The Great Heathen Army: A Viking Invasion of England

The Great Heathen Army The Saga of Wessex by H A Culley
The Great Heathen Army The Saga of Wessex by H A Culley

The Great Heathen Army


The Great Heathen Army, also known as the Viking Great Army, was a formidable coalition of Scandinavian warriors who launched a major invasion of England in AD 865. Building upon a history of raids on wealthy centers like monasteries, the Vikings sought to conquer and occupy the four powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex. This article delves into the fascinating details of the Great Heathen Army, its leaders, the course of its invasion, and the ultimate outcome of this significant chapter in Viking history.

The Origins of the Great Heathen Army

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle coined the name “Great Heathen Army” to describe this military force. Led by three of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok’s five sons—Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubba—the army embarked on a 14-year campaign of invasion and conquest against the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. While historical sources provide no definitive figures on the army’s size, it was widely regarded as one of its time’s largest and most formidable forces.

Invasion and Conquest

The Great Heathen Army made its initial landing in East Anglia, where the local king offered them horses in exchange for peace. Following this agreement, the army wintered in Thetford in 865–866 before setting its sights on York. Once a Roman legionary fortress known as Eboracum and later revived as the Anglo-Saxon trading port Eoforwic, York fell to the Viking invaders in November 866.

Over the course of 867, the army marched deep into Mercia, establishing winter quarters in Nottingham. A negotiated settlement was reached with the Mercians, prompting the Vikings to return to York for the winter of 868–869. In 869, they once again set their sights on East Anglia, conquering the kingdom and slaying its king. The army then moved to Thetford for winter quarters.

In 871, the Vikings turned their attention to Wessex, where Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex, paid them a sum in exchange for their departure. The army subsequently marched to London, where they wintered in 871–872. The following campaigning season saw the army regroup in York, gathering reinforcements. They then campaigned in northeastern Mercia before wintering in Torksey, close to the Humber. The subsequent season witnessed further conquests in Mercia, with the Viking army imposing a new king after forcing the previous ruler, Burgred, to flee overseas. The army spent the next winter at Repton on the middle Trent, after which it appears to have split. One group returned to Northumbria, settling in the region, while another group set its sights on invading Wessex.

The Resistance and Alfred the Great’s Triumph

By this time, Wessex remained the sole unconquered kingdom. In May of 878, King Alfred the Great achieved a decisive victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Edington. A subsequent treaty was negotiated, allowing the Vikings to retain control over significant portions of northern and eastern England.

The Motive Behind the Invasion

While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not explicitly state the reason for the Great Heathen Army’s invasion, Viking raids were relatively common during that era. However, the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons sheds light on the army’s motivation, attributing it to a quest for vengeance for the death of their legendary father, Ragnar Lodbrok. According to the saga, Ragnar had conducted a raid on Northumbria during the reign of King Ælla but was ultimately defeated and captured. Ælla ordered Ragnar’s execution, casting him into a pit of venomous snakes. Upon receiving news of their father’s demise, Ragnar’s sons resolved to avenge him, setting the formation of the Great Heathen Army in motion.

Viking Raids: The Prelude to the Great Heathen Army

The Arrival of the Vikings in England

In the year AD 787, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded a significant event—the arrival of three Viking ships from Hæretha-land (Denmark) to the English shores. King Bertric, ruling at the time, had recently taken Eadburga, daughter of King Offa, as his wife. Unaware of the identity of the newcomers, a reeve was dispatched to confront them and direct them to the king’s town. Tragically, the encounter turned deadly, as the Vikings took the reeve’s life. This event marked what some consider the first raid on England.

Different Perspectives on the Incident

Æthelweard’s version of the Chronicle, known as the Chronicon Æthelweardi, presents a slightly different narrative. According to this account, the reeve, named Beaduheard, approached the visitors with an authoritative demeanor, which led to their violent response. The designation of these newcomers as “Hæretha-landers” and their identification as Danes pose some challenges. Scholars, such as Sara María Pons-Sanz, suggest that they were either men from Harthæsysæl (Hardsyssel) in Jutland, thus Danes, or from Hörthaland in Norway, in which case the term “Danish” encompassed all Scandinavian people.

Monasteries: Prime Targets for Viking Raids

The first recorded monastery raid took place in 793 at Lindisfarne, located off the northeast coast of England. Described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as “heathen men,” the Vikings targeted monasteries and minster churches due to their wealth and possession of valuable, portable objects. These sacred sites became vulnerable to plunder and pillage, sparking fear and devastation among the English population.

Æthelwulf’s Struggle Against the Viking Onslaught

In 840, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts a major Viking attack that inflicted defeat upon Æthelwulf, the king of Wessex. After 35 Viking ships landed in Somerset, the invaders emerged triumphant, indulging in widespread plunder, looting, and slaughter. Despite this setback, Æthelwulf managed to achieve some victories against the Vikings. The Chronicle mentions several instances of triumphs achieved by ealdormen and their troops during his reign. However, the raids on England persisted intermittently until the 860s when the Vikings altered their tactics.

The Emergence of the Great Heathen Army

Instead of continuing sporadic raids, the Vikings devised a new strategy—sending a massive army to invade England. This formidable force, referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the “Great Heathen Army” or “mycel hæþen here,” heralded a significant turning point. The arrival of this Viking juggernaut marked the beginning of a new era, characterized by organized warfare and a focused aim of conquest.

The Great Heathen Army: Debating the Size and Origins

The Great Heathen Army, infamous for its invasion of England in the 9th century, continues to captivate historians with its enigmatic nature. Scholars offer varying estimates and perspectives regarding the army’s size and origins. This article delves into the ongoing debates surrounding the size of the Great Heathen Army and its emergence from the shifting tides of Viking expansion.

The Minimalist View: Pete Sawyer’s Perspective

Among the scholars, Pete Sawyer represents the minimalist school of thought, suggesting that the Great Heathen Army might have been smaller than traditionally believed. Sawyer highlights the use of the term “Heathen Army” or “hæþen here” in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 865, emphasizing the distinction between Viking forces and the Anglo-Saxon fyrd. He draws on King Ine of Wessex’s law code from 694, which defines it here as an invading force exceeding thirty-five men. Sawyer’s analysis of Viking ship numbers documented in the Chronicle leads him to estimate that the army comprised no more than 1,000 men.

Alternative Perspectives: Higher Estimates and Remaining Debates

Other scholars present contrasting estimates, offering a broader range for the size of the Great Heathen Army. Laurent Mazet-Harhoff highlights the invasions of the Seine area, suggesting the involvement of many thousands of men. However, the exact military bases accommodating such large armies have yet to be rediscovered. Guy Halsall acknowledges that in the 1990s, several historians proposed low thousands to estimate the army’s size. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that the topic remains open to debate, with ample room for further exploration and interpretation.

Origins and Shifting Focus

The Great Heathen Army likely emerged from the campaigns in Francia, where a conflict between the Emperor and his sons drew the support of a Viking fleet. As the war concluded, the Vikings recognized the vulnerability of monasteries and towns located along navigable rivers, prompting them to seek rich pickings in these areas. In 845, the raid on Paris was thwarted by a substantial silver payment to the Vikings. This attracted more Viking forces to the region, and soon the major rivers of West Francia were under Viking patrol. In response, the West Frankish king fortified towns and defended rivers, making inland raids difficult for the Vikings. As a result, the Vikings shifted their attention to England, where coastal regions and the lower reaches of rivers were left largely undefended, providing ample opportunities for their incursions.

The Formation of the Great Heathen Army

Devastating Viking Raid - Vikings disembarking in England, from a 10th-century Scandinavian manuscript

Vikings disembarking in England, from a 10th-century Scandinavian manuscript

The Alliance and Objectives of Viking Leaders

Viking leaders frequently collaborated for their mutual benefit, forming alliances that dissolved once their objectives were met. In the case of the Viking invasion of England, several leaders from different regions, including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Ireland, joined forces to conquer the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The goal was to establish a permanent Viking presence in England, securing wealth and power for the invading warriors.

The Landing and Strategic Choices

Having faced defeat by the West Saxon King Æthelwulf in 851, the Vikings opted to avoid Wessex and instead set their sights on East Anglia. According to Anglo-Saxon historian Æthelweard, the fleet of the Viking leader Ivar the Boneless landed in England from the north. This strategic choice aimed to exploit the relative vulnerability of East Anglia and pave the way for further conquests.

Leadership: The Sons of Ragnar Lodbrok

Legend holds that the united Viking army invading England was led by the three sons of the legendary figure Ragnar Lodbrok: Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless (Hingwar), and Ubba. These Viking leaders brought their military prowess and strategic acumen to the campaign. The Norse sagas attribute their invasion to avenging their father’s death at the hands of Ælla of Northumbria in 865, although the historical accuracy of this claim remains uncertain.

The Start of the Invasion: 865

A map of the routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878

A map of the routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878

Kent’s Failed Agreement and the Rampage in Eastern Kent

In late 865, the Great Heathen Army, a formidable force of Viking warriors, established their camp on the Isle of Thanet. The people of Kent, hoping to avoid conflict, made a pact with the Vikings, offering danegeld in exchange for peace. However, contrary to the agreement, the Vikings disregarded the promise and unleashed havoc across eastern Kent. The invasion had begun, and the stage was set for further Viking conquests.

East Anglia: A Strategic Starting Point

Using East Anglia as their launching point, the Vikings forged alliances with the local East Anglians, who appeased the invaders by providing them with horses. This alliance enabled the Vikings to establish a firm foothold in East Anglia. After spending the winter in the region, the Viking forces set their sights on Northumbria, departing from East Anglia towards the end of 866. Their destination: the city of York, a pivotal stronghold in the Anglo-Saxon lands.

Northumbria and Mercia: Capturing Nottingham and Puppet Rulers

In 867, the Great Heathen Army arrived in Northumbria, where the Northumbrians, seeking to avoid conflict, paid danegeld to the Vikings. The Viking forces appointed a puppet leader to maintain control over the region and then turned their attention to the Kingdom of Mercia. They swiftly captured the city of Nottingham in 867, prompting the Mercian king to seek aid from the King of Wessex, hoping to resist the Viking onslaught.

A joint army from Wessex and Mercia laid siege to Nottingham, but the outcome remained inconclusive. Faced with the uncertain situation, the Mercians opted to pay off the Vikings in exchange for temporary peace. The Vikings returned to Northumbria in the autumn of 868 and spent the winter in York, solidifying their presence. They ventured back to East Anglia, where they established their winter quarters in Thetford in 869-870.

The Fall of Edmund the Martyr and the Arrival of the Great Summer Army

While stationed in Thetford, the Vikings encountered resistance from Edmund, the king of East Anglia. Despite the absence of a peace agreement, Edmund waged a battle against the Viking army. Unfortunately, the Vikings emerged victorious, capturing Edmund, subjecting him to possible torture, and ultimately killing him. Edmund would later be remembered as Edmund the Martyr.

In 871, the Great Summer Army arrived from Scandinavia, led by Bagsecg. The reinforced Viking forces shifted their focus to Wessex, but the West Saxons, under the leadership of King Æthelred’s brother, Alfred, engaged them in battle. On January 8, 871, the West Saxons triumphed at the Battle of Ashdown, slaying Bagsecg in the process. However, Æthelred died three months later, and Alfred succeeded him, becoming known as Alfred the Great.

The Viking Army’s Movements and Winter Quarters

During 871-872, the Great Heathen Army chose to winter in London, temporarily retreating from their military campaigns. They then returned to Northumbria, where a rebellion against the puppet ruler had erupted, prompting the Vikings to restore their control over the region. The Vikings established their winter quarters for 872-873 in Torksey, located in the Kingdom of Lindsey (now part of Lincolnshire). In their pursuit of territorial dominance, the Vikings once again received danegeld from the Mercians, ensuring a period of relative peace.

In 874, following their winter stay in Repton, the Great Heathen Army successfully expelled the Mercian king, driving him into exile and ultimately conquering Mercia. Ceolwulf was appointed as the new ruler in place of the exiled king. According to Asser, the biographer of Alfred the Great, the Viking forces split into two factions. Halfdan led one band northward, settling in Northumbria, where they overwintered near the river Tyne in 874-875. From there, they conducted raids into Scotland, engaging in battles against the Picts and the Britons of Strathclyde. The Vikings returned south of the border in 876, distributing Northumbrian lands among their men, marking the establishment of the Danelaw.

King Alfred's Victory: A Defining Moment in Wessex

Portrait of Alfred the Great by Samuel Woodforde

Portrait of Alfred the Great by Samuel Woodforde

In the annals of Wessex’s tumultuous history, an epochal event unfolded, forever etching the name of King Alfred into the annals of valor and strategic brilliance. The chronicle of this episode, as chronicled by Asser, illuminates the remarkable saga of resilience and diplomacy in the face of Viking aggression.

Guthrum’s Band and the Winter at Cambridge

Within the ranks of the Great Heathen Army, a formidable band emerged under the leadership of Guthrum, Oscetel, and Anwend. Departing from Repton in the fateful year of 874, they sought refuge in Cambridge, establishing their base for the winter of 874–875. Enclosed within the walls of their stronghold, they laid plans for their impending conquests.

Wareham’s Raid and Alfred’s Treaty

As the winter frost gave way to the bloom of spring in 875, Guthrum’s band embarked on a series of raids, pillaging the lands surrounding Wareham while ensconced in their fortified position. It was during this time that King Alfred, cognizant of the threat they posed, sought a diplomatic resolution to safeguard the realm of Wessex. Asser’s account reveals a pivotal turning point in the form of a treaty brokered by Alfred, persuading the Vikings to withdraw from Wessex’s borders.

Alfred’s Resolute Resistance and the Battle of Edington

However, the respite proved to be short-lived, for the Vikings, their thirst for plunder unquenched, soon resumed their marauding ways in other corners of Wessex. Initially, they achieved a string of successes, plunging Alfred’s realm into a precarious state. Undeterred by adversity, Alfred rallied his forces, marshaling his people to defend their land. The clash of arms at the Battle of Edington in 878 became the crucible where Alfred’s indomitable spirit clashed against the Viking onslaught. In a stunning reversal, Alfred emerged victorious, inflicting a severe blow upon the invading forces.

The Treaty of Wedmore and the Conversion of Guthrum

The resounding triumph at Edington set the stage for a pivotal moment of reconciliation and religious transformation. Asser’s account unveils the subsequent Treaty of Wedmore, an agreement of profound significance. Guthrum, compelled by the weight of defeat, made the momentous decision to embrace Christianity, submitting to baptism and pledging to withdraw his army from Wessex’s hallowed soil.

The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum

In the wake of Guthrum’s conversion, a further accord, known as the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, came to fruition. This landmark agreement meticulously delineated the borders between Alfred and Guthrum’s territories, instating a framework for peaceful coexistence. Moreover, it fostered a spirit of amity and cooperation, facilitating prosperous trade and setting forth the weregild value for their respective people.

Thus, the saga of King Alfred’s victory unfolded, bearing witness to his unwavering determination, sagacity, and willingness to explore diplomatic avenues amid the turmoil of Viking invasions. This chapter in Wessex’s history serves as a testament to the triumph of fortitude and the enduring power of negotiation in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Guthrum's Relocation and Reign in East Anglia

A Victorian representation of Guthrum's baptism in 878

A Victorian representation of Guthrum’s baptism in 878

In the waning months of 878, Guthrum’s band, having suffered setbacks and seeking a more secure position, made a strategic withdrawal to Cirencester within the realm of Mercia. This relocation marked a pivotal juncture in the Great Heathen Army’s trajectory. Subsequently, in late 879, they shifted their base to the fertile lands of East Anglia. Guthrum, known by his baptismal name of Aethelstan, ascended as king and ruled over the region until his demise in 890.

The Fate of the Remaining Viking Forces

While Guthrum’s band embarked on their dominion in East Anglia, a portion of the Great Heathen Army, not swayed by his leadership, sought more settled lives in the territories of Northumbria and York. There are indications that some Vikings may have chosen to settle in Mercia, as evidenced by the presence of Viking cemeteries in Derbyshire at Repton and Heath Wood, believed to be connected to the Great Army.

A Third Viking Army and the European Theater

Amidst the intricate tapestry of events, the year 878 witnessed the assembly of a third Viking army on the shores of Fulham, near the Thames. Diminished by the defeat suffered at the hands of Guthrum and inspired by a confluence of factors, including Charles the Bald’s demise and ensuing political instability in Francia, the Viking forces sought new conquests beyond Wessex’s borders. In 879, this formidable army embarked on campaigns across the continent, leaving the English shores behind.

The Return and Encampment in Appledore

By the year 892, the Viking army that had previously encamped on Fulham, now bolstered by a staggering fleet of 250 ships, resurfaced and reestablished its presence in Appledore, Kent. An additional force of 80 ships encamped in Milton Regis, posing a significant threat to the West Saxons. This resurgence heralded a series of relentless attacks on Wessex, testing the mettle of both King Alfred and his kingdom.

Alfred’s Defense and the Disbandment of the Heathen Army

Within the crucible of conflict, King Alfred marshaled the forces of Wessex to counter the Viking onslaught. His relentless efforts to protect his realm and repel the invaders proved pivotal. The Heathen Army, despite its initial ambitions, found its impact blunted by Alfred’s staunch resistance and the defensive measures he enacted. The climactic Battle of Edington served as a turning point, followed by the Treaty of Wedmore, which ushered in a fragile peace.

Naval and Military Reforms

Recognizing the critical role of naval combat against the Vikings, King Alfred championed the creation of a formidable navy. He commissioned the construction of specialized ships, surpassing their Viking counterparts in length and oar capacity. In parallel, Alfred instituted significant reforms within the army, forging a standing force capable of swift response to Viking incursions. A network of fortified towns, known as burhs, served as bulwarks against raids, while the burh dwellers, residing within a defined radius, sought refuge when danger loomed.

The Burghal Hidage and the Burhs’ Maintenance

To sustain the burhs and the standing army, Alfred implemented a system of taxation and conscription, meticulously documented in the Burghal Hidage. The fortifications of the burhs, often repurposed from ancient Roman cities, proved instrumental in safeguarding Wessex. Alfred’s foresight in establishing a comprehensive infrastructure, including a network of military roads called herepaths, enabled the rapid deployment of troops to counter Viking threats.

Repelling Viking Tactics and the Decline of the Heathen Army

Alfred’s reforms and resolute defense thwarted a common Viking stratagem of seizing fortified centers as bases for plunder. From 884 onward, such incursions were largely prevented in Wessex, gradually weakening the Heathen Army’s hold over the land. By 896, with their attacks yielding diminishing returns, the Viking forces opted to disperse, seeking refuge in East Anglia and Northumbria. Some, bereft of resources, resorted to sea travel, ultimately settling in the Seine region. This influx of settlers contributed to the consolidation of Danelaw, marking the division of Anglo-Saxon England between Viking-controlled territories and Alfred’s enduring rule over Wessex.

The Legacy of Alfred’s Defense

The Great Heathen Army, a force that once ravaged Anglo-Saxon England, had been tamed through the unyielding determination of Alfred and his successors. Their vigilant defense preserved the integrity of Wessex, a beacon of resistance amidst the tumultuous Viking incursions. The strife and resilience of this era shaped the fate of the English kingdoms, leaving an indelible mark on the annals of history.

Featured Image

Excerpt from folio 48r of Harley MS 2278. The scene depicts brothers Hinguar and Hubba slaying Christians in the north of England.

Excerpt from folio 48r of Harley MS 2278. The scene depicts brothers Hinguar and Hubba slaying Christians in the north of England.

Excerpt from folio 48r of Harley MS 2278: The scene comes alive with vivid intensity as the parchment reveals the chilling tableau of brothers Hinguar and Hubba, infamous Viking warriors, ruthlessly slaying Christians in the north of England. This remarkable depiction captures the essence of the Great Heathen Army’s merciless rampage and the profound impact it had on the history of the British Isles.

As one delves into the intricacies of this historical manuscript, the sheer brutality of the Viking conquest unfolds before their eyes. The scene is meticulously rendered, portraying the chaos and violence that engulfed the land. The artist’s skillful brushstrokes bring to life the grim expressions of the Viking brothers, their eyes ablaze with a ruthless determination to obliterate Christianity from the landscape.

Hinguar, the elder of the two, stands tall and imposing, his muscular frame exuding raw power. Clad in armor adorned with fearsome symbols, he wields a massive battle-axe with deadly precision. Every line etched on his face reflects the hardened resolve that propelled him to become one of the most feared Viking leaders of his time. With each swing of his weapon, he strikes terror into the hearts of the Christians unfortunate enough to cross his path.

Hubba, Hinguar’s younger sibling, complements his brother’s ferocity with his own distinct savagery. Sporting a long, braided beard and a twisted smirk, he brandishes a blood-stained sword, symbolizing the countless lives he has claimed. His eyes gleam with a sadistic pleasure as he relishes in the chaos he helps unleash upon the Christian populace. Together, the brothers form an unstoppable force, their insatiable thirst for blood propelling the Great Heathen Army ever forward.

The Christian victims, painted with agonizing realism, sprawl across the scene. Men, women, and children alike fall beneath the relentless onslaught, their faces contorted in terror and pain. Their desperate attempts at defense are futile, as the Vikings ruthlessly exploit their superior strength and strategic prowess. The scene serves as a haunting reminder of the suffering inflicted upon innocent lives during this dark chapter of history.

The manuscript’s importance lies not only in its graphic depiction of the Viking conquest but also in its ability to encapsulate the cultural clash between paganism and Christianity. The Vikings, driven by their pagan beliefs and a desire for territorial expansion, clashed violently with the Christian communities they encountered. This clash shaped the future of the British Isles, leaving an indelible mark on the region’s history and folklore.

Folio 48r of Harley MS 2278 stands as a testament to the enduring power of historical artifacts in illuminating the past. Its careful preservation throughout the ages ensures that the harrowing tale of Hinguar and Hubba’s Christian slaying continues to captivate and educate scholars and enthusiasts alike. Through the strokes of an artist’s brush, this excerpt transports us to a tumultuous era where violence and conquest reigned, forever etching the Great Heathen Army’s name into the annals of history.


  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, May 29). Great Heathen Army. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation.

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, June 11). Alfred the Great. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation.

  • Alfred “The Great” (r. 871-899). (2017). The Royal Family.

  • The Great Heathen Army – Historic UK. (2019). Historic UK.

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