Oaths and Hostages, 876 A.D. (Flaunden, November 2016)

First, a quote from a surviving fragment of the Chronicle of St Albans (sadly lost at the dissolution of the monasteries…)

“AD 874. Here the Great Army came into Mercia and took winter quarters at Repton. And King Burhred lead his fyrd against them, and men from the Abbey lands with them. But Burhred thought himself accursed, and was driven from his kingdom to seek sanctuary in the bosom of our Lord in Rome. And the Danes gave the kingdom to Ceolwulf, who swore oaths to them and gave them hostages. Alas for the times that we live in!
AD 875. Here the Great Army left Repton. Some went with Healfdene to Northumbria and other with Guthrum, Oscytel and Anwend to Cambridge.
AD 876. Here after harvest Abbot Wulfnoth learned that King Ceolwulf sought to do harm to some of his sworn men, for they had been loyal to King Burhred, and so he thought them his enemies. But the Abbot sent word to them secretly, and they fled to seek safety among the West Saxons. And the Abbot sent with them a letter saying that he held their lands for them, for they held bookland from the Abbey, and so King Ceolwulf had no claim on it. Angry as he was, King Ceolwulf could not afford to make an enemy of Holy Mother Church, for fear that ot would make the folk rise against him. But Ceolwulf sent Danes to seek their death. Woe that Christian men should sink so low!”

Late in AD 876, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that “the army stole into Wareham, a fortress of the West Saxons. The king afterwards made peace with them; and they gave him as hostages those who were worthiest in the armt; and swore with oaths on the holy bracelet, which they would not before to any nation, that they would readily go out of his kingdom.”

Now, in most cases “made peace” seems to be an Anglo-Saxon euphemism for “paid them to go away”. But this seems to have been different.

My interpretation of events is that the Danes took control of the burh at Wareham before Alfred could bring up his fyrd, giving rise to a stand-off: the Anglo-Saxons could not get in without heavy losses, but the Danes could not get out- hence their offer to make peace. One of the things we wanted to explore was the giving of hostages and swearing of oaths.
To give us a reason to fight, I also assumed that some Viking stragglers would be harried by the locals before the main fyrd arrived.
The Sumorsaete wanted to drive out the Danes, and see how reliable their new neighbours, the Cilternsaete, would be: the Cilternsaete wanted to demonstrate their reliability to their hosts; the Westmen had been promised much silver by Ceolwulf to find and kill the Cilternsaete; the Holmbyggja envied those with Halfdan who were taking land to settle, and wanted to foil the Westmen to make them less trusted by the leaders of the Great Army: and the Oestvikingae wanted much the same, although their desire was to go on looting and raiding.

Despite the preceding fine autumn weather, the day when the Anglo-Saxons harried the Viking stragglers was miserably wet. Even so, there were many clashes between armed bands, and later in the day, when the confusion of battle had caused normal unit organisation to break down (or, the weedy did not go back out after lunch…) there was a series of ambushes by the Anglo-Saxon hunters and the Viking rearguard- including one spectacularly successful ambush when the Anglo-Saxons sprang from hiding, taking the Danes completely by surprise and slaughtering them all.

Eventually, the remaining Vikings gained the safety of the burh- not before time, for King Alfred shortly after arrived with his fyrd. The Anglo-Saxons did not wish to risk storming the fortress; the Vikings could not get out. So the leaders of the Great Army decided to seek peace, and offer hostages and oaths. They also decided that the Westmen, Holmbyggja, and Oestvikingae should offer hostages- one in three of their number- but could choose who they should be. They also advised them to look for cunning words so that they could swear an oath and keep to the letter of it, while breaking it in spirit.

The Holmbyggja nobly offered their kinfolk among the Oestvikimngae, Thorhelm and Fritha, as their hostages (which for some unfathomable reason they agreed to!). The Westmen offerd Hallgerd: Grimkell seemed very keen to marry her off (perhaps to save himself?) but none of the Cilternsaete were keen to marry a pagan. Wulfruna wisely suggested a marriage between hostages- Hallgerd and Thorkhelm- but neither Thorhelm nor his wife Fritha thought that a good idea! An alternative hostage was suggested, but eventually a copromise was reached- for Hallgerd to marry Wulfgar when he comes of age.
Dubious oaths were also sworn, giving the Danes enough wriggle-room to preserve some semblance of honour when they are broken (as the surely will be….). Of course, that will mean that the hostages will be hanged, so it looks as if Wulfgar is off the hook!
The astute will notice that 3 hostages from 18 Vikings is not one in three- clearly the Vikings are not very good at arithmetic….

So after glory in battle, glee in the hall. Food was eaten, mead drunk, songs sung, and riddles told. Men must revel when they may; for wyrd is wondrous fickle. Who can say what next year may bring?

– Herewulf Thegn

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