Wessex and the Vikings

Anglo-Saxon England V


The Rise of Wessex

In the latter half of the 8th Century, Wessex was a mere satellite of Mercia.


Egbert (770-839) had fled abroad during Offa's rule, but on Beorhtric's death in 802, he returned to Wessex and took the throne.

From 815 onwards, Egbert attacked West Wales (Cornwall), a  campaign that culminated in the Battle of Hingston Down (838) confirming Wessex' control of the whole peninsula.


Coenwulf of Mercia (796-821) had suppressed rebellions against Mercian rule in Kent and East Anglia



During the 820's conflict erupted between Mercia and Wessex. A decisive battle was fought at Ellendun (825), and Mercia was subordinated to Wessex. The victorious forces of Wessex also enforced the submission of Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex.

Egbert was succeeded by Ethelwulf, who not only maintained the dominance of Wessex over Mercia, but who was one of the few Anglo-Saxon kings to fight successfully against the Vikings. He defeated a large Viking raiding force in 851.

An agreement was reached that the fours sons of Ethelwulf should each succeed in turn to the throne. The youngest of these sons was Alfred, who acceded in 871.


Wessex was increasing its power but England was still a politically-divided land and this disunity reduced its ability to withstand the Viking onslaught.

The Viking invasions


The name of Viking - pirate or sea-raider - was derived from "wic" - the temporary camps established by the marauders. The Vikings originated in Denmark and Norway, and the British Isles were not their only target.

Vikings were skilled soldiers and sailors who sent expeditions to, and established settlements in, Russia, Greenland, Iceland, America, France, and Spain - as well as England. (The Emir of the Moorish kingdom of Spain, for example, sent the severed heads of 200 Vikings to Tangiers as evidence of his naval victory at Talayata in 844).

The earliest recorded Viking raid on England was in 789, soon followed by another in 793-4. Both of these aimed at plundering Northumbrian monasteries.

A.D. 793:
This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully:  these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament.  These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.

(The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)


From the 830 to 860, the Vikings attacked almost every year and from almost every point of the compass. In 851, Vikings stormed London and Canterbury before being defeated by Ethelwulf of Wessex at Wicganbeorg.

In 865, a "great Army" under Halfdan and Ivarr rhe Boneless arrived to make a more sustained attack. It occupied much of East Anglia and attacked York. Initially, they met little organized resistance, as Northumbria was divided by a civil war. The Northumbrians did unite but were utterly defeated (867).

Viking hammer amulet


The Danish returned south, defeated the English fyrd in East Anglia, and executed King Edmund (870).

A later medieval rendering of the martyrdom of King Edmund

"…bound Edmund and insulted him ignominiously, and beat him with rods, and afterwards led the devout king to a firm living tree, and tied him there with strong bonds, and beat him with whips. In between the whip lashes, Edmund called out with true belief in the Savior Christ. Because of his belief, because he called to Christ to aid him, the heathens became furiously angry. They then shot spears at him, as if it was a game, until he was entirely covered with their missiles, like the bristles of a hedgehog (just like St. Sebastian was). When Ivar the impious pirate saw that the noble king would not forsake Christ, but with resolute faith called after Him, he ordered Edmund beheaded, and the heathens did so …"

(Abbo of Fleury)


First Mercia (868) and then Wessex (871) bought temporary relief from Viking attack by paying a "Danegeld" - blackmail.

The Danes renewed their attacks on Mercia, and installed Ceolwulf as a puppet ruler. Halfdan's part of the army seized much of Yorkshire in 876 and divided its land between them. This led to the immigration and permanent settlement of a large number of Vikings.
Another group of Danes led by Guthrum took East Mercia from Ceolwulf (877) and settled the area around Nottingham, Lincoln and Stamford.

Coins of the Vikings:
(left) minted in East Anglia during the 880's
(right) in Northumbria in the 890's


Guthrum's forces again attacked Wessex, but were defeated by King Alfred at the Battle of Edington (878). In the Peace of Wedmore, Guthrum and his followers accepted Christian conversion and withdrew eastwards.
In western Mercia the Viking's stooge, Ceolwulf, was replaced by Ethelred of the Hwicce who married Alfred's daughter Æthelflaed and accepted him as overlord. When Guthrum and his followers attacked Wessex again in 884, Alfred defeated them, and seized and fortified London, which he gave to Ethelred and Æthelflaed. The peace of 886 confined the Danes to Danelagh (Danelaw) - the area north and east of a line marked by the old Roman Road of Watling Street.

A model of a late 9th Century Viking ship

The Danes in England were not under unified leadership, faced a strong enemy in Wessex, and the newly distributed lands had to be farmed and administered, and so after 886 peace finally settled on most of England.


Previous section     Next section