When we left off last episode, war had come to Mercia. Ingimund and his Scandinavian allies abandoned their peace treaty and were seeking to expand their borders, but according to the Irish Annals and the Welsh annals, it wasn’t AEthelred Lord of Mercia who was organizing the defenses. It was AEthelflaed, Queen of the Saxons.
As we discussed in the last couple episodes, we’re in a period where our accounts diverge and many of the Anglo Saxon accounts erase AEthelflaed, instead pouring attention upon her little brother, King Edward. But that’s not the case for the Irish and Welsh sources, nor is it the case for the Mercian Register - and thus those surviving copies of the Chronicle which draw from the Mercian Register.
And while the Mercian Register might have cause to hype their own leaders, you have to wonder why they would focus on AEthelflaed rather than AEthelred unless her military and political leadership during this time was true? Furthermore, what cause would the Irish and Welsh Annals have to conspire to jointly lie about AEthelflaed’s ascendence to the seat of power? I mean, if we are going to assume that AEthelflaed wasn’t really doing much, that AEthelred was actually in power, and that Edward’s account was the only accurate account you’d also have to discount her presence in Charters granting lands as a monarch. Oh and you’d also have to ignore the fact that after AEthelred dies she is the ruler of Mercia with enough power to establish her daughter as the heir to the throne.
To be perfectly honest, we have just as much documentary evidence for AEthelflaed as we do for many of the earlier Anglo Saxon leaders that everyone accepts as real without question. She existed, and chances are the Annals are telling the truth and she was out there leading Mercia. And it looks like she was really good at it. .
And I think the reason why you see the occasional male historian (and it’s ONLY male historians) saying that actually AEthelflaed wasn’t that important and actually AEthelred was ruling and fighting in this era is due to the fact that they just can’t imagine an Anglo Saxon lady acting as a military leader. It has to be, because there certainly isn’t any documentary evidence to suggest that AEthelred was the only important leader of Mercia… rather the sources go to extreme lengths to remind us how sick AEthelred was and how AEthelflaed was taking point quite a lot.
So, if you’re skeptical of AEthelflaed, buck up buttercup. The evidence is here - and for this period of time it’s relatively abundant. AEthelflaed was very much a leader in the model of the House of Wessex. She was here to fight the danes.
When we left off, we learned from the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland that AEthelflaed had a network of spies, and that some of them had discovered that Ingimund (a Northman who had settled near Chester after fleeing Ireland and then Wales) was meeting with some Danish and Norse warlords and enticing them to bring war to Mercia. Aethelflaed responded to this by ordering the Fyrd of Mercia to man the walls of Chester and fortify the city.
The record isn’t clear how long they had to wait. How long they walked the walls, wondering if they had just rushed into action for nothing. The part of war that is often left out is how large portions of it are governed by the principle of “hurry up and wait.” You can imagine that the Fyrd, after the walls were patched, were settling into their position in the city. The Anglo Saxons loved games, and poems, and songs… and I can imagine these peasants turned soldiers, telling stories and playing games while they sat around trying to kill time while they waited for whatever riled up the Queen to come to fruition.
If this lasted a week, or a month, or a season - we don’t know. But eventually, a messenger arrived. He came representing Ingimund and his Danish and Norwegian allies and terms were offered. They wanted the city of Chester as well as the fertile lands surrounding it, and if they were not given it freely then they would take it by force. The Mercians were given until a certain day to agree, or else war would be upon them.
Now the Annals tell us that it was AEthelflaed who gathered the Fyrd around her and filled the city with her troops. However, the Annals continue and they mention that AEthelred was still present, though he was on the verge of death. In fact, this is something that they /repeatedly/ mention. Pretty much whenever AEthelred’s name comes up, the scribes tell us how he was basically on his deathbed. So while AEthelred /was/ present, the annals take care to remind us that he was also too sick to directly take part in the defenses.
So upon the arrival of the Scandinavian messengers, rather than having the royal couple looking down over the battlements and directly barking orders, the soldiers had to send messengers back to the Royal chamber and ask AEthelred and AEthelflaed for how to respond.
The Royal Couple were steadfast There would be no terms. The fyrd were to hold the city, and detailed battle plans for how to accomplish that were relayed to the understandably wary Fyrd.
And now that they had their orders, all the Fyrd could do was wait for Ingimund to make good on his threat and bring his army to their gates.
And he did.
On the promised day, the armies of the Danes and Norse were sighted on the horizon. Ingimund’s force was vast. He had arrived, not with a warband or two, but with a Great Army. And this was the force that was now marching right up to the border city of Chester.
But in the face of such a terrifying host, the Mercians did something surprising. Rather than hiding behind their walls, the gates of Chester opened and revealed that those who manned the city were the mightiest of the Fyrd. These were skilled veterans of numerous wars. They were armed and armored to the teeth. The sight of them likely brought to mind the Heorthwerods of old. Mercia was making it’s own show of force. And to show this wasn’t all flash and pomp, these gleaming warriors left the walls of the city and marched forward to meet the Danes in open battle.
What filed out of the gates was a call back to the warbands that served Penda, AEthelfrith, and Cynewulf. They would have moved as a steady, deliberate, and unshaken unit and took position a short space in front of the city gates where they formed their shield wall. Spears, shields, and swords were readied.
This was a message. They wouldn’t hide from these pagans… they would meet them directly in battle. The warbands of Mercia were inviting Ingimund and his men to meet them in honorable combat.
But despite spending several years living to the north of Chester, Ingimund wasn’t Anglo Saxon. He was a Scandinavian raider, and he wasn’t bound by the same concepts of honor that the Mercians were… and Ingimund had numbers on his side.
So rather than sending an equal warband to engage these suicidal warriors, he sent a force that dwarfed them… and Ingimund’s army was so big that he was able to do this and still hold large numbers of troops in reserve. Just to watch what happened next.
On his order, the detachment locked shields and advanced on the brutally outnumbered Mercians. A short distance away, the Fyrd dug their heels in and readied for the inevitable clash of shields that was coming… and it did.
The impact of the Scandinavian shieldwall against the Mercian fyrd must have rattled the veterans down to their bones. They were experienced, they were hardened, but so were these Vikings. All things being equal, they might have been able to hold… but things weren’t equal, and the fyrd simply didn’t have the numbers to counter what was coming at them.
So with every moment that passed, they were pushed back towards the gate. If the Fyrd wasn’t careful, it wouldn’t be long before they would be pressed up against the walls and, without any more space to retreat, they would be butchered like lambs. But the gate was still open… There was still a chance to escape back to the safety of the walls.
They couldn’t withstand the Scandinavian advance, and with every step more of their comrades were caught by a thrusting spear or the crash of an axe. They were losing… badly.
These were brave warriors, but everyone has a limit… and they had reached theirs. And if they fell here, Chester was sure to follow. The Fyrd broke and rushed as quickly as they could for the gate. They ran back to the safety that the city’s walls provided.
But a breaking army is always an opportunity to its enemy, and Norse and Danes saw theirs. If they could take the city walls, this war would be over before it even began… and the gate WAS open. So as the Fyrd fled… the combined Viking force chased after them.
A mass of men crowded their way through the opening. Perhaps those in the back held their shields and attempted to provide some degree of protection from the advancing horde, or maybe they were just focused on getting through the gate as quickly as possible.
However it happened, I imagine that the crush at the gate would have been chaotic, claustrophobic, and terrifying.
Fighting, and shoving, and pressing their way through the gap… the fyrd made it back inside the walls of Chester. And then it happened.
The Scandinavians rushed in behind them. In a mere matter of minutes, perhaps even in a matter of seconds, the Vikings had penetrated Chester’s greatest defense. They were inside the walls.
Watching from his vantage point, Ingimund must have smiled. Even at a distance he would have been able to see that this was going incredibly well.
Then the gates slammed shut. And the screaming began.
Ingimund could hear the sounds of battle. He could hear horses… and weapons… and the sound of men dying. But he couldn’t /see/ anything. None of the remainder of his army could. Moreover, looking at the walls, and the armed force that held it, they must have realized that there would be no chance of rescue. Whatever their allies had walked into… they would have to deal with it alone.
What the Northmen found inside the walls Chester was a nightmare. The veterans of this Fyrd had not truly broken. It was a feint. Once within the walls… once the Scandinavians were fully past the gate… they immediately reformed their shield walls. At the same time, other members of the Fyrd emerged from their hiding places and quickly locked the gate behind the advancing raiders.
Disorganized by their charge, the Danes and Norse only had a few moments to reform their shield wall… and I wonder if (in the rush to prepare for battle against the Fyrd in front of them) they even saw the array of cavalry on their flank.
In the chaos of that moment, did they notice the sound of hooves or perhaps a whinny? Or were they blissfully unaware of what was coming towards them until 1000’s of pounds of horse and soldier slammed into their lines.
With nowhere left to flee all the Danes and Northmen could do is stand and fight… which they did. But they were outmatched in every possible way, and it wasn’t long before they were defeated. And unlike the armies of Alfred, the Mercians showed absolutely no mercy.
Every single one of the invading raiders was killed. There were no surviving Scandinavians within the Walls of Chester.
I don’t know what happened next. The Annals don’t mention what the Fyrd did immediately following that victory.
What we do know is that this military feat was carried out according to the plans sent by AEthelred and AEthelflaed. We also know that Edward’s son, AEthelstan, was about 12 at this time and the ward of the royal couple… and based upon what we know about him when he grows up, I suspect he was watching this event very carefully. He had a front row seat to a masterclass on how to deal with the Danes.
And yet, despite the massacre that resulted from their first advance, Ingimund and his army weren’t about to give up. They had bet everything on this battle, and these were hardened warriors. Ingimund and his men didn’t have a home to return to. They knew that AEthelflaed wouldn’t allow them to return to their lands to the north of Chester. The chance for a peaceful coexistence was gone… now, if they wanted to live here, they needed fortifications to protect them. They had no choice but to obtain victory. If they were going to live, they had to take Chester.
With that imperative, Ingimund’s army immediately set to work creating a defensive framework to protect their men as they built and dug their way ever closer to the walls of Chester.
Inch by inch they advanced. Once at the walls, they intended to undermine them, and thus create an opening for his Host to enter the city and avenge their fallen comrades. It was a tried and true strategy. The trouble, though, was that it was also a painstaking and time consuming task, and it wasn’t particularly subtle.
And AEthelflaed had a network of spies. That was how she knew about Ingimund’s secret meeting with his allies… and these same spies were sending reports back about Ingimund’s activities and, critically, the composition of his army. At some point she learned that the Scandinavian army lead by Ingimund had large numbers of Irish freemen and fosterlings bolstering their numbers. That was good news for the Mercian royal couple.
You see, while the story of Ireland has largely been on the margins of our story, that doesn’t mean that the Irish weren’t engaged and involved. They very much were. It’s just that in this poorly recorded era we don’t always hear about them… but even with our sparse record, we know Irish scholars interacted with some regularity with Anglo Saxon kingdoms. And, as we have talked about many times in the show, we always underestimate the scale and reach of trade. And of course we can’t forget, the Anglo Saxon kingdoms and the Irish kingdoms had common cause on religious grounds, and they also were both under the same existential threat by the Scandinavians.
And yet here they were, bulking up Ingimund’s army. Perhaps they could be turned. It was an opportunity that they would be foolish to ignore… so a messenger was sent. Not to Ingimund, but directly to the Irishmen who supported him, stating:
“Life and health to you from the King of the Saxons, who is ill, and from the Queen, who holds all authority over the Saxons, and they are certain that you are true and trustworthy friends to them. Therefore you should take their side: for they have given no greater honour to any Saxon warrior or cleric than they have given to each warrior or cleric who has come to them from Ireland, for this inimical race of pagans is equally hostile to you also. You must, then, since you are faithful friends, help them on this occasion.”
Thankfully, our Irish scribe recognized that the subtext might not be clear to us, so he continued...
“This was the same as saying to them, ‘Since we have come from faithful friends of yours to converse with you, you should ask the Danes what gifts in lands and property they would give to the people who would betray the city to them. If they will make terms for that, bring them to swear an oath in a place where it would be convenient to kill them, and when they are taking the oath on their swords and their shields, as is their custom, they will put aside all their good shooting weapons.’”
Now you might have noticed that I am using Northmen and Danes for specific groups in this episode. That’s because, while the terms are used interchangeably in the Anglo Saxon sources, the Irish annals draw firm distinctions between the two groups. The Irish had a more nuanced relationship with Scandinavian peoples, and their relationship with the Northmen was actually important, and surprisingly cozy.
Because many of the Irish present at this battle were actually fostered by the Norse… meaning that the Norse had raised many of them when they were children... they had developed close ties. Asking them to betray the Northmen would have probably been a bridge too far for the Irish, regardless of any friendly ties they had with the Mercians. But as for these new Danish allies? Well that’s a different matter entirely. They didn’t owe the Danes jack.
So while the Northmen were hard at work under their ramshackle defenses, attempting to undermine the walls of Chester, the Irish were meeting with the Danes and passing along AEthelred and AEthelflaed’s offer.
The Danes sent back a demand for lands and gifts, and the royal couple agreed. Acting as intermediaries, the Irish established a meeting place where the oaths could be sworn and the gifts would be exchanged. Based upon the way the Fragmentary Annals describes it, the spot sounds a bit like a dell. A low patch of land, surrounded by hills.
The Danes arrived, along with their Irish allies, intending to meet with the Mercians and receive their Danegeld of cash and prizes. But as they reached the agreed upon spot, the Irish carefully pulled back a bit from the group… They played it casual and waited for the Danes to disarm, as they always did during these oaths… and then they sprung the trap. The Mercians and the Irish set upon the now disarmed Danes with a torrent of rocks, arrows, and javelin. There would be no escape, and no quarter was given. The disarmed and ambushed Danes were slaughtered where they stood.
Meanwhile, far from the massacre, the Northmen were still under their canopies. They knew they had lost some of their allies. The Danes had vanished (or perhaps they knew what happened because scouts returned word of the ambush). And as for the Irish… they certainly would have known of their betrayal because not only were they absent from the Norse lines… a sharp eye could now see their former allies walking along the walls of Chester, right alongside the Mercians.
But no matter. They had a new home to win with fertile rich lands. And now they had a reason to seek revenge as a cherry on top of that charming pastoral sundae. So they continued to advance their canopies. And once they reached the walls, and began digging, the defense of Chester quickly turned to siege warfare. Rocks were hurled down upon the heads of the Norse sappers, crushing them. So the canopies were strengthened with sturdy branches. In response, the Mercians took the ale and water in the city, boiled it in large cauldrons, and poured it over the Northmen unfortunate enough to be at the walls. In a particularly graphic entry, the Annals tell us of how during the attack “their skin peeled off them.”
But still, Ingimund refused to give in, and instead he ordered that they spread hides on top of their canopies to protect the crews digging at the walls.
Seeing that the norse had successfully warded off their Ale attack, the Mercians moved on to mead. The Anglo Saxons still had quite an appetite for mead, and that meant that any settlement of a reasonable size needed apiaries. Chester was no exception.
So the beekeepers were sent to gather their hives, bring them to the walls, and hurl the hives down upon the reinforced canopies.
The hides and wooden supports were able to ward off the rocks and boiling ale… but tens of thousands… perhaps hundreds of thousands of incredibly pissed off bees? Well that’s another matter.
There was no safety for the Northmen. The swarm easily reached the men under the canopies, stinging any exposed skin… Hands, arms, faces, eyes… There was no reprieve, and no stopping it. Not even their clothing and armor could fully protect them, as the enraged bees could easily slip up a loose fold and reach whatever tender flesh they found underneath.
Not even running away would save them, as the maddened swarm would just chase them.
Back at the camp, Ingimund saw his men panicking. He heard their screams and watched them run blindly from their canopies. Those that made it back were horrifically swollen and mangled. We’re told that the surviving besiegers weren’t even able to move their hands and feet because of the sheer number of stings.
They had endured so much. The slaughter at the gates. The Irish betraying them and the subsequent ambush. The rocks, the javelins, the boiling ale.
There had been so much that they had suffered through.
But those bees were the last goddamned straw.
When even nature seemed to be conspiring against them it was time to pack it in. So Ingimund’s army gave up and retreated.
Chester was saved. Mercia was triumphant.