Viking Invasion (865 – 918)

Viking Invasion (865 – 918)

The Viking invasion of 865 is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as ‘The Great Heathen Army’. It was a cosmopolitan mix of different Vikings, that had probably been living in and raiding across the Rhineland and France. England had suffered before from Viking raids since 793, but in 865 they came to settle and stay. Over the next 6 years they captured Northumbria, York, East Anglia and Eastern Mercia. In 871 the Vikings were further strengthened by a ‘Great Summer Army’ from Scandinavia, ravaged southern Scotland, and in 874 conquered the remainder of Mercia. They then split into 2 camps – those that wanted to settle in peace with what they had and form the Danelaw – and those that wanted to go on and conquer Wessex. In 875 the Viking leader Guthrum invaded Wessex, but was ultimately defeated by Alfred the Great at the decisive battle of Eddington in 878. the Treaty of Wedmore officially divided the country into Saxon Wessex and the Danelaw. It gave Alfred a reprieve to reorganise the Saxon kingdom. It is for his great administrative achievements that he is known as ‘The Great’.

Alfred took advice from the Continent on how to defeat the Vikings. The advice was to build bridges across the rivers to stop Viking ships sailing up and down them, and create fortified defensive positions – called Burghs. Alfred divided his territory up into the English counties that we have today, based on roughly 1200 hides of land, which generated the taxation revenue to support a standing army. The standing army was needed, because although the Saxon nobility were obliged to supply troops, frequently they stayed at home, or even sided with the enemy. [The modern counties in the former Danelaw (Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincoln, Yorkshire, Northumbria) are much bigger in area than the Saxon ones – because they were not part of this early planning process. Thus, Danelaw is still visible in a county map of England today.]

The rural population were to be no more than 15 miles from a fortified Burgh. In the event of a Viking raiding party arriving in their area, they were to retreat to the Burgh. Each man was responsible for defending a 4-foot section of rampart, until the standing army could arrive and relieve them. Many of the locations for the Burghs were former ramparts surviving from Roman times, or even Iron Age forts, although some were built new. A law was passed that coinage was only to be minted inside a Burgh. The Burgh ultimately saw the rural population moving into planned townships.

Alfred created a navy, wrote down a comprehensive legal system, strengthened the church with books for moral guidance. He was an accomplished linguist, and personally translated many books into English. He was a great advocate of the English language. His navy was victorious – and it is thought that his ships were high sided modelled on classical Greek and Roman designs.
Viking ships continued to raid the south-east coast during the 880’s, but it was generally a time of peace and Saxon consolidation. The death of Guthrum in 889 caused a power vacuum in the Vikings, which led to a prolonged period of incursion, fighting and naval engagements in the 890’s. The Vikings occupied Chester around 893, but Alfred did not want to be involved in a prolonged siege. So instead of laying siege he completely wasted the surrounded area, so that the Vikings would have no food supply. This strategy worked and the Vikings left. Alfred successfully engaged and thwarted each incursion, repeatedly marching across England, until the Vikings gave up and went north in 897. Alfred died in 899. Although the Treaty of Wedmore had effectively given him large tracts of former Mercia, he had not occupied it. The fight to recover more territory in the Midlands was taken up by his daughter Aethelflaed – lady of the Mercians – who had a direct impact on our local history.

Aethelflaed fortified Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester, making this area her ‘spiritual’ power base. In 907 she made Chester into a fortified Burgh. It is thought she did this to protect it from a large Norwegian Viking force which had been expelled from Ireland and settled on the Wirral in 902. In 911 the Vikings thought the main English army was in the East, with her brother, so they decided to plunder down the Severn Valley to south Wales. The Vikings started to return home with a large booty, but were overtaken by the forces of Aethelflaed, who inflicted a crushing defeat on them at the Battle of Tettenhall (Wolverhampton). The Viking losses were so severe that they were unable to muster another field army. Aethelflaed pressed home her advantage by retaking the former Mercian capital of Tamworth. She built fortified Burghs at Bridgnorth, Stafford, Tamworth, Eddisbury, Chirbury and Runcorn. After she stormed Derby in 918 the Vikings at York agreed to swear allegiance to her for peace, but unfortunately, she died 2 weeks before the agreed meeting.

The Vikings were notionally in control of our local area for 30 years of so from 874. Although it has been suggested that ‘Croxton’ could be a Viking name, there is no other evidence that they gave their name to a settlement here. However, there is good evidence that the Vikings were settled in Worthenbury, because during the later time of Edward the Confessor, Worthenbury is the only local settlement paying its taxes in ‘ora’ – a Viking coin worth about two shillings. However, it is not known at what period they arrived. Aethelflaed is locally attributed as founding St. Alkmund’s church in Whitchurch (912), but there is no evidence that she considered making the former Roman marching fort into a Burgh. The establishment of boundaries for the counties of Shropshire and Cheshire must have taken place during the 10th Century. It is thought that the eastern boundaries of Shropshire corresponded to the ancient kingdoms of Wroconset and Magonset. There was a bridge over the river Dee at Chester in the early 11th Century, but whether this was part of Viking control in the 10th Century is presently unknown.

Source: Wrexham History.

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