By 896, King Alfred the Great (r. 871-899) was considered the leader of all Anglo-Saxons in England that had survived the persistent Scandinavian invasions of Britain during the 9th century. At the beginning of his reign, King Alfred had little time to do anything but keep his Kingdom of Wessex from collapsing under the onslaught of Viking armies. Yet, over time, he eventually set in motion programs that would improve the defensibility of his kingdom against the Viking raids, which could appear with little warning from the sea or from Scandinavian-controlled regions in Britain, such as Northumbria and East Anglia.
Alfred successfully increased the security of his realm by constructing a network of defensive fortifications in his kingdom and reorganizing his military. Under the new military scheme, if an invader entered Alfred’s domain in the south or west of England (as well as some of Wales), then garrisons of Anglo-Saxon forces would never be too far way. Even if the individual garrisons found that they could not defeat the Vikings forces by themselves, they could still play a vital role by bogging down the enemy until friendly troops arrived to better the odds. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, not all of Alfred’s defenses were in place when a great Viking army arrived from mainland Europe and landed in the region of Kent, England. Even so, King Alfred’s defensive network was successful—he was able to constantly pursue the Vikings, drawing them into multiple battles and sieges in 893 and 894 at places such at Farnham, Benfleet, Buttingham, Wirral and Chichester. None of the battles led to a total defeat of the Viking forces, but the fighting was consistent and persistent enough to give the Vikings some real concerns. The defenses were effective enough to convince the frustrated Viking armies to withdraw from Alfred’s kingdom in 896 and head instead for safer parts of Britain or continental Europe.
Despite the dispersal of the major Viking force to seek out softer targets, or to settle down in the Scandinavian-held lands in England (known as the Danelaw), small raids continued to be a problem for the coastlines and islands under King Alfred’s control. Alfred, however, had an answer to this—he decided to fight fire with fire. Or more appropriately, he fought water with water. To respond to the Viking threat, King Alfred developed his own modified fleet of Anglo-Saxon longships. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, these vessels were twice as long as their average Scandinavian counterpart, as well as faster, taller and more stable on the water.
One of the several unnamed chroniclers who worked on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded one of the earliest naval battles between a small Viking fleet and a contingent of the new English longships. As the chronicler told it, six Vikings ships ravaged the Isle of Wight and the southern coast of England in 896. When King Alfred heard of the raid, he dispatched nine of his own longships to hunt down the Vikings. Before the year was done, the Anglo-Saxon fleet found and blockaded the Vikings in an unknown estuary and awaited surrender or battle.
This particular band of Vikings must not have had much respect for Alfred’s longships, as only three ships (half of the Viking force) sailed out to challenge the blockade—the rest remained behind, beached in the estuary. One of the Viking ships actually succeeded in punching through the Anglo-Saxon blockade and managed to escape, although most of the crew on that ship was injured while accomplishing that feat. The other two Viking ships, however, were less successful. Alfred’s sailors captured them without too much difficulty and the Viking crews were executed.
Yet, all did not go well for the Anglo-Saxon sailors. Alfred’s men must have still been in the process of learning how best to operate their new ships, for every single one of the nine English longships apparently ran aground in the shallow waters of the estuary while they chased after the one Viking ship that broke through the blockade. Six of the Anglo-Saxon ships became stuck near the mouth of the estuary. The other three remaining Anglo-Saxon ships, however, found themselves unfortunately stranded right beside the Vikings that had remained on the beach.
With crewmen from three Viking longships and three Anglo-Saxon longships all squeezed onto a beach together, a bloody battle quickly erupted—one in which the Vikings emerged battered, but victorious. The wounded Vikings then set sail on their three ships while the rest of the grounded Anglo-Saxon crewmen could only watch in frustration as the Vikings left the estuary. The surviving English ships were stuck until the high tide thankfully lifted their ships off the riverbed.
The Vikings who survived the battle on the beach apparently suffered severe injuries during the fighting. The crews of two out of the three Viking ships from the beach evidently were so wounded that they lost their ability to sail. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the ships belonging to the two worst injured Viking crews washed up in Sussex. The unfortunate wounded Vikings inside those ships were quickly captured by the locals and hauled back to King Alfred, who had the raiders summarily hanged.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Nicholas Roerich “Guests from Overseas”. From the series “Beginnings of Rus’. The Slavs.” 1901, cropped, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Annals 893-896), translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in their anthology, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.