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The Great Heathen Army and the River Trent

Beau Ouimette is on a mission. Hailing from the States, clad in a wetsuit and armed with his trusty metal detector, he’s here to enter Britain’s rivers and find lost relics from our turbulent past. Like a cross between Indiana Jones and a salmon, he’ll be swimming up and down the waterways on the lookout for weapons and other awesome artefacts from the days of the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War and the Viking invasions. And Beau’s not alone. Alongside him is Britain’s own Rick Edwards, who shares his fondness for getting soaked. 

Together, they’re the River Hunters. And one of their most memorable escapades involves the vast River Trent, which flows from Staffordshire right through the heart of England to where it joins with the River Ouse to form the Humber Estuary. These days, the Trent doesn’t really get much hype – it’s certainly not a watery A-lister like the Thames or the Severn or Shakespeare’s Avon. But it played a big role in Britain’s past – not least when the Norseman or more commonly known as the Vikings sailed along it during their brutal and bloody conquest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Could the River Hunters find long-lost traces of the Viking invasion along the river?

As a contemporary account put it, the Vikings were prone to ‘plundering, looting, slaughtering everywhere.’

The story of the invasion is an epic one, featuring slaughtered kings and the rise of legends on opposing sides, including Britain’s Alfred the Great and the Viking warlord Ivar the Boneless, who’ll be playing a big part in the latest season of Vikings.

Before getting into all of that, a bit of background. At the time, the nation was split up into a number of small kingdoms. Among them were Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the midlands, East Anglia to the east and Wessex in the south. From the late 8th Century onwards, the island of Britain had been subjected to sudden raids by the Vikings, who were attracted to the wealth of monasteries. As a contemporary account put it, the Vikings were prone to ‘plundering, looting, slaughtering everywhere.’

But everything changed in 865 AD, when these fleeting incursions gave way to a more coordinated and terrifying strategy. This was the year of the Great Heathen Army: a Viking invasion force which was here to stay. According to the Norse sagas, this invasion force was formed by the sons of legendary Viking warrior Ragnar Lodbrok. According to this version of events, the sons wanted revenge for Ragnar’s horrible death at the hands of King Ælla of Northumbria, who’d thrown him into a pit of snakes.

Did this really happen? We don’t know. But one of Ragnar’s sons – Ivar the Boneless – was indeed a leader of the Heathen Army. Ivar’s nickname has inspired much debate. Did he suffer a bone-related illness like osteoporosis? Or did ‘Boneless’ refer to his alleged impotence? Either way, Ivar was a fearsome fighter and the Vikings meant business. 

Various kingdoms were brought under Viking control. It’s said that the hated King Ælla was subjected to the excruciating ‘blood eagle’ execution ritual, in which the victim would have their lungs pulled out through their back. Meanwhile, King Edmund of East Anglia was apparently tied to a tree, shot with arrows and decapitated.

In the run-up to their conquest of the kingdom of Mercia, the Vikings settled for a time in Repton, on the River Trent. Repton was a key strategic stronghold, both because of its geographical setting by the waterway and because of its abbey, which was the final resting place of Mercian royalty. To take over the area was a symbolic coup for the Vikings, and take over they did. The abbey was ravaged and looted, and – most significantly for historians and Viking fans today – the grounds were used as a burial spot for hundreds of the Norse invaders. 

Here, some incredible Viking weapons have been uncovered, giving an insight into how they managed to tear through the Anglo-Saxon forces. These include bearded axes – so named for the extended lower part, or ‘beard’ of the blade which forms a hook-like shape – and Viking swords of different styles. It’s been speculated that Ivar the Boneless himself is buried in the area, though this is open to debate. There are certainly plenty of fallen warriors here, including one man skeleton suggests he’d been hacked above the legs and had his genitals cut off. He was buried with a boar’s tusk in their place.

The Viking invaders eventually came unstuck in the Battle of Edington of 878, when Alfred the Great – King of Wessex – defeated the Great Heathen Army. While the Vikings remained in control of northern and eastern territories, Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon forces maintained control in the south and west. This was a turning point which saw Alfred become a dominant force and the strengthening of Anglo-Saxon identity. Unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms would follow, with Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan becoming the first King of England. 

So, in a sense, we have the Vikings for mounting so much of a threat that the disparate Anglo-Saxon lands were forced to set aside their differences and become England. If the River Hunters discover anything in the Trent and other waterways, they’ll be touching relics that played a part in the genesis of the nation.