During the violent centuries of the Anglo-Saxon invasion and transformation of England (400-600AD), the invaders brought their customs, political institutions, property, and way of life across the North Sea, replacing four centuries of Romano-British culture and rule with farms and villages modeled on those of Old Germany. A Heptarchy of kingdoms would rule England, their fortunes rising and falling until, in 827, one ruler, Egbert of Wessex, became dominant over them all.
Already, a great new political and social upheaval had begun. First appearing in the late 780s, Viking invaders from present day Scandinavia and Denmark – the dreaded Danes – were becoming bolder and more frequent in their predations. Arriving by boat, they plundered and destroyed, fleeing as quickly as they came. They were defeated in two large battles by Egbert, in 833 and 835. But his posterity would face large armies of the Danes; almost all of England would fall under their control. Against this threat stood the ancient fyrd, a militia comprised of all fighting age males.
When England lay prostrate, only Alfred of Wessex and his fyrd were able to push back the relentless tide. Alfred would best the Danes on the field of battle and, with peace restored, reaffirm and modernize the fyrd, and establish a navy, England’s first. A millennium later Charles Dickens would call him “the Good Saxon,” a man “whom misfortune could not subdue, whom prosperity could not spoil, whose perseverance nothing could shake.” He was Alfred the Great, the noble prince who, according to David Hume, “saved his country from utter ruin and subversion.”
The Danish Wars
Alfred was born in Wantage, in the kingdom of Wessex, in 849, the fourth (possibly fifth) and favorite son of Ethelwolf, and grandson of Egbert. He spent some of his early life in Rome, and by the age of eleven or twelve could read and speak Latin. As a youth in England he most enjoyed reciting Saxon poetry, an interest kindled by his mother.
Alfred was not first in line for the throne. His older (and only living) brother Ethered (or Ethelred) gained the throne of Wessex, in 865. Under the custom of primogeniture, Ethered’s oldest son would be next, but that doctrine was flexible; constitutionally speaking, the right of royal succession would remain vague even a century after the Norman Conquest.
It was to the Witenagemot, a body of elders and religious statesmen who advised the king, that responsibility fell for selection of a new leader – with great deference to the wishes of the previous king, of course. Ethelwolf had been clear in his desire: Alfred would succeed his older brother.
The Danes had by this time ensconced themselves in English life, their raids coming annually, with no warning, anywhere in the country. Devon was invaded, and the cities of Portsmouth and Southampton attacked. East Anglia, Lindesey, and Kent all felt their wrath. Winchester was sacked. The pagan interlopers did not spare but targeted places and symbols of Christian worship.
They made camp in the country almost at will. A body settled in the winter of 851, receiving a large reinforcement the following spring before marching out to attack London and Canterbury, and laying waste to Surrey. They were defeated in battle by Ethelwolf, but successfully defended their settlement on the Isle of Thanet against a joint attack from the forces of Kent and Surrey, killing the governors of both in the battle. Another army wintered in England in 854. A “Great Army” of these raiders arrived late in 865, settling in East Anglia, and seizing York in 866, they successfully defended it against an English counter-attack and killed two Northumbrian princes. Pushing into the kingdom of Mercia, they took Nottingham and made it their winter quarters. Driven out by Ethered, they invaded the kingdom of East Anglia, defeating and capturing its king. Reading was occupied in 871. All of England, writes Hume, was “infested by the Danes.”
The fyrd was at a considerable disadvantage against the Danes. The Saxon foot soldiers were armed primarily with spears, some with their long knives, the sachs, and usually they had no armor, while the Danes wore a byrnie, or mail shirt, and fought with a giant two-handed ax that was devastating at close range. Often defeated in pitched battles, they would always succeed in rapine and destruction, their small sailing vessels traveling far and swiftly up waterways, launching vicious raids and then fading away. The Saxons were forced to chase the Danes interminably, leaving behind defenseless towns, villages, families, farms, and livestock as they sought an elusive enemy, often in vain (as they had treated the Roman Britons, several centuries before). The Danes generally avoided battle, and when threatened formed a “shield wall,” standing shoulder to shoulder behind a stockade, a formidable defense.
When Ethered died in 871, from wounds received in battle, Alfred inherited a nation long at war, and an enemy looking enviously toward his kingdom. An opportunity for battle presented itself immediately. The Danes had the better of the English at Basing earlier that year, and were busy reinforcing their army. Wilton was seized and the nearby countryside pillaged. Hastily assembling a small force, Alfred attacked. The Danes were beaten, but rallied under reinforcements. They would win the day, but, their losses great, and fearing Alfred would be reinforced in plenitude with men from the countryside, sought favorable terms, promising to leave the country. Retreating to London, they instead marched into the kingdom of Mercia. Its king, Burrhed, fled to Rome. Wessex was now the only Saxon power remaining in England.
Alfred the Great
Now a force of Danes under three princes, Guthrum, Oscitel and Amund, came over to England, joining up with those that had laid Mercia to waste, in Repton. Surviving by loot and rummage, this army was soon compelled to split into two, one group moving north and taking up winter quarters in Northumberland, another going to Cambridge. The following summer the latter force, led by Guthrum, drove west into Dorset, the heart of Alfred’s kingdom, and seized the town of Wereham in 876, but was so harried by Alfred’s army that Guthrum again sought terms. Alfred, a devoutly Christian king, made the Viking chiefs swear on holy relics to maintain the peace.
The Danes recanted, attacking Alfred’s army, which was “put to rout.” They marched on Exeter and took it, and could not be dislodged. Alfred’s army would reassemble, and is supposed to have fought eight (possibly nine) battles with the Danes in the proceeding year (877), with enough success that the invaders agreed to settle elsewhere in the country and “not permit the entrance of more ravagers into the kingdom.” But while Alfred awaited their faithful observance, a new body of the marauders crossed to England and fell on Chippenham, a sizable town, scattering the army of Wessex and again “exercising their usual ravages all around them.”
“This last incident quite broke the spirit of the Saxons, and reduced them to despair. Finding that, all the miserable havoc, which they had undergone in their persons and in their property; after all the vigorous actions, which they had exerted in their own defense; a new band, equally greedy of spoil and slaughter, had disembarked among them; they believed themselves abandoned by heaven to destruction, and delivered over to those swarms of robbers, which the fertile north thus incessantly poured forth against them. Some left their
country, and retired into Wales or fled beyond sea: Others submitted to the conquerors, in hopes of appeasing their fury by a servile obedience.”
The king went into hiding, disguising himself as a peasant and taking shelter for a while in the house of an unwitting cowherd (or so the legend goes). He made his way by further stealth to the Isle of Athelney, a piece of high ground in the bogs of Somerset, where he was joined by a few retainers. They would stay a while, the meager force erecting a small fort and venturing out for “frequent and unexpected” guerrilla raids on the Danes.
From this hideaway, Alfred received cheerful news: Hubba, a Viking chief, had landed with twenty-three vessels on the coast of Devonshire, laying siege to Kinwith hill-fort, where the earl of Devonshire had taken refuge with his supporters. The earl attacked one morning before dawn and slaughtered the besiegers, perhaps as many as eight hundred, taking their “enchanted standard” and killing Hubba. According to the Saxon Chronicler Alfred was so emboldened by this news that he disguised himself again, this time as a musician, and infiltrated the large camp of Guthrum, staying there for days as he entertained the Danes with his harp and gathered intelligence on the enemy.
Alfred then sent word far and wide, calling on his fighting men to assemble at Egbert’s Stone in Brixton Deverill, in Wiltshire, in mid-May of 878, where they met him with tears, and a loud and joyous applause, and in what must have been considerable numbers, for they came from three counties. The army was roused by the sight of him, many having believed he was dead, and they prayed for victory over their tormentors at a nearby church made of wattle and timber. Anxious for battle, Alfred and his fyrd marched to Leigh, and then on to Edington (or Ethandun) the next day, arriving where Guthrum’s army lay still encamped.
This would be Alfred’s finest hour, his “largest and culminating battle,” writes Winston Churchill, in his History of the English Speaking Peoples. Upon Alfred’s approach, the Danes formed into their shield wall, as did the English, but from his knowledge of their camp Alfred knew best where to strike. He attacked the weakest point, the two armies fighting ferociously, on foot, on open ground, and for hours, the English thrusting their spears through gaps between their shields, the sound of clashing swords and axes and the screams of the dying piercing the air until, finally, Guthrum’s forces broke and ran, retreating to a nearby fort. Alfred contained them for two weeks, denying both food and water, until the Danes begged for peace. They agreed to quit his kingdom, offering hostages of Guthrum’s most important followers as their guaranty. As a final measure, the chief and his leading men were baptized near Athelney, spending twelve days afterward in festivities with King Alfred. The Danes then left Wessex for East Anglia, and another force, near London, withdrew across the English Channel.
Alfred Reforms the Militia
With peace again restored, and the Danes retreated to a safe distance, Alfred set about strengthening land defenses and reforming the militia. First he “covered the kingdom with a system of garrisoned forts, spaced so that no settlement would be further than 30 miles from one,” writes Edward James, in Britain in the First Millennium. No longer would the fyrd chase the invaders; when a force of Danes arrived the people would retreat with their movable property to one of these large forts, or burhs, from where a strong opposition could be made, or venture out to attack at opportune moments.
The traditional requirement that everyone be armed was reaffirmed, and the fighting men were divided into three rotations: One to defend a local fort, another to take the field, and a third to remain at home, tending to the crops. Thus, writes Hume, “the whole kingdom was like one great garrison; and the Danes could no sooner appear in one place, than a sufficient number was assembled to oppose them, without leaving the other quarters defenseless or disarmed.”
Finally, the king instructed that large ships be built and manned, twice as long as those used by the Vikings, employing Frisian seamen to serve alongside his English sailors, and attacking the enemy on water. Winston Churchill asserts that the “beginning of the English Navy must always be linked with King Alfred.” Wessex now had “a military force and a system of defenses without parallel in Europe,” writes James.
Alfred would in time go on the offensive, winning back from the Danes territories lost and annexing them to his own kingdom. Thanks to Alfred the Great, the country was saved, and better prepared for future turmoil.