JANUARY 871: Elements of the Danish “Great Heathen Army” repulsed the Saxon assault on their base at Reading, England.

The first Battle of Reading was just one of a series of battles, with honors to both sides, that took place following the invasion of the Kingdom of Wessex by an army of Danes led by Jarls Bagsecg and Halfdan Ragnarsson; in an attempt to conquer the last remaining English kingdom in Britain. Both battle and campaign are described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and this account provides the earliest known written record of the existence of the town of Reading.


The “Great Heathen Army” came to England in 865, led by the sons of the famed Viking Ragnar Lothbrok. These were Halfdan, Ubbe, and their leader, Ivar the Boneless. (Two other sons of Ragnar, Sigurd “Snake-Eye” and Björn Ironside, may-or-may-not have accompanied the initial invasion.)

The Danes had been campaigning in northern France for many years, under the command of Ragnar or his sons. The army came to England (according to legend) to get vengeance for the killing of Ragnar by the Northumbrian king, Ælla, after Ragnar was shipwrecked and captured in the previous year.

Landing in East Anglia (one of the 4 English realms comprising “England”), the Danes negotiated a truce with King Edmund, allowing them to gather supplies and horses for a swift attack on Northumbria; which they carried out with great success. The Northumbrians were defeated at York, and Ragnar was avenged when Ivar carved the “blood eagle” on the back of King Ælla. York became the Danes’ base of operations for attacks against the rest of England (and, within a few years, Dublin as well) and remained in Danish hands, in one form or another, for most of the next two hundred years.

After the Danes conducted a successful raid into Mercia, East Anglia was next to feel their fury. King Edmund was captured and repaid for his earlier support with martyrdom.

Mercia soon collapsed, its last king fleeing to France, and subsequently was divided into zones of influence between the Danes and Wessex.

In 871, reinforcements reached the Danes, replenishing their numbers (many of the original invaders had settled in Northumbria; or accompanied Ivar to Dublin, where he established a dynasty, the Uí Ímair, or House of Ivar). Under Halfdan Ragnarsson and a newcomer, Jarl (or “king”) Bagsecg, the Danes crossed the Thames and established a strongly fortified camp at Reading, defended by the Thames and Kennet rivers on two sides, and by a rampart on the western side.

Three days after their arrival, a party of Danes rode out towards nearby Englefield, where a West Saxon force under the command of Æthelwulf, the Ealdorman of the shire, was waiting for them. In the ensuing Battle of Englefield many of the Danes were killed, and the rest driven back to Reading. (Englefield, though a minor skirmish, was important in that it was the first time the Danes had been defeated by the English since the coming of the Great Heathen Army, and went far to dispelling the myth of their invincibility.)

Four days later, Æthelwulf had been joined by the main West Saxon army, led by King Æthelred and his younger brother, Alfred. The entire Saxon army now marched on Reading. The assault was directed mainly at a gateway through the ramparts, and fierce and bloody fighting followed, before the English attack was repulsed and the Danes put them to flight with a counter-attack. Among the many dead of both sides was Ealdorman Æthelwulf. The English were forced to retreat, allowing the Danes to continue their advance into Wessex.

Following the Battle of Reading, Æthelred and Alfred regathered their army, and a few days later won a famous victory at the Battle of Ashdown, forcing the Danes to retreat back to their base at Reading. Two weeks later the Danes won the Battle of Basing, and then, on 22 March, the Battle of Marton.

In April Æthelred died, to be succeeded by Alfred. The Danish army remained in Reading until late in 871, when they retreated to winter quarters in London, and much of King Alfred’s 28-year reign was taken up with trying to repulse repeated Viking incursions and contain and reduce the Danish conquests. His continued (and ultimately successful) resistance alone prevented a complete Danish conquest of England, and paved the way for a reconquista by his son and grandson. For this (and his patronage of the Church, of learning, and his programs of building) he is remembered as the only English monarch to bear the appellation “the Great”.

Further reading: Historical Fiction by Bernard Cornwell, Saxon Tales – The Last Kingdom, etc. is highly recommended if you have an interest in the period. There is also a mini-series out there (The Last Kingdom) based on the early books in the 12 book series. I know that many of this blog’s readers have read the books. They aren’t history per se, but they are meticulously researched and are close to history.


  1. (Old Dane-Swede joke) Swedish soldier to the King after struggling back across the channel: “Sir, our army has again been defeated by the Danes…we failed because THERE WERE TWO OF THEM, not ONE like we thought!”

    Great treatise “on this day”…enjoyed relating to MrsC. (I am careful, she is Danish AND Norwegian, thankfully in my Heinz 57 makeup I have no Swedish or the wedding would have been off!)

    Thinking we all need to channel our inner Dane with the [real] insurrection going on in DC. My advice is for the good people to stay away, don’t even go there…gives the Dems and MSM nowhere to go other than blatant fabrication (which they will do anyway).

    • If no Patriots show up, the Democrats will hire thugs to wave American flags and loot, for the benefit of CNN.

    • Indeed. Anyone with a brain needs to stay away from Buffalo Jump 2 scheduled for 17JAN in WDC. And LL is absolutely right that there will nonetheless be bad people LARPing as patriots for the cameras.

      • At this point in history, any militia group of eight will likely be composed of two patriots and six undercover police/agent types. Just accept that as gospel, and avoid large gatherings.

  2. For a historical look at Norse and Danish culture take a good look at the book “Laughing shall I Die” by Tom Shippy. Good look at the “Viking” mindset and seems quite authoritative. He has a bit of a sense of humor also.

  3. Part of the success of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ is that the Anglo-Saxons were very very into killing… other Anglo-Saxons. Between fake treaties, backstabbings, slowrolling promised support, more treachery and just outright attacking each other, the GHA basically had only minor to medium resistance everywhere they went.

    Even when the Anglo-Saxon lords and kings united, there was such mistrust amongst the various AS leaders and followers that the GHA only had to attack smaller clumps at a time.

    Only when Aethelred and Alfred actually united the stupid Anglo-Saxons did any real resistance happen, and a lot of that was because the A-team had a bigger army and used it to threaten the other ASses with complete and bloody murder (of course, couched in polite and diplomatic terms, but when you have 500 really big thugs behind you while you are making veiled threats, that matters a lot.)

    You see the same lack of unity and trust in the early 1060’s with Edward the Confessor not trusting the various Anglo-Saxon factions, especially that led by Godwin, father of Harald Godwinson. Then again, Godwin’s idea of diplomacy was akin to a bad street gang’s concept – use of force and violence to promise to stop use of force and violence – to the extent that Edward banned Godwin and his followers from Court and opened up negotiations with his relative William (the Bastard) in Normandy to take the throne once Eddie croaked. (thus the basis for William’s claim to England.)

    Man, politics used to be so fun. Mayhaps a Great Holy Army descending upon all the democratic strongholds… Since all the democratic strongholds are now heathens and heretics.

    Maybe go Crusading, like the Albigensian Crusade. Kill them all, God will know his own, that sort of thing. Renounce your marxist-socialist heresy and Sin no More (or we’ll shorten you.) Add a bit of the Spanish Inquisition (which was, really, about rooting out Moors, hidden Moors and Moorish sympathizers and outright liars after 700+ years of dealing with Islamic crap and backstabbing and other fun islamic ideas of life…) Root out all marxist-socialists, take them on helicopter rides or put them in containers and drop them in the ocean.

    • 1066 was one of the more interesting years in history. William’s fleet wrecked, and then the Papal Bull that he paid for arrived and he cobbled together another fleet while Tostig was among the Danes, stirring up Harald Hadrada, who also had a claim on The Confessor’s throne.

      Don’t forget that Godwin swore an oath when he was William’s guest/prisoner, to support his claim on the throne. That oath-breaking was advertised as the reason for his demise – that and the Pope’s purchased displeasure. That’s why the famous arrow flew so tellingly and felled the pretender.

      • Funny that. And Edward was, in blood, more Norman than Anglo-Saxon. And was related to William and not related to any of the great houses pushing candidates forward, especially not related to the Godwins.

        Godwin basically bought and coerced the throne for his son, Harold.

        This, of course, is after Harold was sent (before the family was banished from Court by Edward) to William to carry the “Hey, Willie-boy, this throne’s yours” message and, as you said, Harold pledged (over a pile of saints’ bones) his support of William’s claim.

        As to the whole Papal thing. Yes, money passed, but the Anglo-Saxons were begrudgingly attentive to the Papacy for the most part. While the Normans were very pro-big church. So, well, yes, money, but with William ascending over Harold or Harald, both who were fuzzy catholics as in not really respondent to Rome, the power of the Holy See would be consolidated over England.

        Politics. It’s fun!

        • Politics then were more or less the same as they are now. Everyone wants their dynasty to be the dominant one.

          I don’t see Harold as evil. He was sort of a golden child in his era who lacked the drive that William had. And who would have thought that the Bastard would invade at the SAME TIME as Harald, late in the campaigning season, during a heat wave. It threw a large, full, chamber pot over the big win at Stamford Bridge.

          Even so, it’s amazing that Harold was able to get his army south to Hastings (long march), relatively intact, after defeating the Viking hoard.

          We can argue that William came with combined arms and that Papal flag flying, but even so, it was no cake walk. There was a lot of luck/lack of luck involved.

          • Harold, no, not evil. Fair-haired Golden Boy, today he’d be a graduate of Yale or Harvard and be hired right out of school at a cool half-million plus stock options for a job that doesn’t mean anything in order to pad his resume and allow him to rise to the top.

            His father, on the other hand, kind of a Joe Kennedy but more violent. Same ambitions for his sons, he couldn’t attain the top, but his sons could.

            Harold had the support of the other Anglo-Saxon lords, all who were worried about a unifying force taking the power away from them and giving it to the people or the Crown or both (which, well, happened when the Normans took over.)

            The transport of Harold’s Army from Stamford Bridge was amazing. The use of basically mounted infantry to move the huscarls and other professionals, and the standup of the Fyrd (local militias and minor lord’s retainers) was quick, efficient and followed the pattern set by Aethelred and Alfred, with a strong influence of the ‘Viking’ pattern of troop mobilization.

            Willie would have lost that day, maybe the whole campaign, if the Fyrd hadn’t been suckered into leaving the shieldwall and thus getting slaughtered and thus allowing William to begin encircling.

            Almost like, well, there was Divine help.

            But William’s death was horrid. Not felled by sword or spear or arrow, no. During the suppression of an uprising, his horse stepped into a pothole and he fell forward and racked himself on the front cantle of his saddle. Racked himself so hard he ruptured his insides and died of septicemia days and days later. Sad death to a truly extraordinary man. Even his enemies said he treated them fairly, well, except for that bastard Malcolm, but he was a Scot, so well, tough nuggies Malcolm, shoulda kept your word (Malcolm pledged to William that no raids from Scotland to England would occur, and then sent royal raiding parties across the border regularly whenever William wasn’t focused on him. After finally not having anything else to do, William marched his army on the Scottish side of the border from one coast to another, killing and destroying anything in the path. Scorched earth. Malcolm stopped accidentally raiding south and spent his time stopping other Scots from raiding.)

            See? Just like modern times…

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