The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals that have been compiled at various English monasteries. They all go back to a set of annals that was probably compiled at the court of king Alfred of Wessex in about 890 and the annals were continued until 1154. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is known today in nine different versions that differ considerably from each other. The Chronicle begins with a brief account of the tribes living in England and then goes on to describe the history of the British Isles from the time of Julius Caesar and on. It pays particular attention to describing the genealogy of the kings and is therefore a tool to legitimise king Alfred’s right to the throne. Down to 890 the chronicle is based on historical works, older annals, works in praise of princes, and saga literature. From about 892 the annals consist of short notes and descriptions of events and records of deaths that have taken place in the course of the preceding year, sometimes combined with more circumstantial accounts of political and military events. As the years pass by, the various versions of the chronicle become more and more independent, until they come to an end in the 11th or the 12th century. 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is one of the most important sources for Viking activities in Western Europe, and naturally particularly in England. Attacks by the fleets are frequently mentioned, as are also the establishment of winter-quarters, payment of the Danegeld, and the shifting political alliances. The sizes of the Viking fleets are often named, as well as the routes they took, but there are practically no concrete descriptions of what the ships looked like. From the year 897 there is an indirect description, however, for king Alfred gave orders to:

“build long ships against the ashes [the Vikings or their ships], as they were almost twice as long as the others. Some had 60 oars, other more than these; and they were both swifter and steadier than the others. They were made like neither the Frisian ships nor the Danish ones, but as he [Alfred] considered they would be best”. 

Anglo-Saxon shipbuilding belonged, just like its Danish counterpart, in the clinker-building tradition. It can therefore be said with a certain degree of truth that king Alfred’s new ships did not differ greatly from the big longships of the tenth and eleventh centuries. It is worthy of note that the largest Scandinavian ships that we know from the time around 900 – the Norwegian Gokstadship and the Ladby ship from Denmark – both have 32 oars and are hence only half as big as king Alfred’s 60-oar ships. An account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from the year 878 – that is from the historical part of the chronicle – suggests that the Scandinavian ships were comparatively small. In this year, writes the chronicle, “Ingvar and Halfdan’s brother landed in Wessex, in Devonshire, with 23 ships, and there he was slain, and 800 men with him, and 40 men of his army; and there the war banner, which was called the Raven, was captured”. If we assume that the greatest part of the Danish army was killed, and incidentally elect to believe the figures mentioned in the account, this would give an average crew size of 37-38 men. 

The many accounts in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of Viking attacks give us a good chance of following the changes in the size of the Viking fleets. The first accounts to report on the size of the invading fleets derive from the historical section of the chronicle and can sometimes give rise to some scepticism. For the year 851, for example, it is said that no fewer than 350 ships carried a large army up the Thames. Since this army was defeated the same year by the West Saxons, one is inclined to the suspect the chronicler of exaggerating the size of the fleet in order to increase the glory of the West Saxons and hence of Alfred. Most of the accounts from the late 9th and the 10th centuries refer to attacks and plundering by small groups of fewer than a score of ships, e.g. in the years 885, 897, 981, 982. The ‘great army’, however, forms an exception. The first time we hear of the size of its fleet is in 893, 27 years after its first arrival in England. Here it is recorded that the fleet contains no fewer than 250 ships, making room for 9,000 men, if the fleet consisted of ships of the size of the Ladby ship. 

From the end of the tenth century the numbers of the groups of ships that are involved seem to grow and it is generally a case of 20-60 ships, whether the ships are attacking or defending. There are a couple of striking exceptions. In 993-94 we hear of Anlaf’s fleet with more than 90 ships which plunders several towns, including London, and in 1015-16 Knut the Great has 160 ships accompanying him when he conquers England. In the period around and just after the Norman Conquest of England the size of the fleets increase further. Harald Hardrada brought a fleet of 300 ships from Norway against England, and in 1068, after the death of Harold Godwinsson, his sons attack the Normans with 65 ships from Ireland, while the Danish king Svend attacks England with 240 ships in 1069. Even in 1070 we hear of a Danish fleet of 200 ships attacking and plundering York. 

Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is silent about the sizes of the ships in the fleets and although we often have reason to doubt the precision of the figures quoted, the accounts present a picture that suggests that fleet operations in the course of the Viking Age involve increasing numbers of ships. If we link this with the evidence of the archaeological sources showing that the ships were becoming larger and larger, and hence able to have more and more warriors on board, we get the impression that the scale of warfare increased greatly both in respect to size and number as time went on. This is probably correct – at any rate another source, William the Conqueror’s list of ships, shows clearly what tremendous forces could be set in motion in order to carry out an amphibian invasion at the end the Viking Age.

Danish text: Jan Bill

Translation: Gillian Fellows-Jensen

The historical sources