The Struggle with the Northmen

The Unification of England & the Struggle with the Northmen

Down to the end of the seventh century the English may be said to have carried out two great pieces of work. They had by that time conquered and settled England, and, secondly, they had accepted Christianity and established a Christian Church. Other movements of the eighth and ninth centuries now call for attention. The chief of these are, firstly, the tendency towards amalgamation among the English kingdoms, and, secondly, the struggle with the Northmen.

Of course the movement towards a unified England was not a new thing in the eighth and ninth centuries. Soon after the earliest settlement of English invaders on British soil the small kingdoms began a series of attempts to absorb one another. Milton, the poet of the seventeenth century, contemptuously refers to such struggles as “battles of kites and crows.” They were something more than that. They are interesting to us because they show the effort of Englishmen to make a united realm, and constitute the first steps towards the union now existing between England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. After different realms had established supremacies, like those of Ethelbert of Kent (593-617), (dates are duration of reigns). Raedwald of East Anglia (593-617), Oswald (634-642) and Oswy (642-655) of Northumbria, Ceadwalla (685-688) and Ine (688-726) of Wessex, and Offa of Mercia (757-796), King Egbert of Wessex (802-839) in 829 established a supremacy of such a wide kind that the smaller realms of Kent, Sussex, Essex and East Anglia became practically parts of Wessex, and the kings of Mercia and Northumbria became his dependents. England under him advanced further towards unity than she had done under any other English monarch. But whether his supremacy was based on more durable foundations than many supremacies which preceded it, as a question which cannot be answered, for in 834 the Northmen began to come against England with large forces. Throughout the rest of the ninth century Wessex had to give up hopes of making England into one realm, and fight for existence.

Under the year 787 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains an ominous entry-

“This year Beorhtric (of Wessex) took Eadburh, the daughter of Offa, to wife. And in his days first came three ships of the Northmen from Haerethaland. And the reeve (i.e., the king’s official) rode to them and would drive them to the king’s tun (The king’s tun was a royal estate managed by a reeve. In one of the villages on it the king probably had a hall or palace. for a general description of a royal estate, will described more later), for he know not who they were. And there was he slain. These were the first ships of Danish men that sought the land of the English.”

The exact locality at Haerethaland is not known; some authorities place it in Denmark, others in Norway. From these countries, and from Sweden, thousands of ships’ crews issued during the next three hundred years to prey upon the wealthier parts of Europe. They called themselves Viking (The meaning of this word is doubtful . It may mean “warriors.” In Norse “vik” means “bay”, so  “Vikings” may mean “men of the bays.” There is, however, a district called “Vik” in southern Norway; the inhabitants of this would naturally bear the name “Vikings,” and as most of the early rovers came from this district their name may have passed to all their companions and imitators, from whatever land they came. But every race that suffered at their hands gave them a different name. The Irish called them Ostmen or Eastmen, the English called them Danes. To the French they were Northmen or Normans. To the Slavs, living near Novgorod, they were Ruotsi, which apparently means “rowers” or “rovers.” The word was gradually corrupted into “Rus,” and then changed into he modern “Russia.”

Their native lands naturally compelled them to be sailors. Denmark, with its flat sandy coasts on the west, and its islands on the east, was the natural home of a maritime race. Norway and Sweden were fitted to be the homes of sea rovers. Their inland parts are so rugged and untameable in many places that the population lived near the coast, and made the sea their highway. On the Norwegian coast long narrow inlets of salt water, called “fjords,” penetrate for scores of miles/kms inland between walls of rock and steep that the sun’s rays in many places cannot reach their base. Round almost the whole Scandinavian coast runs a skerry fence, or fringe of islands, which protects the inner calmness which tempted the early Scandinavian to become a skilled boat-builder and oarsman.

Other forces drove him seaward. The land was hard and cold. much of Norway consisted of bare rock. Sweden had vast pine forests in the interior. Only at the heads, and sometimes on the sides of fjords and on the seacoasts, could the inhabitants find ground for houses and crops. The climate made agriculture difficult. The ground lying beneath cliffs and mountains is so damp that cut hay and corn  has to be hung up for drying purposes toady upon wooden frames, or raised upon the ends of poles. The chief support of the early inhabitants must have come from herds of cattle, which  in the short summer were driven up the valleys and hillsides to pasture grounds on the very edge of mountain glaciers. The surplus population therefore turned naturally to the sea. Warrior after warrior, who could gather a boat’s crew together, spent the early months of the year in recaulking his vessel’s seams, repitching her sides, renewing her sails, spars, masts, ropes and oars, in patching old armour and gathering new. Then, at the first breath of spring, he and his men dragged their boat to the water’s edge, loaded her with food supplies, store of swords, shields and battle axes, and rowed her in tune to a warlike chorus down the dark waters of the fjord, turned southward within the protecting line of the skerry fence, and only out to meet the Atlantic swell when the fence failed them. To cross the open water of the North Sea was dangerous. Even when England was their goal they usually coasted south to the Straits of Dover, and took their course from there.

The nature of their boats made them reluctant to do otherwise. The vessels which were fitted for fiords and for sheltered channels, were unsuited to face the dangers of open water. One of them has been dug up at Gokstad, in southern Norway. About a thousand years ago it was hauled ashore, and converted into a last resting-place for the body of an old warrior, whose bones prove him to have been gouty. After the interment,  boat and all were covered with a mound of earth. The boat is 75 feet/22.8m long; its greatest width is 15 feet/4.5m. Its depth at the widest part is little more than 3 1/2 feet/1m. There were sixteen oars, 20 feet/6m in length, on each side. If the oars were always double-banked a full crew must have consisted of about seventy to a hundred men. There was no rudder; the vessel was steered by an oar or steer-board thrust over the right or starboard side near the stern. Both prow and stern were pointed, so that the boat could travel equally well forward or backward. Usually a mast was carried, so that a sail could be hoisted when the wind blew fair. As the boats were flat-bottomed and had little keel they were unsuited for sailing, except when the wind blew almost directly from behind. In manoeuvres mast and sail were lowered. It is pretty certain that toil at the oars was frequent and prolonged. When the sail was up, the crew hung their yellow and black shields over the bulwarks; but when the oars were out the shields were taken down, for they covered the oar-holes. It was customary to carve the high wooden prow into the form of swan or dragon. So common were these shapes that “dragon” became another name for warship, and the sea was called the “swan’s path.”

It is supposed that the Gokstad boat is larger than those in which the pirates sailed first from Haerethaland. But, big as she is, she is clearly unfitted for open sea passages. With a freeboard (The freeboard is that part of a vessel’s side which shows above water) so small as hers, and with no deck in any part, she must have run for harbour on the first appearance of rough weather. The storms which beat upon our coasts wrecked many hundreds of such craft. But once the sea was left, and the rivers had been entered, the shallow draft of the vessels enabled them to sail for up-stream; their lowness in the water, once their masts were down, made it possible to conceal them under a river’s bank in some deserted spot, and their flat bottoms allowed them to be beached upon a shelving shore.

The Northmen showed an equal daring on land, and brought to support it an excellent war-like equipment. Each man was well armed, and as their wealth grew with successful raiding so did their weapons improve. Many of them, towards the end of the raiding period, possessed shirts made of steel links; they called them “byrnies,” the poetical name for them being “war nets.” Their shields were round, made of wood, strengthened by a central boss of metal, and sometimes covered with a metal plate. They carried bows and arrows. The poets among them termed the latter “wound bees,” for they both hummed and stung. Another missile was the javelin. For swords they had a peculiar affection; a good one passed as an heirloom from father to son, and famous ones were commemorated by name in songs; but their mightiest weapon was the two-handed battle-axe. The great blades of these, brandished by men whose frames were toughened by long toil at the oar, did terrific execution on the foe. The raiders greatest advantage, however, lay in the fact that each man was a warrior by profession, making a living by his prowess. Among the half-armed soldiers of the English levies, who were ploughmen by profession and ill-trained for war, the raiders at first found no one who could stand against them. Only the king’s companions and their well-armed followers could fight them on equal terms, and these were often too few in numbers to compensate for the inferiority of their comrades. In Ireland, France and Russia it was ever the same story.

Before the middle of the ninth century all Scandinavians had hailed freebooting as a new pastime, infinitely preferable to the dull life of wringing sustenance from a reluctant soil at home. They despised men who lived at home and sat drinking in chimney corners. They crossed the sea, dreaming of the fortunes they would bring back. At the commencement of the century the Vikings knew little of the position of monasteries or of cities as big as London, Rouen, Paris, or Tours. Thus every headland which rose above the horizon might conceal wealthy buildings on its further side, every river mouth disclose a passage to fortune. To the explorers the world was brand-new. Thus there was every inducement to sail the swan’s path. Sailing in crazy vessels, trusting mainly to the oar, and knowing nothing of the mariner’s compass, the sea rovers equalled, if they did not surpass, the achievements of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, of Frobisher and Franklin. one section of the raiders ravaged the Irish and Scottish coasts, and made its way by the Orkneys, Shetlands and Faroes to Iceland, Greenland and America. Another section won lands in France and England. A third, which crossed the Baltic, conquered the Slavs and Finns, who lived between the upper waters of the Dnieper and Lake Ladoga, and laid the foundations of the empire of Russia; they even sailed down the Dnieper to the Black Sea, attacked, with hundreds of vessels, the eastern emperor in his capital. Constantinople, and got afloat on the waters of the Caspian by way of the Don and the Volga, till the greatness of their name was known even among the Arabs. It ran in their minds, also, some day to attack Rome itself, the headquarters of Christianity.

But it is with their activities in England that we are chiefly concerned. After the arrival of the “three ships from Haerethaland” the Northmen did not visit England again till 793, when they destroyed Aidan’s monastery on Lindisfarne.

The very next year the monastery at Jarrow, the home and burial-place of Bede, was burned. The raiders destined the same fate for the monastery hard by at Wearmouth, but a storm caught their flimsy vessels as they coasted along, and flung them on a lee-shore, where their crews were slaughtered.

And then England ceased suddenly for a generation to be troubled by further inroads. Other countries – Scotland, Ireland and France – attracted the attention of the Northmen. Hardly for a year did burning and slaughtering cease on the west coast of Scotland and in Ireland. The peaceful monasteries founded on islands, where the only sound to be heard above the prayers and songs of the monks came from the roar of the waves or the call of the sea-bird, resounded with the shouts of the spoiler. Iona was sacked in 802, and again in 806. Its fame has secured it a mention; but many another monastery was wiped out alike from its promontory or island, and from the pages of memory.

In 834 the Vikings began to raid England once more. Until 860, or thereabouts, they made no attempt at conquering the land; they contented themselves with landing here and there unexpectedly on the coasts and carrying off what booty they could lat their hands on. If  they seized the islands of Thanet or Sheppey, they used them as store-houses and temporary camps, not as jumping-off places for a conquest.

In 865 and in subsequent years, there came a change. huge armies of Northmen began to camp permanently in England, not merely on islands off the coast, but in far inland places, such as York, Thetford in East Anglia, and Nottingham. When everything in the neighbourhood had been seized by foragers they moved onto other quarters, leaving a bankrupt people behind them to starve throughout the coming seasons. In this way they ate up Kent in 865; in 866 East Anglia was their home; in 867 they defeated the Northumbrians with great slaughter, and did as they pleased all that winter in Deira. The winter of 869 they went back to York, and sat there a year.

This record of marching by the Northmen from winter quarters in one place to winter quarters in another place is monotonous to read in the Chronicle. It must have been monotonous for the Northmen themselves. Thousands of the hottest young bloods of the north had spent five years in England, and not taken part in a single noteworthy battle except in Northumbria. No doubt there were foraging expeditions; but the recitations spoken by bards, as the warriors sat round camp fires, probably dealt not with these but with the deeds of old. New material must have been scarce, although the campaign was five years old. The raiders must have been glad of the variety which the year 870 was to provide.

The Chronicle says –

“That year the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and there fixed their winter quarters at Thetford. And in the winter King Edmund fought with them, but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king. Whereupon they overran all that land, and destroyed all the monasteries to which they came. At the same time they came to Medeshamstede, burning and slaying abbot and monks, and all that they there found.”

It was this king who was known later as St. Edmund , and became the chief saint of East Anglia and later Saint of England.

Then, in 871, the Northmen assaulted Wessex ,and got a reception, which must have provided a curious contrast to their previous experience. Nine hard-fought battles – at least two  of which were won by the West Saxons – and numberless skirmishes besides, gave the invaders their fill, and in the end, according to Asser, a writer of the time, “the Saxons made peace with the heathen, on condition that they should take their departure; and this they did.” No wintering in Wessex to eat up the salt pork and drink up the ale of the country folk! clearly the West Saxons realm possessed something which the other realms had not, something which enabled it to hold its own against the best fighting men in Europe. Throughout the spring and summer, at a season which farmers are busy with ploughing and sowing, and with watching lambing flocks and herds, a West Saxon army had kept the field, and endured the ups-and-downs of victory and defeat. One reverse had been sufficient to ruin Northumbria and East Anglia; Mercia and Kent seem to have collapsed without the shock of any disaster at all. But the West Saxons were made of sterner and more patriotic stuff.

Welcome, therefore, would have been a full account of the events of the year 871, for they were the beginning of a fiery trial, which lasted till the end of the century, and which tempered Wessex to the strength of fine steel. Other realms had failed; Wessex alone made any real attempt  to face the trial. She emerged from it a first-class fighting power, with the strength that was able to bring about the long-desired union of English kingdoms into one. The kingdom of England  grew not out of Northumbria, nor Mercia, nor East Anglia, but out of Wessex. And because of this, and as a proof of it, a descendant of the West Saxon royal house still sits on the English throne. It was the events of the year 871 that  made this possible. The kingdom of Wessex and its royal house, alone of all English kingdoms and of all royal houses, survived the onslaught of the Northmen. The history of 871 is therefore interesting to us today, for, looking backwards, we begin to see that in that year a foundation stone of England was well and truly laid in Wessex. The West Saxon leaders of that day cannot have realized the greatness of the task on which they were engaged. They were thinking not of all England but of the salvation of Wessex. As with leaders of another time their work was greater than they knew ,and all Englishmen have entered into the fruits of their labours.

A further interest attaches to this year 871. In it, while the fate of Wessex and of England was being decided, Alfred, the grandson of Egbert, first becomes really visible to us as an impatient prince, twenty-three years old, charging up-hill “like a wild boar” against the Viking position on the slopes of Ashdown in Berkshire. Here was the leader of a great cause. England is this man’s monument. He helped to found her. His life is still a force. Therefore the scenes amidst which he moved have an unending interest. Alas! all that the Chronicle gives us is a bare narration of battles and Skirmishes and deaths, upon which no one can construct an intelligible scheme of the campaign. Asser, author of a confused life of Alfred, tells us little more. One of the great years of English history has not been happy in its historians.

The vigour of the West Saxons defence threw the raiders back upon more comfortable projects. It is almost laughable to read of. One large section of the pirates became suddenly in love with the desirableness of a quiet country life among herds and crops, and settled  down under their leader, Halfdene by name, to be country gentlemen in Yorkshire, turning the beaten Northumbrians into hewers of wood and drawers of water. No better proof could be found of the shrewdness of the blows struck by the West Saxons in 871.

There was another section of the invaders who had not yet learned their lesson properly. Under their leaders Guthrum, Oscytel and Asmund, in the winter of 878 to 979 they made the famous raid that drove Alfred into the island fastnesses of Somerset, and gave Wessex her darkest hour.

“They submitted to their will the greater part of the people, but not Alfred the king.”

The main facts of the tale are well known. In the seventh week after Easter the Northmen were flying for safety to their quarters at Chippenham, and a fortnight later Guthrum, by the Peace of Wedmore, promised to give up al projects of conquering Wessex, and to become a Christian. All England north-east of Watling Street, including London, was left in Viking hands, and was termed the Danelaw. Soon Guthrum and his men settled down to humdrum occupation in East Anglia.

But raiders do not become husbandmen in a moment. In 884 a band of pirates that had been ravaging France crossed to Kent. The temptation was too much for the East Anglian Northmen. They broke their peace with Alfred. The campaign against them lasted till 885. Alfred drove the raiders who had come from France back overseas, and punished their East Anglian friends by recovering London for the English. This capture was the beginning of a movement carried to success by Alfred’s descendants. piece by piece in the tenth century all Danish territory was brought beneath West Saxon rule, and the unification of England  which  the Viking attack had interrupted was accomplished by Alfred’s son and grandsons.

till 892 Wessex enjoyed peace. But in that year fleets of Vikings, consisting in all of 330 ships arrived on English coasts,  and stirred up the Northmen of Deira and East Anglia to join them. The experience of these combined forces during the next three years proves the amazing efficiency to which Wessex had been trained in her years of peace by Alfred. The Northmen were frequently too utterly cowed during these years to leave their forts, except when hunger drove them forth. The Chronicle gives us pictures of them defeated in battle, and “fleeing over Thames without looking for a ford,” of Viking forts stormed, and of all the pirates’ money, women, children and ships captured and brought to London. It shows us a pirate force besieged at Buttington on Severn, “weighed down with famine and devouring their horses or perishing of hunger,” or another force “marching day and night on the stretch” from East Anglia to Chester, in order to escape Alfred’s veterans, and being hemmed in  and starved within the ancient city walls. We read of a band landing in Sussex and being hustled with heavy loss back to its ships by the garrison of Chichester, and of a Viking fleet caught in the river Lea by the construction of a boom lower down the water.

By spring of 896 the foe realised that Wessex was too tough for them; they gave up the struggle. Some settled in Northumbria, others in East Anglia, and those “that were penniless got themselves ships, and went south overseas to the Seine. The foe, thank God, had not entirely destroyed the Angle kin.”