The Doom of Burhred, 874 A.D. (Flaunden, October 2014)

At which the Vikings and Englisc fought a terrible battle, King Burhred of Mercia fled, the Vikings declared Ceolwulf King of Mercia, and the Heathen Host fractured as King Ivar died and they were torn apart by arguments.

The red hand of war gripped Mercia. The Great Army seized and fortified Repton – a direct challenge to king Burhred, the place where his ancestors lay. All asked if the Mercians would offer tribute, or seek battle?

Burhred knew that he was under a heathen curse. His luck was gone. Reluctant to bring his doom upon himself, he was at first unwilling to face the Danes, but the demands of his ealdormen and thegns that he do something, and Ceolwulf’s proposal that the Mercians should buy peace, forced his hand. He summoned the fyrd, and marched on Repton.

The Mercians tried to bottle the Danes up inside the fortification, but the Vikings managed to force their way out. In the ensuing confusion both armies ended up loose and skirmishing, seeking to regroup and reform their battle lines. Then the shield walls finally clashed, and the Vikings managed to break the Saxon flank. Burhred, knowing that he is doomed, lost his nerve, broke and ran. The Vikings pursued him into the woods, and a long hunt ensued with Saxons and Vikings seeking to find the missing King. At one point the Vikings captured some of his court, the captors argued amongst themselves about what to do with their prisoners, to free them, ransome them or sacrifice them? In the end the King and Queen managed to get clear of the woods, although not all the members of their court survived the encounter with the heathens, and at least one was left dangling from Odin’s tree, sacrificed by the Oestvikingae…

Some days later, once Ceolwulf claimed Mercia and made peace with the Danes, the Cilternsaete hosted a feast. Tempers ran high, and blows were narrowly averted. Both sides were divided, with Somersaete and Beorcsciringas arguing, and condemnation raining down on the Oestvikingae‘s treatment of hostages from all directions, Saxon and Viking. Mercia had lost her King, and was unsure of her future; the Viking puppet King Ceolwulf of Mercia had precious little support; the Vikings had also lost their King, as news arrived at the banquet that King Ivar the Boneless was slain, killed by his own sword, the cursed blade Kingslayer. Any unity that once existed between the Vikings under Ivar has gone, with the Holmbyggjar seeking to settle and own land under Guthrum and the Westmen returning with their riches to their island homes off Scotland’s coast. And, in Wessex, King Alfred is the last surviving independent Englisc King…

The Chilternsaetae’s View
We received a message from Abbot Wulfnoth- King Burhred had summoned the fyrd. So, true to our duty to fulfil fyrd service for the abbey of St Alban, we rode north, joining the muster before advancing on Repton. Besides Mercians, there were some West Saxons present too, sent by King Alfred to support his sister’s husband.
The heathen army had seized the royal tun, and built a fortification there, defiling the church of St Wigstan, using it as the gate. The rampart curled around to meet the river Trent at either end. So we settled down to lay siege, as at Nottingham some years before.
When we heard the king address his fyrd, his heart did not seem to be in it. I spoke with Eowa, a member of the king’s hearth-troop, and he told me that the King had been in a fey, strange mood for some while, following something that happened at his favourite hunting lodge. He seemed to me to be a man who had seen his own wyrd. If that is what it does, then God save me from foreknowledge.
Eowa also told me that Ceolwulf, who claims descent from a older line of Mercian kings, had been making much of how, if he was King, he would seek peace with the Danes. So it seems that maybe Burhred felt he had to act, whether he wished to or not.
Poor Eowa- I will never speak with him again. He fell, there at Repton. I would have fallen too, but for Godwin.
We heard that there was sickness amongst the Danes. Maybe so, and that decided them perhaps. For whatever reason, they gathered their force and sought to break out through the church. We gathered a band at the gate to hold them within, but their numbers and desperation told, and we were forced back. The Vikings streamed out, and we fell back- both sides becoming scattered in the confusion of battle. Christian and heathen alike had to re-order their troops and form a shield-wall.
After a while, the linesformed and clashed, and we fought hard on the Mercian left, but were outflanked. I heard after that our centre broke- indeed, that King Burhred himself had fled, causing a rout.
Ealdormen Aethelred called for us to form a rearguard- a good man, Aethelred: I pray that he lived through the carnage.
The rest of that day is jumbled in my memory- many small fights in the woods as those of us that lived tried to break free, many dead lying open-eyed, awaiting the wolf and the raven. Eventually we made our way clear, and headed for home.
While we recovered, we hosted some of the West Saxons who had also fought clear in our hall at Redbourn, and drank the grave-ale for those who had fallen. They were still with us some days later, when a messenger came from Ceolwulf- he now claimed the kingship, and a band of Danes were travelling around Mercia not as raiders, but as emissaries seeking peace. So we hosted them too.
So soon after we had been in battle against each other, it is not surprising that harsh words were spoken, from both sides of the hall. But the peace of the hall held- not least because others, on both sides, spoke for calm to prevail.
It seems that Burhred has fled his kingdom- no one knows where, although some say that he has gone to seek sanctuary in Rome. I do not know if that is true.
So now we Cilternsaete must choose- do we stay true to Burhred, wherever he is? Do we accept Ceolwulf as king, and peace with the Danes? Or maybe there will be some other choice. I must seek Abbot Wulfnoth’s wisdom.
We live in troubled times.
Herewulf thegn

An excerpt from Hauk Ragnarsson’s Saga
Under King Ivar ‘the Boneless’ Ragnarsson’s leadership, the Great Heathen Host erected a mighty fortified bank around their camp at Repton. When Burhred’s army arrived, they tried to pen the Vikings inside this camp. As disease began to spread in the camp, King Ivar saw the need for us to break out and fight in open group – the Oestvikingae were among the leaders of the breaching force. It was a hard fight, with the Englisc intent on not giving the Host the space to use their superior numbers, but eventually the Mercians were driven back. Hauk was greatly impressed by the courage of the fallen Mercian thegn who led the battleline, and died with his sword in his hand. Hauk took his penis as a talisman, and later Guðrún buried the body with a boar’s tusk between its legs and a Thor’s Hammer around his neck, to ensure that he went to Valhalla, and was whole there.

The Oestvikingae then fought through the streets and woods surrounding Repton, as the Host fought to get to open ground where they could reform the battleline. The vǫlva Guðrún instructed Hauk that in order to ensure the battle ahead would go well, he must sacrifice an infant, quartering them into a bloody mess, and this was done, using a young Viking boy that they encountered and brawled with. This earnt Hauk his sister Ingibjorg’s grave disapproval.

The Great Heathen Host succeeded in getting through to clear ground, fighting past many Englisc and suffering some terrible losses in the process. They then reformed the shieldwall, and charged Burhred’s forces, seeking to capture and kill the King. As his battleline broke, Burhred fled, and hid in the nearby woods. The Vikings split up to search for him, clashing with Mercians seeking to find and protect their lord.

The Oestvikingae succeeded in capturing several ladies of Burhred’s court, and Hauk sought to threaten them to draw out Burhred and talk to him. In order to do this, Hauk sent one of their hostages to get Burhred and told her to return within a certain count or else the others would die. This strategy drew the ire of other Vikings, with Guðrún and Thorhelm the Cruel not wanting to set a captive free, the Holmbyggjar saying that slaying unarmed women was cowardly and wrong, whilst the Westmen wanted to continue the pursuit not engage in politics. As the count was completed, Burhred had not emerged – either because he was too cowardly to come forward to save his people, or because he was too far away to hear the demands – and so the Oestvikingae killed their captive, impaling her on Odin’s Tree.

The search for Burhred continued, and the Oestvikingae clashed with Englisc and Viking alike as they continued to carve a bloody path through any hostages they caught. However the search proved inconclusive, and the Oestvikingae returned to Repton to bury the dead.

A while later, they feasted at a hall of the Cilternsaete. There much news was shared: King Burhred was missing, presumed fled; Ceolwulf had declared himself King of Mercia; and King Ivar ‘the Boneless’ Ragnarsson, the man who held the Great Summer Army and the Great Heathen Host together, was dead. Tempers were high, and Englisc and Viking alike turned their ire on the Oestvikingae for the sacrifices they had performed, especially the killing of the unarmed hostages. Hauk remained defiant: the sacrifices were neccessary in order to gain the victory, and the threat to the hostages could have been averted by Burhred if he was a true king and cared about his people, if he had just stepped forwards. With King Ivar dead, there was no leader to bind the Vikings together, and deep fractures appeared between the groups… The peace held, but only just.

The Death of Ivar
After the Battle of Repton, Hauk wrote this song about King Ivar’s death:

The saddest song, I shall now sing;
Of how the Kingslayer, killed a king.
Ivar the Boneless, big and brave;
Reaved British lands, for Ragnar’s revenge.

His Heathen Host, harried the Englisc,
Kings were killed, and kingdoms vanquished.
When fighting Wessex, we suffered woe,
King Bagsecg killed, by Kingslayer’s blow.

The sword was saved, stored in Christ’s house,
Symbol of our slain, giving Saxons strength.
So we were sent, to steal sword for seiðr,
As witches wove words, wyrd’s web drew near:

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

Monks were mauled, monastery attacked,
To get the king-slayer, seiðr for spá-wives.
A nithing-pole erected, a night for norns,
King Burhred cursed, with deep-cut runes.

The blade was brought, to Ivar the Boneless,
King Ivar cursed Burhred, Kingslayer would kill.
At Repton’s battle, Burhred was beaten,
Shield-wall smashed, and fyrdsmen slain.

As Burhred’s battleline, began to flee,
Ivar sprang forward, shouting his glee.
The Viking king, drew Kingslaying blade,
Predicted by witches, who prophecies made:

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

From Englisc flight a thegn stepped forth,
Boldly blocked Boneless, to save Burhred his lord.
Both rained blows, blood flowed bright,
Ivar’s blade bounced; bit him, took life.

The battle was won, Burhred’s battleline fled,
But the Viking king, was cut, killed, dead.
Where to now, will the wanderers Vike?
The heathen host, has lost it’s head.

The witches’ words, were twisted and wicked,
The bearer betrayed, was Boneless not Burhred.
Mercia retreats, but Ragnarsson is rift,
Saxons gain strength, as Ivar is slain.

Kingslaying blade betrayed its bearer,
Defeat’s disgrace was drowned in blood.

Historical Note – Human Sacrifice & Odd Burials from Repton

Did the Vikings really do human sacrifice? Probably…

The Arab travellers, Ibn Fadlan and Ibn Rustah, both describe women being buried with the dead in Rus funerals. Sacrifice to the gods is also attested by Adam of Bremen, writing about Old Uppsala in Sweden:

There is a festival at Uppsala every nine years […] The sacrifice is as follows; of every kind of male creature, nine victims are offered. By the blood of these creatures it is the custom to appease the gods. Their bodies, moreover, are hanged in a grove which is adjacent to the temple. This grove is so sacred to the people that the separate trees in it are believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrificial victims. There even dogs and horses hang beside human beings.

Which is also echoed in the Gutsaga:

Men believed in holt and howe (grove and grave-mound), sanctuaries and sacred sites, and in the heathen gods. They made offerings of their sons and daughters and cattle, with food and ale. They did that in their error. The chief sacrifice was the one for the whole land, with people; otherwise each Third had its own sacrifice. The smaller assemblies had lesser sacrifices with cattle, food and ale. They were called suth-nautar (Brethren of the Boiling, Cooking Companions), because they cooked [the sacrificial feast] together.

And then there’s the Saga of Ragnar’s Sons, where Ivar the Boneless kills Aelle of York using the Blood Eagle (hacking open his back, pulling his ribs open, and waving the lungs about). Although that’s possibly not so much a sacrifice as just a brutal murder…

Of course, those accounts are Muslims & Christians writing about their pagan neighbours/ancestors, and the human sacrifice could have been added to make it more obvious that Islam/Christianity was a better religion. So archeological evidence is better, if less clear.

Several of the Danish peat bog bodies were hung, which is suggestive of sacrifice mirroring Odin hanging on Yggdrasil? But it could have been capital punishment instead.

In Repton, we find several possible sacrifices. There is a burial mound containing 264 skeletons (with no obvious wounds) arrayed around a stone crypt/coffin that originally contained a giant skeleton. Possibly Ivar the Boneless is the central skeleton, whilst the chaps around the outside could be bodies dug up from the graveyard and then reburied; or Vikings who’d died of disease whilst overwintering at Repton; or sacrifices along the lines of those described by Ibn Fadlan and Ibn Rustah?

There are also quartered corpses of children from Repton. These are hard to read as capital punishment, and so human sacrifice does seem a likely interpretation. Children seem to be popular sacrificial victims, as 4 children found in wells at Trelleborg that have also been interpreted as sacrifices.

Finally there are several bodies, in their own personal graves, who had battle-wounds. One, Grave 511, was clearly quite a hero. He suffered a head-wound, was killed by a blow to his left femur (cutting his penis off?), and was buried with a silver Thor’s hammer & two glass beads, a leather belt with a decorated copper-alloy buckle, and an iron sword in a fleece-lined wooden scabbard covered with leather. He also had two knives, an iron key, the tusk of a wild boar between his thighs, and lower down, perhaps originally in a bag or box, the humerus of a jackdaw. He might not have been a sacrifice, but he was certainly killed and buried in a very ritualised way – in our story he became the Mercian battle leader, killed by Hauk cutting off his penis and then buried by the vǫlva Guðrún.

Repton demonstates to us one other key point: Viking culture was not neccessarily uniform. The sheer diversity of Viking funerary customs displayed is amazing – the mass grave around the giant, the individual warriors in graves, and also nearby a collection of barrows containing cremations (the Heath Wood barrow cemetary). These cultural differences were expressed in our story by the differing reactions to human sacrifice by the Oestvikingae and the Holmbyggjar

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