In the fall of 865, dragonships began to beach on the shores of East Anglia. Led by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, the initial groups of ships, maybe a hundred at most, swelled to maybe a thousand or more. The Great Heathen Army, as the vikingrs would come to be known, was now invading England. The word “vikingr” simply meant “pirate” which was a good description of the Viking raiders in the 9th century. They sacked cities, sold stolen goods, traded in slaves, and largely lived off the land, so to speak, but traveled by the sea.
The English were well aware of the Norse raiders. The Vikings had been sacking English towns since 793 when they looted the monastery at Lindisfarne. The king of East Anglia, Edmund the Martyr, assumed that these raiders could be paid off as others had been in the past. So he rushed out to welcome them, taking selfies with Ivar the Boneless, while Viking onlookers posted to their Faceberg page. OK, I made that up, but Edmund did make a deal with the Vikings. He paid the Norse what they demanded so they would go away.
One of the demands made by the Vikings was an unusual one. They wanted horses, lots of horses. These were people willing to trade in anything, but transporting horses by sea is not easy and it requires special skills. They wanted a lot of horses, enough to equip an army, so the task of transporting these animals for sale would have been daunting. Horses are big animals and prone to panic. A large animal thrashing around on your long-ship would be a bad result.
There’s some debate as to how they did it or even if they did it. The next time history notes the Viking horses is in the fall of 866 when they turned up in Northumbria, a kingdom about 150 miles north of East Anglia. Maybe they went over land, but there are no records of this. Maybe they build barges to carry the animals. They were great seamen so that’s plausible. They could also have kidnapped some locals who would help them handle the animals in transit.
On All Saints Day 866, the people of Eoforwic were doing what was common in the Middle Ages, which was partying like it was 866. In that time, the fall was when you celebrated and relaxed. The harvest was in, food stores were topped off and the bulk of the farm work was done for the year. Townfolk were the middle-class of the day. Land owners, minor royalty, merchants and traders lived in the city, so they were better off than the peasantry and could afford to cut loose a little.
The Northumbrian kings Aelle and Osbert were enjoying the good life in their capital when reports arrived about dragonships landing north of the Humber. Unlike prior raids in Northumbria, this one was not just a raid on some coastal towns. The Vikings, led by Ivar and Halfdan, were leading an army on horseback as well as on foot. More important, there were thousands of them, maybe tens of thousands. This was the largest army to set foot on the island since the Romans.
This was an enormous army and it was quickly on top of Eoforwic. History from this period is not always reliable, but the best sources suggest the Vikings led a night raid on the city, which was another amazing trick for a people known as sailors. The unprepared Northumbrians were no match for the Great Heathen Army and Eoforwic fell in the fall of 866. Aelle and Osbert escaped, but, Northumbria was now a Norse kingdom. Eoforwic would remain the capital of the Danelaw until the last independent Northumbrian monarch, Erik Bloodaxe, died in 954
The city of Eoforwic is a mouthful to say, even for modern sophisticates. The Norse really struggled with it. The name comes from the Roman name for the settlement which meant “place with alder trees.” The “wic” was tacked on after the Romans left and it means “village.” The Norse eventually shortened it to Jorvik and then finally to York. Place name drift is nothing new but in this case we have a clear understanding of how and why it happened. The Vikings simply could not or would not pronounce the town name correctly.
Today, England and Scotland are being invaded by Muslims. London is now a Muslim city. You could, if you wished to be accurate, call it the capital of the Western Caliphate. In Scotland, the native populations are now converting to Islam in large enough numbers to suggest a trend. The Norse invaders converted to Christianity, but this new wave of invaders is determined to convert the local population to their faith. Mosques are springing up all over blighty, while Christian churches sit empty.
If your summer vacation plans take you to England, pay attention to what the Muslim invaders are calling the local cities and towns. In a generation, those will be the official names, just as we currently call the old capital of Northumbria “York” instead of Eoforwic. This may seem far fetched, but just a few generations before the Great Heathen Army landed in England, everyone would have thought Norse dominance of England was far-fetched as well.