Nowadays, we know the Vikings for many things. Their religion, their art, their ships, but the one thing that comes to our minds and the one thing that made Vikings as famous as they are now is warfare and Viking warriors.
There are many battles that made Vikings as famous as they are today, but today, we are going to focus on five battles that were a true representation of the Norse fighting spirit. Some of those battles are more famous than others.
Some of them are probably the battles that you have heard of, and for some of them, you probably have not, but one thing is certain, these Viking battles are the thing that shaped their history.
What Were the Viking Battles Like?
During the Viking age, Viking warriors weren't really known for some advanced battlefield tactics. They usually fought every man for himself. They rarely engaged in open battles and preferred raiding instead.
They didn't have a strong chain of command, and their units were mostly small. However, what they lacked in the chain of command, they compensated in aggressiveness, ferociousness, and sheer ability. Also, they were very good at reconnaissance of the battlefield. When it comes to weapons, a sword was the weapon that was wielded by a lot of them, but axes were used as well. Of course, there were shields that were often used for forming the shield wall.
Also, during the Viking age, what made them stand out was their long ships. They were a great tactical advantage since they could enter rivers and narrow passes and transport them undetected behind enemy lines where they would land, place an ambush and bring death to unsuspecting enemy soldiers.
After that time, in 860, a large military formation attacked England, known as the Great Heathen Army. That formation changed a lot in terms of Viking battles. Their soldiers were more disciplined and better organized, and they posed a much larger threat than before.
The Battle of Edington
n the beginning, the Vikings mostly went on raids beginning in East Anglia. They weren't interested in large battles and large armies. Viking raiding parties usually worked by launching quick attacks in the English countryside, raiding monasteries and small towns. These raids started happening so often that the English army started organizing against Viking invaders. Raids had to be stopped, and Vikings had to be thrown back into the sea.
The first battle that we are going to talk about is actually a Viking defeat. We have already spoken about the great Viking force known as the Great Heathen Army. In the 9th century, the year 865, to be precise, they landed in East Anglia.
After that, it was soon clear that their intention was not raiding but to conquer Anglo Saxons and their land and to put the entire England under their control. At first, it seemed that they would achieve it. Battle after battle, Anglo Saxons were losing, and the English influence over England was smaller and smaller every day, and Vikings were getting larger and larger foothold over England. That is until they collided forces with Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxon kingdom.
At first, it seemed that Alfred is going to experience what the rest of the Anglo Saxons experienced, a swift defeat under Viking forces. And, in the beginning, it seemed that way. He was defeated in Wessex, and he retreated with his forces, starting a guerrilla war against Viking invaders. During this time, he was hiding in Wessex.
Eventually, he managed to amass an army large enough to confront the Viking invaders. He started assembling his forces in Wessex in order to repel the Viking invades. The leader of Danish forces was Guthrum the Old, while the leader of Anglo Saxon forces was, of course, Alfred the Great. The two forces met in Wessex in the village Edington. Alfred had between 2.000 and 6.000 men under his command, while Guthrum had fought with around 4.000 men.
The exact details of the battle are not that well known. The only thing that is known is that Alfred was ferocious. His army fought ferociously, and they destroyed Viking forces completely. After this, Alfred had his road to the English crown wide open, and the battle of Edington entered the pages of English history as the battle where the English forces achieved a glorious victory over Norse forces in Wessex.
The Battle of Maldon
After the defeat at Edington, the Vikings retreated. Their raiding parties avoided England for almost a century. Christianity's rising influence could've played a role in stopping raids on English territory aside from defeat to King Alfred. Then, in the late 9th century, the Viking raiding parties started pillaging again. The raids started to worry English lords, and they started arguing among themselves how to sort this situation. Some thought that Vikings should simply be paid, and other thought that swords were the solution to English problems. One of the lords who thought that the right way was to fight against the English raids was lord Byrhtnoth.
In 991, Byrhtnoth caught up with Viking raiding party near Maldon in Essex. In the beginning, the battle went very well for Anglo Saxon forces. They managed to confine Vikings to a small island and easily fought them off whenever they tried to come ashore. At that moment, the situation seemed unwinnable for the Vikings. At that moment, Viking leader Olaf suggested that Saxons let the Viking army come to the solid ground so they could have a chivalrous battle. Of course, looking from the modern perspective, no one would abandon the position Byrhnoth was in and allow himself to expose his warriors and decrease his chances of victory after the advantage that he had.
Since chivalry was extremely important to Byrhnoth, he decided to allow Viking forces to disembark on land and engage them in formal battle. As soon as they came to solid ground, Vikings destroyed English forces quite easily, and, eventually, chivalrous English leader Byrhnoth found death in this battle.
The Battle of Assandun
The 11th century was extremely important for both England and the Vikings. English throne changed hands, and the modern English country started developing. But, all of that happened a little down the road.
The battle that marked the beginning of the 11th century was the battle of Assandun. At that point, Vikings long years of pagan religion ended, and they became Christians, same as English they were attacking. Also, they divided Scandinavia into more recognizable kingdoms, the more notable ones on the territory of England being Denmark and Norway.
Danish prince Cnut came to England in 1015 in order to become the king of England. During that time, the king of England was Aethelred the Unready (this meaning poorly advised and not the modern meaning of unready - in fact, his entire name is a play on words since Aethelred means wisely advised).
The war between English and Viking forces was fierce. In fact, it was so fierce that Aethelred's own son Edmund Ironside decided to abandon his father and to fight against both him and Cnut, supported by the people of Danelaw. After some time, Vikings, under the leadership of Cnut, started winning in the war. Edmund Ironside decided to join his father, and the two reconciled and fought together against Cnut in order to save their kingdom.
In April 1016, Aethelred's death brought Edmund the English crown. Now, as the king of England, he kept fighting against Viking invaders. This all culminated in the battle of Assandun when the forces of King Edmund fought against the forces of prince Cnut. The exact place of battle isn't known for sure today.
The battle was supposed to be evenly matched, but Eadric Steona, the ealdorman of Mercia, decided to switch sides midst the battle and to abandon king Edmund in favor of Cnut (Cnut will later kill him since he too considered this action to be completely unchivalrous). This brought a decisive advantage that was needed to the Danish army, and Cnut easily led his forces to victory.
Although he achieved full victory, following the battle, Cnut decided to sign an agreement with Edmund, most of all because he considered him to be a capable king and, more importantly, an excellent soldier who fought against him against all odds, a thing he considered extremely important. The contract stated that Cnut would control all England aside of its west part, which would be under the control of Edmund. This situation would last until the death of one of the rulers, after which the surviving one would become the king of all England, and the son of the surviving ruler would be the successor of the English throne.
However, a couple of months after the battle, possibly as a consequence of it, King Edward died. That made Cnut king of all England after incorporating lands in the west which belonged to Edward, making his son heir to the English throne, marking the beginning of the rule of Viking kings in Britain.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge
Now we will go fast forward 50 years after the battle of Assandun. The new English king at the time was Harold Godwinson, another Anglo Saxon king. He gained power after the death of Edward the Confessor.
Edward's death created a power struggle since he died without an heir. The war of succession for the English crown was fought between three claimants - Harold Godwinson, Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, whose claim was supported by Harold Godwinson's brother Tostig, and William of Normandy, who claimed that the new king Harold promised him the English crown.
Fighting for the English throne began with the battle led between Saxon Harold Godwinson and Viking Harald Hardrada at the place Stamford Bridge in East Yorkshire.
This battle came after the battle of Fulford, where Norse forces defeated Anglo Saxon forces. Confident of that victory, Hardrada decided to march with only one-third of his forces. And because it was very hot, he decided to leave behind armor and shields, carrying only light weapons. Both of those moves were great mistakes. He didn't anticipate the English army.
At the bridge itself, Hardrada Hardrada sent part of his army on the west bank of the River Derwent, which proved to be another great mistake. Army led by Godwinson easily dispatched men on the west bank of Derwent. Although Hardrada sent for reinforcement, the early phase of the battle proved to be crucial. Hardrada's defeat was unavoidable, even though his warriors fought valiantly until the end of the battle. Vikings were defeated heavily, and the Norse threat to the English kingdom was over.
Hardrada was killed with an arrow shot through his neck, and his successors were allowed to return with their Viking long ships to Norway unhurt, which wasn't really common practice in those days.
The Battle of Hastings
This is probably the most famous battle of medieval Britain, which would shape the future of the English kingdom and Europe by extension. Many historians argue that the battle of Stamford Bridge represents the end of the Viking age, so how come that this battle is included? After all, it was fought between the Anglo Saxons, led by Harold Godwinson, and the Normans, led by William of No. Well, history tells us that the founder of the title duke of Normandy was Rollo, a Viking.
Then, Vikings renounced paganism, accepted Christianity, but still, by ancestry, they could not be fewer Vikings than Norwegian king Harald Hardrada. So, by extension, we may consider this to be the last glorious battle of Vikings, even though these Vikings didn't come from Scandinavia. Somehow, it may be better that the story about them is concluded with a great victory, instead of with a great defeat.
Following the battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold Godwinson sent his army on the forced march to meet the Norman invaders. His brother Gyrth suggested that he waits for reinforcement, but elated after his victory, Harold decided to press on. Even though history is the best teacher, and the battles Stamford and Hastings were back to back, some people don't want to learn, and Godwinson learned nothing from Hardrada.
William counted on this since he could only achieve an early victory since he didn't have the resources to support a prolonged campaign. It seems that Vikings, his ancestors, had something similar to him. Before he came from Normandy, William often changed the position of his ships and army so that he may confuse Harold where is he going to land.
The battle was fought from early morning until late in the evening. In the beginning, Saxons were winning the battle, and everything seemed to go according to plan. They easily beat back Norman assaults, and it appeared that the battle was about to be won. Norman forces started to flee, but, led by William's firm hand, managed to regroup.
At that moment, in of the smaller skirmishes, Harold's brother Leofwine died, which greatly distraught Harold. Although they were still on the offensive, this became fatal for Saxons. Sometime later, in one of the assaults, another Harold's brother, Gyrth, died, and the situation worsened. Harold retreated on the top of the hill and held his last stand. At this point, it became apparent that only reinforcement could save him. That didn't happen.
History somewhat differs (which is normal to happen after all those years) when telling the story about the manner of Harold's death. The legendary story tells that he died after being struck by an arrow through the eye. The other, which may be true, and more probable one at that, is that he was beaten to death with swords by four men on horses (one of those people seemed to be William).
Nevertheless, the battle was over, and there was a new king on the throne of one of the largest countries in Europe. William of Normandy, or as history remembers him, William the Conqueror, seized the throne for himself and for his son to come after him.
These battles were just some of the battles that Vikings fought across Europe. People remember them even today by their bravery, their long ships, and their unique approach to warfare. Norse fighters from legendary Ragnar until William the Conqueror entered the pages of history as great Vikings, which by extension means great warriors.
The new history of Europe wouldn't be the same without those brave warriors for whom the fight was the way of life and who made an impact on the world as we know it today.
Until the next story of these brave warriors, we wish you all the best.