Vikings and the English Nation

Vikings and the English Nation

In this year King Brihtric married Offa’s daughter Eadburh. And in his days there came for the first time three ships of Northmen and then the reeve rode to them and wished to force them to the king’s residence, for he did not know what they were; and they slew him. Those were the first ships of Danish men which came to the land of the English.’ This first visit of Scandinavian marauders, known variously as Danes, Norsemen or Vikings, was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as having taken place in AD 789 or shortly after. It was the start of a reign of terror which, with the occasional interlude, was to threaten the peace and well-being of the Saxon nation for the following 200 years or more.

The process of consolidation of that nation took a major step forward in AD 823 when King Egbert of Wessex defeated the Mercians and the men of Kent. Now the whole of southern England, including Surrey, submitted to the rule of Wessex. The Saxons were much in need of a united front at this time as the Viking raids became more frequent. Firstly they came in small pirate groups; then they came as well organised raiding parties; finally came vast armies intent on conquest and settlement.

In AD 851 a huge army of Danes arrived in 350 ships and invaded and plundered southern England. They came by way of the Thames and, according to the Chronicle, ‘stormed Canterbury and London and put to flight Brihtwulf, king of the Mercians, with his army, and went south across the Thames into Surrey.’ King Aethelwulf and his son, Aethelbald, leading an army of West Saxons, ‘fought against them at Aclea . . . and there inflicted the greatest slaughter on a heathen army that we ever heard of . . . and had the victory there.’ Tradition says that Aclea was Ockley near Dorking and the night before this great battle the Danes camped in the Iron Age fort of Anstlebury nearby. The battle was undoubtedly the bloodiest ever to take place on Surrey soil. A 12th century chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, who obviously drew on earlier sources now lost, wrote of the battle:

‘The battle was fought between armies of the greatest size, and was greater and more obstinate than any that had been heard of in England. You might have seen there the warriors charging together as thick as ears of corn, and rivers of blood rolling away the heads and limbs of the slain. God gave the fortunes of the war to those who believed in him, and ineffable confusion to those who despised him.’

This was a crucial victory for the men of Wessex. Christianity in southern England was saved, the heathen banished, at least for a short time, and the power of Wessex was in the ascendancy. The story of the battle of Ockley has all the right ingredients for a classic tale of the triumph of good over evil. However, although most modern ‘experts’ are in agreement that this dreadful bloodbath took place somewhere in Surrey, the identification of Aclea with Ockley is out of favour with them at present.

This battle left the kingdom of Wessex as the main defender of an emergent English nation. There was still a great deal of defending to be done for events at Aclea had failed to stem the tide of Viking plunderers. The Danes made the Isle of Thanet in Kent their stronghold and in AD 853 they inflicted defeat upon a combined army from Kent and Surrey, which had attempted to eject them. In 865 a large army landed in East Anglia, which they then used as a base and from there they rampaged through much of southern England. In 871 a second army arrived to augment their compatriots. The Vikings then raped and pillaged their way through much of the Thames valley, including Surrey, causing terrible suffering to the inhabitants.

During the construction of a railway line at Croydon in 1862, a Viking coin hoard was discovered. It contained Anglo-Saxon silver pennies from Wessex, East Anglia and Mercia, also Frankish coins from mainland Europe and, most remarkable of all, coins which had been minted by the Khalif Haroun-al-Raschid of Baghdad between AD 789 and 809. These Arab coins, which have upon them sentences from the Koran, had undoubtedly found their way to Croydon via Viking trading routes through Russia and thence to Scandinavia. They were considerably older than the majority of the coins found, which dated the burial of the hoard to some time between 871 and 875.

It was in 871, during the same month which saw the arrival of the second Viking army, that Aethelred, King of Wessex, died. He was succeeded by a man who was destined to play a major role in the foundation of the English nation, King Alfred the Great. Alfred was a wise and educated man but he was also a skilled general and shrewd politician. He was to prove his greatness during his many engagements with the Danes over the next 28 years.

However, events at the beginning of his reign were anything but auspicious. They began with defeat for the Wessex men at Reading and Wilton and culminated, seven years later, in Alfred’s retreat to the island refuge of Athelney in the marshlands of Somerset. Throughout this period, the Danish Viking armies marched back and forth across England, wreaking havoc wherever they went. On many occasions the Anglo-Saxons sought peace by buying off the invaders with gold and silver or ‘Danegeld’. The people of Surrey suffered in such raids, especially during the periods when London was known to be in Danish occupation. Chertsey Abbey was sacked, its buildings destroyed, its lands laid waste and the abbot and 90 monks slaughtered.

The turning point for Alfred and Wessex came in the 880s, at a time when the Danes were in control of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia, where many of them had settled permanently. A series of successes, both on the battlefield and politically, extended Alfred’s kingdom over a large area of southern England, including London. The area was still, however, subject to raids by Vikings in search of booty. It was during one such raid in AD 893 that a Danish army was defeated at Farnham by a force led by Alfred’s eldest son, Edward.

A substantial body of Danes had landed at Appledore on the south Kent coast and marched north-west to enter Surrey somewhere to the south-east of Guildford. The Wessex forces successfully outmanoeuvred the enemy and intercepted them at Farnham. Here a fierce battle forced the Danes to retreat northwards across the Surrey heathlands to the Thames. Pursued by the Anglo-Saxons, the Danes crossed the river somewhere between Windsor and Chertsey. Such was their panic that they were forced to swim across, having failed to find a suitable ford.

The Danes finally found refuge on an island in the river Come to the north of Staines, where they were besieged. Unfortunately, by all accounts, events were not brought to a totally successful conclusion by the Wessex men. After a short while they abandoned their siege and went home because they had run out of food! The Danes then escaped to the safety of their kinsmen in East Anglia. Although the enemy was not destroyed, this victory for the Anglo-Saxons meant that for the rest of Alfred’s reign Wessex, including Surrey, was safe from the Viking terror.

In defence of his kingdom, Alfred began the construction of a series of forts, or ‘burhs’, where his people could find refuge within an enclosure protected by banks and ditches. The building of these defences continued after Alfred’s death, into the reign of Edward, and a record of them has survived in a contemporary document called the Burghal Hideage. Some burhs encompassed permanent settlements or towns, others were probably constructed purely as forts. The Burghal Hideage includes details of a burh at Escingum, now Eashing near Godalming, where a natural defensive position was enclosed. The use of the fort here was perhaps short-lived and it may have been quickly replaced by a burh at Guildford, where a thriving commercial centre was beginning to develop.

Alfred’s schemes for ridding his kingdom of the Viking hordes met with some success and, when he died in 899, he left a legacy of relative peace compared with the horrors that had gone before. In Surrey and adjacent areas this peace was to last nearly a century.

The 10th century was not only a period of consolidation but also of growth. It was the century which saw the emergence of the English nation. The money-based economy was firmly restored and the familiar pattern of towns and villages developed. It can be inferred that small nucleated settlements had been established, for example, at Croydon, Dorking, Godalming, Leatherhead and Farnham. Many places in Surrey have origins as manors well before the start of the 10th century. Banstead is mentioned in a grant in AD 680 and the first surviving reference to Farnham is only eight years later. Epsom is recorded in a grant of land to Chertsey Abbey in 727, whilst the royal manors of Godalming, Leatherhead and Guildford are listed in the will of King Alfred the Great, which was written in about 880.

The royal manor of Kingston is of great interest because no less than six Saxon kings were crowned there between AD 902 and 958. The large block of grey stone upon which kings such as Edward the Martyr are supposed to have sat during the ceremony is preserved outside the Guildhall. Kingston may have been a royal residence as early as the 7th century but during the 10th century it developed as an important centre for river trade at a ford on the Thames.

Guildford was important enough to have a mint where silver pennies of King Ethelred and, perhaps, also Edward the Martyr were struck. Although other evidence is lacking, the layout of its major streets is clearly the product of Saxon town planning.

It was during the 10th century that the administration of Surrey based on divisions known as hundreds was developed. In essence, much of this system was to survive for 1,000 years. Each hundred had its own regular moot or court presided over by the king’s representative, the reeve, which considered criminal matters, for example, and also levied taxes.

Each hundred consisted of ten tithings, each tithing being represented by ten men who stood surety for each other. The moot would gather at the most central or convenient place in the hundred and not necessarily at the most important centre of population. Thus, although Godalming was the meeting place of a hundred, Guildford was not, being within the hundred of Woking. In east Surrey, Cherchefelle Hundred was named from its chief settlement, which later became known as Reigate. Almost the exact centre of the county’s most easterly hundred was Tandridge and this small settlement provided both the meeting place and the name of the hundred.

This period also saw the development of the shire and the setting up of shire courts. These met twice a year and were presided over by the king’s direct representative, the shire reeve, a name which soon became corrupted to sheriff. It was the sheriffs responsibility to administer royal property in the shire, to collect rents from the royal lands and profits from the court fines. Surrey’s first sheriff was appointed 1,000 years ago, although his name has not survived. The post still exists to this day and each year a new High Sheriff of Surrey is appointed by the Queen. The Sheriff still has a role to play in the administration of justice at the Crown Court and is also the official returning officer for elections to Parliament.

In AD 980 the Vikings returned with a vengeance and from that moment on their raids became ever more frequent. In 994 almost the whole of southern England, including Surrey, was ravaged and temporary peace bought with £16,000. The Vikings have left very little archaeological evidence for these raids in Surrey. However, in June 1981 a 10th century Viking sword was dredged up from a gravel pit near Chertsey. It may have come from a silted up meander of the river Thames, where it was possibly lost during a raid on Chertsey Abbey. The sword was in a remarkably good state of preservation, complete with iron pommel and guards still carrying traces of silver and copper inlays. This very rare find also carried the name ‘Ulfberit’ inlaid on the blade. Over 100 swords bearing this maker’s name have been found in a wide area of Europe stretching from Ireland to Russia – a testament to the far-reaching influence of the Vikings as raiders, traders and, finally, settlers.

For England, the outcome of 30 years of almost continuous warfare was that a Viking king, the Dane, Cnut, ascended the throne of England in 1017. But Cnut proved to be a shrewd politician and a better ruler of England than many of his Saxon predecessors. To cement his right to the English throne he married Emma of Normandy, wife of his erstwhile enemy, the unfortunate King Ethelred the Unready, who had died in 1016. Emma returned from the safety of Normandy for the marriage, abandoning there her two sons by Ethelred, Alfred and Edward. Edward was later to become king of England, popularly known as Edward the Confessor, but poor Alfred came to an untimely end in a chain of macabre incidents which culminated in scenes of unimaginable horror at Guildford in 1036.

When Cnut died late in 1035 he was succeeded by his only son by Emma, Harthacnut. At the time, the new king was in Denmark and for various reasons was unable to cross to England to claim his throne. Meanwhile, many of the English leaders, headed by Earl Godwin, who had been one of Cnut’s chief advisers, were championing the right of Harold, an illegitimate son of Cnut, to be king. Into this uncertain period of English history walked the apparently unsuspecting Alfred who, as a son of King Ethelred, was also a claimant to the throne.

The series of events in 1036 are confusing and reports often contradictory but from these it is possible, perhaps, to piece together some semblance of the truth.

Alfred landed from Normandy at Southampton, reportedly to visit his mother at Winchester, with an entourage of 600 followers. He was greeted by Earl Godwin in a friendly fashion and offered generous hospitality. However, by some trick or other he was persuaded not to go to Winchester and he and his party were conducted to Guildford by some of Godwin’s men. Here, welcoming friends suddenly turned into vicious foes. Alfred and his men were seized and bound, then beaten and tortured. When as much pain as possible had been extracted from each victim, nine out of every ten were slaughtered. When 60 were left another nine out of ten were also condemned, leaving but six to survive this bloody episode.

Alfred himself was conveyed to Ely but, somewhere along the route or perhaps at Guildford, his eyes were pulled out. At Ely his torturers showed no mercy and his end, if we are to believe the Abbot of Jerveaux writing in the 12th century, was almost too horrendous to imagine:

‘Indeed some say, that the beginning of his bowels being drawn out through an opening in his navel, and tied to a stake, he was driven in circles, with iron goads, till the latter parts of his entrails were extracted.’

There was rightful indignation at such barbarous cruelty even amongst supporters of Earl Godwin. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle scribe wrote that ‘no more horrible deed was done in this land since the Danes came and peace was made. Now we must trust to the beloved God that they rejoice happily with Christ who were without guilt so miserably slain.’ Godwin was, not surprisingly, out of favour until the death of Harthacnut in 1042, but he was too powerful a man for true justice to avenge the fate of poor Alfred. The ‘miserably slain’ appear to have been hastily buried on Guildown overlooking the town of their suffering. Here their mutilated remains were rediscovered in the 1920s, buried amongst the graves of the first Saxon settlers, whose deaths had preceded theirs by more than 500 years.