King Ælla (or Ælle, and sometimes Aella) was the ruler of the Kingdom of Northumbria in the middle of the 9th century.
Although the dates are questionable because sources on Northumbrian history are extremely limited during this period; it is generally believed that in 862 or 863 AD, Ælla had disposed King Osberht (who was possibly his brother) and placed himself as ruler of Northumbria.
The now King Ælla had then seized lands belonging to the Church at Billingham, Ileclif, Wigeclif and Crece. Little more is known of King Ælla, except that he is described by most sources as being a tyrant and as not being the rightful king.
We do, however, have a recording of King Ælla and his brother Osberht’s death on 21 March 867.
Sometime late in the year 864 or early 865 AD, Ragnar Lothbrok had made his way to Northumbia and became shipwrecked off the coast.
Hearing the news of Ragnar being shipwrecked, King Ælla of Northumbria mustered an overwhelming force and defeated Ragnar’s army while they were vulnerable.
They were able to take Ragnar alive and held him prisoner.
King Ælla, mocking the tales he’d heard of Ragnar Lothbrok’s immunity to snake venom when he courted Thora Town-Hart and slew the serpent, had him executed by having him thrown into a pit of snakes.
However, it is said that Ragnar was protected by an enchanted silken shirt that Aslaug had made for him. It was only when this shirt had been removed from him that the snakes were able to bite Ragnar and kill him with their venom.
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 that 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 Norsemen were well aware of the civil war that had weakened the great northern kingdom in England and as warriors these Norse were extremely opportunistic.
The Norse consolidated their forces as they came in and wintered in East Anglia. 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 (which they called Jórvik). York (Jórvik) had a great defensive and was a strategic stronghold that was well protected by the walls the Roman Army had built for it previously.
The previous “dissension” between King Ælla and King Osberht over the crown of Northumbria was “allayed by divine counsel” and other Northumbrian nobles. They united their forces to form an army and made an attempt to retake York months later on March 21st 867 AD.
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. Upon capture, Ragnar’s sons claimed revenge and 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.
The surviving Northumbrians made peace with the Danes and the victorious Vikings appointed a puppet king to rule Northumbria on their behalf, named Ecgberht, as they continued across England.
Read more in: The Vikings by Njord Kane
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- Swanton, Michael J., ed.. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (First Edition edition ed.). Routledge, 1998. ISBN 9780415921299.
- Giles, J. A., ed.. Six Old English Chronicles: Ethelwerd’s Chronicle, Asser’s Life Of Alfred, Geoffrey Of Monmouth’s British History, Gildas, Nennius And Richard Of Cirencester. Kessinger Publishing, LLC., 2010. ISBN 9781163125991.
by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing
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