Statue of Alfred in Winchester
For hundreds of years after the Roman withdrawal in the early fifth century, England had been divided among Saxon kings. By the eighth century there were seven kingdoms, with fighting between them a fairly constant feature of life. One of the seven kings would generally be more powerful than all the others, and this man would be known as the Bretwalda. The eighth century king Offa, ruling the Midlands kingdom of Mercia, gained an unusual measure of power, and, according to Norman Davies in The Isles became the first monarch known as "King of the English," and treated as such by foreign kings. But he never conquered the other kingdoms and England remained divided. Following Offa's death in 796 the old divisions widened again, with Egbert of Wessex becoming the new Bretwalda. There was no prospect of an end to this round of warfare. No one king could gain enough power over all the others.
But even before Offa's death the terrifying force that would shake the seven kingdoms out of their violent stability had arrived in Britain. Scandinavian, or "Viking" attacks had begun on Britain in 789AD. At first these were raids, usually on offshore monasteries, which offered high reward for minimum risk. Viking raids kept stabbing at England's coast through the reign of the new Bretwalda, Egbert. In 839 Egbert died and was succeeded by Aethelwulf, and as Aethelwulf's reign began the situation suddenly became more serious. By 835 the Scandinavians had already gained a toe hold on the Isle of Sheppey, setting up a colony there. From that time onwards the scale of Viking operations increased considerably, until full scale invasion of Britain was under way. Aethelwulf won a significant victory over the Danes at Leith Hill in 851, but the attacks continued. In 858 Aethelwulf died and was succeeded by his sons. First came the unpopular Aethelbald, then two years later Ethelbert, and then in 865 Ethelred. 866 was the year Saxon England really began its fight for survival. This was the year the Danish Great Army landed in East Anglia with the aim of conquering England. The Northumbrians, fighting amongst themselves as usual were quickly defeated. East Anglia fell in 870. The two surviving kingdoms of Wessex in southern England, and Mercia, in the Midlands, tried to arrange mutual support. Ethelred organised a tactical marriage between his brother Alfred and Eahlswith, a princess from the Mercian royal family. Unfortunately the Mercians were willing to negotiate with the Scandinavians, and making this mistake they lost a chance to defeat the Great Army trapped in Nottingham in 868. Young Alfred, who was leading the Wessex army sent help to Mercia, realised that the Mercians did not appreciate what they were up against, and returned home with his men. Mercia had fallen by 873, while Wessex, fighting desperate battles at Reading and Ashdown in 871 managed to survive. 871 was also the year Alfred became king of Wessex, following the death of Ethelred. Alfred was now the last remaining Saxon king.
As a young man Alfred had already shown promise. There are many stories about Alfred depicting him as a bright child. These stories could have come about as part of a long propaganda struggle, something to bear in mind in history generally, and especially in the foggy history of the ninth century. On the other hand if Alfred was a successful leader and warrior, then I'm sure he wouldn't have worried about a good story if it helped his cause. So, the earliest tale of Alfred's cleverness describes Alfred's mother Osburh offering a beautifully decorated book to the first of her sons who could read it to her. Even though Alfred was the youngest son, he was the first to read the book to his mother, and so won the prize. There are also reports of Alfred committing Saxon poems to memory, and telling his biographer Assert that he resented not being taught to read and write properly until he was in his teens. But although Alfred seemed bright and studious he was also physically strong. He enjoyed hunting. Socially he was portrayed as confident. Alfred was only five when his father Aethelwulf sent him to the court of Pope Leo IV in Rome. He returned with the title of Consul, although this was a political title, rather than any recognition of precocious genius. Two years later Alfred spent a year in Rome in the company of his father. At the very least this would have widened the boy's perspective, and could have been good training for the life he was later to lead. Alfred would need to be a soldier, diplomat and administrator.
In the 870s Alfred had to call on all his abilities. Knowing that his victory at Ashdown was unlikely to slow the Vikings down for long and working from his capital at Winchester Alfred set out to overhaul the defenses of Wessex. Up until this point men were called up in times of emergency, and then returned to their jobs on the land. This system was adequate in dealing with short lived raids, but was not suitable for facing a long campaign. The Wessex army simply dissolved at harvest time. In place of emergency call up, Alfred organised a system where half the men of fighting age stayed on their land, while the other half did military service. In the event of a long campaign the original troops would be relieved by men in reserve, without disrupting farming activity. Alfred also built a number of fortified towns called burhs. Alfred's policy was simply to resist, to keep on fighting, hoping the Great Army would then turn away to find easier prey. A striking memorial to this period is provided by remains of massive defensive banks in the town of Wareham in Dorset. Wareham was lost to the Vikings in 876.
Inspite of Alfred's careful preparations, 878 saw Wessex on the verge of defeat. In January of that year Danish leader Guthrum devised an audacious plan to attack in the middle of winter, something the Great Army had never done before. On Twelfth Night in January 878 a Viking attack was launched against the royal Wessex town of Chippenham. Alfred was forced to flee and wage a guerilla war from the swamps of Athelney in the river Severn. Indignities of this time apparently include Alfred being reprimanded by a swine herd's wife for burning her cakes. The confusion of life on the run may also have led to Alfred dropping a small broach-like object, known as the Alfred Jewel. It was found near Athelney with the inscription "Alfred ordered me to be made". G.K. Chesterton wrote an imaginative poetic account of Alfred dropping the Jewel in Ballad of the White Horse:
One dim ancestral jewel hung
On his ruined armour grey;
He rent and cast it at his feet;
Where, after centuries, with slow feet,
Men came from hall and school and street
And found it where it lay
King Alfred' s Tower
By the spring of 878 news that Alfred and his guerilla force had survived the winter was spreading. Alfred then took command of an army gathered at King Egbert's Stone on the borders of Wiltshire and Somerset. It is not clear where Egbert's Stone actually is, but local legend suggests Kingsettle Hill in Wiltshire. In the 1760s Henry Hoare, whose family made a fortune in banking, built a commemorative tower near this site. King Alfred's Tower can still be visited today and gives wonderful views of the area where Alfred may have gathered his forces. In the battle at Edington, twelve miles from Kingsettle Hill, the Viking chieftain Guthrum was defeated. Perhaps even more significant than the military victory were Alfred's diplomatic moves that followed: he invited Guthrum into his tent, won him over and persuaded him to accept baptism. The resulting alliance gave Alfred, and Anglo Saxon England, breathing space. This alliance illustrates the depth of Alfred's character. He was not simply a warrior king: he was an educated man who translated the Psalms, created law codes, and set up schools for the ruling classes. Alfred believed that exercise of power should go together with possession of knowledge. As well as being a warrior, Alfred also had something of the sleek civil servant about him.
View of the Tate Modern from the Alfred Plaque
For fourteen years following the alliance with Guthrum defences were built. In this peaceful period Alfred was able to reestablish the City of London, abandoned after the fifth century Roman withdrawal. He set up a harbour and market on a site near the north end of today's Millennium Bridge. If you walk along the Thames north bank path between London Bridge and the Millennium Bridge you will pass a plaque erected in 1986 to commemorate the one thousand one hundredth anniversary of this event. In other parts of the country building of fortified towns continued. Oxford has its origins as one of Alfred's fortified "burhs," and part of the original defensive wall survives at New College.
Finally in 890 the next Viking attack came but the defences held. One of the most significant battles took place near Buttington in Powys in 893, when an army of Danes was defeated by a combined force of men from a number of England's old kingdoms. Buttington seems to confirm that Alfred was now speaking for Anglo Saxon England in general, rather than Wessex alone. There is some evidence to believe that Buttington All Saints Church is built on the site of a fort used by Vikings during the battle. Around 400 skulls, thought to be those of Viking warriors were found in the church yard in 1838 (see Charlotte Hodgemen article in BBC History Magazine October 2011). Following Buttington, an area between the east and west sides of England hardened into a border. The Scandinavian area now became known as the Danelaw. Though England was divided, the preceding years of alliance between Alfred and Guthrum had at least given rise to the idea of a united country. Alfred instituted a powerfully symbolic new code of English law, based in precedent from earlier reigns. "It was the first law code drawn up to meet the needs of Englishmen from all parts of the country - Wessex, Kent, Mercia and Northumbria - and, as such, it was the starting point for all legislating kings of England who followed Alfred" (Richard Humble The Saxon Kings P60). Coins minted during this period referred to Alfred as "Rex Anglorum" or "King of the English", a title that would be formally bestowed on his grandson Athelstan when he was crowned in 927. The idea of England had emerged, even if this did not yet correspond with reality.
Towards the end of his life Alfred translated five works of Latin into English. Alfred saw himself as beginning the building of something. In the preface to his last translation, that of St Augustine's Soliloquies he wrote:
"Then I gathered for myself staves and props and bars, and handles for all the tools I knew how to use, and cross bars and beams for the structures which I know how to build, the fairest pieces of timber, as many as I could carry. I neither came home with a single load, not did it suit me to bring home all the wood, even if I could have carried it. In each tree I saw something that I required at home. For I advise each of those who is strong and has many wagons to plan to go to the same wood where I cut those props, and fetch for himself more there, and load his wagons with fair rods, so that he can plait many a fine wall, and put up many a peerless building, and build a farm enclosure with them; and may dwell therein pleasantly and at his ease winter and summer, as I have not yet done." (quoted Richard Humble P63)
Alfred died around the year 900, though the exact year is unknown.