The Viking Great Army and the Making of England

Whether you like this book will depend on whether you like archaeology. If you do – as well as liking military history – and you therefore choose to read it, you will discover something quite extraordinary.

Let me explain. Generally speaking, archaeology is very bad at providing direct evidence for specific historical events; even when it appears to do so, more often than not there is argument about whether it is really the event in question that is represented.

There are some notable exceptions. We have well-dated destruction layers at the Romano-British towns of Colchester, London, and St Albans, and these just happen to be the three towns that the Roman historian Tacitus tells us were burnt down in the Boudican Revolt of AD 61.

Even here, however, all the archaeology does is to confirm the testimony of the written source; it does not really add anything to the story. What the archaeology mainly does is to tell us what sort of place it was at the time, how the town was laid out, what the buildings were like, what was being traded there, and so on.

So how about an archaeological investigation that substantially increases our knowledge of a military campaign, revealing the movements and campsites of an army, and much about its size, organisation, and general character? This is what we have in Dawn Hadley and Julian Richards’ new book.

The authors are British-based academics (they are both professors at York) who specialise in Viking Age archaeology. They seem to have been on the trail of the Viking Great Army for much of their careers. This is the army around whose rampages pivoted the political and military transformation that led to the emergence (under King Alfred of Wessex) of a unified English state. In their words:

From AD 865 to 878, a Viking army wreaked havoc on the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, leading to a military and political conquest, settlement on a substantial scale, and extensive Scandinavian cultural and linguistic changes in eastern and northern England. Previous Viking raids in England had largely been coastal hit-and-run affairs, but this period saw a change in tactics, as the raiders penetrated deep into the countryside, moving rapidly by road and river, exploiting Anglo-Saxon internal divisions and overwintering at strategic locations.

The mortal threat evoked a radical response, as Alfred remodelled his kingdom for defence in depth (based on a network of fortified towns or burhs) and reorganised Anglo-Saxon society so as to mobilise large and effective armies (based on militia service in the fyrd).

King Alfred of Wessex. In response to the Viking threat, the king remodelled his kingdom for defence in depth, and reorganised Anglo-Saxon society so as to mobilise large and effective armies. Image: WIPL.

Previously, we had only shadowy references in the written sources, mainly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which would report a battle here, a laying waste there, a winter camp somewhere else. Starting with these clues, what the archaeologists have been able to do is to locate some of the camps mentioned, but also to find many more, including no fewer than 30 smaller associated sites.

Excavation has sometimes played a role, but far more important has been metal-detector survey to recover artefacts from the ploughsoil and the meticulous cataloguing of this material by the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The effect is to create new distribution maps in which Great Army sites show up as dense clusters of distinctive Viking material.

Critical to this work is the presence of datable coins – often allowing a site to be tied down to a specific year – and the composition of the assemblage as a whole. The temporary camps of the Great Army left behind different collections of artefacts from, say, the permanent villages of later Viking settlers – lots of lead gaming pieces, for example, and lots of hacksilver (where a looted bullion artefact had been chopped up).

This book is a superbly well- written synthesis, combining historical overview, archaeological analysis, and insightful interpretation.

It is no exaggeration to say that archaeology is now the principal source for the reconstruction of Viking Age warfare. We learn, for instance, that the Great Army must have numbered many thousands – not the mere hundreds sometimes proposed – given the huge size of the camp at Torksey, occupied in the winter of AD 872-873. At 55ha, it was bigger than a Roman legionary fortress (which would have accommodated 5,000 men).

Perhaps the most significant part of the argument is the authors’ insistence on the huge impact of the Great Army on the development of England. Their final section is headed ‘The making of a nation’, and the two main chapters here are entitled ‘Wessex fights back and the origins of England’ and ‘The first industrial revolution’. This seems right to me: an extreme military emergency as the catalyst for radical economic, social, and political change. This is, finally, a first-class study of how England was created by its war against the Vikings in the late 9th century AD.

Review by Neil Faulkner.

The Viking Great Army and the Making of England, Dawn M Hadley and Julian D Richards, Thames & Hudson, hbk (£25), ISBN 978-0500022016.