The popular Viking metal song "Heathen Throne" by the Finnish band Ensiferum is an excellent growl-along, head-banging, energetic rebel song to pump up your energy through the day.

Under the Northern star / We shed our blood/ With the call of the battle horn/ We raise our swords/ behind the fields of blood/ There's a haven for us/ Deep in the woods of the North / Rises the Heathen Throne

The song is a reference to real-life battles the Vikings have fought, and while there was no specific throne, there was a heathen army - the Great Heathen army. 

Vikings were brave, ruthless, and extremely capable warriors. They always worked in smaller groups on their own conquest, which weren't related to other groups and communities.

However, the Viking Great Army, more commonly known as the Great Heathen Army, was a big unification factor of various Viking fractions. As you may expect, the name has a connection to religion.

The story of the Great Heathen Army takes place in 865, and it's set in England. According to the BBC, the English had already accepted Christianity at the time. At the same time, Vikings (Norwegians and, in the majority, Danes) kept their pagan beliefs. 

These beliefs included worshiping multiple gods but also human sacrifices. In their pillaging raids of England, the Vikings also targetted churches and monasteries. Since the 790s, the raids focused on a much bigger target in 865 - conquering England. 

Viking Great Army: Uniting Viking groups

While Danes and Norwegians pillaging England were known as Vikings (a Scandinavian term for pirates and traders), the Great Heathen Army was formed of smaller Viking groups uniting and working together with more coordination. 

At the time, England was a cluster of smaller kingdoms, thus making the ambitions of the Viking Great Army of taking as much land as possible all the easier. 

The actual start of the story of the Great Heathen Army is complex. Anglo-Saxon historical sources state that mutual benefit trumped usual reasons that kept Vikings separated in smaller communities. Norse conquerors realized that unification would make a handful of English kingdoms easier targets. 

Old Norse sagas point out much more idealistic motives for the big unification. 13th-century Icelandic sources - taken with a grain of salt by modern historians - state that King Ælla's involvement with the death of Ragnar Lothbrok, without a doubt the most famous hero among Norse warriors, was a rallying factor. 

Contemporary historians point out that Ragnar raided Paris, then settled in Ireland and pillaged England's west coast, while the Great Heathen Army carried out a conquering spree on the east coast. In other words, most likely, it had a limited connection to King Ælla.

Either way, sagas and experts seem to agree that the Great Heathen Army was led by the three sons of Ragnar Lodbrok: Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubba.  

The Great Heathen Army was a coalition of Scandinavian raiders and warriors who invaded England in 865 AD. Photo: Gioele Fazzeri / Pixabay

How many Vikings participated in the Great Heathen Army?

The size of the Great Heathen Army is still a matter of debate. There is no source that pinpoints the exact number of Vikings in the army.

For example, British historian Peter Sawyer believes there were no more than 1000 men in the Great Heathen Army. He came to the number by analyzing the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, which allowed him to make a table of Viking ships. 

He assumed each ship could carry 32 men, and, thus, the maximum number of Vikings in the army could not surpass 1000. 

On the other hand, scholars such as Laurent Mazet-Harhoff pointed out that several thousand Vikings participated in the Seine area invasions (although Mazet-Harhoff stressed out that there are no remnants of military bases that could host so many soldiers). 

Other historians still debate the numbers. However, conservative estimates state that several thousand Vikings united in the Great Heathen Army.  

The Great Heathen Army's banner: A bird of god

Apart from having a joint goal of conquering new lands, the Vikings in the army were also united under the Great Heathen Army banner.

The so-called "raven banner" was a rather simplistic and totemic banner depicting a raven flying upwards. It's known as hrafnsmerki. It is said to represent Odin, and the raven was as frequent to Vikings as an eagle to Americans. 

Not only did Odin have two ravens at his side, called Huginn (thought) and Munnin (memory), but it was also believed that ravens bring fallen Vikings to Vallhalla. 

Various Viking troops carried the banner on ships and shields, but sagas say the first banner carriers were Ragnar's sons.

"It is said that three sisters of Hingwar and Habba [Ivar and Ubbe], i.e., the daughters of Ragnar Lothbrok, had woven that banner and gotten it ready during one single midday's time. Further, it is said that if they were going to win a battle in which they followed that signum, there was to be seen, in the center of the signum, a raven, gaily flapping its wings. But if they were going to be defeated, the raven dropped motionlessly. And this always proved true ", the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - a collection of annals in Old English that chronicles the history of the Anglo-Saxons - states.

The so-called "raven banner" carried by the Great Heathen Army depicts a raven flying upwards. It's known as "hrafnsmerki." Illustration: Ryszard Andrzejowski / Pixabay 


Despite the Great Heathen Army being a historical instance of various Viking fractions coming together, uniting in order to conquer new lands (and arguably to avenge Ragnar's death - the saga "The Tale of Ragnar's Sons" depicts the capture of King Ælla and his punishment in the form of the brutal blood eagle execution method), the lack of coordination of the Vikings' endeavors led to their demise in England. 

They had a successful start to their conquests in various kingdoms in England at the time, especially in East Anglia, points out.

When the winter cleared out, they went toward North, to Northumbria, to face King Osberth and the aforementioned king Ælla (from Bamborough).

So the Vikings secured easy victories that made them rulers of York by 867 AD through an installed "puppet" leader. Next came the area southwards of East Anglia. Again, the Heathen Army was victorious against Edmund the Martyr under the leadership of Ivar the Boneless. 

Edmund's forces were defeated, and he himself was tied to a tree. He was filled with arrows, Vikings allegedly shot him for refusing to denounce Christianity.

However, their next stop, Wessex, was too big of a challenge for the Vikings. There, they met Alfred the Great (the only Anglo-Saxon king to carry that title) and his brother Aethelred. 

Wessex's staunch defense and the uphill battle helped Alfred the Great emerge victorious over the Great Heathen Army. If you ever participate in a pub quiz or game show and get the question, "Who was the English king who brought down the Great Heathen Army?" - now you know.

Clashes between Wessex and the Vikings continued throughout 871 and 872, and in the middle of it, the Great Heathen Army spent the winter in London. Apart from the trouble with Wessex, the previously conquered Northumbria staged a rebellion, so the Vikings had to restore power there. They did so by introducing the payment of danegeld (tax levied in Anglo-Saxon England to buy off Danish invaders, as Britannica explains).
 In 873, after eight years in the country, the Great Heathen Army split. Hald of it - led by Halfdan Ragnarsson - headed towards Scotland, while the other half moved south. The part that turned south, led by Guthrum, continued to raid Wessex, upsetting King Alfred the Great. In 878, Alfred the Great dealt the final blow to the Great Heathen Army in Wiltshire in the battle of Edington. After the defeat, Gutrum was baptized.

Halfdan, on the other hand, decided to turn the agriculture, marking the transition of Vikings' sea pirating, trading, and pillaging to settling in England.

From there onward, the Vikings' influence on the modern Anglo-Saxon culture (after they settled in, they occupied most of the north and east of England) was important for making the UK the melting pot it is today. 

All thanks to the assimilation of the once fierce warriors from the Northern seas. 

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