A Viking force, said to be led by the legendary warrior Ubba, took on the cream of the West Saxon army.
Despite the West Saxons being encircled, they managed to defiantly smash the invaders in what was a precursor to a more famous victory later that year.
Viking invasions of the British Isles
The story of the Vikings, pirates and warriors from the Scandinavian Peninsula that plagued much of Europe during the early medieval period, is intertwined with the history of the British Isles.
Up until recently, what scholars defined as the "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE) began with a Viking raid on the English island of Lindisfarne.
By the end of the Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE - 800 CE), warriors from Scandinavia started to raid and sack several Christian monasteries throughout English coastal communities.
However, what started as mere raiding soon changed to colonization by the early 860s CE. The area that encompasses modern-day England was, in the 9th century CE, heavily divided along cultural, religious, ethnic, political, and linguistic lines.
Several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were in a constant state of war and peace, with none being able to emerge dominant.
The constant state of division allowed what were predatory Viking raids to develop into the possibility of settlement by Scandinavian peoples.
From 865 CE, the "Great Heathen Army," a coalition of many smaller Scandinavian military forces, invaded and, over the course of the next 14 years, would go on to conquer and subjugate much of the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex.
However, by 878 CE, only the Kingdom of Wessex had yet to yield to the Norse yoke.
The Kingdom of Wessex
The withdrawal of the Roman presence in the British Isles happened remarkably quickly, in the space of under 30 years.
In 383 CE, the Western Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus (the Empire having been divided into two halves by Emperor Diocletian almost a century before) recalled the legions from northern and western Britain to Gaul.
By 410 CE, the last of the Roman presence, the Roman magistrates, were expelled by the local population. Roman Britain was killed off in less than three decades, with the local Romano-British population left to fend for themselves against increasing numbers of raids by a variety of Celtic and Germanic peoples, including the Saxons.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an Anglo-Saxon leader, Cedric, was said to have established the Kingdom of Wessex (West Saxons) in 519 CE following the power vacuum left by Rome's withdrawal a century before.
A turning point in the development of this kingdom would come when its leader, Cenwalh, was baptized in the mid-640s CE.
While the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia soon swallowed up many of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms throughout the 8th century CE, Wessex retained its independence.
Some six years after the invasion of the "Great Heathen Army," Wessex had a young and vibrant King, Alfred, who proved a catalyst for a paradigm shift in English politics.
Prelude to a battle
By the winter of 876 CE, the Great Heathen Army had wreaked havoc throughout much of the east and north of Britain.
London had been occupied for more than half a decade. From the borders of modern-day Scotland to London, the Norse invaders had carved out a huge chunk of territory that would soon be under their rule, which was known as the "Danelaw."
Our main source for what happened next is from a Welsh monk, Asser, who later penned a biography of the Wessex King Alfred in the early 10th century CE.
According to Asser, a contingent of the Viking invading force was marching south to try and subjugate the Kingdom of Wessex.
Having ascended to the throne in 871 CE, Alfred had spent years fighting the Viking invaders with little success, mainly relying on hit-and-run guerilla-style tactics.
By 878 CE, just seven years into his reign, Alfred was, according to most historians, a lone hand against the Viking tyranny. The Vikings learned that Alfred was wintering at his stronghold in Chippenham and attacked.
Despite the Wessex forces suffering huge losses, Alfred, and a small band of loyal troops, managed to slip away and sought refuge in the marshes and swamps of what is the shire of Somerset.
With Wessex the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom resisting the Vikings and their king hiding amongst swampy reeds, all hope was seemingly lost.
The road was open for the Vikings to sweep down into the southern part of Wessex and crush the final pockets of resistance once and for all.
According to some sources, Ubba led a massive Viking fleet. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Encircling Vikings, caged tigers
With Alfred literally hiding for his life, a huge Viking fleet was led by a Viking leader called Ubba.
There is scarce information, let alone any contemporary record, of this supposed commander of the main force of the "Great Heathen Army."
He appears in several later hagiographical tales of Anglo-Saxon saints (including that of King – later – Saint Alfred the Great). He was the supposed son of Ragnar Lothbrok, the Viking commander who besieged and laid waste to Paris, with a huge Viking flotilla, in 844 CE.
Like his father, Ubba commanded a huge flotilla that sailed from southern Wales and landed at what is now Countisbury but what was called, in the local Anglo-Saxon tongue, Cynwit.
The Viking force knew that there was a long stronghold, a hilltop fortress that the Vikings believed contained only the dregs of the Wessex army.
Deciding that without any adequate supplies and with their morale broken due to the fact their king was in hiding and much of their army destroyed, the Viking force prepared to besiege the hilltop fortress.
Some 23 ships were said to be docked nearby, with the Vikings waiting for the presumed bedraggled Wessex forces to eventually give in to the siege. However, this did not happen.
Infuriatingly for lovers of early medieval and military history, little detail is known about the actual battle. Asser claims that one day, the West Saxon force burst out of their mountaintop fortress and managed to overwhelm the Vikings.
It appears that there was obviously a larger number of West Saxons than the Vikings presumed, plus they would have fought with more ferocity as they were cornered like a caged tiger.
The result was devastating. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle maintains that over 800 Viking warriors were slain, and the famous "Raver Banner" - a totemic flag carried by Viking warriors depicting Odin in raven form – was captured. The Viking juggernaut finally ground to a halt.
A military morale booster
What makes this battle so intriguing is that despite the Viking loss – the first time that they had lost a significant battle since the invasions began in 865 CE - we know almost nothing, not even the actual location.
Countisbury Hill, in Devon, is the assumed location and is just a short sail from where the Vikings were said to be moored in Wales.
Nonetheless, the victory at Cynwit, whatever the actual Viking losses were (scholars doubt it was as much as 800), proved to be a morale booster.
With King Alfred on the run, the West Saxons were cornered and managed to defeat a Viking army. Surely this must have been a huge psychological boost for the local population.
Momentum is also an important factor when waging war. Following on from their victory at Cynwit, Alfred managed to evade his Viking captors and go on to lead his forces in an even more decisive battle at Edington later the same year.
Perhaps many of the warriors that fought at Cynwit were part of the West Saxon force that destroyed the Vikings (contemporary sources say more than 2,000 Viking warriors were slain) and forced the Norse to sign the Treaty of Wedmore.
This treaty not only ensured the Kingdom of Wessex's independence but also evicted the Viking army and ensured one of its leaders, Guthrum, was formally baptized into the Christian faith.
This battle marked a turning point in Alfred's fortunes, and within a decade, he would have reclaimed much Viking territory in England to be crowned the first King of the Anglo-Saxons.
More biographical information about King Alfred can be found on the British Royal Household's website here, whilst History Today has published an Op-Ed that discusses his legacy.
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