It is 865, and Britain is invaded by a largely Danish army. This is different from the hit and run raids the Vikings previously made. A large army intent on conquering has come to the country.
This is a very loose interpretation of what happened, as told by one of the warriors who came over.
The Great Heathen Army.
The flickering light from the flames in the firepit made the shadows dance. Outside darkness was falling as we waited, drinking and singing in the longhouse, to hear about the raid Ragnar Lodbrok had made on the country of Northumbria.
Halfdan Ragnarsson sat in his father’s chair at one end of the firepit. He held his horn of ale aloft as he toasted the scald, who had sung of the prowess of Ragnar Lodbrok.
As we sat drinking and singing, the door burst open and a young man entered. He flung himself before Halfdan, who, as the eldest, was in charge while his father was away. I could see the man trembling even from where I sat at the far side of the fire. He spoke in a low voice so I could not hear his words, Halfdan roared, leapt to his feet and threw his horn into the fire. The ale sizzled as it hit the flames and clouds of smoke arose, making those around cough.
He passed his hand over his eyes before speaking. “My friends. This man has brought us dire news. My father, and your king, Ragnar Lodbrok is dead. Killed by treachery.”
A gasp ran around the assembled people and several of the women began to wail.
Halfdan held up a hand for silence. “When he met with Ælla, king of Northumbria, he was defeated.”
Several people shook their heads in disbelief. I found myself joining them. How could anyone have defeated the Danes and captured its leader?
“That’s not the worst.” Halfdan’s eyes were blazing now. “Not only did he capture my father, but he threw him into a pit of venomous snakes. He killed a captive king.”
A great roar went up. I heard myself begin to shout. “Vengeance. We must avenge our king.”
Everyone took up the chant and soon the whole longhouse was on its feet chanting “Vengeance! Vengeance! Vengeance.”
Halfdan smiled at our response. “I will contact my brothers. We will raise a great army and set sail to teach this king Ælla, a lesson he won’t forget.”
So began the preparations for the invasion. Halfdan’s brother, Ubba brought some of his Frisians and men from Scandinavia, while Ivar, known as The Boneless brought more men from Scandinavia.
We gathered ships, filled them with men and set sail. We were lucky with the wind and the seas. The wind blew us westward and the seas remained calm.
We landed in East Anglia. What a dismal place. All swamp and wetness. The wind, which had propelled us so easily across the sea, now became a thing to curse. It cut through our clothes and skin right down to our very bones. But we were here to avenge our king, and so, as Danes, we bore it stoically.
We camped on a higher piece of land that was relatively dry, having pulled our ships up the beach. On the second day, riders approached our camp cautiously. They pulled their horses to a halt and one man rode forward a few paces.
“Hail,” he called. “We do not wish for war. May we come and discuss peace terms?”
Halfdan laughed at this. “Weak Anglo Saxons. Can’t they fight like real men? ”
Ivar shrugged. “It’ll do no harm to talk to them. After all, perhaps we can persuade them to help us.”
So the men rode into our camp and tethered their horses. Halfdan, Ubba and Ivar came out of their tent and stood before the Anglo Saxons. They all stood, arms crossed and feet wide apart, with armour, helmets, and battle axes slung across their backs.
Halfdan glowered. “What do you want?”
The man who had spoken previously stepped forward once again. “We do not wish for a battle. We are willing to trade for peace.”
Ubba laughed. “Suppose we ask for men to bolster our army?”
The Anglo Saxon paled. “Th-that is unacceptable. We want to live in peace and not at war. This is a difficult land for fighting. We know it well, and you are strangers. It is easy for people who do not know the land to get lost and die in our bogs.”
“Who are you? Do you have authority to negotiate?” Halfdan said.
The man drew himself up to his full height. “My name is Edmund. I rule this land.”
The brothers looked at one another “Come into the tent and we will negotiate.”
I did not hear the negotiations. I’m not important enough to be allowed in the tents of our leaders, but the outcome was that this King Edmund would supply us with horses and allow us to over-winter in his kingdom.
We moved farther inland to a small village. The river was shallow enough for a ford here, which was why the village had grown up there. Theodford, they called it. People’s ford. We stayed there for all the winter. Cold, it was, and that east wind kept on blowing. But there was little snow. But we’re Danes and can manage such privations.
We celebrated Yule in true Danish fashion. There was much feasting and drinking, the goods for which we plundered the surrounding countryside.
Everyone looked forward to the fights to come, and we gave much discussion to how we would punish Ælla when we captured him.
Our king, Ragnar, must have died a horrible death in the snake pit, so the death of Eoforwic. must be equally horrible, but I will come to that later.
The Anglo Saxons were true to their word and gave us horses and we eventually rode north, toward Northumbria and our real goal. The Anglo Saxons had a large city they called Eoforwic. I believe it had been founded by the mythical Romans a long time before, but when those people disappeared, the Anglo Saxons took it over and changed its name.
Halfdan told us he would attack on November the first.
Why that date? Well, he had learned it was an important date to the Christians. One where the honoured their saints. They would all be in Church and so the conquest would be easy.
He was right. Eoforwic fell to us easily. As it was now getting towards winter again, we decided to stay there for the cold months and then move against Ælla in the spring.
Halfdan also decided that having captured the capital of this part of Britain, he would settle here and make this land his own. He put a puppet king onto the throne, to give the people the illusion they still ruled themselves, but in fact, Halfdan was the true ruler. But as many of us could not readily pronounce Eoforwic, we started calling it Jorvik.
To be continued
Look out for the next instalment of the story of The Great Heathen Army.
Coming out soon is the next book in my Family Through the Ages books. It is set in Britain, around Jorvik (York), beginning a few years after the Great Heathen Army’s invasion and follows a young Danish girl, a descendant of Adelbehrt from Vengeance of a Slave.
Here is a preview of the cover for this book.
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