The 9th century AD was a calamity-ridden century for Britain. Since the plunder of Lindisfarne Priory in 793 AD, Vikings had been repeatedly harassing England for decades. But no one realized that there would be a “pagan army” of thousands of soldiers arriving in Britain half a century later. This would be the beginning of pagan invaders’ annual plunder feast, and also that of the new history of Vikings in Britain. Vikings were about to launch their plunder in Britain.
Before the pagan army came, Viking raiders’ successful ventures in Britain and France had greatly aroused the interests and passions of the people back in their home. Among those Viking invaders, the most known one was Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary Viking hero who had commanded the siege of Paris in 845 AD. After decades of groping, Vikings had preliminarily gained a foothold in the estuary of Thames River, and became adapted to the winters in Britain.
In the south, the rulers of the Frankish Kingdom also found out the regularity of Viking activities after suffering heavy losses. They immediately took a series of measures to strengthen their defense, making it more difficult for Vikings to plunder in their territory. So these seasoned soldiers started to turn about the ships, headed north and planned to take their chances in Britain. The early achievements, intelligence and experience of their ancestors laid a good foundation of the new pagan army’s success in England.
In 865 AD, on the North Sea, dozens of dragonships carrying Viking warriors approached the southeastern coast of England with the force of strong north wind. They were led by Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons, among which the strongest ones were Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Whiteshirt (Halfdan Ragnarsson). According to legend, their father was taken prisoner by King Aella (Ælla) of Northumbria, and was killed after being thrown into a pit full of serpents. They swore to make Anglo-Saxons pay a heavy price for this irreconcilable enmity.
Before arriving in England, this gang of Vikings had learnt from intelligence that the Kingdom of Kent was not only the weakest among all the independent kingdoms in England, but also the one that guarded the English Channel. Kent People became rich in the trade with European continent, and therefore naturally they were Vikings’ first target.
It was very difficult for one single Anglo-Saxon state to defend the Viking swamping in. Out of fear, the king of Kent offer to pay for peace. Vikings pretended to agree, but soon they tore up the peace treaty and plundered the eastern part of this kingdom. Then, the Kingdom of East Anglia to the north of the Thames River became Vikings’ next target. Under the pressure of Vikings’ powerful military force, the Kingdom of East Anglia had to render tribute to Vikings, agreed them to spend the winter in their territory, and provide them with supplies.
It is worth mentioning that this pagan army was totally different from their hit-and-ran predecessors. This operation was based on well organization, clear target, developed intelligence network and different tactics. To be specific, they came as conquerors instead of plunderers. The wealth that Vikings obtained by plundering could not meet their needs any longer, and land became their new target.
Besides, Vikings were not good at land battles despite that they were almost invincible on the sea. Therefore, they grafted their tactics of maritime plunder to the land battles. That was, organizing highly-mobile plunderers who used horses as longboats. This new tactic made the Anglo-Saxon soldiers who were formerly peasants suffered a lot. According to historical records, when Vikings spent the winter in East Anglia, they ordered this kingdom to provide a large number of horses as tribute.
In the early spring of 866 AD, Vikings began to march towards the Kingdom of Northumbria in the north. Based on adequate strategic consideration, they chose Northumbria as the new target. At that time, this kingdom was in a serious civil strife, as King Aella had a fierce fight with Osberht (Osbryht), his rival for the throne. Taking this opportunity, Vikings made a raid and captured York in the autumn. At that time, York was the most important military region and trading center in northern England. The advantageous geographical position provided Vikings who occupied this region a strategic superiority in both attack and defense. Meanwhile, Vikings could locally obtain sufficient supplies for their basic needs and the next assault.
Facing the foreign invaders, Aella and Osberht put aside the hatred and joined hands together to make the counter-strike. At first, Northumbrians went well. Meeting little resistance, their army broke into the city. But the subsequent street battle turned into a rout; both Aella and Osberht were killed in battle. After this battle, Vikings began their nearly century-long occupation of York. They also set up a figurehead king to govern York on behalf of them, so that they could use this kingdom as the supporter and supply provider of their invasion in the Kingdom of Mercia in the south.
The Kingdom of Mercia was about to face a ruinous disaster. Two Viking leaders led their troops to go across the Humber River and head for Nottingham. The panicky King Burgred of Mercia called upon the King Aethelred of Wessex to provide military assistance. Aethelred led a troop himself to assist Mercia. He also attempted to re-capture Nottingham, but failed. Had found themselves unable to shake Vikings’ absolute superiority in Nottingham, Burgred had to sue for peace. Vikings withdrew to York in accordance with the peace treaty.
At this time, East Anglia, the puppet state of Vikings, was mired in its own backyard, as King Edmund revolted and tried to retake his throne. As Vikings’ first position and foothold in England, East Anglia was an important base for their military operations deep inland, and they could not afford to lose it. Ivar and Halfdan led their troops to return East Anglia once they learnt the news. As a result, Viking army suppressed the revolt, took prisoner of King Edmund and sacrificed him to Odin. The death of King Edmund marked that the independent kingdom of East Anglia did not exist any longer, and this land became under the direct rule of Vikings.
Among all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the Kingdom of Wessex was the only one that survived. Vikings’ hegemony in England was preliminarily established. Ivar the Boneless might go to Ireland for exploration and plunder around 870 AD, leaving Halfdan Whiteshirt in England for his own adventure.
Different from Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria, the Kingdom of Wessex had a long coastline in the south. Because of frequent small-scale Viking attacks, Wessex people had had some knowledge of these “sea wolves”. When the former King of Wessex Egbert was on the throne, Saxons often dealt with the Vikings passing by. In addition, Wessex people still had valuable time to make a general mobilization and deploy the defense before the pagan army arrived in here. This last challenge was certainly the toughest nut to crack for Vikings.
In 871 AD, Halfdan led his army to go upstream along the Thames River, and used Reading as their advance position for attacking Wessex. Wessex people and Vikings had large-scale conflicts soon later. In a single year, there were dozens of battles between them and both parties suffered heavy casualties. The King Aethelred of Wessex died of his wounds, and many ealdormen and noblemen were killed in battle. Vikings also lost many noblemen and warriors. Although Vikings had encountered the toughest opponent since they had landed in England, but in general they still had the upper hand.
After the death of Aethelred, his brother Alfred took over the throne. As he was eager to solidify her throne, he sent his messengers to Vikings and sued for peace. Halfdan also found it difficult to quickly smash Wessex, and continuing such battles would bring more casualties instead of spoils of war. Therefore, he agreed to Alfred’s request for armistice, so that he could send his troops elsewhere for more spoils of war to boost the morale. Mercia tragically became Vikings’ target and suffered the second plunder.
After some rest and reorganization in East Anglia, Vikings returned to York, and captured important cities such as Leeds, Preston and Tamworth. Without the help from Wessex, King Burgred of Mercia hurriedly fled out of Britain. After that, he went to Rome, became a cloistered confessor who was absorbed in religion. He died there and never returned to Britain.
After Vikings conquered Mercia, they put Ceolwulf II on the throne as a figurehead king. In the oath of enthronement, this king baldly claimed that his kingdom was “at Vikings’ service at all time”. So he was also called “a foolish king”.
So far, after ten years of bloody battles and conquest, this pagan army had preliminarily founded an Empire of Viking Britain north from York, south to the Thames River, west from Wales and east to the North Sea. Three of the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had fallen into the hands of Vikings. Among the three, one was under direct rule of Vikings, while the other two was ruled by figurehead kings. As the regions mentioned above applied Danish laws brought in by Vikings, they were called the “Danelaw”. England had gradually become Vikings’ colony from their plundering and hunting ground.
In 875 AD, Halfdan led his army to finish the “cleaning up” in England. Ten years of war made many Viking soldiers tired. Thereupon, the Viking army was dissolved, and the soldiers who wanted stable lives either returned home or started their new lives locally. But there were also some ambitious soldiers, who did not want to spend the rest of their lives in that way, expected the next excellent leader who could lead them to the peak of life again. It also suggests that it was just a matter of time before the next war between the Danelaw and the Kingdom of Wessex……
In 875 AD, once again the Vikings sneaked around enemy defense line and occupied a southern English city. Alfred surrounded the Vikings there, and there was a stalemate. Soon later, Vikings moved to another place overnight on the pretext of reconcilement. Alfred chased after Vikings and surrounded them again. The Viking army surrendered in the end.
But the peace did not last long. On the Christmas in that year, a large number of Vikings launched a raid on Alfred. Alfred was caught off guard and had to flee with a few bodyguards.
When Viking believed that Alfred had ran out of steam and dared not to fight back, this great king was already on the move. He sent his trusted entourages to different places to call in his old subordinates. When his troops assembled, he had a decisive battle with Vikings in the May of 878 AD, and won a decisive victory. As a consequence, the majority of Viking invaders returned to the Nordic region while a small part of them settled down in the “Danelaw” in northeastern England.
In the subsequent battles with small gangs of Vikings, Alfred expanded his sphere of influence to the northern and eastern England. In 886 AD, he occupied London, and all the English people that did not accept the rule of Denmark hailed him king. Soon later, most part of southern England also fell under his rule. At this time, the majority of England except the “Danelaw” was under the rule of Alfred.
While Alfred was fighting against Vikings, he also actively developed his country. For example, he enacted The Laws of Alfred which later became the foundation of British legal system; founded schools for young noblemen; organized compiling work and personally participated in the translation of Latin classics, and thus laid the foundation of British culture. Besides, he abolished the compulsory military service, created the foundation of English chivalry.
And so Alfred saved England from the Viking crisis, unified all seven independent kingdoms, and made England a true sense of state.
As he bravely led English people to fight against the Viking invasion, he was later referred to as Alfred the Great. He is the only English monarch given the title of “the Great”, and is honored as “the founding father of England”.