AGE OF HEROES - 1: THE WAR-BAND, Arming and Feeding the Warriors
When the Beowulf Saga came of age we still wrote in runes...
Follow the saga of Britain. The Romans occupied much of the mainland, the Angles and Saxons pushed the boundaries north and west, the Jutes had Kent and Wight before Wessex overran them and their neighbours. Northumbrian kings reached to the Forth and into Pictland. The Danes took the eastern half of what is now England before Aelfred's grandson Aethelstan helped win back much of it. The Danes also built an empire in Ireland based on Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Wexford The Norsemen settled on the fringes of Scotland, Ireland and England as well as Wales. And then came the Normans, Vikings with short hair who fought on horseback like their feudal Frankish masters...
Supply and demand in the Dark Ages
The task of supplying armies with weapons and food differed greatly from the early days of the Viking Age, between when Ragnar Lothbrok set out from the Frankish coast for Northumbria and when Magnus 'Barelegs' set out from western Scandinavia in his empire-building heyday.
In earlier days warbands were limited in numbers and scope. They could easily be outnumbered when raiding in well-defended far-off kingdoms. Larger forces needed the agreement of regional chieftains if an army were to be stood to whilst on, or had to make its way through their lands. They might also be asked for men they could ill afford to lose if the harvest season were close, to supplement an army's numbers depleted by earlier conflict or make up numbers to equal the opposition. A sizeable force camped on their land might damage growing cereal crops by grazing horses and trampling men - as with their Anglian and Saxon counterparts. Later laws, the Hirdskra, for the defence of Norway on a regional basis come down from this era.
Each clan would contribute toward an expedition beyond home turf, and hope to gain greater rewards in the form of booty. Ragnar Lothbrok's sons over-ran the eastern and northern kingdoms to avenge the killing of their father by Aella of Bernicia - northern Northumbria. Their force, mentioned in the Chronicle as the 'micel here' (pron. mickel herre) - great army - was assembled on the basis of mutual loyalties. Smaller units of the army were able to peel off from the main force to tackle minor obstacles, i.e., recalcitrant local lords. One of the brothers, Ubbi, was killed raiding on the shore of northern Devon (Defna scir) in AD878, possibly trying to take land for settlement. Earlier, in AD876, Halfdan had shared out Northumbria amongst his followers, and the attack by Ubbi could have also been to secure supplies and some gain in negotiables - Church artefacts to exchange for silver and gold.
Two forms of acquisition or gains could be seen in operation here. Opportunities presented themselves in land and crop seizures - pretty much in the same way as Duke William's landing force in October, 1066 - in the leaderless Anglian kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, where either half of the kingdom was unwilling to come to the aid of the other on 'ethnic' grounds. The two halves of Northumbria had been at times rival kingdoms, as they were when Ragnar's sons sailed across the North Sea from Denmark, and the eastern Mercians were not exactly cosy with their West Midlands neighbours (Penda had enlarged his kingdom eastward from Tamworth in the 7th Century). The Norse kings of York may have had troubled reigns, but they held on effectively until Aelfred's grandson Aethelstan over-ran Northumbria after the Battle of Brunanburh in the 10th Century.
Under the Danes armies were raised and supplied from the Kingdom of York (Deira, south of the Tees to north of the Humber-Trent frontier with Mercia) within the 'Thrijungar' (Thirdings, or Ridings) system, as in the Danelaw provinces of Lincolnshire: Lindsey, Kesteven and Stamford. The Thrijungar system was further divided into the 'Vapnatak' (wapentake) areas, equivalent to the Saxon 'Hundred' system of local government.
Once-over Ubbi's attack might well have taken the Devon Saxons by surprise, but by this time fore-warned was fore-armed and although Aelfred was elsewhere, the local ealdorman took on and killed the Danes' leader. By this time Wessex's defences had been strengthened, unlike the remoter and much weakened Anglian kingdom of Northumbria after Aella and Osbryht (Osberht) were defeated at York in AD867.
Next: 2 The Hierarchy
Kings of Northumbria
Oswald and his younger brother Oswy/Oswiu had to flee Bernicia in northern Northumbria for Scotland for their lives. Whilst there they converted and when the time came they returned to their native land to claim the kingdom. Oswald became king first and introduced the Celtic Church to Northumbria, although his reign was curtailed when he went deep into Penda's Mercia - only to be killed by Penda at Maserfield (near Shrewsbury in Shropshire). When Oswy followed onto the throne Penda's time was called on this earth...
Read the full story
Anglian mastery of the North was hard-won. Northumbria was at loggerheads with Mercia from the time Penda was crowned until Offa lay on his deathbed
Treasures from Sutton Hoo
See the Sutton Hoo treasures at the British Museum
to fully appreciate the craftsmanship. See the exhibits on the first floor of the main building in Room 41 (first floor, turn right at the top of the stairs), adjacent to the other Mediaeval exhibits like early clocks and court artefacts. A reconstructed helm shows the fine detail, as do several other reconstituted items such as the shield and sword. The burial is thought to have been that of the East Anglian king Raedwald, an early convert to Christianity who lived at the time of Penda. The ship he was buried in was 'eaten' by the acidic soil, although the impression it left behind was kept in the area of southern Suffolk ('suth folc' or the 'South Folk, as Norfolk ('north folc' was the 'North Folk', the second group of Eastern Angles that made up the population of East Anglia - the middle Angles being Mercia and the northern Angles Northumbria, sub-divided into Deira south of the Tees, Bernicia to the north).
From when the Aengle first came to this isle they vied to achieve the upper hand. There were three distinct groups when they made landfall, those that came into the Humber went their own way north and south. Those that landed in the east between the Wash and the Thames estuary banded together under one leader, the Northfolc and the Suthfolc as the East Aengle. The Middil Aengle divided the North Aengle from the East Aengle as they spread south and west. In the north the Aengle split into two kingdoms, Deira south of the Tees to the Humber, Bernicia to the north of the Tees had the Kingdom of the Strathclyde Britons (related to the Welsh and the Picts) to its west and the Gododdin (another tribe of Picts) to the north of the Tweed. [See the NORTHUMBRIA series]. The Mercians, as the Middil Aengle became known eventually occupied all the land between the North Sea in the east and the Welsh border as it is now, south west to Hwicce as far as the West Saxons' lands, and south east as far as the Middil and East Saxons would let them.
For their part the Saxons pushed the Britons west to the Tamar, and pushed the Jutes off the mainland around the mouth of the Itchen (where Southampton is now), before over-running them on the Isle of Wight itself. Eventually West Seaxe (Wessex) under the warlord-turned king Cerdic would over-run the eastern Saxon and Jutish kingdoms of the South, Middle and East Saxons as well as the Jutes in Kent. Wessex, after Cerdic's time, also eventually over-ran the small kingdom of Suthrige (pron. 'Suthriye' or Surrey), populated both by Jutes and South Saxons with its coronation stone near the Thames at Cyningestan (Kingston-upon-Thames). .
Mercia grew from an early Middle Anglia near the east coast, south of the Humber...
before the ascent of the pagan Penda in the 7th Century. Penda made enemies to north and south of his kingdom, although he could count the Welsh and Irish Celts as allies. His son and successor Offa was the man who modelled himself on Charles the Great (Charlemagne) of the Franks. He was in other words a minor king who projected himself as major player on the Christian stage and had coins minted to portray himself as a sort of emperor figure.
*For a complete picture of these historic figures, including Raedwald of East Anglia, Aethelberht of Kent, Cerdic of Wessex and (St) Oswald of Northumbria see the Northworld Saga Site, (www.northworldsagasite.webeden.co.uk - a link is available on the Northworld Saga site page here - see my profile)
Wessex, from King Aelfred to Eadward 'the Elder'
these were the days of Danish incursions first into eastern England and then reaching to Wessex. The Saxons sought to fortify the towns within their remit, i.e., beyond Wessex itself into Sussex, Surrey and Kent, each individual kingdoms until the late 8th/early 9th Century. It was Aelfred 'the Great' who set the 'goalposts' for a fledgling Aengla Land (England), his dream and his grandson Aethelstan's reality, fortifying the 'burhs' against attack. Some succumbed, many survived into the later England. Even the Danelaw's 'Five Boroughs' (Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Stamford in Lincolnshire) were brought into the Wessex 'fold', although they reverted to Danish control from the time of Svein 'Forkbeard' and Knut. England became a reality then, under Knut, with little change until Harold II's reign. Under William I only the political leadership changed, aside from the disappearance of Wessex (with its links to Harold and his clan).
Next - 2: If Looks Could Kill
Asser was a Welsh priest raised by Aelfred to a bishopric in Winchester. The two men were deeply religious, although Aelfred had the weight of a kingdom on his shoulders. Bishop Asser's version of Aelfred's life is biased, subjective, tied to his own ideology. You'd need to read another account for balance.