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Alfred the Great (r. 871-899 CE) was the king of Wessex in Britain but came to be known as King of the Anglo-Saxons after his military victories over Viking adversaries and later successful negotiations with them. He is the best-known Anglo-Saxon king in British history thanks to his biographer Asser (died c. 909 CE) and that work's impact on later writers.
Alfred's epithet 'the great' was not given to him in his lifetime but centuries later when Asser's work became more widely known and the significance of Alfred's reign was more fully recognized. Even so, in his lifetime, Alfred was respected as a noble king who won the trust of his people for his reforms in education and law, and most notably, his leadership against the Viking threat. Alfred is featured in the TV series Vikings where he is played by Irish actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. The character in the show is loosely based on the historical Alfred but significant departures are made, most notably in his parentage.
The Vikings had begun their raids on Britain c. 793 CE and, by Alfred's time, had established themselves throughout the land from Northumbria through Mercia with increasing incursions into Wessex. Alfred defeated the Viking leader Guthrum (died c. 890 CE) at the Battle of Eddington in 878 CE, after which he was able to deliver terms including the Christianization of Guthrum and his closest advisors, thus bridging the religious gap between the two peoples. Although this victory did not end Viking raids in Britain nor drive the Vikings back to Scandinavia, it allowed for a period of relative peace in which Alfred's reforms could be implemented and take root.
Alfred's impressive military and administrative skills stabilized Britain after almost a century of Viking raids and warfare. He established the practice of translating classical works from Latin into English, set up public schools, reformed the military, and revised and expanded the law code. Later historians, especially during the Victorian Age, would consider him the most perfect king of the Middle Ages for his piety, justice, and noble vision of a better future for his people.
Youth & Rise to Power
Alfred was born in 849 CE, the son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex and his wife Osburh. At the age of four, his father sent him to Rome on pilgrimage, where he was confirmed in the faith by the Pope and, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was anointed as king. Although it is possible this ceremony took place, it seems unlikely as Alfred was the youngest of five children and his older brothers – Aethelbald, Aethelberht, and Aethelred – would have all been in line to succeed to the throne before him.
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He learned poetry by hearing it recited & then repeating it but could not read it himself until sometime in his teenage years.
Whatever effect the trip to Rome may have had on Alfred's character, it does not seem to be as profound an influence as that of his mother. Osburh is described in Asser's Life of King Alfred as a religious and intelligent woman who had a significant effect on his life-long interest in learning; a characteristic which chiefly defines Alfred and shaped his later accomplishments.
He learned poetry by hearing it recited and then repeating it but could not read it himself until sometime in his teenage years and even then could not read Latin in which the most important works of his time were written.
The role of his mother in his life, as well as his paternity, are the most significant departures made in Alfred's character arc in the TV series Vikings. In the show, his mother is Judith, Princess of Northumbria (played by English actress Jennie Jacques) who is married to Aethelwulf but becomes pregnant through an affair with the Christian monk-turned-Viking-turned-cleric, Athelstan (played by English actor George Blagden). Although the character of Judith is portrayed as caring and concerned for her son, no mention is made of Alfred's mother's impact on his literacy. His frailty in youth and the trip to Rome are also depicted with more or less accuracy but his brothers and their accomplishments are combined and fictionalized in the character of Aethelred (played by Darren Cahill) and elements of Aethelwulf's reign and personality are also significantly altered.
Alfred's brothers each ruled in succession following their father's death until Alfred was officially named successor to his brother Aethelred in c. 865 CE and elevated to the rank of military commander. It may be that Alfred's family had low expectations of him as a warrior-king as he was more given to books than action and was often ill as a young man (possibly afflicted with Crohn's disease). If so, they were mistaken as Alfred proved himself a capable leader in battle, between c. 865-871 CE, alongside his brother and on his own after Aethelred died.
The Viking Wars
In 865 CE the Great Army of Vikings led by Halfdane and Ivar the Boneless invaded East Anglia and swiftly defeated any force sent against them. In 866 CE they took the city of York, and in 867 CE they killed the Northumbrian kings Osbert and Aelle and consolidated their control of the region. In 868 CE they made constant raids throughout Mercia and by 869 CE had completely overrun East Anglia. In 870 CE reinforcements for the Great Army arrived from Scandinavia and Halfdane led his forces to take Wallingford, ravage Mercia, and drive on into Wessex the next year.
Aethelred and Alfred mobilized their forces and met the Vikings in battle at Reading but were badly defeated. Asser comments how “the Christians were aroused by the grief and shame of this, and four days later, with all their might and in a determined frame of mind, they advanced against the Viking army at a place called Ashdown” (Asser, 37, Keynes & Lapidge, 78). The Battle of Ashdown in January 871 CE would prove Alfred's skill in military leadership and his ability to think clearly and act in a crisis.
Although Asser never criticizes Aethelred directly, he makes the point that a strategy had been laid whereby Alfred and Aethelred would command joint forces which would strike at different points of the Viking forces but that Aethelred never appeared to take command of his part of the battle. The Vikings held the high ground and had already fortified their defenses when Alfred arrived on the field and found his brother the king was still at his prayers. Alfred, then, had no choice but to take command of the entire army and lead the attack. It should be noted that Asser's account of the battle has been challenged and other sources credit Aethelred with full participation in the engagement.
Whether his brother was involved or not, Alfred was victorious, skillfully leading his forces, and drove the Vikings from the field. Encouraged by this victory, the brothers pursued the Vikings and met them again at Basing but were defeated. In April, Aethelred died and Alfred became king. He led his army against the Vikings again at the Battle of Wilton and here again seems to have shown himself an effective leader on the field – at least at first. The Viking lines were broken and in flight, but there were too few of Alfred's forces to pursue. The Vikings were able to regroup and countercharge, defeating the West Saxons and taking the field. Alfred at this point had no choice but to pay the Viking commanders a large sum to leave Wessex.
Over the next few years, Alfred would continually have to mobilize what troops he could muster to defend his realm. Although the money he had paid to Halfdane secured Wessex for the time, it did not mean the Vikings had to leave Britain. They consolidated their power in Northumbria, made peace with the Mercians, and were free to threaten the autonomy of Wessex whenever they pleased. In 875 CE the Vikings had firmly established their kingdom, and a new Norse warlord, Guthrum, had taken command.
In 876 CE Alfred made a treaty with Guthrum in which he gave the Viking leader hostages, and the Vikings swore an oath to leave Wessex alone. For unknown reasons, the Vikings broke the treaty, killed the hostages, attacked, and then retreated to Exeter where they wintered. Alfred rallied his forces and blockaded the Viking fleet at Devon, forcing them to withdraw to Mercia but, by 877 CE, the Vikings were back at the borders and, in early 878 CE, they took Chippenham. The raid on Chippenham was a surprise attack launched during the Christmas season when Alfred was observing the holiday in the area and was completely unprepared. The Vikings massacred much of the populace, but Alfred escaped with his family and a few men and went into exile. Asser describes this period:
At the same time King Alfred, with his small band of nobles and also with certain soldiers, was leading a restless life in great distress amid the woody and marshy places of Somerset. He had nothing to live on except what he could forage by frequent raids, either secretly or even openly, from the Vikings as well as from the Christians who had submitted to the Vikings' authority. (Asser, 53, Keynes & Lapidge, 83)
Alfred & the Burnt Cakes
It is during this period that the events related in the legends surrounding Alfred are said to have taken place. Although it is often assumed that these legends come from Asser's work, they are all later creations, c. 10th century CE. The most famous of these is the story of Alfred and the burnt cakes, which comes from The Life of St. Neot.
It relates how Alfred, traveling alone at this time, came upon the cottage of a swineherd and asked for hospitality without revealing who he was. They took him in for a few days, and one day when the swineherd was out, his wife was baking bread in the oven while Alfred sat nearby preoccupied with his troubles. The wife was cleaning house when she smelled the bread burning and hurried to the oven to draw the loaves out. She chastised Alfred, who was sitting close by, saying, “You hesitate to turn the loaves which you see to be burning, yet you're quite happy to eat them when they come warm from the oven!” (Keynes & Lapidge, 198).
The story would go through many different incarnations with the wife depicted as evil and ignorant or simply exasperated by her houseguest, but in all, Alfred's response epitomizes humility and grace. He never reveals himself as king or argues with the wife but accepts her scolding as appropriate and helps her bake the bread.
The Battle of Eddington
Alfred remained in exile, hiding from the Vikings, for less than three months, during which time he seems to have been preparing for an offensive against the Vikings through a network of spies and chieftains who remained loyal to him. By March, according to Asser, he was waging a successful guerrilla war against the Danes. By May of 878 CE, he had assembled a large enough force to meet the Vikings in battle. He had a fortress built at Athelney which formed a base of operations and seems to have used this to recruit men as well as to launch raids.
At some point in early May, he managed to draw the Vikings out of their stronghold at Eddington and defeated them in battle using the tactic of the shield wall. The Wessex forces would have held tight formations against the Viking onslaught and then counterattacked. The Vikings were driven from the field and fortified the defenses of their stronghold. Alfred, however, destroyed all of the crops surrounding the Viking defenses, killed all the men found outside, and took the cattle. The Vikings were left with whatever provisions they had inside and after two weeks of siege surrendered.
Alfred's terms were lenient: Guthrum and 30 of his chieftains would submit to Christian baptism and renounce their pagan faith, hostages would be provided to ensure compliance, and the Vikings would leave Wessex; all of these conditions were met. Wessex was secure for the time being, but there is no evidence that Alfred thought Eddington had put an end to his Viking troubles.
Restoration, Reform, & Education
The theory that Viking raids were the wrath of God had gone unchallenged since the Lindisfarne raid in 793 CE as there was no better available, and Alfred most certainly believed it. Following the Battle of Eddington, he went to work to resolve the underlying causes of the raids which, in his view, were the poor state of education, clerical learning, and lack of unity in his kingdom.
Beginning in 880 CE, Alfred reorganized his kingdom and implemented educational, legal, and military reforms which would transform Wessex and eventually the whole of Britain. He began by rebuilding those cities and towns which had been destroyed in the Viking Wars and improving upon the earlier structures. Recognizing that these could be destroyed just as easily as their predecessors, he then reformed the military and the very structure of settlements in his kingdom.
Early in the 880's CE, Alfred implemented innovations which included a restructuring of the network of towns and cities. These initiatives are known as the Burghal System, in which improved roads linked a series of 33 burhs (fortified settlements) throughout his kingdom. On a trip to Rome, at some point after Eddington, Alfred had learned defensive tactics and stratagems from the Carolingian kings of France who had been dealing with their own Viking problems for centuries. Alfred's Burghal System seems to have been adapted from the Carolingian precepts.
In order for each burh to be able to defend itself, it had to be garrisoned, and those men had to be paid, and so Alfred reformed the tax code based on the abundance of crops gathered from a person's land. The productivity of a region was then taken into consideration when stationing a certain number of troops there. The burhs were situated in such a way that any garrison could move to support any other within a day's march.
At the same time, Alfred imported a number of learned clerics from Wales and France to reintroduce Latin learning to the court and translate Latin works into English. Public schools were created in which students learned to read English; those who were to go on to pursue holy orders would also be taught Latin. It was during this period that Asser, formerly of Wales, came to Alfred's court as his personal tutor. In time, Alfred himself would translate works from Latin to English, serving as a role model for his subjects.
It should not be thought, however, that this period was – as has often been claimed – a “quiet time” in which Alfred could devote himself to study and domestic policies. He was daily involved in foreign policy decisions, and the problems of the Vikings in Britain persisted. In the early 880's Alfred had gained control of Mercia, but the Vikings had settled the region from Northumbria known as the Danelaw and still made incursions into other regions.
Efforts to Unite England
In 886 CE Alfred captured London in a stunning victory, and “all the English people that were not under subjection to the Danes submitted to him” (Keynes & Lapidge, 38). There may have been an official oath of loyalty to the king that the populace, or at least landowners, had to take, but even if there was not, it is clear that Alfred had united the people of Britain under his rule. Keynes and Lapidge note that Alfred's victory at London marked “the emergence among the English of a sense of common identity, under a common leader, in a common cause” (38). Alfred was now king of all England not occupied by the Danes.
Shortly after taking London, Alfred sealed an alliance with Mercia by arranging a marriage between his daughter Aethelflaed (r. 911-918 CE) and the earl of that region, Aethelred II (r. 883-911 CE). It is certain they were married by 887 CE when Aethelflaed's name appears on land charters with Aethelred's. Aethelflaed would continue Alfred's work in conjunction with her husband and then as sole ruler and Lady of the Mercians.
Alfred continued his educational programs, enlarged and reformed the navy, and drew up his own law code based on the Christian Bible and founded on the Ten Commandments. All penalties took the form of fines except for those which involved crimes of treachery or treason. The supremacy of lordship was emphasized throughout as Alfred believed that the king ruled by divine will and, if he were true to his calling, would rule justly in the best interests of his people.
Although illiterate in his youth, Alfred himself wrote the law code and translated a number of works, including Gregory's Pastoral Care, Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine's Soliloquies, and the first 50 psalms. All of these books had influenced Alfred personally for the better and so, he believed, would do the same for others.
Another important factor, however, is that Asser's Life of King Alfred was not widely read at this time since Asser never completed it or had it copied for distribution. The work was only brought to public attention in the 17th century CE when Sir John Spelman published it as a guide for kingly behavior. In the 18th century CE, Alfred was regarded as the epitome of a noble king, and by the time of the Victorian Period (1837-1901 CE), he was embraced as the founder of the British Empire, father of the British Navy (although he only reformed it), and the greatest king to ever rule England.
His educational reforms paved the way for public schools in England, his law code served as the basis for future legal reforms, and his restructuring of the cities, towns, and roadways changed the infrastructure of the country forever. His daughter Aethelflaed of Mercia would continue his war with the Vikings as well as his educational reforms and Burghal System along with her brother Edward of Wessex, who had succeeded Alfred. Edward's son, Aethelstan, would in time become the first King of England, reigning over a united land, and continue his grandfather's legacy.
Alfred the Great Quotations
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
Alfred was extraordinary for an early medieval king in several respects. He was a particularly wily military commander, successfully keeping the Danes at bay, and he wisely shored up defenses when the enemies of his kingdom were occupied elsewhere. At a time when England was little more than a collection of warring kingdoms, he established diplomatic relations with his neighbors, including the Welsh, and unified a substantial portion of the heptarchy. He displayed remarkable administrative flair, reorganizing his army, issuing important laws, protecting the weak, and promoting learning. But most unusual of all, he was a gifted scholar. Alfred the Great translated several works from Latin into his own language, Anglo-Saxon, known to us as Old English, and wrote some works of his own. In his translations, he sometimes inserted comments that offer insight not only into the books but into his own mind.
Here are some notable quotations from the notable English king, Alfred the Great.
How Great was Alfred?
In uniting the peoples of Wessex and Mercia, the celebrated king left an ideological legacy of lasting importance.
Alfred the Great’s statue in Wantage, by Count Gleichen, 1877. Peter Sykes/Alamy.
The best way to get people excited about a nation’s founding father is, of course, to make him the subject of a musical. In August 1740 Frederick, Prince of Wales, son and heir apparent of George II, staged a specially written masque at Cliveden, his country seat in Buckinghamshire. Titled simply Alfred, it was a celebration of the career of Alfred the Great, the ninth-century king of Wessex, famous for battling the Vikings and burning the cakes. It is now almost entirely forgotten, apart from a catchy closing number in praise of its hero’s naval prowess, known as Rule, Britannia!
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Early Christianity in Britain – And the Role of Alfred the Great
We look at early British history here, including how Christianity arrived in Britain and the battles between King Alfred (Alfred the Great) and the Vikings that consolidated Christianity in the country. Daniel Smith explains.
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An 18th century painting of Alfred the Great by Samuel Woodforde.
In the 1stcentury, the British Isles was turning over to a new cultural-era of change. Christianity was introduced to Britain, and it is rumored that the catalyst to the Christian hold on the island was attributed to Joseph of Arimathea. Churches were built in villages and towns at random, as the church itself was decentralized. The Catholic and Orthodox Christian sects of religion, which were developed in the Roman and Byzantine Empires, are two examples of centralized religious hierarchy. By A.D. 150, the Pastors of the Celtic Churches preached the common language from interlinear bible translations called “glosses.” The most famous and well known of all the pastors was Patrick. He left England and went on to spread the Gospel to all of Ireland.
Patrick was made to be King Loeghaire’s “Annchara,” or personal counselor, after he was converted. It was here that Biblical law was introduced into the civil realm. Patrick was the author of Liber Ex Lege Moisi(Book of the Law of Moses), which he penned in 432 and that was applied by local chieftains throughout Ireland. The emerald isle was not yet a united political entity, only a Biblical/religious unity that brought the people and government together. It emphasized the rule of law and local self-government. These of course being two fundamental principles of basic Christian government.
Two Anglo-Saxon brothers arrived in Britain around 428 A.D. by the names of Hengist and Horsa. The barbarian brothers had been called upon to help the king of Kent fight off his rivals. In fact, the king of Kent also invited them to bring their relatives as well. After Kent was saved from capture, the barbarians would end up staying and living in Britain. After some time, families grew on the island, eventually taking it over and naming it Anglo-land, or Engel-land (today’s England).
At the very start of emigration into Britain, the Anglo-Saxons turned on the native Celts. They killed countless numbers of them. During one event, they killed 1200 Celtic Pastors in the middle of prayer. In a stroke of Divine Providence however, while the Saxons conquered the Celts militarily, the Celts would conquer the Saxons spiritually. Over time, gradually the Saxons were converted to Celtic Christianity. Catholicism did not actually arrive in Britain until 597 A.D. Celtic influences emphasized the Bible (or Scriptural authority) over Papal authority. This was even after the introduction of Catholicism. A loyal follower of Patrick, named Columba, left his Ireland during this time, and would come to evangelize the king of the Picts (today’s Scotland). Columba also translated Liber Ex Lege Moisi in the Scottish language.
Struggle in Wessex
King Alfred was the first leader revered enough to bring together all of England into one nation. Alfred was known from that time on as Alfred the Great, who ruled from A.D. 871 to 899. Interestingly enough though, just before Alfred was crowned king, most of England had been taken over viciously by the Vikings through a long series of ferocious battles. Wessex, in southern England, was the only area that remained open for Alfred to rule. For years to follow, Alfred would be continually thrown into the thick of battle with the Viking Danes.
Historian David Chilton wrote of this struggle:
“In 876 the Danish chieftain Guthrum attacked Wessex in earnest with a powerful host, aiming to break Alfred’s hold on the country once and for all. The Vikings succeeded: in the winter of early 878 Guthrum pushed Alfred into the marshes, where the king and a small group of loyal followers were forced to hide out on the Isle of Athelney. Historians have called this time of testing Alfred’s “Valley Forge,” where he had to bide his time while virtually all England was overrun with pagan enemies of the faith who sacked churches and monasteries, wiping out the tattered remains of a Christian past. The legends say, however, that the bold and daring Alfred entered the Viking camp disguised as a minstrel and actually performed for Guthrum and his chiefs—getting a chance to listen to their plans and plotting his own strategy.
When spring came, Alfred rallied the English army for a final push against the invader’s vastly superior forces. This time Alfred was victorious. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicleputs it, “he fought against the entire host, and put it to flight.” The Vikings agreed never to attack Wessex again, and they submitted to the terms of peace. Alfred did not banish Guthrum and his men. He didn’t have them executed, either. His solution to the problem of the Vikings seems incredible to us, but it worked. The peace treaty he imposed on them included this provision: that Guthrum and “thirty of the most honorable men in the host” become Christians!
Guthrum accepted the conditions, and he was baptized into the Christian faith, Alfred standing as his godfather. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Alfred embraced his newborn brother in Christ and threw a twelve-day feast for him and his men. And then, as if this weren’t enough already, Alfred made the strangest political move of all. He said to Guthrum, in effect: “My brother, this land is much too big for me to rule all by myself and the important thing isn’t who’s in charge. The real issue is a Christian England. So don’t go back to Denmark. Stay here and rule this land with me, under the lordship of Jesus Christ.”
King Alfred moved to institute Christian reforms, and with the newfound peace, many areas in Britain included the creation of government that served the people’s needs. He, himself, was taught how to read the Asser (the Celtic Christian scholar), and also studied Patrick’s Liber. His knowledge allowed him to establish the Ten Commandments as the basis of civil law and adopted many other patterns of government from the Hebrew Republic. As far as English politics were concerned, the nation organized itself into units of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands and elected an assembly called a “Witen.” The representatives of these units had official titles: a tighingman (over 10 families), a vilman (over 50 families), a hundredman (over 100 families), and an earl.
The land that the earl would rule over was called a “shire,” and his direct assistant was called the “shire-reef,” which is where the word Sheriff today comes from. There was also an unelected group made up of nobleman within the Witen however at this time—the king was an elected position—not a hereditary one. Thus their laws of the land were created by their consent. King Alfred’s civil laws became the root of all English and American common law, trial by jury, and habeas corpus. It was Alfred’s legal code which was derived from Mosaic Law and Jesus’ golden rule.
Thomas Jefferson said about Anglo-Saxon laws:“…the sources of the Common Law…[and] the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the 8th century…”Thomas Jefferson said that Anglo-Saxon laws should be printed on one side of the American National Seal proposed by him in 1776, saying:“the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by the night.”But, on the other side, Jefferson offered images of “Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs… whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”Ultimately this is true because of the Germanic Saxons’ contact with the Celtic Christians (or British natives), but the Saxon culture in Germany from which they originated provided no constitutionalism whatsoever to guide their civilization.
In the 9thcentury, the clergy would begin to serve as the judges in England and would build common law based on the Bible, but Anglo-Saxon law was eroding by the time of Norman Conquest in 1066. The Normans, then under William the Conqueror, established a royal dynasty—a system which destroyed the rights of the people, yet increased efficiency by centralization of common law under King Henry II. In the end, the English people would experience a period of over 400 years of civil and religious stagnation until 1215, when King John would reluctantly sign the Magna Carta.
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You can read Daniel’s past articles on California in the US Civil War (here ), Medieval Jesters (here ), How American Colonial Law Justified the Settlement of Native American Territories ( here ), Spanish Colonial Influence on Native Americans in Northern California ( here ), Christian ideology in history ( here ), and the collapse of the Spanish Armada in 1588 ( here ).
Jurasinski, Stefan. 2014. “Noxal Surrender, the Deodand, and the Laws of King Alfred.” Studies in Philology 111 (2): 195–224. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mlf&AN=2014289482&site=eds-live&scope=site.
"Tribal Roots Point to Hebrew Origins." United Israel World Union. Last modified October 16, 2017. https://unitedisrael.org/tribal-roots-point-hebrew-origins/.
DiLascio, Tracey M. 2015. “BYZANTIUM AND WESTERN EUROPE IN THE EARLY MIDDLE AGES: The Laws of Alfred, Guthrum, and Edward the Elder.” Defining Documents: Middle Ages, July, 19–25. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=118279323&site=eds-live&scope=site.
"The History of the Seal of the United States." Internet Archive: Digital Library. Accessed August 21, 2019. https://archive.org/stream/historyofsealofu00unit/historyofsealofu00unit_djvu.txt.
Beliles, Mark A., and Stephen K. McDowell. America's Providential History: Including Biblical Principles of Education, Government, Politics, Economics, and Family Life. 1989. pp. 39-42.
Mark A. Beliles, and Stephen K. McDowell. America's Providential History: Including Biblical Principles of Education, Government, Politics, Economics, and Family Life. 1989. pp. 39-42.
David Chilton, "The Origin of Common Law." The ARK Foundation. Accessed August 21, 2019. http://www.arky.org/Constitution/IOTC/W2%20The%20Origin%20of%20Common%20Law.pdf .
Tracey M. DiLascio, 2015. “BYZANTIUM AND WESTERN EUROPE IN THE EARLY MIDDLE AGES: The Laws of Alfred, Guthrum, and Edward the Elder.” Defining Documents: Middle Ages, July, 19–25.
Stefan Jurasinski,2014. “Noxal Surrender, the Deodand, and the Laws of King Alfred.” Studies in Philology 111.
Alfred the Great and Edington: how the King of Wessex became great
Alfred the Great fought his way from near-certain defeat early in his reign, emerging from hiding in the marshes of Somerets to save Wessex from Viking rule. Writing for BBC History Revealed Jem Roberts explores how Alfred had become king against the odds, his victory at Edington, and whether he really did burn the cakes
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Published: May 6, 2020 at 11:50 am
All heroic figures have to have nadirs to fight back from, adversity to overcome – and there’s a reason that the Saxon King Alfred is the only English ruler ever to be popularly known as ‘The Great’. The one thing that most people think of when his name is mentioned is the burning of the cakes. True or not, it comes from Alfred’s time of greatest struggle – as a battle-beaten guerilla hiding out in the marshlands of the Somerset Levels, with any hope of victory over the usurping Danes seemingly lost.
Overturning this desperate state, and forging some kind of peace with the Danes, must surely be Alfred’s greatest achievement. But there was one greater masterstroke in Alfred’s reign, the main reason we still celebrate his successes over 1,100 years later. He was the first of our rulers to commission his own biography, written during his lifetime by the Welsh bishop Asser. Understanding the value of good propaganda was just one of Alfred’s many smart moves in his 28 tumultuous years as leader of Wessex.
When did Alfred become king?
Long celebrated as a king who ruled more with his brain than by bloodlust, Alfred’s very name means ‘wise elf’. The importance of education, and things higher than victory in battle, was impressed on him at a very young age, when his father Æthelwulf went on pilgrimage to Rome in 853 and took Alfred – then aged four – with him.
The example of the Roman Church stayed with Alfred, who would fight for a more civilised form of government, firmly built on Christian piety, for the rest of his life. No chronicler, however, claims that Alfred was built for warfare, and his life was plagued by ailments now thought to stem from the excruciating bowel disorder, Crohn’s disease.
Alfred the Great’s life – and death – dominates Anglo-Saxon versus Viking epic the The Last Kingdom on Netflix. Get up to speed with all four seasons and find out more about the real history behind the show at our curated page on The Last Kingdom
Æthelwulf had his work cut out on his return to Britain to avoid civil war when his elder son Æthelbald refused to give up his regency. But, ultimately, both father and son died within a couple of years, with Wessex passing to the next brother in line, Æthelbehrt. Five years later, in 865, his death gave Alfred’s closest brother Æthelred the crown and, in the same year the Vikings arrived, led by the terrifying Ivar the Boneless.
Over the next five years, the invading Danes bloodily took hold of northern kingdoms including Northumbria and East Anglia, and at the start of 871 – ‘the year of nine battles’ – Æthelred suffered a humiliating defeat against them at Reading. With the King ailing, and further attacks on Wessex expected, only four days later the Battle of Ashdown in Berkshire had to be led by the King’s 22-year-old younger brother, Alfred.
Although never a warlord in the mould of his pagan adversaries, the cerebral prince was said to have ridden to a perforated sarsen stone (a large boulder, as used at Stonehenge), known as the ‘Blowing Stone’, and used it to summon the people from miles around to defend their lands against the invaders. The success of the ensuing battle, however, was short lived, and further defeats followed before the month was over. By Easter, Æthelred was dead and Alfred had inherited the beseiged Kingdom of Wessex.
Why was the battle of Edington important?
Even while Alfred was arranging his brother’s funeral, the Danes continued to stage attacks on Wessex and, by May, he was forced to pay the Great Heathen Army to withdraw to Mercian London. Peace, however, was brief. The Danes, under their new leader Guthrum, were soon to be found pillaging Dorset, breaking an oath of peace made in the name of Thor, before withdrawing with their spoils to Exeter.
Despite being on their guard, however, the English forces had a surprise in store in January 878. Chippenham was a royal court, Alfred’s home, and the pious King was celebrating Twelfth Night when Guthrum’s forces attacked, laying waste to everyone they found, unprepared, with many forces away for the yule period. Alfred had been married to a Mercian noblewoman, Ealhswith, ten years earlier, and already had at least two children including the four-year-old future King Edward the Elder. Thankfully they were spared the Danish butchery. Alfred, however, with what little retinue survived, had to escape and plan his revenge.
The year 878 is seen as the lowpoint of Saxon England, with the Danes now in charge of all kingdoms. Alfred created a fort on the central Somerset Isle of Athelney, 60 miles southwest of Chippenham, and plotted. His old strategy of buying off the Danes was no longer an option. Only all-out victory in battle would suffice.
In early May, Alfred rode to Egbert’s Stone, and called a levy to bring together the remaining forces of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire that were still loyal to him and create a force that could easily crush Guthrum’s men in battle. Accordingly, where the village of Edington in Wiltshire now stands, a bloody battle commenced, as Asser later reported: “Fighting ferociously, forming a dense shield-wall against the whole army of the Pagans, and striving long and bravely… at last he gained the victory. He overthrew the Pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress.” The White Horse at Westbury is said to commemorate this, Alfred’s greatest victory.
Guthrum had fled to his own stronghold, removing all food from them in a sortie. After holding out for two weeks, he submitted to Alfred and the Treaty of Wedmore was agreed. The key demand was that Guthrum be baptised into the Christian Church, taking the name Æthelstan and accepting Alfred as his adopted father. This also marked the establishment of the Danelaw, a formal division of England where the newly christened Æthelstan could happily withdraw, his conversion ensuring that his standing with the people he ruled over would be stronger than ever. He died in East Anglia after 12 years of relative peace.
What was the Danelaw?
A hard-won peace was only found in Saxon England thanks to the agreement that gave rise to the Danelaw. This determined the portion of the country to be ruled over by the Viking invaders, via English puppet rulers, in return for Alfred’s Wessex being safe to the south (not just safe actually, but expanded, with extra lands in the south-east under Saxon rule).
Although never intended as the name of a geographical area, we now know this region to have stretched roughly from the north banks of the Thames up to the River Tees. The simplest way to envisage the region is to imagine a line drawn between London and Chester in the north-west – everything to the east of that line was under the Danelaw.
Many areas within the Danelaw region remained largely Saxon, of course, but Viking settlement – and the differences in language, law and culture that came with it – was intensively centred on cities like York, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Lincoln. Danish roots remain strong in areas like Yorkshire, Newcastle and Essex to this day. For instance, DNA evidence shows that Derby residents still bear strong hereditary connections to Denmark.
Alfred in peacetime
Alfred was now finally free to rebuild the shattered Wessex cities and to try to forge the kind of kingdom he felt a Christian society demanded. London was carefully redesigned, with some street plans that still hold to this day. The King also issued his own 120-chapter law code, partially dictated by himself and partially based on previous Saxon legal edicts. Or, at least, as he admitted, “those that pleased me – and many of the ones that did not please me, I rejected with the advice of my councillors, and commanded them to be observed in a different way.”
Alfred was said to always carry a notebook with him, jotting down prayers and observations that would become useful. The resultant legal document was largely Alfred’s own meditation upon Christian law, with extended Biblical translations. Education was seen as central to Alfred’s vision of a better England, with court schools established and the furtherance of teaching in the English language. Meanwhile judges were required, for the first time, to be literate and learned before they were allowed in office – even if the fundamental law that underlined the entire disparate collection of rules was the old Saxon requirement, that loyalty to the Lord (Alfred, rather than Jesus) remained paramount.
It would be wrong to depict the late 9th century as a time of peace and rebuilding – and ironically, it was the death of his old enemy Guthrum that caused the trouble, creating a power vacuum that a whole host of Danes were itching to fill. The regular incursions from invaders required the English to develop their own weapons of war – including the design of a new fleet of boats twice the size of the Danes’, an early step towards the country’s reputation for naval mastery. This increased force wasn’t just for defence either, but for raids on the Danes to fill the royal coffers.
So close to the dawn of a new century and only 50 years old, King Alfred died of unknown causes on 26 October 899, succeeded by his son Edward, who in turn ruled for 25 years without allowing Alfred’s powerbase to fall back to its 878 nadir. Indeed, it would be his son, another Æthelstan, who first managed to reunite all the Saxon Kingdoms, and become truly the first King of England.
In a sign of English policy for centuries to come, very soon the English kings were invading Scotland, and making themselves overlords of the whole of Britain. As for Alfred himself, no more remains of him than of King Arthur – he was buried with fitting majesty in Winchester, before being moved to Hyde Abbey just outside the city in 1110. The graves of Alfred and his family managed to survive Henry VIII’s Reformation, but were ultimately scattered in the building of a prison on the site in the 1780s. Today, attempts are afoot to find some remnant of Alfred’s body, Richard III-style, but hopes are low of any meaningful identification being made.
But unlike so many of his contemporaries and indeed descendants, Alfred has little need for DNA analysis to be celebrated – as the English nation grew in strength and international power, the Saxon hero grew in reputation, earning the ‘Great’ soubriquet by the 16th century. Although his story is stirring, it could have been as murky a history as any first millennium ruler, had he not kept his firm faith in the power of the written word, and the English language.
Bishop Asser was the person who gave Alfred true immortality and who allowed his words to stay with us, 1,117 years after his death: “I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works.”
Did Alfred the Great burn the cakes?
While Alfred commissioned his own biography, all that hard work could easily be undone by one imaginative later writer hoping to add to the legend. Most people who hear the name of Alfred the Great will automatically leap to the story of him burning the cakes, and yet the tale wasn’t recorded until the 12th century (along with another tale of the King stealing into the Danish camp disguised as a minstrel).
That said, a perfectly plausible event like this can tell us so much about kingship. It may have been a real event, which survived locally through storytelling.
The yarn remains that, after the Danish successes of 878, when Alfred was fighting for his survival guerilla-style in the marshes around Athelney in the central Somerset Levels, he was taken in by a charitable peasant woman and offered shelter on the understanding that, while she went out to search for wood, he was to keep an eyes on the ‘cakes’ (actually some form of simple bread), which were baking by her fire.
He eagerly agreed, but when his hostess was gone, Alfred was so absorbed with ruminating on how to get back at the Vikings and restore his rule, that the cakes were burned by the time the old woman returned she forced the King out into the cold with abuse for his foolishness. While this episode said a great deal about the fragility of royalty, the experience never harmed Alfred – his victory was imminent.
Alfred the Great
Alfred was the fifth and favorite son of Ethelwulf, the Saxon king of Wessex and Kent. In addition to the military training that was expected of a prince, he also learned to read and write and from a young age was very interested in books and learning. This was at an age when fighting skills were considered far more important prerequisites for rule than 'book-learning'. Each of his elder brothers reigned before him, and all of their reigns were plagued with attacks by the Danish Vikings. In many cases small fleets of Danish pirates landed, pillaged, and retreated before the Saxons could raise an army against them, but in 866 a large Army of Danes under the sons of the famous Ragnar Lodbrok arrived in England, proceeded to attack and pillage Northumberland, and seemed to take up permanent residence. It was this "Great Heathen Army" that began attacking Wessex during the reign of Ethelred, one of the older brothers of Alfred.
It was the reign of Ethelred, when Alfred was still a very young man, that his great martial and leadership skills were first recognized. In 871 a great series of battles were fought with an army of Danes who had taken over a Saxon fortress at Reading, and in these fights, Alfred was the leading general. After several skirmishes at Englefield and Reading , the great Battle of Ashdown was fought and the Saxons won a great victory. This famous battle did much to establish Alfred's reputation as the greatest military leader of the Saxons, and made him greatly feared and respected among the Danes.
Ethelred died shortly after Ashdown, and although the late king had several sons, the need for a strong military leader was so obvious, the Saxon nobles unanimously selected Alfred as king in favor of his nephews. The first five years of Alfred's reign were not particularly notable. Early on, he made a somewhat inglorious treaty with the Danes by which they promised to leave his domains unmolested if Alfred would promise not to make alliances with the other Saxon kingdoms against the Danes. This brought several years of relative, peace, but this only served to make the Wessex Saxons unprepared, when another band of Norsemen, this time under Guthrum, attacked the realm. Knowing that Alfred was their greatest threat, the new army of Danes made a surprised attack on his stronghold in mid-winter. Alfred barely escaped, but his army was scattered, and he was driven into exile at Athelney. From this position of extreme disadvantage he managed to secretly pull together another army. After planning his attack, reconnoitering the Danish camp, and carefully waiting for the right opportunity, he made a very successful attack against the Danes at the Battle of Edington . With Guthrum and his officers at his mercy, instead of killing them, he made a radical proposal. If they Danes would convert to Christianity, accept Alfred as their overlord, and help defend the coast of England from further attacks, Alfred would allow them to retain possession of certain lands in England to the north of Wessex. Guthrum agreed to this proposal and signed the Treaty of Wedmore , which created a Christian Danish region in England, independently governed but subject to the King of Wessex.
Alfred's trouble with the Danes was far from over, but the treaty with Guthrum gave a great respite, and the Danes who settled on the coast of England helped prevent further Viking pirate attacks in the area, since it was their own villages in greatest risk of being plundered. Arthur also improved him navy to help combat pirate raids of the Saxon Shore. The Danish threat somewhat relieved Arthur turned his attentions to the devastated communities of Saxon England. He rebuilt churches and schools, and brought teachers and learned men from the continent. He tried to restored the Saxon Christian culture that had been wrecked by two generation of depredations, and he established a code of laws that later became the basis of English Common Law. His conduct during the last twenty years of his reign was in every manner laudable, as a ruler, a soldier, an administrator, a Christian, and a scholar. He is the only English monarch in history to be awarded the appellation "the Great."
BOWKER, Editor, Alfred the Great (London, 1899) PLUMMER, Life of Alfred the Great (London, 1902) SCHMID, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, 2d ed. (1858). Contemporary authorities are the Life of Alfred by ASSER and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. These and the later accounts by ETHELWERD, SIMEON OF DURHAM, etc. can be conveniently studied in CONYBEARE, Alfred in the Chroniclers (1900). For Alfred's writings see BOSWORTH, The Works of Alfred the Great (Jubilee edition, 1858, 2 vols.). Alfred's laws are printed in LIEBERMANN'S Laws of the Anglo-Saxons (1903). Among modern accounts see PAULI, Life of Alfred the Great. tr. WRIGHT (1852) LAPPENBERG, England under the Anglo-Saxon Kings, tr. from the German by THORPE (1881), II LINGARD, History of England, I KNIGHT, Life of King Alfred (1880). For a literary appreciation, see BROOKE, History of English Literature to the Norman Conquest (London and New York, 1878).
King Alfred the Great, Viking Fighter and Father of England
It was late in the year 871 when the 23-year-old Alfred, newly-appointed king of the last free Saxon kingdom in Britain, sat down for peace talks with two sons of Ragnar Lothbrok and other leaders of the Great Heathen Army. For young Alfred, it would be impossible not to feel intimidated by the situation. Halfdan Ragnarson and his half-brother Ubba (or Hubba) were twice Alfred’s age and had ten times his experience. Alfred had met these Viking champions three years before – but in 868 he had only been in the entourage of his older brother, King Aethelred, and they had been bargaining for the peace of neighboring Mercia and not Alfred’s own home of Wessex. Now in 871, when the Viking hosts had only been in the country for 5 years, Aethelred and all of Alfred’s other once-powerful brothers were dead, and Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria (with Bernicia), and Kent had all fallen. At least Ivar the Boneless had returned to Ireland – but more Vikings had come that summer. The kings of these reinforcements, including one named Guthrum, sat across from Alfred now, adding to the malice in the room and the sense that Alfred was a stag surrounded by a pack of wolves.
But Alfred, as we shall see, was never one to show fear.
The Viking Invasion of Wessex and Alfred’s Ascendancy to the Throne
Wessex was the southernmost portion of Britain. It was wealthy and fertile, with the best trading routes to the continent, so of course, the Vikings could never consider their conquest complete until they had dominion over this territory. The invasion came as a surprise attack in the dead of winter, January 871. The Vikings won that attack at a place called Reading (which gave them an all-important winter base for their campaign), but just two weeks later King Aethelred and his little brother, Alfred met them on the slopes of nearby Ashdown.
At Ashdown, the Vikings had the high ground as well as the edge of a five-year winning streak. The Saxons split their forces, but then on the fateful morning of the battle, King Aethelred was reluctant to attack. We are told the pious young king was in prayer, but Prince Alfred realized they could wait no longer. He led his men into battle "charging in like a wild boar." His brother finally joined him, catching the Vikings in a pincer attack. It was Alfred’s first real command, and it was a great victory for the Saxons. The slopes of Ashdown were littered with Viking dead, including one of their kings (a Dane named Bagsac) and five jarls.
But the Vikings were back in the field for a rematch almost immediately. The two West Saxon brothers would repeat the strategy a few times, and fought well, but never with the same success as at Ashdown. Time after time, the Vikings “held the place of carnage.” By Easter that year, Aethelred – only in his mid-twenties with six years on the throne – was exhausted and succumbed to a fatal illness.
Alfred took his brother’s place as king and continued the fight. A total of nine battles were fought that year, with the West Saxons losing a little ground each time. There would be no way to sustain this war, and yet there seemed no way to turn it around.
But for the Great Heathen Army, it was much more than they had bargained for. They had expected Wessex to fall as everywhere else had. The kings and jarls had expected to make themselves and their men rich. But every battle was hard-won, and they were losing a lot of warriors to the sword or to desertion for easier gains elsewhere. What was more, the hard fighting that enmeshed them here was keeping them exposed in their other semi-conquered kingdoms, like Mercia and Northumbria. It was time to talk.
So, when Alfred met Halfdan Ragnarson, Ubba, Guthrum, and the others at the close of that long, violent year of upheaval, both sides wanted the same thing – time.
Though the course of the next hours or days were probably full of posturing, threats, boasting, intimidation tactics, and scabbard-rattling, the West Saxons and the ‘Danes’ (as Old English sources usually collectively call Vikings) finally came to an agreement – there would be a cease-fire for a period of five years.
For the Vikings, it was a mistake. Had Ivar the Boneless still been with The Great Heathen Army, he would probably have told them to kill Alfred when they had the chance.
Young Alfred had already shown himself to be a warrior king, but in the ninth century, warrior kings were a dime a dozen. But Alfred was more than that. Alfred's name meant "Elf Wise" or "Elf Counsel," and his Christian parents named him this old Pagan name at a time when names were not given for the ring of their sound, but as a hope of the blessing they might convey. Alfred’s name in our culture would basically mean “supernaturally intelligent,” and he was to live up to it. The man had an uncommon amount of static, dynamic, and emotional intelligence as well as a visionary spirit. He backed these attributes up with tremendous discipline in both his personal actions and his policies. These qualities would shape his every move in life, war, and diplomacy.
The Genius of Alfred
Though Alfred would go on to be one of the more learned kings of his day and would even translate Roman philosophers into English, throughout his childhood he could not read. While this was normal for most of the population of Medieval Europe at the time, it was not typical for a royal household. It was not until Alfred was 12 – almost a man by the standards of the day – that he was able to teach himself (with a little help) to read and write.
Alfred’s mother told the 12-year-old that he could have her book of Saxon poems if he could learn to read it. His motivation suddenly fired, Alfred found people to read him the book until he memorized every word, and then used his knowledge of the poems to decipher the writing. Once he had done this, he had ‘learned how to learn' and would go on to read in several languages as well as gradually acquiring skill in the essential academic disciplines of the day (rhetoric, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, arithmetic, and geometry).
Alfred’s intellect was not only oriented towards the theoretical and academic. He was an inventor and made developments ranging from improvements to the hand-held lantern, to coming up with candles that could precisely mark time, to designing a fleet of ships for coastal defense.
Alfred began working on his ships the moment the Vikings left Wessex, though the project would take years. His ships were twice the size of dragon ships, with 60 oars or more, and their sides and decks were higher to give their crews the advantage when vessels came broadside to fight. But though they were fast, Alfred’s ships did not have the maneuverability of dragon ships, were expensive to build, and were hard for his Saxon and Frisian sailors to handle. So, while the young King was right that sea power would one day be a key to British military superiority, Alfred’s fleet never made much of an impact in his Viking wars.
Of course, the acid-test of Alfred’s genius was not in the books he translated, his tinkering with inventions, or his military projects, but in his diplomacy and leadership, as we shall see.
Alfred’s Chronic Illness
Asser (Alfred's contemporary biographer) tells us that King Alfred’s constantly-active mind and the near-perpetual crisis of his times came at a high personal cost to him. Implacable on the exterior, the King was nearly-consumed by stress within, and his time spent in religious pursuits were as much to seek solace and find fortitude as they were to set any examples for onlookers. Probably because of the amplification of these stresses by his intense mind, Alfred suffered from chronic pain. Though Asser goes on at length about the King's affliction, he is vague in his description. One gets the sense that it might have been something like ulcerative colitis, bleeding peptic ulcers, or diverticulitis. Whatever the case may be, Asser tells us that "there was not an hour that went by that the King did live with pain or in fear of that pain." In keeping with the peculiar bent of the Medieval Christian mind, both Alfred and Asser felt the disease was a sign of God's hand in his life.
And Alfred was going to need God’s hand, for in the spring of 877 the peace treaty between the West Saxons and the Vikings was to end, and all of Wessex was about to collapse.
The Last Kingdom
The treaty between Wessex and the Kings of the Great Heathen Army ended around 877, and Guthrum wasted no time before invading with an overwhelming force. Alfred’ preparations had not come to fruition yet, though, and the Saxon King met the Vikings with his own army while waving the banner of truce. New terms were drawn up, new gold surrendered to Guthrum (Halfdan Ragnarson seems to have stayed in Northumbria), and new oaths were taken. The Vikings swore an oath of peace upon a sacred arm ring. But the treaty was a ruse, and the Great Heathen Army took advantage of the West Saxons' good faith and immediately raced to attack Exeter.
It was the first colossal embarrassment of Alfred’s young career. The walled town of Exeter fell to the Vikings – who were following their familiar pattern of taking a fortified city by treachery and then using that fortress as a base of operations for deeper incursions. But Guthrum’s oath-breaking was to be punished by divine hands. For as his massive fleet moved to join him near Exeter, a terrible storm blew in from the cold Atlantic.
This violent storm wrecked 120 or more ships, dashing them on the rocks of Britain and drowning 5000 Vikings. The Great Heathen Army had swollen to “incalculable” numbers, but no army of the day could shrug off such a loss of men and ships, nor ignore the spiritual implications of such a disaster. The Vikings were forced to make peace and to accept that they were being punished by their gods for their duplicity in breaking the treaty. They swore stronger oaths and moved further off from Wessex. This time, Guthrum would wait five whole months before breaking his word.
And so, it was not until the twelfth night of Christmas (January 5, 878) that the Viking army attacked the unsuspecting and drink-sodden West Saxons at the height of their revelry. The attack was so well-timed and well-planned that the Saxons could hardly mount a defense at all. Alfred, his housecarls (personal retinue), family, and some of his followers escaped into the wild. There was no friendly refuge they could reach, and they were forced to go into hiding. Almost every major city found itself besieged, every ealdorman discovered his lands hemmed in. Guthrum and his Danes saw to it that each Saxon force remained isolated and could not join together in any strength.
It seemed certain that the last kingdom in Saxon Britain had fallen.
The Outlaw King
In a single night, he had lost his entire kingdom, his army was scattered, and all Saxon Britain was under the dominion of the Vikings. Few Kings have ever recovered from such a turn of events. Alfred did not quit, though. He was a king in exile within his own lands, hiding "in the fastness of the moors" and in the swamplands of southern Britain – the wilderness that would be hard for anyone to cover much less control.
Perhaps the Vikings hardly cared. They were busy taking the wealth of Wessex and mopping up resistance. Alfred could not hide forever, and every day he was gone, their hold on the land strengthened.
Always moving, Alfred would lie in hiding throughout the winter. Many folktales commemorate this time, passed down from mothers to children about a wandering king in disguise, a proto-Robin Hood waging a guerrilla war against an invading power. We hear of Alfred posing as a harpist at a Viking feast so that he could learn their plans. Another famous tale tells of a housewife who yells at the King when he lets the bread burn, unaware of who was sheltering in her house.
Probably the West Saxons in the winter of 878 were also encouraging each other by spreading these rumors. They did not want to face the facts that all seemed lost and that instead of the “Englaland” that people had once imagined – a united kingdom of Saxons, Angles, Britons, and others – there was instead to be a patchwork of Danish principalities.
But a new rumor silenced any hopeful stories they could tell. Twenty-three more ships had just arrived in Wessex from Dyfed in Wales, carrying well-over a thousand Vikings. This new force was led by Ubba, one of the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, and he carried with him the Raven banner.
Ubba’s army caught an un-named Saxon ealdorman in Devonshire. The Saxons were besieged, but instead of surrendering or giving themselves up to a slow death of starvation they rushed as one from the gates of their stronghold and fell upon the Vikings with all the desperation and fury that fell winter had engendered. The son of Ragnar and 840 of his Vikings were slain, and the legendary Raven banner was captured.
This victory had a profound effect on the West Saxon morale, and Alfred did not waste the opportunity. He had already been gathering strength, even leaving the wilds to build a wooden fort at Athelney, near Somerset. As summer drew near, King Alfred marched his housecarls and the survivors of his winter war out into the open. From all corners, the Saxons gathered to him.
King Alfred and his new army attacked Guthrum’s Danes near Eddington. This time, the Saxons would not be beaten, and the Vikings were put to flight. Those that survived the battle took refuge in the fortress there. Realizing that they could not long endure the siege, Guthrum surrendered after a fortnight.
Wessex was saved. Alfred had learned his lesson well, though, and would not be appeased by a few oaths and hostages from the Vikings. He, Guthrum, and other leaders sat down to draw up a lasting treaty. It was not enough for Wessex to keep its independence while the Vikings carved up the rest of Britain – a boundary was set for each domain. This boundary line was the old Roman road that ran diagonally from Dover in the southeast all the way to Wales. In the 9 th century, this via was called Watling Street. To the south and west of the road would be Wessex’s dominion, which included much of Mercia (Wessex’s old rival). Everything to the other side of the road would be the Danelaw, a place where the Vikings could make their rules, fight their wars, worship their gods and do whatever they decided to do. The Saxons and the Vikings were to each keep to their side of the tracks.
As the treaty was being decided on, many people must have realized the implications. Britain had been many kingdoms – Pictland, Dal Riata, and Strathclyde (by then, all Alba) in the far north the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Bernicia, Cumbraland, East Anglia, Mercia, Kent (or Cent), and Wessex and the Britons of Wales and Cornwall. Most of these territories still existed in peoples’ minds, but in practicality, the formation of the Danelaw was reducing all of Britain into really just four domains: Alba, the Danelaw, Wessex, and Wales. The idea of an England may have seemed unlikely when there were so many kingdoms, but now it really came down to just two, the way the Saxons saw it.
Alfred was probably the most aware of this. Though peace and protection for his people was his first concern, there is every reason to believe that he dreamed of creating an England. While England would not exist until the time of his grandson’s reign, several times the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to Alfred as “the King of the English people.” This was not at that time an official title, but it appears to be how people were beginning to think of it.
Though many Vikings got bored with peace and went elsewhere, most of the Great Heathen Army settled down to enjoy their dominion, in the Danelaw. They divided up their conquered lands equitably, and Viking raiders became yeomen farmers. They married local women and the similar languages of Old Norse and Old English blended along with their bloodlines.
This is not to say that the Vikings of the Danelaw and the Saxons stopped fighting after the treaty of 878. Far from it! The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle follows the movements of “the army” for at least 30 years. Alfred would go on to wrestle London from the Danes, and fight incursions for the rest of his life (he died of illness – perhaps the culmination of his chronic illness or the cancers that can arise from these types of conditions – around the age of 50). New Vikings were always coming in, and new Viking leaders were always trying to exceed the glory of their predecessors. Alfred would never see a united England.
Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great is often thought of as the man who united England and kicked out the Vikings. Those are both extreme oversimplifications. As we have seen, Alfred did – against all odds – break the momentum of the Viking conquerors of Britain and push them back into a confined territory that his progeny would eventually retake. Alfred also united the Saxons of Britain into a common cause, and ultimately, they would meld into a single people. In that, Alfred can safely be called the father of a nation, though the title of the first King of England belongs more rightly to his grandson, Aethelstan. In that Alfred did all this against all the odds, and not only avoided the political annihilation and material subjugation of his people but instead put them on the path of ultimate success is why he deserves to be called Alfred the Great.
But it was not only the Saxons that were melding into the English – it was the Vikings, too. Alfred did not drive the Vikings out, and neither did Aethelstan. Most of the Vikings stayed, put down roots, and they also became English.
In Britain, the Saxons, Danes, and earlier natives became one people, the English. Without the vision, tenacity, and valor of Alfred the Great and his scions it probably would not have happened that way. It is also true that without the Vikings Britain would have continued as a land of warring tribes for a long time to come. Vikings were the catalysts that led to the birth of England, and their legacy would always be felt strongly there.
This article is an abridged excerpt from the book, Sons of Vikings by David Gray Rodgers and Kurt Noer.
The Monarchs: Alfred the Great – King of Wessex
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Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Issue #5 of the Anglotopia Magazine in Spring 2017. Support great long-form writing about British History, Culture and Travel by subscribing to the Anglotopia Print Magazine.
On the year of his death in 899 Alfred the Great was known only as Alfred, King of Wessex. During the first year of his reign alone, King Alfred fought nine bloody battles with Viking invaders, but it was peace, not war, at which King Alfred really excelled. Uniting what was previously a smattering of warring kingdoms, King Alfred started the ball rolling on the eventual unification of Anglo-Saxon England into one nation. A mighty warrior-King and gifted military strategist who introduced the first judicial system in England and taught himself to read, King Alfred was fully deserving of his posthumous sobriquet ‘the Great.’
- Alfred the Great was born in 849 at the Royal Palace, Wannating, Berkshire now Wantage, Oxfordshire.
- He succeeded as King of Wessex in 871, aged 22. During his reign, Alfred was also declared King of the Saxons.
- Alfred married Ealhswith in the year 868. She survived him and died around the year 902.
- Alfred died on October 26th 899, aged 50. He reigned for 28 years.
Alfred the Great was not known as ‘the Great’ during his lifetime, and so little is known about Alfred’s appearance that a statue of him in Wantage, Berkshire was given the face of a local Victorian at the time it was made. So, what do we know about the King of Wessex who lived more than 1,100 years ago?
We know that when Alfred ascended to the throne of England, he was not technically the next in line. Alfred’s brother, King Aethelred had two surviving children when he died, but in the year 871 Viking aggressors from Denmark were waging war in Wessex and Aethelred’s children were neither old enough or experienced enough to take control of the country during a time of war.
Alfred stepped in, and in the first year of his reign, Alfred was forced to prove himself to be a true warrior in no less than nine major battles with Viking forces. The Vikings already had a hold on England as they had been raiding English lands, mostly in the north, since the 790s and had developed permanent settlements in York in the southern part of Northumbria. In the late 800s, the Vikings boldly occupied East Anglia and Mercia and set their sights on taking Wessex. By the tender age of 21, King Alfred was already a battle-weary war vet, desperately trying to maintain armed resistance to the Vikings in southern England.
In 878 the Vikings, led by King Guthrum, seized Chippenham and from there devastated Wessex. The king withdrew to the Somerset marshes to plan his next move. Adopting the Viking strategy of building a fortified base [at Athelney] from which to attack, King Alfred summoned an army from the local area and in May 878, against all the odds, defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Edington.
The victory was not absolute, and King Alfred knew that he did not have the power to drive the Vikings out of the rest of England. In order to bring peace to his kingdom, Alfred insisted that the defeated Danish King Guthrum receive baptism into Christianity. Shrewd King Alfred knew that a shared religion was the most effective way to unite the native English people with the Viking invaders and hoped that a Christian King would ensure the natives of Danish-occupied Mercia and Northumbria would be spared any violent reprisals.
After the Battle of Edington, many Danish soldiers retired to East Anglia where they became farmers. King Alfred conscripted the man-power of Wessex and organized a dual-duty system where men took turns looking after agriculture and defense. Alfred also oversaw the building of a chain of fortified towns across southern England. These well-defended settlements were populated by willing settlers who agreed to defend Wessex in return for their plot of land so that it could never again fall to an invading enemy. Organised around Alfred’s palace in Winchester, this network of settlements with strong points on the main river routes ensured that no part of Wessex was more than 20 miles from Alfred’s military might. As well as this major building project, Alfred created a royal navy as a new reserve against the sea-power of the Danish.
To consolidate his native alliances Alfred married Ealhswith, a Mercian noblewoman and married one of his daughters, Aethelflaed to the Ealdorman of Mercia. In his private life – as much as he was able to have one in this time of relentless warfare – Alfred was thought to have suffered from some sort of psychosomatic illness. Afflicted with self-doubt, Alfred was regularly physically incapacitated during times of crisis and is said to have been humiliated by the fact that he was illiterate. Illiteracy was common amongst even the sons of Kings at the time, and yet Alfred was incredibly ashamed of his disadvantage and eventually taught himself to read at the age of 38.
Despite Alfred’s military wins, the major achievement of his reign came in the uneasy years of peace following his defeat of the Danes. Alfred effectively dissolved the insularity of Saxon England by establishing a much-needed judicial system. Studying the best practice of foreign neighbors, Alfred introduced a new code of thoughtful laws that united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in common justice.
Alfred also instigated a cult of broad education, using his literacy to give the English people a shared understanding of history and philosophy. Overseeing the translation of a handful of books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon and creating the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a patriotic history of the English written in celebration of Alfred and his monarchy, Alfred created a unified and stable kingdom with a strong sense of identity.
Alfred died on 26 October 899 from an unknown illness, but it is thought that the King may have suffered from something similar to Crohn’s disease for most of his life. He was succeeded by his son Edward the Elder.
Alfred’s ultimate achievement was the consolidation of England as a nation. Under assault from Viking invaders, the native people of England were already developing a sense of identity that Alfred helped to cement with his victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Edington. Securing peace with the Vikings, Alfred was able to make major reforms in the reconstruction of Wessex. Alfred created a judicial system and sought to educate the populace of England with the aim of creating a consolidated nation. Although never crowned the King of all of England, Alfred was the King of the Anglo-Saxons and is now known as ‘the Great.’
Alfred the Great – Legendary King who Saved England from Total Viking Rule
In the long history of the English monarchy, there have been sixty-six kings and queens that have ruled the island nation and empire.
Beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire and the dissolution of Roman rule in Britain, only one of those monarchs has been given the appellation “the Great”.
This was Alfred, King of the West Saxons, and eventual king of much of England. When people think of kings, especially those of antiquity, the first image that pops into their minds is usually one of a robust, ultra-masculine figure ready to draw his sword at a moments’ notice or slight.
18th century portrait of Alfred by Samuel Woodforde
For sure, England has seen its share of those kings – three examples come readily to mind: William of Normandy, dubbed, “the Conqueror”, Richard I, called “Lionheart”, and Henry VIII, whose very name stood for his womanizing, jousting and harsh yet in many ways enlightened rule.
All of these men cut a big, bold figure, but none of them is known to history as “The Great” – that belongs to Alfred. Though one could argue that Cnut I of Scandinavia, who ruled a unified English, Danish and Norwegian kingdom from 1017-1035 had also been called “the Great”, Alfred was the only native-born English king given the name.
He was born at a time when Englishmen were divided, not only among themselves but by the fierce Viking warrior bands that came from Scandinavia to raid and conquer. At the time of Alfred’s birth in 849, England was far from a united kingdom. Alfred’s father Æthelwulf sat on the throne of Wessex in the south, Beorhtwulf sat on the throne of Mercia in the northwest, and a series of three kings sat on the throne of East Anglia during Alfred’s early years, until taken by the Vikings.
Alfred’s father Æthelwulf in the early fourteenth-century Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England
Recently, a variety of TV dramas have given us a somewhat flawed vision of Alfred’s rise to power. The fact of the matter is much more straight-forward than the political maneuvering seen on TV. Reality also dismisses the idea that Alfred was the child of anyone but his acknowledged father, Æthelwulf, son of Ecbert, also depicted on TV.
When Æthelwulf died, the two eldest of his five sons became kings: Æthelstan became king of Kent, and Æthelbald, the king of Wessex. Upon the death Æthelbald, his crown fell to another brother, Æthelberht. When this brother in turn died shortly thereafter, the next youngest, Æthelred became king.
A map of the route taken by the Viking Great Heathen Army which arrived in England from Denmark, Norway, and southern Sweden in 865. Photo by Hel-hama CC BY-SA 3.0
It was then the young Alfred, who at the time was only sixteen, was named “Secundus” by the most powerful bishop of England. This was to designate Alfred, the last of the line, as king upon Æthelred’s death, despite Æthelred having sons. In 871, die he did, and Alfred, age 22, became “King of the West Saxons”.
Other than the fact of his royal birth, nothing about Alfred said “king”. He was sickly, afflicted with a gastrointestinal disorder that forced him to limit his diet to milk, water, vegetables, and porridge.
Today, many medical historians believe that Alfred was a victim of Crohn’s Disease. By all accounts, Alfred would from time to time rebel against this diet, eat meat and ale – then suffer crushing abdominal pain for days. Despite this, however, he continued in his duties, and most of his contemporaries knew they were witnessing something special – Alfred was a man of iron will.
A coin of Alfred, king of Wessex, London, 880 (based upon a Roman model).
Alfred was also exceedingly smart and learned. While his four older brothers were burdened with ruling, Alfred was able to study. As a child, he and one of his older brothers had been sent to the court of Pope Leo IV and exposed to the world, and to Latin.
Upon his return to England, Alfred learned to speak other languages and read widely of science, religion and the Classics. During his reign, Alfred was a tireless advocate of expanding education in his kingdom, sometimes irritating the Church with his demands that education be conducted in the national language rather than Latin.
Though Alfred was an advocate for education and other changes to both English government and society during his life, his reign (especially his early reign) was focused on one problem – the Vikings.
Alfred the Great silver offering penny, 871–899
The Viking raids had begun with the sacking of Lindisfarne in 793, seventy-eight years prior, but for many years they were few and far between and while extremely bothersome and costly, did not present a deadly threat to the kingdoms of England.
During Æthelwulf’s time, the raids had become larger and more permanent, and though the English did inflict serious defeats on the Vikings from time to time, by the time of Alfred’s reign, the Norsemen were well established in the north and east of the country, and were the most important issue facing the young king.
Depiction of Æthelwulf in the late-13th-century Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings
Shortly after taking the throne, Alfred went to battle with the foreign invaders. The first two battles fought during Alfred’s reign were defeats: one while he was attending his brother’s funeral, and another in his presence.
He was forced to bribe the Vikings with a sizable payoff, and though a relative peace existed for the next few years, everybody knew that it was only a matter of time before war would begin again, for this payoff did not mean that the Vikings left England, just that they would not attack Alfred.
In 876, a new Viking chieftain, Guthrum, attacked Alfred’s kingdom. After a couple of inconclusive battles, the Vikings took payment and swore to not attack again – an oath which they broke. This period is marked both by victory and defeat for Alfred.
A plaque in the City of London noting the restoration of the Roman walled city by Alfred.
On the one hand, he defeated the Viking fleet when they attacked Devon, but was surprised by the Vikings at Chippenham, a royal seat, and was forced to flee into the local marshes to avoid capture.
It is in these marshes that Alfred’s legend really begins. A famous tale (perhaps true, perhaps not) tells of Alfred sitting by the fire in a peasant woman’s hut, tasked with making sure the bread on the fire didn’t burn.
King Alfred the Great pictured in a stained glass window in the West Window of the South Transept of Bristol Cathedral. Photo by Charles Eamer Kempe.CC BY 3.0
Thinking too much of his problems, the cakes burnt and Alfred was roundly chastised by the woman whose house he was forced to shelter in. This tale was told to show not only how far Alfred had fallen, but also his humility.
While in the marshes, Alfred and his men conducted raids against local Viking forces and kept the idea of a Saxon kingdom alive – the other Saxon kingdoms of Northumberland and East Anglia were now in pagan hands.
However, while the Vikings were looking for him and while they were busy plundering and ruling the other parts of England, Alfred was both solidifying his rule (such as it was) and raising an army.
King Alfred’s Tower (1772) on the supposed site of Egbert’s Stone, the mustering place before the Battle of Edington. Photo by Trevor Rickard CC BY-SA 2.0
According to contemporary sources, Alfred’s personality and willpower were so strong that he commanded a fierce loyalty, and while he was hiding in the marshes, he sent his nobles into the land to raise an army, both in the areas under nominal Viking control and those still ostensibly Saxon.
At the battle of Edington (or “Ethandun” in Old English) in 878, Alfred inflicted a serious defeat on Guthrum and his Vikings. As a result, Guthrum and many of his leading men agreed to convert to Christianity, and rule in East Anglia in Alfred’s name.
The Memorial to the Battle of Edington is a sarsen stone standing in a corner of the public recreation area adjacent to Bratton Castle Photo by Trish Steel CC BY-SA 2.0
Though the Vikings in East Anglia would from time to time break their oath and raid nearby communities in Wessex, it appears that this was done without the permission of Guthrum, who seems to have been at least mostly loyal to his oath until his death in about 890.
The treaty between Alfred and Guthrum also included the stipulation that Mercia (formerly one of the most powerful English kingdoms) be divided between Alfred and the Vikings. In this, Alfred was the winner – the Vikings had controlled all of Mercia before the treaty.
Statue of Alfred the Great at Wantage, Oxfordshire Photo by Steve Daniels CC BY-SA 2.0
Despite these achievements, Alfred still had the Vikings of northern England (and their Scandinavian reinforcements) to deal with. To help contend with these forces, Alfred began to fortify the lands under his control. He constructed strong-points known as “burhs” – these strong-points were sometimes already cities or small settlements and grew under Alfred’s protection.
Fortunately for Alfred, England was one of the most blessed of kingdom’s in terms of resources and trade, and this enabled him to build burhs and a network of roads connecting them throughout his kingdom. Think of it as a kind of “pony express” for defense and communication – and Alfred’s system of defense stymied further Viking inroads into his lands. This defense system also improved trade and paid for itself many times over.
Many historians credit Alfred with being the “Father of the English Navy”. This is misleading. His grandfather had constructed a small fleet of warships and had used them at times, but Alfred built ships based on the Roman and Greek models, which were actually larger than most Viking ships.
Though he did construct about sixty of these ships over the course of his reign, they were unfortunately too big for the river systems of England, where the Vikings long-ships were dominant. However, they did allow Alfred to move troops from one part of the country to the other more rapidly than before.
While dealing with all of these problems and issues, Alfred also decided that the Anglo-Saxon law system needed reform. For the most part, this meant the codification, or writing down, of the laws that existed in the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Alfred also included laws based on the Ten Commandments and the New Testament as part of the official law of the land.
By the time of his death in the fall of 899, Alfred was the recognized ruler of all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms not under the control of the Vikings (this meant Northumberland surrounding York). He is venerated in the Catholic Church as a “Defender of the Faith”, and is universally recognized as the man who prevented England from being conquered by the Vikings.
His son Edward the Elder took the throne after a brief family struggle and ruled until 924.