Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Great Heathen Army (Part 2): Conquest and Resistance

Map of England showing the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Danish districts - from Cassell's History of England, Vol. IEven with the death of the King of Northumbria failed to satisfy the lust for conquest of Ivar and his brothers. After the death of the Northumbrian King, they advance to conquer the other Saxon Kingdoms of England.

War with Mercia and East Anglia

After the fall of York, the Heathn Army took the whole southern region of Northumbria called Deira. 

They then focused their attention to take the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia that held the center of England. They took Nottingham and set it up as their winter quarters. After winter, the Army then faced the combined might of Mercian King Burhred and Wessex King Ethelred. But luckily, before the Great Heathen Army fought the Saxon Army in battlefield, Ivar and his brothers agreed to a truce after a danegeld payment by King Burhred. Following the peace with Mercia, the army returned to York and consolidated their hold there.

After staying in York for a year, the Great Heathen Army mobilized this time against the Kingdom of East Anglia. They arrived in Thetford and set up their headquarters for the campaign. Ivar and his brother Ubbi won great victories, subduing East Anglian King Edmund, who they later captured and executed. Danish England then came out of the conquest of Deira and East Anglia.

As East Anglia fell, Ivar decided to leave for Dublin in 870. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle then silenced about Ivar. Some speculated that Ivar was Imar in the Ulster Chronicles of Ireland. The Irish chronicle stated, Ivar returned to Ireland in 871 with Angles, Britons and Picts captives, probably to work as slaves. The last entry for Ivar was in 873 when the Ulster Chronicle stated, “Imar (Ivar), King of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain, ended his life.”

First Invasion of Wessex and Fall of Mercia

His brothers and other Viking leaders, on the other hand, took over the Great Heathen Army. Halfdan led a part of the Heathen Army to attack the southern Kingdom of Wessex, ruled by King Ethelred.

Wessex, proved to be a challenge due to its geography. It lacked rivers that connect the sea to the hinterlands and its border composed of ridges facing north, which served as a natural wall. Nevertheless, this did not stop the Great Heathen Army.

Halfdan met Ethelred in numerous battles. The Heathen Army met strong resistance, scoring both victories and defeats, most notably in Ashdown in 871. In the middle of the war, however, King Ethelred passed away, leaving his brother Alfred to assume the throne. The Heathen Army fought Alfred and weakened the new King's army. With winter coming, however, Halfdan accepted a truce with Alfred that led to payment of danegeld.

With peace with Wessex, the Heathen Army then turned its attention back to Mercia, restarting the kingdom's. With Wessex in peace with the Vikings, King Burhred had no one to ask for aids. Finally in 874 Mercia fell and King Burhred escaped to the continent and later passed away in Rome.

By the time the Heathen Army had placed most of England to the Viking fold, they numbered to thousands of men. They grew as new Earls and Viking parties arrived and joined after news of their victories spread. Their numbers grew so large that in 875 in managed to divide itself between high level Viking leaders to protect the borders and consolidate their hold on Danish England. Halfdan led a portion of the army to protect their holdings against hostile Picts. Guthrum, another Viking leader, led another part of the army to East Anglia.

The Rise of Danish Settlements

In 876, Halfdan set up rule in Mercia. Half of the kingdom, the so-called Five Borough (Yorkshire, Nottingham, Lincoln, Derby, and Leicester) became the new home for Danish settlers. All of the early Danish settlers were families of the men who fought in the Great Heathen Army. Earls received their lands as a reward for their contribution and moved their families to settle in the new lands. The early settlements, as Winston Churchill said, were “essentially military” with warriors and their families living inside palisades. 

On the other half of Mercia, they established a puppet ruler in 877 with a King named Ceolwulf, who had to give tributes in form of gold or men to his Viking overlords.

Alfred the Great and Creation of Danelaw

But besides protecting the Five Boroughs, Guthrum also eyed to subjugate finally Wessex, the last bastion of Saxon resistance to the Great Heathen Army. Wessex’s geographic features once again helped the Saxons in their defense. But in addition to geographic features, Guthrum faced a determined and stubborn opposition of King Alfred.

Another problem arrived from the loss of many men in 877. Off the cost of Swanage, 120 ships said to have sunk due to a strong storm. The storm caused the fall of hundreds or even thousands of men. Nevertheless, the Heathen Army remained strong against any of Alfred’s onslaught.

In January 5, 878 (Twelfth Night), Guthrum outwitted Alfred. The Heathen Army launched a surprise attack on Chippenham, where Alfred stayed for winter. The surprise attack scattered Alfred’s followers and forced him to hide in the swampy island of Athelney.

Guthrum’s conquest of Wessex, however, never ended as long as Alfred remained. Alfred gathered men and rebuilt his army to continue his resistance. Few months after the fall of Chippenham, he attacked Viking forces in Devon to secure his rear. Then, he attacked eastward, towards Ethandun (Eddington).

Guthrum brought the Heathen Army to Ethandun to put an end to Alfred’s reign. But the battle went wrong for the Vikings and they retreated to there fortress and faced a siege. Hopelessly surrounded, Guthrum submitted to Alfred and negotiated a treaty at Wedmore.

The Treaty allowed the Vikings to leave Wessex under the condition of Guthrum’s conversion to Christianity, taking Alfred as his godfather. The Viking warlord then withdrew his troops to East Anglia. After the war with Alfred, they began to settle to their lands. Northampton, Huntingdon, Cambridge, and Bedford, along with Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and London, formed what became known as Danelaw.

Impact of the Great Heathen Army

The impact and significance of the Great Heathen Army laid in the country established of its conquest – the Danelaw. From their battles and from their efforts, Danes managed to conquer most of England from which they set their roots. Their families who built settlements in the Danelaw influence the local language and customs. And their people too also adopted ways of the locals, most importantly Christianity.

The conversion of Guthrum to Christianity led to the quick spread of the religion within the Danes in Danelaw. Their conversion led to easier relations with locals and later on their assimilation among the populace.

As for the Great Heathen Army’s impact in Viking culture, they showed the strength of Vikings in large numbers. They showed flexibility in making changes their ways from small raiding parties to large and even conventional fighting. Combined with strong leadership, the Great Heathen Army managed to unify a huge part of England and create a new state. Their achievement, laid the foundation for the later creation of the Kingdom of England.

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:

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.