History Feature – The Great Heathen Army Part IV

By Matty CA

Last week we discussed the venture of the Vikings of the Great Heathen Army into Wessex, but were less successful due to the fierce resistance of the people of Wessex and their Kings. This week we’ll look into the final chapter of the conflict.

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For the next few years the Vikings returned to their new territories to further their influence, but their return seemed inevitable. In 874 the Great Heathen Army split up, Halfdan Ragnarsson went north into Scotland to fight the Picts and the Britons of Strathclyde. He and his men returned to Northumbria two years later to finally settle.

The second half of the Great Heathen Army led by Guthrum instead went south. In 876 they snuck into Wessex territory and captured Wareham in Dorset. Failing to re-capture it head on, Alfred negotiated a truce and exchange of hostages with the Danes, only for them to break their word, kill the hostages and escape to Exeter further southwest.

Alfred went into pursuit and soon blockaded their ships in Devon. Capitalising on the misfortune of the Norsemen who lost their reinforcement fleet in a storm, Alfred forced them to submit and retreat into Mercia.

The threat was far from over and in January 878 the Norsemen attacked Chippenham, the royal Stronghold, where Alfred had spent Christmas. They captured Chippenham, and killed many within, but the King escaped with a small band of warriors into the wilderness of Somerset, where he spent the next few months mounting a resistance and building a fortress in Athelney.

In May 878 the time to make a stand had come. Alfred rode to Egberts Stone and rallied the men of the surrounding counties Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. Alfred lost no time and moved his host to meet the enemy. The two armies clashed in early May in the Battle of Eddington.

With his freshly established army Alfred overcame his adversaries at last. The surviving Danes fled to the stronghold in Chippenham, but the Saxons encircled it and managed to starve them within a fortnight, so Guthrum had no chance but to surrender.

One of the terms of surrender was his coversion to Christianity, and so it came that he and 29 of his men were baptised at Alfred’s court before they retreated back to East Anglia.

The negotiations eventually led to the Treaty of Wedmore. It saw western Mercia incorporated into Wessex under Alfred the Great, while eastern Mercia, Essex and East Anglia formally fell under Guthrums rule and eventually formed the ‘Danelaw’.

The English kingdoms, bar Wessex had fallen to the conquerors from the north, but Wessex and its ruler were stronger than ever. With the Vikings either settling or focussing most of their raiding efforts on other shores such as in Francia, Alfred spent the next decades fortifying his kingdom, reorganising his military and becoming the dominant ruler in England.