The nature and mobility of the Danish armies

Not until the 8th century did the Scandinavians learn to make sails strong enough to trust on the open sea. When they had succeeded, Northumbria and East Anglia were only a few days away. Interesting snippet: Jorgensen estimates it took 30 times the human resource input to make the sail and fabrics for a large longship, than to build the hull. 

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to see the splendid replica longship Dragon Harald Fairhair in stormy seas.

Whereas the Danes had previously only the stories of shore-hugging traders  about the magnificence of the ‘Roman’ Britain, many could now see the wonders for themselves.

Still existing today in Lincoln, this Roman arch typifies the remains that littered the landscape south of of Hadrian’s Wall. The rigidly rectilinear layouts of walls, and especially the straight roads, must have been completely foreign to the eyes of people whose culture contained few straight lines in anything. The straightness of the roads would have presented the Danish sea navigators with an easy-to-read mental map overland.   

Army size is a favourite topic for argument.

At the present time, no-one really knows how big was the ‘micel here’ (large army) that landed in East Anglia in 866 (according to the Winchester Chronicle.) There is a possibility that it was not an army in the modern sense, being more of an assembly of minor chieftains, each of whom had families and livestock with them. However, the reference in the Chronicle to them being supplied with horses by the East Angles suggests they were mercenary ‘sea-soldiers’, unencumbered by livestock and baggage. 

Various assessments have been made of the army’s size from archaeological studies of camps at Repton and Torksey, but these settlements took place more than five years after the initial landing. 

It is probable that the army lacked the organisation of a Roman or Wessex army; it contained a variety of leaders at any one moment and these were probably resistant to co-ordination. They had no tradition of written orders.  The soldiery moved on land by horse, but fought on foot. It moved most swiftly, of course, on water, and was effective in fast moving skirmishes. However, it was not suited to set-piece battles (e.g. Ashdown) – where it could be outnumbered and pinned down. 

Current thoughts are that the word ‘here’ could cover a wide range of numbers, maybe 30 to 3000. One thing worth doing, when you are next walking in the countryside, is to find a field of sheep and count them. There will probably 50 to 100. Then imagine each sheep is an athletic youth who is well practised in the use of the weapon he carries. He and all his friends (the other sheep) have no compunction against killing you and taking all your possessions. You may well consider that you are facing an ‘army’.

The Chronicle relates the final ‘fight’ between Alfred and Guthrum at Ethandune (now Edington) Looking at the terrain, it seems unlikely that the Danes would have risked a full-scale pre-arranged battle at such a place, and unsurprising that they were to hastily flee to Chippenham palace.



MORE on the suspect recording of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

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