Wars in later 9C England

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See the Maps of ninth-century England and Maps of England under Alfred.

860-5: The first overwintering

ASC 'A’ 860 [incorrectly given as 861 in ‘C’ and ‘F’]: In this year King Æthelbald died, and his body is buried at Sherborne. And then his brother Æthelberht succeeded to the whole kingdom and held it in good harmony [and in great peace]. [‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘F’ omit both the harmony and the peace, which were evidently intended to mean an absence of internal strife, in view of the ongoing raids.

And in his time a great naval force came inland and stormed Winchester; and Ealdorman Osric with the men of Hampshire and Ealdorman Æthelwulf with the men of Berkshire fought against that army, and they put that army to flight and had possession of the battle-field. And Æthelberht reigned five years, and his body is buried in Sherborne.

ASC ‘A’ 865 [incorrectly given as 866 in ‘C’]: In this year a heathen army encamped on Thanet and made peace with the people of Kent. And the people of Kent promised them money for that peace. And under cover of that peace and promise of money the army stole away inland by night and ravaged all eastern Kent. [Asser adds “for they knew that they would seize more money by secret plunder than by peace”.]

This entry suggests that, not unlike the landing at Maldon in 991, the viking fleet was able to beach its ships, but could not proceed far inland. The willingness of the men of Kent to offer tribute rather than battle stands in contrast with the events of 853, where they assaulted the viking encampment directly.

866-78: The "Great Army"

A force simply called the ‘great army’ (Old English ‘'micel here’') terrorised England c.865-78, winning some notable victories, surviving several defeats and subjecting the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia to its authority. It very nearly overwhelmed all of England. Even when repulsed by Wessex, the Great Army ruled nearly half of England from the Thames to the Tees, an Anglo-Scandinavian realm which took fifty years for Wessex to conquer. By breaking the power of Northumbria and Mercia, which had dominated seventh and eighth-century England, the Great Army cleared the way for Wessex to establish a single kingdom of the English in the first half of the tenth century.

Very interesting archaeological evidence for the Great Army's over-wintering sites is coming to light, for example in Hadley, D. M. and Richards, J. D., (2018). In search of the Viking Great Army: beyond the winter camps. Medieval Settlement Research 33. Vol 33, pp. 1-17 (http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-1164-1/dissemination/pdf/Volume_33_2018/MSR33_001-017-Hadley_and_Richards_corrected.pdf). This suggests that the Great Army left a distinctive artefactual signature (with a mixture of looting, foraging and trading) which can be found in around thirty sites, all datable to the mid- to late-870s, in regions where the Great Army was known to be active.

We know quite a bit about the Great Army’s exploits from the histories produced at Alfred of Wessex’ court in the 890s. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (‘ASC’) provides a good overview – although from the enemy’s perspective. This can occasionally be supplemented using Asser’s ‘Life’ of Alfred (a deliberately flattering biography of his patron) and a version of the Chronicle translated into Latin in the later tenth century by Ealdorman Æthelweard for abbess Matilda of Essen, granddaughter of an Anglo-Saxon princess descended from Alfred. However, while we know the main events, we have relatively limited detail about the battles described here. It has been quoted so you can see it for yourself.

The relevant source-material is translated in Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge’s Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (Penguin, 1983). The 'C' recension of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a copy produced at Abingdon in the late tenth century) has nearly identical wording, though erroneously puts all of these entries one year later (ie 867 rather than 866, etc).

866: Arrival of the "Great Army"

ASC 'A' 866: And the same year a great heathen army came into England (Æthelweard adds "from the north") and took up winter quarters in East Anglia; and there they were supplied with horses, and the East Angles made peace with them.

867: The fall of Northumbria

ASC 'A' 867: In this year the army went from East Anglia to Northumbria, across the Humber estuary to the city of York (in November). And there was great civil strife going on in that people, and they had deposed their king Osberht and taken a king with no hereditary right, Ælla. And not until late in the year did they unite sufficiently to proceed to fight the raiding army; and nevertheless they collected a large army and attacked the enemy in York (21/23 March), and broke into the city; and some of them got inside (Asser says "for that city had not yet in those times strong and stout walls"), and an immense slaughter was made of the Northumbrians, some inside and some outside, and both kings were killed, and the survivors made peace with the enemy.

Supreme opportunists, viking forces were swift to exploit any weakness that could lead to plunder, tribute or power. Northumbria’s political situation in 866-7 must have seemed a gift from the gods!

Osberht was not the first Northumbrian king to lose the confidence of his nobles. Several rulers in the previous century had been deposed by at councils, or killed by rivals. However, Osberht evidently had enough support to mount a challenge to his successor Ælla. The resulting turbulence – and perhaps the difficulties of raising armies over the winter – allowed the "Great Army" to establish itself in York, probably in November. It took until March 867 for the Northumbrian rivals to assemble an army to dislodge the raiders.

How accurate the ASC’s account is for affairs in the north may be debated, but the story seems straightforward enough. The Northumbrians managed to breach York’s Roman defences, but in the resulting fighting in the streets the ‘Great Army’, with nowhere to go, had the victory. However, this may be a bit simplistic. York was hardly a ruin – it was an important ecclesiastical site and its defences were maintained well into the Anglian period (you can still see eighth century masonry in the ‘Multangular Tower’). With ships and horses, there was nothing to stop the "Great Army" plundering the city and departing long before the divided Northumbrian leadership mounted effective resistance. If the "Great Army" wintered in York, it is tempting to suggest that they intended to hold the city or at least use it as bait to force the squabbling Northumbrian nobles into battle on their terms.

Siege warfare was hardly sophisticated in ninth-century England. Missile weapons were uncommon and war engines long forgotten. Blockading a fortification until its supplies ran out was the obvious way of capturing a position. Did the English undermine the walls – or had the town already expanded, prompting the citizens to re-use masonry (for example in the city’s churches)? It is quite possible that the breach in York’s walls was a trap for the Northumbrian warrior-nobility, with a force of vikings ready to sally out and cut off any retreat. Kill the kings, annihilate the thegnly aristocracy and the land could be taken by new masters…

868: Stalemate at Nottingham

ASC 'A' 868: In this year the same army went into Mercia to Nottingham and took up winter quarters there. And Burgred, king of the Mercians, and his councillors asked Æthelred, king of the West Saxons, and his brother Alfred to help him to fight against the army. They then went with the army of the West Saxons into Mercia to Nottingham, and came upon the army in that fortress and besieged them there. There occurred no serious battle there, and the Mercians made peace with the enemy.

ASC 'A' 869: In this year the raiding army returned to the city of York, and stayed there one year.

Going a-viking was not all about fighting. Extorting treasure and valuables by threats alone avoided the risk of major battles. The leaders of the "Great Army" seem to have been relatively cautious, choosing to fight on favourable terms and willing to negotiate when the outcome looked uncertain.

As in 868, viking forces frequently established well-defended bases from which to raid the surrounding countryside. These could re-use existing fortifications, or saw ‘D’-shaped earth walls thrown up around a riverbank. Provided there was a decent line of supply, the defences would hold off enemies for long enough to assemble superior forces… or to negotiate terms.

870: The martyrdom of Saint Edmund

ASC 'A' 870: In this year the raiding army rode across Mercia into East Anglia, and took up winter quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought against them, and the Danes had the victory, and killed the king and conquered all the land. One version of the Chronicle names the leaders as Ingwar (Ivar) and Ubba; Æthelweard’s translation adds that Ivar died that year.

In the early medieval world, winter was a time to tell stories, listen to riddles, feast in the warmth of the hall and avoid the chill outside. It was certainly not a time for armies to assemble, not least because there would be poor grazing for horses.

Viking forces were happy to ignore this convention, probably because travelling bands of freebooters could operate in winter (weather permitting) since they had no homes to go back to. England’s warrior-aristocrats needed to spend time with their estates and families, and so armies would disband after a time. Just as the "Great Army" had exploited this weakness to bring down Northumbria’s kings, in 870 the same happened in East Anglia.

Having given tribute to the "Great Army" in 865, King Edmund paid for his later defiance with his life. He seems to have survived the battle and was captured, only for the vikings to shoot arrows at him – the martyrdom of St Stephen. He may have refused to act as a figurehead-ruler or simply been executed. Ironically, Edmund became more important in death than in life, as he rapidly acquired the status of a saint. Before the end of the ninth century, coins struck in East Anglia bore the words ‘SC EADMUND REX’ (‘St Edmund the king’), a local synthesis of viking rule and English tradition. His cult was popular in the Danelaw and actively promoted by the Anglo-Danish king Cnut.

871: Englefield and Reading

ASC 'A' 871: In this year the army came into Wessex to Reading, and three days later two Danish earls rode farther inland (Asser adds that Reading was a royal residence and that the rest of the army dug a rampart between the rivers Thames and Kennet to fortify their camp). Then Ealdorman Æthelwulf encountered them at Englefield, and fought against them there and had the victory, and one of them was killed there.

Asser ch.36: Four days after these things had happened there, King Æthelred and his brother Alfred combined forces, assembled an army, and went to Reading. When they had reached the gate of the stronghold by hacking and cutting down all the Vikings whom they had found outside, the Vikings fought no less keenly; like wolves they burst out of all the gates and joined battle with all their might. Both sides fought there for a long time, and fought fiercely, but alas, the Christians eventually turned their backs, and the Vikings won the victory and were masters of the battlefield; and the Ealdorman Æthelwulf mentioned above fell there, among others.

871: Ashdown

ASC 'A' 871: And four days later King Ethelred and his brother Alfred fought against the whole army at Ashdown; and the Danes were in two divisions: in the one were the heathen kings Bagsecg and Healfdene, and in the other were the earls. And then King Æthelred fought against the kings’ troop, and King Bagsecg was slain there; and Æthelred’s brother Alfred fought against the earls’ troop, and there was slain Earl Sidroc the Old, and Earl Sidroc the Younger and Earl Osbearn, Earl Fraena and Earl Harold; and both enemy armies were put to flight and many thousands were killed, and they continued fighting until night.

Asser has a great deal to say about Ashdown, relating how King Æthelred refused to leave his prayers to start the advance, so his younger brother Alfred led his half of the army and the remainder followed

Asser ch.37: The Christians were aroused by the grief and shame of this, and four days later, with all their might and in a determined frame of mind, they advanced against the Viking army at a place called Ashdown (which means mons fraxini, "hill of the ash" in Latin). But the Vikings, splitting up into two divisions, organised shield-walls of equal size (for they then had two kings and a large number of earls), assigning the core of the army to the two kings and the rest to all the earls. When the Christians saw this, they too split up the army into two divisions in exactly the same way, and established shield-walls no less keenly. But as I have heard from truthful authorities who saw it, Alfred and his men reached the battlefield sooner and in better order: for his brother King Æthelred, was still in his tent at prayer, hearing Mass and declaring firmly that he would not leave that place alive before the priest had finished Mass, and that he would not forsake divine service for that of men; and he did what he said. The faith of the Christian king counted for much with the Lord, as shall be shown more clearly in what follows.

ch.38: Now the Christians had decided that King Æthelred and his forces should engage the two Viking kings in battle, while his brother Alfred and his troops should submit to the fortunes of war against all the Viking earls. Matters were thus firmly arranged on both sides; but since the king was lingering still longer in prayer, and the Vikings were ready and had reached the battlefield more quickly, Alfred (then ‘heir apparent’) could not oppose the enemy battle-lines any longer without either retreating from the battlefield or attacking the enemy forces before his brother’s arrival on the scene. He finally deployed the Christian forces against the hostile armies, as he had previously intended (even thought the king had not yet come), and acting courageously, like a wild boar, supported by divine counsel and strengthened by divine help, when he had closed up the shield-wall in proper order, he moved his army without delay against the enemy.

ch.39: But it should be made clear at this point to those unaware of the fact, that the battlefield was not equally advantageous to both contending parties. The Vikings had taken the higher position first, and the Christians were deploying their battle-line from a lower position. A rather small and solitary thorn-tree (which I have seen for myself with my own eyes) grew there, around which the opposing armies clashed violently, with loud shouting from all, one side acting wrongfully and the other side set to fight for life, loved ones and country. When both sides had been fighting to and fro, resolutely and exceedingly ferociously, for quite a long time, the Vikings (by divine judgement) were unable to withstand the Christians’ onslaught any longer; and when a great part of their forces had fallen, they took to ignominious flight...

871: the "year of battles"

ASC 'A' 871: And a fortnight later King Æthelred and his brother Alfred fought against the army at Basing, and there the Danes had the victory. And two months later, King Æthelred and his brother Alfred fought against the army at Meretun and they were in two divisions; and they put both to flight and were victorious far on into the day; and there was a great slaughter on both sides; and the Danes had possession of the battle-field. And Bishop Heahmund (of Sherborne) was killed there and many important men. And afterwards, after Easter, King Æthelred died, and he had reigned five years, and his body is buried at Wimborne minster.

Then his brother Alfred, the son of Æthelwulf, succeeded to the kingdom of the West Saxons. And a month later Alfred fought with a small force against the whole army at Wilton and put it to flight far on into the day; and the Danes had possession of the battle-field. (Æthelweard mentions a battle lost by the smallness of the English force when Alfred was attending his brother’s funeral. Asser describes the flight of the Danes and their turning on their pursuers) And during that year nine general engagements were fought against the Danish army in the kingdom south of the Thames, besides the expeditions which the king’s brother Alfred and ealdormen and king’s thegns often rode on, which were not counted. And that year nine Danish earls were killed and one king. And the West Saxons made peace with the enemy that year.

871 was a particularly bloody year for both the West Saxons and the "Great Army". We have good evidence for some of the early battles thanks to the ASC, supplemented by the Welsh scholar Asser’s Life of Alfred. Asser had good reason to document this year, since it saw his patron’s rise from the king’s brother to king himself – over the heads of King Æthelred’s two young sons. Succession from brother to brother was not unusual (all four of Alfred’s predecessor-kings were brothers) and the military circumstances of 871 made strong leadership essential. Asser was writing for an audience in the 890s, when Alfred was attempting to secure the crown for his own son Edward at the expense of his nephews. This eventually led to a brief civil war in 900 and the ætheling Æthelwald being accepted as king in the Danelaw, but that’s another story!

While there is no reason to doubt Asser and the ASC, this is the party line produced at Alfred’s court, where the dark arts of spin and re-writing history were fully appreciated. Alfred is given full credit for his presence at Reading and his leading role at Ashdown, but he was not the only important leader. Æthelwulf, ealdorman of Berkshire, led the local thegns to victory against a band of raiders from the "Great Army" at Englefield, only to fall at Reading. Interestingly he seems to have been buried at Derby, suggesting that he may have been a Mercian – a reminder that Wessex had expanded its borders earlier in the ninth century.

872-6: The uneasy peace

ASC 'A' 872: In this year the army went from Reading to London, and took up winter quarters there; and then the Mercians made peace with the army.

ASC 'A' 873: In this year the army went into Northumbria, and it took up winter quarters at Torksey in Lindsey; and then the Mercians made peace with the army.

It is likely that the fighting of 871 left both sides exhausted. The "Great Army" rested in Mercia – at the expense of the once-mighty kingdom.

ASC 'A' 874: In this year the army went from Lindsey to Repton and took up winter quarters there, and drove King Burgred across the sea, after he had held the kingdom 22 years. And they conquered all that land. And he went to Rome and settled there; and his body is buried in the church of St Mary in the English quarter. And the same year they gave the kingdom of the Mercians to be held by Ceolwulf, a foolish king’s thegn; and he swore oaths to them and gave hostages, that it should be ready for them on whatever day they wished to have it, and he would be ready himself and all who would follow him, at the enemy’s service.

ASC 'A' 875: In this year the army left Repton: Healfdene went with part of the army into Northumbria and took up winter quarters by the River Tyne. And the army conquered the land and often ravaged among the Picts and the Strathclyde Britons; and the three kings, Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend [Æthelweard calls him 'Annuth'], went from Repton to Cambridge with a great force, and stayed there a year. And that summer King Alfred went out to sea with a naval force, and fought against the crews of seven ships, and captured one ship and put the rest to flight.

ASC 'A' 876: And that year Healfdene shared out the land of the Northumbrians, and they proceeded to plough and to support themselves.

Going a-viking may have proved very profitable for the Great Army, but the intensity of the fighting in 871 (and no doubt the attendant dead and maimed) seems to have encouraged the Great Army to split. Perhaps some of the older and more successful warriors chose to settle, taking lands in Northumbria and forming a military elite. Their legacy still exists in the numerous place names in the Danelaw, such as Thurkleby (‘Thurkil’s farm’) and Kettlethorpe (‘Ketil’s outlying farm’).

877-8: The assault on Wessex

ASC 'A' 876: In this year the enemy army slipped past the army of the West Saxons into Wareham; and then the king made peace with the enemy and they gave him hostages, who were the most important men next to their king in the army, and swore oaths to him on the holy ring - a thing which they would not do before for any nation - that they would speedily leave his kingdom. And then under cover of that, they - the mounted army - stole by night away from the English army to Exeter.

ASC 'A' 877: In this year the enemy army from Wareham came to Exeter; and the naval force sailed west along the coast and encountered a great storm at sea, and 120 ships were lost at Swanage. And King Alfred rode after the mounted army with the English army as far as Exeter, but could not overtake them before they were in the fortress where they could not be reached. And they gave him hostages there, as many as he wished to have, and swore great oaths and then kept a firm peace. Then in the harvest season (August) the army went away into Mercia and shared out some of it, and gave some to Ceolwulf.

ASC 'A' 878: In this year in midwinter after twelfth night the enemy army came stealthily to Chippenham, and occupied the land of the West Saxons and settled there, and drove a great part of the people across the sea, and conquered most of the others; and the people submitted to them, except King Alfred He journeyed in difficulties through the woods and fen-fastnesses with a small force. [Æthelweard adds that Ealdorman Æthelnoth of Somerset, stayed with a small force in a certain wood, and that the men of Somerset supported Alfred].

The part of the "Great Army" which hadn’t settled seemed determined to break Wessex as it had broken Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia. They seem to have avoided active conflict for two seasons, making use of existing fortresses and rapid relocations to tie up the West Saxon army – and no doubt plunder and destroy on the way. Neither side seems to have been keen to repeat the bloody battles of 871. Evidently the grim toll made both sides cautious. ASC’s talk of Alfred taking hostages hides the fact that he twice had to "make peace" with the "Great Army" – paying them to go away (West Saxon coins of this period have a very low silver content, showing the monetary effects of repeated tribute payments). This didn’t quite work in 876 (when the "Great Army" shut itself in the Roman walls of Exeter), but it seemed more hopeful in 877, when the enemy left to take up lands in Mercia. “Peace in our time” seemed possible.

878: Cynuit (Countisbury)

ASC 'A' 878: And the same winter the brother of Ivar and Healfdene (Ubba) was in the kingdom of the West Saxons in Devon with 23 ships. And he was killed there and 840 men of his army with him. And there was captured the banner which they called "Raven" (though none of the ‘royal’ versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ie ‘A’, ‘F’, Asser or Æthelweard) mention the Raven banner).

Asser ch.54 adds: …after slaughtering many of the Christians there, he (Ubba) met an unhappy death with 1,200 men, at the hands of the king’s thegns and in front of the stronghold at Cynuit (Countisbury). For many of the king’s thegns, with their followers, had shut themselves up for safety inside this stronghold; and when the Vikings saw that the stronghold was unprepared and altogether unfortified (except for ramparts thrown up in our fashion), they made no attempt to storm it, since by the lie of the land that place is very secure from every direction except the east, as I myself have seen. Instead they began to besiege it, thinking that those men would soon give way, forced by hunger, thirst and the siege, since there is no water near the stronghold. But it did not turn out as they thought. For the Christians, long before they were liable to suffer want in any way, were divinely inspired and, judging it much better to gain either victory or death, burst out unexpectedly at dawn against the Vikings and, by virtue of their aggressiveness, from the very outset they overwhelmed the enemy in large part, together with their king, a few escaping by flight to the ships.

More than savage bears or prowling wolves, the boar was the animal most associated with martial virtue in Anglo-Saxon culture. It attacked fiercely and would defend its own, but would also stand its ground, charging out to overpower its enemies. This seems to have been what happened in Devon in 878. Asser (who, as bishop of Sherborne, knew both the area and the participants) explains how the local thegns and their followers took refuge behind the simple earth ramparts and natural defences of the hill-fort at Countisbury (Cynuit). As they had no water source, Ubba’s warband trapped them and let starvation and exposure attack first. The English had other ideas!

878: Edington

ASC 'A' 878: And afterwards at Easter (23 March), King Alfred with a small force made a stronghold at Athelney, and he and the section of the people of Somerset which was nearest to it proceeded to fight from that stronghold against the enemy. [Æthelweard adds that Ealdorman Æthelnoth of Somerset, stayed with a small force in a certain wood]. Then in the seventh week after Easter he rode to ‘Egbert’s Stone’ east of Selwood, and there came to meet him all the people of Somerset and of Wiltshire and of that part of Hampshire which was on this side of the sea, and they rejoiced to see him. And then after one night he went from that encampment to Iley (near Warminster), and after another night to Edington, and there fought against the whole army and put it to flight, and pursued it as far as the fortress, and stayed there a fortnight. And then the enemy gave him preliminary hostages and great oaths that they would leave his kingdom, and promised also that their king should receive baptism, and they kept their promise. Three weeks later King Guthrum with 30 of the men who were the most important in the army came to him at Aller, which is near Athelney, and the king stood sponsor to him at his baptism there; and the unbinding of the chrism took place at Wedmore. And he was twelve days with the king, and he honoured him and his companions greatly with gifts.

Although the Great Army ruled Wessex for the winter of 877-8, its king was not dead. At the start of the campaigning season, Alfred mustered the warriors of his heartland shires for one last battle, which would prove decisive.

879-91: Reforming Wessex / vikings in France

879-80: The aftermath of the "Great Army"

ASC 'A' 879: In this year the army went from Chippenham to Cirencester and stayed there for one year. And the same year a band of vikings assembled and encamped at Fulham by the Thames.

ASC 'A' 880: In this year the army went from Cirencester into East Anglia, and settled there and shared out the land. And the same year the army which had encamped at Fulham went overseas into the Frankish empire to Ghent and stayed there for a year.

The "Great Army" had been repulsed by the West Saxons, but it had overseen the conquest of three kingdoms. The veterans and survivors settled in East Anglia, eastern Mercia and Northumbria, establishing the Anglo-Scandinavian ‘Danelaw’ with its vibrant cultural and economic mixing-pot.

881-4: vikings in northern France

ASC ‘A’ 881: In this year the army went farther inland into the Frankish empire, and the Franks fought against them [probably the Frankish victory of Saucort in August 881. Æthelweard says that the Franks had the victory and put the Danes to flight] and the Danish army provided itself with horses after that battle.

The "Great Army" was not the only group of vikings active in this period. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle traces the journeys of the force which came to Fulham and then moved onto the Continent before returning to England.

ASC ‘A’ 882: In this year the army went farther into the Frankish empire along the Meuse, and stayed there a year.

And the same year King Alfred went out with ships to sea and fought against four crews of Danish men, and captured two of the ships – and the men were killed who were on them [‘B’ and ‘C’ suggest that the men were killed after the capture, while ‘A’ and Asser are clear that they were dead beforehand. ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘F’ go further and say “and they slew the men”] – and two crews surrendered to him. And they had great losses in killed or wounded before they surrendered.

ASC ‘A’ 883: In this year the army went up the Scheldt to Conde, and stayed there for a year.

ASC ‘A’ 884: In this year the army went up the Somme to Amiens, and stayed there a year.

885: The attack on Rochester

ASC ‘A’ 885: In this year the aforesaid army divided into two [one part going east], the other part to Rochester, where they besieged the city and made other fortifications round themselves. And nevertheless the English defended the city until King Alfred came up with his army. [Asser adds “And then the pagans left their fortifications and abandoned all the horses which they had brought with them from the Frankish empire, and also left the greater number of their prisoners in the fort, for the king had come there suddenly; and they fled instantly to the ships, and the Saxons at once seized the prisoners and the horses abandoned by the pagans”.] Then the enemy went to their ships and abandoned their fortification, and they were deprived of their horses there, and immediately that same summer they went back across the sea.

Whitelock, in EHD v.1, notes that “the original Chronicle must had had two consecutive sentences ending “went across the sea”, and all our extant MSS go back on a text which has accidentally lost the second of them, the scribe having continued after the second, instead of the first occurrence of the words… [From the mid-tenth century Latin Chronicle of Æthelweard] It is clear that only some of the invaders went back across the sea at this moment. The others came to terms with Alfred, but twice broke them by raiding the country south of the Thames. They received aid from the Danes settled in East Anglia, and they encamped at Benfleet, on the north bank of the Thames estuary. There, however, some sort of quarrel occurred and they went across the sea. This passage, accidentally omitted from the extant versions of the Chronicle, explains Alfred’s attack on East Anglia.”

ASC 'A' 885 cont.: That same year King Alfred sent a naval force from Kent into East Anglia. Immediately they came into the mouth of the Stour they encountered 16 ships of vikings and fought against them, and seized all the ships and killed the men. When they turned homeward with the booty, they met a large naval force of vikings and fought against them on the same day, and the Danes had the victory.

[After noting the death of the Frankish king and Pope Marinus] And that same year the Danish army in East Anglia violated the peace with King Alfred.

886-91: vikings in northern France

ASC ‘A’ 886: In this year the Danish army which had gone east went west again, and then up the Seine, and made their winter quarters there at the town of Paris. [Asser adds: “They pitched a camp on both sides of the river near the bridge, to prevent the citizens from crossing the bridge – for that city is situated on a small island in the middle of the river – and besieged the city all that year. But since God compassionately befriended them and the citizens defended themselves manfully, they could not break through the fortifications”]

That same year King Alfred occupied London [Æthelweard says “besieged”, and Asser adds “after the burning of cities and the massacre of peoples”]; and all the English people that were not under subjection to the Danes submitted to him. And he then entrusted the borough to the control of Ealdorman Æthelred.

Alfred’s occupation of London – described rather glibly compared to the more brutal reality – was an important act in protecting Wessex, by securing control of the river Thames. Historically London had been part of the kingdom of the East Saxons, so Alfred’s decision to hand control of the city to Mercia may have been unpopular, though perhaps temporary: the will of Theodred, bishop of London c.909x926 – 953x5, disposed of lands in Essex and Sussex which almost certainly belonged to the see from the seventh century.

“Ealdorman” Æthelred, ruler of the Mercians and husband of Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd, might in other circumstances have styled himself “king”. However, with the Danes occupying much of Mercia, Æthelred was dependent on Wessex, and Alfred – evidently already looking to the long term – was not prepared to accept any other king in England.

ASC ‘A’ 887: In this year the Danish army went up past the bridge at Paris, then up along the Seine to the Marne, and then up the Marne as far as Chezy, and stayed there and in the Yonne area, spending two winters in those two places… And in the same year in which the army went up beyond the bridge at Paris, Ealdorman Æthelhelm [Asser adds “of Wiltshire”] took to Rome the alms of King Alfred and the West Saxons.

A record of taking alms may not seem important, but it was a significant milestone in Wessex’ recovery from the devastation caused by the “Great Army”. “Saint Peter’s Pence” was a payment customarily collected through England’s churches and sent to Rome, acknowledging their long-standing debt for the initial conversion missioned organised by Pope Gregory in 597. Alfred not only had sufficient disposable wealth, but was also able to organise an expedition for the dangerous journey south (even more risky in view of the fragmentation of the Frankish realm into five kingdoms, described s.a. 887) and release one of his ealdormen from domestic duty. The ASC records similar ventures in subsequent years (and indeed notes that in 889 there was no expedition to Rome, but only couriers bearing letters).

ASC ‘A’ 890: In this year Abbot Beornhelm took to Rome the alms of the West Saxons and of King Alfred. And then northern king, Guthrum, whose baptismal name was Æthelstan, died. [The Annals of St Neots say he was buried at the royal residence of Hadleigh] He was King Alfred’s godson, and he lived in East Anglia and was the first [of the Danes] to settle that land.

And the same year the Danish army went from the Seine to St Lo, which lies between Brittany and France; and the Bretons fought against them and had the victory, and drove them into a river and drowned many of them.

ASC ‘A’ 891: In this year the Danish army went east, and King Arnulf with the East Franks, the Saxons and Bavarians fought against the mounted force before the ships arrived, and put it to flight. [the battle of the river Dyle]

892-6: The final viking assault

892: Attack on the Weald and Haesten in the Thames

ASC ‘A’ 892: In this year the great Danish army, which we have spoken about before, went back from the eastern kingdom westward to Boulogne, and they were provided with ships there, so that they crossed in one journey, horses and all, and then came up into the estuary of the Lympne with 200 [and 50] ships. That estuary is in East Kent, at the east end of that great wood which we call ‘Andred’. The wood is from east to west 120 miles long, or longer, and 30 miles broad. The river, of which we spoke before, comes out of the Weald. They rowed their ships up the river as far as the Weald, four miles from the mouth of the estuary, and there they stormed a fortress. Inside that fortification there were a few peasants, and it was only half made. Then immediately afterwards Hæsten came with 80 ships up the Thames estuary and made himself a fortress at Milton, and the other army made one at Appledore.

Hæsten [ON Hasteinn, Latin Hastingus] is first encountered on the Loire in 866, and was active leading a warband on the Continent before his arrival in England.

893: The storming of Benfleet and the battle of Buttington

ASC ‘A’ 893: In this year, that was twelve months after the Danes had built the fortress in the eastern kingdom, the Northumbrians and East Angles had given King Alfred oaths, and the East Angles had given six preliminary hostages; and yet, contrary to those pledges, as often as the other Danish armies went out in full force, they went either with them or on their behalf.

Those of the ‘Great Army’ who had opted to settle and rule over Northumbria and East Anglia had established terms of peace with Wessex. Despite this, men from both kingdoms – presumably former vikings from the ‘Great Army’ – chose to join in the new raiding expeditions.

And then King Alfred collected his army, and advanced to take up a position between the two enemy forces, where he had the nearest convenient site with regard both to the fort in the wood and the fort by the water, so that he could reach either army, if they chose to come into the open country. Then they went afterwards along the Weald in small bands and mounted companies, by whatever side it was then undefended by the English army. And also they were sought by other bands, almost every day, either by day or by night, both from the English army and from the boroughs. The king had divided his army into two, so that always half its men were at home, half on service, apart from the men who guarded the boroughs. The enemy did not all come out of those encampments more than twice: once when they first landed, before the English force was assembled, and once when they wished to leave those encampments.

[Æthelweard adds that, after Easter, they raided along the Weald as far as Wessex, and ravaged Hampshire and Berkshire, and that the army which intercepted them at Farnham was led by Alfred’s son Edward] Then they captured much booty, and wished to carry it north across the Thames into Essex, to meet the ships. Then the English army intercepted them and fought against them at Farnham, and put the enemy to flight and recovered the booty. And the Danes fled across the Thames where there was no ford, and up along the Colne on to an islet [Æthelweard calls it ‘Thorney’, identified by Stenton as near Iver, Bucks]. Then the English forces besieged them there for as long as their provisions lasted; but they had completed their term of service and used up their provisions, and the king was then on the way there with the division which was serving with him. When he was on his way there and the other English army was on its way home, and the Danes were remaining behind there because their king had been wounded in the battle, so that they could not move him [Æthelweard here says that Ealdorman Æthelred brought reinforcements from London, and the Danes came to terms, gave hostages and swore to leave the kingdom (whether Alfred’s or Æthelred’s is unclear); the ships from the Lympne joined them at Mersea]

This episode highlights one of the weaknesses of early medieval military systems. The mobile field army - Alfred's thegns - normally expected to campaign in enemy territory, making supply relatively easy, since the thegns could take whatever they needed from the enemy. When fighting on the defensive, provisioning was more difficult, even though the warrior supplied by every five hides of land was expected to have a pound to pay his upkeep for the season.

Even when facing a viking band weakened from one battle and pinned in place, Ealdorman Aethelred and the aetheling Edward opted to 'make peace' rather than risk a defeat - or a costly victory - by attempting to finish them off.


Those Danes who live in Northumbria and East Anglia collected some hundred ships, and went south round the coast [‘A’ alone adds ‘and some 40 ships went north around the coast’] and besieged a fortress on the north coast of Devon, and those who had gone south besieged Exeter. When the king heard that, he turned west towards Exeter with the whole army, except for a very inconsiderable portion of the people who continued eastwards. They went on until they came to London, and then with the citizens and with the reinforcements which came to them from the west, they went east to Benfleet. Hæsten had then come there with his army which had been at Milton, and the large army which had been at Appledore on the estuary of the Lympne had then also come there. Hæsten had previously built that fortress at Benfleet; and he was then out on a raid, and the large army was at home. Then the English went there and put the enemy to flight, and stormed the fortress and captured all that was within, both goods and women and also children, and brought all to London; and they either broke up or burnt all the ships, or brought them to London or to Rochester.

And Hæsten’s wife and two sons were brought to the king; and he gave them back to him, because one of them was his godson, and the other the godson of Ealdorman Æthelred. They had stood sponsor to them before Hæsten came to Benfleet, and he had given the king oaths and hostages, and the king had also made him generous gifts of money, and so he did also when he gave back the boy and the woman. But immediately they came to Benfleet and had made that fortress, Hæsten ravaged his kingdom, and that very province which Æthelred, his son’s godfather, was in charge of; and again, a second time, he had gone on a raid in that same kingdom when his fortress was stormed.

Diplomatic relations were still possible, even in the middle of a bitter conflict. At some point, presumably in the twelve months between Hæsten building his fortress and the events leading to its destruction, there had been a diplomatic agreement. The reciprocal exchange of gifts was standard practice, but the fact that Hæsten gave hostages and allowed his sons to be baptised, becoming the spiritual sons of Alfred and Æthelred, says a good deal about the balance of power. If ASC is to be believed, the viking force had limited opportunities for raiding and was bottled up in its fortress more or less as soon as it was finished.


When the king had turned west with the army towards Exeter, as I have said before, and the Danish army had lain siege to the borough, they went to their ships when he arrived there. When he was occupied against the army there in the west, and the (other) two Danish armies were assembled at Shoebury in Essex, and had made a fortress there, they went both together up along the Thames, and a great reinforcement came to them both from the East Angles and the Northumbrians. [‘A’ only, though ‘D’ says the same more concisely: Then they went up along the Thames until they reached the Severn, then up along the Severn]

Æthelweard omits the Exeter raid, saying that Hæsten made the raid from Benfleet, leading to the battle at Buttington.

Then Ealdorman Æthelred and Ealdorman Æthelhelm and Ealdorman Æthelnoth and the king’s thegns who then were at home at the fortresses assembled from every borough east of the Parret, and both west and east of Selwood, and also north of the Thames and west of the Severn, and also some portion of the Welsh people. When they were all assembled, they overtook the Danish army at Buttington on the banks of the Severn [in Montgomery] and besieged it on every side in a fortress. Then when they had encamped for many weeks on the two sides of the river, and the king was occupied in the west in Devon against the naval force, the besieged were oppressed by famine, and had eaten the greater part of their horses and the rest had died of starvation. Then they came out against the men who were encamped on the east side of the river, and fought against them, and the Christians had the victory. And the king’s thegn Ordheah and also many other king’s thegns were killed, and a very great slaughter of the Danes was made, and the part that escaped were saved by flight.


When they came to Essex to their fortress and their ships, the survivors collected again before winter a large army from the East Angles and Northumbrians, placed their women and ships and property in safety in East Anglia, and went continuously by day and night till they reached a deserted city in Wirral, which is called Chester. Then the English army could not overtake them before they were inside that fortress. However, they besieged the fortress for some two days, and seized all the cattle that was outside, and killed the men whom they could cut off outside the fortress, and burnt all the corn, or consumed it by means of their horses, in all the surrounding districts. And that was twelve months after they had come hither across the sea. [Æthelweard does not mention the raid on Chester; instead, he says that a pirate named Sigeferth came with a fleet from Northumbria, twice ravaged along the coast, and then returned home.]

In its description of the campaigns of 893 (one of the longest entries), the ASC contrives to muddle the narrative, repeatedly interspersing the king's activities and movements, giving the impression that Alfred played the leading role in the English victories. In fact, the destruction of the fortress at Benfleet was accomplished by the forces responsible for the defence of the eastern part of the kingdom – i.e. Ealdorman Æthelred and (presumably) the ætheling Edward, though the ASC gives them no direct credit. The victory at Buttington is ascribed to three of the ealdormen of western Wessex. Delegation of military authority was an important part of Alfred's reforms: in each shire, the ealdorman and shire-reeve were responsible for defence and for providing a field army, drawing on the king's thegns, landowners and the men garrisoning the new fortified boroughs.

Æthelweard presents a simpler and perhaps more accurate chronology for the events of 893: the aetheling Edward's victory at Farnham, leading to the viking leader being besieged at Thorney; Hæsten’s raid from Benfleet through Mercia, pursued by ealdorman Æthelhelm 'with a cavalry force', joined by the West Saxon army under ealdorman Æthelnoth and an army led by 'king' Æthelred, leading to the victory at Buttington; then the breaching of the rampart at Benfleet, capturing significant treasure; and finally the ravaging by Sigeferth 'the pirate' from Northumbria. Interestingly, King Alfred is only mentioned as Edward's father.

894-6: The viking storm passes

ASC ‘A’ 894: And then in this year, immediately after that, the Danish army went into Wales from Wirral, because they could not stay there. That was because they were deprived both of the cattle and the corn which had been ravaged. When they turned back from Wales with the booty they had captured there, they went, so that the English army could not reach them, across Northumbria and into East Anglia, until they came into east Essex on to an island called Mersea, which is out in the sea.

And when the Danish army which had besieged Exeter turned homewards, they ravaged up in Sussex near Chichester, and the citizens put them to flight and killed many hundreds of them, and captured some of their ships.

Then that same year before winter [the other recensions say ‘in early winter’] the Danes who were encamped on Mersea rowed their ships up the Thames and up the Lea. That was two years after they came hither across the sea.

Æthelweard makes no mention of the events at Chester: when two years were complete when a huge fleet arrived from the fortress of Boulogne bound for Lympne, Ealdorman Æthelnoth set out from Wessex. In the city of York he contacted the enemy, who possessed large territories in the kingdom of the Mercians, on the western side of the place called Stamford. This is to say, between the streams of the river Welland and the thickets of the wood called Kesteven.

Æthelweard's account may mean that a force from York was occupying or raiding an area of Mercia west of Stamford, between the Welland and Kesteven.

ASC ‘A’ 895: And in the same year the aforesaid army made a fortress by the Lea, 20 miles above London. Then afterwards in the summer a great part of the citizens and also of other people marched till they arrived at the fortress of the Danes, and there they were put to flight and four king’s thegns were slain. Then later, in the autumn, the king encamped in the vicinity of the borough while they were reaping their corn, so that the Danes could not deny them that harvest. Then one day the king rode up along the river, and examined where the river could be obstructed, so that they could not bring the ships out. And then this was carried out: two fortresses were made on the two sides of the river. When they had just begun that work and had encamped for that purpose, the enemy perceived that they could not bring the ships out. Then they abandoned the ships and went overland till they reached Bridgnorth on the Severn and built that fortress. Then the English army rode after the enemy, and the men from London fetched the ships, and broke up all which they could not bring away, and brought to London those which were serviceable. And the Danes had placed their women in safety in East Anglia before they left that fortress. Then they stayed the winter at Bridgnorth. That was three years after they had come hither across the sea into the estuary of the Lympne.

ASC ‘A’ 896: And afterwards in the summer of this year the Danish army divided, one force going into East Anglia and one into Northumbria; and those that were moneyless got themselves ships and went south across the sea to the Seine. [The Annals of St Vaast record the return of the Northmen to the Seine in 896, with five large ships under the leadership of ‘Hundeus’]

By the grace of God, the army had not on the whole afflicted the English people very greatly; but they were much more seriously afflicted in those three years by the mortality of cattle and men, and most of all in that many of the best king’s thegns who were in the land died in those three years. [a list of those who died then follows]

This was the last major military test of Alfred’s reign, and indeed the last time viking armies seriously threatened Wessex for a century. The ASC’s claim that plague and famine caused more harm than the vikings may be true – though the movement of armies (friendly and otherwise) will have contributed by consuming cattle, fodder and grain.

The beginning of this annal, describing the breakup of the viking army, is reminiscent of the entry for 880, whereby the ‘Great Army’ moved to East Anglia, “settled there and shared out the land”. On this occasion, land was there to be purchased rather than distributed; tenth and eleventh century evidence from the Danelaw shows that there was plenty of opportunity to buy and sell land.

Sea raiding

In the same year the armies in East Anglia and Northumbria greatly harassed Wessex along the south coast with marauding bands, most of all with the warships which they had built many years before. Then King Alfred had “long ships” built to oppose the Danish warships. They were almost twice as long as the others. Some had 60 oars, some more. They were both swifter and steadier and also higher than the others. They were built neither on the Frisian nor on the Danish pattern, but as it seemed to him himself that they could be most useful.

Then on a certain occasion of the same year, six ships came to the Isle of Wight and did great harm there, both in Devon and everywhere along the coast. Then the king ordered a force to go thither with nine of the new ships, and they blocked the estuary from the seaward end. Then the Danes went out against tehm with three ships, and three were on dry land farther up the estuary; the men from them had gone up on land. Then the English captured two of those three ships at the entrance to the estuary, and killed the men, and the one ship escaped. On it also the men were killed except five. Those got away because the ships of their opponents ran aground. Moreover, they had run aground very awkwardly: three were aground on that side of the channel on which the Danish ships were aground, and all the other on the other side, so that none of them could get to the others. But when the water had ebbed many furlongs from the ships, the Danes from the remaining three ships went to the other three which were stranded on their side, and they then fought there. And there were killed the king’s reeve Lucuman, Wulfheard the Frisian, Æbba the Frisian, Æthelhere the Frisian, Æthelfrith the king’s geneat and in all 62 Frisians and English and 120 of the Danes. Then, however, the tide reached the Danish ships before the Christians could launch theirs, and therefore they rowed away out. They were then so wounded that they could not row past Susssex, but the sea cast two of them on to the land, and the men were brought to Winchester to the king, and he ordered them to be hanged. And the men who were on the one ship reached East Anglia greatly wounded. That same no fewer than 20 ships, men and all, perished along the south coast.

Upon this entry rests Alfred’s reputation as ‘father of the English navy’ – a rather extravagant claim, in the circumstances. Alfred was certainly not the earliest English king to employ ships in war, and his attempt to take on the Danes from the sea was hardly a resounding success. For all the size, speed and combat power of his “long ships”, they appear to have been poorly handled, and the resulting close-quarters engagement was bloody for both sides.

Early medieval Frisia corresponds to the modern Netherlands and had a long reputation for seafaring trade. It is unsurprising to find a large number of Frisians active in Alfred’s nascent navy, since Alfred was active in bringing foreign expertise to Wessex. The three identified Frisians all have conventional English names, suggesting they adopted new names in Alfred’s service.

In the aftermath of his kingdom’s near-destruction, Alfred embarked on a thorough reform of all aspects of West Saxon life. His religious, economic and military innovations had two objectives – to guard against future viking attacks (proved successfully in the 890s) and to conquer or dominate the entire island of Britain. Neither Alfred nor his son Edward saw this dream fulfilled, but his grandson Æthelstan could style himself rex totius Britanniae (‘king of all Britain’).