Skip to main content

The Three Greatest Viking battles

Battles that shaped British History

They may not be as universally known as the likes of the Battle of Hastings or the Battle of Trafalgar, but these violent confrontations in Britain’s distant past were just as important in the shaping of our nation…

The Battle of Edington

In the 9th Century, Britain was no stranger to sudden, devastating Viking raids. But things took on a new, ominous form in 865, when the Vikings became far more audacious and created a vast invading force, known as the Great Heathen Army. They didn’t arrive merely to pillage an isolated community – they came to conquer. Over the following years, the Vikings spread right throughout Anglo-Saxon England, toppling various kingdoms, until they came up against Alfred the Great, King of Wessex.

At first, Alfred seemed to be yet another victim of the Viking invaders. His forces were decimated, and the king himself was reduced to the status of an outlaw, mounting a guerrilla war against the Vikings. It’s during this period that, according to legend, a disguised Alfred took shelter in a peasant woman’s house, who asked him to look after a batch of bread she was baking, and then scolded the hapless king when he accidentally allowed them to burn.

Eventually, Alfred gathered together an army of local men and met the Vikings in fierce combat. This pivotal confrontation is now known as the Battle of Edington. It was a resounding victory for the Anglo-Saxons, and a contemporary account described how Alfred “overthrew the pagans with great slaughter”. The leader of the Viking forces, Guthrum, even converted to Christianity soon afterwards, while Alfred’s position as a great English monarch was assured.

The Battle of Maldon

Another savage confrontation unfolded in 991, during the time of King Aethelred the Unready, but this time the Anglo-Saxons didn’t come out of it quite as well. After a long period in which the Vikings had seemingly become less of a threat to England, the raids flared up again in the late 10th Century. Some believed the best way to deal with them was to pay them off, but others had a more indignant view, believing Viking violence should be met with violence.

One such fighter was Byrhtnoth, a royal official in Essex, who rallied his forces against Viking warriors when the latter sailed up the Blackwater River. Geography was against the Vikings, who were rather awkwardly forced to congregate on a small patch of land in the river – probably Northey Island. Yet, a streak of gallantry meant Byrhtnoth didn’t exploit his position. He actually agreed to the Vikings’ request to be allowed to cross from the island onto the mainland without being picked off, in the interests of a fair fight.

Battle then commenced, with the overly-chivalrous Byrhtnoth being slain and his forces defeated. Afterwards, the English agreed to pay the Viking “tax”, or Danegeld, to prevent further violence, while Byrhtnoth’s doomed skirmish inspired a great piece of Old English poetry, called the Battle of Maldon.

From the 9th century onwards England was frequently attacked by Viking invaders

The Battle of Assandun

The 11th Century confrontation everyone knows is the Battle of Hastings. But, some decades before 1066, in the year 1016, there was another battle which saw a foreign force charge into the country, overthrow the existing aristocracy and establish a new royal house. This was the Battle of Assandun, which resulted in a short-lived line of Viking kings. It’s only because the country was taken by William the Conqueror 50 years later that Assandun and its aftermath are not better remembered today.

The leader of the English soldiers at the time was Edmund Ironside, son of Aethelred the Unready, who had been shoved into exile in Europe by a previous invading force of Vikings. When Aethelred returned to retake his kingdom, it triggered an epic tussle for power between the Anglo-Saxon monarchy and the Viking claimant, who was the soon-to-be-legendary Cnut the Great.

Cnut and his invading warriors were ranged against forces led by Aethelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, who became king himself when Aethelred died in April 1016. The stage was set for a final confrontation between the new king, Edmund, and the man who wanted his freshly-placed crown, Cnut. Things came to a head at the Battle of Assandun in October 1016, when Edmund was roundly defeated by Cnut. The two men agreed to carve up England between them, but Edmund’s death just a few weeks later meant that Cnut became the absolute, Viking King of England.

For more articles about the history and culture of the Vikings, check out our Viking history hub.