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Previous to the writing of the Aigla, the story had been told traditionally in the
the family descended from Egill. William of Malmesbury seems to have based his account on ballads. In the Saga is an important account of the condition of affairs in Northumbria at the period (926–8). "Olaf the Red1 was the name of a king in Scotland. He was Scot on his father's side, but was Danish on that of his mother, and he was of the stock of Ragnar Lodbrog. He was a mighty man. Scotland
? is considered to be a third part of England, and Northumbria constitutes a fifth. It lies north, towards Scotland, and on the east side of England. Danish kings held rule over it from ancient times. York was the capital. This Northumbrian realm Athelstan now acquired. He placed over it two earls, Alfgeir and Gudrek (Godrich). They were placed there as Margraves to defend the country against the attacks of the Scots and Danes and Norsemen, who ravaged the land, for they claimed a right to it, for in Northumbria they were the only colonists. Moreover, the majority of the inhabitants were Danes on either the father's or the mother's side, and many on both sides. Towards the frontier of the Britons (Welsh) were placed two brothers, Ring and Adils, and they paid tribute to King Athelstan, and were bound to attend him when summoned to war, and were required to stand in the forefront of the host with those about the royal standard. These brothers were great warriors, and not particularly young men. King Alfred had taken away the name of king from all those who hitherto had paid tribute. Now they were entitled earls, who before had been kings or the sons of kings. And the same rule remained in force after his death, under his son Edward. But, inasmuch as Athelstan came to the throne when quite young, men thought that they could take liberties; and many who had previously been submissive turned restless.
“Olaf, the Scots' King, drew together a large force, and marched south into England. When he entered Northumbria he began to ravage. Now, when the earls who ruled the country learned this, they gathered their forces and went against King Olaf. When they met, a great battle ensued, and it so fell
1 There is a mistake here, partly owing 2 Another mistake. Olaf Cuaran, on to the confusion between Scots and his father's side, was descended Irish, which latter till the tenth century Ragnar Lodbrog. Constantine II was were called Scots. Olaf Cuaran, or, as son of a Scottish father. the Norse writers call him," the Red,"
3 He was not “ quite young," but was king of the Norse colony of Dublin. aged 30. The Saga writer omits mention of Constantine.
4 Understand Constantine.
out that Olaf gained the victory. Earl Gudrek fell, and Alfgeir fled with most of his men. Alfgeir made no stand anywhere, and King Olaf subjected the whole of Northumbria to himself.
Alfgeir went to Athelstan, and told him how ill it had fared with him. And when King Athelstan heard that so mighty an army had invaded his land, he at once summoned troops to his aid, and sent word to the earls and other men in authority. Then the King proceeded with those he had collected against the Scots. But inasmuch as the news spread that Olaf had gained a great victory, and had brought into subjection a larger slice of England than that possessed by Athelstan, many men of note flocked to him.
“Ring and Adils drew together their forces, and went over to the side of Olaf. And his army swelled to a great size. Now, when Athelstan learned this defection, he summoned a council of all his chief men and advisers; and they examined into the circumstances, and with one accord declared that Alfgeir had behaved in an unworthy manner, and merited to have his honours taken from him. And the council further advised that Athelstan should go south through England, and collect all available forces to accompany him in his campaign in the north.”
The plan of the invasion, as devised by the Confederates, was ingenious. Olaf Cuaran was to lead the Danes and Northmen of Ireland and the Isles, along with their Irish allies, in a fleet that was to sail to Cornwall, double the Land's End, rouse the West Welsh to revolt, and coasting along the south, ravage there, causing a diversion, whilst Constantine advanced along the Watling - street, the great road of communication between Berwick, York, and London, and unite with Owain of Cumbria, who was coming along the old Roman road from Carlisle to York.
Then Olaf, after having thrown Wessex into confusion, and so delaying Athelstan, would hurry north to the mouth of the Humber, and effect a junction with Constantine at or near York.
Such seems to me to have been the plan, and in its execution we have an explanation of what has perplexed historians, for there are two entirely distinct accounts of the great battle that led to the complete rout of the invaders. If we accept the solution that there were two battles, one in the south and one in the north, the difficulties disappear. By all accounts, Athelstan hastened through Wessex to collect forces before proceeding against Constantine. Whilst so doing, he was alarmed by hearing that the Britons of Dumnonia were in revolt, He heard, moreover, that a fleet of 615 ships, filled with Danes. Norsemen, and Irish, was on its way up the Channel, and soon after he learned that it had entered the mouth of the Axe, and was ravaging on the frontiers of Dorset. Athelstan at once despatched a body of Norse mercenaries, under the command of two Icelanders, Thorolf and Egill, and, against the advice of his council, the discredited Alfgeir, at the head of a Mercian contingent, to hold Constantine in check, but with instructions on no account to engage in a pitched battle. They were to use every artifice short of a battle to delay the advance of the enemy. He himself mustered all he could call together to attack Olaf and his force, and quell the insurrection in the west.
He fell on the marauding band from Ireland near Axminster, the invaders camping on what is to this day called the Danes' Hill. Olaf was defeated, and fled to his ships, but in the engagement the two Ethelings and the Bishop of Sherborne were killed, together with a whole contingent of Sherborne men who had come up under their bishop. Another prelate who headed a contingent was the Bishop of Wilton. Immediately after the defeat of the Danes from Dublin, Athelstan had to put down the revolt of the West Britons, and he could not immediately hurry into Northumbria to prevent the junction of Olaf with Constantine. Olaf sailed through the Straits of Dover, and arriving in the mouth of the Humber, as Simeon of Durham tells us, there disembarked the remainder of his army.
In the interim, Thorolf and Egill, together with the incapable Alfgeir, were hovering on the borders of Northumbria. They were not in a position to prevent the disembarkation of Olaf with his Danes and Irishmen, nor their junction with the united host of Constantine and Owain. Perhaps they were taken by surprise at the arrival.
To gain their end - delay till Athelstan should arriveThorolf and Egill sent a message to Olaf, purporting to come from Athelstan, appointing a meeting on Vinheath, to which they now advanced. Olaf, with his shattered forces, had not been able to attempt the reduction of the walled city of York ; and Alfgeir, Thorolf, and Egill, by proceeding north, hoped to cover it as Constantine had not as yet reached so far south.
The proposal, as if from Athelstan, was to this effect : That instead of engaging both armies in a great battle with effusion of much blood, the dispute should be settled between the kings, each attended by a band of picked warriors, to fight within a ring staked out with hazel rods linked together by a rope; and that this should take place after the interval of a week. The proposal was acceptable to Olaf. Now, it was the custom of the time, when an agreement had been concluded to settle a dispute by a holmgang, a duel between two or more, that both sides should abstain from ravaging.
Accordingly, Olaf remained inactive, and he was the more inclined to delay proceedings, as numerous partisans came in from the country round, filling gaps in his depleted ranks.
Alfgeir and the two Icelandic brothers were encamped to the south of the great plain of Vinheath, with a river on one side and a forest on the other; and the united forces of the invaders lay to the north of the same desolate tract. The brothers and Alfgeir had set up innumerable tents on their side of the waste, but in some of these were but one or two men, and in others none at all.
When the delegates of Olaf and Constantine came to the army they saw this goodly array of tents, but were not suffered to enter any of them, nor to draw near to the camp. They informed that Athelstan would arrive shortly. The
. messengers returned to the kings to inform them that an immense host was already encamped beyond the heath, and that the English king was hourly expected at the head of a second army.
Olaf and Constantine occupied a fortified position to the north of Vinheath, and sent forward men who met others commissioned by Thorolf and Egill to plant hazel rods, and demark the arena for the proposed combat.
Day after day passed, and Athelstan had not arrived. When the week had elapsed, the brothers had to have recourse to other devices. On the day on which the conflict was to have been engaged fresh messengers approached Olaf, and announced that Athelstan was close at hand, still reluctant to shed more blood, if that might be avoided, and he was prepared to come to terms with the invaders, and to pay a shilling for every acre of ploughed land. On these terms friendship could be concluded and both forces be withdrawn. Olaf called his council together to discuss the offer. Various opinions were
expressed. Some urged the acceptance of the offer, and pointed out that if it were, the Confederates might return home, not only covered with honour, but laden with riches. Others as strenuously opposed acceptance, and declared the terms too unfavourable. The opinion of these latter prevailed, and the legates pretending to come from Athelstan requested a delay of three days, till they could bear the message to their master and return with his reply. To this Olaf (or Constantine, or both together) consented. Accordingly they rode back, and three days later arrived in the camp of the Confederates with fresh proposals, to the effect that Athelstan would maintain his former undertaking to pay a shilling for every acre of ploughed land, and in addition would grant a shilling a head to every free-born man in the invading army, a mark to every captain over twelve or more, and five marks in gold to every earl. The council considered this proposal, and again opinions differed. At last Olaf decided to accept the conditions, if there was added Athelstan's confirmation to him of his sovereignty over Northumbria.
Once more the delegates solicited a delay of three days, and this was accorded ; and on this occasion Olaf sent some of his own
men with the ambassadors. They met Athelstan “in the burgh that was nearest to the heath on the south side.” The delegates privately informed the King of the artifice they had employed, by negotiations to delay the advance of the Confederates, and then introduced the messengers of Olaf, who delivered the ultimatum of their master. Athelstan flared up in wrath, and exclaimed : “Bear these my words to Olaf, that I am prepared to allow him to withdraw unmolested, if he will make compensation for the havoc he has wrought in my lands. Henceforth there shall be
no peace between us, and the Scottish king must consent to hold his realni under me as his over-lord.”
That same evening the legates returned to the camp of the kings, and arrived in the middle of the night. Olaf was roused from sleep, and the words of Athelstan were repeated to him. The council was at once summoned, and all with one consent declared for battle.
Then said Earl Adils, who had deserted the English cause : “Now has that fallen out which I anticipated. The English have proved too astute for us. Here have we been wasting our time, put off by them from day to day, kept inactive