BBC History Magazine: the battle of Hengest’s Hill

The September issue of BBC History Magazine is still on news-stands, featuring my article on forgotten battles of the Viking Age. I was delighted to make it onto the cover:

Here’s an extract from the pre-publication draft:

The Battle of Hengest’s Hill, 838

‘King Ecgbehrt (Egbert) of Wessex was not a man to be trifled with. In 825, he had established himself and his kingdom as the pre-eminent power in Britain, crushing the Mercians at a place called Ellendun (just outside Swindon). It had been a memorably bloody business. A fragment of poetry recalled that ‘Ellendun’s stream ran red with blood, was stuffed up with corpses, filled with stink’. This, however, was only one front in Ecgbehrt’s campaign to subdue the other kingdoms and peoples of Britain. In 815, he had raided Cornwall ‘from east to west’ – a reminder to the still independent Cornish kingdom of the limits of their autonomy. In 838, however, the Cornish decided that the time had come to push back against West Saxon domination. This time they had allies – Viking allies.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that a ‘great ship-horde came to Cornwall’ which combined forces with the native Cornish and immediately set about challenging King Ecgbehrt’s power. Ecgbehrt led an army into Cornwall, bringing his strength to bear at a place called Hengest’s Hill (Hengestesdun). This was most probably Kit Hill, the massive prominence that dominates the valley of the Tamar, one flank of which is still known as Hingsdon (Hengestesdun). We know very little about what happened, except that the Vikings and the Cornish were put to flight. This, it would transpire, was to be the last gasp of Cornish independence. The people of Britain’s south-western peninsula would never again pose a military threat to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The same cannot be said of their erstwhile Viking allies.

Since the 790s, Viking fleets had been striking from the sea without warning, raiding monasteries and coastal settlements and capturing slaves and treasure. By the 830s, these attacks had become increasingly brazen, targeting substantial settlements like Carhampton in Somerset and defeating Anglo-Saxon armies. But this was the first time (that we know of) that Vikings had marched to war alongside a native people in Britain. Although (and sadly for the Cornish) it was not a successful experiment, it would certainly not be the last.’

Vikings: hearts of darkness?

The tidal current runs to and fro […] crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899).

Here, surely, we have a passionate and evocative description of the Vikings: bold adventurers stepping forward onto the world stage, ready to set a blaze on four continents and pave the way for the nations that would rise in their wake. In fact, this passage, taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, describes the explorers, buccaneers, settlers and merchants – ‘the dark ‘interlopers’ of the eastern trade, and the commissioned ‘generals’ of the East India fleets” – who had set out from the Thames from the 16th to the 19th century, laying the foundations of the British Empire and changing the world forever. But striking similarities between the Vikings and the British of the early modern and modern age underlie this coincidence of images: societies alienated in politics and religion from their closest neighbours and rivals, possession of a technological edge at sea, bravery, curiosity, a lust for gold and a willingness to use violence and brutality to whatever end. It was a comparison that the Victorians were not slow to identify, though they saw the comparison in a generally positive light.

…much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much of what is manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, and much of our intense love of freedom and fair play, is due to the pith, pluck and enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old sea-kings of Norway!

R M Ballantyne, Erling the Bold: A Tale of Norse Sea-Kings (1869)

But just as the legacy of Empire is constantly being re-evaluated, so too is the impact of the Vikings on the people with whom they came into contact, and the darker side of both has frequently been at the foreground of contemporary thought. The Vikings were happy to acquire goods by plunder and extortion when it was expedient, and to open up new markets for trade by the sword. Evidence from Viking military camps in Britain suggests that trade and manufacturing could go hand in hand with raiding and conquest: perhaps an early equivalent of ‘gun-boat diplomacy’. And just as the early wealth of the British Empire was founded on the horrors of the slave trade, so too were slaves a major trading commodity for Vikings. Written sources give a sense of some of the misery experienced by people subjected to early medieval human trafficking:

Stumbling the survivors
Scattered from the carnage,
Sorrowing they fled to safety,
Leaving the women captured.
Maidens were dragged in shackles
To your triumphant longships;
Women wept as bright chains
Cruelly bit their soft flesh.

Valgard of Voll, c. AD 1000–1100, quoted in ‘King Harald’s Saga’, Heimskringla (c.1230) by Snorri Sturlusson, 1179–1241; translation by M. Magnusson and H. Pálsson in King Harald’s Saga (Penguin Books, London, 1966, 2nd ed. 2005).

Viking slave shackles excavated in Dublin and Germany bear a startling similarity to those used in the transportation of Africans to the Americas and West Indies in the 18th and early 19th centuries by British slave-traders, such as these in the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool. But at the same time, the rapacity and technological edge that made the Vikings so feared were also to effect lasting change on a continental scale. Settlements in Ireland, Russia and Ukraine played a pivotal role in the development of urban civilisation in those regions, and the influx of trade goods and silver from the east contributed in no small way to the economic development of European markets. New settlements and cultures grew out of Viking exploration, sometimes where none had existed before. The birth of an Icelandic nation was to give Europe its oldest living parliamentary system and lead to an extraordinary flowering of medieval literature in the shape of the Icelandic sagas. The legacy of the British Empire remains highly controversial. But it is even more problematic trying to judge the Vikings by the standards of 21st-century morality. As with all stereotypes applied to large groups of people, labelling the Vikings as heroes or villains, raiders or traders, distorts history and oversimplifies complex phenomena. The Vikings were many things in equal measure, and their diversity of expression, activity and ethnicity is a defining aspect of what Vikings: life and legend seeks to explore.

slave-chain

Viking Age slave chain and collar from iron slave chain and collar found in Ardakillen Lake, Co. Roscommon, Ireland (© NMI)

[originally posted on the British Museum website in April 2014]

The Vikings are coming …

Several years ago I worked at the Tower of London. Spending long periods of time within a building of such age, I would often start to wonder about how the area would have looked before the castle was built. Every morning I would pass the remains of Roman walls at Tower Bridge station, walls that were repaired and refortified by King Alfred the Great in response to the very real threat of Viking raids from the river. Blotting out the great hulk of HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge and the modern office blocks that now crowd the banks, I would try to imagine the awe and the terror that a Londoner would have felt a thousand years ago, standing on the city walls, watching the carved and gilded prows of dragon ships silently gliding up the Thames. Viking fleets and armies raided and besieged the city on numerous occasions, and the river has given up dozens of weapons that might have ended up there as a result of those conflicts.

Exactly 1000 years ago, in January 1014, people living in England would have been looking to the year ahead with a great deal of uncertainty. A Danish Viking, Svein Forkbeard, sat on the English throne. He had taken it by force only a few weeks previously, having forced the submission of the English nobility and towns. He would die, suddenly, on the 3rd of February. But a fleet of Danish ships still lay menacingly off the English coast, and on board one of those ships was Svein’s son, Cnut, later to rule England as part of the greatest north sea empire the world would ever know.

This January, a Danish warship – Roskilde 6 – has returned to England and has taken up residence in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum, my current place of work. Happily, the dark days of the eleventh century are behind us, and the team from the National Museum of Denmark (NMD) who accompanied the ship to London have not (so far) demanded any tribute or burned any villages. In fact, getting the ship here has been part of a long period of close collaboration between the BM and the NMD (and Berlin State Museums, where Roskilde 6 will head next on its travels).

The Danish team of conservators and technicians, led by Kristiane Straetkvern, have been responsible for the conservation and analysis of the surviving timbers of Roskilde 6 (approx. 20% survives of the original ship), and for constructing the extraordinary stainless steel frame in which the timbers are displayed. This is a breathtaking work of modern design in its own right. The frame has been precision engineered in dozens of individual pieces which can be loaded into a single container for shipment and reassembled under the expert handling of the NMD’s installation team. The timbers are packed flat in their own climate controlled container.

The finished installation is a wonderful marriage of modern Scandinavian design and engineering with one of the greatest technological achievements of the Viking Age: at over 37 metres long, Roskilde 6 is the longest Viking ship ever discovered and would have been massive even by the standards of around AD 1025, its probable date of construction. It would have taken huge amounts of manpower and raw materials to construct the ship, resources only available to the most powerful of northern rulers. It may even have been built by Cnut himself…

[this was originally posted on the British Museum website in January 2014]

The Battle of Wesenberg/Rakvere: medieval warfare in the far north

(c) Milek Jakubiec/Medieval Warfare Magazine

I have just recently had another article published in Medieval Warfare magazine, this time – in a bit of a departure from my usual sphere of study – on a battle that took place in the context of the northern crusades that pitched the forces of Catholic western Europe and Scandinavia against the Pagans and Orthodox Christians of the eastern Baltic and beyond. In this case the belligerents comprised the armies of the Russian city states of Novgorod and Pskov (and elsewhere) pitched against a combined army of Danes, Teutonic Knights, Estonians and other crusading forces – perhaps from Germany.

The article is triumphantly illustrated by Milek Jakubiec. The scene depicts the single combat supposedly fought between the Lithunian-Russian Prince Dovmont (Daumantas) of Pskov, and the Master of the Livonian Branch of the Teutonic Knights, Otto von Lutterberg, during the rout of part of the Catholic army. This may or may not have happened, but it certainly makes for an exciting scene to illustrate the battle.

The magazine is full of interesting material relating to the life and times of Alexander Nevsky, prince of Novgorod and hero of Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film that depicted the Teutonic Knights as proto-Nazi invaders. Absolute propagandist bosh of course, but stirring stuff nonetheless!

Heroic Russians ...

Heroic Russians …

... wicked Germans

… wicked Germans

 

The Battle of Ashdown in Medieval Warfare

A few weeks ago, I had an article titled The Battle of Ashdown: Victory, battlefield, and the language of war published in Medieval Warfare magazine. The theme of the issue is Alfred the Great and the Great Heathen Army and thus coincides neatly with my own area of academic interest. The publication is not scholarly, but contains a good deal of interesting material and is nicely produced with some superb commissioned illustrations.

MedWarCover

Medieval Warfare III.5

MedWar

Alfred the Great at Egbert’s Stone by Jose Daniel Cabrera Pena; Medieval Warfare III.5, pp. 30-31

As the publisher discourages the use of footnotes and in text referencing I confined most of my secondary source material to a ‘further reading’ selection at the end of the article. That said, I would like to make it clear (if it isn’t sufficiently so already) that not all of the ideas expressed are original to this article or to me. In particular: the discussion of Latin terms in Asser’s account of the battle is based on Guy Halsall’s excellent deconstruction (Halsall 2003); the relationship of battle-sites to royal estate centres is a point made by Ryan Lavelle (see esp. Lavelle 2010); discussion of Viking battle-magic is central to Neil Price’s The Viking Way (Price 2008); translations of the translations of original sources derive primarily from Swanton’s edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Swanton 2001) and the Keynes and Lapidge edition of Asser’s Life of Alfred and other related texts (Keynes and Lapidge 1983). Full bibliographic details for all of these can be found at the end of this post.

The most original contribution made by me in this article concerns the location of the battle of Ashdown and the symbolic significance of the naming of the battle site and Asser’s description of the topography. At some stage I hope to write this up in more detail for academic publication. In the meantime, however, here is a short extract:

“Asser provided the etymology of Ashdown as ‘hill of the ash’ – a suggestion that has not been widely challenged by modern scholars. A brief consideration of the significance of the ash-tree from an Anglo-Saxon perspective is instantly rewarding: not only does the word æsc act as a general synonym for ‘spear’ (ash is a hard wood with straight and slender branches and hence eminently suited to this purpose), but in compound with other words has a range of other associations with the language of warfare which must have been unmistakeable. Thus: æscfaru (military expedition); æschere (warband, naval force); æscþracu (battle, spear-strength); æscstede (place of battle; literally the ‘ash (spear)-place’) and so on. ‘Ashdown’ (Æscesdune) could, in this context, just as easily have carried the additional sense of ‘battle-hill’. When applied to the wider region, this meaning could reflect the fact that the Berkshire Downs had been a contested frontier between Wessex and Mercia for centuries – they were, in a general sense, ‘the battle downs’…”. (Medieval Warfare V.III, p.20)

In my article I would like to have given more consideration to the suggestion – recently revived in Michael Wood’s BBC documentary series about Alfred and his successors – that the unknown meeting place of ‘Naked-thorn hundred’ [Nachededorn(e)] is a probable correlate for the single thorn tree described by Asser:

“A rather small and solitary thorn-tree [unica spinosa arbor] (which I have seen myself with my own eyes) grew there, around which the opposing armies clashed violently”. [Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 38]

The first reference to a Naked-thorn hundred is in Domesday book (1086), two hundred years later than the battle of Ashdown. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the name isn’t much older than the eleventh century, but it is certainly plausible that it developed as a result of Asser’s narrative rather than providing locational evidence for the place described. It seems to me likely that the name reflects local folkloric traditions that sought to associate the glamour of a royal military triumph with a provincial meeting place. If this is the case, it would share a great deal in common with other landmarks along the ridgeway around which Alfredian mythology has accrued over the centuries following the events of the 870s.

Rather than being a useful piece of topographic detail, I would argue that Asser’s reference to the thorn tree is a fairly blatant use of religious symbolism intended to emphasise the spiritual dimensions of the struggle with the heathen.

S. Keynes and M. Lapidge, ed. and trans., Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, Harmondsworth (1983).

G. Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450–900 (London, 2003).

R. Lavelle, ‘Geographies of Power in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: the Royal Estates of Wessex’, in Reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Language, Literature, History, ed. A .D. Jorgensen (Turnhout, 2010).

N. Price, The Viking Way (Oxford 2002).

M. Swanton (ed. and trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (London, 1996; rev. edn,, 2001).