871. "Great Heathen Army" invades Wessex
Battles of Reading, Ashdown, Basing, Meretun
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes this invasion in much more detail than the attacks on Mercia or Northumbria, which shows quite clearly its origins as a West Saxon document. The army came first to Reading, and three days later two Danish earls rode farther inland, where they were met by Ealdorman Æthelwulf at Englefield, and one of the Danes was killed. Four days after that King Æthelred and Alfred led a great army to Reading and there was a pitched battle with great slaughter in which Ealdorman Æthelwulf was killed, and the Vikings were victorious.
Four days after that, Æthelred and Alfred had rallied their troops and fought against the Vikings at Ashdown: this fight continued until nightfall and this time the English put the Vikings to flight. The chronicler adds that the Vikings forces were in two halves: King Æthelred faced the one led by the heathen kings, Bagsecg and Halfdan, and Bagsecg was slain, and Alfred faced the one led by the earls, several of whom (Sidroc the Old, Sidroc the Younger, Osbearn, Fræna and Harold) were slain.
A fortnight later Æthelred and Alfred fought the Vikings at Basing, and this time the Vikings won.
Two months later Æthelred and Alfred fought the Vikings at Meretun (unidentified), and the Vikings won, though only after a long battle and great slaughter; the chronicler notes that the English put the Vikings to flight and were victorious far into the day.
871. "Great Summer Army" comes to Reading
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts this arrival in 871, before Æthelred's death in April. The "Great Summer Army" came to Reading, and presumably joined there the "Great Heathen Army" of 865, which had successfully beaten off an English attack on its camp at Reading earlier in the year. The armies probably campaigned together until 874, when Halfdan (the surviving king from the "Great Heathen Army" noted at the Battle of Ashdown in 871) led part of the army up to Northumbria.
late April, 871. Æthelred of Wessex dies
Alfred, Æthelred's brother, succeeds to Wessex
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Æthelred died after Easter (April 15 in 871). John of Worcester in his 12th-century chronicle gives the date as April 23, but Stevenson points out that this cannot be trusted, since another and a more famous King Æthelred died on April 23 (1016), and the 12th-century chronicler may have found that date in a calendar, without a year or an identification of which King Æthelred was meant (in the form "9 kal. May [23 April]: rex Æthelredus obiit") and applied it to the wrong king (Stevenson, pp.240-1).
W. Stevenson, ed., Asser's Life of King Alfred together with the Annals of Saint Neots Erroneously Ascribed to Asser (Oxford: 1904)
871. Alfred fights the Vikings at Wilton, and elsewhere
The West Saxons make peace with the Vikings
A month after his accession (so presumably in late May, 871), Alfred led a small force against the Viking army at Wilton, and the Vikings won (though, as in the discussion of the battle at Meretun in 870/1, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts a brave face on it, saying that the English were victorious far into the day, though the Danes won in the end).
Summing up the year 871, the chronicler notes that there were nine large battles (variant figures range from eight to fifteen) against the Danes that year, not counting smaller engagements, that nine Danish earls and one king (Bagsecg, at the Battle of Ashdown) were killed, and only after this does he admit that the West Saxons "made peace" with the Vikings.
871/2. Vikings take winter quarters in London
The Mercians make peace with the Vikings
872/3. Vikings go up to Northumbria; take winter quarters at Torksey in Lindsey
The Mercians make peace with the Vikings
Roger of Wendover, writing in the 13th century, explains the Viking raid on Northumbria by noting that the Northumbrians had expelled King Ecgberht and Archbishop Wulfhere. This is quite in character for the Northumbrians, in view of the civil war they were having in 866/7 and the fluidity of the political situation in the 8th and mid-10th centuries, but it is not recorded by any earlier historians. Simeon of Durham notes only that Ecgberht died in 873.
873/4. Vikings take winter quarters at Repton in Mercia
Burgred of Mercia driven over the sea
Ceolwulf succeeds to Mercia
In the winter of 873/4, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that the Viking army moved from Lindsey to Repton (in the heart of Mercia), and took up winter quarters there, and drove Burgred of Mercia across the sea, and that he ended up in Rome where he died and was buried. The Chronicle then notes that the army gave the kingdom of the Mercians to Ceolwulf, "a foolish king's thegn", who swore oaths to deliver Mercia up to them whenever they asked.
It should be remembered though that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle here is a West Saxon account written some twenty years later at the West Saxon court, and painting a fair and accurate picture of a defeated ruler of another kingdom was probably not a priority. Such contemporary evidence as exists shows Ceolwulf acting independently as king of the Mercians: he issues charters as king, witnessed by Mercian bishops and nobles; he also issues coins, one type of which, the Cross and Lozenge type, looks like the result of a reform of the coinage carried out by Alfred and Ceolwulf together. So it seems that at the time, Ceolwulf was recognized as the Mercian king by Mercians and West Saxons alike. He was probably also the leader of the English force which killed Rhodri Mawr of Gwynedd in 878, a battle mentioned only in Welsh and Irish annals. The fact that Ceolwulf kept the western parts of Mercia after the partition with the Vikings in 877 -- unlike the other occupied English nations which were completely taken over -- may even suggest that Ceolwulf was a shrewder negotiator than the West Saxon chronicler cared to remember.
874/5. Army leaves Repton
Halfdan takes part of it to Northumbria and takes winter quarters by the river Tyne
Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend lead the rest to Cambridge, stay for a year
Alfred wins a naval battle against the Vikings
Since Halfdan was one of the kings leading the "Great Heathen Army" in 871, it may be that this division sees the remnants of the "Great Heathen Army" of 865 and the "Great Summer Army" of 871 going their separate ways.
875. Lindisfarne abandoned
c.875. Alfred's first coinage reform
876. Vikings (Guthrum's army) move from Cambridge into Wareham
Alfred makes peace with the Vikings
Halfdan shares out the land of the Northumbrians among his army
876/7. Vikings (Guthrum's army) to Exeter
Alfred pursues Vikings to Exeter, and they make peace there
Autumn, 877. Vikings (Guthrum's army) take over eastern Mercia, leaving Ceolwulf in the west
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that in the harvest season the army went into Mercia and shared out part of it, and left the rest for Ceolwulf. (Asser seems to give the month as August, but this chapter in Asser is probably an interpolation; see Keynes and Lapidge, pp.246-7 n.94.) Æthelweard in his version of the Chronicle adds that the Vikings set up camp in Gloucester.
S. Keynes and M. Lapidge, Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (Harmondsworth: 1983)
January 878. Vikings (Guthrum's army) to Chippenham, occupy the land of the West Saxons
Alfred reduced to hiding in the marshes
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that in midwinter, after twelfth night (i.e., January 878), the Vikings came stealthily to Chippenham, and occupied the land of the West Saxons and settled there, driving most of the English across the sea and conquering many of the rest, and that the people submitted, except for King Alfred, who continued the resistance with a small force in the woods and the fens.
In the same winter, the chronicler notes that the brother of Ivar and Halfdan was in Devon with a naval force, and was killed there with most of his men, and the "Raven" banner was captured. Asser adds the details that the Viking leader came with twenty-three ships from Dyfed in Wales, and that he was slain at the fortress at Countisbury (Life of King Alfred, chapter 23). We do not know this brother's name, though Geffrei Gaimar in the 12th century asserts that it was Ubba, and the legend of St Edmund of East Anglia names Ubba and Ivar as the Viking leaders who martyred King Edmund in 869 (see Ælfric's Life of St Edmund).
March 23 (Easter), 878. Alfred makes a stronghold at Athelney in Somerset
May 878. Battle of Edington: Alfred defeats Guthrum's army
June 878. Guthrum baptized at Aller near Athelney
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that at Easter (23 March), King Alfred with a small troop made a stronghold at Athelney, from which he and the nearby people of Somerset fought against the enemy. In the seventh week after Easter (mid-May) he rode to Ecgberht's Stone (unidentified) east of Selwood, and was there met by the people of Somerset and Wiltshire and Hampshire. The next day he went to Iley, and then to Edington, where he fought the whole army and put it to flight. He pursued them as far as their fortress, and besieged them there for a fortnight. This time it was the Vikings who had to give in and sue for peace. They gave him hostages and swore great oaths to leave the kingdom, and also that their king should receive baptism. They kept both promises: three weeks later (early June?) Guthrum and 30 of his chief men were baptized at Aller, near Athelney, and King Alfred stood sponsor to Guthrum there. Guthrum stayed with Alfred for twelve days, and greatly honoured him and his companions with gifts.
878. English force (led by Ceolwulf?) kills Rhodri Mawr of Gwynedd
This battle is mentioned in the Annales Cambriae, which note under 877 (for 878) that Rhodri and his son Gwriad were killed by the Saxons. There is no indication of who led the English force, but it was probably Ceolwulf of Mercia, both because Mercia was the neighbouring English kingdom (perhaps looking to expand westwards after the partition with the Vikings in 877) and because the West Saxons were coping with a major Viking invasion and near-conquest in 878. Besides which, if Alfred had won a victory over the Welsh in 878 on top of his defeat of the Vikings, one might expect the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to make a note of it, and no English sources mention this battle.
878/9. Guthrum's army goes from Chippenham to Cirencester, where it stays for a year
Another band of Vikings camps at Fulham by the Thames
879/80. Guthrum's army goes from Cirencester to East Anglia, and shares out the land
The army at Fulham goes overseas to the Frankish empire (until 892)
c.880. End of Ceolwulf's authority in Mercia
(Ealdorman) Æthelred succeeds to Mercia, under Alfred of Wessex
The length of Ceolwulf's reign is uncertain. A regnal list kept at Worcester (in the western half of Mercia, and so unaffected by the partition of 877) gives him a reign of five years, which would take it to 879. By 883 (according to S 218), Ealdorman Æthelred was in charge of Mercia, under the overall authority of King Alfred of Wessex. No contemporary sources explain how this came about, though the Viking army which settled in Cirencester in western Mercia for a year in 878/9 might have finally extinguished Ceolwulf's independent Mercian kingdom.
c.880. Alfred's second coinage reform
880. Army from Cirencester to East Anglia
Army settles in East Anglia and shares out the land
882. Alfred wins a naval battle against the Vikings
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the 880s follows the career of the Viking army on the Continent, until its return in 892. The entry for 882 also notes that Alfred went out to sea and fought against four Viking ships, and he captured two of them and killed all who were on board, and the other two surrendered. A charter of 882 (S 345) notes that Alfred was also in this year on campaign (in expeditione) at Epsom in Surrey, quite possibly against another Viking incursion, but there are no further details.
883. English encamped against the enemy army at London
885. Viking army arrives, besieges Rochester
Alfred arrives and the Vikings flee (some overseas, some to Viking East Anglia)
East Anglians and new arrivals raid Benfleet in Essex
Alfred raids East Anglia
A part of the army that had gone to the Continent in 880 seems to have returned to England in this year and besieged Rochester. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the city held out until Alfred came with his army, at which point the Vikings fled to their ships. The Chronicle implies they then went back over the sea, but Æthelweard's version of the Chronicle suggests that the army split again, and some went back over the sea and some stayed on, joining up with Guthrum's East Anglians, and the East Anglians and the newly-arrived Vikings attacked Benfleet in Essex. (The main Chronicle confirms that in this year the Viking army in East Anglia broke their truce with King Alfred.) Æthelweard goes on to say that then the new Vikings and the East Anglian Vikings fell out, and some (presumably the newcomers) went back over the sea. Æthelweard and the main Chronicle then agree that Alfred sent a fleet into East Anglia, which was defeated by the Vikings.
886. Alfred occupies London
All the English not under Viking control submit to him (Kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons?)
Alfred entrusts London to Ealdorman Æthelred of Mercia
890. Guthrum of Viking East Anglia dies
892. "Great Danish Army" returns from the Continent, in 250 ships
Hasteinn comes with 80 ships
Both armies make fortresses in Kent
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that the "Great Danish Army" arrived with 250 ships in the estuary of the Lympne, and rowed four miles inland to the Weald, where they found and occupied a half-built fortress at Appledore. In the same year Hasteinn came with 80 ships up the Thames estuary and made a fortress at Milton. (This Hasteinn is perhaps identical with the Viking chief who was on the Loire in the late 860s and in 882.)
893-6. Northumbrians and East Anglians break truces and join forces with newly-arrived Vikings
Viking raids on remaining English areas
After three years of fighting, the English see off the new arrivals
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives a quite detailed account of the attacks and counter-attacks of these years, and it emerges clearly from this that the England faced by the Vikings in the 890s was very different from the walkover they faced in the 860s. They face well-organized resistance and armies gathered on at least one occasion from large parts of England and Wales, they are chased up and down the country and holed up in sieges, and so it is no surprise that in the summer of 896 they split up, some of them retreating into Viking-held Northumbria and East Anglia, and the others returning to the Continent.
The Chronicle starts by condemning the Northumbrians and East Anglians for siding with the Vikings, even though they had sworn oaths to King Alfred and the East Anglians at least had given hostages. Given that the Northumbrians and East Anglians concerned are presumably the remnants or the descendants of Halfdan's "Great Heathen Army" (which settled Northumbria in 876) and Guthrum's "Great Summer Army" (which settled East Anglia in 880), their loyalty to the newly-arrived Vikings is not surprising.
In 893, after the Vikings had occupied their fortresses in Kent (see 892), Alfred gathered his army and took up a position between the enemy forces, so that he could reach either army if they left their fortresses. What the chronicler only relates later in the annal is that Alfred seems also to have come to an agreement with Hasteinn at this point, by which Alfred gave Hasteinn rich gifts of money, and Hasteinn gave Alfred oaths and hostages, and Hasteinn's two sons were baptized with the sponsorship of Alfred and Ealdorman Æthelred. This was presumably done to make peace with Hasteinn's forces, but Hasteinn then took his army from Milton to Benfleet and ravaged the province. The Vikings at Appledore went on a long raid inland, as far as Wessex, and ravaged Hampshire and Berkshire. They returned, loaded with booty, which they wanted to take back to their ships, but they were cut off at Farnham in Surrey by an army led by Alfred's son, Edward the Elder. Edward's army recovered the spoils and put the Vikings to flight, and eventually caught up with them and besieged them.
Meanwhile, the Vikings of Northumbria and East Anglia gathered a fleet together and besieged Exeter and a fortress on the north coast of Devon. Alfred, who had been going to help besiege the Vikings cut off by his son, turned instead and took most of his army to Exeter, where he attacked the Vikings. Alfred sent part of his army on to London, where they gathered reinforcements and stormed and took Hasteinn's camp at Benfleet, and destroyed or captured all of the ships there. (Hasteinn was away on a raid.)
While Alfred was in Exeter, the other Viking armies assembled at Shoebury in Essex, and built a fortress there, and went up along the Thames, where they received reinforcements from the Northumbrians and East Anglians, and then continued along the Severn. At Buttington by the Severn they were met by the English, led by the ealdormen Æthelred (of Mercia) and Æthelhelm (of Wiltshire) and Æthelnoth (of Somerset), and comprising men from Wessex and Mercia and Wales (the Chronicle notes king's thegns from every fortress east of the Parret, and both west and east of Selwood, and also north of the Thames and west of the Severn). This combined English/Welsh force besieged the Vikings at Buttington for several weeks, starving them out until finally the Vikings had to emerge and they were defeated there by the English and the Welsh: the surviving Vikings fled back to Essex.
The Vikings regrouped in Essex, again collected a large army from Northumbria and East Anglia, placed their women and ships and property in Viking-held East Anglia, and travelled to the deserted city of Chester. The English army could not overtake them before they reached the fortress, but they did besiege the fortress and seize all the cattle outside and burn or consume all the corn in the surrounding districts, so that, as at Buttington, the Vikings were starved out and had to leave the fortification.
The annal for 894 begins with the Viking army leaving Chester and raiding Wales, and then returning from Wales through Northumbria and East Anglia (where the English army could not reach them) to eastern Essex. These Vikings then rowed up the Thames and up the Lea, where they built a fortress, 20 miles above London, and stayed the winter there.
The other Viking army, which had gathered from Northumbria and East Anglia and attacked Exeter and then been besieged by Alfred in 893, also went home this year. Though they stopped and tried to ravage in Sussex near Chichester on the way, the locals put them to flight and killed hundreds of them and captured some of their ships.
In the summer of 895 the English from London and elsewhere marched on the fortress of the Vikings by the Lea, but they were put to flight. In the autumn, though, Alfred camped his army nearby to contain the Vikings, and built two fortresses lower down the river Lea so that the Vikings could not get their ships back out. When the Vikings discovered this, they abandoned their ships and went overland to Bridgnorth on the Severn where they built a fortress. The English army rode after the Vikings, and the men of London (as before with Hasteinn's fleet at Benfleet in Essex) fetched the ships from the camp by the Lea, and destroyed the ones they could not bring away. The Vikings stayed the winter at Bridgnorth.
In the summer of 896, as noted at the beginning of this entry, the Vikings gave up their assaults, and some of them went into East Anglia and some into Northumbria, and the rest went south across the sea to the Seine.
896. Wessex raided from Viking East Anglia and Northumbria
Alfred orders the building of English "long ships"
Though the summer of 896 saw the departure of the Vikings who had come in 892, East Anglia and Northumbria were still Viking-held areas and marauding bands continued to harrass the south coast of Wessex. The Chronicle notes that they were still doing damage, mostly with the warships which they had built many years before, so Alfred ordered the building of bigger ships (almost twice as long as the Viking ships) to defeat them. These new ships were tested when a force of six Viking ships were harrying around the Isle of Wight, and Alfred sent nine of his new ships to contain them. The account of this local skirmish in the Chronicle is interesting because of the significant proportion of Frisians in the English force: casualty figures for one pitched battle record 62 "Frisians and English" and 120 Danes. Asser, in chapter 76 of his Life of King Alfred, mentions the Frisians among several other races who received a warm welcome at Alfred's court.
October 26, 899. Death of King Alfred
Succession of King Edward (the Elder)
Revolt of Æthelwold, son of Alfred's brother Æthelred
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Alfred died on October 26, and that his son Edward succeeded to the kingdom. However, the ætheling Æthelwold, son of Alfred's elder brother Æthelred (king of the West Saxons 865-71), refused to accept Edward's lordship and rode instead and seized royal residences at Wimborne (Dorset) and at Christchurch (Hants), against the will of the king. Edward took his army to Badbury near Wimborne, and Æthelwold barricaded himself within Wimborne with his men and a nun he had kidnapped, saying that he would live there or die there. The stage seems set for another set-piece of loyalty and heroism like the fights of Cynewulf and Cyneheard (see entry for 786), but instead Æthelwold fled by night and went to the Viking army in Northumbria, who accepted him as king and swore allegiance to him.
The earliest record of King Edward being called senior ("the Elder") is near the beginning of a Life of St Æthelwold from the end of the 10th century, presumably to distinguish him from the more recent King Edward (the Martyr, of 975-8).
M. Lapidge and M. Winterbottom (edd.), Wulfstan of Winchester: Life of St Æthelwold (Oxford: 1991), pp.2-3