The Viking Great Army and the Making of England

The arrival of the Viking Great Army on British soil in AD 865 had an immeasurable impact on England. No longer content with hit-and-run raids, this force – which was far greater than any previously seen in Britain – aimed for political conquest and settlement. In only a decade or so, the army’s presence became a catalyst for changes in land ownership, culture, and language, as well as for the growth of towns and industries, paving the way for generations of Scandinavian settlers. Until recently, what we knew about the Great Army came from a small number of written sources and a handful of archaeological discoveries. But about a decade ago, this changed radically. A combination of new discoveries and new methods led to the identification of a reliable way to track the Army’s movements across the English landscape: hunting down a distinct signature of artefacts left behind in the wake of their annual winter camps. Dawn Hadley and Julian Richards have been at the forefront of this research, and their book lets the reader join their archaeological detective work.

The Viking Great Army and the Making of England begins by setting out the wider context of the Viking raids on Britain, Ireland, and the Continent. Piecing together the sources to paint a vivid picture of our current state of knowledge, Hadley and Richards describe familiar accounts like those of Asser, King Alfred’s biographer-cum-publicist, alongside less familiar Continental records, before moving on to the archaeological evidence. Here, the authors’ own research takes centre stage, beginning with their work at the winter camp of Torksey before tracking the Army through well-known sites like Repton and York and less-familiar sites like Cottam in Yorkshire, the latter a tantalising clue to the change from raiding to settlement. Finally, the book considers the Great Army’s impact, both through the defensive strategies of Alfred and the kingdom of Wessex and through the revolutionary pottery industries that sprung up at Torksey.

Hadley and Richards’ book is a detailed yet enjoyable read, and a timely stock-take of this pivotal point in the history of England. It is a story that could never before have been told as fully as it can now.

The Viking Great Army and the Making of England, Dawn M Hadley and Julian D Richards, Thames & Hudson, £25, ISBN 978-0500022011.
Review by Cat Jarman.