Guthrum and conquest of the Danelaw

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Guthrum (Guðrum) was one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army and later, King of the Danish Vikings in the Danelaw.

Before the year 865 AD, most Viking raids were predominately hit and run operations.  But by that year in 865 AD they changed into invasions with the intent to conquer.

It is believed that pressure from tyrannous kings in Nordic regions forced them to seek new lands and start new lives. Norsemen were now looking for farm land to settle their families.

The legend in the Sagas of Ragnar’s Sons (Ragnarssona þáttr) claims that some of the attention of England by Viking invaders was because of the death of Ragnar Lothbrok, who was killed by the king of Northumbria, Ælla, during a raid in which Ragnar was taken prisoner and thrown into a snake pit. The following year, Ragnar’s sons build a substantial force and sought vengeance for their father against King Ælla.

In 865 AD, the Great Heathen Army, otherwise known as the Great Viking Army was formed by uncoordinated bands of Norse Vikings who came from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

They were led by Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons, Ivar Ragnarsson (Ivar the Boneless), Halfdan Ragnarsson (Halfdene), and Ubbe Ragnarsson (Hubba), along with the Dane Viking chieftain Guthrum.

The Norse consolidated their forces as they came in and wintered in East Anglia.

Location of East Anglia, UK.

To protect their realm and as an opportunity to see their rivals in Northumbria attacked, East Anglia made a peace agreement with the Norse army. They allowed the Norse to use their lands to gather their army and provided them with horses. The Norse used it as a staging point for their invasion into Northumbria.

By late 866 AD, the Great Heathen Army marched into Northumbria and on November 21st they seized York (Jórvik).  York was a strategic stronghold that was well protected by the walls the Roman Army had built for it previously.

Kings Ælla and Osberht united their forces and made an attempt to retake York months later on March 21st 867 AD. But two days later on March 23, 867 AD, as they continued their attempt to retake York from the Great Heathen Army, the battle ended when King Osberht was killed and King Ælla was captured. King Ælla was horrifically subjected to traditional Norse warrior practice of the Blood Eagle ordeal by having his ribs torn out and folded back to form the shape of an eagle’s wings.

After that battle and the Norse seizing control of the region, the Northumbrians paid the Vikings off and the Great Heathen Army’s collected leaders established as King in their place, Egbert (Ecgberht I). King Egbert was put in place to be a puppet leader and tax collector in Northumbria. The Great Heathen Army then set off for the Kingdom of Mercia, where in 867 AD they captured Nottingham.

Routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878 AD.

King Burgred, the king of Mercia and Kent, requested help from his brother-in-law King Æthelred I, the king of Wessex, to help in defense against the Viking invaders.

King of Mercia Athelred seen on the exterior of Lichfield Cathedral.

King Æthelred and his brother Alfred, the future Alfred the Great, led a West Saxon army from Wessex and Mercia and besieged the Norse occupied city of Nottingham with no clear result.
The Mercians settled on paying the Vikings off to leave instead.

The Vikings of the Great Heathen Army returned to Northumbria in the Autumn of 868 AD and stayed the winter in York, remaining in York for most part of the year 869 AD.  Some remained in hopes of starting a new life in York, but most sought land of their own. It was the main reason they’d come in the first place and their leaders reassured them there was more areas available.

Eager to grab more land, the Great Heathen Army returned to East Anglia and spent the winter of 869/870 AD at Isle of Thetford.

This time when the Norse arrived there wasn’t a peace agreement between the East Anglians and the occupying Viking army. The East Anglians weren’t caught by surprise this time and the Great Heathen Army wasn’t as numerous as before either. Seeing this as an opportunity to repel the Norse invaders from their land, the local King Edmund fought against the Norsemen to no avail.  He was captured and killed.

Subduing the East Anglians, the Great Heathen Army wintered there and prepared to attack further Anglo lands as soon as weather permitted.

The Battle of Englefield was a battle that took place on New Years Eve, December 31st, 870 AD at Englefield near Reading, which is now the English county of Berkshire. It was one of a series of battles that took place following an invasion of the then Kingdom of Wessex by an army of Danes. During these battles in which the Danes had established a camp at Reading.  Both the battle and campaign are described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Three days after their arrival in Reading, a party of Danes, led by two of their jarls, rode out towards Englefield. It was here that Æthelwulf, the Ealdorman of the shire, had mustered a force and was waiting for them. In the ensuing Battle of Englefield, many of the Danes, including one of the jarls named Sidrac, were killed while the rest of the Danes were driven back to Reading.

A battle between ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and ‘Vikings’ staged by re-enactors.

However, the Saxon victory at Englefield did not last long. Four days later the main West Saxon army, led by King Ethelred and his brother, Alfred the Great, attacked the main Danish encampment at Reading and were bloodily repulsed.

Among many of the dead on both sides was Æthelwulf, who had repelled the invading Norse in the first place.

In 871 AD, King Bagsecg came to England from Scandinavia and brought with him the Great Summer Army.

He arrived and added his forces to the Great Heathen Army which had already had much success in overrunning much of England.

King Bagsecg and Halfdan Ragnarsson dispatched a few raiding parties to attack the Kingdom of Wessex which remained vulnerable to Viking style raids and they captured Reading and Berkshire where they set up camp within the towns.  On January 4th, 871 AD, Alfred attempted to attack the camp, however Bagsecg won a great victory at The Battle of Reading where he inflicted terrible losses on Prince Alfred’s army.

Reenactors depicting King Alfred with the West Saxon (Wessox) forces battling the Danish Norsemen of the Great Summer Army.

The Battle of Ashdown, in Berkshire (possibly the part now in Oxfordshire), took place on January 8th, 871 AD. Both forces met for battle on the North Wessex Downs in Berkshire. The Vikings horde were commanded by Bagsecg and Halfdan and five other Danish Jarls.

The Viking army itself was outnumbered in comparison to the West Saxons led by Alfred.

This battle would determine the fate of Wessex and its king.

Alfred’s elder brother King Æthelred of Wessex was busy praying in a church and refused to fight until his other army arrived. This left Alfred in command and the West Saxon and Viking armies met and the battle itself lasted all day. King Bagsecg was killed along with his five Danish Jarls.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King Bagsecg was slain by a sword while Halfdan fled from the field of battle with the rest of the army back to Reading.

The Battle of Ashdown itself was a limited West Saxon Victory, because two weeks later they would meet the Norsemen on the battlefield again.

Click map for larger image

Routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878 AD

The Battle of Basing was a battle that took place on January 22nd in the year of 871 AD at Old Basing in what is now known as the English county of Hampshire. It was one of a series of battles that took place following an invasion of the then kingdom of Wessex by an army of Danes.

These Dane Norse were remnants of the merged Great Heathen Army and Great Summer Army.

The Danes had established a camp at Reading and the previous battles of Englefield, the Battle of Reading and the Battle of Ashdown, had proved indecisive with victories to both sides.

Two weeks after following the costly Saxon victory at Ashdown, King Æthelred and his brother Alfred were forced to retreat their army to Basing, where the two armies met again. The Saxon army led by King Æthelred was beaten by the Dane forces led by Ivar the Boneless (Ingvar).

However, just like the preceding battles, this battle was also indecisive and two months later was followed by the Battle of Marton that happened on March 22nd, 871 AD where the Saxons prevailed.

King Æthelred is reported to have later died shortly later afterward as a result of his wounds and was succeeded by his younger brother Alfred, whom later became known as Alfred the Great.

King Alfred inherited both the throne of Wessex and its immediate need of defense against the Norse invaders.

The English continued to suffer defeats and after the defeat at Wilton, King Alfred’s optimism that he’d be able to defend his kingdom from the Norsemen was deteriorating and he was forced to make peace with them. The terms of this peace agreement are unknown, but the Norse withdrew from Reading in the Autumn of 871 AD and wintered in London before returning to Northumbria in 872 AD.

The Northumbrians had rebelled against the puppet leader previously installed by the Norse, so the Great Heathen Army returned to restore power and then wintered in Lindsey for the winter of 872-873 AD.  The Mercians continued to pay off the Viking invaders in exchange for peace and the Norse took up quarters in Repton for the following winter of 873-874 AD.

The following year in 874 AD, the Great Heathen Army conquered Mercia and drove the Mercian King Burgred into exile, placing the Mercian, Ceolwulf II, in power as a puppet leader and demanded oaths of loyalty.

The second band of Vikings in the Great Heathen Army which were led by Guthrum, Oscetel, and Anwend, had left Repton in 874 AD and established a base camp at Cambridge for the winter of 874–875 AD.  In the late of 875 AD, this band of Vikings moved on to Wareham, where they raided the surrounding areas and then occupied a fortified position to secure it.  However, King Alfred of Wessex made a treaty with this group of Norsemen and they agreed to leave the Realm of Wessex.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t long until they started raiding other parts of Wessex and forced King Alfred to take up arms and fight back again.

In 875 AD the Great Heathen Army, then under Guthrum and Halfdan Ragnarsson divided.

Halfdan’s contingent returning north to Northumbria, while Guthrum’s forces went to East Anglia, quartering themselves at Cambridge for the year.

Click map for larger image

Routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878 AD

By 876 AD, the Viking King Guthrum (Guðrum) had acquired various parts of the Kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria and was now turning his attention to acquiring the Kingdom of Wessex, where his first confrontation with Alfred had taken place on the southern coast. The Viking King Guthrum sailed his army around Poole Harbour and linked up with another Viking army that was invading the area between the Frome and Trent rivers which were also ruled by King Alfred.

King Guthrum had won his initial battle against King Alfred and he’d successfully captured the Castellum as well as the ancient square where a convent of nuns was located that is known as the Wareham.

Statue of King Alfred at Wantage holding an ax.

King Alfred then negotiated a peace settlement with the Viking invaders, but by 877 AD this peace agreement was broken when King Guthrum led his Viking army to raid further into the Wessex realm.

This action forced King Alfred to confront the Vikings in a series of skirmishes that King Guthrum continued winning. After King Guthrum had successfully captured Exeter, King Alfred was forced to seek a peace treaty that resulted in King Guthrum leaving the Kingdom of Wessex to winter in Gloucester.

The peace treaty lasted until on the night of 6th January 878 AD, King Guthrum made a surprise attack in the darkness on King Alfred and his court at Chippenham, Wiltshire.  It was the Christian feast day of Epiphany and the Anglo Saxons were taken by surprise by the Vikings.

It’s also possible that Wulfhere, the Ealdorman of Wiltshire, had allowed the attack because when King Alfred returned to power later that year, he stripped Wulfhere of his role as Ealdorman.

King Alfred was forced to flee from the attack with a few retainers and took shelter in the marshes of Somerset where they stayed in the small village of Athelney.

King Alfred spent the next few months building up his force while waging a guerrilla war against King Guthrum’s secured refuges located in the fens. After a few months King Alfred was able to call forth men loyal to him to Egbert’s Stone, where they then traveled to Ethandun and fought the Viking invaders that were led by King Guthrum.

This fighting went on until King Alfred was eventually able to defeat the half of the Viking Great Heathen Army led by King Guthrum in the Battle of Edington in May of 878 AD.

At the battle, King Alfred had routed the remains of King Guthrum’s band from the Great Heathen Army. The Viking remains fled to their encampment and King Alfred sieged them for two weeks until eventually defeating them and making the Peace Treaty of Wedmore.

The peace treaty was made and the Viking King Guthrum was baptized as a Christian and assumed the new christening name of Æthelstan. Guthrum, now known as Æthelstan converted his faith while also accepting King Alfred as his godfather. 

This treaty had established peace between the two rulers and also clearly defined the borders between the realms of King Alfred and King Æthelstan (Guthrum).

Map of England 878 AD.

By 879 AD, Guthrum’s remaining army left Wessex, with some following him to his new Kingdom and some leaving to live a more settled life in York, Northumbria. Some assembled on the Thames to form a new army to return to the European continent to begin new campaigns and take advantage of the political turmoil in Francia with the death of King Charles the Bald (Charles II) in 877 AD.

Although with the treaty in place between King Alfred of Wessex and King Guthrum of the Danelaw, Alfred was saved any major conflicts but still had to deal with the occasional Viking raid here and there upon his kingdom. Alfred had reorganized his army, rebuilt and built new defenses around the countryside and formed a navy.

A ship built to the design of Alfred the Great by Dan Escott.

Peace between lands of the Danelaw and Wessex continued until in 884 AD when King Guthrum of the Danelaw attacked Wessex. Alfred defeated him and made a peace agreement that was outlined in the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum. This peace treaty formally drew the boundaries of the Danelaw and allowed for Danish self-rule in that region.

Two sides of a coin issued by Guthrum

Guthrum upheld his end of the treaty and left the boundary that separated the Danelaw from “English England” unmolested. Guthrum, although failing to conquer Wessex, turned towards the lands to the east that the treaty had allotted under his control.

King Guthrum lived out the remainder of his life there until his death in 890 AD.

According to the Annals of St Neots, a chronicle compiled in Bury St Edmunds, Guthrum was buried at Headleage, which is usually identified as Hadleigh, Suffolkin East Anglia.

by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing


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by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing


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Njord Kane is an infantry and cavalry veteran who also served in law enforcement just prior to entering into the world of academia where he pursued the disciplines of military science, social psychology, and anthropology. Having left his profession, he now takes care of his adult autistic sons at home while passionately writing about early Norse and Mesoamerican culture and history at spangenhelm.com and readicon.com. Kane is also the author of numerous books including, The Vikings, The Maya, and The Viking Hero Series.

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