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Old 03-17-2022, 09:08 PM   #34 (permalink)
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The Great Heathen Army Goes to War: This Time it’s Personal! Maybe.

In 865 a huge army of Vikings, known to history (and from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) as “the great heathen army” arrived in England. Ostensibly, they were there to avenge the death of the legendary Viking king, Ragnar Lothbrok, portrayed with varying degrees of historic licence in the series Vikings, he having been killed by King Aella when he attempted himself to extract revenge for the slaying of his own countrymen in Ireland, according to some accounts. In the army, the Chronicle faithfully reports, were Ivar the Boneless, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-trousers, sorry eye, Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye and Bjorn Ironside. This account has been disputed however, and as with most events so far in the past, it’s impossible to be sure, as often these sagas and chronicles exaggerated or were biased on one side or the other. It’s possible Ragnar’s sons were not in the army at all.

If that’s the case, and the assault was not retaliation for his death, then the main thrust of the force may have come from Francia (the Kingdom of the Franks, which seems, so far as I can see, to cover most of near Western Europe - France, Germany, Netherlands, Austria and so on, almost as far as, but obviously not including, Italy) where a power struggle between the emperor and his son had resulted in the assistance of the Vikings. During the war, they discovered what easy pickings monasteries on the coast were and started harassing the Franks, but improved fortifications along the Frankish coast made this a non starter, so they turned their eyes further west. It’s probably more than likely then, given the Vikings’ way of life, that rather than a concerted effort to avenge the king Ragnar this was a pure for-profit mission, opportunism which spoke to all the various Viking chieftains, who banded together not out of love for or outrage over the slaying of Ragnar Lothbrok, but for pure, hard cash. And women. And anything else they could carry away.

Wary of landing in Sussex, where King Aethelbert had been successful against a large fleet in 851, the Great Heathen Army turned its attention to East Anglia, and landed there in 865. Once again the Isle of Thanet featured (you may remember when hopeful Christian missionaries arrived in the sixth century the Briton king let them stay there) as the Vikings were given the island in return for
Danegeld (protection money, basically) but decided they had not come all this way without slaughtering - Odin, you gotta slaughter something! - and so went on a binge of murder, burning, looting and, one would comfortably assume, an ample amount of rape. A Heptarchy there may have been, but nobody could show the East Anglians anything in writing that said they were part of any Saxon version of NATO, so they looked after themselves and bought the fierce northmen off with some horses. The Vikings said ta muchly and set up their invasion base.

They spent the winter there (a warmer winter than back home, I’ll wager, Olaf! You’re not wrong there, Thor me old buddy!) and then set their sights on Northumbria, which was basically part of the kingdom of Wessex by now, as we’ve seen. They headed for the capital, York, which was a really good idea, because even if they didn’t know it (and they may not have; there’s no real information on the sort of intelligence Vikings in general or the Great Heathen Army had on its enemies at that time, though Clare Downham in her book Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ivarr to AD 1014 seems to believe there was information, noting that it was “likely the Vikings had been tipped off concerning events in the north”) King Aella was in the middle of a civil war, and his army was basically knackered. The city walls had been built by the Romans but not maintained, and so were crumbling by the time the GHA arrived. Aella probably dropped his head into his hands and groaned “Oh guys! You could not have picked a worse time!” and rode to meet the new invaders.

Aella decided the enemy of my enemy and all that, and he and the rival king he had driven out, Osberht joined forces. It didn’t matter. There are no sources which confirm the size of the GHA, but various scholars talk of it being from about 1,000 to being in the “low thousands”. Either way, it was pretty big and considered the largest invasion army to set foot in England. The Battle of York didn’t last long, and both kings were killed. There’s no real historical evidence to back this next bit up, but it’s fun and gruesome so let’s consider that it may have happened.

Those of you who have seen the series know what the “blood eagle” is, and for those of you who have not, no, it is not a nosebleed you get from listening to Hotel California at full volume. This is the punishment supposedly meted out to Aella, who is said to have been the one to have thrown Ragnar into the pit of snakes (though again, this may not have happened), by his sons (who may also not have been there). Here’s how it goes. For those of you who are squeamish, talk amongst yourselves or skip ahead; I’m not spoilering this. Pussies.

First the victim was laid on his stomach and his shirt torn to expose his naked back. Then a sharp tool was used (watch those edges, kids, and always ask mother if you can borrow the tool) to break the ribcage. The lungs were then pulled out through the gap made, to resemble two (very bloody and slippery) wings, hence the name of the punishment. Traditionally, this was only practiced on members of the royal family, which would back up why Aella would have been singled out for such vengeance, but also makes it unlikely, given that it was a specifically Scandinavian thing. Also, most well-known brainbox spoilsports say this is all made up, but fuck them, it’s fun. Not, of course, for His Majesty.

Anyway, whether that happened or not is kind of immaterial, as the Battle of York won, the Vikings now had Northumbria and turned towards Mercia in 867, taking the town of Nottingham. Unable to withstand the invaders by themselves, Mercia looked to Wessex for help, and the two kingdoms joined forces, but even at that they were unable to best the GHA and had to eventually sue for peace by paying Danegeld. For pretty much the next year the Viking army was quiet, wintering in Nottingham and then returning to Thetford. In the winter of 869 the king of East Anglia, Edmund, launched an attack but was defeated, his lands now coming completely under the control of the Viking army.

A year later, another huge army arrived to bolster up the Great Heathen Army, this one going under the title of the Great Summer Army, presumably not because they all arrived in shorts and shades and carrying surfboards under their arms. The combined armies now marched on Wessex, but, rather surprisingly, given that the forces of Wessex and Mercia could not defeat the GHA, this “double-army” was repulsed by the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Ashdown. This was in fact preceded by the Battle of Englefield, four days prior, which I think I’m correct in saying appears to have been the first victory for the Saxons against the Vikings since the GHA arrived.

It wasn’t, to be fair, the full army that encountered the forces of King Aethelwulf, just a “large scouting party”, but when one of the earls in the party was killed, it is again the first time I see that even part of the Great Heathen Army broke and ran. They redressed this four days later at the Battle of Reading (pronounced red-ding, not reed-ing, in case you were wondering) where they faced Aethelwulf again but this time with the future king Alfred the Great. However, glory and fame in his future didn’t impress the Vikings and they kicked their arses, killing Aethelwulf and forcing Alfred to leg it. That’s more like it, the Vikings may have grinned. Normal service has been restored. But it wasn’t to last.

As I said, the Battle of Ashdown would see the GHA (and presumably the GSA too, though probably not the GCSE or GPS, sorry) roundly defeated for the first time. Not just a scout party this time, King Aethelred and King Alfred faced the might of the two huge Viking armies and the leader of the Great Summer Army, Bagpuss sorry Bagsecg was killed, duly despatched to his reward in Valhalla no doubt. Interesting stuff in this one. And here it is. The Viking army arrived first and took the high ground, which should have given them the advantage. Alfred (not yet a king, much less a legend) decided to copy their formation. Aethelred, on the other side, decided it was time to pop off for a quick prayer. No harm in having God on your side, eh?

Except it turned out not be so quick. As Alfred advanced up the hill and gave bloody battle, his king was still down in his tent mumbling prayers, no doubt something along the lines of “If you could see your way clear, Lord, to smashing our enemies, that would be just great.” Alfred’s frantic cries from on high finally reached his ears - the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle clearly does not relate his words as “Any time you’re ready, Your Majesty! Getting a bit hairy up here!” and it absolutely does not record his later cry “Jesus fucking Christ! Enough with the prayers already, Your Kingship! God helps those who help themselves, so help us!” Aethelbert did finally end his prayers, probably offering profuse apologies for the swearing of his bondsman, and advising his Lord that no doubt in his wisdom he knew what it was like, and hurried off.

In the end, his joining the battle turned the tide and the Vikings were scattered, Bagpipes sorry again Bagsecg killed and with cries of “They’re on the run! God has given us the victory! Get them heathen bastards lads!” Alfred and Aethelred charged after them. It was indeed a mighty victory, but it would be overturned two weeks later at the Battle of Basing and again two months after that, in the decisive Battle of Meretun. Not, it would appear, at the battle, but Aethelred died (possibly due to natural causes, as the Chronicle records his death as “he went the way of all flesh” although - wow! Only 26 at the time of his death! Not old age then) and was succeeded by Alfred as King of Wessex.

Alfred took on the Vikings, now led by Halfdan Ragnarsson (who, as his name suggests, is believed to have been one of the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok) and was again defeated at Wilton and only secured peace by buying the Vikings off. After this he more or less waged a guerilla campaign, with the Vikings almost completely in control of the midlands. He made his stand at Edington, where he completely defeated Guthrum, the then Viking king of East Anglia, and internal divisions with the Viking armies ensured they would not be able to band together for much longer. Guthrum’s defeat was followed by a treaty in which he swore to be baptised, and to remove his arms - huh? Sorry: his armies from Wessex.

In 878 another army arrived, but due to the defeats the two great armies had suffered, and looking east to the instabilities at the Frankish court after the death of their king, Charles the Bald, they are likely to have muttered “Fuck this lads; let’s head over to Francia. I hear there’s rich pickings there.” And so, off they fucked. The final army to land in England also shook their heads, shrugged massive shoulders and either joined their comrades - who were now living in peace in what was known as Danelaw, farmers and merchants and all sorts of respectable trades that hardly ever needed an axe or hammer, except as a tool - or also fucked off to Francia.

For over a hundred years Saxons and Vikings lived in a kind of uneasy truce, the Vikings establishing what was known as Danelaw - basically the Scandinavian laws which governed the areas they held - until the Saxons again attacked and drove them out of Northumbria in 954. Even at that though, they fought back under Cnut (no it’s not a typo, smartarse!) who held Wessex up to his death, his heirs only defeated by William the Conqueror in some unremarkable and forgotten battle around 1066 or thereabouts.

By 890 the main Viking threat to England was all but over, with no more overseas armies arriving and any further conflicts a matter of internal dispute. Alfred, who had done much not only to defeat them but to put in place treaties and reforms that made it difficult for their like to seize towns and cities from then on, was remembered as one of England’s first great kings. Well, they did call him “the Great”, didn’t they? Wonder why? Let’s find out.
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