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Ubba

Ubba

Ninth-century Viking leader
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Ninth-century Viking leader
A.K.A. Hubba, Ubbe, Ubbi
Gender male
Birth Denmark, Kingdom of Denmark
Death (Wales, United Kingdom)
Family
Father: Ragnar Lodbrok
Siblings: Ivar the BonelessSigurd Snake-in-the-EyeHalfdan RagnarssonBjörn Ironside
Ubba
The details
Biography

Ubba, also known as Hubba, Ubbe, and Ubbi, was a mid-ninth-century Viking chieftain and one of the commanders of the Great Army, a coalition of Norse warriors that in AD 865 invaded the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex.

Contemporary English sources tend to describe the army's men as Danes and heathens, but there is evidence to suggest that a proportion of the force originated in Frisia, and one source describes Ubba as dux of the Frisians. In 865 the Great Army, apparently led by a man named Ivar, overwintered in East Anglia, before invading and destroying the kingdom of Northumbria. In 869, having been bought off by the Mercians, the Vikings conquered the East Angles, and in the process killed their king, Edmund, who was later regarded as a saint and martyr. While near-contemporary sources do not associate Ubba with the latter campaign, some later, less reliable sources associate him with the king's martyrdom. Others associate Ubba and Edmund's martyrdom in traditions concerning the saga-character Ragnar Lothbrok.

After the fall of the East Anglian kingdom, leadership of the Great Army appears to have fallen to Halfdan, Ivar's brother. The Vikings then campaigned against the West Saxons and destroyed the kingdom of the Mercians. In 873 the Great Army split in two: Halfdan led one part to campaign in the north before settling in Northumbria; the other part, under a leader named Guthrum, campaigned against the West Saxons. In the winter of 877–78 Guthrum launched a lightning attack deep into Wessex, which may have been coordinated with a separate Viking force campaigning in Devon. According to a near-contemporary source, this force was led by a brother of Ivar and Halfdan, and some later sources identify him as Ubba.

Origins and arrival of the Great Army

Danish Vikings depicted in the twelfth-century MS M.736.

In the mid-ninth century, an invading army descended on Anglo-Saxon England. The earliest version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a near-contemporary source first compiled in the late-ninth century, calls this army "micel here", an Old English term generally translated as "the Great Army". The exact origins of this force are obscure, although the Chronicle usually identifies its members as Danes or heathens. The tenth-century churchman Asser stated in Latin that the invaders came "de Danubia", which translates into English as "from the Danube". Since the Danube is located in what was known in Latin as Dacia, Asser probably intended Dania, a Latin term for Denmark. The tenth-century chronicler Æthelweard (d. c. 998), in his Chronicon Æthelweardi, reported that "the fleets of the tyrant [Ivar] arrived in the land of the English from the north", implying a Scandinavian origin.

The Great Army may have included Vikings already active in England, as well as men directly from Scandinavia, Ireland and the Continent: a proportion of the army probably originated in Frisia. The ninth-century Annales Bertiniani records that Danish Vikings devastated Frisia in 851, and the twelfth-century Annales Lindisfarnenses et Dunelmenses states that a Viking force of Danes and Frisians made landfall on the Isle of Sheppey in 855. The same source, and the tenth- or eleventh-century Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, describe Ubba – who is associated with Ivar in other sources – as dux of the Frisians. Furthermore, while the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the Viking army micel here, the Latin Historia de Sancto Cuthberto instead uses the term Scaldingi, possibly meaning "people from the River Scheldt". This suggests that Ubba may have been from Walcheren, an island in the mouth of the Scheldt. The island is known to have been occupied by Danish Vikings over two decades before, when the Frankish emperor Lothair I (d. 855) granted the island to a certain Danish royal dynast named Harald in 841. If Ubba's troops were drawn from the Frisian settlement started by Harald over two decades before, many of Ubba's men might well have been born in Frisia. The considerable time that members of the Great Army appear to have spent in Ireland and the Continent suggests that these men were well accustomed to Christian society, which in turn may partly explain their achievements in England.


The Great Army under Ivar

Excerpt from Harley MS 2278 depicting Hyngwar and Vbba ravaging the countryside. Lydgate's imaginative hagiography presents supposed ninth-century events in a chivalric context.

In the autumn of 865, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that the Great Army invaded East Anglia and overwintered there. That winter the Vikings evidently gained valuable intelligence, and the Chronicle states that, the following spring, they left East Anglia on horses gained from the subordinated population and struck deep into the kingdom of the Northumbrians, which was in the midst of a civil war between the rival kings Ælla (d. 867) and Osberht (d. 867).

Late in 866 the Vikings seized York, one of only two archiepiscopal sees in England and one of the richest trading centres in Britain. Although Ælla and Osberht responded by joining forces against the Vikings, the Chronicle indicates that their attack on York was a disaster and they both died. With the collapse of the kingdom and destruction of its regime, the twelfth-century Historia Regum reveals that the Vikings installed Ecgberht (d. 873) as a Northumbrian puppet king.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the Great Army attacked Mercia in 867, after which the Vikings seized Nottingham and overwintered there. Although the respective Mercian and West Saxon kings Burgred (d. c. 874) and Æthelred (d. 871) responded by joining forces and besieging the occupied town, both the Chronicle and Asser record that this combined Anglo-Saxon force was unable to dislodge the army. In the meantime the Great Army renewed its strength for future forays, and the Chronicle records that it was only through a haggled truce that the Mercians were able to induce the Vikings to withdraw to York.


Martyrdom of Edmund

Edmund's martyrdom, depicted in the twelfth-century MS M.736.

In 869 the kingdom of East Anglia fell to the Great Army. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's account of the conflict reveals that the Vikings took up winter quarters at Thetford, where they fought and destroyed the East Anglian army and killed King Edmund. Although the Chronicle's account of the conflict suggests that Edmund was slain in battle, and Asser certainly stated as much in his version of events, later hagiographical works portray the king in an idealised light, and depict his death in the context of a peace-loving Christian monarch, who willingly suffered martyrdom after refusing to shed blood in defence of himself. One such account is the Passio Sancti Eadmundi, by the eleventh-century churchman Abbo of Fleury. Despite its obvious hagiographic embellishments, this source appears to be the latest useful source concerning Edmund's demise, and its claim that Edmund was captured and executed is plausible. In regard to Ubba, Abbo's account states that Ivar left him in Northumbria before launching his assault upon the East Angles. In contrast to this source, the early twelfth-century F-version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle specifically identifies Ivar and Ubba as the commanders of the king's killers. This could be a mistake on the chronicler's part, and later, less reliable literature concerning Edmund's death also associates these two Vikings with it.


The Great Army under Halfdan

After Edmund's death and the destruction of the East Anglian kingdom, Ivar disappears from English sources altogether. In the second half of 870, one of the commanders of the Great Army was Ivar's brother Halfdan, who led it against the kingdom of Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that, having established itself at Reading in 871, the army fought nine battles against the West Saxons. The most important of these seems to have been an engagement early that year, somewhere on the Berkshire Downs at a place then known as Ashdown. This particular conflict marks Halfdan's first appearance in documentary sources. Despite the particular savagery attributed to these engagements by the Chronicle, the battles seem to have been indecisive, and the Vikings appear to have been taken aback by the West Saxons' stiff resistance. In consequence, the Chronicle records that the Great Army accepted a truce from Alfred, the newly crowned West Saxon king.

On the conclusion of the truce, the Chronicle reports that the Vikings withdrew to London and overwintered there. They probably gained control of London as, about a decade later, most versions of the Chronicle appear to indicate that Alfred recovered it from Viking occupation. In 873, some versions of the Chronicle report that the army marched north into Northumbria, a relocation perhaps undertaken in the context of suppressing a revolt against their Northumbrian puppet king. On the other hand, the relocation may have been part of a campaign in northern Mercia. The Chronicle indicates that the Vikings overwintered at Torksey in 873, after which they forced Burgred from the Mercian throne and installed Ceolwulf, probably a descendant of King Ceolwulf I of Mercia (821–23), as a puppet king in his place.

Through the fall of the Mercian kingdom, the Great Army secured a land-route between East Anglia and Northumbria, and only Wessex lay in the way of total Danish domination of Anglo-Saxon England. At this point the Historia Regum reports that the Great Army split in two, with Halfdan taking his troops northwards deep into Northumbria. According to the Chronicle, in the winter of 874–75, Halfdan based himself on the River Tyne, and waged war against the Picts and Strathclyde Britons. This source appears to be partly corroborated by the Gaelic Annals of Ulster, an Irish source, which refers to a bloody encounter between the Picts and Dubgaill in 875. But, if the Ímar of Irish sources is identical with the Ivar of English sources, Halfdan had also conducted military actions in the north in conjunction with Ivar's previous northern campaigning. In 876 the Chronicle indicates that Halfdan's army had dispersed, and that he allotted his men Northumbrian lands upon which they settled.


Further campaigning under Guthrum

A prehistoric barrow at Lanhill, near Chippenham and Avebury, that was associated with Ubba by the seventeenth-century antiquarian John Aubrey (d. 1697).

While Halfdan consolidated control of Northumbria, the rest of the army under kings Guthrum, Oscetel, and Anwend – men who may have linked up with the Great Army in 871 – headed southwards into East Anglia. In 875, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that this army based itself at Cambridge, from where operations were directed against Wessex, and the following year it is stated to have seized Wareham. Alfred made another truce with the Vikings in 876, but they broke it by stealth in 877 and took Exeter. An approaching Viking fleet, with which Guthrum had apparently planned to link up, was destroyed by a storm, and the Chronicle reports that he was forced to withdraw to Mercia.

Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that much of Guthrum's army started to settle in an east-Midland region later known as the Five Boroughs, the Chronicle and Asser indicate that Guthrum launched a surprise attack against the West Saxons in the winter of 877–78. Setting off from their base in Gloucester, the Vikings drove deep into Wessex, where they sacked the royal vill of Chippenham. It is possible that this operation was coordinated with another Viking attack in Devon that culminated in a battle at Arx Cynuit in 878.


Arx Cynuit and the brother of Ivar and Halfdan

Most versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle locate the battle to Devon, and Asser specified that it was fought at a fortress called Arx Cynuit, a name which appears to equate to what is today Countisbury, in North Devon. Asser's account also states that this Viking force made landfall in Devon from a base in Dyfed, where it had previously overwintered. It probably originated in Ireland.

Wind Hill, near Countisbury, Devon, possibly the site of a disastrous Viking defeat at the hands of local men in 878. Some medieval sources claim that Ubba led the vanquished army, and that he was among those slain.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not identify the army's commander by name, but it describes him as a brother of Ivar and Halfdan, and states that he was slain in the encounter. Although Ubba was identified as the slain commander by the twelfth-century chronicler Geoffrey Gaimar in his Anglo-Norman Estoire des Engleis, it is unknown whether Gaimar followed an existing source or if this was an inference on his part. It is possible that Gaimar's identification was influenced by the earlier association of Ivar and Ubba in the legends surrounding Edmund's martyrdom. Gaimar further specified that Ubba was slain at "bois de Pene" in Devon, and that he was buried by his men in a mound called "Ubbelawe", a word meaning "Ubba's Barrow".

The battle was a West Saxon victory, and Æthelweard names the victorious commander as Odda, an ealdorman of Devon. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle numbers the Viking fleet at twenty-three ships, and most versions number the Viking casualties at eight hundred and forty dead. It is possible that the Viking commander at Arx Cynuit took the opportunity of Guthrum's simultaneous campaigning to launch a Viking foray of his own against the West Saxons. On the other hand, the location and timing of the engagement at Arx Cynuit may indicate that the slain commander was cooperating with Guthrum. The two Viking armies appear to have coordinated their efforts in an attempt to corner Alfred in a pincer movement after his withdrawal into the wetlands of Somerset. If Vikings at Arx Cynuit were indeed working in cooperation with those at Chippenham, their previous actions in Dyfed could also have been related to Guthrum's campaign against Alfred. Guthrum was left overextended by the destruction of his counterpart's army at Arx Cynuit, and this appears to have allowed Alfred's forces to assail the Great Army's exposed lines of communication.

Although Alfred's position was still perilous, with his contracted kingdom close to collapse, the events at Arx Cynuit foreshadowed a turn of events. A few weeks later in May, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Alfred was able to assemble his troops at Athelney and launch a successful surprise attack against Guthrum at Edington. Following Guthrum's crushing defeat, he was forced to accept Alfred's terms for peace. The Viking king was baptised as a Christian and led the remainder of his forces into East Anglia, where they dispersed and settled. Guthrum kept peace with the West Saxons and ruled as a Christian king for more than a decade, until his death in 890.


Association with Ragnar Lothbrok

Excerpt from Harley MS 2278, folio 39r, depicting Lothbrocus and his sons, Hyngwar and Vbba.

Although Ubba and Ivar were associated with each other by Abbo of Fleury and the eleventh-century churchman Ælfric of Eynsham (d. c. 1010), they do not record that Ubba and Ivar were related in any way. The first source to claim kinship between the two is the Latin Annals of St Neots, a twelfth-century source from Suffolk that claims they were sons of a man whose name was Latinized to "Lodebrochus". In a passage concerning battle-spoils won by the English at Arx Cynuit, one item specified by the Annals of St Neots is a magical banner named "Reafan", stated to have been woven by three daughters of Lodebrochus. Although certain versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle note the capture of a raven banner, they do not mention any magical attributes, or refer to Lodebrochus and his progeny. The source from which the author of the Annals of St Neots drew these details is unknown, and the accounts of Asser and Æthelweard make no reference to a banner.

The name "Lodebrochus" appears to be an early reference to Ragnar Lothbrok, a saga-character of dubious historicity, possibly an amalgam of several historical ninth-century figures. According to Scandinavian sources, Ragnar was a Scandinavian of royal stock, whose death at the hands of Ælla in Northumbria was the catalyst for the invasion of Anglo-Saxon England by his vengeful sons, resulting in the death of Ælla. The only Scandinavian source for Ragnar that refers to Ubba is the Latin Gesta Danorum, composed by Saxo Grammaticus. In this source, Ubba's parents are "Regnerus" and an unnamed daughter of "Hesbernus". According to the thirteenth- or fourteenth-century Ragnarssona þáttr, an important source for Ragnar, Ivar had two bastard sons, Yngvar and Husto, who tortured Edmund on Ivar's instructions. No other source mentions these sons, and they may be replications of Ivar and Ubba: it may be that the compiler of Ragnarssona þáttr failed to recognise Ivar's name in sources concerning Edmund. The name "Husto" appears to stem from a misreading, in which "Ubbe" was misread as "Usto". Regarding the bastardy accorded to Yngvar and Husto, this may only serve to reflect the cruelty that they are made to inflict on Edmund in the tale.

While medieval Scandinavians sources tend to locate tales of Ragnar in a Northumbrian context, medieval English sources tend to place them in an East Anglian one. The first author to associate Ragnar Lothbrok with East Anglia was Geoffrey of Wells, in his De Infantia Sancti Eadmundi, a Latin account that explains political events through personal motives. In this source, "Lodebrok" is extremely envious of Edmund's fame, and taunts his own sons – Ivar, Ubba, and Wern – for not having achieved as much as Edmund, provoking them to slay Edmund and destroy his kingdom. At one point this account ascribes diabolical powers to Ubba, which enable him to gain victory in battle. By the thirteenth century an alternate rendition appeared, for example in the Latin Flores Historiarum by the thirteenth-century churchman Roger of Wendover (d. 1236): here, "Lothbrocus" washes ashore in East Anglia, where he is honourably received by Edmund. Lothbrocus is then murdered by Bern, an envious huntsman. After Bern is expelled for this crime, he convinces Lothbrocus' sons Ivar and Ubba that it was Edmund who murdered their father, causing them to launch an invasion and destroy Edmund. The theme of revenge in Roger's account appears to have been borrowed from the stories concerning the killing of Ælla.


Popular culture

Ubba, along with his brothers Ivar and Halfdan, appears in Bernard Cornwell's novel The Last Kingdom, the first in the nine-part The Saxon Stories series. Ubba is one of the principal characters of the first book, and the novel closes with his death in battle. In the TV adaptation, Ubba is played by Norwegian actor Rune Temte. In Vikings he is referred to as Ubbe and is played by Cormac Melia as boy, Luke Shanahan in his early teens and then by Jordan Patrick Smith as an adult.

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