9 Pillar of the Western People

alfred-the-greatIn 892, the vikings returned – and found a very different, much better prepared Wessex waiting for them. Until in 899, Alfred died to be succeeded by his Son, Edward, who would in the end turn the tables on the Vikings.






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Views of Alfred

Athelweard was an Earldorman of the Western Shires in the late 10th Century, basing his work on a lost version of the ASC. His chronicles describe Alfred as

‘unshakeable pillar of the western people, and man replete with justice, vigorous in warfare, learned in speech, above all instructed in divine learning.’

Bishop Wulfsige described his as:

‘the greatest treasure giver of all the kings he has ever heard tell of  . .’

And of course his biographer Asser should have a word:

“From the cradle onwards, in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind”

Finally, let’s give Winston Churchill have a go at his view:

‘We discern across the centuries a commanding and versatile intelligence, wielding with equal force the sword of war and of justice; using in defence arms and policy; cherishing religion, learning, and art in the midst of adversity and danger; welding together a nation, and seeking always across the feuds and hatreds of the age a peace which would smile upon the land’


We left Alfred in the midst of a rush of reform across all aspects of Wessex society. By 891, it was clear that Wessex faced a new threat from Viking invasion. Alfred was ahead of the game, and made the leaders of the Danish kingdoms in England give oaths that they would not support the new Danish Army. It was a lovely thought; I wonder if Alfred ever thought it would work? It didn’t as it happens, and didn’t fairly conclusively actually.

Guthrum or aethelstan had died in 890, after seemingly living his last 10 years in peace. With his death, no new Danish coins were issued; we rarely even know the names of the kings in East Anglia, though it could be that he was succeeded by one Eohric. But there is a theme; the Vikings often did not appear to have the ambition to build centralised kingdoms, or maybe it is put better by saying the forces of small units and local loyalties was strong. When the raids were over and the Viking had his land, no organised unity replaced the old war bands – or not quickly anyway. When the influx of warriors dried up, this would make them vulnerable. However, what will become clear is that Northumbria and East Anglia still have many ambitious young warriors looking to build their fortune in the traditional Viking trade of murder and mayhem. And on occasion sensitive artwork.

However, it needed a catalyst, and during the 880’s that catalyst appeared to be missing. But in the early 890’s it would appear.

The 880’s were as dark a decade for the Low countries and Northern France as the 860s and 70’s were for England. After Guthrum’s defeat at the hands of Alfred, parts of the Viking army went to settle East Anglia and Eastern Mercia; parts returned to Northumbria; but some were attracted by stories of opportunity on the continent. The period saw wholesale warfare between constant Viking raids and large scale armies and the Carolingian, Charles the Fat. Charles was to take a Roman strategy on more than one occasion – buying the Vikings off by essentially giving them the land they had already captured, in return for their acknowledgment of his lordship. Through this, the county of Holland and the ruling house of Holland seems to have formed. In 885 and 886, a vast Viking army besieged Paris itself, though the Vikings were to prove again that breaking into well-fortified towns was not one of their many talents, and the siege was broken.

Substantial Viking raids also took place further south, along the Loire valley. And one of the Viking leaders on the Loire was a man called Haesten, who in 882 was finally persuaded by Louis the Stammerer, the little brother of Queen Judith incidentally, to leave, and Hasten took his ships northwards and was probably part of the great Viking armies causing chaos in the Low Countries and northern France.


We hear of him next in 891 on the River Somme in Normandy, in a bit of classic Viking-aria – doing a deal with the Abbot of St Vaast to be given a base in return for protecting the Abbey from other Vikings; and then raiding the Abbey and destroying it when he was good and ready. A man’s word is his bond and all that.

But the good times were coming to an end. In 891, Arnulf King of the Franks destroyed a Viking army at Louvain, and built a castle to block the river there from further raids. Hasten made a base at Amiens for another year, but when the harvest failed in the 892, no doubt partially due to the war, Hasten decided that he should take his followers to somewhere more promising. And so he went west young man, he took his 80 ships and followers to England, to test the defences of Wessex. It would seem that word of his intentions spread, or otherwise it just so happens that throughout the Danish held lands in England others were looking for something more from life than the plough could give – so he was not to be alone.

Because in 892 two fleets landed in Kent, in the mouth of the Thames. The smaller of the two was Hasten and his 80 ships, landing in northern Kent. The second was substantial indeed – 250 ships. Sadly, we never know the leader of this second fleet and army; but it appears also to have been drawn from Northern France. The larger force made camp in southern Kent.

Alfred’s immediate objective was to stop the two from meeting, and pick one of them off if possible; so he brought his army to somewhere between the two. He treated almost immediately with the leader of the smaller, northern force, Haestan. As a result, Haestan made a camp north of the Thames in Essex, and had his two sons baptised as Christians. Alfred stood as Godfather to one of the lads, and Athelred of Mercia Godfather to the other.

Meanwhile the larger force set off deep into Wessex, moving west and north into Hampshire and Berkshire, and managed to evade Alfred, until spring 893 when, having gathered a lot of plunder, they turned north and East, looking to meet up with Haestan in Essex.

This then is when we get our first glimpse of Edward, the eldest son of Alfred. Edward’s date of birth is not clear; sometime in the early 870’s; so in 893, let’s say he is in the region of 20 years old. In common with most medieval kings, we know almost nothing of him before he starts to appear in the chronicles; we have just a snippet from Asser’s biography, who describes Edward as an obedient son to Alfred, who treats others with humility, friendliness, and gentleness, and a child given a good liberal education as you’d expect from a child of Alfred; Asser tells us he’d learned the psalms, books in English, and especially English poems. Edward is Alfred’s eldest and probably his heir, but again remember that there’s no surety at all about theat. And lurking around in the shadows is a cousin, Aethelwold, son of Alfred’s older brother, who might well have words about that.

Anyway, in 893 it is Edward’s martial gifts rather than literary that are of interest. It is Edward and the fyrd who intercepted the Danes as they turned north, at the burgh of Farnham. Intriguingly, the battle at Farnham is mentioned by the chronicler Aethelweard, not by the ASC; which could be  a reflection of pro Alfred and Pro Edward factions. Either way, Edward and his army routed the Vikings.

There then followed a helter skelter flight of 20 miles, with Edward snapping at the Danish heels. The flight was so close that when the Danes hit a River, the river Colne in this case, they had no chance to look for a ford, and had to simply dive across, and hole up in an island in the middle of the river, where they could defend themselves. For those interested, the Island has been identified as Thorney island, at Iver in Buckinghamshire.

At this crucial juncture, the Danes in Northumbria and East Anglia intervened, and launched a sea borne invasion into Devon, attacking Exeter. Alfred had to split his army and head off down to the sea side, and for the next 6 months was unable to take any part in the main event. Edward now took control. But despite the fact that he was joined by Athelred of Mercia, they did not feel they had enough men to force the river and attack the Danes on their island. In the end, Edward decided that the priority was to get the Danes off his land, and so he dealt with them, and allowed then to leave.

Meanwhile, Haesten had established a camp at Benfleet in Essex, and had taken off to go raiding in Mercia. While he was away, the defeated Danish army rolled into his camp, to join Haesten’s women and children. Close behind, Edward attacked again, and captured the fort and everything in it, and again sent the Danes packing.

A nice little cameo is of the Wife and Sons of Haesten being brought to Alfred from the captured fort. Rather than use them as hostages, Alfred loads them up with presents and sends them back to Haesten, refusing to use his Godson in such as way. It’s another measure of the man.

Anyway, Haesten arrived back at this point, and the balance of power swung back the other way. Once they’d established a new fort yet further East towards the mouth of the Thames at a place called Shoebury, the Danes felt safe; and once more, new Danish warrirors had joined Haesten from Northumbria and East Anglia, eager for the chance to make some money, Haesten felt strong enough to strike out again.

Duly he set out on a raid up the river Thames, all the way to the west of England, carrying on north up the river Severn. As they marched, however, they were faced by a very different proposition than Guthrum in 870. All along the Thames the Danes were faced by Alfred’s Burghs, and their freedom of movement was severely restricted – they never, for example, managed to penetrate into Wessex to any significant depth.

Here at last Haesten was stopped. He was stopped by a combination of forces – the Earldormen of Mercia, Wiltshire and Somerset, plus the garrisons of all the Burghs along the way.  The fight was self consciously Christian against Pagan, and for that reason the Welsh, perennial enemies of the AS’s, were happy to send a force and face the Danes with them. The Danes were finally trapped, and besieged on an island near the welsh border. The siege went on for several weeks, until finally they were able to cut their way through the English lines, and make it back to their fort in Shoebury. Although the ASC talks about a great slaughter, the Viking army was clearly still a viable unit, so we should take the proverbial pinch of salt to the obviously pro Saxon chronicle. But however biased it is, it is clear that the Danes so far had spent an arid year with little success.


But 893 was not yet finished for Haesten. He realized that Shoebury was not the best place for him. Although it was on the coast, and therefore within easy access of his ships, being stuck away in the south eastern corner of Essex didn’t give easy access to other parts of the country. And he needed access to a fresh supply of men, from the Danish kingsdoms of England, or even from the Norweigan kingdoms of Ireland.

So Haesten broke camp again and the Danes moved with the blistering speed for which they were famous. Their objective was Chester in the north West. Chester was and old Roman town. In common with London, the Angles had never settled within the walls, and so it had been deserted since the time of the Romans. It would make a perfect base for operations.

One of the striking things about the campaign in 893 had been the ability of the Anglo Saxon forces to keep pace with the Vikings. The Alfred’s re-organisation of the fyrd, and the availability of men at anytime from the Burghs had all helped. But in a straight race, they couldn’t keep up, and Haesten was soon safe within the old Roman walls.

But the English leaders were determined not to let the Danes settle. They besieged Chester and cut the Danes off from their food supply, by devastating the surrounding area and destroying everything the Vikings might be able to use for food.

Haesten again knew that unless he could give his followers the plunder they were looking for, he would lose his army. The last year must have been a dispiriting experience for the Danes. So in the Autumn of 893 he managed to break out of Chester and head instead for Wales. For the rest of 893 and into 894, Haesten ravaged all the way down the Eastern side of Wales, down to the Bristol Channel and back up to the North.

Later in 894, the English knew Haesten had returned to Northumbria, laden with Welsh treasure, and that he was moving back to Essex by way of East Anglia. But they were unable to do anything about it, since they were reluctant to enter the Danish kingdoms, and give king Guthfrith of Northumbria an official excuse to join him.

At about the same time, the Danish army in Exeter – remember them? – finally gave up, got onto their ships and headed for home. On the way, they thought they would carry out a good old traditional raid, and help themselves to some plunder. They selected Sussex on the south coast, and landed near Chichester and started to ravage the surrounding countryside.

Chichester was the largest town in Sussex, it had been a Roman town, and had been taken over by Aella in 477, and renamed after his son Cissa. It was also one of Alfred’s new Burgh’s, and one of the largest at that. So here was a good example of the Burghs in operation. The garrison of the Burgh were quickly formed up and attacked the Danes. They were entirely successful, so much so that not only did they kill many of their number, but also managed to capture a number of the Danish ships as the scrambled to escape. The age of easy pickings really was over.

The departure of the Danish army from Exeter also released Alfred, and he was able to rejoin Edward and Earldorman Athelred.

Hasten by this time had gone to ground. He had arrived back in Essex, and this time had established a camp at Mersea, further north from Shoebury on the Essex coast. They then moved both themselves and their ships onto the river Lea. This is a river that runs from the North of London into the Thames. The Danes were therefore based about 20 miles north of London, possibly at Hertford.

And there the Danes remained, apparently without great incident, until the summer of 895. The AS knew they needed to be dislodged, since they were in easy striking distance of London or central Wessex. But the first attempt by the garrison of London was a failure; the Vikings camp was too strong for the AS army, and they were repulsed with the death of 4 of the King’s thegns – plus an unspecified number of your average kind, whose lives sadly don’t warrant a mention in great historical records.

Alfred’s idea was to be more effective. He built two forts on the river south of the Danish camp, so that they would not be able to move south down the river Lea to attack London; and nor would they be able to escape easily by sea. He moved his army close to the camp, so that they would not be able to ravage the nearby countryside, and especially not to be able to steal the harvest. So Hasten moved again, and took his men west, again with great speed to Bridgnorth in the west of England on the River Severn. But his time was running out. His Danes had not joined him to wander all round England – they’d come looking for gold and glory.

East Anglia and Northumbria again tried to help by distracting Alfred and his army, just as they had done with the attack on Exeter in 894, and they ravaged all along the South Coast of England.

Alfred had used ships before to try to tackle the Danes before they reached land. By 896 we see how far this process has come. Some have seen in Alfred’s work the establishment of the English Navy; but it is really should be seen much more in the light of a response to the specific challenge they faced. Now Alfred realised a new effort was needed, and commissioned ships on a larger plan that those available to the Vikings – the ships appear to have been modelled on 60 rowing seats, rather than the more normal 20 of the Vikings. The ASC records one raid on the Isle of Wight in particular detail. That’s one of the things I love about the ASC; it is completely capricious. Sometimes you get absolutely nothing about a year, or just the recording of a comet or some such; other times you get reams of information about the most specific thing. But anyway, the other thing this entry shows is that Alfred also looked for expertise from outside England to make sure his Navy was effective – so we see Frisians talked about as part of the ships crews. Frisia is on the north East coast of the continent, where the Low countries are now, at it was the home of experienced and skilled seamen. All told, the ASC claims that the Danes lost some 20 ships as they tried to raid the coast that year, whether from naval fights or where their raiding parties were captured by the burghal garrisons.

At some point in the Summer of 896, as the raids fail to distract Alfred from their camp, the Danes realised that England had changed for good. They’d now spent 4 years in England, with little to show for it and little prospect of more. So it was time to call a halt, and the Viking army dispersed. Some who were satisfied with the treasure they had won returned to Northumbria or East Anglia and set up homes there. The likelihood is that Haesten was one of those, settling with his family somewhere; he’s a name that crops up in several chronicles across England and the continent, recording a journey from raider to war leader to family man.

Others were still looking for their fortune, somehow found some ships and headed off again for the River Seine in France. We know of one particular group, led by a man called Hundeus, which arrive with 5 ships, and after a deal of ravaging in the Viking idiom are again converted and settled by Charles the Simple.

And so we come to the end of the second great Danish war of 892-896. There are many points of similarity between this period and the Great heathen Army. The Viking threat was now from the land, not the sea. The Vikings had demonstrated their speed, mobility and rapacity. The Danes had also at all points retained the initiative, and the AS had been forced to follow and try to react.

But the most significant things were the differences. The Danes had a massive advantage they’d not had in 866 – namely well established Danish kingdoms, happy and willing to support the invading army. But this time, the Danes had much less freedom of action, and were never able to penetrate deeply into Wessex. The AS army though one step behind, had far greater mobility than in previous campaigns. This partly due to Alfred’s splitting of the fyrd, which allowed them to move from shire to shire, partly to the availability of ready made groups of armed men in the form of Burgh garrisons, and partly due to the King’s Thegns, who kept mounted retinues available with the King at all times. In addition, all the resources of the English were targeted towards one end – the removal of the Vikings, with Mercia and Wessex working seamlessly together, even being supported at one point by the Welsh. Although the AS were unable to defeat the Vikings decisively, the Vikings were also unable to defeat the AS. The AS managed to turn the conflict into a war of attrition, and the Viking army was not well suited to such a war.

Alfred by this time had only another 3 years to live, and the 892-896 war had a sense of the end of an era in other ways. The ASC lists the death of 8 of Alfred’s most important earldormen, thegns and officers for example, and hold this up as a greater problem than the Danes. We know almost nothing of the last 3 years of Alfred’s reign, and we should strongly suspect that no news is good news, and that at least in the last 3 years of his life Alfred was able to devote himself to the learning he loved most.

Alfred probably died on the eve of the new century in October 899 at the age of 50, after a reign of 28 years. He was originally buried in the Old Minster at Winchester, which had been founded by his predecessor Cenwalh in 648. But 2 years later, Edward completed the building of a new minster in line with Alred’s wishes, right next door. It is quite possible that the new minster was built specifically to receive his body. His grave was lost in the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, and although the graves were rediscovered in 1788 during the building of a prison, all the bones were scattered, so we do not know where Alfred’s remains are.

So, how do we sum up Alfred?

The very strong impression you get is that learning and Christianity were his greatest loves, and that he was at best reluctant warrior, and is most definitely not a bloodthirsty warrior leader in the mould of Penda, or many of his West Saxon predecessors; war was a necessary affair of state.

But he was most certainly not a bloodless man; he loved hunting, and in his younger days Asser tells us that he begged God to visit a punishment on him for being unable to control his passion for sex. And as a war leader he was superbly successful, with maybe the greatest of all qualities, the ability to learn form his mistakes, and we must remember just how close his kingdom came to being wiped out. He was a leader with a wider vision. This meant he was capable of devising an effective war strategy, rather than simply reacting to events as did all his contemporaries. But in the middle of all this chaos, fear and destruction he was also able to think much more long term about how to ensure that his kingdom survived and flourished.

Alfred saw the connections, and recognised that genuine and permanent success would not be dictated by a few successful battles; that his job was to establish a system and structure that allowed the potential of his people to grow through education; for his leaders to be more effective through education and the acquisition of his beloved wisdom; for a structure that allowed his kingdom to operate efficiently; and above all, a kingdom that was worthy of God’s protection and favour.

There is a tension in Alfred that is not entirely comfortable when looking for heroes. The depth of his religious instincts are without doubt; remembering that he was 5th of 5 brothers, it’s highly likely that he never expected to become king, and quite possibly expected an ecclesiastical career. He accepted the secular role for which he was destined; but it was never a happy fit. Asser’s biography shows how deeply he was affected by the tension between the violence and sex of the warrior’s lifestyle, and the ideals of Christian behaviour. He almost welcomed the physical pain of his illnesses as God’s penance.

He seems to me all the more impressive for continually facing that internal struggle, and by and large winning. Afterall, let us compare his style with that of the many well known and successful names that have been or will follow him in this story – Offa, William of Normandy, Richard the Lionheart, Henry 8th – all egotistical and brutal men. Compare this with Alfred’s actions, such as returning the wife and sons of Hasten to their father, while he in turn was doing his best to destroy his kingdom. Before I break down and weep, maybe I should leave the final words to his contemporaries.

Athelweard was an Earldorman of the Western Shires in the late 10th Century, basing his work on a lost version of the ASC. His chronicles describe Alfred as

‘unshakeable pillar of the western people, and man replete with justice, vigorous in warfare, learned in speech, above all instructed in divine learning.’

Bishop Wulfsige described his as:

‘ the greatest treasure giver of all the kings he has ever heard tell of  . .’ which is rather fascinating, in that a Christian Bishop is clearly reflecting his AS heritage in the way he judges Alfred. Forget god, learning and all that – look at the treasure!

And of course his biographer Asser should have a word:

From the cradle onwards, in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind

Finally, let’s give Winston Churchill have a go at his view:

‘We discern across the centuries a commanding and versatile intelligence, wielding with equal force the sword of war and of justice; using in defence arms and policy; cherishing religion, learning, and art in the midst of adversity and danger; welding together a nation, and seeking always across the feuds and hatreds of the age a peace which would smile upon the land’

One important legacy from Alfred was plenty of children, and in principle a secure succession – his eldest son Edward had been bloodied in battle and leadership, and seemed sure to be accepted as the next king. Athelwold however was 31, was not interested in the concept of being passed over for a younger man having once been passed over for an older. Next time we’ll hear about Aethelwold’s plans.


6 thoughts on “9 Pillar of the Western People

  1. David,
    You mentioned in your podcast that Alfred would likely crack your top 5 English monarchs. After hearing this episode, I don’t anyone would question that. I was curious though if you had compiled a top 5 or 10 list, and if so, who would be on it.

    1. I suspect, like my top 5 songs of all time, that it would change! But top 5 right now would be:
      1. Alfred
      2. Henry II
      3. Elizabeth
      3. Richard I
      4. Edward III

      Which is interesting since it means we are almost done with the top 5 monarchs! It’s just that monarchs become less politically dominant after the Civil War I guess…anyway, potential for endless debate. Everyone will tell me I am wrong about Richard I – but sorry, I will not be moved!

  2. Thanks. Very interesting! I’ve been listening to your current episodes for a few months now and have just started going through your earlier stuff. Awesome stuff! I’ve not gotten to the Lionheart yet, so I look forward to hearing your thoughts on him. Didn’t realize how contentious his legacy was. Glad to see Alfred as #1 and that Elizabeth made the list (founding Anglicanism and the Spanish Armada victory should be more than enough). Curious if you’ve ever given thought to a bottom 5 list?

    1. Yes! Oh yes, for many happy hours. Here’s the list with 5 being the very worst:
      1. John
      2. Charles I
      3. Edward II
      4. Aethelred
      5. Henry VI

  3. Thanks! As an American who is humbly doing his best to improve his knowledge of English history I am pleased to see that John’s slot is strongly supported by at least two historical documentaries I’ve seen concerning him: Disney’s Robin Hood and Robin Hood, Men in Tights.

    1. They are most excellent works, and I applaud the reference. I personally would make Robin Hood Prince of Thieves as my ultimate reference, but I know that is not generally accepted!

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