Little is known of Hastein's early life, described as a Dane in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he is often given as a son of Ragnar Lodbrok. He is first recorded taking part in the Viking attack on the Frankish Empire, occupying Noirmoutier in 843 and on the Loire again in 859 for his great raid into the Mediterranean.
Spain and the Mediterranean
At first the raiding did not go well, with Hastein being defeated by the Asturians and later the Muslims of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba at Niebla in 859. Success followed with the sacking of Algeciras, where the mosque was burned, and then the ravaging of Mazimma in the Idrisid Caliphate on the north coast of Africa, followed by further raids into the Umayyad Caliphate at Orihuela, the Balearic Islands and Roussillon.
Hastein and Bëorn wintered at Camargue island on the mouth of the Rhone before ravaging Narbonne, Nîmes and Arles, then as far north as Valence, before moving onto Italy. There they attacked the city of Luna. Believing it to be Rome, Hastein had his men carry him to the gate and tell the guards he was dying and wished to convert to Christianity. Once inside, he was taken to the town's church where he received the sacraments, before jumping from his stretcher and leading his men in a sack of the town. Another account has him wanting to convert before he dies and the following day feigns death. The city then lets 50 robed men come in for his burial all of which had swords under their robes. Hastein then jumps from his coffin and chops off the religious leaders heads on the way to sacking the city. As might be imagined, the veracity of this is much debated. He sailed down the coast and sacked Pisa and, sailing on the Arnoriver, Hastein ravaged Fiesole. The fleet then possibly raided Byzantine Empire sites in the eastern Mediterranean.
On the way back to the Loire, he stopped off in North Africa where he bought several African slaves (known to the Vikings as 'blámenn', blue men, possibly West Africans or Tuaregs) who he later sold in Ireland. Homeward bound, Hastein and Björn were defeated by a Muslim fleet soon after the Straits of Gibraltar, but still managed to ravage Pamplona before returning home to the Loire with 20 ships.
The Loire and the Seine
Settled back in Brittany, Hastein allied himself with Salomon, King of Brittany against the Franks in 866, and as part of a Viking-Breton army he killed Robert the Strong at the Battle of Brissarthe near Châteauneuf-sur-Sarthe. In 867 he went on to ravage Bourges and a year later attacked Orléans. Peace lasted until spring 872 when the Viking fleet sailed up the Maine and occupied Angers, which led to a siege by the Frankish king Charles the Bald and a peace being agreed in October 873.
Hastein remained in the Loire country until 882, when he was finally expelled by the Charles and then relocated his army north to the Seine. There he stayed until the Franks besieged Paris and his territory in the Picardy was threatened. It was at this point he became one of many experienced Vikings to look to England for riches and plunder.
Hastein's Army in England
Hastein first crossed to England from Boulogne in 892 leading one of two great companies. His army, the smaller of the two, landed in 80 ships and occupied the royal village of Milton in Kent, whilst his allies landed at Appledore with 250 ships. Alfred the Great positioned the West Saxon army between them to keep them from uniting, the result of which was that Hastein agreed terms, including allowing his two sons to be baptised, and left Kent for Essex. The larger army attempted to reunite with Hastein after raiding Hampshire and Berkshire in the late spring of 893, but was defeated at Farnham by an army under Prince Edward, Alfred's son. The survivors eventually reached Hastein's army at Mersea Island, after a combined West Saxon and Mercian army failed to dislodge them from their fortress at Thorney.
The result left Hastein in command of a formidable Danish army at his fortified camp (or burh) at Benfleet in Essex, where he combined the men and ships from Appledore and Milton. He set out on a raid in Mercia, but whilst the main army was away the garrison was defeated by the bolstered militia of eastern Wessex. The West Saxons captured the fort, along with the ships, booty, women and children. This was a major blow for Hastein, who had lost his wife and sons in the loss of Benfleet. He re-established his combined force at a new fort at Shoebury further north in Essex, and received reinforcements from the Danish Kingdom of East Anglia and the Scandinavian Kingdom of York. He also had his two sons returned to him since Alfred and Athelred had stood sponsor at their baptism early in 893.
Next, Hastein launched his men on a savage retaliatory raid along the Thames valley then up the River Severn. It was pursued all the way by Aethelred of Mercia and a combined Mercian and West Saxon army, reinforced by a contingent of warriors from the Welsh kingdoms. Eventually the Viking army was trapped on the island of Buttingham on the Severn near Welshpool, but they fought their way out several weeks later, and lost many men, and returned to the fortress at Shoebury. In late summer 893, Hastein's men struck out again. First they wisely moved all their booty, women and ships in East Anglia, and after being reinforced marched to Chester to occupy the ruined Roman fortress. The refortified fortress should have made an excellent base for raiding northern Mercia, but the Mercians took the drastic Scorched earth measure of destroying all crops and livestock in the surrounding countryside to starve the Danes out.
In the autumn the besieged 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. They return via Northumbria, the Danish held midlands of the Five Burghs, and East Anglia to return to the fort at Mersea Island. In the autumn of 894, the army towed their ships up the Thames to a new fort on the River Lea. In the summer of 895 Alfred arrived with the West Saxon army, and obstructed the course of the Lea with a fort either side of the river. The Danes abandoned their camp, returned their woman to East Anglia and made another great march across the Midlands to a site on the Severn (where Bridgnorth now stands), followed all the way by hostile forces. There they stayed until the spring of 896 when the army finally dispersed into East Anglia, Northumbria and the Seine.
Hastein disappeared from history in around 896, by then an old man having already been described as "the lusty and terrifying old warrior of the Loire and the Somme", when he arrived in England several years earlier. He was one of the most notorious and successful Vikings of all time, having raided dozens of cities across many kingdoms in Europe and North Africa.
Jarl Hastein is a recurring character in Bernard Cornwell's The Saxon Stories, as a former ally and then opponent of Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Jarl Hastein also appears in the fictional series The Strongbow Saga written by Judson Roberts. The Old Gods expansion pack for 2012's Crusader Kings II makes it possible to play as Hastein.
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