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A map of the routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878

The Great Heathen Army (OE: mycel heathen here), also known as the Great Danish Army or The Great Viking Army, was a group of hitherto uncoordinated bands of vikings that originated from Denmark, Norway and southern Sweden who came together under a unified command to invade England in 865 AD.

Since the late 8th century the Vikings had settled for mainly "hit-and-run" raids on centres of wealth such as monasteries. However, the intent of the Great Army was different, it was much larger than the usual raiding party and its purpose was to conquer.

The name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 865. Legend has it that the force was led by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok. The campaign of invasion and conquest against the four remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdoms lasted fourteen years. Unlike many of the Scandinavian raiding armies of the period, surviving sources give no firm indication of its numbers, but it was clearly among the largest forces of its kind.

The invaders initially landed in East Anglia where the king provided them with horses for their campaign in return for peace. They spent the winter of 865–66 at Thetford before marching north to capture York in November 866. During 868 they marched deep into Mercia and wintered in Nottingham, where they were besieged by a joint force from the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. With no progress being made, the Mercians agreed to terms with the Viking army, which moved back to York for the winter of 869–70. In 870 the Great Army returned to East Anglia, conquering it and killing its king. They moved to winter quarters in Thetford. In 871 the Vikings moved on to Wessex, where Alfred the Great was content to pay them to leave. The army then marched to London to overwinter in 872 before moving back to Northumbria in 873. They again returned to Mercia, conquering it in 874. By this time only the kingdom of Wessex had not been conquered by the invading Vikings. It was towards the end of 875, when the army started their second invasion of Wessex. After a few setbacks, Alfred the Great defeated them at the Battle of Edington, and a treaty was agreed upon, whereby the Vikings were able to remain in control of much of northern and eastern England.


Viking raids began in England in the late 8th century, primarily on monasteries.[1] The first monastery to be raided was in 793 at Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described the Vikings as heathen men.[2] Monasteries and minster churches were popular targets as they were wealthy and had valuable objects that were portable.[3] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 840 says that Æthelwulf of Wessex was defeated at Carhampton, Somerset, after 35 Viking ships had landed in the area.[4] The Annals of St. Bertin also reported the incident, stating:

The Northmen launched a major attack on the island of Britain. After a battle lasting three days, the Northmen emerged the winners – plundering, looting, slaughtering everywhere. They wielded power over the land at will.[5]

Despite this setback Æthelwulf did have some success against the Vikings. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has repeated references during his reign of victories won by ealdormen with the men of their shires.[6] However, the raiding of England continued on and off until the 860's, when instead of raiding the Viking changed their tactics and sent a great army to invade England. This army was described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a "Great Heathen Army" (OE: mycel hæþen here or mycel heathen here).[7][8][9][10]

The size of the army

A reconstruction of a Viking from Repton in Mercia. This model is now in Derby Museum.[11]

Historians provide varying estimates for the size of the Great Heathen Army.[12] According to the 'minimalist' scholars, such as Pete Sawyer, the army may have been smaller than traditionally thought.[13][14] Sawyer notes that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 865 referred to the Viking force as a Heathen Army, or in Old English "hæþen here".[13][9]

The law code of King Ine of Wessex, issued in about 694, provides a definition of "here" as "an invading army or raiding party containing more than thirty five men", thus differentiating between the term for the invading Viking army and the Anglo-Saxon army that was referred to as the fyrd.[13][15] The scribes who wrote the Anglo-Saxon chronicle used the term "here" to describe the viking forces. The historian Richard Abels suggested that this was to differentiate between the viking war bands and those of military forces organised by the state or the crown. However by the late 10th and early 11th century here was used more generally as the term for army, whether it was viking or not.[12]

Sawyer produced a table of viking ship numbers, as documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and assumes that each Viking ship could carry no more than thirty two men, leading to his conclusion that the army would have consisted of no more than 1000 men.[13] Other scholars give higher estimates. For example, Laurent Mazet-Harhoff observes that many thousands of men were involved in the invasions of the Seine area. However he does say that the military bases that would accommodate these large armies have yet to be rediscovered.[16][17] Guy Halshall reported that in the 1990s several historians suggested that the Great Heathen Army would have numbered in the low thousands; however Halshall advises that there "clearly is still much room for debate".[14]

The army probably developed from the campaigns in France. In Francia there was a conflict between the Emperor and his sons, and one of the sons had welcomed the support from a Viking fleet.[18] By the time the war had ended, the Vikings had discovered that monasteries and towns situated on navigable rivers were vulnerable to attack. In 845 a raid on Paris was prevented by the large payment of silver to the Vikings. The opportunity for rich pickings drew other Vikings to the area, and by the end of the decade all the main rivers of West Francia were being patrolled by Viking fleets.[18] In 862 the West Frankish king responded to the Vikings, fortifying his towns and defending his rivers, thus making it difficult for the Vikings to raid inland. The lower reaches of the rivers and the coastal regions were left largely undefended. Religious communities in these areas, however, chose to move inland away from the reaches of the Viking fleets. With the changes in Francia making raiding more difficult, the Vikings turned their attention to England.[18]

Invasion of England

The term 'viking' simply meant pirate, and the viking heres may well have included nationalities other than Scandinavian.[12] The viking leaders would often join together for mutual benefit and then dissolve once profit had been achieved.[12] Several of the viking leaders who had been active in Francia and Frisia joined forces to conquer the four kingdoms constituting Anglo-Saxon England. The composite force probably contained elements from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Ireland as well as those who had been fighting on the continent. The Anglo-Saxon historian Æthelweard was very specific in his chronicle and said that "the fleets of the viking tyrant Ivar the Boneless landed in England from the north".[18][19]

The bulk of the army consisted of Danish vikings, who prior to the invasion would have been raiding Francia and Frisia. Some of the grave goods unearthed at Repton, where the Great Heathen Army spent the winter in 874, were of Norwegian origin, indicating that part of the army was likely to have contained elements of Norwegian Vikings, who would have been operating in Britain, raiding and conquering lands around the Irish Sea. The Great Heathen Army would also have consisted of various independent bands, or liðs, coming together under a joint leadership.[20][21][22]

The Vikings had been defeated by the West Saxon King Æthelwulf in 851, so rather than land in Wessex they decided to go further north to East Anglia.[7][18][23] Legend has it that the united army was led by the three sons of Ragnar Lodbrok: Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubbe Ragnarsson.[7][18][23] Norse sagas consider the invasion by the three brothers as a response to the death of their father at the hands of Ælla of Northumbria in 865, but the historicity of this claim is uncertain.[24][25]

Start of the invasion, 865

Silver penny of Æthelred I, King of Wessex (865–871)

In late 865 the Vikings landed in East Anglia and used it as a starting point for an invasion. The East Anglians made peace with the invader by providing them with horses.[26] The Vikings stayed in East Anglia for the winter before setting out for Northumbria towards the end of 866, establishing themselves at York. In 867 the Northumbrians paid them off, and the Viking Army established a puppet leader in Northumbria before setting off for the Kingdom of Mercia, where in 867 they captured Nottingham. The king of Mercia requested help from the Wessex king to help fight the Vikings. A combined army from Wessex and Mercia besieged the city of Nottingham with no clear result, so the Mercians settled on paying the Vikings off. The Vikings returned to Northumbria in autumn 868 and overwintered in York, staying there for most of 869. They returned to East Anglia and spent the winter of 869–70 at Thetford. There was no peace agreement between the East Anglians and the Vikings this time. When the local king Edmund fought against the invaders, he was captured and killed.[27]

In 871, the Great Summer Army arrived from Scandinavia, led by Bagsecg.[28] The reinforced Viking army turned its attention to Wessex, but the West Saxons, led by King Æthelred's brother Alfred, defeated them on 8 January 871 at the Battle of Ashdown, slaying Bagsecq in the process. Three months later Æthelred died and was succeeded by Alfred (later known as Alfred the Great), who was at first content to buy the Vikings off to gain time. During 871–72, the Great Heathen Army wintered in London before returning to Northumbria. It seems that there had been a rebellion against the puppet ruler in Northumbria, so they returned to restore power. They then established their winter quarters for 872-73 at Torksey in Lindsey (now part of Lincolnshire). The Mercians again paid them off in return for peace, and at the end of 873 the Vikings took up winter quarters at Repton in Derbyshire.[29]

In 874, following their winter stay in Repton, the Great Heathen Army drove the Mercian king into exile and finally conquered Mercia; the exiled Mercian king was replaced by Ceowulf. According to Alfred the Great's biographer, Asser, the Vikings then split into two bands.[30][31] Halfdan led one band north to Northumbria, where he overwintered by the river Tyne (874–75). In 875 he ravaged further north to Scotland, where he fought the Picts and the Britons of Strathclyde.[32] Returning south of the border in 876, he shared out Northumbrian land amongst his men, who 'ploughed the land and supported themselves', part of what became known as the Danelaw.[31]

King Alfred's victory

According to Asser, the second band was led by Guthrum, Oscetel, and Anwend. This group also left Repton in 874 and established a base at Cambridge for the winter of 874–75. In late 875 they moved onto Wareham, where they raided the surrounding area and occupied a fortified position. Asser reports that Alfred made a treaty with the Vikings to get them to leave Wessex.[30][33] The Vikings left Wareham, but it was not long before they were raiding other parts of Wessex, and initially they were successful. Alfred fought back, however, and eventually won victory over them at the Battle of Edington in 878. This was followed closely by what was described by Asser as the Treaty of Wedmore, under which England was divided between the Anglo-Saxons of Wessex and the Vikings. Guthrum also agreed to be baptised.[34]


A sword of a Viking buried at Repton in Mercia. This sword is now in Derby Museum.[11]

In late 878 Guthrum's band withdrew to Cirencester, in the kingdom of Mercia.[35] Then, probably in late 879, it moved to East Anglia,[36] where Guthrum, who was also known by his baptismal name of Aethelstan, reigned as king until his death in 890.[37]

The part of the army that did not go with Guthrum mostly went onto more settled lives in Northumbria and York. Some may have settled in Mercia. Evidence for this is the presence of two Viking cemeteries in modern-day Derbyshire that are believed to be connected to the Great Army, at Repton and at Heath Wood.[21]

Excavations at the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Repton in the heart of Mercia between 1974–88 found a D-shaped earthwork on the river bank, incorporated into the stone church. Burials of Viking type were made at the east end of the church, and an existing building was cut down and converted into the chamber of a burial mound that revealed the disarticulated remains of at least 249 people, with their long bones pointing towards the centre of the burial. A large stone coffin was found in the middle of the mass grave; however, the remains of this individual did not survive. A study of the skeletal remains revealed that at least 80% of the individuals were male, and were between the ages of 15 and 45.[22] Further investigation of the male skeletal remains revealed that they were dissimilar to the local population of Repton, and most likely of Scandinavian descent. In contrast, analysis of the female remains revealed that they were similar to the local population, suggesting an Anglo-Saxon lineage.[22] It is possible that the people in the grave may have suffered some sort of epidemic when the army overwintered in Repton during 873–74, leading to the mass burial.[31] The nearby cemetery at Heath Wood contains about sixty cremations (rather than burials). Finds of cremation sites in the British Isles are very rare, and this one probably was the war cemetery of the Great Heathen Army.[21]

In 878, a third Viking army gathered on the Thames. It seems they were partly discouraged by the defeat of Guthrum but also Alfred's success against the Vikings coincided with a period of renewed weakness in Frankia. The Frankish emperor, Charles the Bald, died in 877 and his son shortly after, precipitating a period of political instability of which the Vikings were quick to take advantage. The assembled Viking army on the Thames departed in 879 to begin new campaigns on the continent.[38][39]

The rampaging Viking army on the continent encouraged Alfred to protect his Kingdom of Wessex. He built a navy, reorganised the army, and set up a system of fortified towns known as burhs. He mainly used old Roman cities for his burhs, as he was able to rebuild and reinforce their existing fortifications.[38][40] Historically, every freeman in the land could be called out to protect the realm in times of trouble. Unfortunately, the speed of Viking hit-and-run raids had been too quick for the local militias to act, so part of Alfred's reforms were to create a standing army that could react rapidly to attacks. The Anglo-Saxon rural population lived within a 24 km(15-mile) radius of each burh, so they were able to seek refuge when necessary.[41] To maintain the burhs, as well as the standing army, Alfred set up a system of taxation and conscription that is recorded in a document, now known as the Burghal Hidage.[42]

By 896, the remains of the Danish army that had not gone to East Anglia or Northumbria found it difficult to make any progress in Alfred's fortified kingdom, so according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle those that were penniless found themselves ships and went south across the sea to the Seine.[43][44] As for Anglo-Saxon England, it had been torn apart by the invading Great Heathen Army, and the Vikings were now in control of northern and eastern England, while Alfred and his successors remained in control of Wessex.[45]

See also

  • Uí Ímair, dynasty widely believed to be the descendants of Ivar the Boneless
  • Raven banner
  • The Ballad of the White Horse
  • Medieval invasions of Britain


  1. Sawyer. The Oxford Illustrated History of Vikings. pp. 2–3
  2. ASC 793 – English translation at project Gutenberg. Retrieved 16 January 2013
  3. Starkey. The Monarchy of England. Vol. 1. p. 51
  4. ASC 840 – English translation at project Gutenberg. Retrieved 18 January 2013
  5. Nelson. The Annals of St-Bertin. p. 59 – The Annals of Bertin mention the attack as happening in 844 rather than 840 as in the ASC
  6. Janet L. Nelson, ‘Æthelwulf (d. 858)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 18 Jan 2013
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 ASC 865 – English translation at project Gutenberg. Retrieved 16 January 2013
  8. Oliver. Vikings. A History. p. 169 – in 865 the Anglo Saxon Chronicle made mention of it ... Great Army mycel here..Great Heathen Army mycel heathen here
  9. 9.0 9.1 Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 173, ff. 1v-32r. Retrieved 17 April 2013.
    * The entry for 865 refers to the Heathen Army as hæþen here.
    * The entry for 866 describes the Great Army as micel here.
  10. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Manuscript B: Cotton Tiberius Retrieved 20 August 2013. The entry for 867 refers to the Great Heathen Army mycel hæþen here
  11. 11.0 11.1 This reconstruction was made in 1985 by the BBC for a programme called Blood of the Vikings based on a skull and sword found in a burial outside St. Wystan's Church, Repton
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Richard Abels. Alfred the Great, the micel hæðen here and the viking threat in Timothy Reuter. Alfred the Great. pp. 266–267
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Sawyer. The Age of Vikings. pp. 124–125
  14. 14.0 14.1 See Halshall's Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West 450–900 Chapter 6 for a discussion on the size of medieval armies
  15. Attenborough. The laws of the earliest English kings. pp. 40–41We use the term thieves if the number of men does not exceed seven. A band of marauders for a number between seven and thirty five. Anything beyond that is a raid'.
  16. Laurent Mazet-Harhoff. The Incursion of the Vikings into the natural and cultural landscape of upper Normandy in Iben Skibsted Klaesoe; Viking Trade and Settlement in Western Europe. p. 87
  17. Bernard Bachrach, Charlemagne's Early Campaigns (768–777): A Diplomatic and Military Analysis. (Volume 82 of History of Warfare) BRILL, 2013. ISBN 9004224106, p. 77
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 18.5 Sawyer. The Oxford Illustrated History of Vikings. pp. 9–11 and pp. 53–54
  19. Æthelweard. Æthelweard's Chronicle. Bk.4. Ch. 2
  20. Kim Hjardar & Vegard Vike, Vikings at War,p.247
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Richards, Julian; et al. (2004). "Excavations at the Viking barrow cemetery at Heath Wood, Ingleby, Derbyshire". pp. 23–116. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 Martin Biddle & Kjølbye-Biddle. Repton and the Vikings in Antiquity Vol 66. pp. 36–51
  23. 23.0 23.1 Brøndsted. The Vikings. pp. 52–53
  24. Munch. Norse Mythology: Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons. pp. 245–251
  25. Jones. A History of the Vikings. pp.218–219
  26. Ridyard. The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England. p. 65
  27. Keynes/ Lapidge. Alfred the Great. pp.16–17
  28. Hooper, Nicholas Hooper; Bennett, Matthew (1996). The Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. p. 22. ISBN 0-521-44049-1. 
  29. Keynes/ Lapidge. Alfred the Great. pp.18–19
  30. 30.0 30.1 Asser. Life of Alfred in Keyns/ Lapidge. Alfred the Great. p. 82
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Sawyer. Illustrated History of Viking. p. 55
  32. Holman. The A to Z of the Vikings. p.117
  33. Stenton. Anglo Saxon England. p. 253
  34. Smyth. The Medieval Life of Alfred. pp. 26–27
  35. ASC 878 – English translation at project Gutenberg. Retrieved 16 January 2013
  36. ASC 879 – English translation at project Gutenberg. Retrieved 16 January 2013
  37. ASC 890 – English translation at project Gutenberg. Retrieved 16 January 2013
  38. 38.0 38.1 Sawyer. Illustrated History of Viking. p. 57
  39. Sawyer. Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe. p. 91
  40. Starkey. Monarchy. p.63
  41. Welch. Anglo-Saxon England. pp. 127 – 129
  42. Horspool. Why Alfred Burnt the Cakes. p.102
  43. Sawyer. Kings and Vikings. p. 92
  44. ASC 897- English translation at project Gutenberg. Retrieved 16 January 2013
  45. Kirby. The Earliest English Kings. p. 178


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