Behind History of Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great was King of Wessex from 871 to 886 and King of the Anglo-Saxons from 886 to 899. He was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. His father died when he was young and three of Alfred’s brothers, Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred, ruled the in turn.
Wave of Viking Invasions
The wave of Viking invasions which struck England in the ninth century was part of a great movement, the outermost ripples of which reached to Moscow, Byzantium and Greenland. Its violence is partly attributable to the extension of Carolingian dominion which eliminated the rival sea power of the Frisians. There were earlier attacks, but in 865 these attacks changed character and became a concerted plan of invasion. In the next eight years they established a subject kingdom centered on York, defeated and killed the king of East Anglia, occupied London and set up a puppet ruler in Mercia. In 876 and 877 there was steady colonization in Yorkshire and in the Midlands. Wessex had been left in peace in these years, but in 870 the Danes attacked and Aethelred the king and his brother Alfred who succeeded him in 871 fought a series of battles with them which led to an uneasy peace in 872.
Defeat of Danish Army
In 875 another Danish army appeared and it looks as if the last independent English kingdom was about to fall. Alfred fled to the marsh country of Somerset (Burning the Cakes!) and harried the Danes from there. In 878 Alfred rallied the forces of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire and defeated the Danish army at Edington. The Danish leader, Guthrum, accepted baptism and abandoned his attempt to subject Wessex to Danish rule. In 872 Alfred re-took London from the Danes and this marked him out as the leader of national resistance. In the year 892, 6 more Danes invaded and the Danes of Northumbria made common cause with them. Alfred with his reformed army, navy and burhs held them off.
Death & Future Insight
When Alfred died in 899 he had saved England from heathenism, and made sure it would be ruled by West Saxon kings. He had acquired London as a base and left his son Edward as King of the West Saxons and his daughter, Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia to carry on his work. Alfred was not only a great warrior, but was an intellectual who was convinced that progress was bound up with Christian knowledge and this knowledge was not a mystery to be reserved for the clergy but for those in public life. In his own writings and translations (he is our first translator) he shows himself to be a fervent Christian, a student, an artist and someone sensitive to the beauty of the world of nature about him. Here is a king whose heroism was equaled by his sanity and simplicity, and whose determination that learning should be a uniting not a dividing force, available for those who fought and labored as well as for those who prayed.
If we ask why Alfred survived Guthrum’s surprise attack in 878 when all his fellow kings had gone under, the short answer is we just do not know. Alfred’s problems with the Danes were threefold.
Military, political and religious. Viking armies were very mobile, they used ships to descend at any point on the coast and to penetrate high up rivers, and they used horses to move fast overland. And yet, when the wars of 893-6 are compared with the desperate struggles of the 870s, a striking difference emerges. The Danes earlier had penetrated deep and repeatedly into Wessex, yet their
successors hardly got into Wessex at all. There is little doubt that the reason for this decisive contrast was the military reforms introduced by Alfred in the meantime: the navy, the army and
above all the burh.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 896 (and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was the brain child of Alfred and is our basic source for the period) writes of how Alfred had ‘long ships’ of 60 oars. built either on to a Frisian or Danish design. It is unlikely that Alfred was the founder of the English navy as the Victorians later painted him (e.g. Edwin’s exploits in the 7th century could hardly have managed
without a royal fleet), and the building of ships to cope with the Vikings was a fairly obvious way to cope with the invaders. But the 60 oared design became the basis for naval organization of later
Anglo-Saxon England. Alfred was quite possibly the founder of a system whose importance to 10th and 11th century kings was considerable. The Chronicle for 893 says that Alfred divided his army or fyrd into two so that always half the army was at home, half on service. |Here we sre seeing the sort of army reforms that the Carolingians had introduced. One man would be at home supplying the other man with provisions and equipment.
Whatever the significance of Alfred’s navy and his army reforms, there is little doubt that the crucial element in the exclusion of the 893-6 army from Wessex was the burh. The burhs or fortified areas were never more than 20 miles from each other (a day’s march) Some were old Roman towns whose fortifications were still intact, some were re-used Iron Age or Roman forts, some were new forts, and some fortified promontories. Finally there were some new towns. And these burhs were more than temporary places of refuge. They usually had a common street plan and it is obvious that they were planned as places of permanent habitation and trade. In late Saxon England many such burhs became mints and the inhabitants paid a profitable rent for their burgages. The burhs were, in fact, a key factor in the wealth and power of English kings and it is possible that they were designed as such from the outset. The burhs are the most impressive testimony to the power and efficiency of Anglo-Saxon government in general, and of the greatest of Anglo-Saxon kings in particular.
The political problem caused by the Danes is less obvious but nevertheless real. Alfred could not necessarily expect support from his own dynasty, let alone from the populations of hitherto independent Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia. Alfred had to first secure the support of his own people and had to try and woo the support of the others. Yet in spite of the dangers, internal and external, by the end of his reign Alfred was laying claim to the title of Bretwalda. In the late 880s charters give him the tile of ‘The king of the English’ and one of his new, heavy pennies bore the inscription REX ANGLO, the first such title on an English coin. Alfred tried by diplomacy to make his title acceptable to others than his own subjects. He married his daughter to Aethelred of Mercia and even went so far as to return London to Mercian control after he had conquered it. More significant perhaps is the treaty he made with Guthrum in about 886. With Guthrum he spoke as the leader and spokesman of ‘all councillors of the English race.’ The spectacular success of Edward the Elder within 20 years of Alfred’s death may have had much to do with the diplomatic groundwork his father had laid.
The religious problem posed by the Danes is the least expected to modern eyes, but it was central for Alfred himself. As far as Alfred was concerned, without God’s help no amount of fleets, divided armies, or burhs would do any good at all. And God’s help could only be won by learning to read and understand God’s word, Alfred enlisted scholars, from the ranks of the English bishops, from Mercia and from Wales (Bishop Asser from Wales was Alfred’s biographer) and from Charlemagne’s kingdom as well. Alfred did translations himself, the most important ones being the Pastoral Rule, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Augustine’s Soliloquies. These works are unique in the early medieval West, a window on a king’s own ideas.
It is easy, with hindsight, to see Alfred’s reign as the prelude to the glories of the 10th century English monarchy and Church. But the achievements of Edward and Athelstan still lay ahead and one must not forget that England in 899 was a bruised and battered place. One only has to compare the rarity of charters in Alfred’s period with their earlier profusion to see what may have been lost. 10th century England was to be a very different place from England in 850. Not just politically but also ecclesiastically and culturally. Not all of this was the responsibility of the Vikings, but a lot of it probably was. England paid a high price for the unification which the penultimate successful invasion of its shores brought fortuitously to pass.
But if Alfred’s age is not as glorious as it appeared to the Victorians, Alfred’s own greatness is secure. He owed more than is sometimes realised to his family and his distinguished Carolingian
contemporaries. He is not as unique as English pride makes him. Other kings defeated terrifying invaders in the 9th and 10th centuries and used fairly similar means. The Carolingians pursued the
same sort of learning for the same sorts of reasons and in some respects achieved more. But it is hard to think of any medieval ruler, Charlemagne apart, who did so much with what was as this
disposal. And Alfred is the only secular ruler between Marcus Aurelius and Alfonso the Wise of Castile whom we actually catch in the act of reading and writing about his job. His was an extraordinary testimony to his dedication in absorbing what the Church tried, and usually failed, to teach kings. There have been few such rulers as he, and even few such men in any walk of life in