Viking raids may have been a common factor in the life of a 9th century Anglo Saxon, but there was something terrifyingly distinct when an army emerged seeking revenge.
The Great Heathen Army would do whatever it took to see the Anglo Saxons fall. The Great Heathen Army (known also as the Great Viking Army, or the Great Danish Army) is the name given by the Anglo-Saxons to a coalition of Viking warriors that invaded England during the 9th century AD. The main source of information regarding the Great Heathen Army comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is a collection of Old English annals chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. Some information about this army is also in an Old Norse saga known as the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons. Furthermore, archaeology has helped to shed some light on this Viking coalition. Nevertheless, there are many more questions about the Great Heathen Army that have yet to be answered.
Viking army in battle. (Public Domain)
Accounts of the Great Heathen Army
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Great Heathen Army landed in 866 AD in East Anglia, “A.D. 866. …; and the same year came a large heathen army into England, and fixed their winter-quarters in East-Anglia,” During this time, England was divided between four petty kingdoms – East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex. Faced with such a fragmented foe, the Great Heathen Army was quite successful in their campaigns and succeeded in overrunning much of the country.
Derby Museum Viking Sword found in Repton. (Roger/CC BY SA 2.0)
The chronicle does not mention the reason for this invasion, perhaps due to the fact that Viking raids were fairly common during that period of time. The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, on the other hand, mentions that the invasion of England by the Great Heathen Army was aimed at avenging the death of Ragnar Lodbrok, a legendary Viking ruler of Sweden and Denmark. In the Viking saga, Ragnar is said to have conducted a raid on Northumbria during the reign of King Ælla. The Vikings, however, were defeated, and Ragnar was captured by the Northumbrians. Ælla then had Ragnar executed by throwing him into a pit of poisonous snakes. When the sons of Ragnar received news of their father’s death, they decided to avenge him.
Depiction of Ælla of Northumbria's murder on Ragnar Lodbrok (1830) by Hugo Hamilton. (Public Domain)
As is already evident, the military campaign against the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms by the Great Heathen army is treated differently by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, and this difference continues as the story does. In the latter, for instance, much focus in placed on Ivar the Boneless, one of Ragnar’s sons. According to the saga, Ivar founded the town of Jórvík, today known as York, and by forming alliances with the neighboring Anglo-Saxons, built up his military strength. Eventually, Ivar invited his brothers to join him in his attack on Ælla. The Northumbrian king was defeated, and the blood eagle was carved from him. Ivar went on to rule over Northumbria until his death.
Ivar the Boneless as portrayed in the History Channel Series ‘Vikings.’ ( History Channel )
A different story is told in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. For instance, the chronicle makes no mention of Ælla’s execution by the blood eagle. Instead, he is recorded to have fallen in a battle against the Great Heathen Army at York. Additionally, tis work focuses on the actions of the Great Heathen Army in a chronological order. For example, in 868 AD, the Great Heathen Army attacked Mercia, and the king sought aid from Wessex to defend his kingdom. The Anglo-Saxon coalition besieged the Vikings in Nottingham. As there was no clear victor, however, the Mercians decided to make peace with the Vikings. In the following year, the Great Heathen Army is recorded to have returned to Jórvík and rested for a year.
King Ælla as he is portrayed in the television series ‘Vikings.’ (CC BY SA)
Questions Remain on the Great Heathen Army
In spite of the available written sources, there are numerous questions about the Great Heathen Army that are still left unanswered. For instance, neither the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle nor the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons mentions the size of the Great Heathen Army. The goal of this army is also another question open to debate. Although the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons provides the reason for the invasion of England, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not. Instead, it seems to be treated as another Viking raid, albeit one that was on a much larger scale than usual
Archaeology has been able to shed some light on the mysterious Great Heathen Army. For instance, a 2016 article published in The Antiquaries Journal presents the results of a project concerning the Great Heathen Army. This project revealed the location, extent, and character of the Great Heathen Army’s winter camp at Torksey, Lincolnshire (872/873 AD).
Additionally, it was reported recently that a mass grave from Derbyshire may contain the remains of some of the warriors in the Great Heathen Army. Such archaeological research has the potential to provide valuable information about the Great Heathen Army and may complement the already available written records.
Battered and broken bodies of Viking warriors unearthed in Derbyshire, England, now identified as soldiers of the Viking Great Army. (Martin Biddle / University of Bristol )
Top image: The Great Heathen Army. Source: CC BY SA
By Wu Mingren