The invasion of the Great Heathen Army in 865 CE upended the Anglo-Saxon world. Thousands of Scandinavian warriors, led by the semi-legendary sons of Ragnarr Loðbrók flooded into England – and the deposed all but one of the major Anglo-Saxon Kings: Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia’s kings had all been knocked from their thrones, the latter two met a terrible end on the battlefield. But King Alfred of Wessex fought the Great Heathen Army to a bloody stalemate, signing a truce with their leader Guthrum: with it, the Viking leader would accept a symbolic baptism into Christianity and would take King Alfred as his godfather. In the subsequent decade, King Alfred would recognise Guthrum as King of East Anglia, and they would agree a territorial separation of their respective spheres. This marks the reconstruction of England as a partitioned land: Viking influence in the East and North, and West Saxon domination over the South and West. Although the phrase was only applied in retrospect from the 11th century onward, well after it had been abolished, we call this territorial division the ‘Danelaw’. It would last for an uneasy three-quarters of a century.

The baptism of Guthrum as Æthelstan, attended by King Alfred (in blue) – the event which solemnized the Treaty that laid out the Danelaw. From a Late Medieval stained glass window, Blakeney, Norfolk (via Alamy)

But though the Danelaw ended de facto with the deposition of King Eric Bloodaxe of York in 954 CE, the ambitions of the Danes in England would last until the end of the Viking Age. Sweyn Forkbeard, a little-known figure in English history, would briefly unite the thrones of England, Denmark and Norway – which his son King Cnut would achieve again for a fractious three decades. Perhaps the real lasting legacy of the Danelaw was the pre-eminent position it gave to Wessex: over the turbulent years of English partition, the West Saxons extended their rule across the entirety of modern England, and its Kings would begin to use the title Rex Anglorum: ‘King of the English’. Let us dive into the Danelaw, and watch England emerge like a phoenix from the ashes.

The Origins of the Danelaw

In our last article on the Viking invasion of England, we saw the Viking’s largest and most concerted invasion of England yet, the Great Heathen Army, founder on the rocks of a sort of West-Saxon Vietnam. The resulting peace settlement would become the founding document of the Danelaw. Guthrum’s invasion of Wessex in 878 CE succeeded in subduing the entire Kingdom for a time – King Alfred was functionally deposed from his throne, and he fled into the marshes with only a handful of followers. But the West Saxons fought grimly on: through guerilla warfare, eventually Guthrum was destabilized, his allies destroyed, and his army was finally smashed at the Battle of Edington. In the aftermath of this defeat, King Alfred and Guthrum came to a truce, where Guthrum agreed to withdraw from Wessex, would convert to Christianity, and would acknowledge the West Saxons as his overlord. The two rulers undertook the solemn baptismal ceremony, and Guthrum took the name Æthelstan. Guthrum withdrew to East Anglia, where he apparently settled as King of East Anglia. Over the next decade, the two rulers would draw up a permanent document to establish the relation between the two spheres of influence: West Saxon and Dane.

A map of the Danelaw, c. 886 CE. The territorial division of England between West Saxon and Dane would last for about 75 years – but it was much more complicated than lines on a map. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Danelaw Treaty

Early Medieval history is sometimes a frustrating field of study: we have only a handful of sources which cover this fascinating agreement – as you can imagine, the chaos and social dislocation caused by the toppling of almost all of the Kingdoms of East Anglia by a non-literate class of Viking opportunists means that these events were often only written down and understood in retrospect. We can often only infer the order of events from scant information, and the motivations of the political figures involved have to remain speculation. But in a very rare case, we actually have a faithful copy of the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, which survived in a collection of documents dating from about 1100 CE, detailing the reign of Cnut.

The border established by the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, showing the Scandinavian influence in East Anglia (via Our Migration Story)

The provisions of the Treaty begin by setting out a boundary between the two realms: from the mouth of the Thames in the South East, to Watling Street in Bedfordshire. Next, the Treaty goes on to set equal weregilds for the English and Danes in both realms. The weregild (literally, ‘man-price’) was a sort of fine, levied on those who killed another person, designed to discourage civil violence. Effectively, this brought the Scandinavians who had settled in East Anglia (and those who would continue to migrate) within the Anglo-Saxon legal framework, on an equal footing to that of the English already resident. Finally, it set out the terms for trade between the two states: that migration from Wessex into Danish East Anglia was forbidden, but trade was permitted on condition that hostages be exchanged for surety.

Unintended Consequences

The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum did two critical things. Firstly, it recognised an exclusively Scandinavian sphere in East Anglia: it effectively decreed that England was de facto partitioned between the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse incomers. But at the same time, it also legitimated the expanded Kingdom of Wessex – because in the crucial decade between the Battle of Edington in 878 CE and the signing of the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum by about 886 CE, much had changed in the rest of England. Although, again, this incredibly unsettled time has left a confused and incomplete historical record, we can see a permanent shift in the balance of power toward West Saxon domination which would see the formation of a united Kingdom of England under the Kings of Wessex over the following century. But this process was not uniform, and was contested at every step of the way by both Dane and non-West Saxon Englishmen. How did the Danelaw evolve in reality? We’ll examine the trajectory of the Danelaw in Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria to chart its rise and its fall.

Mercia, Mercia, Merica

The Viking invasion had toppled King Burgred of Merica, who fled into exile in Rome. In his place, King Ceolwulf II took the Mercian throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle depicts Ceolwulf as little more than a puppet king, placed there by the Vikings, who took hostages as guarantee of his loyalty – but the Chronicle was compiled retrospectively at King Alfred’s court, and this account may be biased in favour of showing Alfred’s legitimacy over Ceolwulf’s. Contemporary coins from Mercia seem to depict Alfred and Ceolwulf as equal Kings. Regardless, most of Mercia remained under direct Viking control, with Ceolwulf’s kingdom was reduced to an independent rump in the North and West. Ceolwulf appears to have attempted to expand Mercian domination in Wales in order to make up for the gutting of the Kingdom, even killing King Rhodri of the Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd, but his rule remains a historical enigma. After only a few years of rule, he disappears from the historical record around 879 CE – whether by accident or by defeat in battle, nobody knows.

The ruins of the Priory of St. Oswald was founded by Æthelred – who arose as a Mercian leader after the disappearence of Ceolwulf, and who brought the Anglo-Saxon rump of Mercia under the overlordship of the Kings of Wessex. He and his wife and successor Æthelflæd are buried there. (via Wikimedia Commons)

It was under Ceolwulf’s successor Æthelred that the Mercians accepted the writing on the wall. The Danelaw and the dismemberment of Mercia made their continued independence impossible. There is no record of the Vikings seeking to control Æthelred as they had with Ceolwulf – and so he sought to expand his predecessor’s invasion of Wales. However, the sons of King Rhodri of Gwynedd dramatically put an end to Mercian ambitions: at Cymryt near the modern town of Conwy, the Mercian army was heavily defeated and the Saxons ejected from the Kingdom – an event which Welsh historians record as the Dial Rodri: Rhodri’s revenge. At the same time, Alfred extended his overlordship to the Kingdoms of Glywysing and Gwent in Southern Wales – perhaps capitalizing on the Mercians’ weakening historical dominance over the Welsh kingdoms. Although these events are far from clear to us, what is certain is that by 883 CE, Æthelred had accepted King Alfred’s overlordship of Mercia.

Overlords of the Midlands

It appears that the relationship between the two men was a firm one. In the 880s, the unified Anglo-Saxons fought off a series of renewed Viking raids – clearly not all of Guthrum’s countrymen had been eager to accept their peace. Alfred re-occupied the town of London, which, being on the border between Wessex and the Danelaw, had been subject to many raids in the previous decades. He gave the city over to Æthelred of Mercia, who rebuilt the city’s defenses and its tax base, restoring peaceful civil government after decades of war. It is around this time that contemporary sources cease to call King Alfred ‘King of the West Saxons’, but instead as ‘Rex Anglorum’ – King of the Anglo-Saxons’. But Alfred was far from ‘King of England’ – though Mercia and Wessex were effectively now one state, the Eastern and Northern half of England remained in Viking hands: the marshes of East Anglia and the Viking city of Jórvík (modern York) were seeing successive waves of Viking settlement.

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great, became the de facto ruler of the Midlands kingdom during the incapacity of her husband, and she ruled it in her own right after his death. Depicted in a 13th century miniature. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The union between Mercia and Wessex was cemented by the marriage of Æthelred of Mercia to King Alfred’s eldest daughter, Æthelflæd. She deserves her own full blog post – but suffice to say she was a highly educated and skilled administrator, and there is much evidence that when Æthelred’s health failed in the early 9th century and he became unable to govern, Æthelflæd effectively became the Mercian head of state. After Æthelred’s death in 911 CE, she became Myrcna hlædige, “Lady of the Mercians”, ruling in her own right and undertaking military campaigns in tandem with her brother King Edward the Elder – she was the only Anglo-Saxon Queen to rule in her own right.

Five Burhs for Five Boroughs

Whilst West and Northern Mercia remained within the West Saxon orbit, eventually becoming part of an expanded Anglo-Saxon Kingdom, what had been Eastern Mercia became a patchwork of Viking fiefs. Five fortified towns – modern Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, Stanford and Lincoln – were divided up between the jarls who made up the Great Heathen Army, and their troops settled down into permanent garissoning, farming and intermarriage with the locals. These territories became known at the time as the Five Boroughs (after the five fortified burhs), and they became a marginal region on the edges of the Danelaw between the Viking and Anglo-Saxon worlds. Though they would be formally re-incorporated into the English Kingdom by the middle of the 9th century, they remained a separate and politically heterogenous region until the Norman Conquests, with Nordic pretenders to the English throne seeking to court the descendents of the Viking conquerers who dwelt there.

The borderlands of the Five Boroughs remained a unique political region well into the 11th century. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Winter Is Coming

In northern England, the Danelaw was perhaps most enduring, and laid down the deepest roots. But the city of York was by no means pliant to Viking rule. The Viking Great Heathen Army slew King Ælla of Northumbria in battle outside the walls of York in 867CE, and replaced him with a pliant puppet king. But not long after the Vikings had marched down South to assault Mercia, York’s residents expelled the Viking authorities, forcing the Great Heathen Army to abandon their campaign and quell this rebellion in their rear. If you recall from our examination of the Great Heathen Army, in 875CE, the Army split, with Guthrum leading campaigns into Wessex, and Halfdan Ragnarsson leading the other part back up to Northumbria. Here, Halfdan is proclaimed King of Jórvík, as Scandinavian York will be known for a century.

The ‘raven banner’ flown by the Vikings of the Great Heathen Army, which became the flag of the Kingdom of Jórvík (via Wikimedia Commons)

Although Halfdan would shortly be killed attempting to assert his control over Viking Dublin, his brief reign marks the beginning of a Viking ascendency in the old Kingdom of Northumbria that would last for 78 years. The warriors that followed Halfdan northward would become the embryonic Viking state’s military, and they attempted to extend Viking influence beyond the Tees – but they were likely unsuccessful: there are few Viking place names, and no sources mention any permanent settlement. But even so, sandwiched between Anglo-Saxon Mercia and the remaining Anglo-Saxon holdings in northern Northumbria, Jórvík was a powerful and important player in the politics of Danelaw England.

Go East, Dear Viking

To the East, Guthrum secured his hold over the Kingdom of East Anglia. The time of Guthrum’s rule in the Danelaw is, like much else in this period, frustratingly opaque. We have coins minted in Guthrum’s name, so we can infer that the Viking leadership adapted well to settled kingship – but despite formally adopting Christianity, Guthrum’s court must have had few literate Churchmen with which to build a West Saxon-style bureaucracy that might have left written records. From the concentration of Viking place-names across East Anglia as far as Essex, we can guess that Guthrum’s army settled the land and turned their ploughshares into swords. The next time that we have certain records of events in East Anglia, they are becoming entangled in West Saxon affairs: though the Danelaw divided the Viking world from the English, its cross-border ties were unavoidable.

King Guthrum of East Anglia, as portrayed in the TV show Vikings. (via Fansided)

The King Is Dead

To understand this next part of the story of the Danelaw, we have to go knee deep in West Saxon dynastic politics – but trust me, it’ll be worth it! After everything shakes out, the course of English history will have changed on a knife-edge, and a Viking Kingdom will fall. King Alfred, having lead the Kingdom of Wessex through the existential threat of the Great Heathen Army, and having forged the remnants of the Anglo-Saxon world into a new Kingdom of England, died in 899 CE at age 50. It is for no small reason that he is the only English King to bear the epithet ‘the Great’! Alfred had hoped to pass his succession peacefully to his son Edward, but the issue was muddied significantly by the size of the West Saxon royal family: Alfred was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf, and three of his elder brothers had also been King. His elder brother Æthelred had led Wessex in the early stages of the struggle against the Great Heathen Army, scoring the victory at Ashdown that gave Alfred the breathing room necessary to buy off the Vikings. But Æthelred already had a son, named Æthelwold (so many Æthels! We’ll call him Æthelwold ætheling, the name given to West Saxon princes-of-the-blood, since – spoiler alert – he won’t ever become King). Æthelwold ætheling had been only a child when King Æthelred died, amidst the intense political crisis of the Viking invasion of Wessex – so the West Saxon Witan had passed over the boy and crowned King Æthelred’s youngest brother Alfred, who was already an able military commander and the fourth of the sons of old King Æthelwulf to wear the crown.

Three of Alfred’s elder brothers had been King before him – and that sowed dynastic problems for his successor Edward the Elder. (via Britain Express)

But now, upon the death of King Alfred, Æthelwold ætheling was the eldest prince of the royal family – some years the elder of Alfred’s own son Edward – and so had a very strong claim to the throne. However, Edward had already proven his ability: the partition of the Danelaw had not entirely stopped Viking raids, and Edward had proved himself a successful warrior during his father’s reign. For example, he successfully checked a large Viking raiding party at the Battle of Farnham in 893 CE, recovering a large amount of stolen English property. Edward was crowned by the Witan council, a mark of his wide appeal – but Æthelwold ætheling disputed the royal succession.

The Prince’s Revolt

The surviving sources portray Æthelwold ætheling as significantly more sympathetic to the Viking cause, and when he failed to gain enough supporters within Wessex, he fled northward to the Kingdom of Jórvík – there, the Danes proclaimed him as King, and leant him military support to invade the Kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. The pretender sailed to Essex, there receiving the support of both East Saxon Anglo-Saxons and the Viking Kingdom of East Anglia, and from there he launched his invasion of Wessex. Medieval warfare is a fickle thing: Æthelwold ætheling did everything right – apart from survive to be crowned. The pretender successfully exploited disunity within the fledgling English realm, with Kent’s fyrd disobeying Edward’s orders and following the retreating Viking army deep into East Anglia in the winter of 902 CE.

Æthelwold ætheling’s revolt was supported by many of the Viking Kingdoms in the Danelaw – but it came to a disastrous end. Modern depiction of 10th century Viking warriors. (via Vikingverse)

Outnumbered, trapped against the River Holme and without their King, the Kentishmen gave desperate battle, and were heavily defeated. But even though the Kentish army was scattered, amongst the dead were both the Viking King of East Anglia – and Æthelwold ætheling himself. Thus ended Æthelwold’s revolt, and with it, the possibility of a swift end to the Danelaw. Historian James Campbell remarks that “Had it not been for the chances of battle and war Æthelwold might very well have been regarded as one of the greatest figures in our island’s story”: the pretender had received the support of many of the Viking polities in England, and his victory over Edward would have reunited the Danelaw with the Kingdom of England. Instead, another half-decade of warfare would be required to achieve the same.

Edward And Peace

Although the pretender’s revolt ended any serious dynastic challenge to Edward’s legitimacy, it left many questions. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sources seem at pains to explain exactly why the King was not with the Kentish army at the moment of battle with Æthelwold ætheling, a very loud protestation of innocence which may well lead us to believe that Edward was heavily criticised for this failure of leadership. Edward was evidently determined to put any doubts as to his suitability for the crown to rest, and he ably did so by enacting a policy of carrot-and-stick divide-and-conquer that would have made his father King Alfred proud.

Edward the Elder build on his father King Alfred’s successes, expanding West Saxon influence over much of the Danelaw. Depicted in a 13th century genealogical roll. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The big losers from Æthelwold’s revolt were the Danes in East Anglia: they had lost their King, but Edward knew when to spare the sword. Rather than pressing a bloody extermination of the Danes, Edward instead signed a new peace and began encouraging Englishmen to buy land and settle inside the Danelaw, seeding the lands of his rivals with his own supporters – at the same time expanding his father’s programme of burh construction into the Midlands and Kent. Having bought peace in the East, Edward dealt a crushing blow to the Vikings in Northumbria in 910 CE, raising a joint army with his sister Æthelflæd of Mercia, who was by now de facto ruler of the sub-kingdom. At the Battle of Tettenhall, the three Viking co-Kings of Northumbria, along with most of Jórvík’s Viking political elite, were killed by the West Saxon-Mercian expedition, decapitating the threat from the Kingdom of Jórvík for a generation.

With a free hand in the North, Edward and Æthelflæd could now turn their attention to the permanent taming of East Anglia. Their strategy of building fortified burh towns was proving highly successful: as well as seriously dissuading all but the largest Viking raids, they were also a political statement of permanent Anglo-Saxon power. Many Viking nobles in borderland areas near the new burhs, particularly in the fluid borderland of the Five Boroughs, began accepting the Anglo-Saxons as their overlords. For example, in 914 CE, Edward’s new fortresses at Buckingham peruaded Jarl Thurketil, leader of the Vikings encamped at Bedford, to submit without a fight, and the following year Edward gave safe passage to Thurketil and his followers to leave England altogether.

917 – A Sam Mendes Movie

It is tempting to see the year of 917 CE as a brilliant bolt of lightning from the blue, which brought all of Edward and Æthelflæd’s plans together at once – but we have seen how Edward’s patience and defensive groundwork prepared the way most carefully. In a series of carefully orchestrated military campaigns between the two leaders, they seized almost all of the southern half of the Danelaw. Whilst Edward repelled Viking raids in the East, Æthelflæd expelled the Vikings from Derby. Similarly, Edward moved into Bedfordshire and took the Viking fortress of Tempsford, killing a Viking commander who was probably King of East Anglia. Shortly afterward, all of the Viking armies in East Anglia had either submitted without a fight or melted away. The Danes who ruled from Northampton submitted to Edward after seeing the nearby Anglo-Saxon stronghold had been reinforced with an impenetrable stone wall. In only one campaigning season, Edward had become master of both East Anglia, and one of the Five Boroughs.

Key to Edward the Elder’s strategy was the construction of fortified burhs, which could quickly shut down Viking raids, denying raiding income to the Viking armies in East Anglia and the Five Boroughs. Modern illustration of a fortified Anglo-Saxon burh. (via Huntingdonshire History Festival)

The following year, the Vikings at Leicester submitted to Æthelflæd without a fight, and there is even some evidence that the Anglo-Scandinavian rulers of Jórvík’s made an offer of submission to her as well – although she died before it could be accepted. There is also some indication that Mercia entered a period of instability in the political vacuum marking the death of the Lady of Mercia, with Edward eventually incorporating Mercia wholly as a part of Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 919 CE, Edward finally received the submission of all remaining Danes south of the Humber. The Danelaw was not over – but the English Kingdom now covered the whole of the South and the Midlands, and had even incorporated areas of Wales after the death of Æthelflæd. And moreover, it was a decidedly West Saxon English Kingdom, forged by the overlordship of the Kings of Wessex, rather than a more pluralist union as might have been represented by Æthelwold ætheling.

The Kings In The North

All that remained of the Danelaw was the Kingdom of Jórvík – despite being comparatively isolated, the wealthy and powerful trading city was a critical piece in the ‘Hiberno-Norse’ society that spanned Northumbria, the Isles of Scotland, and the east coast of Ireland with its sea-borne raider culture. This final phase of the Danelaw lasted a surprisingly long time – from the collapse of East Anglia and the Five Counties in the late 910s, until the flight of Eric Bloodaxe in 954 CE. But the rocky and confused course of Early Medieval history does somewhat defy block-coloration on maps: overlapping kingship, submission and heirarchy cannot be so easily displayed. Instead, to understand the subtleties of the long fight for Northumbria, we’re going to look into the history in depth.

Construction work in Coppergate, central York in 1972 opened up a rare opportunity to conduct archaeological digs in the center of Viking Jórvík. The results were incredible: a dense hive of Viking workshops, dwellings, streets and trash middens, disgorging thousands of objects (including helmets, weaponry, leatherwork and discarded food) which gave unparalleled insights into the Viking Age. (via Jorvik Viking Centre)

Most of the Viking rulers of the Kingdom of Jórvík were of the Uí Ímair – the Irish name given to the ‘descendents of Ivar’, a King of Viking Dublin: although there is much debate on the topic, there is a good likelihood that this is the same Ivar who led the Great Heathen Army with his ‘brothers’ Halfdan and Ubba. Often, the death of a Norse Northumbrian King (usually violently) would not result in the passing of succession on to a child: rather, one of the other Kings in the Hiberno-Norse world would sail for Jórvík and take up rule: an effective system of sideways promotion, perhaps inspired by Hibernic traditions of tanistry (succession of the second-in-command). This proved a resilient system for several decades – unlike the more chaotic Viking polities in East Anglia and the Five Boroughs, the Viking rulers of York set up a resilient and effective state. They divided the region into three ‘Ridings’ (from the Old Norse ‘thrithjungr‘, meaning a third), each administered by local Wapentakes (local councils where people would vote by clashing their weaponry). Plugged into the Viking sea-trade network that spanned the North Sea and the British Isles, Jórvík became a thriving inland port city, leaving behind a fascinating archaeological record which gives insight into the Anglo-Scandinavian culture which flourished there.

Æthelstan, Bretwalda

Some sources assert that Ragnall, the Viking King of Jórvík and the Isle of Mann who offered submission to Æthelflæd in 918CE, also submitted to Edward – although if he did, he was permitted to retain rule of his Kingdom, and his successors did not feel bound by his oaths. Even as soon as 920 CE, Ragnall’s successor Sihtric raided around Chester, in West Saxon Mercia. But King Edward’s successor would have more success in attempting to crack the Northumbrian Norse. After a confused succession, King Æthelstan emerged as head of a powerful and unified English Kingdom, which he had no intention of dividing: he had the ambition to become the Bretwalda (‘King of All Britons’) as in the days of his ancestors. King Sihtric of Northumbria was prepared to engage in realpolitik: he gave his formal submission to King Æthelstan in 926 CE, even converting to Christianity and taking Æthelstan’s daughter as his wife. But the sources agree that this potential union between Christian and pagan realms did not stick: before long, Sihtric had given up Christian observance, and returned Æthelstan’s daughter to him without having consummated the marriage. But King Æthelstan did not have to bide his time long. Sihtric died the following year, and his kinsman Gofraid set out from Dublin to claim the Northumbrian throne. Exploiting this opportunity, King Æthelstan drove Gofraid out within a few months of his arrival in Jórvík, and declared himself King of a restored Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

A very rare contemporary depiction of an Anglo-Saxon King: a depiction of King Æthelstan humbly presenting a book to St. Cuthbert, from a 10th-century manuscript of Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert – probably presented to King Æthelstan by the monks of Chester-le-Street in 934 CE. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Northumbrians were outraged at Æthelstan’s seizure of the Northumbrian throne: the North had never been ruled by the kings of the South, and doubtless many chafed under West Saxon hegemony, looking for the first opportunity to throw off the usurper. But for now, Northumbria was incorporated as a constituent part of King Æthelstan’s Kingdom of England, which now stretched from the River Tees to the English Channel. The enemies of this massive, powerful Kingdom united against it: the Scottish Kings of Alba and Strathclyde made common cause with King Olaf Guthfrithson of Viking Dublin, meeting King Æthelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 CE. With the combined might of warriors from across the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms and the Danelaw, Æthelstan prevailed, in what is one of the critical junctures of British history. The days of the Danelaw seemed finally in the past.

I Came To Bury St. Edmund, Not To Praise Him

But the Danelaw had one last coda. Whilst King Æthelstan had been able to hold the newly united Kingdom of England together in his lifetime, his death brought separatist tendencies to the boil. These were most pronounced in Northumbria, where the independent northerners had no loyalty to the West Saxon kings. King Olaf Guthfrithson of Dublin, still smarting from his defeat at Brunanburh, rapidly exploited Æthelstan’s death, sailing for Jórvík for a huge Viking army and declaring himself King of Northumbria. Knowing that his position would only weaken as Æthelstan’s heirs became more secure, he immediately launched a lightning invasion of northern Mercia. Æthelstan’s successor King Edmund met the Vikings in the field, and an enormously costly battle was only avoided by the mediation of the pro-Viking Archbishop of York Wulfstan I, who persuaded the new King to surrender control of much of the Five Boroughs to the Vikings. This was the first setback suffered by the West Saxon Kings for a generation, and Edmund was forced to accept this loss whilst he secured his hold on the Kingdom. The Danelaw was back. However, this revitalized Danelaw had feet of clay: King Olaf Guthfrithson died soon after, and his disunited successors were easily rolled up by King Edmund, who reimposed English rule in the North.

The Battle of The Brunaburh was a critical moment in forging the unity of the English Kingdom. Slightly anachronistic but very dramatic illustration by Alfred Pearse, 1923. (via National Geographic)

Eric Bloodaxe – the Last Viking King in England

But – again – West Saxon political affairs were to open another opportunity for the irrepressible Norsemen! King Edmund was murdered in a brawl in 946 CE – an episode of some ambiguity which still causes historical debate. Regardless, Edmund’s younger half-brother Eadred ascended to the English throne, inheriting a united English Kingdom that would, like the one inherited by his brother, soon fragment. King Eadred attempted to forestall Northumbrian separatism by convening a Witan of Northumbrians and Danes, including the renegade Archibishop Wulfstan, and getting them to swear allegiance to him. This, however, did not stop them from revolting almost immediately. Historians often blame Archbishop Wulfstan for this whole period of instability, who vacillated between supporting Viking Kings as a means of guaranteeing Northumbrian independence, and submitting to the West Saxons in the South when it was convenient to do so. Wulfstan’s chosen Norseman for the position of King was Eric Haraldsson – better known as Eric Bloodaxe, the Last King of Northumbria, whose reign marks the end of the Danelaw.

A coin marked ‘Eric Rex’ (King Eric), from mid-10th century York, in the collections of the British Museum (via Wikimedia Commons)

Historical sources for the Viking Age are few and far between, and what few historical facts we can accurately reconstruct about Eric Bloodaxe are set against a huge skaldic tradition which ascribes a mountain of bloody and heroic deeds to him. Bloodaxe was briefly King of Norway, but proved, incredibly, to be too despotic and brutal even for the Vikings – if the sagas are to be believed. Forced out of Scandinavia, Bloodaxe fled to England, possibly via the Orkneys. But his arrival on the Northumbrian political stage brings him more into focus in the historical record. Proclaimed King by Archsbishop Wulfstan and the Northumbrians in 948 CE, King Eadred’s response to Eric Bloodaxe was uncompromising. He mounted a slash-and-burn raid into Northumbria, even torching Ripon Minster – leading historians to speculate that this punitive expedition was targeted specifically against the Churchman Wulfstan. Bloodaxe inflicted heavy losses on King Eadred’s army at Castleford, but this shocking response from the English King was enough to scare the Northumbrians into submission, and they unceremoniously ejected Eric Bloodaxe within the year. Another Viking King of Dublin returned to Jórvík – but the confused and fragmentary record hamper a clear idea of what happened next. Amidst invasions from Scotland in the North, Bloodaxe apparently launched a coup against his rival, returning to power in Jórvík.

Rey Cross, halfway between Penrith and Barnard Castle in North Yorkshire is the purported burial site of legendary Viking King Eric Bloodaxe. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Sadly (for him, happily for the residents of Northumbria), Bloodaxe the comeback-kid was not to rule for long. The saga sources give Eric Bloodaxe a glorious death: some, alongside five other Viking Kings in battle against the English; others have him sailing off into the sunset to die in raids on Spain. But rather less romantically, the only fragmentary historical accounts that we have point to his betrayal and murder at the hands of a kinsman named Maccus and High Reeve Osulf of Northumbria in 954 CE. Exactly why, we are left to guess: perhaps some personal sleight, perhaps his relationship with Archbishop Wulfstan had soured, maybe even a West Saxon coup. Following Bloodaxe’s ignominious end, Osulf was rewarded by his appointment to the Earldom of Northumbria – firmly within King Eadred’s Kingdom of England. And this time, it would stick: the Viking-led Northumbrian rebellions were over, and with them, the Danelaw, the partition of England between Anglo-Saxons and Danes, was consigned to history. Wulfstan was imprisoned by Eadred and effectively put on ecclesiastical desk duties for his short retirement. And England was safe from Viking incursions forever. Honest.

Eadred Who?

King Eadred – establisher of modern England. Practically nobody has heard of this obscure King, who would rule only nine years – but his reign saw the end of the Danelaw, and the establishment of a permanent English Kingdom under the dominance of the West Saxon state. But hark! Is that the sound of oar-beats on the water? Just because the formal partition of England between Anglo-Saxons and Dane is at end, doesn’t mean the game is over: the stakes have merely gotten bigger. The Danelaw has fundamentally changed the make-up and political identity of England. The mass-settlement of Eastern and Northern England by Scandinavian warriors, settlers, traders and farmers over the best part of a century has created an entangled world: now, every Viking in Scandinavia will have a cousin in England. After several decades of peace, the Vikings will again turn to raiding English shores, and the unprepared, unwise government of Æthelred Unræd – known to history as Ethelred the Unready – will fail miserably to contain them. Within only a few halcyon years, the Kingdom of England, newborn and unsteady, will be plunged into the Crisis of Late Anglo Saxon England- culminating in the invasion of Cnut, the formation of the North Sea Empire, and finally England’s conquest and subjugation by an illegitimate Norman duke. So grab your shield and spear – we’re going raiding – and the prize is the biggest one yet: all of England!


About Charles J Lockett

Ever since Charles was a lad, he’s been a history obsessive – summer holidays were always spent dragging his family around Welsh castles! He pursued that passion through University, studying Early-Modern Europe and the French Revolutions, receiving his MA in Politics from the University of Sheffield. Nowadays, he is a writer specialising in history and politics, based in Yorkshire, UK. In his spare time, he is a Dungeon Master, aspiring fantasy novelist and cat dad.