Until the winter of 865 CE, the Vikings showed little intention of conquering England. They had raided and pillaged coastal communities – particularly targeting pacifistic communities of monks such Lindisfarne. They had even over-wintered in semi-permanent encampments on England’s outer islands. But even the larger raids they now required to overcome the improved Anglo-Saxon defenses posed no existential threat to the settled Kingdoms of England. All that was going to change. The Norse chieftains would come together to launch an unprecedented invasion of England, far larger than any that it had yet seen – with the aim of permanently toppling the four Kingdoms of England, to bring them all under Viking control.

Re-enactors lock shields in a representation of the Viking Great Heathen Army. (via Historic UK)

They would very nearly succeed: only the Kingdom of Wessex, led by the brilliant Alfred the Great, would be able to resist the tide, and England would be partitioned for more than a century-and-a-half. The ramifications of the Great Heathen Army for England’s history could not be greater: Norse influence in the East and North created a cultural divide which remains to this day, and the survival of Wessex as the sole Anglo-Saxon Kingdom set the stage for the emergence of a unified England.

Sleepwalking Into Disaster

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of England were sleepwalking into disaster in the 860s CE. There is little evidence that the Kings of Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria or East Anglia were making any serious preparations to counter a major Viking invasion. As we saw in our article about the first Viking invasions of England, the past fifty years had been marked by a steadily increasing Viking threat – but there was little concomitant development of England’s defensive capabilities. Scattered royal decrees levy larger coastal garrisons – but no evidence of new fortifications or significant changes in military organization have reached us today.

It seems like the costs of dealing with the growing Viking threat was largely borne by ordinary English, either losing everything in pillage, being ‘taxed’ by the Vikings in lieu of actual pillage, or uprooting their lives and moving inland. As Viking raiding forces became larger and more well-organized, Anglo-Saxon kings were content to respond on an ad-hoc basis. Larger raids were correspondingly less mobile, and therefore easier to catch and defeat with the Anglo-Saxon fyrd (levied peasant army)– the Battle of Aclea in 851 CE demonstrates this well, when a large force of Vikings were trapped and destroyed by the West Saxon fyrd under King Æthelwulf.

Wargamers recreate the Battle of Aclea, where King Æthelwulf of Wessex trapped and destroyed a significant Viking incursion at a river crossing. (via Storm Within The Empire)

Politically, England was at a crucial crossroads. Mercia, which had been the pre-eminent Kingdom for more than a century and looked to be in the process of unifying all of the Anglo-Saxons Kingdoms into one, had been decisively humbled by the rebellion of West Saxons and East Anglians in the 820s, and the West Saxons had become Mercia’s equal in the intervening time. It is open to debate how far the chieftains of Scandinavia were able to understand the macro-picture of English politics – but the constant trade and travel across the North Sea leads many scholars to theorize that the Great Heathen Army’s arrival in this period was no coincidence.

The Roots of the Great Heathen Army

From the perspective of the Vikings, we are left with an infuriatingly unclear picture of what exactly led to the formation of the Great Heathen Army, since the Norse left only a handful of stone inscriptions and no written histories (only oral histories or sagas, which were recorded centuries later by their settled Christian successors). Scholars tend to link the development of the Great Heathen Army with the situation in Frankia in the previous decade: Lothair I, son of Emperor Louis the Pious, paid a great many Viking mercenaries, who subsequently appear to have formed a coalition to raid the wealthy northern-Frankish inland rivers, even getting as far as Paris. When these opportunities were exhausted, it appears that these Vikings looked toward England.

Co-Emperor Lothair I, depicted here in the contemporary Gospels of Lothair which he commissioned, invited large numbers of Scandinavians into his armies in his civil wars against other Frankish nobles. There, the Vikings found rich raiding opportunities, and likely formed the bonds which resulted in the Great Heathen Army. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The surviving saga sources declare that this coalition was led by three brothers: Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless and Ubba, in revenge for the killing of their father by King Ælla of Northumbria. These three are described as sons of the legendary Viking hero Ragnarr Loðbrók. Ragnarr himself has received an enormous amount of attention in the sagas and in subsequent modern popular culture – but it is far from conclusive that he ever existed: a subject that we’ll certainly delve into in a future historical blog! Regardless of their parentage, the three ‘brothers’ are much more well-attested historical figures, whose trajectories in the coming storm unleashed by the invasion of 865 CE would shape the peace.

The Great Heathen Army Sets Sail

The Great Heathen Army set sail from Scandinavia in late 865 CE. As with much of Viking history, we are left to make educated guesses from second-hand sources (mostly written by the people they pillaged!), scant archaeology and saga sources from many centuries later. It is probable that the Great Heathen Army numbered only in the low thousands, filling dozens of ships rather than hundreds: no logistical infrastructure or military bases capable of sustaining larger numbers have yet been found in Scandinavia. Even the name ‘Great Heathen Army’ (“mycel hæþen here” in Old English) is an epithet given by the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers, intended to convey the senseless violence they saw. But we can already see that the Vikings had far greater political ambitions than mere wanton destruction for its own sake. This was a terrifyingly powerful force for its size: a typical Anglo-Saxon fyrd was made up of only a few hundred levied peasants – whilst every Viking warrior was a walking arsenal of weaponry and physical prowess, being professional veterans of many raids in England and Frankia, some even further afield in the Kievan Rus’ or the Byzantine Empire.

Viking mercenaries and aventurers were serving across the Early Medieval world, including the progenitors of the Byzantine Varangian Guard in the Eastern Roman Empire – re-enactors depicting Varangians pictured. (via Steam Workshop)

The Army Makes Landfall

Their first target was the Isle of Thanet, where they easily overwhelmed the local garrison and extracted gafol (tribute) from the local inhabitants. But instead of crossing the saltwater marshes into the small sub-Kingdom of Kent, they got back into their ships and sailed northward. A concerted attack on Kent would have brought them immediately into the backyard of the powerhouse of Wessex, and the Vikings understood well that the Kingdom of Wessex was ascendant and well-equipped to defeat Viking invaders – some of the participants may even have had personal experience of the disaster at Aclea in the previous decade. To the North of Kent was the lowland Kingdom of East Anglia: Unable to stand alone against the waning-but-still-powerful Mercians, the East Anglian Kings had acknowledged the distant West Saxons as their over-kings – and this weakened Kingdom offered the Vikings a much better target for establishing a beachhead in England.

The low-lying marshy Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of East Anglia is poorly understood in this era, having left few written records – but it was likely a weaker sub-kingdom, dependent on either Mercia or Wessex – this made it an ideal target for the Great Heather Army’s beachhead. (via Wikimedia Commons)

As we saw with the larger raids before the arrival of the Great Heathen Army, one of the first lines of defense for the poorly-prepared English against large Viking incursions was buying the Vikings off. Whereas other Viking raids would have been happy to take the local monastery’s silver and leave, these Vikings were here for conquest. Thus, when they pillaged and burned inland into the interior of East Anglia, the King of East Anglia was forced to offer the Vikings something which he was loth to give up, and which the Vikings could not easily access themselves: horses. These were vital to the next phase of the Vikings’ plan: they were to become a mobile inland army, no longer tethered to their boats. And, instead of taking the plunder and going home, the Great Heathen Army set up a fortified camp in East Anglia and settled in for the winter. One wonders how far news of an exceptionally large, and now horsed, Viking army travelled around England in the winter of 865/6 CE.

The First Kingdom Falls

The Viking spent most of the following year in East Anglia, but they launched a surprise winter campaign in late 866 CE. Striking northward, they undertook a blistering invasion of Northumbria. Although we know little of the history of Northumbria in this period, we know that the aforementioned King Ælla of Northumbria (putative murderer of Ragnarr Loðbrók) had recently deposed the previous King Osberht, and there likely existed a state of civil strife – which may well have informed the timing of the Vikings’ invasion. But the Anglo-Saxon sources relate that when the Vikings struck northward from East Anglia, King Ælla and ex-King Osberht set aside their differences, and raised a joint army to resist the Vikings at the Northumbrian capital of York. Meeting the Vikings on the open field outside of the city in March of 867 CE, the Northumbrians fought valiantly, but were overwhelmed by the fierce Norsemen, both Ælla and Osberht falling in battle. Some Norse sources even hint that Ælla was captured and tortured by the grisly ‘blood eagle’ in revenge for the death of Ragnarr Loðbrók. The surviving Northumbrians surrendered, giving a hefty tribute to the Norse, and the Vikings placed a Northumbrian noble named Ecgberht on the throne as a puppet-king. The first Anglo-Saxon Kingdom had fallen to the Vikings – and it would remain under Norse domination for almost a century.

King Ælla of Northumbria is depicted as a spiteful and vindictive murderer in the big-budget TV show Vikings – but actual history gives us much less to go on other than biased and non-contemporary Norse sagas. (via Daily Express)

The Viking leaders were not content to sit on their laurels. Whilst they had devastated East Anglia and subjugated Northumbria, the powerful Kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex were unconquered. It is perhaps difficult to understand why the other Kingdoms were apparently so slow to react to the existential threat posed by the Norse, but hindsight is 20/20! It may well be that they assessed that the Vikings would get bored and return home with their loot – or even that having a rampant army loose in their rivals’ territory would open up opportunities for their own expansion of influence in future. However, it appears that in 867, the remaining Kings of England began to take the Viking threat seriously. The Vikings moved south from their seat in York and took the Mercian town of Nottingham, which prompted King Burgred of Mercia to bite the bullet and ask for aid from King Æthelred of Wessex. The Mercians and West Saxons led a joint siege of the Vikings at Nottingham – amongst the West Saxon army was the King’s younger brother, a certain Alfred, who had been designated as the King’s successor should the worst happen. The siege was inconclusive, and so the Mercians eventually signed a truce with the Vikings, under which they were to return to Northumbrian land – with large amounts of Northumbrian gafol in tow.

Death of a Martyr

However, the Vikings were not stupid. They had no such peace agreement with the East Anglians – and the truce with the Mercians and West Saxons meant they were free to pursue conquest elsewhere. They withdrew from Mercia in the autumn of 868, and spent most of 869 securing their hold in the North – before engaging in another winter campaign, this time south-east into East Anglia. Whilst overwintering at the town of Thetford, they were attacked by King Edmund of East Anglia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives us few details beyond that the two armies met at a place named ‘Hægelisdun’, variously identified as Bury St. Edmunds, Hellesdon in Norfolk, or Hoxne in Suffolk. Edmund’s life would be richly embellished in the 12th century as a symbol of Christian martyrdom at the hands of the pagans – but what is certain is that Edward met with total disaster. His army was slaughtered, and he was killed – either on the field, or by torture in its aftermath. As with Northumbria, the Vikings installed a local noble to rule as a puppet-king – and a stroke, the second Anglo-Saxon Kingdom had fallen to the Vikings. In but four short years, the Vikings now had nominal control over the whole North and East of England. Things were looking grim for the two remaining Kings of Anglo-Saxon England.

Later medieval hagiographies depict King Edmund of East Anglia as a pious Christian, viciously murdered by the Vikings Ubba and Ivarr. Depicted in a 12th century manuscript of the Passio Sancto Eadmundi. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Until now, we have spoken of the Great Heathen Army and the three ‘brothers’ as if they are one and the same – and as far as we can tell, the three leaders were in command of the army throughout the period. But after the conquest of East Anglia, the records become much more fragmentary and contradictory, a function of the growing chaos in the region – but it appears that this is where the triumvirate ended. With its end, came a distinct change in fortunes for the Viking invasion of England. In the next part of our series on the Viking invasion of England, we will see the Great Heathen Army turn to seed. Though it will come within a hair’s breadth of complete domination of England, its leadership will tire, and its warriors will become farmers. Rather than a Viking England, we will see the creation of the Danelaw: the legal and political partition of England between invader and invaded.


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.