Harry Bucknall recounts three very different Viking incidents in Dorset over three centuries
Published in November ’14
Alcuin of York, later confessor to Emperor Charlemagne, wrote: ‘the heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets,’ after the Vikings raided the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast in 793. He also wrote: ‘Never before has such terror appeared in Britain.’
While this deliberate attack is still largely heralded as the start of the Viking Age in England – over two hundred and fifty years of persistent harrying, repeated invasion from Scandinavia and settlement – it was not in fact, the first recorded visitation by the Heathens to our shores. Some years earlier, around 787, opinions differ as to the exact year, three long ships, from Hordaland, western Norway, were spotted off the Dorset coast; they eventually made landfall at Portland.
Sticking out from the Dorset coast like a giant arm reaching into the ever-widening expanse of the English Channel, Portland was a surprisingly barren place, reminiscent of the more remote corners of Southern Ireland as waves crashed on to the treacherous rocks at the Bill; gulls cried ceaselessly in the skies above and the wind blew incessantly across the headland. The seasoned mariner of today will be only too aware of the great tidal races that rage in the perilous surrounding waters. It was, arguably, the combination of the local weather and the sea conditions that led to this first recorded visitation by Norsemen to the British Isles in the Kingdom of the West Saxons, better known as Wessex. This was to be the forerunner to a period of our island’s story that would span over 250 years as the Vikings ventured as far afield as North America and even the Caspian Sea leaving a lasting impression on history and, at the time, representing a threat so great that the many kingdoms of our land would be forged into the one nation state of England.
Even today, the motive for Scandinavian expansionism remains unclear; some believe it may have been in retaliation for Charlemagne’s northward forays to forcibly convert the pagans to Christianity. It is fair to say that the Frankish methods and incentives for conversion – convert or die – were not entirely well received at the time. However, as England was the first target for attack, this revenge hypothesis would seem unlikely. Alternatives are that the population outgrew the land, that the young males were sent in search of women given a shortfall in females, or that it was simply to seek new trade routes following the fall of the Roman Empire. No single hypothesis stands the test of full scrutiny.
Imagine the stir that the sight of the three long ships – overriding symbols of the Viking Age – would have created among the Saxon watchmen as they appeared on the horizon, moving in unison with their sleek lines, raised prow and stern posts and magnificent square sails.
The ensuing events that day explain why the Lindisfarne episode is more generally seen as the start of the Viking Age in this country; the long ships landed at Portland, initially in peace, and presumably were met by the local inhabitants. Some historians believe that this was meant to be a trading mission, others that the weather or sea conditions forced them to put in but whatever the reason by very merit of the scale, method of landing and choice of destination, it is evident that the intentions were not initially aggressive – the opposite of Lindisfarne. The fact that there were no further similar episodes in the area for some years would also tend to indicate that the event was unplanned.
The King of Wessex at the time, was Beorhtric, and his appointed local official, or Reeve as he was known, was Beaduheard, quartered in Dorchester. On hearing news of the Vikings’ arrival, the Reeve rode down to Portland to meet with the visitors. It would have taken some time from the landing to the Reeve’s arrival and it is impossible to know whether the Norsemen were detained or how they were treated in the intervening hours. But, when Beaduheard and his entourage did arrive, there was an evident problem. Legend has it that the Reeve demanded the Vikings be moved to Dorchester to register as merchants in accordance with law; perhaps he attempted to impose an immediate levy. It is perfectly possible that what was intended as mere detention, ahead of the arrival of a suitably senior figure, was seen by the Vikings as capture. Perhaps the Reeve’s arrival, before matters escalated beyond their control, was what the Vikings thought was their only chance to escape. Whatever the motivation, Beaduheard – and all his men – were slain and the Heathens put back to sea.
News of this incident, which was received with outrage and horror, was reported widely throughout the land in the various chronicles maintained in the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; each recording different details such that the whole story can be quite faithfully pieced together.
After the attack on Lindisfarne, a year later Iona was raided in the same unforgiving manner. As time progressed, so the size and frequency of these attacks along the East coast increased until in 865, it is reported that Ivar the Boneless raised the Great Heathen Army: a marauding force that would conquer the kingdoms in Northumberland, East Anglia and Mercia. This was allegedly revenge for the execution of his father, the legendary warrior king, Ragnar Lodbrok.
The sagas record that Lodbrok, the scourge of both England and France, had been thrown into a pit of adders after capture by King Ælla of Northumberland. Ælla himself, at the hands of the invaders, would suffer the suitably vengeful death of ‘the blood eagle’ (details of which really need not be gone into here, but suffice to say if you look them up you may never look at a spatchcocked chicken quite the same way again).
Ten years later and much of England had been brutalized by merciless Viking campaigning, the crown of Wessex had passed to Alfred on the death of his brother Æthelred while, on the other side, command of the Great Army had passed to Guthrum, founder of Danelaw, as Viking-held Britain (with its capital at York) was known. In 876, the ambitious Guthrum, intent on the capturing the fiercely resistant kingdom of Wessex, made a bold move and invaded the fortified town of Wareham from the sea. The attack was a success. It was only after reinforcements were lost in a storm that Guthrum’s men sued for peace and Alfred’s blockade of the town was eventually lifted after an exchange of hostages, to guarantee that peace, and swearing of oaths.
The Vikings however murdered their charges and made good their escape westward, hotly pursued by Alfred.
It would take almost another two years, including a decisive defeat at Chippenham and a long winter in the Somerset marshes, before Alfred’s great victory at Edington would turn the tide. His pursuit and successful siege of Chippenham forced Guthrum to negotiate a peace, one of the conditions of which, Alfred stipulated, was to be the Dane’s conversion to Christianity. At the baptism, Alfred not only forgave his long time adversary but also took him as his godson. Guthrum never broke his oath of peace with Alfred again.
But while Alfred’s persistence and fortitude put pay to the once imminent threat of a Viking invasion of Wessex for the best part of 150 years, the Kingdom was continually subjected to raids and attack until it finally fell to Canute when he invaded once again up the River Frome in overwhelming numbers. He would later die, King of England in 1035 at Shaftesbury.
But the latest turn in the Viking story of Wessex comes full circle back to the area above Portland when, in 2009, work began to improve the A354 Dorchester to Weymouth road prior to the 2012 Olympic games; the very same route that in all probability the ill fated Reeve, Beaduheard, would have taken just over 1200 years earlier on his way to meet the very first Vikings to our shores. On top of Rigdeway Hill, on the commanding heights that overlook the coast, a mass grave was uncovered (in what had previously been a disused Roman quarry) containing fifty-four dismembered human skeletons… but only fifty-one skulls.
Forensic tests indicate that the remains were all males aged predominantly from their late teens to 25, with a handful of elders – the perfect profile for the crew of a medium-sized longship of the time – all put to the death at the same time with the use of a heavy sharp instrument such as a sword. Tests run by the British Geological Survey prove almost conclusively that the men originated from Sweden and radio-carbon dating places the killings between 910 and 1030 AD.
Motive for the executions and dismemberments are unclear; it was possibly part of Æthelred the Unready’s St Brice’s Day massacre of 13 November 1002, when, for fear of an imminent Viking overthrow, all Danes in England were ordered to be killed. But perhaps the most rousing thought is that the brave men of Wessex, conscious of the great legacy of King Alfred, captured a lone raider that had been blown off course and wanted to send a clear and resounding message back to the warlords of Scandinavia that this time: Dorset was no longer to be tangled with! ◗