Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This post discusses the remarkable ways the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Chester managed to defeat a Viking siege in c. 907..

The eleventh-century Fragmentary Annals of Ireland records an intriguing tale of how the Vikings from Denmark and Norway laid siege to Chester around the year 907 and how the Anglo-Saxons, advised by their lord Æthelred (d. 911) and lady Æthelflaed (d. 918), defeated them. The original text is in Middle Irish, but I will quote from the Modern English translation by Radner (1978).

Feigning a retreat and a treaty

When the Danes and Norwegians first laid siege to Chester, the inhabitants sent word to their king and queen, who advise them to use a “feigned retreat”:

When the troops who were in the city saw, from the city wall, the many hosts of the Danes and Norwegians coming to attack them, they sent messengers to the King of the Saxons, who was sick and on the verge of death at that time, to ask his advice and the advice of the Queen. What he advised was that they do battle outside, near the city, with the gate of the city open, and that they choose a troop of horsemen to be concealed on the inside; and those of the people of the city who would be strongest in battle should flee back into the city as if defeated, and when most of the army of the Norwegians had come in through the gate of the city, the troop that was in hiding beyond should close the gate after that horde, and without pretending any more they should attack the throng that had come into the city and kill them all. (trans. Randler, p. 171)

Although this tactic proved very effective, the Viking attacks prolonged. Luckily, the king and queen had another trick up their sleeves. They sent word to the Irish and asked them to pretend to want to make a treaty with the Danish part of the Viking army. Explaining:

If they will make terms for that, bring them to swear an oath in a place where it would be convenient to kill them, and when they are taking the oath on their swords and their shields, as is their custom, they will put aside all their good shooting weapons. (trans. Randler, p. 173)

All went according to plan: when the Danes laid down their weapons and shields to take their oaths, the inhabitants of Chester killed them by hurling huge rocks and beams onto their heads!

Burn them in beer and send in the bees!

Defeating the Norwegian part of the Viking army would take a bit more effort, since these savages had come up with a new game plan: “The Norwegians did not abandon the city, for they were hard and savage; but they all said that they would make many hurdles, and place props under them, and that they would make a hole in the wall underneath them” (trans. Randler, p. 171). The inhabitants of Chester had to turn to extreme measures to ward ff these attacks:

However, the other army, the Norwegians, was under the hurdles, making a hole in the wall. What the Saxons and the Irish who were among them did was to hurl down huge boulders, so that they crushed the hurdles on their heads. What they did to prevent that was to put great columns under the hurdles. What the Saxons did was to put the ale and water they found in the town into the towns cauldrons, and to boil it and throw it over the people who were under the hurdles, so that their skin peeled off them. The Norwegians response to that was to spread hides on top of the hurdles. The Saxons then scattered all the beehives there were in the town on top of the besiegers, which prevented them from moving their feet and hands because of the number of bees stinging them. After that they gave up the city, and left it. (trans. Randler, p. 173)


And that’s how you defeat a Viking siege: when all else fails,  burn them in beer and send in the bees!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • J. N. Randler, Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin, 1978)

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