The Kingslayer, early 874 a.d. (Earleywood, March 2014)

At which a small group of Vikings raided a monastery on the edge of Wessex, and stole the Kingslayer (the sword that killed the Viking King Bagsecg in one of the few battles where Englisc beat the Vikings), to weaken Mercian resolve and enable a prophecy.

Early 874. Over the previous decade, the Vikings had relentlessly pillaged the Englisc kingdoms, sacking cities (such as the sack of London in Autumn 872), burning monasteries and killing kings – King Edmund of East Anglia, and Osbriht and Aelle of Northumbria. Then reports suggested that the heathens were looking towards Mercia, the land of King Burhred.

Mercia was divided, torn. King Burhred dithered, unsure what to do, with his forces weakened by the years of fighting. A king’s thane called Ceolwulf, who claimed to be of the ancient royal line of the Iclingas, a descendant of the King Ceolwulf of Mercia who was deposed 50 years ago, said that Mercia’s best hope was to accept the Vikings, to pay them not to attack and to try and integrate with them rather than remaining in opposition. The heathens were merchants as well as fighters; why not trade with them rather than be raided by them?

But Alfred of Wessex, Burhred’s brother-in-law, believed that the Englisc should oppose the Vikings if they invade. When the Vikings invaded Wessex in 870, Alfred’s forces fought them and won several great victories (as well as some defeats, but it’s the victories that matter). Those victories became symbols of hope for many Englisc, particularly those of now-threatened Mercia.

Earleywood Monastery was founded at the site of one of those victories, and one of its greatest possessions was the Kingslayer, the sword that slew the Viking King Bagsecg at the nearby Battle of Ashdown. Once a year, on the anniversary of the battle, the sword was proudly displayed and processed around the battlefield, a great symbol of hope that stiffened the resolve of those who have to fight the heathens. If it fell into heathen hands it would be an ill omen, both because it would sow doubt amongst the Englisc by removing a powerful symbol and because the vǫlvas of the Viking had predicted that:

The Kingslaying blade will betray its bearer,
Defeat’s disgrace will be drowned in blood.

Thus, representatives of Wessex and Mercia (the Cilternsaete, Beorcsciringas and Sumorsaete) gathered to protect the procession of the Kingslayer, and managed to repulse attacks by the heathens (the Oestvikingae, Holmbyggjar and Westmen) who tried to seize control of the weapon; aided by divisions that sprung up between the Vikings as to who should own the sword, and what their eventual aim should be.

Vikings clash

However, once the Kingslayer was returned to its rightful place in the monastery, the Vikings fell upon the monastery with great force. The Englisc defenders were outnumbered, and did not manage to save the sword or the famed Scrolls of St. Swithun – although they did managed to protect some of the monastery’s relics and altar decorations.

Later, the Vikings and Englisc met at a great banquet, presided over by Glora of the Holmbyggjar.
There the Mercian Thegn Herewulf of the Cilternsaete asked the gathered folk their opinion of the future of Mercia, and Ceolwulf’s idea of peace (or, as some would say, surrender).

  • Glora of the Holmbyggjar talked of the friendship she had for some of the Englisc, the bonds that united the two peoples, and peaceful co-existence. As a sign of friendship she returned to Thegns Ceolred and Herewulf the Scrolls of St. Swithun.
  • Ceolred Monger, Thegn of the Beorcsciringas, talked of his experience as a refugee from war-torn Mercia, who had found a home in Wessex. He said he wanted to see an actual end to the fighting, a victory for the Englisc. He wanted to return home to Mercia, but a free Mercia, not one threatened by war and by land-stealing heathens. Ceolwulf would not truely get rid of the Vikings, only appease them at great cost, and so Ceolred would not support him.
  • Ingibjorg of the Holmbyggjar talked not of land-stealing but of peaceful settlement, of intermarriage and intermingling, and said that though she would not convert to following the White Christ, she believed that her future children, born in Britain, would be Christians.
  • Hersir Hauk of the Oestvikingae‘s view was more bloodthirsty. He emphasised the historical similarities between the Englisc and the Vikings, how the Angles and Saxons were once pagan invaders fighting settled Christians. But he also gave a stark warning – if the Englisc did not follow Ceolwulf and seek peace with the Vikings, they would be wiped out, with Burhred and Alfred going the way of Arthur, and the Englisc being confined to the wilds, just as the Welsh were by the Englisc. He talked of blood, and fire, and war; the death of kings and the elimination of peoples if they did not follow Ceolwulf.

Hauk’s words stirred Herewulf to great anger, and bloodshed was only avoided by the intervention of Glora. It is clear that the people of Mercia will not have an easy decision to make, and that dark times lie ahead – they have lost the Kingslayer, so their morale has taken a blow (although not as bad as if it had been taken from the procession itself), and Ceolwulf continues to speak out against King Burhred & in favour of peace.

An excerpt from Hauk Ragnarsson’s Saga
In 874, the Oestvikingae fell again upon Mercia. Mercia had been weakened by the many raids, and their leaders were divided between those seeking peace and those who would still fight. The vǫlva Guðrún told Hauk that the Kingslayer, the sword that slew King Bagsecg at Æscesdūn, was held at a monastery named Earleywood, and foresaw that:

The Kingslaying blade will betray its bearer,
Defeat’s disgrace will be drowned in blood.

Hauk swore that he would get the Kingslayer for Guðrún, and traveled south to find it. However it was well-defended, and so Hauk made an agreement with his father’s daughter Ingibjorg of the Holmbyggjar – she would give him the Kingslayer if it fell into her hands, and he would give her land to settle upon if any fell into his hands. Hauk cared not for the settled life, he was a raider and nothing else, and unlike the Holmbyggjar he had no wish to possess land for he sought only war. Seeing this, Kappi Bosison, younger son of Styrsman Bosi who led the Holmbyggjar, left the Holmbyggjar and joined the Oestvikingae to seek his fame and fortune.
Later that day, the Holmbyggjar managed to seize the Kingslayer. When the Oestvikingae re-joined them, however, they refused to hand it over and treacherously turned on Hauk’s forces. They struck Hauk, Fritha and Kappi down, and forced Thorhelm to surrender. But Thorhelm was cunning, and as soon as they were distracted he seized the Kingslayer, and fled back to the Oestvikingae. Sadly at this moment the Englisc arrived, attacked the divided Vikings, and took the Kingslayer. The Oestvikingae fell into berserking, and Kappi earned himself the name Spear-Splitter, but they did not recover the Kingslayer.
The Englisc took Kingslayer back the Earleywood Monastery, and so Hauk led the Oestvikingae there. The Englisc were few, and could not stand against the greater numbers of the Vikings, and thus the Vikings forced entry into the monastery and took the Kingslayer and other relics. Thorhelm, using his customary speed, escaped with the Kingslayer. However when he returned to the monastery he was ambushed by some nuns, who tormented him and placed a strange Christian curse upon his shield.
Later, at banquet, there were great discussions about whether Mercia should seek peace or war from the Vikings. Ingibjorg spoke in favour of co-operation and settlement, showing the Englisc what could happen if they chose peace; Hauk spoke of killing all who stood against him, showing the Englisc what could happen if they chose war – which led to Hauk almost coming to blows with Herewulf of Mercia. Hauk returned to Guðrún bearing Kingslayer.

Historical Note – The Battles of 870/871
871 is one of the larger entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and as it was such a key year we wanted to include it in our plot. Even though we are starting after it, running plots based from 872 onwards, it still loomed large. Here’s the full quote:

This year came the army to Reading in Wessex; and in the course of three nights after rode two earls up, who were met by Alderman Ethelwulf at Englefield; where he fought with them, and obtained the victory. There one of them was slain, whose name was Sidrac. About four nights after this, King Ethered and Alfred his brother led their main army to Reading, where they fought with the enemy; and there was much slaughter on either hand, Alderman Ethelwulf being among the skain; but the Danes kept possession of the field. And about four nights after this, King Ethered and Alfred his brother fought with all the army on Ashdown, and the Danes were overcome. They had two heathen kings, Bagsac and Healfden, and many earls; and they were in two divisions; in one of which were Bagsac and Healfden, the heathen kings, and in the other were the earls. King Ethered therefore fought with the troops of the kings, and there was King Bagsac slain; and Alfred his brother fought with the troops of the earls, and there were slain Earl Sidrac the elder, Earl Sidrac the younger, Earl Osbern, Earl Frene, and Earl Harold. They put both the troops to flight; there were many thousands of the slain, and they continued fighting till night. Within a fortnight of this, King Ethered and Alfred his brother fought with the army at Basing; and there the Danes had the victory. About two months after this, King Ethered and Alfred his brother fought with the army at Marden. They were in two divisions; and they put them both to flight, enjoying the victory for some time during the day; and there was much slaughter on either hand; but the Danes became masters of the field; and there was slain Bishop Heahmund, with many other good men. After this fight came a vast army in the summer to Reading. And after the Easter of this year died King Ethered. He reigned five years, and his body lies at Winburn-minster. Then Alfred, his brother, the son of Ethelwulf, took to the kingdom of Wessex. And within a month of this, King Alfred fought against all the Army with a small force at Wilton, and long pursued them during the day; but the Danes got possession of the field. This year were nine general battles fought with the army in the kingdom south of the Thames; besides those skirmishes, in which Alfred the king’s brother, and every single alderman, and the thanes of the king, oft rode against them; which were accounted nothing. This year also were slain nine earls, and one king; and the same year the West-Saxons made peace with the army.

‘Make peace with the army’ probably means paying danegeld to get rid of the Vikings, so ultimately the year was probably a Viking victory. But it’s still a key time, as these are the first victories against the Vikings recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Kingslayer is our invention, as is Earleywood Monastery.

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