From Raiding to Invasion
In the seventy years since the devastating raid on Lindisfarne in AD 793, Viking warriors had continued to pillage sites along the east coast of the British Isles, extracting booty and slaves before sailing back to their homelands. However, as vicious as they undoubtedly were, these raids were not part of sustained plan of conquest, and it would take the brutal execution of a Norse king to change this.
Ragnar Lothbrok comes down to us from the Sagas as a semi-legendary figure, one of the most fearsome fighters of the Viking Age. We do know he forged his reputation through raids on a number of separate peoples including the Frankish kingdom and the Anglo-Saxons against whom, under the kingship of the Northumbrian monarch AElla, Ragnar met his end, supposedly by being thrown into a pit of snakes. Lothbrok is said to have died confident that his sons would avenge him, and it was for this undertaking that the three united to gather a huge army in Denmark and lead it across the North Sea to begin an invasion which remains one of the most infamous in the history of Britain, largely thanks to work of subsequent Anglo-Saxon chroniclers. Landing in AD 866, The Great Viking Army certainly must have terrified anyone who saw them approaching.
The Three Brothers: Revenge, Conquest and Viking York
Each of the three sons of Ragnar Lothbrok who led the invasion of the Great Viking Army have been attributed distinct attributes and personalities; while this may in part be thanks to the storytelling prowess of the Skalds who told the Saga , it does give us a fascinating insight into these characters:
Halfdan Ragnarsson: First Viking King of Northumbria and claimant to the Irish throne in Dublin.
Ivar the Boneless: He was described as ‘boneless’ due to the high probability that he had a genetic condition, osteogenesis imperfecta causing bone deformations. Another theory is that it is a mis-translation of Hated (ex and os in Latin) but the majority of the Sagas mention his disability, so this seems a more likely explanation. Still, a wily and cunning commander.
Ubba Ragnarsson: A commander of the Great Viking Army, and a formidable warrior.
The March of the Great Viking Army
The subjugation of any resistance in East Anglia was followed by a peace treaty which provided the Vikings with horses and a place to spend winter. In the spring they set out to find the man who had killed their father, king AElla of Northumbria. The seat of his power was Eforwic (present day York) where he and the Northumbrian army prepared to meet the invaders for battle, an occasion that supposedly allowed Ivar to demonstrate his cunning when he feigned submission before launching a counter attack which overwhelmed the defenders and led to the capture of AElla. Predictably, the story of the Anglo-Saxon king’s execution is cruel: the vengeful brothers are said to have used the blood eagle method, a horrific way to meet your end.
The brothers may have achieved the ostensible goal of their invasion but by now success had led them to hold bigger ambitions. A puppet leader was installed in Northumbria (later to be replaced by Halfdan who is recognised as the first Viking king of Northumbria) as the army moved on to face more enemies, notably the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, led by King Alfred the Great.
Although the Great Viking Army is perhaps most famous for its ruthless victories, the legacy of their invasion is far more significant. An eventual treaty with Alfred left a huge area of England under Norse control, which would come to be known as the Danelaw. The heart of this kingdom was the city of Eforwic, or as the Vikings knew it, Jorvik. As unstable peace came to replace interminable war, Jorvik grew into a vital centre of a trade network which stretched from Byzantium to Greenland. By AD 960 it was home to a myriad of languages, cultures and religions where foreign treasures were traded for local crafts and the bustling activity laid the foundations for the city we know today. From daring sea raiders, the invasion of the Great Viking Army had transformed the Norsemen’s role on the island, establishing them as a major force which they would continue to be for two centuries.
The Watlington Hoard
You can still discover finds from one of the most important Viking hoards to be discovered in England, the Watlington Hoard, on display at the world-famous JORVIK Viking Centre. The loan from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford highlights a tumultuous period in our history, the invasion by the Great Viking Army.
The Watlington Hoard can be discovered at JORVIK Viking Centre until 21st May 2018.