The Defeat of Northumbria
The Vikings landed on the East Anglian coast.
King Edmund, the local ruler, bought peace for his kingdom by
supplying the invaders with food, horses and winter quarters. Ivarr
then led his army - perhaps reinforced by other Vikings from
France - north along the old Roman road, crossing the Humber into
the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria.
On 1st November 866, taking advantage of a civil
war raging there between Ælla and his rival Osbert (who may have
been his brother), the Viking army captured and occupied the
Northumbrian capital of York (Jorvik) in a surprise attack, meeting
little resistance. The invaders began to build up the defences of
York, to make it theirs.
The warring Northumbrians had put aside their
differences to unite against the common enemy, and on 23rd March 867,
the combined forces of Osbert and Ælla attempted to retake York.
They were heavily defeated by the Danes. Osbert was killed in battle
and Ælla was put to death. The Annals of Ulster record:
defeat of the Northern Saxons in York, at the hands of the Danes, in
which Alli, king of the Northern Saxons, was slain.
The manner of Ælla's death has generated
tremendous debate among scholars of the period. His execution is
described in great detail in the Scandinavian sources, and Ivarr's
personal involvement is stressed. The most graphic description
appears in the ßáttr af Ragnars sonum:
They caused the
bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Ælla, and they cut away
all of the ribs from the spine, and then they ripped out his lungs.
This particularly gruesome act was a form of
Viking ritual murder known as the 'blood-eagle'. The practice has
been rejected by certain academics, who feel it is based entirely on
folklore, and that later descriptions are the result of
mistranslation. However, the fact that the term 'blood-eagle'
existed as a meaningful concept in the Old Norse vocabulary
indicates that it constituted a ritual form of slaying in its own
Ivarr's devastating attack on the British Isles
can thus be seen in the context of filial revenge and Ælla's
exceptionally gruesome execution as the culmination of this impulse.
What was left of the Northumbrian royal court
fled north, and Ivarr installed Egbert I as the puppet king of
Northumbria. He was little more than a tax collector for the Danes,
helping to bring them greater wealth and emphasising their power.
The Conquest of East Anglia: AD 867-870
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,
Ivarr's 'great heathen army' moved south from York in 868 and set up
its winter quarters in Mercia, at Nottingham. The Vikings' arrival
there marked the first recorded threat to the heartlands of Mercia.
Nottingham's primary attraction to the Danes was its defensive
position. Occupying high ground above the Trent at the lowest point
at which it could be easily forded, it commanded two of the major
routes between Mercia and Northumbria.
King Burghred of Mercia sent for help from King
Æthelred of Wessex and his brother and heir Ælfred. The combined
armies of Mercia and Wessex assembled before the Danish position.
Ivarr realised that he was outnumbered and could not hope to win a
battle. He relied instead on guile to secure a peace - the Treaty
of Nottingham - to extricate the Danes from their position.
Henry of Huntingdon, writing almost 250 years
later, described Ivarr's response:
Ingwar [Ivarr] then, seeing that the whole force
of England was there gathered, and that his host was the weaker, and
was there shut in, betook himself to smooth words - cunning fox
that he was - and won peace and troth from the English. Then he
went back to York, and abode there one year with all cruelty.
Under the cover of this peace, Ivarr recrossed
Mercia with his army and his brother Ubbi Ragnarrson, and, in 870,
conquered the kingdom of East Anglia at the Battle of Haegelisdun
(probably Hellesden, in Bradfield St Clare, Suffolk).
The Execution of Edmund
Ivarr is also credited with the brutal execution
of King Edmund in the small village of Hoxne, which later English
sources equate with the martyrdom of St Sebastian.
In his life of St Edmund, the tenth-century
French monk Abbo of Fleury wrote:
Hingwar [Ivarr] then arrogantly commanded his
troops that they should, all of them, take the king alone, who had
despised his command, and instantly bind him.
When Hingwar came, Edmund the king stood within
his hall, mindful of the Saviour, and threw away his weapons,
desiring to imitate the example of Christ ... Then those wicked men
bound Edmund and shamefully insulted him and beat him with clubs,
and afterwards they led the faithful king to an earth-fast tree and
tied him to it with hard bonds, and afterwards scourged him a long
while with whips, and among the blows he was always calling with
true faith on Jesus Christ.
Then the heathen were madly angry because of his
faith, because he called upon Christ to help him. They shot at him
with javelins as if for their amusement, until he was all beset with
their shots, as with a porcupine's bristles, even as Sebastian was.
When Hingwar, the wicked seaman, saw that the noble king would not
deny Christ, but with steadfast faith ever called upon Him, he
commanded men to behead him, and the heathen did so. For while he
was yet calling upon Christ, the heathen drew away the saint to slay
him, and struck off his head with a single blow, and his soul
departed joyfully to Christ.
With that 'single blow' - Edmund's brother
Edwold having fled to Cerne Abbas in Dorset and become a hermit -
the East Anglian royal dynasty disappeared for ever.
From King to Saint
One of the best-known stories of this region
tells how the Danes left Edmund's corpse unburied and his head
thrown away into deep brambles. After a search by local people, the
body was found, but not the head. They then heard the howling of a wolf (probably Edmund's
own hunting-dog or wolfhound) and, following the sound, came to the
place where the head lay.
The corpse and head were placed in a hastily
built hut-like chapel and, it is said, miracles immediately began
- a light was seen over the chapel, and the blind and the sick
were healed. Edmund's head became joined to his body, with only a
red scar marking the place of the previous cut.
Locals came as pilgrims to venerate Edmund's
relics, which did not decay and rot. The murdered king was revered
as a martyr and his cult quickly spread. Thirty years after his
death, his body was interred in Bedericsworth, the central town of
Suffolk, which soon became known as St Edmund's Town, or Bury St
Edmunds. An abbey was founded in 1020, and the relics were moved to
a shrine there in 1198. (At the beginning of the thirteenth century, these
were stolen by French knights and taken to Toulouse.)
Edmund became the patron saint of all East
Anglia. His symbol of three crowns - representing his kingship,
his martyrdom and his virginity - can still be seen on many
emblems, crests and flags all over East Anglia.
The Vikings in Wessex and Mercia [see
entries above 871-879]
Meanwhile, according to the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle, the Vikings ...
... overcame all the land. They destroyed all
the churches they came to; the same time they came to Medehamstede
[Peterborough] they burned and broke, killed the abbot and
monks, and all they found there."
Ivarr then returned to York, probably leaving
the Viking army under the joint control of his brothers Halfdan 'Wide
Embrace' and Ubbi.
They proceeded to attack Wessex. Following the
Thames to Reading, they made the town their headquarters after a
fight. Because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written in
Wessex, we know what happened there in some detail. For instance,
the chronicler specifies the Viking leaders - a collection of
warlords, some of whom called themselves kings, others who did not
have the support or the ambition to be more than jarls
Æthelred died, and Alfred (later to known as
'the Great') continued his campaign. There were at least nine
engagements that the chronicler considered worthy of the name
'battle', plus many lesser forays mounted by the Wessex forces to
harass or repulse the attacking Danes. By the end of 870, the
Vikings, having lost one king [Bagsecg] and nine jarls, were
willing to make peace.
Dumbarton, Dublin and Death: AD 870-873
In AD 870, Ivarr's brothers sued for peace in
England. Ivarr went to Scotland and waged war.
The Siege of Dumbarton Rock
In this venture, he was joined by Olaf the
White, his co-ruler in Dublin. This was not the first time that Olaf
had been in Scotland. He had brought a raiding army to plunder it in
Olaf was married to Aud 'The Deep-minded', whose
family controlled the Hebrides, and it seems likely that many
Hebridean Vikings joined his army. For three years, they wreaked
havoc, plundering and extorting money from both Picts and Britons.
In 869, these victims of Norse rapacity must have breathed a sigh of
relief when Olaf returned to Dublin to curb Irish attacks there.
However, he returned to Scotland the following year.
It was a two-pronged attack, Olaf sailing up the
Firth of Clyde with a large fleet and Ivarr heading north-west from
York. They met at Dumbarton Rock - Dun Breatann, 'fortress
of the Britons', also called Alcluith, 'the Clyde rock' -
the ancient capital of Strathclyde, which covered most of
present-day south-west Scotland. The stronghold had, over the years,
successfully resisted the attacks of Picts, Scots, and Angles.
However, according to the Annals of Ulster, Ivarr and Olaf 'besieged,
razed and pillaged' it.