Gold ring of Aethelwulf
Gold ring of Aethelwulf

Let us turn then to an examination of the new invaders, Northmen is the term applied inclusively to the whole group which, at a later stage, separates into two groups of Danes and Norsemen. The Northmen belonged to the Scandinavian division of the Teutonic race, of which the Goths were the first representatives who had come into touch with Christendom. They occupied Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and parts of the southern and eastern Baltic coast.

They no more formed a united power than the Angles and Saxons of the fifth century, to whose institutions their own bore a marked resemblance. Until the close of the eighth century they had not adopted an aggressive line; and it is not im­probable that they were roused into doing so by the aggressive movement of the Franks under Charles the Great against the Saxon nation on the continent.

Norse Raids
From fighting each other, the petty chiefs turned to raiding the coasts of the great aggressor on the west; and we can hardly avoid seeing a resemblance between their sudden expansion as a maritime power and the English maritime expansion in the days of Elizabeth. They began to take long voyages across the open sea instead of confining themselves to coasting operations; and when they did so they found they could go where they liked, because with their improved seamanship they developed naval tactics before which western fleets were powerless.

9th century raids
The movement began with the Danes at the end of the eighth century; and it appears to have stopped, so far as, they were concerned, because they fell back into a condition of prolonged internal warfare, which did not come to an end till their comparative consolidation about 830. Hence, during this time they left the English and Frankish coasts alone. Meanwhile; however, their Norwegian kinsmen followed a new direction; and, passing round the north of the British Isles, harried the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, the latter country suffering horribly from their ravages while England was still enjoying immunity. But about 830 the Danes were at work again, and from this time Danes and Norsemen, sometimes but not always distinguished by their victims, swept the seas, stormed along the coasts, and swarmed up the estuaries of Western Europe.

Viking 'kingship'
The Vikings, as they were called, which probably means "warriors", were at first merely bands of adventurers following the banner of some famous warrior or high-born leader, and their object was simply plunder. Worshippers of the old gods, they had no touch of Christianity. When we hear of the "kings" who led them when they came, not in small companies but in great fleets, we must recognise that the king was simply a war-lord; not the king over a territory, but only over the warriors who followed his banner.

In 834 a fleet of the Northmen attacked the Rhine mouth, and a detachment of them ravaged the island of Sheppey. Two or three years later the operation was repeated, and this time a detachment landed at Charmouth, Dorsetshire, where, after a stubborn fight with Ecgbert, they remained actually masters of the field, but had been too roughly handled to attempt to hold their position. In 838 they came to Cornwall, and, in alliance with the Cornishmen, moved upon Wessex, but were put to utter route by Ecgbert at Hengston Down. AEthelwulf of Wessex
Next year Ecgbert died. His eldest son AEthelwulf succeeded him as suzerain of England and king of Wessex, a younger son, AEthelstan, being made sub-king of Essex and Kent and Sussex. During the next few years the Danes made perpetual invasions in force on the east coast and the south coast, and also on the Frankish dominion beyond the English Channel, passing round Finisterre, and in 848 capturing and sacking Bordeaux. Sometimes they were beaten off; but usually they routed the levies brought against them, and only retired when they had obtained a satisfactory amount of plunder. By this time they were habitually working not in small detachments but in great combined fleets, numbering sometimes as many as six. hundred vessels.

Battle of Aclea
In 851, however, they met with an overwhelming repulse at the hands of AEthehvulf and his son AEthelbald at Aclea, either Ockley in Surrey or Oakley near Basingstoke. Probably it was not till 855 that the Danes for the first time wintered in England, the first step to a Danish settlement; the Chronicle refers this event both to 851 and 855, but the defeat at Aclea makes the earlier date improbable. Two years later AEthelwulf died and was followed on the throne by four of his sons in succession - AEthelbald, who reigned till 860; AEthelbert, who reigned for the next six years; AEthelred (866-871), and, finally, Alfred the Great. The Danish invasions slackened, and we only hear of them once between 856 and 865, when they again wintered in Thanet. On this one occasion they met with a sharp reverse. But 865 was the opening year of continuous onslaught. In 866 they ravaged East Anglia, and in 867 fell on Northumbria, where they remained permanently and before long indisputable masters of the country. In 868 they struck into Mercia though they made terms and retired again; and in 870 they overwhelmed East Anglia and killed its last king, St. Edmund.

Attack on Wessex
Then in 871 opened the great attack upon Wessex, led by two kings, Halfdan and Bagsceg, and five jarls or nobles. Against them marched AEthelred and his younger brother Alfred. The spring and summer witnessed a series of desperate battles Danesand Saxons alternately getting the better in combats which were indecisive. Even the great Saxon victory of Ashdown only meant that the Danes were forced back into their fortified camp at Reading whence, in spite of the fact that one of the kings and all the five jarls had been slain they were strong enough to issue again a fortnight later and defeat AEthelred at Basing. This success was repeated two months later, and was followed immediately by the death of AEthelred and the election by the Witan of Alfred in preference to the very youthful son of the dead king.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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