Today I have a guest post from author Christina Courtenay about “The Great Heathen Army”.
Whispers of the Runes
Time is no barrier for a love that is destined to be.
She couldn’t be sure that she had travelled through time … but deep down she just knew.
And her only way back had just disappeared.
When jewellery designer Sara Mattsson is propelled back to the ninth century, after cutting herself on a Viking knife she uncovers at an archaeological dig, she is quick to accept what has happened to her. For this is not the first Sara has heard of time travel.
Although acutely aware of the danger she faces when she loses the knife – and with it her way to return to her own time – this is also the opportunity of a lifetime. What better way to add authenticity to the Viking and Anglo-Saxon motifs used in her designs?
As luck has it, the first person Sara encounters is Rurik Eskilsson, a fellow silversmith, who is also no stranger to the concept of time travel. Agreeing that Sara can accompany him to Jorvik, they embark on a journey even more perilous than one through time. But Fate has brought these two kindred spirits together across the ages for a reason…
The words “The Great Heathen Army” have a very ominous ring to them and the first time I read about this, I was intrigued. Who were they? Where did they come from? And why did they invade Britain?
The Anglo-Saxons called them the mycel hæÞen here, and according to some historians it was an army that might have numbered as many as 3,000 Vikings. They arrived in the year 867 AD in hundreds of longships, which must have been quite an awe-inspiring sight, not to mention terrifying! Before this, the Vikings had only raided in smaller groups, so the people of East Anglia, where they landed first, would have been totally unprepared for such a huge invasion.
The Vikings weren’t one people (and never called themselves that), but consisted of men from different parts of Scandinavia who happened to have similar belief systems, customs and language. Somehow, a few of their leaders came up with the idea of this expedition. It points to strong organisational skills and a common goal – to conquer the lands once and for all rather than just plunder them. The army’s leaders were petty kings or earls (called jarls in Norse), and there wasn’t just one man in charge, but several.
Reputedly some of them were the sons of a legendary warrior named Ragnar Loðbrok. Those of you who have watched the TV series Vikings will know all about him. However, it is not at all certain that he was a real historical person and we’ll probably never know for sure. We do know the names of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army though because the Anglo-Saxons wrote them down and they sound very evocative: Ivar Beinlausi (“the Boneless”), Hálfdan Hvítserk (“white shirt”), Ubba, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye (apparently he had a strange marking in one of his irises), Bacsecg, Oscetel and Anwend. Possibly, there was also a Beorn Ironside and others.
At first, the king of East Anglia tried to bribe them to go away. Not very smart really, although he succeeded to begin with. The Vikings took his silver and his horses and went north. Conveniently, the Romans had left straight, wide roads that were still there all those centuries later and these took them exactly where they wanted to go. For safety’s sake, their ships travelled along the coast in case they were needed, but they never were. They headed for Northumbria and York (called Eoforwic by the Anglo-Saxons and later Jorvik by the Vikings) which fell to them fairly easily.
For years afterwards, this army rampaged through Britain and conquered huge swathes of the country – the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria all fell to them, and it was only Wessex that held out thanks to the clever tactics of King Alfred. By the time my characters get caught up with them, the army is about to go to their wintersetl – the place they chose each year for over-wintering – at Repton in what is now Derbyshire. After that, the force split into two and the Great Heathen Army was no more.
At Repton, archaeologists have found the remains of the ramparts the Vikings constructed that year to keep themselves safe. They form a D shape with the river on one side and the Anglo-Saxon church on the other, used as a sort of gateway. Repton is on the river Trent, more or less in the middle of the British Isles, and it shows how good the Vikings were at using rivers to get around. Their longships were shallow and could sail or be rowed up any river that was wide enough. It is impossible not to admire their navigational skill and sheer daring!
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Christina Courtenay writes historical romance, time slip and time travel stories, and lives in Herefordshire (near the Welsh border) in the UK. Although born in England, she has a Swedish mother and was brought up in Sweden – hence her abiding interest in the Vikings. Christina is a former chairman of the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association and has won several awards, including the RoNA for Best Historical Romantic Novel twice with Highland Storms (2012) and The Gilded Fan (2014). Whispers of the Runes (time travel published by Headline 24th June 2021) is her latest novel. Christina is a keen amateur genealogist and loves history and archaeology (the armchair variety).