8 Reconstruction and Defence

burghal-hidageAlfred had earned Wessex and period of respite, between 878 and 892. In this time, Alfred laid the foundations not just for the defense against renewed invasions, but for the successes of the 10th century.






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I am pretty sure that as Alfred watched the defeated Viking horde lumbering away off to East Anglia in 878 he would have had mixed feelings – glad to see the back of them, but pretty confident that sooner or later they’d be back. This time, unlike after their departure in 871, Alfred was going to make sure that their next visit was a good deal less comfortable for them.

Broadly speaking and with 20/20 hindsight, the next 14 years or so are about reconstruction, but not just reconstruction, reform. In his work over these years, Alfred established a template that his successors would build on. It’s worth noting that they are carried out against a background of renewed Viking attack, which makes their achievement even more impressive. It’s over these years that Alfred really earns his title of Great, as it put in place a military, cultural and economic revolution that would strengthen his country when the Vikings came back for another visit, but also form the basis of the success of his successors. And for good measure, he would take steps to secure his historical reputation through some fancy bits of propaganda – though it maybe harsh to think of it in that way.

Let’s start with the cultural stuff first, since I think it’s this that was probably the closest to Alfred’s heart. And we can let Alfred speak for himself on what problem he felt he had to solve. In the preface he wrote to Pope Gregory’s bestseller ‘Pastoral Care’ he wrote:

‘Learning had declined so thoroughly  . . . who could understand their divine services in Latin … or translate a single letter from Latin into English… I recollected how – before everything was ransacked and burned – the churches throughout England stood filled with treasures and books.’

This upset Alfred very much; and I guess we should ask why, and why he felt this to be so important. Not to over complicate things, I think that Alfred quite simply loved learning, and felt that a life without reflection was worth less. He felt that a man would get closer to God through learning, and would be happier. That’s what comes across from his writing. One of the anecdotes that Asser writes of Alfred is in his youth with his brothers, set a challenge by their mother to be able read a particular text – the one who succeeded would be given the text; and of course Alfred won. It’s be a pretty poor anecdote of course if Aethelbald had won. That wouldn’t do at all. Actually for me this might demonstrate as Asser intended Alfred’s intelligence and love of learning; but it also demonstrates his competitiveness. Alfred would not have succeeded surely if he hadn’t been a driven man as well as an intelligent one.

But well as the personal benefits of learning, Alfred felt that the glory and reputation of his country had been diminished; that previously other nations had come to England for learning, and that added to its glory – it was time this was restored. And finally, there were much more practical reasons. As Alfred again wrote:

‘In the case of the King, the resources and tools with which to rule are that he have his land fully manned: he must have praying men, fighting men and working men.’

the And he wrote:

‘no man may bring to bear any skill without wisdom’

Alfred knew that his rule would be more effective if implemented through and with the support of the written word. In this he reflected the continental kings of the 9th century, such as Charlemagne and Charles the bald. It doesn’t detract from Alfred’s genius one bit to recognise that he drew inspiration from examples around him as well as the wisdom of the ancients and his own creativity. So, he wanted his people to learn because he needed clerks, to be able to give written orders, to keep records and so on. He also knew that he could communicate more effectively with his thegns and they with him if they also could read and write. And back to that previous point; that his thegns and churchmen would rule more effectively if they could deploy the wisdom of the ancients, as accessible through texts and texts that he himself translated.

There may also be a further point – that Alfred was on a propaganda campaign, and that much of what he commissioned and started was to glorify the West Saxon state and heritage. He very probably had some hand in the starting of ASC which has been our constant companion for the last few weeks. There are strenuous efforts to reconstruct a royal family tree that proves descent direct from Cerdic; and the ASC for example completely fails to give Mercian kings like Offa the credit, and title of Bretwalda, that they happily give Egbert.

I figure in a sense that this is true – that Alfred did want to make sure that the West Saxon achievements were recognized and remembered. And he wanted that to be owned by all his people, not just the learned – and for that reason the ASC and all his own work were written in AS. This sounds like a simple thing, but actually its massive.  Latin was the language of learning, not English. English was so rarely written down that Alfred really is trailblazing.

But rightly or wrong, what comes across to me was that Alfred was genuinely motivated to improve the lot of his people. He felt their lives would be better for learning, and for understanding the word of God through a learned Church.

So, what did he actually do? Well, he started by trying to assemble a dream team of scholars and churchmen from wherever he could find them. He brought in scholars from Mercia, Wales, Frankia and Old Saxony. He established a school at his court, so that his Earldormen’s children could learn and therefore prepare themselves for office. But probably most impressively, as I’ve alluded to more than once now, taught himself Latin, and then he translated works himself from Latin into English. And, ever practical, he worked out a system of distributing the most important texts throughout the country, so that everyone would have access to texts in their own language.

Alfred made extraordinary demands particularly on his secular leaders, Thegns and ealdormen. The writings from his court stress that the need to pursue wisdom and learning was not just for clergy or monks – everyone in a position of authority needed to seek knowledge. Alfred would have agreed with Alcuin; the Vikings were a scourge of God; God had withdrawn his favour and protection from the Anglo Saxon people; military success alone would never be enough – divine favour needed to be regained to achieve permanent success, and to achieve that, the Anglo Saxons needed to work hard. These demands were therefore not just pious hopes, or a determined effort to persuade – Alfred threatened to remove from office those of his noble who, quote, ‘neglected the study and application of Wisdom’. There are few more extraordinary demonstrations of his leadership than that almost all of his ealdormen and thegns, in Asser’s words,

‘who were illiterate from childhood, applied themselves in an amazing way to learn how to read, preferring rather to learn this unfamiliar discipline (no matter how labouriously) than to relinquish their offices of power’.

There is another theme there we should pick up on; Alfred expected a lot from himself, but he demanded a lot from his people as well. He accused them of laziness and indolence in pursuing wisdom and promoting education; he expected them to put this right, and expected them to give more in many other ways as well. In this the continuing Viking threat surely helped him – the alternatives to the way of Alfred were deeply unattractive, and the examples of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia stood as helpfully real reminders of just how unattractive the way of the Viking was for the Anglo Saxon.

Last, but by no means least is the ASC. We don’t know exactly who commissioned the Chronicle, but it is at least likely that Alfred had a hand in it, and it seems to have started at around this time. The Chronicle is at one level the history of the AS peoples, and at this level by itself it is an impressive cultural achievement, which was to survive and continue even through the Norman conquest. But at another level, it is a superb piece of propaganda, promoting and glorifying the role of the West Saxons in England’s story. A good example is the complete omission of 3 Mercian Kings who would most certainly have merited the title of Bretwalda; but then proclaiming Egbert as the 8th Bretwalda. The Chronicle is a superb cultural achievement, and an extraordinary window on the otherwise Dark ages. But unbiased it ain’t.

Alfred’s determination to rule through the written word reflected itself also in his law code. Alfred’s law code in many ways is not his most impressive piece of work. It’s a bit of a legal mess apparently, in that it simply appends the laws of Ine of Wessex and Ethelbert of Kent; but never makes it clear whether they are still applicable, even when they clearly conflict with his own code. He is rather wimpy about the whole thing, saying that he’s basically not inventing any new laws, because he’s not sure how his successors will receive them.

There are really two reasons why the laws have an important place in his reign. Sorry, we seem to be into lists today. So, number 1; Alfred very consciously saw his role as King in the light of the biblical lawgiver, and related his law codes very consciously to Moses. Ine’s laws were divided into 120 chapters, the reputed age of Moses on his death, and the number of people on whom the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost. Law giving was an expression of his view of religious kingship. Number 2 relates to a slightly complicated debate about the start of the concept of England, and Englishness, which is worth spending a bit of time on.

Most of the time, Alfred refers to himself with no grander language than King of the West Saxons – in fact he does this in his laws. But it is very likely that Alfred had a grander vision, of England and the English. The implication of his inclusion of Ine and Ethelbert’s laws, and his reference to mysterious laws of Offa that no-one else remembers, is that this is a code of laws for all the English, not just Wessex. To continue that theme – there are some charters where Alfred begins to refer to himself as ‘King of the Anglo Saxons’, which is a short hop, skip and a jump away from King of all the English. We’ll come back to this a bit later.

All of these policies were very important no doubt, but none of it would matter unless Wessex survived. Alfred had learnt the lesson of 878; he knew that the Vikings would be back, and that this time he needed to be ready for them.

The scale of the Viking victories, and the need for even Alfred to pay their armies off to survive could have inculcated a deep lack of confidence on the West Saxons. What Alfred saw clearly was that Viking victories were not the result of any inherent weakness in the Anglo Saxons, not any military superiority of the Vikings. It was simply due to the tactics and strategies the Vikings employed. They relied on mobility, making raids, plundering and spreading terror, and moving on before they could be engaged. Whereas the Anglo Saxon state had evolved forces set up for pitched battles. As we’ve said, often by the time the Anglo Saxon army was ready, the Vikings had vanished.

In contrast to the disasters of 866 to the 870’s, one of the striking things about the English forces that met the renewed invasion in 892 was their mobility. Alfred achieved this by reforming the way the fyrd worked. On of the weaknesses of the fyrd was its inflexibility; because it was composed of Coerls who needed to tend their farms to survive, the fyrd from each shire was not prepared move far away from it’s home shire, and nor could it afford to stay away for too long, or at key times of year.

Alfred solved that problem, by calling up half of the fyrd in any shire at any one time, and allowing the other half to stay and tend the fields, then rotate at intervals. It meant that he was able to keep the fyrd in the field for longer and support more complex military operations than ever before.

Alfred’s other key strategy was to restrict the freedom of movement of the Danes, who in 871 and 878 had been able to roam the countryside at will. Alfred knew that the Danes were not expert at reducing towns, and relied on starving the inhabitants into submission – which gave him valuable time. So, Alfred developed a system of fortified towns, called Burghs, which we might describe as a ‘defense in depth’ system. 30 of these towns were developed, fortified and garrisoned by thj enormous figure for the time of 27,000 men. It meant that no Village in southern England was any more than 20 miles, or a day’s ride, away from a fortified centre – there’s a map on the website, showing their distribution. So, next time the horde arrived, villagers could flee to a place of safety and wait for the Anglo Saxon army to arrive. Or, if small bands of Danes were ransacking the countryside, the response could be quicker and more local from the garrison.

This system was revolutionary in AS England, amongst a race that had traditionally not liked towns and for whom fortifications were generally alien. It demanded a massive dedication of resources and organisation to make work. We know how this worked from the existence of a document called the burghal hideage. This defined exactly how many men would be needed to man the walls of each burgh, and made sure the surrounding population had the resources they needed to support and maintain the Burgh – again there’s a copy of this on the website. Here again, Alfred made enormous demands on his people; Asser wrote of Alfred’s need to cajole and criticise and threaten to get his subjects to carry out his commands; and despite the extraordinary achievement, he complained of the work that had not yet been completed, or was late.

Alfred’s military reforms therefore made great demands of his people. However, it is worth noting that just as his use of language drew on Carolingian experience, the same is true of this system of building local responsibility to maintain infrastructure. In this Alfred may well have drawn on Offa, who had also embedded the responsibility for ecclesiastical and secular lords to maintain bridges, roads and fortifications. Either way, the system was to be tested in the coming war. As we will see, it worked.

Each of these Burghs had a defensive wall or stockade, a mint, and a marketplace. Some of these burhs were old settlements refortified; amazing as it might seem, old Roman walls were still used all these centuries later. Others were new forts set up in new locations.

An example of the latter was Oxford. At the time, Oxford was of no special importance in Alfred’s reign. But by the year 1000, it had become an important centre, and this was very likely because the Burghs had another benefit – they inevitably became a centre for trade, and generally helped the development of trade throughout Wessex. As Alfred’s successors moved onto the offensive into the Danish conquered lands to recover the lands that had been lost to the Vikings, they would carry the idea of the burghs with them, and extend the military network. It is interesting to reflect that this is very much the same strategy of conquest as the Normans would inflict on us a couple of hundred years later. At the same time though, Alfred’s Burghs would extend the economic network.  Warwick, Stafford, Buckingham, Oxford – most of the county towns of modern England originated in the Ninth and tenth century.

The Burgh system and military demands also impacted on taxation and administration. Some tradition has built up that Alfred invented the Shire system – and this is not so. But Alfred developed the system, ensuring that his earldormen were clear about their role, the personal qualities they needed to show, their need for education. The use of the Shires and their ealdormen in defending the kingdom against the Danes embedded the system within the structure of AS administration, from where it would continue to develop.

Somewhere around 875, Alfred also initiated a reform of the West Saxon coinage, with what is called the Cross and Lozenge type. The reform restored the weight and quality of coinage. Quite apart from the support to economic growth this gave, these  new coins were produced in London, traditionally a Mercian town, as well as the more traditional mints in Wessex. At some point after the expulsion of Burgred, Alfred had clearly begun to extend West Saxon influence into Mercia.

There are also a couple of very interesting survivals of a coin showing both himsef and King Ceolwulf of Mercia. You’ll remember that Coelwulf had been put on the Mercian throne as a puppet by the Danes, and was described by Asser as an ‘unwise kings thegn’; and when Guthrum had returned, defeated by Alfred, he had cashed in his chips and taken half of Mercia for himself and his followers. The rather biased, Wessex oriented record has probably been unkind to Coelwulf II. He is in fact very probably descended from King Coelwulf I of Mercia, and therefore not simply a thegn. In addition, he was not idle, appearing to have fought the Welsh in 878 and 881.

He issued his own coinage, closely modelled on Alfred’s, and which suggests the two Kings actively co-operated.  Indeed, there is then this coin showing both Ceolwulf and Alfred together; there had been only one survival, but the veracity of the coin seems to have been proved by the discovery very recently of a second, in the Chilterns. On these coins, Alfred is shown as the senior partner – Ceolwulf is simply styled as king, whereas Alfred is styled as ‘Rex Anglorum’, king of the English. It seems to confirm that Ceolwulf had a real role; that he actively participated and cooperated with Alfred. It also more evidence that Alfred was indeed taking leadership for all the free Anglo Saxons.

Some where around the 880’s, Ceolwulf, the last king of Mercia disappears; he’s certainly gone by 883. It’s quite possible that he died in 881 fighting the Welsh, since we know that the Mercians suffer a defeat against them at that time. Ceolwulf is replaced by a man called Athelred, who was to be a close associate of Alfred throughout the rest of his life. Sadly, we know nothing of Aethelred’s background and ancestry, despite a stream of wild speculation; but the assumption is that he is at least Mercian. The key thing is though, that Athelred is described as an earldorman, not as a king, and the implication is very clear – Mercia is now subject to Wessex. Alfred is careful not to offend Mercian sensibilities as far as possible, and he is very careful to show that Mercia is still very much a separate entity; so Athelred leads the Mercian witan, for example, and the Mercian armies. But its subservience to Wessex is no less clear.

Alfred and Athelred clearly had a productive relationship, which was cemented by the marriage in the late 880’s between Aethelred and Athelflaed, Alfred’s eldest child and daughter. Aethelflaed was of course the daughter of Eahlswith; who herself was a good Mercian, daughter of one of the Mercian tribes the Gaini. This was important; aethelflaed could be presented as part of the Mercian heritage and descent rather than simply a West Saxon import. Now, while the Viking tide rose about them, and half of Mercia appeared lost to Guthrum, the Mercian nobility were probably reasonably resigned to this West Saxon takeover. But it can’t have been easy. If and when the threat receded, local pride could easily reassert itself.

The Great Heathen Army had departed for the Low Countries in November 879. Their return was both expected or feared by Alfred. But in 884, a detachment appeared back in Kent, and attacked the half-built Burgh at Rochester. Half built or not, it was enough for the local inhabitants to hold out until Alfred arrived to relieve it, and a part of the Army immediately took off again back to the continent. The other part did the normal Viking trick of making promises and handing over hostages – and then going raiding anyway, ignoring the promises and leaving the hostages to their fate. History does not record what Alfred did with these hostages.

We don’t know a lot about the campaign of 884, except that the raiders are not caught, and that they are supported by the Danes from East Anglia before they leave. In response, Alfred launched an attack on the Danes by sea.

A fleet was therefore sent in 884 to carry out a reprisal attack against the East Anglian Danes, to punish them for their support of the continental raid. It met with partial success, defeating the Danes and capturing 16 Danish ships. Sadly, it was itself then caught by a separate force of returning Danish ships, and itself worked over before getting back to port. But at very least, Alfred had made a point. At some time Alfred then gets credit for establishing the English Royal navy – clearly this is an anachronism; the idea of an established national Navy has many centuries to wait. But there is some justice in it; here were boats commissioned at least at royal command. The idea would resurface under Edgar and Richard I until we get to the Early Modern period.

The raid of 884 had consequences. It showed Alfred, if he needed any confirmation, that Danish East Anglia was a threat to him that he needed to do something to counter. So in 886, the ASC records:

‘The same year also King Alfred fortified the city of London; and the whole English nation turned to him, except that part of it which was held captive by the Danes. He then committed the city to the care of Alderman Athelred, to hold it under him.’

This is a very interesting entry, not just because it records the retaking of London. We have the line that the city was committed to the care of Earldorman Athelred, to hold under Alfred. Remember that London is traditionally a Mercian town, not a West Saxon one. So Wessex’s dominance is further confirmed – or so the ASC claims.

There is then the line ‘the whole English nation turned to him’. As Alfred’s reign went on, his court clearly experimented a bit with the claims it made for Alfred; though he never asserted the idea of a single English kingdom consistently, possibly because the prospect of it happening was a little remote, there’s no doubt it was part of Alfred’s vision. The ASC began to talk of the ‘Anglecynn’ – the English people.

Just to pursue this point. That Treaty of Wedmore we discussed last time, was made between Guthrum and the Alfred with, quote ‘all the councillors of the English people’. Alfred is being seen again not as a representative of Wessex, but of the whole English nation.

Why is this different from Egbert and Offa? Well, simply because they both saw their success as being the leading nation amongst all the different Anglo Saxon Nations. Their pre-eminence was dependant on their military success. Alfred’s new status was based on a vision of one united nation off the English, united in the face of the common enemy of the Norsemen. True enough, his vision was one of an English nation in the mould of Wessex, as evidenced by the bias of the ASC towards Wessex. But still, one nation one people.

On another occasion, he went even further, describing himself as ‘ruler of all the Christians of the Island of Britain’ which is quite a claim and not repeated; but you can see Alfred’s religious passion embedded in it.

Eitherway, Alfred almost refounded London. The AS part of London was of course not the old Roman City, but the area around Aldwych and along the Strand; the early AS settlers, used to a rural life and suspicious of Urban centres, had distrusted the old city and abandoned it. Alfred recolonised the old Roman city, refortified the walls and established a fresh garrison there. From then on, Lundenbugh was a central part of the English realm and of its trade.

Meanwhile, what of the Danish parts of England at this time? Here we are right back into the Dark Ages, and have almost nothing to go on. The one certainty is that there is a Danish king in York called Guthfrith who died in York in 895. Significantly, Guthfrith was a Christian. He was succeeded by two Kings, Siefred and Cnut, but we know almost nothing of either of them. However, what we do know is that whatever their religion, it was to become very clear that they continued to feel a strong sense of community with other Danes and Vikings, wherever they might be.

Guthrum was apparently still a Christian King, Aethelstan; he minted coins with his Christian name, so there appears to be no need to doubt that. It is much more doubtful, though, that he imposed the religion on his followers. He appeared to live in peace for the 11 years of his reign, and died in 890.



5 thoughts on “8 Reconstruction and Defence

  1. I started watching this show called The Last Kingdom and realised that I had scant knowledge when it comes to the history of England. There are clearly cross overs between the fictional plot and actual history which is what led me to finding this podcast/shedcast! Now I am hooked and have started listening to this series from the beginning! Thank you for making history more interesting!

    1. I love the Last Kingdom! Really good, and in fact the books are brilliant, and I love the author’s books, Bernard Cornwall, too

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