“The Vikings are coming! God save us from the fury of the northmen!”
Written for The Viking Network by Dana Metheny
Can you imagine the sight, as shiploads of Vikings landed in England to pillage its churches and seize its land? The cries of terror and despair rang over and over again through England for centuries. Many Viking armies came to England, some only to raid for gold; some others stayed to farm the land and make homes for their families. Today, there are still parts of England where the heritage of the vikings is still present.
This story is about one particular army led by a Danish Viking named Guthorm. (The English called him Guthrum.) Guthorm and his army came from an even bigger Viking army, called “The Great Army”, which was led by Ivar the Boneless and his brother, Halfdan. These two men were sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, who was slain by the English in Northumbria.
After Ivar left England to go to Ireland, Halfdan continued to conquer English land and eventually settled down. But Guthorm had his eye on the only part of England left that was unconquered: the kingdom of Wessex. The Great Army then split: many men settled with Halfdan and many went with Guthorm. And so Guthorm began a series of attacks against Wessex and its king, a young man named Alfred.
Overview to the story
May…a good month for a battle! King Guthorm knew it would be no skirmish. King Alfred’s army had strengthened quickly now that the crops had been planted. But Guthorm’s warriors were professional fighters. And Guthorm was eager to move south and take the kingdom of Wessex. He knew his army had several advantages over Alfred’s farmer-fighters and ealdormen.
But there were a few major details gnawing at his thoughts on that early May morning. Ragnarsson’s death was only one of them. But as the sun began to rise, Guthorm gave the orders to move the army to Salisbury Plain. There they would meet their foemen and fight to gain the way to Wessex. Victory…the Viking king could almost taste it!
As he gave the order to move from camp, Guthorm knew, however, that the knowledge of his fate and that of his men lay hidden behind the all-seeing eye of a fickle god, Odin.
“My camp’s at Gloucester!”
The year 877 had been a great one for Guthorm, Oskytel, and Amund, the three Danish war leaders. They had captured and occupied Exeter, a town in the kingdom of Wessex, for eight months. After launching skirmishes and collecting booty, they finally left the town in 878. But they had been paid well with English gold in exchange for their promise to go away and leave Wessex in peace.
In Mercia, just north of Wessex, Oskytel and Amund were not thinking about fighting the English anymore. They had something else in mind that they figured Guthorm would not like.
“Guthorm, now that our purses are full of Danegeld, we don’t want to fight anymore. Oskytel and I will take our share of land here in Mercia. Now we will make homes for ourselves and raise families,” Amund announced for all to hear. “And many of the warriors want to do the same,” he added.
“Ja!” Oskytel nodded. “We are wealthy enough to do this now. We don’t need Wessex land when we can settle comfortably in Danish Mercia.”
It was true. The English had paid the Vikings a very generous bribe to leave Wessex. Now they were in Danish territory with winter coming and, soon after that, the seed-sowing time of spring. Many men in the army felt that the fall of 878 was a good time to settle down, divide up the land, and start a new life. Many had come to England for the chance to do just that.
But history tells us that Guthorm had no intentions of settling down just yet. Perhaps he replied something like this: “My camp’s at Gloucester! All you men who are not satisfied with purchased peace can come with me. I have a plan to crush the kingdom of Wessex and gain rich land and seacoast together.”
Guthorm did indeed have a brilliant plan to capture the kingdom of Wessex. It involved getting his army closer to the Wessex border and then waiting for help from a fleet of longships coming from the west. With the King of Wessex and his army caught between Guthorm’s land forces and the Viking longships full to the gunwales with warriors, English Wessex could be pinched and crushed forever. Guthorm’s first move, the attack on the Wessex border town of Chippenham, got his plan moving quickly and with a deadly force.
The Battle at Chippenham
Shortly after January 6, 878, just after the Christmas celebration of Twelfth Night, Guthorm’s army burst into peaceful Chippenham and caught everyone by surprise. The English were terrified to see the Viking warriors so soon after they had left Wessex. Hadn’t they taken the payment of Danegeld and promised to go away? The land was supposed to be at peace!
Here is what King Alfred’s own biographer, Asser, wrote about this attack soon after it happened:
“There they wintered, and drove many of the people of Wessex overseas by force of arms, and through lack of the necessities of life. They reduced to almost complete subjection all the people of the country.”
Apparently, what Asser wrote was true, because in France there are records that tell of the year 878 when many fugitives from England arrived in France. These may have been the English people chased out of their homelands by Guthorm’s army.
Even King Alfred was caught totally by surprise. He had been celebrating the Christmas holidays in the royal city of Dorset. With Guthorm now controlling the north way into his kingdom, Alfred had to escape to the wilderness of the moors and the forests before Guthorm could catch up to him. Alfred was so unprepared for Guthorm’s attack that the only fighting men he had with him were his bodyguards. These were only a few hundred men. Guthorm’s warriors, however, numbered in the thousands.
Viking Trouble on Two Sides?
With Alfred and his small band of followers hiding in the wild countryside, Guthorm could look forward to delivering the crushing blow to Wessex, the very last of the Saxon kingdoms to fall to the Danes. The Viking king must have been expecting the arrival of one of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok (possibly named Ubbe, but no one is sure) and his fleet of longships. They were to come from the west, probably from South Wales, to provide the pincher movement with Guthorm’s land army. No one knows how this invasion from land and sea was planned. But even Alfred might have expected trouble. He had fled to a position between Guthorm’s forces and the west. He could have turned either way to defend his land with whomever he could gather to his aid. What would happen, though, if both the land army and the warriors on the longships attacked at the same time? King Alfred could only hope that that would not happen.
A Great Misfortune for the Vikings
Finally, in the days before Easter, which in the year 878 was March 21st, Ragnarsson’s twenty-three ships took sail and advanced on the north Devon coast for the attack on Wessex. The ealdorman of Devon, named Odda, retreated with his people to a strong hillfort on Countisbury Hill. There, the fort looked out over the coast and the road eastward. There they waited, watching the ships and looking for Vikings on the road. The ships waited also, hoping to starve the people out. The Saxons knew they had to do something before all their food and water ran out.
One early morning, they attacked and slew most of the Danes. It is said that even Ragnarsson was killed in the battle that day. The threat of a pincher attack was over. Now Guthorm and his army would have to fight for Wessex on their own or forget Wessex and settle in land already won somewhere else.
Fight or Make Peace?
Should Guthorm continue the fight, or should he make peace? He had a lot to think about before he made his decision. His army had several advantages over the English army. First of all, the Vikings had better weapons. They wielded longswords and battle-axes. They had better discipline and could endure long campaigns because they did not have to worry about the crops. They did not have homes to protect. They were seasoned warriors with excellent battle strategies and they had a fierce reputation. Guthorm would have thought about these advantages.
But a good commander also would have considered his army’s disadvantages. One of the biggest concerns was that the army had shrunk in size. No reinforcements had come to replace the men who had been killed in earlier battles. The warriors who were left had fought long and were talking about settling down. Guthorm sensed that if he lost a battle, the army would split. Some men would still follow him if he wanted to fight again, but he ran the risk of not keeping enough men. And finally, Guthorm knew that the Vikings had won battles because the English kings had been too busy arguing at each other, or had just given up. Alfred’s Wessex was not about to give up. The people who lived there were definitely against the Vikings. They wanted to make a stand and had good ealdormen who listened to Alfred’s commands and worked with him to defeat the Vikings. Guthorm knew all of this and probably talked it over with his best warriors. And when all the talking was over, they were ready for a fight.
King Alfred Gathers his Army for a Fight
Alfred knew all along that his countrymen needed time to plant their crops before they would leave their farmsteads to join his army. If he took them before the fields were planted, there may not be enough food for winter. So he waited through spring at a place called Athelney, just a little hill protected from invasion by thickets and swamps all around it. Here he built a fort and used it as a base to launch small, quick attacks against Guthorm’s army.
Throughout March and April, Alfred also sent word to the Saxon men of the area to prepare for an attack on the Danes. His countrymen responded, and by May they began their march north-east to meet the Viking army.
The Battle of Ethandun (Edington)
Who knows what really happened on the battlefield that May morning in 878? The details, unfortunately, are lost forever. But, using what little is known about the battle and what we know about the Vikings’ way of life, together with some imagination, perhaps the battle can be described like this:
The Lay of Guthorm’s Army at Ethandun
Upon the Salisbury Plain face to face
|With voices grumbling
Danes delight in battle always.
`Gainst attack from either side,
Wielding words to frighten foemen.
|Gods of battle grow greedy for slaughter
The shouts of men fighting fiercely
On biting sword’s and gory axe’s field
Beneath men’s boots, bodies fall
|The ravens bark above the din,
The plain runs red with blood.
Shields ring out and split asunder
From either side in equal number.
|The gods of war council Vikings:
Each man must valiant be
After death, talk recalls deeds
The Valkyries gather valiant men
|Warriors fight fearless and strong!
Before the blade his skull bites.
Little is lost for men who fight well.
To fight again another day.
|Guthorm’s men fought fiercely, far from home
But saw not Odin’s favour that day.
Back to Chippenham weary behind walls
Little the loss for men who fight well;
|They wielded weapons
Guthorm turned his warriors back,
To fight again another day.
Yet Odin gives fickle fortune.
And so it went at the battle on Salisbury Plain, near Ethandun (now called Edington). Guthorm retreated back to Chippenham after the battle. Alfred pursued him there and surrounded the Viking camp. He killed the loose cattle and the men he found outside the walls. Guthorm and his men must have wondered if their gods still favoured them. Some may have complained to their war leader that it was a good time to make peace, settle, and farm the lands outside of Wessex. And while they discussed their next move, Alfred was keeping any food and water from coming into the camp. Within two weeks, in late May, 878, Guthorm and his army surrendered and accepted total defeat of the plan to conquer Wessex
Terms of the Treaty of Wedmore
Guthorm agreed with Alfred to leave the kingdom of Wessex alone and he gave Alfred men from his army to keep as hostages. If Guthorm broke his promise, Alfred could then kill the hostages. This kind of agreement had been made, and broken, before. But Alfred also wanted Guthorm and his men to accept Christianity. Guthorm agreed, and that too was made a part of the treaty. You can read more about The Treaty of Wedmore here.
Guthorm Accepts Baptism
Guthorm and thirty of his men were baptised in Wedmore, which lay within Wessex. Guthorm’s baptismal name was Athelstan, meaning “royal stone.” Alfred himself was Guthorm’s godfather.
After the ceremony, the Vikings stayed with Alfred as welcome guests. Many generous gifts were exchanged between King Alfred and King Guthorm during the visit. Although no one knows what they talked about, we can assume that Alfred was interested in teaching the Vikings about their new god.
Do you think that the Danes were impressed by the ceremonies and welcomed the new god over Odin? Historic facts often leave us with mysteries that no one can solve. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to listen to the conversations between the two powerful kings after that great battle?
A New Chapter of Life for the Vikings
Upon leaving Wedmore, Guthorm and his men rejoined the Danes at Chippenham, and spent the rest of the summer there. Then they moved out of Wessex and spent the winter in Cirencester, in Danish Mercia. They stayed there until the autumn of 879. Were they planning another attack on Wessex? Were they waiting for more Danish reinforcements to join their army? No one knows what went on there during that year after the battle. Perhaps many options were discussed between Guthorm and his men. Maybe his warriors, grown smaller and smaller in number after the last year of fighting, were indeed ready to settle down as farmers.
Finally, in the autumn of 879, Guthorm and his men moved quietly away to East Anglia. It was here, in the lands the Vikings had already won years before, that they divided and began farming the rich land.
With Guthorm still a king of the raider-turned-farmer Danes, he too began a very different chapter in the story of his life as a Viking in England. Do you think he spent the rest of his years in peace as a farmer- king, or was he fated to meet up with Alfred again to make yet a new treaty for peace in England?