The Vikings have a formidable military reputation. But much of this, argues Martyn Whittock, is hype. We need some serious analysis.
In AD 866 there were four independent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England. By 874, there was just one. A ‘blitzkrieg’ of Viking attacks had obliterated three kingdoms. In eight short years, the Vikings had eclipsed 300 years of Anglo-Saxon history.
The political landscape of England had been changed forever. And the remaining kingdom – Wessex – was itself facing destruction. In 878, King Alfred was driven into the Somerset marshes, and his kingdom was overrun by a Scandinavian army. How was such devastation possible?
The speed of this destruction leaves us with the image of invincible Vikings who outclassed their Anglo-Saxon opponents. Even the eventual Anglo-Saxon resurgence under Alfred and his son Edward the Elder cannot eradicate the impression of Viking enemies who, for a significant period of time, seem to have possessed overwhelming advantages.
The Vikings first exploded onto the record in 789. In that year a shipload landed on Portland (Dorset) and killed the king’s reeve (the local royal agent). He made the mistake of ordering them to his base (in Dorchester) to sort out their credentials for entering Wessex. Vikings did not take well to being ordered anywhere! It was a taste of things to come.
In the years after 789, Viking raids on England escalated. They targeted coastal monasteries and trading settlements. In either case they were attracted by portable loot and civilian populations who could be enslaved. In 793 another group of Viking raiders shocked western Christendom by sacking the famous Northumbrian monastery of Lindisfarne. The home of the Lindisfarne Gospels had been trashed.
Far away in Aachen (in what is now Germany), at the court of the Frankish ruler Charlemagne, the Northumbrian monk Alcuin provides us with the only significant contemporary account of this attack: “Never before has such a terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made.”
The number of attacks accelerated particularly after 830. In 842, three major trading centres were raided. According to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, these were London, Rochester in Kent, and Quentovic on the Continent. London was attacked again in 851. That same year Canterbury was also sacked.
In the past, raids had been seasonal, but this changed in 851, when, for the first time, a Viking force overwintered on English soil, on Thanet in Kent. Now there was no respite. Areas close to this base were stripped of provisions during the winter. And the following year’s campaigning season started earlier than ever. Worse was to come.
In 866, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the arrival in East Anglia of the micel hæðen here (‘the great heathen army’). Having occupied East Anglia, they took horses and became a mobile force on land. In 867 they moved north and defeated the Northumbrians. In 868 they moved south to Nottingham, their target this time the Midlands kingdom of Mercia.
For a while the Mercians held them at bay, with help from neighbouring Wessex, and in 870 the Vikings returned to East Anglia. Here they killed its king. Then, in 871, they attacked Wessex and occupied Reading.
Despite the occasional setback, their successes mounted. In 874 they drove the king of Mercia from his throne. In 876 and 877 the hammer fell again on Wessex. In January 878, Viking raiders narrowly missed capturing Alfred of Wessex at Chippenham in Wiltshire. He was forced to flee into the Somerset marshes, and the Vikings overran the Kingdom of Wessex.
Viking armies were clearly phenomenally successful. But their Anglo-Saxon opponents were skilful and experienced in warfare. Both sides were fairly evenly matched in terms of weaponry and battlefield tactics.
The Viking combination of seaborne attacks, transportation of horses (or seizure of horses), and loosely allied raiding bands produced an offensive force that was fast, flexible, unpredictable, and versatile.
The use of horses gave the Vikings speed and reach difficult to match in the absence of an Anglo-Saxon rapid-reaction force or protected bases from which defenders could operate and in which the civilian population could shelter. This would seem to have been the key to early Viking successes. As a result, they devastated England in the 860s and 870s.
What is interesting is that, when the Anglo-Saxons rethought their defensive strategies from the 880s onwards, the Viking ‘blitzkrieg’ faltered in England. As Alfred and his successors began building or extending the system of burhs (defended settlements) across their territory, Viking victories rapidly tailed off. This was accompanied, in 893, by a reorganisation of West Saxon armies in order to ensure that some troops were always in the field.
As a consequence, many Vikings shifted their operations to the Continent, and there deployed the tactics that had earlier been so effective in England. Far from being invincible, the Vikings enjoyed a 20-year period of advantage, in the 860s and 870s, because the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were geared up to fight a different kind of war. It was a period of advantage that soon faded, a window of opportunity that closed.
The Vikings had enjoyed the natural advantage of an aggressive attacker whose own communities and non-combatants were safely out of harm’s way and secure from retaliation.
But Viking communities themselves became vulnerable once the initial phase of raiding turned to settlement in England. The shift occurred in the 890s. It is then that we first hear both of Viking armies having to defend their own families from Anglo-Saxon aggression, and of the capture of Viking non-combatants by AngloSaxon forces.
During the 10th century, the West Saxons steadily reconquered all the Viking settlements of the east and north of England. Where then was the Viking invincibility? The playing-field had been levelled, and the Scandinavian communities in England were unable to resist the military offensives launched against them.
The same was true in the Viking homelands where, in the late 11th century, Danes found themselves suffering significant losses as a result of raids by the Wends. These were a Slav tribe of the southern Baltic coast. The Danes were no more able to defeat them than the Anglo-Saxons had been when facing similar Viking attacks two centuries earlier.
Martyn Whittock is co-author (with his eldest daughter Hannah) of The Viking Blitzkrieg, AD 789-1098. This is an edited extract from an article that appeared in issue 66 of Military History Monthly. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.