“Then his brother Alfred, Æthelwulf’s offspring, succeeded to the kingdom of Wessex. And one month later King Alfred with a small troop fought at Wilton against the whole raiding-army, and for long time in the day put them to flight, and the Danish had possession of the place of slaughter.”
It’s part 7 of the “kings within England who I can be bothered to write about” series (still working on a decent title for that) and we have reached the one Anglo-Saxon king who excites people’s imaginations the most: Alfred the Great. With shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom, Alfred has been thrust into popular imagination once more. But why is it that he is the only English king to have earned the epithet “the Great”? (And no, before you say anything, Cnut the Great does not count).
While the great Mercian kings of the 8th century remain shadowy figures due to a scarcity of sources, the very opposite proves true for Alfred. Here we have something of an overabundance of source material: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser’s biography of the man himself are two very prominent examples. The wealth of written sources regarding Alfred – almost all of which were associated with Alfred’s court – threaten to over-emphasise Alfred’s differences to other rulers, while at the same time magnifying (perhaps deliberately) his achievements. But on the other hand, we cannot deny that Alfred was, in many ways, an exceptional king. More than any other previous Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred desired to rule through the written word and to mould his kingship and authority through the production of texts. As such it seems he drew direct inspiration for his rule from Carolingian kings more than any king within Britain had done so before him. His momentous achievements in the last decades of the ninth century are even more surprising given his familial circumstances.
Born c.847-849 in Wantage (formerly in Berkshire, now Oxfordshire), Alfred was the youngest of five sons of King Æthelwulf, three of whom would become king of Wessex before him. It seemed highly unlikely, at the time of his birth, that he would even become a king, let alone that he would achieve all that he did. Given his status as youngest son, it is likely that Alfred was intended to follow a clerical or monastic career, rather than a secular one. Asser records Alfred learning the Divin Office, enthusiastically visiting churches and shrines, collecting psalms and prayers in a book he kept on his person. However it is not unlikely that these activities may be better understood as showing that Carolingian influence again, this time in ideas about lay religiosity and the heavy moral obligations and burdens that were placed upon even the secular nobility. Throughout his life Alfred suffered from repeated bouts of illness. In his youth it is thought he contracted piles which, unfortunately, was replaced later by a far more serious disease that would plague him, plausibly identified as Crohn’s disease. So it is that we are presented with a paradoxical king: the sickly, suffering Alfred seems entirely at odds with the warrior king of Edington, casting doubts on the veracity of Asser’s biography and suggesting it was a later monastic forgery. However most scholars would accept the work is genuine and that Asser’s paradoxical Alfred, no matter how strange he may seem to us, is the genuine article. Sex, lust and sin preoccupied him every bit as much as the Viking threat, suggesting that this was a man who actually was destined for secular office, but all too aware of the moral compromises this would entail.
In 853, as mentioned in the post on Æthelwulf, Alfred went to Rome where, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that Pope Leo IV ‘consecrated him as king, and took him as son at confirmation.’ While Victorian historians would take this as an anticipatory coronation, it is unlikely to be the case. Presumably it was actually in confirmation of baptism, what with Alfred still have older brothers who were very much alive and first in line to become king. As it turned out one of them decided he was a bit bored of waiting, and had in fact deposed his father on his return in 856. I shan’t go into details regarding the possible why’s however as I briefly look at this under the post for Æthelwulf himself. Suffice to say the result was that a compromise was reached: the western shires, the traditional heartland of Wessex, would be ruled by the rebellious sod that was Æthelbald, while Æthelwulf would rule in the east. This solution proved rather short lived, as Æthelwulf died in 858, followed by Æthelbald in 860. Æthelberht ruled from 860-865 and was succeeded by his brother Æthelred, who ruled 865-871 when he then died leaving Alfred as the next in line. Alfred is rather absent from the chronicles during the reigns of his brothers until 867, then again the following year where he is recorded as joining his brother in the unsuccessful attempt at keeping the Great Heathen Army (which certainly warrants a future post) under Ivarr the Boneless out of Mercia. In 870-71, nine separate engagements are recorded, all with varying results.
So it was that in April 871 Alfred became king of Wessex. It would seem to be an inauspicious time to gain the kingship. East Anglia and Northumbria had already fallen to the Viking armies, and Mercia and Wessex were both hard pressed. But even before his landmark victory at Edington in 878, Alfred’s actions mark him as an ambitious and capable ruler. Around 875 he initiated a reform of the coinage, introducing so-called ‘cross and lozenge’ type. One of the earliest examples that was minted in London bears the style ‘rex sm’, presumably meaning ‘king of the (West) Saxons and Mercians.’ This implies that sometime after the expulsion of King Burgred in 973/4, Alfred had been able to expand West Saxon influence into these parts of Mercia. This reform was carried out in tandem with Ceolwulf II of Mercia, continuing a tradition of monetary cooperation between the two kingdoms. Alfred’s authority over Mercia increased following the death or expulsion of Ceolwulf in the late 870’s, who was succeeded by a certain Ealdorman Æthelred, who by the early 880’s recognised Alfred’s authority and overlordship and governed ‘English’ Mercia, never claiming for himself the title of ‘king’.
In 876 the Danes, under the command of Guðrum attacked and occupied Wareham in Dorset. Alfred blockaded them, but was unable to launch an assault so a peace was negotiated, involving the exchanging of hostages and oaths, which the Danes swore on a ‘holy ring’ associated with the worship of Thor. Turns out the Danes lied, killed all the hostages and under the cover of night escaped to Exeter in Devon. Alfred once more blockaded the Danish ships and, with a relief force having been scattered by a storm, the Danes once more submitted, this time withdrawing to Mercia. Alfred spent Christmas of 877 in Chippenham, Wiltshire, a royal stronghold: in January of 878 however the Danes launched a surprise attack on the stronghold, though Alfred ‘with a small troop went with difficulty through the woods and into swamp-fastnesses.’ So it was that Alfred ended up making his fort at Athelney in the Somerset marshes, gathering the fyrd from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. It is also here that we have the 12th century legend of him burning some poor peasant woman’s cakes because he was preoccupied with not losing a kingdom or something. Pretty poor excuse if you ask me. But in the seventh week after Easter (4-10 May 878) Alfred mustered a sizeable force at Egbert’s Stone (east of Selwood) and won a decisive victory in the ensuing Battle of Edington (Ethandun), potentially fought near Westbury in Wiltshire. He then pursued the Danes to Chippenham and starved them into submission once more. Guðrum converted to Christianity as one of the terms of surrender, and after his baptism he was received by Alfred as his spiritual son, being christened Æthelstan.
During the 880’s Alfred’s peace with Guðrum meant he was spared from any large-scale conflicts for some time, though he was still forced to deal with a number of smaller scale Danish raids and incursions. In 885 he confronted the largest Danish force since Edington who were besieging Rochester in Kent. Instead of fighting him however, the Danes simply went to the beach, got on their ships and sailed away. Not long after Alfred sent his fleet to East Anglia to, if we believe Asser, get plunder, fighting two engagements on the River Stour winning one, then losing the second as they attempted to leave the Stour itself. In 886 Alfred reoccupied London, entrusting the care of the city to his son-in-law Æthelred of Mercia. This restoration is thought to have focused on a new street plan, added fortifications and, potentially, matching fortifications on the south bank of the Thames. The political landscape of England changed dramatically with the passing of Guðrum (Æthelstan), King of East Anglia in 889 leaving a power vacuum. Danish warlords loved power vacuums.
The return of a large Viking army in 892 demonstrated that despite Alfred’s gains in the 870’s and 880’s, the survival of his kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons was by no means secure. Edington had bought Alfred breathing space, nothing more, but he had used it well. Alfred realised that Viking success over the Anglo-Saxons was less the result of some inherent military superiority, but rather the tactics and strategies they adopted. First and foremost it was their mobility and hit-and-run doctrine that thwarted most attempts to stop them. The Danes actively avoided open warfare, after all why bother risking all of your loot in a pitched battle that isn’t a certain victory? By the time the Fyrd had been raised and mustered, the damage had been done, and the enemy either moved on or retreated behind fortifications that required lengthy and often futile sieges. So Alfred split his army in two, ensuring that half its men were always on service, and half at home. It wasn’t perfect – on one occasion the West Saxon forces laying siege to a Viking fort simply went home without waiting for their replacements to arrive – but it allowed for a rapid response time. Of more long-term significance was the establishment of a vast network of burhs, fortified towns, throughout the kingdom. The idea of a fortified centre was by no means new in Anglo-Saxon England, but the true innovation on Alfred’s part was the size of the network: ensuring that nowhere was more than a single day’s ride from one. Furthermore the siting of many of them on navigable rivers, Roman roads or other such crucially important nodes of transport greatly reduced the freedom of movement a Viking raiding party could expect. The cost of this system, however, was astronomical. It is estimated that over 27,000 men would be needed to maintain and defend the burhs. You also have to add the cost of constructing such a network in the first place.
On the other side of the coin, Alfred launched a series of educational and religious reforms. What good was a military response alone when God Himself had withdrawn his protection? A great amount of emphasis was placed on the idea that all those in positions of authority, not just members of the clergy, should pursue wisdom and learning. Finally he even created his own law code: borrowing from the codes of his predecessors he created a law code that was not simply royal law, but a continuum of Christian law-giving in direct lineal descent from the laws of Moses and the judgements of the Apostles. Alfred’s reign heralded, for the first time in England, the development of a fully Christian kingship.
Alfred died on 26 October 899, around 50 years old, and was buried in the Old Minster in Winchester before being moved four years later to the new Minster, which was perhaps built especially to house his body. It comes as no surprise then that he was given the epithet the great. Under his guidance Viking raids on England went from profitable summer getaways to adventures that were more suicidal in nature. Perhaps one of his most lasting legacies then was that he forced many Vikings to look elsewhere for plunder and land. Across the channel to a part of Francia called Neustria perhaps…