Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Great Heathen Army (Part 1): Fall of Northumbria

Ragnar Lodbrok Thrown in the Snake Pit
It was an army of Vikings with the objective to avenge and conquer England. Because of their known ruthlessness and savagery the English chroniclers labelled them as the Great Heathen Army. But others labelled it as the Great Danish Army for most of its warriors came from Denmark. Explore what was the Great Heathen Army? Why was it formed and invaded England? How did it prevailed? And how did it created an impact on history?

Formation of the Great Heathen Army

Death of Ragnar Lodbrok

Legends said that the Great Heathen Army’s formation came as a result of the leadership of five siblings – Ubbi, Bjorn Ironside, Halfdan, Sigurd Snake-Eye, and Ivar the Boneless. And their intentions were revenge for the death of their father – Ragnar Lodbrok.

Ragnar Lodbrok, the legendary Viking leader, distinguished himself for his audacity to attack Paris in 845. He soundly defeated the Franks in a battle and hanged hundreds of his captive Frankish warriors. His act intimidated King Charles the Bald, who paid him with silver and gold to spare the capital – a payment or ransom called as danegeld.

After his Frankish adventure, he turned his eyes to another prize – England. His raiding party, however, met stronger resistance from the English than the Franks. Worst, he was captured by Ælla or Ella of Northumbria and sentenced to death. He was thrown to a snake pit, but before he passed away, he uttered a prophecy, “That the piglets will grunt when they hear how the old boar died.”

Indeed, Ragnar’s “piglets” rampaged over their father’s death. These “piglets” were Ragnar’s five sons – Ubbi, Bjorn Ironside, Halfdan, Sigurd Snake-eye, and finally Ivar the Boneless. As they raged, they desire none other than vengeance for their father.

Ivar the Boneless, in particular, designed the invasion of England to accomplish their quest to avenge their father. Ivar had experienced in fighting in Ireland and earned a reputation as a great warrior and military leader. His other brothers also shared reputations as great warriors, and together they mustered a large Viking force like no other before for their quest of vendetta.

The Assembly

Vikings traditionally preferred raiding tactics – meaning hit, grab and run tactics. They disliked siege because its time consuming and they lacked the machinery necessary to succeed. And they liked to operate into small units, usually not more than 100 men, to launch raids in Europe and the British Isles. These small raiding parties led by a chief or an jarl or earl belonged to the same villages or clans, thus using kinship as base for a cohesive raiding party. These parties or groupings later served as the basic unit of the Great Heathen Army

Ivar and his brothers, however, had in their hands the prestige of their father and their respective booties from their own raids. Not to mention, they could also promised lands for settle for their men, for many of them wanted to leave their harsh lives in Scandinavia. With an epic reputation and promise of wealth and land, they convinced numerous earls and Viking parties from Norway and mostly from Denmark to create the Great Heathen Army or what others called as the Great Danish Army.

Invasion of the Great Heathen Army

In 865, the Great Heathen Army landed in the British Isles. Their main objective was to capture York, the capital of the Kingdom of Northumbria, the kingdom that defeated and killed Ragnar Lodbrok. But what was the situation of England by 865?

Situation in England

England had been familiar with Viking raids. After the earliest incident in Lindisfarne in 793, more Viking raids followed, but not just limited to England, but to the whole of Great Britain and the Ireland. Ireland succumbed to Viking invasion and led to the establishment of Viking Kingdoms, like one in Dublin.

England, on the other hand, fared differently than Ireland. Ireland lacked strong political units to coordinate defenses against invasions. England, although divided too, still managed to consolidate into different Kingdoms that offered leadership against the Vikings. The Saxons, in particular, established the major kingdoms of Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the center, East Anglia in the west, and Wessex in southwest. A highly organized yet still divided Saxon England was the opponent that the Great Heathen Army had to face.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entered in year 865 the landing of the Great Heathen Army, numbering from 500 to 1,000 men, in the Isle of Thanet in Kent. The leaders of Kent feared the Viking Army and paid danegeld in exchange for peace. Nevertheless, the Heathen Army still rampaged almost half of Kent.

In 866, the Great Heathen Army landed in East Anglia and settled for the rest of winter. They deviated from their traditional raiding and showed they aimed conquest. They setup fortified camps from, which they based their operations. They lived off of the land, taking horses from nearby towns and villages to create cavalry units, while the locals submitted to their will in exchange for peace.

Fall of Northumbria

In 867, the Great Heathen Army began their conquest by moving from East Anglia to Northumbria, with York as their objective. The invasion went well, as they marched into a kingdom plunged into a civil war. A conflict between the rightful King Osbert and an outsider usurper, Ælla, the same Ælla who threw Ragnar Lobrok to the snake pits divided the country. The internal conflict resulted to the quick advance of the Great Heathen Army to York.  

However, when the Great Heathen Army arrived in York, they faced a combined force of King Ælla and King Osbert, who agreed to a truce to fight against a common enemy. A battle ensued and in the end, the Heathen Army killed Osberht and according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, also King Ælla. However, a legend suggested that Ivar and his brothers captured King Ælla. To avenge their father’s death, they offered Ælla to warrior god Odin and tortured the Northumbrian King with the blood eagle.

The of Northumbria to the hands of the Great Heathen Army did not result to their retreat from the island. Rather, they continued their conquest of other Saxon Kingdoms

See also:

Churchill, Winston. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples v. 1. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 1963.

Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Peterson, Gary Dean. Vikings and Goths: A History of Ancient and Medieval Sweden. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2016.


“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Ninth Century.” In The Avalon Project. Accessed on January 23, 2017. URL:

“The Annals of Ulster.” In CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts. Accessed on January 24, 2017. URL:

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