Between 871 and 878, Wessex came close to extinction, as the Great Heathen Army, the Great Summer Army, and Guthrum the Dane came to conquer.
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In 870 the Great Heathen Army turns its attention to Wessex. The first campaign of 871 sees 9 battles fought, and Alfred the Great succeeded his brother Athelred to the throne of Wessex. Although Wessex wins the battle of Ashdown, it has little overall impact, and Alfred is defeated at Basing, Wilton, and Maredun. In the end, Alfred paid the Vikings to go away, and the they had been made to fight so hard that they agree.
But the Vikings were back in 878. This time led by Guthrum, with Halfdan returning to Northumbria to concentrate on building the viking kingdom. By cleverly breaking winter quarters at Gloucester, Guthrum’s surprise attack reduced Alfred to something very close to complete defeat. With his closest thegns in the marsh at Athelney, the legend of Alfred was born; his small band led raids to throw the vikings off balance, and spread the word of a new army to fight back in the spring. At Countisbury Hill in Devon, some of Alfred’s Earldormen won a victory against a viking raid from Ireland.
In his famous fightback, then, Alfred called together the fyrds of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire and defeated the Vikings in a decisive battle at a place called Ethandun. Asser described the battle:
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.”
We have arrived gentle listener, at the life of the only English Monarch to be called “great” by his English subjects – noting that I think Cnut gets a great, but not from us, the ones he dumped on, but from the Danes, who did the dumping as it were. But enough of dumping.
I think we should start the story of Alfred the Great by looking at his reputation through the ages – his historiography if you will. Now normally, or at least very often, this presents the opportunity to talk about various twists and turns of historical revisionists; so for example, like those who decided that in spite of losing half of his patrimony, sparking a baronial revolt and ending up a vassal of the Pope, King John was actually a spiffing king to be deeply admired. But really there is no such controversy about Alfred. It’s not that people had diss’ed or praised Alfred, it’s more that different ages have represented him in different ways, emphasised different bits as it were. This in itself is reasonably remarkable. Take even a King so admired as Edward III; even he had a hard time at the hands of the Victorians as something of a feeble giveaway when it came to royal power, and a man of suspect morals when judged against the stern public standards of the day. But not Alfred. He in the main just has things added to him to support viewpoint of the particular period. Nobody lost any votes by praising Alfred. Though I suspect Alfred is no longer quite as famous as he once was.
Views of Alfred are coloured, however that if you consider Alfred the greatest of England’s monarchs, which on balance I probably do, by the fact that we also have to accept that he is also the monarch who had the greatest ability to control his own propaganda. We are in the period when there are really very few sources and yet suddenly with Alfred, hey Presto! Suddenly there is a glut of sources. I say glut – the early modern historian would weep with despair at the feeble collection it presents. But this glut is largely due to Alfred himself. In particular, but not exclusively, we have the Life of Alfred by Bishop Asser, an Alfred enthusiast without parallel. We have the ASC chronicle which doesn’t bear the words ’Alfred had me made’, but was in all probability started by Alfred.
And then we have the most remarkable collection to fall back on, which we will not have again until Henry VIII – writing by the king himself. Later in life, Alfred decided that he didn’t have enough to do fighting the Vikings and saving the future of the English world. Alfred looked back and reflected on a golden age of Anglo Saxon learning where the knowledge and use of Latin was common; and lamented that all that had gone. So in a way his work of translating some famous religious works from Latin was an admission of the less than perfect Anglo Saxon kingdom and his desire to improve it. So we can make some inferences from the works he decided to translate, but more directly, Alfred wrote prefaces to some – such as Gregory’s dialogues, his Pastoral Care, and Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy. It really is quite a remarkable treat – in these prefaces we hear his own voice. The evidence of Asser and another commentator, Bishop Wilsige, would suggest that Alfred’s contemporaries admired him as much as later historians would.
However, there is just a suggestion that the generations following would not admire him quite so much. I’m not suggesting anything as strong as criticism; just that to look for the perfect model of Kingship, maybe Anglo Saxons looked elsewhere. In a secular sense, it could well be that the heroes referenced were Egbert who broke the Mercian hegemony; Aethelstan who could first convincingly be called king of all England and broke the power of the Celtish nations at Brunanburgh; and Edgar who made the same row him down the river Dee and who reformed the practices of the church. But actually the Anglo Saxons were also terribly picky about their heroes, and preferred something a bit more saintly; and so it was St Edmund, the martyr we spoke of last week who was preferred as an Anglo Saxon hero.
When the Anglo Norman Historians of the 12th century came along they did Alfred proud by and large. I speak of the likes of Oderic Vitalis, William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, Florence of Worcester; you’ll enjoy those when we get to them, particularly William. But despite this, the Norman kings were not moved to elevate his status. They too preferred royal saints – and so it was St Edward the Confessor and again St Edmund who appeared besides Richard II on the Wilton Diptych for example. Though I’m with Edward III I have to say; why select a pair of such losers as a patron saint?
Around this time also you get the addition of the problem that besets Alfred; folks want to use his unchallengable name to help their own cause. So it’s in later medieval times that Oxford University claims Alfred to have founded a college there. Entirely spuriously. Very Oxford. However spuriously, it demonstrates that the position of Alfred in the pantheon was safe and growing; there are a set of Middle English poems called ‘the proverbs of King Alfred’ for example. With the reformation, the fact that he wasn’t a saint no longer held Alfred back; and on the way the Normans were beginning to come in for a bit of stick, which is always a good thing; so Alfred’s learning was a good example, it was said, of the pure AS religion before the Romish Normans came along. AB Matthew Parker published a new edition of Asser in 1574 – although naughtily be added the burnt cakes story. Seriously, Matthew, for shame! And Alfred makes an appearance in Foxes Book of Martyrs which was a phenomenally successful piece of publishing of course. It’s now in the 16th century that he finally acquires the cognomen ‘Great’; so it’s taken a while!
From then on, Alfred is constantly being held up as an example of something for somebody. Robert Powell produced a biography in 1634 trying to squeeze Charles I into Alfred’s mould – fat lot of good that did. John Spelman’s biography was dedicated to Charles II presumably for the same purpose. Alfred was held up to Hanoverians as models to follow. By the time we get to the Victorians, it’s enough to make you weep. Barbara Yorke puts it nicely when she wrote:
Alfred was fast being rediscovered as ‘the most perfect character in history’, and alongside his defence of constitutional liberties, his country and true religion, was added renewed admiration for his Christian morality and sense of duty.
Alfred was no longer simply a model for princes; he was a model of virtue for everyone, and held up to be so by numerous Victorians, including Charles Dickens. And along the way of curse the Normans came in for more punishment as unconstitutional tyrants. Barbara York in the same article also quotes the 19th C Whig Prime Minister Lord Rosebury as he unveiled the statue of Alfred in Winchester. Alfred he said:
can only be an effigy of the imagination, and so the Alfred we reverence may well be an idealised figure … we have draped round his form … all the highest attributes of manhood and kingship.
Now it’s normally at this point, or it is for monarchs later in THoE, that I say something like, ‘…but modern historians have pointed out..’ and launch into a diatribe that demonstrably proves that everyone in human history is either a pile of poo or just like everyone else with good points and bad points. But not Alfred would you believe, not Alfred. I mean don’t get me wrong, all the layers of Victorian varnish have been stripped away, fine, but the essential quality of Alfred remains as a pretty shining example of a king who saved his people, and transformed their prospects in many ways more than simply holding back the Vikings.
The most controversial debate actually has been not about Alfred himself but about his biography by Asser; in a rather remarkable debate in the late ‘90s, Alfred Smyth published a work saying it was a fake, and taking a slightly bitter pop at the Oxford University establishment at the same time. Although opinion seems to vindicate Asser’s life, it does illustrate one of the problems about Alfred; in some ways he’s not a terribly sympathetic figure. Again normally at that point I’d launch into something about then eating small children for a late morning snack or something, but with Alfred it’s more about a rather hypochrondriac, neurotic characteristic, a terribly medieval tension between the life carnal and the life spiritual which causes Alfred mental anguish which at times is actually physical.
The problem is that Alfred was forced to be a war leader and warrior throughout his life. But you get the very strong impression that if he had had the choice he would have chosen a very different life in the church, devoted to God and learning. But he clearly also had a strong sense of his duty and responsibilities, which he accepted with energy and intelligence. He was not always successful at war, especially in the early years of his life and reign. But in the midst of a desperate fight for survival, while everything around him burned, he was the only Anglo Saxon leader who developed a strategy and vision, who realized that something had to be done differently. He was a man under enormous pressure, of course, and not only from this struggle for survival. From the age of 20, according to Asser, he was in constant pain, probably Crohn’s disease, which gave him continual gut pains, vomiting and periods of weight loss. Yet despite this, his is an eminently reasonable and considered voice, if maybe somewhat over sensitive, and very religious. He was an intensely serious and acutely conscious of the responsibilities of his office. In one of those works he translated, these words seem to reflect the flavour of the man:
‘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’
I have to say that there were probably not many laughs on Alfred, and he might not be in my list of the top 10 Monarchs to go down the pub with – that prize would be more likely to go to a Harold Godwinsson or William Rufus. But without doubt he would be high up, if not top, of my list of top 5 English Monarchs.
Anyway, we’ll hear much more about Alfred over the next few episodes, and have plenty of time to decide how great he was.
Broadly, you can split the reign of Alfred into 3 phases. The first is the struggle for survival. From 871 to 878 Wessex is subjected to a wave of attacks from the Vikings, which threaten to snuff out West Saxon independence, and thereby probably the future of an Anglo Saxon state. The second is a period of reconstruction and reform where Alfred prepares and strengthens the West Saxon state up to about 892; and the third sees that reformed state tested in the fire of renewed Viking attacks. So with no more ado, let us get on with the first of those phases.
Last time we left Alfred in something of a pickle. Actually the year had started rather well, with a victory in January 871 of all months at Ashdown which seems to bode terribly well for the West Saxons. By this stage, by the way, we appear to have lost both Ivar, and Ubbe, neither of whom are mentioned again. So it appears to be Halfdan who led the Vikings at Ashdown. But it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that despite all the talk of a great victory, of the death of a Danish king and 5 jarls, that Ashdown wasn’t quite the triumph it appeared to be. After all, the West Saxons were then forced to fight two more battles. Both of which they lost. Having said that, neither are the West Saxons forced from the field at this point, which suggests again a series of running skirmishes going on here, or raids.
Then came April 871, and the death of Aethelred; and the arrival of reinforcements for the Danes, and the Great Summer Army. The leader of this new contingent is almost certainly a Dane called Guthrum. Remember Guthrum, he will be with us for a while.
Within a month, Alfred took his army further West into Wiltshire to a place called Wilton. Unfortunately, Alfred made a poor start as a king in battle; taken off his guard by the speed and mobility of the Vikings he and his men were surprised by the Danes and soundly defeated. During that year, they fought 9 battles and countless skirmishes, but it the end it was too much for them, and they bought peace from the Danes. But they had survived, and they still had their own king. They had made the Danes fight hard for every inch, and at Ashdown at least had shown that the Great Heathen Army was not invincible. It is at very least a completely different story to Northumbria, and East Anglia, and Mercia.
The Danes retired to the ostensibly Mercian town of London, and for the next 5 years, Wessex had a sort of uneasy peace, and the chance to rebuild – though, in sharp contrast to later in Alfred’s reign, there is no great evidence that they used the time wisely.
The Danes were distracted because they were having some difficulty with their conquests elsewhere. Their puppet King in Northumbria, Egbert, was thrown out by his English subjects, and Ricesige established an independent Northumbria again for a short period. Although the Danes went North, they failed to get rid of him, and in 873 they came South again, and had a go at Mercia. Burgred, the King of Mercia, has an unfortunate historical record. All we know of his 22 year reign was that he asked for Wessex’s help to deal with the Welsh; and that he was defeated by the Danes in London, and paid tribute to the Danes for the privilege of seeing them make free with the town. So it’s unlikely he was feeling confident when the Danes came his way in 873. If so, he was right. Burgred was driven from his Kingdom, and fled to Rome, where he was to die in exile, to be buried in the church of the saxon quarter. So passes unhappy Burgred from our story.
We might suspect at this point, with a major Danish army in the field for over 8 years, that they were here to stay, to create their own kingdom. But as yet, they had not followed through on that threat, and for the moment, the Danes continued to follow the puppet King approach, despite their problems with Egbert. They installed Coelwulf, described by the ASC as an ‘unwise Thegn’, on the Mercian throne. Coelwulf had the clear instruction that if the Danes wanted anything he was to give it, quickly, completely, no argument, even if it was in fact it was his kingdom he was being asked for. This was an indication that if the Danes weren’t yet ready to settle, they probably would be soon.
There is an interesting wrinkle at this time. Note that Ivar is supposed to have died in Ireland in 873. Now a powerful symbol of Viking dominance is that the Vikings occupied the traditional Mercian spiritual home at Repton. This was where the royal mausoleum was; it was where the church of St Wygstan was, St Wygstan himself an ex Mercian king. While they were there, the Viking wrecked the place; the church and mortuary chapel damaged, burials dug up, the monastic community abandoned. The Vikings threw up a D shaped enclosure, cutting through the Anglo Saxon churchyard and scattering the bones. And they buried their own in their place, some of which are very grand indeed. According to a 17th century record, one of them contained a stone coffin 9 foot long. Around this figure were buried 100 skeletons, arranged with their feet facing towards the stone coffin. More recent investigations have found that more bones were stacked around the coffin, and 4 young people sacrificed before the tomb was sealed. The archaeologists speculated that maybe this was Ivar. Whoever it was, he was certainly an important Viking leader.
Anyway, If Halfdan and Ivarr were the class of ‘66, it’s now time for the class of ’74, in the form of 3 kings – Guthrum, Oscytel and Anund. Their arrival in the chronicles coincide with a splitting up of the Danish army, as Halfdan headed north, and Guthrum took his part of the army off to Cambridge, where he stayed for a year, doing we know not what – plotting, ravaging, pillaging, that sort of thing, the normal, according to the Vikingidiom. Halfdan spent 2 years engaged in expeditions against the Picts and the Britons of Strathclyde, but with little practical result. And in 876 he brought his men back to Yorkshire, and finally turfed out the English King Ricsige. Ricsige managed to hold on to the Northern half of the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, or Bernicia, if you remember earlier episodes. But that was not enough for him, and we are told that he died of a broken heart, and was succeed by Egbert the 2nd. The independent English kingdom of Bernicia survived for another 30-40 years, before being finally overrun.
And so Deira, between the river Humber and the Tees, became at last the focus of Danish settlement, with the most concentrated settlements in the county of York, or Jorvik in Danish. But it is possible that the settled life was not for Halfdan Ragnarsson, and it could be that he headed to Ireland and was killed in 877. He certainly passes out of our story at this point.
Meanwhile, Guthrum and his two business associates had designs on the last independent English Kingdom. Yet again the Danes proved the benefits of their superiority at sea. Alfred probably expected an attack from the North as before, but instead he suddenly found that Guthrum had landed on the Southern coast, at Wareham. Alfred eventually caught up with them, and promptly came to another worthless agreement. We rely quite a lot on Asser as a primary source, and Asser proudly tells us that the Danes swore on their holy amulets, a more holy oath than ever before, that they would leave Wessex.
Right. So, they didn’t do that then – instead they gave Alfred the slip by a night march, and headed for Exeter in the South West, planning to be reinforced by anther Danish contingent by sea. But at last Alfred had a stroke of luck, and the Viking reinforcements were decimated by a storm. With the Vikings now bottled up in Exeter, and without the numbers they expected the extraordinary happened. When Alfred came to an agreement with them to leave, wonder of wonders, they actually left, and departed Wessex at its north western edge, near Gloucester.
Incidentally, I have no doubt that in a century or so we are going to be spending much time and effort castigating Athelred the Unready for Danegeld and continually buying off the Danes. But we should note that it is at least extremely likely that Alfred is also buying them off with cash these treaties. The sources we have are largely AS, so they put the best gloss on it. But the reality is that the Danes have the initiative, the Danes have the confidence, and the English, fighting to survive will do pretty much anything to get them out of Wessex. At least later in his reign Alfred was to find a more effective approach.
Once they were out of Wessex, the Danes in their frustration turned to Mercia, and cashed in their chips from Coelwulf. Mercia was partitioned, with the north eastern segment going to the Danes, and the South west part staying with Coelwulf for the moment. The Danish segment became known at the 5 boroughs – Lincoln, Nottingham, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and a territory based on Stamford.
While this was going on, the Danes had maintained a force at Gloucester, and when winter arrived, Alfred and the Anglo Saxons could breathe a sigh of relief, and gather their strength for the Spring. The Vikings never broke their winter quarters so they were safe for a while.
But this year was to be different. In the second week of 878, the Vikings stormed out of Gloucester, and marched and occupied Chippenham. The English scattered before them, and it almost seemed as though this was what they expected – that in the end the Vikings would destroy them, they surely could not win. Some fled the country, others gave their submission to the unchained Viking horde, and Alfred fled into the wilderness. The Danish wolves gathered, and Ubbe Ragnarsson, brother of Halfdan and Ivarr, returned to England, landing with 800 men in Alfred’s rear in Devon, looking to cut Alfred off and isolate him.
What came about next was, in the words of Sid Widdell, the greatest comeback since Lazarus. Alfred was trapped with his closest thegns in Althelney Marsh, in Somerset, the Viking army was in total control and a fresh army had landed.
The comeback started at Countisbury Hill, where a group of the Alfred’s thegns, besieged, burst out, and defeated the Danish force.
Alfred spent 7 weeks in the marshes, and gradually his confidence and that of his followers returned. He fortified his position, and organized raids against the Vikings. This is the time of the legend of Alfred and the cakes, and the time when Alfred reflected on his kingship, and what he needed to do to make Wessex safe from the Danes.
In the translation he wrote of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Alfred wrote in the preface:
‘For in prosperity the man is often puffed up with pride . . .in hardship he is forced to reflect on himself even though he be unwilling’
The words raise the image of Alfred reflecting in the marshes on how he could respond better to the challenge the Danes presented.
During those weeks, Alfred used the structure of the Wessex kingdom to gather HIS strength. He sent messengers out in all directions – they went to the Earldormen, thegns and lords throughout the shires. They also went to the Hundred courts and meeting places, where they could address all the people. A short word of explanation is needed here about the structure of the administration of Wessex, and its something I’ll want to come back to in a later episode in more detail. But suffice it to say that the earldormen were the king’s administrators, and each was given a shire to manage. Each shire was divided into territories called Hundreds, and each hundred had a court. The Hundred court did more than administer justice – it was a meeting place, and a means of communication. The meetings were often held outside, and everyone could be there. So the point is that there was a ready-made way for the King to communicate with the people – and that’s what Alfred did through March and April of 878.
Alfred had earned himself the time he needed in the marshes. In the spring of 878, he rode to a place called Egbert’s stone, a site named in memory of the greatest King of Wessex so far, and he raised the people of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. He then marched towards the Danish camp at Chippenham. The Danish Army came to meet him, and battle was joined at Ethandun, at a place now called Eddington. A battle for the soul of Wessex.
The battle of Ethandun has to be up there as one of the most decisive battles fought on English soil – along with Hastings, Bosworth and Naseby. All we know of Alfred’s most celebrated victory is from Asser and the Chronicle:
‘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 last time the English had won a major battle was Ashdown in 871 – which was a little suspect and anyway had done little to hold back the Viking tide. Why was Ethandun so different? The answer probably lies in numbers. With the loss of Ivarr and Halfdan, the leaking away of Danes to settle, and the defeat of Ubbe, the truth is that the Vikings probably had fewer men than they needed to conquer Wessex, and lacked the force they needed to follow up their success at Chippenham. At Ethandun, it could well be that English outnumbered the Danes significantly. But whatever the reason, after Ethandun, Wessex never again stood in the kind of danger it faced in January 878.
The Danes fled back to Chippenham, and Alfred followed. This would seem to be the logical time to batter the Danes again and drive them out of the country. But instead Alfred treated with them. This time it was a very different kind of treaty, with hostages only being given by the Danes. The Treaty between them agreed that the Danes would leave Wessex, and defined the boundaries of the lands of the Danes and English. The treaty is also known as the Treaty of Wedmore, and is available on the website. Three weeks later, Guthrum came to Alfred’s royal estate where he and 30 of his chiefs were baptised, with Alfred standing as Godfather to Guthrum.
Converting the Vikings to Christianity was important to Alfred; and it’s a tactic we see taken elsewhere – for example, by King Charles the Simple and his troublesome Viking, Rollo. Alfred was probably partly doing it for the good of his soul, and the immortal souls of the Danes; but he would also have been looking to build a longer lasting peace by encouraging the Danes to share the same values and the English. At the same time, by standing as Godfather to Guthrum, Alfred was emphasising his moral and political ascendency.
By 879, Guthrum had moved back to East Anglia, removed the puppet king there and was ruling the kingdom directly. He became the King of all of England north and east of the old Roman road, Watling street, which runs from London to Chester in the Northwest, and south of the Humber. The Vikings were by no means finished with Wessex; but despite an abortive invasion later that year by a Viking force from the continent, for the moment they had been halted. The first phase of Alfred’s reign was over; Wessex had survived.
The 15 years of the Great Heathen Army transformed England. It finally broke down the system of the 4 English Kingdoms, and established the circumstances that lead to the creation of a unified English state, based on the success of just one of those nations, Wessex. England had come very close to being completely overrun, but it’s possible, as I speculated last time, that its greatest weakness was also its greatest strength. The fact that England was broken down into 4 kingdoms in the 9th century has lead some to argue that the response to the Danish invasions was weak and uncoordinated. We see very little cooperation between the different English kingdoms – and in fact each one was very willing to pay the Vikings to move off their patch, and move on to pillage another.
But the division might well have also been England’s saving grace. It’s not quite as simple as this, but essentially in 1066, a single army was to end the unified Anglo Saxon State in one battle; with Harold dead, resistance quickly came to an end. The Great Heathen Army had to contend with 4 independent Kingdoms, and each one of them had to be subdued. By 878, even though three of those kingdoms had fallen, one still remained to fight on.
Alfred could now turn his attention to rebuilding his kingdom. Over the next 4 years, Alfred was to put fundamental reforms in place. His reforms would cover all aspects of the English state – the law, military, trade, religion and learning. When the next Danish onslaught arrived in 892, they would face a very different kingdom- much better organised, stronger and rightly more confident in its ability to survive.