History of the Vikings
fortnight later the English were beaten in a third encounter that took place at Basing in Hampshire. In March there was yet another pitched battle between the two Wessex princes and the Danes, this time in Wiltshire at the village of Marton on the outskirts of Savernake Forest; for the greater part of the day the English held the upper hand, but they could not put the enemy to flight, and, after heavy slaughter on both sides, they were forced to withdraw leaving the Danes in possession of the field.
In the spring of this year, and with the Danes pressing hard upon his realm, Æthelred died. As the two children that he left were only infants, the crown did not pass in the direct line to his eldest son; instead, he was succeeded on the throne by one of the greatest men England has ever produced, his brother Alfred. It was a situation of the utmost gravity that faced the new king. Deira, Alfred knew, was lost to the Danes; East Anglia was theirs; Mercia had only escaped for the time by the humiliating purchase of a peace; and now the Danes had already been four months in Wessex. At such a time and in such a crisis even a powerful and experienced ruler might have wavered; but Alfred the Great was only a youth of 23 years when he came to the throne and a prince possessing neither rude strength nor robust health. He had, however, already proved his courage. He had fought the Danes; he knew the manner of their warfare; and his own people trusted him. So the young king never faltered, but led his army straightway against the pagan host. The first battle took place at Wilton; it was hard fought, but as before at Marton, the English at first drove back the Danes, only to be themselves repulsed at the end of the day. Despite this failure, Alfred did not once relax his close watch upon the movements of the enemy nor the determined opposition whereby he countered them; in this year, 871, he fought no less than nine pitched battles against the Danes, and at last the invaders, who were losing many of their men in this constant fighting, realized that the conquest of Wessex was not likely to be effected in the present campaign. The result was that Alfred was able to make a peace with Halfdan and the viking army withdrew across the Thames. For the time, at any rate, Wessex was saved.
But this freedom for Wessex was bought at the expense of Mercia, and in the next year the Danes determined upon the conquest of Burhred's kingdom. This prince, since he had been occupied in a struggle with the Welsh, had not come to the assistance of Wessex in the hour of its peril, and Alfred in his turn, either because of his bond with the Danes or because the better
organization of his own kingdom demanded his full attention, left Mercia to its fate. Halfdan's first move was to march with his vikings to London, where they spent the winter 871-2, and while they remained there Alfred posted a small observation force on his side of the Thames. But it was Burhred who was compelled to take some action, for he could not permit the Danes to hold this important Thames mart unchallenged, and as he dare not attack Halfdan, he too made a peace with the enemy, ransoming the town by the payment of a heavy tribute. The Danes thereupon temporarily withdrew from south-eastern Mercia; but after a return to Deira they came south again into Lindsey and spent the winter 872-3 at Torksey on the Trent near Lincoln. Then began a terrible ravaging of Mercia, and by the following winter the Danes had established themselves in the heart of the kingdom at Repton, where they destroyed the mausoleum of the Mercian kings. At the end of 874 the overthrow of the wretched kingdom was finally completed. Leicester, Nottingham, Lichfield, and Tamworth had fallen, (1) and Burhred had abandoned his country to its fate. He fled to Rome, where he died soon afterwards, and Halfdan set up in his stead on the Mercian throne a man called Ceolwulf, an English thane who was instructed to govern the country on behalf of the Danes as long as it so pleased them to entrust it to him. Halfdan's army then retired from Repton, and in doing so divided, one portion under Halfdan himself returning to Deira to winter on the Tyne, while the other, commanded by Guthrum, Oscytel, and Anwind, went to Cambridge.
Halfdan thereafter (875) set about the conquest of Bernicia, whose inhabitants had rebelled against their prince, Ecgberht, a vassal of the Danes, and Ricsig, another ruler appointed by the foreigners; he ravaged the country north of the Tyne and west to Carlisle, burnt and looted monastery after monastery, was the cause of the bishop of Lindisfarne abandoning his see, and even penetrated into the lands of the Picts and the Strathclyde Welsh. He did not succeed in crushing all resistance from the independent Northumbrian princes at Bamborough, but when at length he was satisfied that little or no danger was to be anticipated from the north, he returned to Deira, and in 876 began the initial organization of what was clearly intended to be a stable and law-abiding colony. His first action was to portion out the province of Deira among his followers, and he made these new Danish
1. There is, however, no reference in the Chronicle to the fate of these towns. They can hardly have offered any conspicuous resistance to the Danish advance.
masters of the land responsible for the continued cultivation of their holdings. In the next year he added to the territory thus under direct Danish ownership a large tract of Mercia, namely that part of the kingdom east of a boundary extending from the Peak district in Derbyshire to Tamworth in Warwickshire and then south-east along the Watling Street as far as the northern boundary of Northamptonshire. Here, as in Deira, Danish ownership of the land, and Danish law and social organization, were imposed on the English, but there was also an important political reorganization of the district, for this Mercian territory was divided into five portions, each under a jarl who was instructed to maintain an army for the defence of his area, and each having as its centre a specially fortified town that was known as a borough (OE. burh = fortified place). These viking headquarters were the towns of Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham, Derby, and Leicester, and together they form a famous historical group giving the name of the 'Five Boroughs' to these lands in Danish Mercia and Lindsey.'
Thus were the foundations of the Danish colony in England, the Danelaw, (1) laid. But while Halfdan and the vikings of Deira and the Five Boroughs were intent on the proper colonization of the important territories that were now their own, Guthrum and the Danes who had settled at Cambridge coveted a larger dominion than their present holding in East Anglia. And so once more they set out upon the conquest of Wessex.
Except that in 875 a tiny fleet of six viking ships had been defeated in a sea-battle, the kingdom of Alfred the Great had been left in peace for a space of five years. But now the troubles of Wessex were to begin again, and in 876 a force described as the 'western army', and probably composed of vikings from Ireland, landed near Poole Harbour in Dorset. This was a move in a preconceived attack of a very
1. It is convenient to employ this term loosely as a designation for the whole strip of eastern England possessed by the Danes in the ninth century; the northern Danelaw comprises the kingdom of York and the country between the Yorkshire borders and the Welland, while the southern Danelaw, or East Anglian kingdom, extends westwards to include Northamptonshire and (prior to the treaty of 885) Buckinghamshire and Middlesex. Dena-lagu is, of course, really the name of a district wherein Danes' Law was administered, that is to say it is a legal province, and its geographical extent naturally altered with changing political conditions; for its significance in Saxon and early mediaeval documents, see F. Liebermann , Gesetze der Angelsachsen, II, p. 347; H. M. Chadwick, Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions, Cambridge, 1905, p. 199; F. M. Stenton , Oxford Studies in Social and Legal History, II, Oxford, 1910, p. 3.
serious kind, for the Irish host was promptly joined by Guthrum's army that had marched overland from Cambridge and that had successfully evaded the Wessex force collected to oppose its progress. Together the two bands of Northmen plundered the neighbourhood, and finally they seized the town of Wareham, which they made their headquarters. Alfred, although his army was mobilized, was not prepared to undertake the proper siege of the place, and he deemed it wisest to make a peace, the vikings giving hostages and swearing that they would leave Wessex at once in return for a money-payment. But Guthrum, in spite of the solemn nature of his oath, broke his word; the Danish cavalry slipped out of Wareham by night and made its way hastily not out of Alfred's kingdom, but to Exeter. At the same time the viking fleet sailed down the coast with the intention of turning up the mouth of the Exe to join the rest of the force.
It was plainly the intention of the vikings to ravage Devon, but fortune was now (877) on Alfred's side. While the Wessex king, who had marched at once in pursuit to Exeter, succeeded in keeping the land-force shut up in the town, the fleet that was to bring this Danish army reinforcements met with a terrible disaster off Swanage where in a great tempest over 120 of its ships foundered. Guthrum in Exeter had now no other course than to surrender, and Alfred, having accepted hostages, allowed him and his army to escape into Mercia. Possibly the Danes had promised to return to East Anglia; but if so, they broke their word once more. For they settled down in Gloucester close to the Wessex frontier.
With a viking host so near, it was idle to pretend that Wessex was saved a second time, and, in truth, the hour of its direst peril was at hand. In midwinter of 877-8 Guthrum suddenly struck with his full force against Chippenham where Alfred had a royal residence and where perhaps he was living for the Christmas season, and early in the following year Halfdan's brother Ubbe arrived from Wales on the north coast of Devon with a fleet of 23 ships and an army of 840 men. The effect of this double stroke, made at a season when invasion was little feared, was overwhelming. Alfred, indeed, escaped from Guthrumn, but all organized resistance broke down and a terrible devastation of Wessex began. So serious was the plight of the land that many of the West Saxons fled across the Channel, and at last it seemed a certainty that Wessex must fall within the Danelaw. All England, so men thought, must now pass irrevocably into the hands of the invaders.
But the king remained in Wessex, and the king did not yet
espair. Escaping from Chippenham with a small personal following, he collected a little army during his retreat into the Somerset marshes, and finally, at Eastertide of 878 he established himself in a stockaded fort on the island of Athelney. (1) Throughout the months of his hiding in the marshes he had not ceased to consider how he might best make a counter-attack upon the Danes, and during the seven weeks that he was encamped at Athelney he worried the enemy with an incessant guerilla-war and at the same time completed the difficult preliminary arrangements for the plan he had in mind. Then came the good news that the men of Devon, under their alderman Odda, had defeated Ubbe's vikings who were laying siege to 'Cynwit', a fort either in north Devon or in Somerset, (2) and had not only almost annihilated the Danes but had slain their leader Ubbe himself. (3) This success was exactly the encour-
1. It is difficult to see any connexion between the name Athelney and Alfred's sojourn on the island; the old form is Æthelinga-ig, usually translated 'isle of the princes', though the first element may conceivably be the corrupted form of a proper name. The site of Alfred's fort is supposed to be the Borough Mump, a lofty knoll with a sham ruined church on its summit, about halfway between Othery and Ling, and just north of the confluence of the Tone and the Parrett; it is connected by a causeway with the high ground between Othery and Middlezoy and is well placed as a centre for the military control of the marshes, being readily convertible by means of a palisade into an almost impregnable fortress. But as the knoll bears no certain traces of artificial fortifications, and as the only archaeological material from the site is some Roman pottery that was found at the foot of the Mump in Borough Bridge, there must remain some doubt as to its identification with Alfred's fort. The 'Isle of Athelney', a low and elongated platform of land, lies about a mile to the southwest and is assumed to be the site of the monastery subsequently founded by Alfred as a thank-offering for his victories.
2. The site has not been satisfactorily identified, but 'Kenwith Castle', an earthwork in the parish of Abbotsham near Bideford, Devon, and the scarped knoll about one mile north-west of Cannington near Bridgwater, Somerset, have both been suggested; in fact, Cannington Knoll is now honoured on the current (1) inch O.S. map with the name of Cynwit and the date of the battle. Both identifications are valueless (in spite of the bones found in the Warren field at Cannington), and a third suggestion that Cynwit is Countesbury, near Lynton, can also be neglected (see W. H. Stevenson, Asser's Life of Alfred, Oxford, 1904, p. 262).
3. This was the battle of the 'Raven Banner', a celebrated standard that was said to have been woven by the daughters of Ragnar Lodbrok between dawn and dusk in a single day; it had a raven blazoned upon it that seemed to flutter if the army was advancing to victory, but drooped and was still if defeat was in store for the vikings: Saxon Chronicle, Laud MS. E., s. a. 876, Annals of St. Neots, ed. with Asser's Alfred, W. H. Stevenson , Oxford, 1904, p. 138. For a description of a Norse magical banner of the same kind, see Flateyjarbók, Olaf Trygg., (1) 86).