On this day in 871, hundreds of armed men under the command of King Æthelred I formed up for battle in a field somewhere in Wessex (in the south of the modern-day United Kingdom). Across the field from Æthelred’s Saxon men stood the Great Heathen Army – a Danish-led coalition of Viking warriors. As the story goes, the two forces met in the centre of the field and a vicious hand-to-hand fight ensued. The Viking coalition was soon split and in danger of being routed (forced to flee), but managed to rally and slaughter Æthelred’s defenders with axes and swords. Sometime after their victory, the Vikings moved towards London and spent the winter there.
Led by the infamous Dane Halfdan Ragnarsson, the Great Heathen Army (likely named by the English) came from modern-day Scandinavia. Since the 700s, the Vikings had engaged in long-range raiding missions far from their homes. Usually in search of brides, these Viking raiders travelled deep into Europe and even found their way to marketplaces in Africa and the Middle East. Ragnarsson’s men fought in roughly the same way as their predecessors – using short axes, circular shields and equipped with (hornless) helmets and armour – but the much larger force planned to hold the land they won. After spending the winter in London, Ragnarsson’s army split in two; half returned to Scandinavia, while the remainder settled in England. Although the Vikings tended to strike quickly and leave just as fast, the Battle of Meretun shows us that the Vikings sometimes did, in fact, remain where they landed.