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Being infamous for their military prowess it comes as no surprise that the Vikings were involved in many epic battles over the span of the Viking age. In this article we will cover some of the most influential military clashes that the vikings were involved in during this time period.
It should be noted that the Vikings tactics, especially in the early days of the Viking age, more often involved raiding and hit and run attacks rather than meeting opponents in open battle. This list will focus on full scale battles where two armies engaged in combat, rather than the smaller scale excursions of famous vikings such as Ragnar Lothbrok, who would likely have carried out their attacks with a much smaller number of men.
|1 - Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066)|
|2 - Battle of Assandun (1016)|
|3 - Battle of Maldon (991)|
|4 - Battle of Edington (878)|
|5 - Battle of York (867)|
Battle of Stamford Bridge - Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1870
|Kingdom of England||Kingdom of Norway|
|King Harold Godwinson||Harald Hardrada|
~10,000 English Infantry
~2,000 English Cavalry
|~9,000 Viking Infantry|
|Unknown English Casualties||~8,000 Viking Casualties|
The battle that is often considered by modern historians to have marked the end of the Viking age and their conquests in North Western Europe and the British Isles. The bloody battle ended with a devastating defeat for the Invading Norse army and victory for the English King Harold Godwinson.
The battleground was a small village in the Northern English province of Yorkshire, known as Stamford Bridge. The dispute came as the result of a crisis of succession for the English throne after Edward to Confessor died in 1066 AD, leaving a power vacuum in his absence. Amongst those with a claim to the throne were Harald Hardrada, the king of Norway, and Harold Godwinson who had been chosen as the new king by the English upper class.
Upon hearing the news of Edwards death Harald Hardrada sailed for England with a fleet of 300 warships to asset his claim to the crown. His armies stopped in Orkney, Scotland to recruit more Norse reinforcements before making their way south an forging an alliance with Tostig Godwinson. Tostig was the King Harold's elder brother, however after being driven out from his position as Earl of Northumbria he decided to join the invading forces in rebellion against the English Crown.
In the Prose Edda it was said that before the battle a long rider approached the invading Norse army and requested that Tostig turn against Hardrada and return to his position as Earl in the English nobility. When Tostig enquired as to what the English king was willing to offer Hardrada in this deal the rider said;
"Seven feet of English ground, or as much as he needs, as he is taller than most men."
After the offer was promptly refused and the rider returned to the Anglo-Saxon army Hardrada was impressed with the mans bravery and asked Tostig who he was. It was Harold Godwinson himself, Tostig said in response.
The battle ensued shortly after with the Nordic forces being taken by surprise by the speed of the English advance. The English advanced swiftly, however the fighting came to a bottle neck at a bridge. This is where one lone Viking warrior was said to have held back the entire English army single handedly, allegedly cutting down as many as 40 enemy soldiers with his giant Dane axe. He was only stopped when an enemy soldier stabbed him with a spear through the planks of the bridge whilst floating underneath it.
It should also be noted that the records of these events actually comes form an Anglo-Saxon source, which only makes it more impressive since it is common for historical sources to be quite one sided and over state the achievements of the victor. The fact that this heroic last stand was included in detail shows that the act of bravery and fierce fighting ability must have left an impression and earned the respect of the enemy.
This one brave warriors sacrifice had allowed the Norse forces to regroup and form a shield wall to hold back the larger advancing English troops. The fighting was fierce and went on for hours, however eventually the tide of battle turned against the Vikings when Hardrada was killed by an arrow to the throat and Tostig was also slain. Without leadership the Norse line was eventually broken. Being outflanked and outnumbered the remaining Viking forces were slaughtered, with only a few living to tell the tale. So many were killed in the battle that for fifty years afterwards it was said that the field was stained white with the bones of the dead.
This was one of the final Viking invasions of the British Isles and the end of the glory days of the Viking age. Although it ended in a loss for the Norsemen the sheer bad-assery of the lone warriors last stand earns the battle of Stamford Bridge the number one spot on our list. To have people still talking about your actions in battle almost a thousand years after the events is the type of glory all Viking warriors must have aspired to, and will certainly have earned him a place in Valhalla.
There were also wider implications for the events of this battle. Just days after the conclusion of the fighting the army of William the Conqueror invaded England from the south. After marching his army down to meet the normans Harold Godwinson was famously killed by an arrow to the eye and his army defeated, leading to the Norman conquest of England. Interestingly the Normans were also descendants of Norsemen after Rollo settle there with his army centuries earlier.
14th Century drawing of Edmund Ironside and Cnut the great fighting
|Kingdom of England||Kingdom of Denmark|
|Edmond Ironside||Cnut the Great|
After becoming King of England at the young age of 12 Æthelred became known as 'Æthelred the unready'. He was forced into exile when a Viking king invaded in response to him ordering the slaughter of Danish settlers on what became known as the St. Brice's day massacre. Æthelred had become tired of the constant raids and payment of 'Danegeld' following the events of the battle of Maldon.
Along with his son, Edmond Ironside, Æthelred returned to England and attempted to retake the throne. The other claimant was the legendary Cnut the Great, who became king of England, Denmark and Norway in what would later become known as the 'North Sea Empire'.
Æthelred died in 1016 AD, at which point the conflict ensued after the citizens of London elected Edmond Ironside as king, but the rest of the countries nobility named Cnut.
Accurate sources describing the events of this battle are scarce, there is even a great deal of dispute as to location at which the events actually took place. From the few sources that do remain there are some main themes that can be believed to represent the events that ensued.
Before the battle it was said that Edmond gave an inspiring speech to motivate his men, however it would not be enough as the Anglo-Saxon forces were subsequently defeated by Cnut's army. The turning point came when an Ealdorman from Mercia named Eadric Streona betrayed his king and fled with his men, allowing the Danes to break through their line and win a crushing victory. One source says that 'all the best of the English nation' fell in the battle. There is some speculation that this betrayal may have been calculated in an attempt to win favour with the new Viking king.
This battle was a decisive moment in Norse history which marked the seemingly inevitable danish conquest of England. Upon his defeat Edmund was forced to enter into a treaty with Cnut which divided the country into two parts. Edmund would keep control of Wessex, however the rest of the country would be ruled by Cnut. If one of them died then the other would become ruler of the whole of England, which is exactly what happened when Edmund died later that year.
With this victory Cnut instated a new royal lineage which ruled for 3 generations until Edward the confessor, another son of Æthelred, retook the throne and restored the house of Wessex in 1040AD.
A Viking raiding party landing in the British Isles - James Ward, 1923
|Anglo-Saxon Army||Viking Army|
|Byrhtnoth of Essex||Known only as 'Olaf'|
|Unknown Anglo-Saxon numbers, Sources state it was significantly less than the invaders||~3,000 Viking troops|
|Unknown, likely very few Anglo-Saxon survivors||Unknown Viking casualties, said to be 'Substantial'|
By the 10th Century the Viking raids in England has become a common and feared occurrence, which was of great concern to the English ruling class. Although there had been a period of relative calm during the first half of the century, and it even seemed to many as though the Viking threat may have been finally coming to an end, by the later years the raids has intensified once again.
There were many differing options amongst the English about how the relations with the invading Norsemen should be handled. Many preferred to pay them in an attempt to avoid conflict, as the Vikings has a reputation as fierce warriors, however some were too proud for such actions and preferred instead to fight back.
A man named Byrhtnoth, an Ealdorman in the kingdom of Essex decided that the invaders should be met with force in order to deter future attacks, therefore he gathered his troops and marched them to meet the Vikings.
The two armies squared off with the invading Viking forces being trapped on a small patch of land, thought to be Northey Island, separated by a stretch of water. The two sides shouted at each other over the divide with the raiders asking for payment in "gold and armour" however the proud lord replied that the only payment they would receive would be "spear tips and sword blades". Being chivalrous, or foolish, depending on your point of view, Byrhtnoth allowed the Norsemen to cross the water unhindered in an attempt to make it a fair fight.
Having squandered their only advantage and now facing the much larger Viking army on even terms the English were promptly defeated and Byrhtnoth slain. Some sources state that one Englishman named 'Godric' fled on Byrhtnoth's horse. When he was seen riding away from battle many English soldiers mistakenly thought their leader has abandoned them and the army routed.
When Byrhtnoth's body was found it was said to have been headless, however his golden hilted sword was still with him.
Although one of the smaller battles this was a key point in the relationship of the Vikings with the English nobility. After the battle King Æthelred decided that it was too much trouble to attempt to fight the Norsemen and instead opted to pay them in silver to leave. The payment was 3,300 Kilograms of silver (approximately 2.8 million USD worth at time of writing). This was the first instance of a practice known as 'Danegeld' in which a type of tax or extortion was placed upon English and French leaders by Viking kings who forced them to pay or suffer the consequences.
The events of this battle were also influential in Anglo-Saxon culture as an example of having too much pride leading to ones downfall. Tolkein even wrote about Byrhtnoth and his 'sin of pride'. He did not need to engage the Vikings in battle, as they were simply a raiding party and were not there to invade and occupy land. If he had decided to pay them or just defend his settlement and hold them at bay then they would likely have moved on and raided somewhere else.
Guthrum being baptised after the battle of Edington - Victorian representation, 1864
|Kingdom of Wessex||Great Heathen Army|
|Alfred the Great||Guthrum|
|~2,000-6,000 Wessex Troops||~4,000 Viking Troops|
In 1066AD a giant force of Viking warriors invaded England with the express goal of conquering and settling the land, a change in tactics from earlier raiding parties that came only to extract wealth before returning to their own lands. The force was known as 'the great heathen army'.
After their invasion the Vikings successfully conquered all of the English kingdoms of East Anglia and Northumbria, only Wessex remained an independent kingdom under the leadership of Alfred the Great. Initially Alfred attempted to pay the invaders off in an attempt to rid himself of the problem, however after receiving the payment they remained in his kingdom. The diplomacy soon turned to conflict and army of Wessex initially suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Viking invaders and Alfred was forced into exile.
Defeated and an outlaw in his own lands Alfred lead a guerrilla campaign against the new Viking rulers. It was at this point that the story of Alfred burning the cake originated, where he was hiding in the house of a peasant woman, who scolded him for burning the cake by accident. She was not aware of his identity at the time, and the King being spoken to in such a way by a commoner would have been unheard of in normal times, which just went to show how far he had fallen from grace.
Whilst in exile Alfred had managed to rally local men to his cause and after some time he was ready to take on the Vikings once again. The two forces met just outside the now Danish controlled fortress of Chippenham.
It was said that Alfred's forces successfully employed a shield wall tactic during the battle. Although this was a move often associated with the Vikings it had been commonly used by other groups too, and was probably learned from the Romans during their conquests of Northern Europe.
After a bloody battle the Danes were eventually pushed back to the fortress, where they were besieged until their surrender after 14 days of starvation. Following their defeat the Viking army withdrew to 'Danelaw' which was the Norse controlled territory in which their own laws and customs applied.
Alfred was aware that he had little chance of driving the invaders out of the rest of the English kingdoms, however he did take the opportunity to strengthen his kingdom with a series of border fortresses on the edge of the Viking territory. As part of the deal Guthrum and his surviving men were also forced to convert to christianity, and was baptised in Somerset.
Although this battle was a bitter defeat for the Viking forces it was included due to its historical significance. The events following the battle were indicative of the centuries to come, Guthrum was one of the first Norse leaders to be baptised, taking on the name Athelstan. He also began to mint coins in the same way as Wessex, and trade between the two kingdoms started to flow.
These practices soon spread throughout the other Danish rulers of the land, with many adopting the coin minting strategy and a more Anglo-Saxon style model of rulership, which marked the start of the blending of the two cultures. Alfreds military reforms also prevented future raids from being as successful as before, which marked a great turning point in the relationship and power balance between the Vikings and the kingdom of Wessex.
York City Walls
|Kingdom of Northumbria||Great Heathen Army|
|King Ælla of Northumbria||Ivar the Boneless|
|Unknown Northumbrian Numbers||~1,000-3,000 Viking Troops|
|Northumbrian Army Slaughtered with few survivors||Unknown Viking Casualties|
The city of York had been founded by the Romans centuries earlier, however after their withdrawal from Britain and the collapse of the Roman Empire the city was overtaken by the Anglo-Saxons and served as the capital of the Kingdom of Northumbria.
Viking raids throughout England first began in the 700s however they intensified and in 865AD the first Viking force with the express intent of conquest and settling arrived under the name of 'the great heathen army'. The size of this force is still debated, however it is generally accepted to be much smaller than originally thought with only around 1,000-3,000 troops.
The army was lead by the infamous 'Ivar the boneless' who's motivation for the conquest was revenge for the death of his father, Ragnar Lothbrok. Determined to get his vengeance, Ivar and his troops landed in the east of the country, before making their way up to York.
At the time of his arrival the Kingdom of Northumbria was already engaged in a civil war as a result of Ælla usurping the previous king Osberht. This allowed the Viking force to take the city with very little resistance.
Upon realising the severity of the threat they faced the two Northumbrian leaders, Ælla and Osberht decided to make peace with one another in order to combat the looming Viking presence in their lands.
In 867AD the two of them marched together in an attempt to retake York. The ensuing battle started well for the attackers, they managed to break through the outer walls and storm into the city. Once inside however their fortunes were reversed. The bottle neck at the wall and the narrow streets of the city meant that the larger numbers of the Northumbrian force were less of an advantage and the superior skill and battle hardiness of the Viking warriors became the decisive factor.
The next events vary depending on which sources are to be believed. According to the Anglo-Saxon version of events both Ælla and Osberht were killed in the fighting, however the Viking sources state that king Ælla was killed by 'blood eagle' in order to satisfy Ivar's thirst for revenge for the death of his father.
The escapades of Ragnar and his sons were of great importance in Norse culture, so it seemed necessary to include this vital part of their tale in the list. The aftermath of this battle also lead to the formation of the Kingdom of Jorvik, which was one of the first permanent Viking occupied settlements in the British isles.
This new Norse kingdom lasted almost a century until it was recaptured in 954AD, at which point it changed hands numerous times in the following years. There were many attempts by subsequent Viking leaders to take back the area and restore the kingdom however they yielded little success.