The Northern Way

History of the Vikings

Chapter 8


to make him, if he would become a Christian, the vassal-earl of Northumbria. Eric accepted this offer, was baptized, and, furthermore, promised to defend his new territories against the attacks of Danes and other vikings. Thus, at the will of the English king, a Norwegian prince ruled at York and held his honourable position until Æthelstan died. (1)
       The death of the king took place in 939, two years after the battle of Brunanburh, and he was succeeded by his half-brother Edmund, who was only eighteen years old. The accession of this youth was the signal for a revolt on the part of Olaf Godfredsson, the king of Dublin, who at once hurried over from Ireland to Northumbria where he was received with open arms by the Norwegian settlers and ultimately elected as king in place of Eric Bloodaxe who was summarily expelled. The Yorkshire Danes, whose spirit had long since been crushed, were doubtless anxious for a continuation of the peace they had enjoyed under Æthelstan, but Olaf and his Norwegians were athirst for conquest. Crossing the Humber they easily reduced the Danes of the Five Boroughs to a state of subjection and then forced them to join in a revolt against their English masters. Thereupon Olaf, in 940, dared to cross the Welland and attack Northampton, so that for the time it seemed that the whole Danelaw might be wrested from the English king.
       But Olaf was beaten off from Northampton, and after a raid on Tamworth he was driven back to Leicester and there besieged by Edmund. He managed, however, to cut his way through the

1. There are serious objections to this account that I have given of Eric's installment at York by Æthelstan and I must explain that, according to Norse tradition, Eric did not become earl until after Harald's death and his own expulsion from his kingdom of Norway. That means (if we accept the new dating for his accession to the Norwegian throne) that he did not arrive in England until after Æthelstan was dead. I am assuming here, therefore, that Eric, became earl of York during his father's lifetime, a not impossible adventure to befall this fiery viking prince. That he was appointed to this earldom by Æthelstan is vouched for by the Heimskringla, Egilssaga, and Fagrskinna; but this can be contested on the grounds that the Saxon Chronicle and other English sources (notably Simeon of Durham) say nothing of Æthelstan's friendly action towards Eric. On the contrary, the Saxon Chronicle does not mention Eric until 948. If Harald Fairhair's death can be put as late as 943-5 (cf. p. 108 ), and if Eric reigned in Norway for two or three years before his exile, the Chronicle's date would do very well as that of his first appearance in this country. Note that if Harald's death took place about 933 (the old dating), and Eric's exile (say) 935, he may perfectly well have been the vassal-lord of York for the last two or three years of Æthelstan's life and at the same time the exiled king of Norway.         


investing army and make good his escape, so that in the end the young English king was compelled to come to terms with him. It was a surprising and disastrous peace that Edmund made, disastrous both for English prestige and for the unfortunate Danes of the Five Boroughs, for Edmund was forced to concede these boroughs, Danish Mercia in fact, to Olaf and his Norwegians, and it was agreed that the boundary between the Danelaw and the English realm in this area should be the Watling Street.
       Nevertheless this humiliating position was not of long duration. In 941, after a raid upon the territory of his northern neighbour in Bernicia, Olaf died, and Edmund at once attacked his cousin and successor Olaf Cuaran, or Sigtrygsson, who had come over from Ireland to York in the preceding year. In 942 Edmund won back the Five Boroughs. It was an impressive feat, and was hailed with joy throughout England, though few were more thankful for this deliverance then the Mercian Danes themselves, who had no love for the Norwegian vikings. But the power of these Northmen was now weakening, and in 943 Olaf Cuaran submitted to Edmund and consented to be baptized a Christian, though this act the Norwegians regarded as a shameful betrayal and accordingly they drove Olaf out of York, electing his cousin Ragnvald Godfredsson as king in his place. Edmund, thereupon, marched across the Humber and captured York, and with the fall of York all Northumbria passed into his hands. His next move was to march into Cumberland where by a campaign of harrying and burning he hoped to crush the unruly Norwegian settlements round Carlisle, the favourite base of those malcontent Irish vikings who had come to win a kingdom for themselves in England. He did not, however, complete the subjection of this Norse colony, finding it more prudent to depose Domnhall, the last Welsh king of Cumbria, and to consign the district to Malcolm, king of the Scots, who in return promised to keep these Norwegians and Irish Danes in order and to become the ally of the English king. But Northumbria Edward himself controlled as overlord, and this was the position when he died in 946.
       The next king of England was his brother Eadred, youngest son of Edward the Elder. At the very outset of his reign he made a military demonstration in Northumbria in order to establish his position as overlord, and he took care to renew the alliance with the Scots. But he found himself faced, nevertheless, by a serious insurrection         


in the Yorkshire Danelaw in 947. Wulfstan, the then archbishop of York and a man probably of Danish family, seems to have been one of the chief instigators of this revolt that culminated in the setting-up of a rebel king at York, this being none other than its former earl, Eric Bloodaxe, the Norwegian prince (p. 121 ). Eadred's wrath at this flouting of his authority was terrible, and he straightway began to ravage in Northumbria, even burning the famous minster of Ripon. But the punitive expedition ended in humiliation, for the rearguard of the English force was caught by the rebels and almost annihilated; whereat Eadred, still more wrathful, immediately turned his army about, and so plainly was it now his intention to devastate the whole of the unhappy province with fire and sword that the Danes promptly drove out Eric and submitted to Eadred.
       But Northumbria remained a fickle and uncertain province. In the very next year (949) Olaf Cuaran returned from Ireland, and, aided by the machinations of Wulfstan, he succeeded in making himself king at York. Then, in 952, Eadred imprisoned the treacherous archbishop, and the Norwegians and Danes, once more taking fright, expelled Olaf. But it was only to replace him by Eric Bloodaxe, (1) and this was more than Eadred could tolerate. In 954, after Eric had sat on this insecure and dangerous throne for two years, the English king marched north, seized the Yorkshire Danelaw, and expelled Eric. There were no half-measures, no bargainings and treaties, this time. All resistance in Northumbria was broken down, and Eadred handed over the whole province to Oswulf of Bamborough as an earldom. The unfortunate adventurer Eric, who met his death this same year, was the last of the kings of York, and once again England became a single realm extending from the Forth to the Channel.
       This year, 954, marked the end of the first great episode in the viking history of England. A hundred and twenty years had passed since the vikings had first assailed Ecgbert in Wessex, and, though amid the catastrophic disasters of the first forty-three years of this period it had seemed that the very fabric of English society was threatened with extinction, yet in the brave struggles of the final seventy-seven years that remarkable family of warrior-kings, Alfred, Edward, Æthelstan, and Eadred, had driven back the invaders, humiliated them, and put an end to
1. It has been suggested that the Eric who was made king of York in 952 was not Eric Bloodaxe, but a Dane, the son of Harald Gormsson. But this identification is very dubious.         

Plate VIII
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them as a political power in the land. The great eastern plain of England, parcelled out among its Danish proprietors, had been an established colony of the foreigners: but it had been won back for England, and, though Danish blood and Danish customs remained in undiminished force to distinguish the Danelaw from the rest of the country, yet, by 954, this province had been victoriously transformed into a quiescent appanage of the English crown.
              It is a story of which England may be proud, this splendid show of force under the five great kings. But their achievement in its political aspect, as distinct from their solid military success, must not be rated too highly. For even with the subjugation of the Danelaw and the territorial expansion of the last thirty years, these kings cannot be said to have created an English nation inasmuch as differences in law, manners, and feelings, still preserved the identity of the several provinces that now formed the consolidated kingdom. Thus the Danelaw was governed by its Danish jarls, and governed by them according to the Danish law without any interference on the part of the English king; clearly the loyalty of these Danes to their English overlord was dependent only on the protection he could offer them and might count for nothing if a stronger master threatened the land.
              And now that peace had come, there was no king of England powerful enough to crown the work of Alfred and his descendants by imposing a common law throughout all the realm and so instilling the proper sense of nationality that was needed to make the kingdom a stable and enduring whole. Church reforms under the firm leadership of that great ecclesiastic Dunstan, and the franchises in favour of the monasteries granted by Edgar (959-975), were the main preoccupation of England's rulers in the long period of quiet that followed the death of Eadwig (955-959); and when Æthelred, then aged ten, came to the throne in 978 in a land troubled only by the rivalries between clerks and clergy, it was to take his place at the head of a state softened rather than strengthened by twenty-five tranquil years. And this was the England, and this the time, when the second viking episode opens. Once more the pirate craft swoop down on the English coast, harbingers of a second viking invasion not less formidable than that which had threatened to destroy England in the ninth century.
       The raids began again in 980. In that year a fleet 'from the North', coming probably from Ireland or Man, took Chester and its crews ravaged the country around, while another fleet,


no doubt from Scandinavia or Denmark, seized Southampton and massacred the townsfolk. Thanet was also plundered by pirates in this year, and in 981 Cornwall and Devon suffered from similar visitations. In 982 London was seized and burnt, and in Dorset Portland was plundered by the crews of three viking ships. Then followed an interval of five years; but in 987 Watchet in Somerset was sacked by buccaneers, and in the year after there was fighting in Devon.
       All these raids were carried out by small parties of vikings who could be repulsed without difficulty, in spite of the frequent initial success of their surprise attacks, and they seemed to have occasioned no great uneasiness in the mind of the king or among his councillors. But in 991 there was a raid of a much more serious kind, one that was to shock England not only into consciousness of her new peril but into a dismal realization of the weakness of her present rulers. The fleet that appeared suddenly on the Thames in that year was not a force of overwhelming strength, but it was ninety-three ships in all and its commanders were the exiled Norwegian prince and future king of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason (p. 123 ), Justin (ON. Jósteinn), perhaps an uncle of Olaf's, (1) and Guthmund Stegitansson (ON. Sigitansson or Sixtansson), who was probably a Swede; its crews must have been mostly Swedish vikings from Russia where Olaf had been brought up, and whence he had sailed on this viking cruise to the western waters.
       The attack began by a plundering in the neighbourhood of Staines. Then the fleet moved to Sandwich, and from there crossed over to sack Ipswich; from Ipswich it sailed into the mouth of the Blackwater. But by this time Brihtnoth, the Duke of the East Saxons, had collected an army, and without delay he marched to Maldon, the town that was now threatened.
       The Battle of Maldon is described in an epic poem that is one of the chief ornaments of pre-Chaucerian literature in England, and as it is thus one of the few battles with the vikings of which there is a coherent account it has a special interest. But it is not only because it reveals something of the nature of this pirate-warfare that the account in the poem deserves more than passing mention; on the contrary it is important for the greater reason that the battle itself was a decisive one, marking, as it does, the first overthrow of the English after a long sequence of victories that had been followed by a
1. Or, possibly, Toste (Tusti), a famous viking whose name appears on many Swedish rune-stones.

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