ANGLO-SAXON BATTLES

The Battle of Ashdown January 8th 871

           The Danes formed a battle line dividing their armies into two divisions one commanded by king Bagsecg and Halfdan, the other by the Danish earls. The Saxons conformed to the disposition forming into two columns.  Æthelred opposed the Danish kings and Alfred was opposite the earls. Æthelred took a moment to pause and say a prayer for victory and when he heard the Danes were preparing to attack he refused to move before finishing mass. The Danes were on a higher ridge and would have come charging in extreme force into the unprepared armies.  In order to avoid defeat Alfred took the initiative and deployed an attack with his own column. Æthelred’s forces joined soon after and the fresh reinforcements tipped the battle in the favor of the Saxons. In the battle Bagsecg and five earls were cut down.

The Battle of Ethandun May 878

            After a surprise attack on Chippenham by the Vikings, king Alfred was pushed into hiding with a small band of followers. For a while he depended on guerrilla raids until he was able to gather substantial troops from Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. Alfred found the invading Vikings at Eddington about 15 miles from their camp at Chippenham and fought them fiercely with a compact shield-wall, and at length gained victory. The Saxons pursued the Danes to Chippenham and blockaded the enemy in the camp. After 2 weeks of siege the Vikings sued for peace. They offered Alfred hostages but required none in return. King Guthrum and his leading followers accepted Christianity and left Wessex to return to the east to settle, at the end of the year.  The battle of Ethandun completely reversed Alfred’s fortune, taking him from weeks of exile back into the powerful English ruler.

Brunanburh 937

An Armed coalition formed by Olaf Guthfrithson, with Constantine of the Scots invaded England sailing up the Humber with a fleet of 615 ships which would rendezvous with further troops from the north-west. It was a large army sometimes exaggerated to 60,000 but more reasonably placed at about 20,000. Æthelstan had to take some time to raise an army large enough to face the threat but at then end of 931 he met the invaders in the battle of Brunanburh. The Mercian and West Saxon army attacked in two divisions. Mercians faced the Scandinavians, and the Saxons headed off against the Scotts. The victory was a national triumph for the English. Historians are still in debate of the exact location of the battle but they speculate that it was in one of three places; Axminster,  between Dery and Rotherham, or Bromborough.

 

Maldon 991

            Olaf and the Vikings landed on an island separated from the Essex mainland by a tidal river. The river could be crossed at a causeway but only when the tide was low. Brihthnoth set his army on the opposite shore, but the Vikings could not cross to battle because it was still high tide. As the armies waited for the water to fall the Vikings began to negotiate peace terms but Brhithnoth defied them. Brhrithnoth’s army was composed of the local militia and his hearth troop of warriors.

            As the water started to recede Brhithnoth appointed three warriors to stand at the base of the causeway and prevent the Danes from passing. The defense by the three was so successful that the Danes eventually asked that they be allowed to cross unhindered. Brhithnoth allows it and the Saxons were ordered to fall back to give the Danes room, and form a war hedge with their shields. The battle began with a discharge of spears and arrows and then a the initial shock as the two forces collided. The Saxon line stood firm and the Danish fell back to regroup. One Danish warrior stepped forward to challenge Brhithnoth who took up the challenge. Brhithnoth is then cut down along with the two warriors who rushed to assist him. After his death a large part of the Saxon army fled and only a small band continued to fight, determined to die alongside their lord.

The Battle of Assandun 18 October 1016

Edmund Ironside pushed forward a campaign to restore the kingdom’s allegiance to the old dynasty. Many of the nobles in Wessex had sworn fealty to Cnut, despite London choosing Edmund as Æthelred’s successor.  Cnut sailed from Sheppey to Burnham for another raid and Edmund moved forward to prevent the Danes from returning to their ships. They pursued them to the hill of Ashingdon. Edmund’s army made camp, and Cnut soon realized that he had no choice but to fight. Cnut assembled his forces on the hill at Canewdon. A low ridge connected the two hills by which the two forces faced each other. When the troops deployed the English left traveled much faster than the English right, probably because of the slope of the hill. This left the right open for attack by the Danish line who turned inward. At the end of the war most of the English troops had been killed, but Edmund had managed to make the survivors. Shortly after the battle Edmund met with Cnut and made an agreement allowing Cnut to rule in the North and Edmund to rule in Wessex.

 

Stamford Bridge 25th September 1066

On the dawn of the 25th of September after a remarkable march with no rest Harold and his army pressed through York to take the Viking host by surprise at Stamford Bridge. Hardrada and Tostig’s army would have had little chance to prepare their defense. By the time they realized the English army was coming they were only a mile away. A few of the Hardrada’s warriors were then left on the west bank of  the river Derwent to delay the attack and gain time for the rest of the army to prepare on the east bank.

            After the last Viking defending the west bank was slain the English were able to cross the bridge to the Vikings who had built up a shield wall on rising ground. The English launched an attack and in the following battle both Hardrada and Tostig were killed. Harold had gained an incredible victory but the Norman army was next.

 

Battle of Hastings 14th October 1066

William’s foce may have been about 3000 ships transporting 7000 men comprised of Normans, Bretons, Frenchmen from other regions, Flemings, Italians, and Sicilians. There was a distinct difference between the Normans invasion and most of the Viking invasions that had come in the past. William was coming with the distinct purpose of conquering.

Just in the last month Harold and his troops had faced a large scale battle on the other side of the kingdom. In order to meet that battle Harold had to make a massive march across the country, and in order to meet the Norman invasion Harold had to make another march of about 58 miles.  Harold moved at quick pace, many historians criticizing his rush as part of the reason he was defeated. He was unable to gather as many troops in such a quick time, his troops from the last battle had little time to rest and it’s likely that most of the infantry were left to travel behind while the mounted troops sped ahead. Harold may have been trying to take William by surprise with his speed, but when William deployed his troops at 8:30 am the English were not quite ready and ended up being the ones surprised.

Harold did have some luck and was set up on a ridge which had several tactical advantages. Although the slope in front of the ridge was relatively gentle, the sides of the ridge were steep and ruled out a flanking attack. The Normans were forced to launch a frontal assault over wet marshy grounds between the Senlac ridge and Telham Hill.

Harold’s army of about 7500 men was composed of probably 2000 housecarls and the rest hastily summoned fyrd. The housecarls were on foot to stiffen the line, and the troops were ordered to stand firm and hold their positions. The purpose was to make a solid front that would be difficult to dislodge.

William deployed his troops into divisions of three. The Flemings, the French and the Picard’s were under the command of Roger of Montgomery, the Normans were in the center under William, and the Bretons were under Alan of Brittany. The troops were arranged with light troops foremost, using spears and slings. They were supported by archers, then the heavily armed infantry, and the mounted troops armed with javelins and swords took up the rear.

The whole battle lasted around eight hours, at the last phase of the battle, Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king, was struck down. Although some have disputed the fall of the Anglo-Saxons the obvious evidence of the superiority of mounted cavalry over infantry, that’s usually an unfair assessment. Despite an exhausting march from across the kingdom after the huge battle at Stamford Bridge, Harold still put up an impressive fight.

 

Sources

Patterson, Benton Rain Harold and William: The Battle for England, A.D. 1064-1066 Copper Square Press: New York, 2001.

Hollister, C. Warren. Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions: On the Eve of the Norman Conquest. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1962.

Smurthwaite, David. The Complete Guide to The Battlefields of Britain. Penguin Group: London, 1984.