Between AD 865 and 878, a Viking army wreaked havoc on the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, leading to political conquest, large-scale settlement, and extensive Scandinavian cultural and linguistic changes. The raiders’ tactics moved away from the largely coastal hit-and-run affairs of previous Viking incursions on the British Isles, which had begun in the 790s as a quest for portable wealth in the form of silver and slaves, and they instead now penetrated deep into the countryside, moving rapidly by road and river, exploiting internal divisions, and overwintering at strategic locations. Their new aims were longer-term: land seizure and political conquest.
This critical period for English history led to revolutionary changes in land ownership, society, and economy, including the growth of towns and industry, while transformations in power politics would ultimately see the rise of Wessex as the pre-eminent kingdom. Yet despite the pivotal role of the so-called Great Army (micel here in Old English) in these events, little was known of it until recently. Our primary documentary source, a set of annals compiled in the late 9th century called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, provides few insights into its activities and intentions, other than the names of its winter camps, and archaeological evidence largely remained elusive. Some historians questioned whether the Chronicle, which described Viking fleets as comprising hundreds of longships, could be trusted, and they played down the scale of the Viking threat.
In the last decade, however, our understanding of the Great Army has been transformed by a wealth of newly recovered evidence. This enables us, for the first time, to identify the precise locations and immense scale of the winter camps. We now know more about the activities of the Army, which extended far beyond the purely military to include trade, manufacturing, and craft-working. The new evidence provides fresh insights into a period that was crucial to the emergence of a unified English kingdom, the development of urban centres, and the precipitation of its first industrial revolution. Now that the archaeological signature of the Great Army has been identified, its traces are starting to be revealed beyond the winter camps, across the rural landscape of northern and eastern England, revealing a story of major changes in the countryside too.
Until recently, the only Viking camp to have been subject to archaeological investigation was that of 873-874 at Repton, and this happened by accident. Today Repton is a small south Derbyshire village in central England, notable for the church of St Wystan. But in the late 9th century this was part of a wealthy monastery, closely associated with the kingdom of Mercia. Its walls were plastered with stucco and its windows glazed with multicoloured glass, while elaborate stone sculptures adorned its churchyard. We know about the church’s earlier appearance because, between 1974 and 1988, archaeologists Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle and her husband Martin Biddle excavated there. They were interested in the history of St Wystan’s church and its burial crypt, but they had not expected to find traces of the Viking Great Army – which is precisely what they found while excavating east of the crypt.
The Biddles encountered a small number of Viking graves, including that of a male warrior, and also the butt end of a large V-shaped ditch. Tracing the course of the ditch, they believed that it formed a D-shaped enclosure that touched the cliff edge overlooking the old course of the River Trent, and apparently incorporated the church as a gatehouse guarding the enclosure. They interpreted this enclosure as the Viking winter camp, although its area was relatively small – no more than 0.4 hectares (1 acre), supporting the view that Viking armies can only have numbered in the hundreds. For many years, Repton provided the prototype for a Viking winter camp. With more recent research, however, flaws in this interpretation have emerged, and our investigation of the winter camp at Torksey tells a very different story.
In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 872, the year before the Army went to Repton, we read that ‘In this year the army went into Northumbria, and it took up winter quarters at Torksey in Lindsey; and then the Mercians made peace with the army.’ This site was long assumed to have been in the vicinity of the present-day village of Torksey on the River Trent in Lincolnshire, but the actual location of the camp remained elusive until telltale objects were discovered by metal-detectorists.
Over the last 25 years, an amazing quantity of Anglo-Saxon and Viking coins and artefacts has been recovered from six fields on a bluff of land overlooking the Trent. More than 400 early medieval coins have been unearthed, allowing the assemblage to be precisely dated and confirming this as the site of the Viking winter camp of 872-873.
Aside from 40 silver pennies, with a notable concentration from the 860s and early 870s, there are also more than 200 Northumbrian copper-alloy coins, which members of the Great Army must have brought to Torksey from York, further to the north. But one of the most striking discoveries are 144 Islamic dirhams, the largest concentration found at any site in the British Isles. These tiny silver coins had been cut up, indicating that they had been kept for their silver content as bullion, rather than their monetary face-value. Dirhams were minted across the Middle East and Central Asia, in what is now Iran and Iraq, and even as far away as Samarkand in Uzbekistan. They must have been brought to England all the way from the silk and slave markets of Asia and Arabia, probably travelling via Scandinavia, where concentrations of dirhams have been found at trading centres such as Birka and Kaupang.
The well-travelled dirhams were not the only cut-up objects discovered at the site. Fifteen pieces of hackgold have also been recovered. These deliberately cut pieces of metal objects (more commonly silver objects) were normally used as bullion or currency. Several pieces had been cut from gold ingots, although one twisted piece may have been from an arm- or neck-ring. Interestingly, we have fake hackgold, too: base metal passed off as gold – in the form of gold-plated copper alloy. These imposters include a fragment of an ingot and two sections cut from square rods. It seems some members of the Army were not above trying to swindle their trading partners.
Copper-alloy artefacts were being melted down and turned into ingots. There are 17 copper-alloy ingots from Torksey, which may have resulted from the melting down of scrap jewellery. We have also recovered more than 200 fragmentary copper-alloy artefacts. Many of these were deliberately cut, which suggests they too were destined to be melted down. Fragments of lead, silver, and gold point to an extensive range of metal-processing and -production activities in the camp, as metalworkers travelling with the Army were melting down and processing the loot that had been acquired during the previous year.
This economy based on bullion required the weighing of the metal, so weights were important possessions. At Torksey, more than 350 weights have been recorded. Nearly 100 of these are distinctive copper-alloy cubo-octahedral weights – like cubes with clipped corners. Each surface of these intricately shaped weights has a number of tiny rings with a dot in the centre. They look remarkably like polyhedral dice, but the number of dots is assumed to indicate the weight.
Some of the most interesting finds are also the most mundane. We have now recorded more than 300 lead gaming pieces. The Vikings were avid players of board games, and a favourite seems to have been one of strategy referred to in Norse sagas as hnefatafl. Textile-working equipment found at the site may indicate a female presence, and it is very likely that both women and children were present, and not only as slaves.
In order to try to set this exceptional assemblage of metal-detected artefacts in context, we have carried out an archaeological investigation, making use of geophysical survey and landscape analysis as well as excavating. This research has demonstrated that the camp was enormous: c.55ha (136 acres), the size of some 75 football pitches. Given the size of the camp, it is clear that the Great Army and its followers comprised thousands of people.
When the Great Army fleet sailed up the River Trent in the autumn of 872, the choice of location for this camp was not simply down to chance. The site lies at a strategically important juncture in the regional transport network. It is just 2km south of a major crossing point over the river, from which the prehistoric trackway and Roman road now known as Till Bridge Lane ran south-east to join Ermine Street just north of Lincoln. Our landscape analysis also demonstrated that the camp was effectively an island. To the west, Viking longships could be drawn up on to the floodplain, while the rest of the camp was protected by old river channels and marshland. The vantage point offered by the elevated location, combined with access to the Trent, must have made it particularly attractive to the Great Army. Indeed, the clue was always there in the Old English place-name, which incorporates a personal name, probably Turoc or Turc, with ēg (meaning an island, or dry ground in a wet area). This was Turoc’s or Turc’s island.
So where does the discovery at Torksey leave the only previously excavated Great Army camp at Repton? The range and richness of the finds recovered from Torksey certainly shows us what was missing at Repton, hidden under the later village and undiscovered by metal-detecting. Furthermore, the scale of the camp at Torksey and the lack of any enclosure or fortifications must cast doubt on the D-shaped ditch, at least as representing the full extent of a winter camp of thousands of warriors, craftworkers, raiders, women, and children.
In 2019, however, fresh evidence came to light that suggests that the main winter camp of 873-874 was not within the modern village of Repton at all, but 3km to the east, at Foremark. Here, a metal-detectorist had recovered large numbers of Viking finds much like the assemblage at Torksey, including gaming pieces, dirhams, Anglo-Saxon strap-ends and brooches, cubo-octahedral weights, and a Thor’s hammer pendant. Foremark is on low-lying land and probably borders the River Trent’s original course. It also lies about 1km (0.5 miles) to the north-west of a Viking cremation cemetery at Heath Wood. It seems likely, therefore, that the main Viking force camped beside the Trent at Foremark, while a smaller force camped at Repton was engaged in looting and guarding the captured monastery. As was the case with Torksey, the clue, all along, was in the name: Foremark, or to give its Scandinavian origins, forn (‘old’) -verk (‘defensive fortification’).
The artefact assemblage found at Torksey has allowed us to define an archaeological signature of the Viking Great Army. This signature means another large riverine site with an intriguing place-name at Aldwark, near York, can be identified as a Viking camp of the late 870s. The landscape setting of the newly discovered camps may also help pinpoint the locations of other documented winter camps recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. One of these is the 871-872 camp in London, which we believe now lies beneath Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster, but in the 9th century the site was a gravel island in the River Thames later known as Thorney Island.
The artefact signature has led us to more than 30 much smaller sites as well, places visited by foraging parties or offshoots of the Army. These reveal the importance of river-crossings to the Great Army, especially for the moving of goods between boat and land. Many of the places we have identified either have ‘ford’ in their place-names or were known locations of ancient river ferries. The sites are clustered along prehistoric trackways and Roman roads that survived as major road networks. As such, they would have been strategic locations for the control of movement through the landscape.
Key to the success of Viking warbands was their ability to move freely within enemy territory. Given the riverine location of many of the winter camps (as well as evidence for the presence of ships, such as clench bolts, at Torksey, Repton, and Aldwark) and of many of the other sites with an archaeological signature indicating the presence of the Great Army, it is safe to assume that much of the Army and its entourage reached these sites by boat. The absence of a deep keel and the shallow draught of Viking longships would have allowed them to penetrate far up the English river systems. While mounted warriors could travel quickly using surviving Roman roads, their movements could be shadowed by the Viking fleet, carrying supplies and reinforcements.
We know that the Army must have travelled overland as well, since, as the Chronicle tells us, it was ‘supplied with horses’ in East Anglia in 865 and ‘rode across Mercia into East Anglia’ in 870-871. New scientific analysis has also demonstrated that the Great Army brought horses with it. A horse cremated with its warrior owner in one of the burials at Heath Wood near Foremark grew up in Norway or Sweden. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the Norman Vikings disembarking their horses from their fleet of longships prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but this burial at Heath Wood is the first archaeological evidence that the Great Army brought their mounts with them some 200 years earlier.
After more than a decade of warfare ranging widely across England, the remaining members of the Viking Great Army were eventually defeated by King Alfred of Wessex at the Battle of Edington in AD 878. Many warriors and their families settled in England, and there were great land partitions in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria. But that was not the end of the influence of the Great Army, and to understand its longer-term impact we must return to Torksey.
When the Army left Torksey in the spring of 873, it appears that some stayed behind. We have also investigated an area south of the modern village, where we have discovered the largest concentration of late 9th- and 10th-century pottery kilns anywhere in England. It seems too great a coincidence that these appeared in the decades following the Viking camp at Torksey, and they must have been a direct result of the overwintering.
There was, however, something puzzling about the presence of these kilns in Viking Torksey. In Scandinavia, very little pottery was used in this period, with even less produced there, and certainly there was no tradition of making pottery on a fast potter’s wheel or using kilns like those excavated at our site. The parallels are instead to be found on the continent in northern France and the Low Countries, precisely the regions in which at least some members of the Great Army had been raiding in the years before their arrival in England. The kilns were not the only signs of influence from these regions: the Scandinavian kings who took control of territory in England relied on moneyers from the Frankish realm, and it now seems that the pottery industries of eastern England saw the arrival of another group of continental craftworkers. These people had perhaps been part of the Great Army, or alternatively followed in its wake. Either way they took advantage of the possibilities opened up by the Army’s territorial conquests.
Looking across eastern England, pottery industries similar to that at Torksey can be identified at a number of places, such as Stamford, Lincoln, Thetford, York, Nottingham, Newark, Northampton, and Leicester. What they all have in common is that they were towns in the later Anglo-Saxon period, and are all found in the regions of East Anglia, eastern Mercia, and Northumbria in which Scandinavians began to settle following the division of those kingdoms by the Great Army. Indeed, some of them are in exactly the places where the Army had spent the winter.
There is nothing to suggest that, when the Great Army arrived in the East Midlands and East Anglia, places like Torksey, Stamford, Thetford, and Lincoln were already urban settlements. In each case, however, we have archaeological evidence to indicate the presence of members of the Great Army, a presence which, in the case of both Torksey and Thetford, is also documented in our historical sources. Our work at Torksey suggests that the Great Army was akin to a town on the move, and the arrival of such a large population must have been the catalyst for urban development at numerous places. While there were to be many stages by which these centres developed into the towns first recorded in any detail in the 11th-century Domesday Book, the pottery industries were major contributing factors. In this spread of industrialisation, the legacy of the Viking Great Army of 865 was still being felt more than 200 years later.
The Viking Great Army and the Making of England by Dawn M Hadley and Julian D Richards has recently been published by Thames & Hudson (ISBN 978-0500776353, price £25).