The Assault on Wessex was a large confrontation between the combined forces of King Aelle of Northumbria and King Ecbert of Wessex against the combined forces of Jarl Ragnar Lothbrok, Jarl Lagertha, and King Horik. The battle was a decisive Saxon victory and forced the vikings to retreat back to their camp and end their short-lived invasion of Wessex.
Ragnar Lothrbok had successfully raided Northumbria in the past, extorting a large amount of gold in exchange for leaving the Kingdom in peace. This made him a sworn enemy of the king, Aelle, who vowed to get his revenge against Ragnar and his vikings.
Years later Ragnar mounted another raid westward, this time with the aid of King Horik. The two landed their combined force in Wessex, where they successfully sacked the monastery at Winchester. This gained the attention of the king, Ecbert, who met with Ragnar and was prepared to offer terms in exchange for peace. Before he could agree however Ragnar was forced to abandon the raid and return to Kattegat to recapture his lands from Jarl Borg. In his absence Ecbert launched a successful attack on the Viking camp, with King Horik and his son only barely escaping.
After returning to Kattegat King Horik urged Ragnar to sail west with him again as he wanted his revenge against King Ecbert. After disposing of Jarl Borg and finding a new ally (Lagertha, Ragnar's ex-wife and a Jarl herself now) Ragnar was prepared once more to sail west.
However King Ecbert had not been idle during this time. He offered an alliance to King Aelle, promising that if
either nation was attacked by Vikings the other would send troops to their aid. After promising to conquer and divide Mercia between them and to marry Ecbert's son Aethelwulf to Aelle's daughter Judith, Aelle eagerly accepted.
The Vikings once more landed in Wessex but before King Horik could get his revenge Ragnar dispatched his friend Torstein to inform King Ecbert that he wanted to discuss terms once more. Horik was enraged as he wanted only revenge, not terms. He was also upset that Ragnar had superseded his authority as King and ordered Ragnar to never do anything without consulting him again. Ecbert's son Aethelwulf arrived at the Viking camp and informed Ragnar that Ecbert was willing to negotiate, however Horik, displeased with negotiation, sent his son and a group of men to attack the envoys, sparing only Aethelwulf. Ecbert, realizing the Vikings were unwilling to discuss terms, called upon Aelle to send troops and prepared for battle.
Though infuriated that Horik had ruined his chances of negotiating with King Ecbert, Ragnar was forced to
submit to Horik's orders as Horik was King. Horik announced that in the morning the Vikings would march on Ecbert's villa, hoping to provoke him into battle so that they could defeat him and get revenge. Following a short march Ragnar spotted a small Saxon force led by Aethelwulf at a depression surrounded by several large hills. While Ragnar wanted to wait for the Saxons to come to them Horik, eager to assert his authority, ordered an attack instead.
The small Saxon force was a ruse, however. Ecbert, along with Athelstan, had been reviewing ancient Romanscrolls detailing Caesar's victories and Ecbert had noticed how Caesar had successfully utilized the
terrain in each of his victories. Ecbert mimicked these tactics and had hidden several large groups of Saxon forces behind the surrrounding hills and forests, and now ordered them to engage in the battle. As Horik's troops rushed to attack the first group of Saxons two larger groups emerged, one infantry and one cavalry. They attacked from both sides, forcing Ragnar and Lagertha to hastily assemble separate shield walls. Ragnar's troops engaged the Saxon infantry while Lagertha's shield wall was broken by the Saxon cavalry charge. With the Viking forces now divided and weakened, King Ecbert, who was personally watching the battle, gave the signal for King Aelle to send his own troops in. Aelle's cavalry soon joined the battle, further increasing the Saxon numerical superiority.
Despite fighting fiercely the tide soon began to turn against the Vikings as more and more Saxon soldierspoured into the fray. During the fighting Rollo was critcally injured after being knocked down and trampled by several horses. Ragnar, accepting the battle was lost, ordered a retreat, ending the battle as Aelle and Ecbert watched pleased. Despite their best attempts Bjorn and Ragnar were unable to retrieve an unconsious Rollo and were forced to leave him behind on the field.
Though defeated, the dejected Viking army was able to retreat to their camp. Ragnar was infuriated at Horik, who refused to claim responsibility for the defeat despite leading the Viking army into a trap, claiming it was fated by the gods. Bjorn was upset and angry at being defeated, though Ragnar tried to soothe him by complimenting his fighting skills and naming him "Bjorn Ironside" as not a single Saxon warrior was able to inflict a wound on him. Lagertha was so disheartened by the defeat that she suggested the possibility of abandoning the raid and leaving Wessex altogether. Bjorn however wanted to stay until they had rescued Rollo.The Saxons on the other hand were ecstatic about their victory, particularly Aelle, for whom this battle had been his first victory over the Vikings. While Aelle pushed for another attack to finish the Vikings, Ecbert instead suggested offering them favorable terms and using some of them as mercenaries to help Princess Kwenthrith help claim the throne of Mercia. Aella grudgingly agreed.
After exchanging Aelle as a hostage Ecbert met with Ragnar, Lagertha, and Horik, offering them 5,000 acres of farmland and a large sum of gold if the Vikings agreed to end the raids and help Kwenthrith claim the throne of Mercia. He also offered to exchange Rollo once Aelle was safely returned. Lagertha and Ragnar eagerly agreed while Horik did so reluctantly. After Rollo was exchanged Ragnar took him back to Kattegat to receive medical care, ending the invasion.
The battle also revealed a shift of allegiances as Floki had gone to fight with Horik's forces rather than Ragnar's. Floki was also the one that retrieved King Horik and encouraged him to retreat to safety with the rest of the Viking troops.
Reasons for Viking Defeat
The Vikings were defeated for numerous reasons, the main one being their lack of unity during the battle. Previous battles had shown that the source of Viking strength in battle was the shield wall, which allowed them to defeat forces substantially larger than their own. During the battle Horik's troops had broken formation and rushed forward, leaving Lagertha and Ragnar behind. Additionally, the Saxons had attacked from both sides, forcing the Vikings to make two separate shield walls. When the Saxon cavalry broke Lagertha's shield wall and Ragnar was forced to disband his, the Viking forces were doomed as they were picked apart by the numerically superior Saxons.
Another reason for their defeat was Ecbert's cunning. By hiding the majority of his forces Ecbert had been able to lure the Vikings into a disadvantageous position (fighting at the bottom of a hill) which greatly contributed to his victory, as his troops were able to gain enough momentum charging downhill to break the shield wall. Once the shield walls were broken the Vikings' main strenght was destroyed.
Saxon numerical superiority also contributed to the Viking defeat. After the shield walls were broken, the Vikings were overwhelmed by the Saxons, who were able to defeat the Viking warriors one at a time. Additionally the Saxon troops entering the battle were new and fresh while the Vikings were tired and weary from fighting since the beginning. This was a major factor in the Viking defeat.