The second attack on York: The Northumbrians strike back

Illustration of a Viking raid

Illustration of a Viking raid

Most people know that in the early medieval period the Vikings came and attacked the various kingdoms of England and that many of them even settled down here afterwards to farm. You may also have previously known that one of the cities they conquered was York which later became one of their bases and a capitol of the Kingdon of Jorvik. But do you know how York fell in the first place? And did you know that even though the Vikings first overran York late in 866, they were forced to defend their acquisition from a combined Northumbrian force the next spring? Did you know that this all happened nearly 1150 years today?

In the history of the church of durham, Simeon is the sole voice informing us that the danes first attacked York on the first of November. The attack seems to have been so successful that soon after they left the town to ‘… spread themselves over the whole country, and filled all with blood and grief; they destroyed the churches and the monasteries far and wide with fire and sword, leaving nothing remaining save the bare unroofed walls; and so thoroughly did they do their work, that even our own present generation can seldom discover in those places any conclusive memorial of their ancient dignity, sometimes none.’

The death and destruction spread north from York but spread no further than the River Tyne, a situation which would repeat itself many more times in the future. We are told that the Danes made their winter camp here, though it is possible that smaller bands could have positioned themselves in the outlying districts, harassing the northumbrian people.

For the events that came next we can add several other resources to follow, such as the writings of Roger of Wendover, Florence of Worcester and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Thankfully they all agree more or less on what happened and in what order. At the time Northumbria was ruled by King Aelle. He is described variously as a tyrant, a usurper, an unlawful king and not of the royal line or blood. He had been fighting against King Osbert the previous ruler and either through battle or through the urging of the Northumbrian people Aelle finally took the throne. When the Danes arrived on the scene however, the two kings were forced to put their differences behind them for the good of their people and country. With at least eight of their earls heading the fyrds, the two kings travelled to York.

When the northumbrians arrived to take back their city the Danes were reportedly so fearful for their lives that they fled at the very sight. Perhaps the northumbrians really were a formidable force to be feared, but the danes had not come all this way and wrought so much damage only to flee at the first sign of resistence. They were well versed in the practice of a feigned retreat. The northumbrians took courage in what they interpreted as their enemies fear and pursuid them. the danes tried to barricade themselves within the walls of York forcing the northumbrians to try and break through. Lucky for them (this time) the walls ‘… were not strong or well built…’, probably an allusion to the decaying roman fortress not being maintained since the romans left over 400 years earlier. Eventually the walls were breached and the northumbrians could at last get at the foe, except here they made a fatal mistake. As they swarmed into the city the walls split the force in two. As soon as the danes saw this they renewed their attack and made a fierce slaughter ‘… some from within, some from without’.

Medieval walls of York (c) A H Gray

Medieval walls of York (c) A H Gray

It was palm Sunday, the 21st of March, an ironic date for the city of York. Traditionally palm Sunday marked the day in which the Christian saviour Jesus Christ rode peacefully into Jerusalem as a King. The kings of the northumbrians had both been slain, along with eight nobles and the majority of their fighting men. Those who survived made peace with the Danes and a man named Egbert of unknown descent became their king under the command of the Vikings. Roger of Wendover says that he was ‘… a certain man of the English nation…’ which would suggest that he was a native northumbrian and not a Dane from within enemy ranks.

For the early chroniclers, the downfall of the two northumbrian kings and their kingdom was a sign of divine punishment. They had been fighting amongst themselves and turning away from god and his word. But the last lines given to us again by Simeon of Durham in the history of the church of Durham suggests that perhaps divine retribution was not really at the forefront of the church’s mind. Before the Danes arrived on the scene, certain monastic lands had ‘…with sacrilegious hand…’ been taken away from the church by both Osbert and Aelle. Osbert seems to have taken Wercewurde and tillemuthe whilst Aelle took Billingham, Ileclif, Wigeclif and Crece. These lands would normally have paid a rent to the king, either through valuables like gold or silver or more usually with food (grains and cereals, vegetables, livestock even ale or honey). The King would use this rent in times of war to feed his fyrd and entice other fyrds and nobles to come fight for him. As the above mentioned villages were in the possession of the church, such rents went towards the nuns and monks and priests. It is probable that during the dynastic struggle before the Vikings attacked, Osbert and Aelle seized these towns from the church so that they could use the extra resources to win the throne of Northumbria, and it is highly likely that they used resources from many other towns as well. Obviously the church would not have been happy about losing such valuable land, but then again, thanks to the danes they were to lose a lot more in the future.

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