Battle of York: Vikings Defeat Anglo-Saxons; Saxon King Gets a "Blood Eagle"

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Battle of York: Vikings Defeat Anglo-Saxons; Saxon King Gets a "Blood Eagle"

Panel from Stora Hammars stone, located in Lärbro parish, Gotland, Sweden
It apparently shows a man lying on a table (center) being punished with the "bloody eagle" torture
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: March 21, AD 867

I return to my favorite historical era (the so-called Dark Ages) for today's posting. We will examine a battle which took place during the early days of the Viking period. In addition, we will look at historical records for events that may or may not have occurred, no matter how horrific they were…


After the initial Viking attack on the abbey of Lindisfarne in 793, Viking raids struck England, Ireland, Wales, France, and Germany. The nations of western Europe had no real defense against these seaborne attackers. During this early period of the Viking Era, the main objective of the Norsemen was plunder and terror. Occasionally, these pirates could be bought off with gold or silver, or even supplies of some manner.

Oseberg longship, Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway; Excavated from a burial mound in Norway, 1904-1905
Oseberg longship, Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway
Excavated from a burial mound in Norway, 1904-1905

These raids were facilitated by the Viking drakkar, or "dragon-ship" which was a revolution in ship building. This longship could be rowed or sailed, could penetrate up rivers or even small streams, and was light enough to be portaged overland from one river to another. A typical longship had an average of 15-25 oars per side, yielding a typical crew of 30-50 men.

In the first decade of Viking raids, there were normally very few longships in each expedition. However, after the vulnerable Frankish and English coasts were attacked, larger numbers of Norse ships joined these plundering attacks. In 844 or 845, a Viking chieftain named Ragnar Lodbrok ("Hairy Breeches") led a fleet of 120 ships and 5000 warriors in a major raid on West Francia, which was ruled by Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne. The army attacked a number of Frankish cities, burned Rouen, and sacked Paris. King Charles managed to bribe the Norsemen with 7000 pounds of silver to leave Francia.

'Ragnar Lodbroks död' etching by Hugo Hamilton (published 1830)
"Ragnar Lodbroks död" etching by Hugo Hamilton (published 1830)

Twenty years later, in 865 Ragnar was shipwrecked on the coast of Northumbria, the northernmost kingdom of Anglo-Saxons. He was taken before King Ælla, who had recently usurped the kingdom's throne by pushing out the former ruler, Osbert. As a well-known Viking leader, Ælla ordered Ragnar executed by having him thrown into a pit filled with venomous snakes.

The Sons of Ragnar and the "Great Heathen Army"

Ragnar had three sons, according to the Norse sagas and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the two major sources for this story. Their names were Halfdan Ragnarsson (in some sources called "Hvitserk" or Whiteshirt), Ivar the Boneless (a nickname which is still a mystery), and Ubbe (or Hubba) Ragnarsson. Together, the three brothers gathered a large force (no reliable figures were given by the sources, but an estimate of 3000 to 5000 men is not stretching things) and invaded England, with the intent of punishing the man responsible for their father's death. This force was labeled the "Great Heathen Army" by the writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

In late summer or early fall of 865, the Great Heathen Army arrived in East Anglia. King Edmund, the ruler of that land, dared not fight them and bought peace. First, he allowed them to overwinter on the fringes of his kingdom. Then in the spring, the Vikings were given horses to allow them to travel to their next destination. The Norsemen had bigger plans and their army marched on their next target, Northumbria and its capital of York.

Prelude to the Battle

At that time, York was the capital of the kingdom of Northumberland. The kingdom was in civil war, with two rival kings vying for the throne. It may have been this that attracted the Vikings, who may have sought to take advantage of their squabbles. King Ælla was opposed by the former ruler Osbert, who still retained a following. As a result of the unrest, the Vikings launched an attack on York on November 1, 866. The date was probably deliberately chosen, as it was All Saints Day – a very important festival that was celebrated at the time. Even this early in the era of Norse raids, the Vikings knew important Christian festival days would attract local wealthy nobles and merchants, making cities, monasteries, and the like even choicer targets.

York was a substantial city by Saxon standards, a royal, ecclesiastical, and commercial center. The Romans had left 450 years earlier, but much of the fortress they had built north of the River Ouse still remained. The walls of the fortress were, for the most part, still tall and strong. As well as the walls, the city had natural defences. Fortunately for the Vikings, they met with little resistance, and took the city easily. It was obvious the Northmen intended to make York their base, possibly because of its defensive qualities and its size. [When the Vikings captured the city, they rename it "Jorvik."]

The Multiangular Tower, York, UK; part of the city walls of York (The lower half is Roman era construction, remainder is medieval, note cruciform arrow slits)
The Multiangular Tower, York, UK; part of the city walls of York
(The lower half is Roman era construction, remainder is medieval, note cruciform arrow slits)

The feuding kings Ælla and Osbert were not in York when it was taken, being distracted fighting each other. However, shortly afterwards the two Saxon kings realized the greater threat they faced, declared a truce, and decided to join forces. They gathered their men, and waited until the Vikings decided to make another raid from the city. In early to mid-March of 867, the Vikings launched another raid into other areas of Northumbria untouched during the winter. The Ragnarsson brothers left a token guard force behind, and took the bulk of the Great Heathen Army with them. This was the opportunity for which Ælla and Osbert had been waiting.

Battle of York

There are two competing versions of this battle, depending upon which source you choose to use. Bishop Asser, the biographer of Alfred the Great, claimed that on March 21, 867 the Saxon army surprised the Northmen guarding the city, and recaptured it, with the exception of a fortress built by the invaders inside the city's walls (possibly an early version of a citadel used during medieval times). Word somehow got to the Great Heathen Army, which immediately returned to its base. As the Vikings approached Jorvik, things took a bizarre turn. The Anglo Saxon army decided to meet the heathens outside of the city. A large force of Vikings managed to enter the city, seeking to relieve the trapped Viking guards in the city, and then trap the Saxons between a hammer and an anvil.

Realizing their peril, the Saxon soldiers sought to breach the city walls to re-enter the city and attack the Vikings within the city. [Although York's Roman walls were still relatively intact, there were probably some gaps where attempts were made to strengthen the defenses.] Asser's account then tells how the Vikings made "…an excessive slaughter…of the Northumbrians" both within the city walls and without, completely destroying their army and killing their kings and many of their nobles.

Other, albeit later accounts simply state that the Vikings directly attacked the Saxons in the city. All accounts agree that the Saxon army was utterly defeated. Some accounts say that both Ælla and Osbert fell in battle. However, others sources have a more horrifying end for Ælla…

"Flying the Blood Eagle"

One source claims that King Ælla was captured and sentenced to death by the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, for the the murder of their father. Consequently, Ælla was condemned to suffer the torture of the blood-eagle. One Norse saga claims that Ivar the Boneless did the deed on the Northumbrian monarch. It was performed by cutting the ribs of the victim by the spine, breaking the ribs so they resembled blood-stained wings, and pulling the lungs out through the wounds in the victim's back. To add to the pain, salt was sprinkled in the wounds. The victim would then die by suffocation, as the diaphragm was unable to allow air back into the lungs (if the victim had not already died from the blood loss, shock and pain).

However, the historicity of the practice is disputed. Some historians take it as historical: evidence of atrocities fueled by pagan hatred of Christianity. Others take it as fiction: heroic Icelandic sagas, skaldic poetry and inaccurate translations.


This was the beginning of the Viking occupation of York. The Viking leader Halfdan Ragnarsson became the first Danish King of York, which became the Viking capital of England. The Viking army moved south and, over the years, almost conquered the whole of England. Alfred of Wessex stood in their way. Eventually England was split and a precarious treaty was reached. The Vikings ruled over all of Northumberland and East Anglia and half of Mercia, whilst Alfred maintained a smaller kingdom consisting of the other half of Mercia and Wessex in the south. The Viking kingdom was called 'Danelaw' and York was its capital.

Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in the film 'The Vikings' (1958) (Illustration courtesy of
Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in the film "The Vikings" (1958)
(Illustration courtesy of

Footnote #1: In the 1958 movie "The Vikings," Ragnar Lodbrok is portrayed by Ernest Borgnine, Kirk Douglas is cast as his son Einar (variant of Ivar?), and Frank Thring plays King Ælla.

Frank Thring as King Ælla in 'The Vikings' (Illustration courtesy of
Frank Thring as King Ælla in "The Vikings"
(Illustration courtesy of

Footnote #2: In the History Channel scripted series "Vikings," Ragnar Lodbrok is portrayed by Australian actor Travis Fimmel.

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar in History Channel's 'Vikings' series (Illustration courtesy of
Travis Fimmel as Ragnar in History Channel's "Vikings" series
(Illustration courtesy of

Footnote #3: Bernard Cornwell has authored six historical novels which give a good flavor for the Viking era in Anglo-Saxon England. They are "The Last Kingdom" (2004), "The Pale Horseman" (2005), "The Lords of the North" (2006), "Sword Song" (2007), "The Burning Land" (2009), "Death of Kings" (2011). I have read the first five books in this series, and recommend them highly.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.