6 The Great Heathen Army

Everything changed for Anglo Saxon England in 866; the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok came for conquest, not just treasure and slaves.

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The Arrival in East Anglia, 866

In 866, a great Heathen Army, micel heathen here, arrived on the shores of East Anglia. It is difficult to know how big the army was, but 3,000 seems a reasonable figure. Although referred to as an army of Danes, in fact it was probably drawn from many King Edmund of East Anglia was unable to turn them away – instead he gave them food and horses – and in return Ivarr the Boneless, the probable leader of the Vikings, promised to leave then alone for a while. The agreement was an enormous success for the Vikings – the weakness of the Anglo Saxons was made plain, the cost of providing horses immense.

The Fall of Northumbria, 867

Northumbria was torn by civil war – and so when the Vikings arrived from East Anglia in early 867, they faced little resistance from King Osberht and Ælla of Bamborough; which mean that Eoforwic – York, the old Roman Eboracum – fell to the Vikings. But by March, both the Anglo Saxon had agreed to bury their differences to try to remove the Vikings, and attacked York. The result was the decimation of the Northumbrian nobility and death of both Ælla and Osberht.

St Edmund the MartyrSt Edmund the Martyr

In 869, the Vikings returned to East Anglia. This time King Edmund fought; possibly at Hellesdon near Norwich, or Hoxne – I believe the map below shows Hoxne. The East Anglians fought, and lost:

In that year St Edmund the king  fought against them and the Danes took the victory, killed the king and overcame all the land. They destroyed all the churches they came to; the same time they came to Peterborough, they burned and broke, killed the Abbot and monks and all they found here. They made which was very great such that it became nothing. (Anglo Saxon Chronicle)

Here England found itself a patron saint. King Edmund was apparently given the choice of death, or abandoning his religion. He Chose death. The vikings tied him to an Oak tree – and filled him full of arrows. They cut off his head and the the head into the bushes. When the Anglo Saxons crept from their hiding places they came looking for the head – and the head cried out ‘here, here’ – and so it was found. A miracle!

St Edmund would keep his position until Henry III went potty with admiration for one of England’s feebler kings,  Edward the Confessor; and then when Edward III decided that ll these pious losers were not his idea of a proper patron saint, and chose St George.

The Fight for Wessex

Late 870, the Vikings moved on to attack Wessex, and made a camp at Reading. King Æthelred and his younger brother, Alfred gathered the West Saxon army and attacked their camp; but were driven off. Encouraged, the Vikings left their camp to attack south into Wessex. The story goes that Alfred went to the sarsen stone at Blowingstone Hill and by blowing through the holes called the West Saxons to arms. The two armies met at Ashdown – whose location is something of a debate. But the Anglo Saxon chronicles spoke of a great victory where the viking king Basecg and many jarls were killed.

In fact, it may not have been such a great victory. Because in in 870 the two sides were still fighting. At Basing and Maredunn Æthelred and Alfred were beaten again. And then to their despair, a powerful army got even stronger – a viking fleet appeared up the Thames at Reading in April 871, carrying another army of Danes, probably under Guthrum.

Æthelred chose this moment to die. He left two sons – Æthelwold and Æthelhelm, both very young. The Witan had no interest in being lead by children at a time of such danger; and so the Anglo Saxon tradition was followed of choosing the best from the Æthelings – and that choice was the youngest and last remaining of the 5 sons of Æthelwolf, Alfred.

great-heathen-army-mapBy Hel-hama – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20042870


21 thoughts on “6 The Great Heathen Army

  1. I have just come across your history series and have caught up today as far as Alfred the Great. They kept me amused and interested through 4 hours of traffic on my way from Wessex/Mercia to Jorvik! Thank you. Your sometimes flippant approach hides a balanced view and passion for your beloved Anglo Saxons.

    1. Hi Jacquie, and hey there’s a thought; we could revive Lucteburne makes Loughborough sound so much more interesting! Thanks for taking the troubel to leave a nice compliment, it makes all the difference and I am a sucker for a compliment

  2. Mr. Crowther,

    A very well-executed overview of these pivotal decades in English and indeed British history. Well done, that man!
    I was especially struck by your aside that the fragmented structure of the remnant heptarchy may have been a help rather an encumbrance to resistance by the English. I shall reflect on that perspective!

    1. Yes, it’s an interesting one isn’t it? I was struck at how much easier Cnut and William the Conqueror found it to succeed, despite apparently going up against one of the richest, well administered and unitary states in Europe.

      1. Yes, Hastings will be very interesting indeed. So many questions and ambiguities: why the rapid race to the south from Stanford bridge, without the slower infantry…was the break in the right line yet another foolish and unauthorized charge and consequent encirclement seen so often, or a premature counter-attack? It was really a near thing until that.

        Still, though, I am glad you move outside the political and military history somewhat, for I grow terribly weary of that blinkered perspective of what history is and means. I leave that to Marvel superhero movies and television faux history documentaries.

        On a lighter note, your mention of 1066 and All That brought a smile: one of my favorite books when I was 12 or so, together with White’s Once and Future King and Ivanhoe.

  3. Is there any information available specifically about the landing in East Anglia and how the surrender from the East Anglians happened? Any primary or secondary sources?

    1. Hi Lewis..and sadly the East Anglians left nothing of their own, so it’s mainly what we pick up from later Chroniclers and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. There is a 10th century hagiography ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’, but it is just that hagiography.

  4. Just imagine how England would be if Harold won at Hasings…I feel it would be alot different.In reality William was just another Viking anyway…this nonsense saying he was a Frenchman is only what frenchmen say…if he was a frenchman he wouldnt have been fighting against Philip.Nevertheless Harold and his troops should of put up a better fight anyway they had a long march but held the high ground..shouldnt have lost even though William had cavalry and archers..they could of dug in .

  5. I am facinated. I always loved vikings and their great heathen army and now i know so much about them thank you for your thought and good luck in the future. (Hoppefully You Do This Kinda Of A Thing On The Battle Of Didgori. I Can Help You Just Send An Email If You Want Help.)

  6. I may have asked this question in another post, but I can’t remember where so I don’t know if you have answered it. My apologies, but here goes again….

    Did the people of this time refer to themselves as we do today? Did they realize they lived in Northumbria, or Wessex? Did they call themselves Anglians or Mercians? Or, did they simply understand that they owed alegiance to a certain local Lord who might in turn answer to another? I suppose the answer would vary according to the person’s status. Maybe the leadership understood the larger picture but I assume the peasants wouldn’t think much beyond their local area and leaders. Just wondering if they had a sense of “nationhood” or whatever term one might use.

    1. Hi Matthew, and I did reply! Here is what I said…

      Hi Matthew. It’s a little difficult to be sure because of course we don’t have anything that comes back from ordinary people. There is clearly a tradition of tracing themselves back to a founder, possibly mythical – so Edward the Confessor is referred to as of the ‘Cerdicngas’, the people of the original founder Cerdic; the same happens in Bernicia, where the founder was Ida, and in Mercia where they call themselves Icelings. The West Saxons originally referred to themselves a the Gewisse. But in all of that there’s obviously something ‘tribal’ going on, and I imagine that this would have been a theme. So, as you suggest, especially in earlier centuries, it might have been people of rather than the larger kingdoms which were new, and collections of loyalties of the greater men at least for a while. Thereafter I am guess when I say that I imagine people had multiple loyalties, as they do now – to their lord, tribe, king. I am reminded by someone on a Facebook group that Bede referred to himself as coming from the region belonging to the monastery at Jarrow, which is very regional. But all these are really guesses!

  7. It was this podcast episode that turned me to the website, for I simply could not resist looking at the maps and images to which you keep referring on the pod. This podcast is fascinating, and so well-presented and funny. To be honest my favourite part is trying to determine what modern reference you’ll toss in for those paying rapt attention – most especially the jabs at us East Anglians. Keep the Pythonisms flowing, too, and I’ll continue to enjoy this and refer to friends. Cheers from South Carolina USA (Suffolk ex-pat) !

    1. Hi Jeff, and thanks. Can I just make it quite clear that the jabs at East Anglians are done in very much the spirit of admiration? Coming from Leicester as I job, every Leicester Fortnight was spent in a caravan on the Norfolk coast, and we still go as often as we can. Actually, not spent as much time in Suffolk as I should, but I am planning a walk…anyway, thank for istening!

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