What would come to be known as the Great Heathen Army – an army of approximately 2000 Vikings – camped first at Torksey, and then at Repton. Throughout the winter of 872 – 873 CE, Torksey became home to the Viking invaders. By the following winter, the army had moved south, sailing their longships down the River Trent to Repton, where they over-wintered until spring in 874 CE. The evidence of their encampments leaves tantalising clues as to who they were and what they did. The following is a fictional account of what life might have been like within the Great Heathen Army.
872 CE, Mercia
We have made it to England! We saw land this morning, and sailed along the coast until we came to the break in the shore. None of us know if the other ships which departed with us have made it here safely – we have seen nothing of them since the storm hit on the second day at sea. Hopefully we will hear news of their arrival once we meet with the army. We rowed into the opening until we found the river which will lead us south. Tomorrow we will explore this land and find out how many others have come.
872 CE, Torksey
So many of us have gathered to raid this rich land! As we rowed upstream we saw their sentries, and then the other ships. We had heard of the army that had been raiding at Jorvik, but never – when we decided to join them – did we anticipate just how many people were in this army. There are 43 of us on our ship, and there must be almost twice that number of ships already here – there can never have been an army as large as ours! We were met by those who owned the ships now neighbouring ours. One was a man named Raffa, who helped lead us through the encampment to find space for our own stay here. He said that he has been with the army since it was at Jorvik, and that so far nothing had stopped them, nor could it if more warriors continued to arrive. Apparently, this river – known as Trent by the local inhabitants – flows right through this land; the Mercians won't know what has hit them!
872 CE, Torksey
We have been at what, I have been told, is called Turcseg for a week now. Two more of our ships arrived yesterday, those under Tóli and Ulf, but neither had news of Inge’s ship. Once moored, Ulf lost little time in losing twelve thviets to Raffa whilst playing dice. I had better luck against Tóli, winning twice at tafl. I now have a bet with Raffa’s wife, Gunhild, that if I can beat her in three games of tafl tomorrow, I will win her trefoil brooch. If I lose, I have to give her the cup I raided from Frankia.
873 CE, Torksey
Spring has arrived, and we have been making the final repairs to the sails. I bought a new needle from Gunhild after mine snapped so that we could be ready to depart with the rest of the army. She commented on how winter does not seem to linger here the way it does where she comes from, farther north. I told her how the trader - the one who paid me with the coins I have now given to her - had told me that where they came from, the summers became so hot you began to long for winter’s cold to cool you. Once our raiding here is done, I may sail to that far south, and see if that trader was telling the truth…
873 CE, Newark-on-Trent, Mercia
We departed from Turcseg two days ago and began to sail farther in land, following the River Trent. A few of the younger warriors among us, clearly excited to prove themselves, have already won a few silver coins from the villages we have passed. But soon there will be far more for all of us... Today we reached out first real obstacle: a new fortification built by the river. Thankfully the river here is split in two and has created a central island. These new defences have been built on the southern bank of the southern branch; we can sail past their efforts along the northern branch, out of harm's way! But if they have built this defence they may well have treasures to defend... When we stopped yesterday we heard tell of a man named Codda, and the 'niwe weorc' he had been involved in building. It may be worth paying this man a visit and seeing what wealth he has to share.
873 CE, Mercia
We made it by their defences with ease! The new fortifications proved that they had something to protect, but not anymore! Many of us won wealth yesterday, and we are sure to win more as we continue. The rivers make it easy to travel through their land; it is rare if they have any great defence against out ships, as to block the rivers would be to stop their own trade as well as us. Though they tried with their niwe weorc, they cannot stop us.
873 CE, Lowdham, Mercia
All of the land we have seen so far looks rich and fertile and has been proving as such. We can easily obtain food supplies by walking along the river and harvesting the fruit from the abundant plants. The fields of crops we have seen by villages have been full and ripe. We have stopped tonight outside the village of a man named Hluda, and here their crops have grown golden. Gunhild has mentioned that she and Raffa might settle here once the campaign is over and establish their own farm. I do not blame her – it is a tempting prospect in deed to have one's own thorpe in such an abundant place.
873 CE, Rushcliffe, Mercia
We are approaching the great town of Snot's people; we should arrive tomorrow morning. Soon we will all have won wealth on this voyage! It would seem that the brushwood this stretch of the Trent its name - 'hris clif'. If the Mercians had not talked so freely of the landmarks of their routes, we may not have realised just how soon we would be approaching their major town. After tomorrow I doubt they will make that mistake again...
873 CE, Shardlow, Mercia
The great wealth we won in Snottingaham has wet our appetites for more; we now sail forth eagerly awaiting our next target. Raffa has mentioned a place called Hrypedun. He says that it is where the Mercian king lives, so should be ripe for the taking! It will likely be more difficult to conquer, but the rewards should be worth it. It is this promise that has kept some members from dissenting. Yesterday we passed a substantial tributary to our River Trent. This other river, the Derwent I am told, forks off to the north, and likely more treasures that way as well – we will have to come back and see. We have stopped now at the land between the two. A hill has left a gap between the waterways and a small settlement has been built there. I am surprised it does not equal Snotingaham, it must surely get trade from both of the rivers.
873 CE, Repton
We have taken control of the royal centre of Mercia! As expected, Hrypedun held more resistance than our normal raids encountered. The battle was hard won, and Tóli was killed among the fighting, so now his ship and warriors are being commanded by Tryggi. Raffa has informed us that we are going to stay here at Hrypedun for now. Whilst winter is not yet upon us, it is certainly fast approaching, and it is better for us to consolidate the control we have won.
873 CE, Repton
After we finished unloading the ships to make camp, Tryggi and Ulf went to find Tóli’s body. Nearby they also found Geirbiorn, Tóli’s weapon-bearer. They brought them back to our camp. It looks as though a blow to the head killed Tóli; so much for the hammer pendant he picked before we left home. Geirbiorn looks to have suffered a similar fate. Raffa offered to help dig graves for them, where we will bury them this evening.
873 CE, Repton
We buried Tóli and Geirbiorn yesterday. We buried Tóli with his sword buckled on and gave him his two knives for good measure – as good a warrior as he was, he always claimed he had only lived so long for having the knives as back-up. You never know what may happen to you in battle, and it seems only right for him to have the best chance in whatever battles lie ahead of him now. We left him wearing his hammer pendant as well; he had traded for it before we left, claiming it would bring him luck – maybe it will bring him luck in the afterlife (at least, I’d rather think that than the notion that it might be cursed and caused this). We buried Geirbiorn with his knife next to Tóli.
Early autumn 874 CE, Repton
We are finally departing from Hrypedun. The army seems to be on the verge of splitting, so Tryggi, Ulf, and I have decided that, for now at least, it would be better to return home with the wealth we have acquired before the sea becomes too dangerous to cross. Gunhild and Raffa have decided that they are going to settle here. They say that the wealth they have acquired with the army should be enough for them to establish a farm for themselves. I have no doubt that the land will provide more than enough to sustain them, and leave surplus that they can trade. In all ways this land is rich...
To learn more about the Great Heathen Army and see the artefacts of the encampments, visit Danelaw Saga: Bringing Vikings back to the East Midlands at Nottingham Lakeside Arts.
To learn more about the place names of the East Midlands, and of England as a whole, visit the Key to English Place-names at http://kepn.nottingham.ac.uk/.
Written by Harriet Clark.