By Martin Williams.
The late 870’s were not the best of years for the kings of the English. In 875 and 876 the Danes under Halfdan brought Northumbria under their sway, forcing the monks of Lindisfarne to wander around their many estates with the relics of Saint Cuthbert, and occupying the fortress of York. Even the armies of both Northumbria’s rightful and only kings could not dislodge them. So the Danes ruled York for themselves, sharing out the vacant lands in the three ridings, and appointing a client king for the otherwise highly resistant folk of Northumberland. Elsewhere, Gange-Hrolf had led a Viking host into France, and received much land along the Channel coast in return for peace.
Mercia had accommodated itself to the Danes after the disasters of 874, and following the exile of its king Burhred, was ruled by a client king, one Ceolwulf, noted as a ‘foolish’ man. In 877 the Danes returned, and began settling in the land, a matter that Ceolwulf had no option but to agree to.
Elsewhere, Gange-Hrolf had led a Viking host into France, and received much land along the Channel coast in return for peace.
Up to then Wessex had been frequently raided, and its young king, Ælfred, had accepted hostages and promises of peace, at which point the Danes would go away for the winter. After Christmas 877 things changed: from a winter base in Gloucester the Danish host under Guðrum swept upon the royal estate of Chippenham on January 6, and from thence throughout Wessex, driving many into exile over sea, and most who remained into the final exile of the tomb. Ælfred the king and his immediate retinue had nowhere to hide but the marshes of Somerset, although resistance continued elsewhere: Ubba Ragnarsson, brother to Halfdan of York and Ivarr the Boneless, and the man who had martyred King Edmund of East Anglia was slain by earl Odda at the hill-fort of Countisbury in an attack on north Devonshire.
At Eastertide, Ælfred had gathered enough forces to build a fort at Athelney, from which he engaged in guerilla warfare against the invaders. By Whitsunday he was able to move eastward, into Selwood, and towards the heart of Wessex. He was joined by the men of Somerset and Wiltshire, and the men of Hampshire west of the Solent. From there he marched to the meeting-place at Iley Oak by Warminster, and then to Edington, where, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, the army of Wessex met the Danes.
There did the men of Wessex not only held the place of slaughter, but also pursued the Danes back to their base at Chippenham, and put the place under seige. Ælfred ensured that no aid could come to the defenders – he destroyed every horse, ox and man that he found outside the walls. The Danes lasted a fortnight, but then, filled with hunger, cold and terror, they offered terms to their enemies.
Ælfred was then able to enforce peace on the Danes, rather than the other way around, and for the next fifty years absolute Viking rule in England was further and further restricted. Ælfred and his children were able to bring the south under Wessex’s authority, thus making reality out of their claim to the over-kingship of the English: the North finally released itself from an increasingly volatile maelstrom of kings and overlords in 954.
And there was peace in the kingdom for a time…