Background to the Dragonheart Series

My research encompasses not only books and the Internet but also TV.  Time Team was a great source of information.  I wish they would bring it back! I saw the wooden compass which my sailors use on the Dan Snow programme about the Vikings.  Apparently, it was used in modern times to sail from Denmark to Edinburgh and was only a couple of points out.  Similarly, the construction of the temporary hall was copied from the settlement of Leif Eriksson in Newfoundland.

Stirrups began to be introduced in Europe during the 7th and 8th Centuries.  By Charlemagne’s time they were widely used but only by nobles.  It is said this was the true beginning of feudalism.  It was the Vikings who introduced them to England. It was only in the time of Canute the Great that they became widespread.  The use of stirrups enabled a rider to strike someone on the ground from the back of a horse and facilitated the use of spears and later, lances.

The Vikings may seem cruel to us now.  They enslaved women and children.  Many of the women became their wives.  The DNA of the people of Iceland shows that it was made up of a mixture of Norse and Danish males and Celtic females.  These were the people who settled Iceland, Greenland and Vinland.  They did the same in England and, as we shall see, Normandy.  Their influence was widespread.  Genghis Khan and his Mongols did the same in the 13th century.  It is said that a high proportion of European males have Mongol blood in them.  The Romans did it with the Sabine tribe. They were different times and it would be wrong to judge them with our politically correct twenty first century eyes. This sort of behaviour still goes on in the world but with less justification.

At this time, there were no Viking kings.  There were clans.  Each clan had a hersir or Jarl. Clans were loyal to each other. A hersir was more of a landlocked Viking or a farmer while a Jarl usually had ship(s) at his command. A hersir would command bondi. They were the Norse equivalent of the fyrd although they were much better warriors. They would all have a helmet shield and a sword.  Most would also have a spear.  Hearth weru were the oathsworn or bodyguards for a jarl or, much later on, a king. Kings like Canute and Harald Hadrada were rare and they only emerged at the beginning of tenth century.

The Vikings began to raid the Loire and the Seine from the middle of the 9th century. They were able to raid as far as Tours.  Tours, Saumur and the monastery at Marmoutier were all raided and destroyed.  As a result of the raids and the destruction castles were built there during the latter part of the 9th century.  There are many islands in the Loire and many tributaries.  The Maine, which runs through Angers, is also a wide waterway.  The lands seemed made for Viking raiders. They did not settle in Aquitaine but they did in Austrasia. The Vikings began to settle in Normandy and the surrounding islands from the 820s.  Many place names in Normandy are Viking in origin.  Sometimes, as in Vinland, the settlements were destroyed by the Franks but some survived.  So long as a Viking had a river for his drekar he could raid at will.

The Franks used horses more than most other armies of the time. Their spears were used as long swords, hence the guards. They used saddles and stirrups.  They still retained their round shields and wore, largely, an open helmet. Sometimes they wore a plume.  They carried a spare spear and a sword.


One reason for the Normans success was that when they arrived in northern France they integrated quickly with the local populace.  They married them and began to use some of their words. They adapted to the horse as a weapon of war.  Before then the Vikings had been quite happy to ride to war but they dismounted to fight. The Normans took the best that the Franks had and made it better. This book sees the earliest beginnings of the rise of the Norman knight.

I have used the names by which places were known in the medieval period wherever possible.  Sometimes I have had to use the modern name.  The Cotentin is an example. The isle of sheep is now called the Isle of Sheppey and lies on the Medway close to the Thames.  The land of Kent was known as Cent in the early medieval period. Thanet or, Tanet as it was known in the Viking period was an island at this time. The sea was on two sides and the other two sides had swamps, bogs, mud flats and tidal streams.  It protected Canterbury. The coast was different too.  Richborough had been a major Roman port.  It is now some way inland. Sandwich was a port. Other ports now lie under the sea. Vikings were not afraid to sail up very narrow rivers and to risk being stranded on mud.  They were tough men and were capable of carrying or porting their ships as their Rus brothers did when travelling to Miklagård.

The Norns or the Weird Sisters.

Fate – Wyrd/Urd

“The Norns (Old Norse: norn, plural: nornir) in Norse mythology are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. They roughly correspond to other controllers of humans’ destiny, the Fates, elsewhere in European mythology.

In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld, the three most important of the Norns, come out from a hall standing at the Well of Urðr or Well of Fate. They draw water from the well and take sand that lies around it, which they pour over Yggdrasill so that its branches will not rot. These three Norns are described as powerful maiden giantesses (Jotuns) whose arrival from Jötunheimr ended the golden age of the gods. They may be the same as the maidens of Mögþrasir who are described in Vafþrúðnismál”

Source: Norns –

I have used the word town as this is the direct translation of the Danish ton- meaning settlement. A town could vary in size from a couple of houses to a walled city like Jorvik. If I had used ton it would have been confusing.  There are already readers out there who think I have made mistakes because I use words like stiraps, wyrd and drekar!

The assimilation of the Norse and the Franks took place over a long period. Hrolf Ragnvaldsson aka Rollo aka Robert of Normandy is not yet born but by the time he is 64 he will have attacked Paris and become Duke of Normandy.  The journey has just begun.

Tower construction

Towers were made by constructing two walls with mortared dress stone and then infilling with rocks. When I visited Penrith castle in Cumbria in 2017 I saw a partly ruined tower which demonstrates this.  It helps that the dressed stone was red sandstone! You can see the width of the tower. This one is 13th Century but the principle was the same in the 9th.

Author’s collection


Viking Raid on the Seine

At some time in the 850s a huge Viking fleet sailed up the Seine to raid deep into the heart of Frankia.  Some writers of the period speak of over a hundred ships. The priests who wrote of the plague that they believe the Vikings to be tended to exaggerate. I have erred on the side of caution.


I have used the term greenways in many of my books. We still have them in England.  They are the paths trodden before the Romans came.  Many of them became bridleways. I have taken a couple of photographs to show my readers, especially those in the US, what they are like.  This first one is in the Lake District and runs along the River Eamont. It is like the one I use in Cantwareburh. The second leads to a hillfort.

Coutances and Saint-Lô

Both towns were captured by the Vikings in the late ninth century.  Saint-Lô had all of the inhabitants massacred. During the latter half of the ninth century the Vikings kept moving further up the rivers and further south. The great raid on Paris in 885 was the culmination of these raids and gradual encroachment into what became Normandy.

Isle of Man

The three legs of Man evolved in the late middle ages.  Until then it was four legs; a swastika.

Guthrum, founder of the Danelaw

It is not known how Guthrum consolidated his rule as king over the other Danish chieftains of the Danelaw (Danish ruled territory of England), but we know that by 874 he was able to wage a war against Wessex and its King, Alfred.

In 875 the Danish forces, then under Guthrum and Halfdan Ragnarsson, divided, Halfdan’s contingent returning north to Northumbria, while Guthrum’s forces went to East Anglia, quartering themselves at Cambridge for the year.

By 876, Guthrum had acquired various parts of the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria and then turned his attention to acquiring Wessex, where his first confrontation with Alfred took place on the south coast. Guthrum sailed his army around Poole Harbour and linked up with another Viking army that was invading the area between the Frome and Piddle rivers which was ruled by Alfred. According to the historian Asser, Guthrum won his initial battle with Alfred, and he captured the castellum as well as the ancient square earthworks known as the Wareham, where there was a convent of nuns.

Alfred successfully brokered a peace settlement, but by 877 this peace was broken as Guthrum led his army raiding further into Wessex, thus forcing Alfred to confront him in a series of skirmishes that Guthrum continued to win. At Exeter, which Guthrum had also captured, Alfred made a peace treaty, with the result that Guthrum left Wessex to winter in Gloucester.

The Great Heathen Army

Historians provide varying estimates for the size of the Great Heathen Army. According to the ‘minimalist’ scholars, such as Pete Sawyer, the army may have been smaller than traditionally thought. Sawyer notes that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 865 referred to the Viking force as a Heathen Army, or in Old English “hæþen here”.

The law code of King Ine of Wessex, issued in about 694, provides a definition of here (pronounced /ˈheːre/) as “an invading army or raiding party containing more than thirty-five men”, thus differentiating between the term for the invading Viking army and the Anglo-Saxon army that was referred to as the fyrd. The scribes who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle used the term here to describe the Viking forces. The historian Richard Abels suggested that this was to differentiate between the Viking war bands and those of military forces organised by the state or the crown. However, by the late 10th and early 11th century, here was used more generally as the term for army, whether it was Viking or not.

Sawyer produced a table of Viking ship numbers, as documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and assumes that each Viking ship could carry no more than 32 men, leading to his conclusion that the army would have consisted of no more than 1,000 men. Other scholars give higher estimates. For example, Laurent Mazet-Harhoff observes that many thousands of men were involved in the invasions of the Seine area. However, Mazet-Harhoff does say that the military bases that would accommodate these large armies have yet to be rediscovered. Guy Halshall reported that, in the 1990s, several historians suggested that the Great Heathen Army would have numbered in the low thousands; however, Halshall advises that there “clearly is still much room for debate”.

The army probably developed from the campaigns in France. In Frankia, there was a conflict between the Emperor and his sons, and one of the sons had welcomed the support from a Viking fleet.  By the time that the war had ended, the Vikings had discovered that monasteries and towns situated on navigable rivers were vulnerable to attack. In 845, a raid on Paris was prevented by the large payment of silver to the Vikings. The opportunity for rich pickings drew other Vikings to the area, and by the end of the decade all the main rivers of West Frankia were being patrolled by Viking fleets. In 862, the West Frankish king responded to the Vikings, fortifying his towns and defending his rivers, thus making it difficult for the Vikings to raid inland. The lower reaches of the rivers and the coastal regions were left largely undefended. Religious communities in these areas, however, chose to move inland away from the reaches of the Viking fleets. With the changes in Frankia making raiding more difficult, the Vikings turned their attention to England.

Invasion of England

The term vikingr simply meant pirate, and the Viking warbands may well have included fighters of other nationalities than Scandinavians. The Viking leaders would often join together for mutual benefit and then dissolve once profit had been achieved. Several of the Viking leaders who had been active in Frankia and Frisia joined forces to conquer the four kingdoms constituting Anglo-Saxon England. The composite force probably contained elements from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Ireland as well as those who had been fighting on the continent. The Anglo-Saxon historian Æthelweard was very specific in his chronicle and said that “the fleets of the Viking tyrant Hingwar landed in England from the north”.


The bulk of the army consisted of Danish Vikings, who, prior to the invasion, would have been raiding Frankia and Frisia. Some of the grave goods unearthed at Repton, where the Great Heathen Army spent the winter in 874, were of Norwegian origin, indicating that part of the army was likely to have contained elements of Norwegian Vikings, who would have been operating in Britain, raiding and conquering lands around the Irish Sea. The Great Heathen Army would also have consisted of various independent bands, or liðs, coming together under a joint leadership.

The Vikings had been defeated by the West Saxon King Æthelwulf in 851, so rather than land in Wessex they decided to go further north to East Anglia. Legend has it that the united army was led by the three sons of Ragnar Lodbrok: Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless (Hingwar), and Ubba. Norse sagas consider the invasion by the three brothers as a response to the death of their father at the hands of Ælla of Northumbria in 865, but the historic accuracy of this claim is uncertain.

Start of the invasion, 865

In late 865, the Vikings landed in East Anglia and used it as a starting point for an invasion. The East Anglians made peace with the invaders by providing them with horses. The Vikings stayed in East Anglia for the winter before setting out for Northumbria towards the end of 866, establishing themselves at York. In 867, the Northumbrians paid them off, and the Viking Army established a puppet leader in Northumbria before setting off for the Kingdom of Mercia, where in 867 they captured Nottingham. The king of Mercia requested help from the king of Wessex to help fight the Vikings. A combined army from Wessex and Mercia besieged the city of Nottingham with no clear result, so the Mercians settled on paying the Vikings off. The Vikings returned to Northumbria in autumn 868 and overwintered in York, staying there for most of 869. They returned to East Anglia and spent the winter of 869–70 at Thetford. There was no peace agreement between the East Anglians and the Vikings this time. When the local king Edmund fought against the invaders, he was captured and killed.

In 871, the Great Summer Army arrived from Scandinavia, led by Bagsecg. The reinforced Viking army turned its attention to Wessex, but the West Saxons, led by King Æthelred’s brother Alfred, defeated them on 8 January 871 at the Battle of Ashdown, slaying Bagsecg in the process. Three months later, Æthelred died and was succeeded by Alfred (later known as Alfred the Great), who bought the Vikings off to gain time. During 871–72, the Great Heathen Army wintered in London before returning to Northumbria. It seems that there had been a rebellion against the puppet ruler in Northumbria, so they returned to restore power. They then established their winter quarters for 872-73 at Torksey in the Kingdom of Lindsey (now part of Lincolnshire). The Mercians again paid them off in return for peace, and at the end of 873 the Vikings took up winter quarters at Repton in Derbyshire.

In 874, following their winter stay in Repton, the Great Heathen Army drove the Mercian king into exile and finally conquered Mercia; the exiled Mercian king was replaced by Ceowulf. According to Alfred the Great’s biographer Asser, the Vikings then split into two bands. Halfdan led one band north to Northumbria, where he overwintered by the River Tyne (874–75). In 875 he ravaged further north to Scotland, where he fought the Picts and the Britons of Strathclyde. Returning south of the border in 876, he shared out Northumbrian land amongst his men, who “ploughed the land and supported themselves”; this land was part of what became known as the Danelaw.



I have used the name Rollo even though that is the Latinisation of Hrolf.  I did so for two reasons.  We all know the first Duke of Normandy as Rollo and I wanted to avoid confusion with his grandfather.  I realise that I have also caused enough of a problem with Ragnvald and Ragnvald the Breton Slayer.

Rollo is generally identified with one Viking in particular – a man of high social status mentioned in Icelandic sagas, which refer to him by the Old Norse name Göngu-Hrólfr, meaning “Hrólfr the Walker”. (Göngu-Hrólfr is also widely known by an Old Danish variant, Ganger-Hrolf.) The byname “Walker” is usually understood to suggest that Rollo was so physically imposing that he could not be carried by a horse and was obliged to travel on foot. Norman and other French sources do not use the name Hrólfr, and the identification of Rollo with Göngu-Hrólfr is based upon similarities between circumstances and actions ascribed to both figures.

He had children by at least three women. He abducted Popa or Poppa the daughter of the Count of Rennes or possibly the Count of Bayeux.  It is not known if she was legitimate or illegitimate. He married Gisla the daughter (probably illegitimate) of King Charles of France. He also had another child. According to the medieval Irish text, ‘An Banshenchas’ and Icelandic sources, another daughter, Cadlinar (Kaðlín; Kathleen) was born in Scotland (probably to a Scots mother) and married an Irish prince named Beollán mac Ciarmaic, later King of South Brega (Lagore). I have used the Norse name Kaðlín and made her a Scottish princess.

Poppa and Rollo

There is some dispute as the true identity of the woman called Poppa. Most agree that she was the daughter of a Breton count but the sources dispute which one.  I cannot believe that a legitimate daughter of a Count would have been left with a Viking and so I have her as illegitimate. More danico was the term used by the Franks to speak of a Danish marriage.  The heirs were considered legal, at least in the world of the Norse. William was famously William the Bastard.

Rollo did make Jumièges his base and captured Rouen. My version is a fictitious one.  The French king did put bridges across the Seine but it continued to be raided.