Wednesday 27 November 2019

The power of alliance in the Viking Age

This article was first published in Historia, the magazine of the Historical Writers' Association on 13th November 2019.

My latest novel, Wolf of Wessex, is set in the south west of Britain in AD 838. It features many fictional characters, but they are placed within the tapestry of real events, places and people. One such real person is a king I had never heard of before researching the book: Ecgberht, King of Wessex.

Ecgberht (also spelled Egbert, Ecgbert, or Ecgbriht) was the grandfather of King Alfred and the more I read about his life and his reign, the more I wonder whether he might have as much right to the epithet ‘Great’ (as seen in 19th-century documents about him) as his more famous grandson.

Ecgberht didn’t have to deal with a great heathen army, but he did become the Bretwalda (overking of all of the English), break the dominion of Mercia over the south-east and, through alliance and battle, not only expanded the influence of his kingdom but also defended his shores from foreign aggressors.

The very late eighth and early ninth centuries were years of upheaval after a period of relative stability for Britain. The first account of Norsemen landing was on the coast of Wessex in 787.
Over the subsequent decade there followed a series of brutal raids all around the coastline of the British Isles. Infamously, the raiders, known now as Vikings (from the word vikingr, the Old Norse word for people travelling to raid and seek adventure), sacked Christian monasteries such as Lindisfarne in Northumbria and Iona in the Hebrides.

These Christian sites were situated in exposed locations, with access to the sea, and had no armed guards. They also housed many rich artefacts which were ripe for the taking. These Scandinavian pirates were not Christian, so cared nothing for the supposed eternal damnation they might face for defiling the sanctity of monasteries and churches.

And so it was that the Viking Age began. A time where the sleek dragon-prowed ships of the Norsemen were a constant threat to anyone living near the coast or navigable rivers of Britain and northern Europe.

For a time in the early ninth century, the number of attacks seems to have reduced. And, as so often in history, we can see how alliance made a smaller kingdom, in this case Wessex, more protected from external threats, and therefore more prosperous.

For the reduction of attacks on the British coast was thanks in no small part to Frankish ships patrolling the narrow sea of the English Channel. Like so many monarchs in the Anglo-Saxon period, Ecgberht had been exiled in his early life. He spent those years in the court of Charlemagne, the Frankish king and the greatest ruler of the age.

At the Frankish court Ecgberht learnt much about how to be a statesman and how to govern a Christian country. This knowledge would serve him well and the alliance with the powerful Frankish royal family must certainly have aided him when he returned to claim his place as the king of Wessex.

Under Ecgberht, and with Frankish support, Wessex quickly became the most powerful kingdom in Britain. While the Frankish navy kept the southern coast relatively safe from plundering Norsemen, Ecgberht focused on conquest and expansion. In 813 and again in 825 he led campaigns against the ‘West Welsh’, conquering what is now known as Devon and subjugating Cornwall to the status of vassal state.

Soon he had defeated the Mercians, his main rivals for power in Britain, at the Battle of Ellandun (probably Wroughton in Wiltshire) and then swallowed up Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he even took the oath of Eanred, king of the Northumbrians, leading Ecgberht to be called the ruler of all of the English, or the eighth Bretwalda.

But as with all kingdoms, things didn’t run smoothly for long. Mercia, Wessex’s enemy number one, quickly regained independence in 830. And the Vikings posed an increasing threat along the coast of Wessex. This was largely due to a civil war breaking out in Frankia between the sons of Louis the Pious. As the bloody civil war raged, thoughts of protecting the Channel from Norse ships vanished, and the navy was disbanded.

So, with his Continental European allies otherwise engaged and removing their support, Ecgberht found himself having to fend for himself.

In 836, a fleet of thirty-five Danish marauders landed at Carrum (Carhampton). Ecgberht summoned his levies and they attacked the Vikings. But the Danes defeated the men of Wessex and “had the place of slaughter”.

Ecgberht was getting old by this time and the threat of attack by Vikings must have been an ever-present worry for him. Thoughts of expansion were a thing of the past and Ecgberht began to consider securing the succession to his throne for his son Æthelwulf and the defence of his realm from the Vikings. He managed to defeat a concerted assault by a joint force of Danes and West Welsh from Cornwall in 838 at Hingston Down, but as the century went on, the Viking attacks would continue.

Even as the alliance with Frankia weakened, and the Frankish commercial network collapsed, Ecgberht was still striving to strengthen those bonds of friendship once more, as attested by communication with Louis the Pious shortly before Ecgberht’s death.

It seems that Ecgberht of Wessex knew full well that his kingdom was stronger and more powerful when supported by his allies on the continent. Without the Franks’ aid and trade, he could see his influence waning and Wessex’s power dwindling.

It is often said that to understand the present we must learn from the past. Ecgberht understood that alliance with continental Europe made his kingdom more secure. Looking back from the 21st century, such a conclusion appears obvious; but maybe what Ecgberht had come to understand over a thousand years ago is thought to be too distant to be recognised as relevant today.

Wolf of Wessex by Matthew Harffy was published in ebook and print on demand paperback on 14 November, 2019. Hardback and paperback versions will be out in 2020.

Depiction of Ecgberht from the Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings (late 13th-century manuscript): British Library via Wikimedia
Map showing places of interest during Ecgberht’s reign: by Mike Christie via Wikimedia
Portrait of Egbert: National Library of Wales via Wikimedia