Hastein: A Notoriously Vicious Viking Raider…Not So Good At Navigation
Described as “fierce, mightily cruel, and savage, pestilent, hostile, sombre, truculent, given to outrage, pestilent and untrustworthy, fickle and lawless” by his contemporaries, Hastein was one of the most successful, and infamous, Vikings of all time (despite sacking one wrong city). He was born into a family of ruthless raiders leading him to invade all over Europe and North Africa and he may have even fought his way through England. Certainly, when his name was whispered in Medieval towns, it was one to be feared.
The Early Life of a Viking Leader
Hastein was a Viking chieftain in the late 9th century. Little is known about his early life aside from his participation in raids. He is supposedly the son of Ragnar Lothbrok, making him a brother of Björn Ironside. However, it is more likely that he just claimed this for the prestige. His other names: Halfdan, Alsting, and Hæsting, make him difficult to track down in the historical record. However, “Hastein” is the name given to him by Latin chroniclers in connection with the sacking of Luna.
He is most famous for jointly leading a raid into the Mediterranean in 859 AD with Björn Ironside . Sailing with a fleet of 62 ships, Hastein and Björn travelled down the Loire river (in modern-day France) to the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal). There they faced several defeats and decided to move on. After some successes and failures along the coast of the Iberian Peninsula, they made their way past the Strait of Gibraltar, after which they raided parts of North Africa and Spain, then made their way home along the Rhône, in Francia. It was at home that they heard of the famous city of Rome and the treasures that it was sure to hold.
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Viking raiders. ( Public Domain )
When in Rome?
According to the Norman monk Dudo of St. Quentin, Hastein, Björn and their fleet moved into Italy and attacked the city of Luna (now Luni) mistaking it for Rome. Hastein told his men to carry him to the front gate of Luna and to tell the guards that he was dying and wished to convert to Christianity. He was taken to the town’s church and given the sacraments before jumping up and leading his men in an attack on the city.
Hastein in Luna. ( Public Domain )
Another version of this story explains that he faked his death after receiving the sacraments, after which fifty of his men were allowed into the city for his burial. Once inside, they revealed their weapons and sacked the city. Hastein then leapt from his coffin and decapitated a priest before joining his men. Upon finding out that the city he had sacked was in fact Luna and not Rome, Hastein was so embarrassed that he massacred everyone there.
On their way back from their failed adventure to Rome, they were attacked by a Moorish fleet which sunk 40 of their 62 ships in the Strait of Gibraltar. With only 22 ships left, they continued on and managed to capture the king of Pamplona and ransom him back to his people for 70,000 dinars.
Diorama with Vikings at Archaeological Museum in Stavanger, Norway. (Wolfmann/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Adventures in England
A man by the name of Hastein set foot on English soil in 892. Although it is possible that this is a different Hastein (as the man would have been 71 in this year) there is still a chance that he did make this journey.
This Hastein led two strong armies, one of 80 ships which landed in Kent, and another of 250 ships landing in Appledore. The plan was for these two forces to meet in the middle and invade England. However, Alfred the Great prevented this reunion and forced the two sons of Hastein into baptism. During this, Alfred and his son-in-law Aethelred of Mercia stood in as the godfathers of the boys.
Historical Mixed Media Figure of Alfred the Great produced by artist/historian George S Stuart and photographed by Peter d'Aprix. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The larger army that landed at Appledore attempted to reunite with Hastein after raiding Hampshire and Berkshire in the spring of 893, but they were defeated at Farnham by Prince Edward, son of Alfred the Great. The survivors from this battle did eventually find Hastein at Mersea Island.
A Series of Defeats
After this series of defeats, Hastein and his forces retreated to Essex, which they used as a base to raid Mercia. However, when the bulk of his men were out raiding the fort was defeated by the militia of Eastern Wessex. The fort was captured along with the ships, cargo, women, and children (among which were Hastein’s wife and children).
Hastein called for aid, and reinforcements came from the Danes of East Anglia and York. Shortly after this Hastein began talks with Alfred the Great to discuss the release of his family, the product of which was the return of his two sons (or so the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states).
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Sea-faring Danes depicted invading England. Illuminated illustration from the 12th century Miscellany on the Life of St. Edmund. ( Public Domain )
Soon after, Hastein launched another attack along the Thames valley. He was pursued by Aethelred and a combined Mercian and West Saxon army, reinforced by warriors from the Welsh kingdoms. Eventually Hastein’s army was trapped at Buttington, resulting in the Battle of Buttington in 893. After several weeks of fighting, Hastein’s men fought their way out. Later that year, he moved his men from East Anglia to a Roman fortress in Chester. However, the Mercians laid siege on the fortress and attempted to starve the Danes by removing any livestock and destroying all the crops in the area.
The End for Hastein
In the autumn of 893, Hastein’s army left Chester, marched down to the south of Wales and devastated the Welsh kingdoms of Brycheiniog, Gwent, and Glywysing until the summer of 894. From there they returned to Mersea Island, where the armies had first united, and towed their ships up the Thames to a new fort on the River Lea.
In 895, Alfred caught up with the army and obstructed the River Lea on either side. The Danes abandoned their camp and sent their women back home to East Anglia, where they followed in 896. Hastein also disappears from history in 896.
Breton king Solomon (right) with men seem to be Normans, the Norman leader (left) could be Hasting (Hastein). ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top image: Vikings on a ship. Source: anotherwanderer/ Deviant Art
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