respite from attacks, but it was only temporary. In the years from 1006 to 1012, England suffered two of the most devastating of all Viking raids, with invasion and destruction sweeping across ever-greater regions of the country. It was during these years that Archbishop Wulfstan emerged as the king’s leading statesman, and his writings show him grappling with the crisis at the highest level.

The Wolf wrote lawcodes and legislation for Æthelred and his people, seeking to shore up the English state in its governance and justice. He drafted sermons and homilies that thundered out the need for repentance from sin. He wrote works of political theory about how the state should function and the role of each member of society in its flourishing. In 1009, “when the great army came to the country”, Wulfstan composed a lawcode in Æthelred’s name ordering all the people to perform public penance, in the hope of winning God’s forgiveness: “We all need earnestly to strive that we might gain God’s mercy and compassion, and that with his help we might resist our enemies. Now it is our will that all the people perform a general penance for three days on bread and herbs and water… and cry out urgently to Christ from their innermost heart.”

With great foresight and political skill, Wulfstan seized the chance to remake the nation under his new Danish king

For Wulfstan, history could only be explained by God’s will – and God’s determination to punish sinners, even to the destruction of a nation. Yet something important had changed with the passing of the millennium. The end of the world, it seemed, might not after all be at hand. The Danes who now brought armies into England were Christians themselves – and if not all their warriors practised the faith, certainly their rulers and leaders did. They could no longer be regarded as Satan’s ministers, or signs of his power in the world but – as his most famous work, the Sermon of the Wolf to the English (written c1009), details – God’s instrument of punishment for English sin.

“Beloved men, know the truth,” he began. “This world is in haste, and approaches its end. And so it is the worse in this world the longer it goes on, and because of the people’s sins it must needs worsen from day to day, until the coming of Antichrist.”

These great sins have overrun the country, Wulfstan said, and so the Danish raiders and invaders will never be defeated: “The English are now long victory-less, terribly demoralised through God’s anger.”

Wulfstan reminded the English people of their own past as invaders and conquerors who had taken the land from the British: “There was a historian in the Britons’ time named Gildas. He wrote about their misdeeds, of how through their sins they angered God so excessively that at last he allowed the English army to conquer their land and to destroy British strength entirely.” But now, Wulfstan declared, we know of worse sins among the English than ever the British committed, and so the Danes are sent to scourge us.

The people’s terror

Around the time that Wulfstan wrote the Sermon of the Wolf to the English, one of the most notorious events of the struggle took place: the violent death of an archbishop. In September 1011, a Danish army captured Canterbury, and took the archbishop Ælfheah hostage. They demanded a vast sum for the city’s freedom and then further loot for the archbishop’s release, but Ælfheah is said to have refused to be ransomed. On 19 April 1012 he was killed, apparently beaten to death during a drunken feast. Now Wulfstan, archbishop of York, was the most important churchman in the land, and he carried the moral weight of the people’s terror.

At this point, he must have perceived an inexorable shift in the political as well as the theological implications of the Danish attacks. In 1013, Swein Forkbeard, the king of Denmark, launched an invasion of England which he intended to result not in plunder or tribute, but in conquest. He landed at Sandwich in the summer and sailed up the coast to the Humber before advancing south through the country, receiving submission as each town and region surrendered before him. In the face of this onslaught, Æthelred fled to Normandy.

Wulfstan’s part in these events is unknown, but in February 1014 Swein died, and everything was again uncertain. The Danes elected Swein’s younger son, Cnut, as king of England (the elder, Harald, being heir to the Danish throne), but the English magnates sent for Æthelred to retake the crown, “as long as he would govern them better than he did before”. On Æthelred’s return, Wulfstan drafted further legislation for him, attempting to establish his rule on a firm Christian footing, and reissued his Sermon of the Wolf, exhorting the English to reject sin and begin anew.

A further crisis

But English politics were now wholly chaotic. Cnut landed with an invasion force in the summer of 1015 and, on 23 April 1016, the kingdom was thrown into further crisis by the death of King Æthelred. Cnut now fought for control of England with Æthelred’s son Edmund ‘Ironside’, until the Dane won a decisive victory on 18 October 1016 at Assandun (either Ashdon in north-west or Ashingdon in south-east Essex). A treaty was made that Edmund and Cnut would divide the country between them, but when Edmund followed his father to the grave on 30 November the same year, Cnut succeeded to the whole kingdom.

With great foresight and political skill, Wulfstan now seized the chance to remake the nation under this new king. Cnut was Christian, as his father had been, and with Wulfstan’s advice he sought to present himself to his newly conquered people as a just and pious king of the English, in accordance with the ideals of the English state. He endowed a church on the site of the battlefield at Assandun, which Wulfstan dedicated to the souls of those who had fallen, both Danes and English.

At a council held at Oxford in 1018, Wulfstan was instrumental in drafting legislation that established peace between the English and the Danes. In 1020 or 1021, he composed for Cnut the greatest Anglo-Saxon lawcode ever produced, a compendium that gathered together and refined the laws of preceding English kings. Cnut’s lawcode, written by Wulfstan, was reissued by Edward the Confessor, and later by William the Conqueror and his sons and grandsons. Some of these laws underlie the clauses of Magna Carta.

Wulfstan died in 1023, but the Wolf had left an indelible mark on English politics. He had lived through what seemed an apocalypse, seen his nation utterly defeated and its people brought to their knees. But in his hopes for a renewed Christian society, led by a Christian king, Cnut’s Danishness ultimately troubled him far less than Æthelred’s failures. He wrote that a king should be “the people’s comfort and a righteous shepherd over the Christian flock”, and he taught Cnut what that meant. “For if the king cherish justice in the sight of God and the world,” he promised, “through that he himself foremost shall prosper, and his subjects likewise… and that shall accomplish most in the nation.”


Time of the Wolf

c950–90

Probably born around the middle of the 10th century, Wulfstan becomes a monk at a time when the Benedictine reform movement is strengthening the power of the church.

990s

Wulfstan gains a reputation as an eloquent writer and preacher. While Viking raids grow in intensity, he composes apocalyptic sermons about the coming of the Antichrist.

996

Wulfstan becomes bishop of London, named in his correspondence as Lupus episcopus: ‘the Wolf bishop’.

1002

He is raised to the bishopric of Worcester and archbishopric of York, held in plurality – the north is an unstable, borderland region, and it is usual to combine York with a see in the south.

1008

By 1008 he is drafting lawcodes and public legislation for King Æthelred, including the famous penitential code of 1009, commanding all the English to three days’ penance to earn God’s forgiveness and his aid against the Danes.

1009–16

Wulfstan writes and redrafts the Sermon of the Wolf to the English over the years of Danish invasion and conquest, preaching and circulating it.

1016–18

He performs a diplomatic role after Cnut’s conquest in 1016. At the Council of Oxford in 1018, he is involved in making public peace between Danes and English.

1018

Wulfstan dedicates a church to the souls of the slain on the site of Cnut’s decisive victory at Assandun (either Ashdon or Ashingdon) in Essex.

1020–21

Wulfstan draws up King Cnut’s great new lawcode for the English.

1023

Wulfstan dies at York, and is buried at Ely in Cambridgeshire.


Laura Ashe is a historian of English medieval literature, history and culture at Worcester College, Oxford

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For more on Viking England, head to historyextra.com/period/viking