Saturday, 16 July 2011

Giving You Alfred the Great of Saxon England

King Alfred the Great
Alfred was born in the years of around AD 848/849. His name 'Alfred' means Elf - counsel. His father was King AEthelwulf of Wessex meaning (Noble Wolf.) His mother was called Osburga Oslac and little is known about her, though she was believed to have died around the time of AD 856 when Alfred was about seven years of age. Alfred was the younger of five sons and one sister. He had more time to learn than his elder brothers and was a firm believer in Christianity at an early age.

There is a story of Osburge (Alfred's mother) teaching young Alfred to read and develop his knowledge. In this, young Alfred excelled. A Welsh scholar and Bishop named Asser wrote Alfred's biography in later life. He mentions that Osburg offered a book of English poems as a gift to any of her five sons that could remember the words off by heart. Alfred, the youngest, won the prize.

No one could suspect that young Alfred would become king because he had four elder brothers in line to the throne of Wessex. At the age of five, he went to Rome where he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV. He travelled on a pilgrimage with his father AEthelwulf of Wessex and stayed in the kingdom of Franks then ruled by Charles the Bald. All this at the age of around seven to eight. It is likely that a career in the church was ordained for him. While upon the pilgrimage, his father AEthelwulf, was deposed from the throne by his elder son AEthelbald. This was done because King AEthelwulf re-married after Osburga's death. The new bride was a thirteen-year-old Frankish princess called Judith. She had royal relations that might threaten the second son AEthelbald's succession to the throne of Wessex.

AEthelwulf had to hurriedly return and a council was called to prevent civil war. It was agreed that the son AEthelbald would continue to rule the western shires of the realm, while the old king AEthelwulf ruled the East. In the year of AD 858, AEthelwulf died and his third son AEthelbert ruled the area of today's Kent, while AEthelbald remained ruler of Wessex. (Incidentally, the older son AEthelstan had died in AD 851.) This situation of the second and third brothers remained for two years and not a great deal is known about AEthelbald's short reign of Wessex except that he married his father's widow Judith. 

Asser, the Welsh scholar, does not seem to write favourably of (second son) King AEthelbald because he deposed his father and then married the widow. AEthalbald died in AD 860 after just two and a half years of reign. Young Alfred was eleven or twelve at this time and very much in the shadows of the West Saxon court.

AEthelbert (third son) who ruled the eastern shire of Kent, became the new king of Wessex. He amalgamated the West Saxons and Jutish people of Kent under one realm and his reign of the united kingdoms of Wessex and Kent lasted until 865 when King AEthelbert also died. During this time, the whole island of Britain was constantly being raided by Vikings from Norway and Denmark. The kingdom of Wessex was always under threat from the expanding Vikings colonisers. The land of today's England was divided into four kingdoms. The fist, Northumbria had been torn apart by civil wars and the Danes had been able to fill the power vacuum bringing the Northumbrian lands under Viking Dane control. The second, East Anglia had seen its Anglo-Saxon King Edmund executed by the Danes after defeat in battle. This land was now ruled by Danish Vikings too. The third kingdom, Mercia was ruled by an Anglo-Saxon king and so too was the fourth kingdom, Wessex, where Alfred's family had been ruling. 

In 865 AEthelred (fourth son) came to power and young Alfred would stand beside his remaining elder brother in a turbulent time. For a while, the Vikings were paid Danegeld to keep them from invading the West Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Kent, but by AD 870 this became pointless as the Vikings grew ever more daring and started raiding the borderlands of the kingdom. AEthelred and Alfred had met the Vikings in battle towards the end of 870 in the kingdom of Mercia. This resulted in heavy defeat. Then in early 871 the Viking campaign really took off with the siege at Reading. This resulted in defeat for AEthelred and Alfred. However, a Saxon victory was won at the Battle of Ashdown.


At the Battle of Ashdown, young Prince Alfred at the age of twenty-one led a force of between eight hundred to one thousand Saxons against a slightly lesser numbered Viking host. The Vikings held the high ground, but young Alfred was able to secure a costly victory against the invading enemy. The casualties on both sides were said to be heavy and the Vikings lost some of their more senior commanders.

Sadly, this victory did not achieve much and further defeats would follow in this dire year of 871. The Battle of Ashdown took place in the winter (8th January.) Then came a defeat on the 22nd of January at the Battle of Basing. This was believed to have been a series of conflicts within the area. The Saxons retreated from the field, though the Vikings never won any real advantage. It is said that King EAthelred and Prince Alfred fought eight battles in the year of 871 against the Viking invaders. The last was to be in March AD 871 at the Battle of Marton. This resulted in a heavy defeat for the Saxon army. King AEthelred and Prince Alfred had to once again retreat from the conflict, giving the Vikings the ground.

Four weeks later on the 23rd of April, King AEthelred died. It is not known if he died of wounds suffered at the Battle of Marton. Some historians think it is possible.


Thus Prince Alfred came to power as King Alfred. His late elder brother AEthelred had left two underage sons, but a pact had been made to allow Alfred to rule because he was the only youngster with the ability to take control of the burden of defence. While he was attending his brother's funeral, the Viking Danes inflicted another defeat upon his Saxon army and then again in May at a place called Winton.

King Alfred was present at this defeat at Winton. It destroyed any hope that he had of driving the Vikings out of his Kingdom of Wessex. He was forced to come to terms with the Viking Danes and most probably had to pay more Dane geld to get them to withdraw. It is not known exactly what the price of this agreement was, though the Vikings did leave all the areas they occupied, in Wessex, and returned to London - a city they also occupied outside of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex.

This uneasy peace only lasted a few years. In the East Anglia areas of Britain, the Viking Danes had established a Viking Kingdom under the rule of Danelaw. This was English held territory ruled by the Danes. Their Viking King Guthrum established firm control over this area and was looking to expand, venturing into neighbouring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms around AD 874. In AD 876 he turned his attention to King Alfred's Kingdom of Wessex. Once again the Vikings invaded the Saxon lands and Alfred was forced to confront the pagan raiders yet, again.

The Vikings did their usual of occupying a stronghold and waiting for the Saxon army to try and dislodge them. Again King Alfred was forced to broker a peace. The Saxon king was unable to defend the kingdom during this time and the Viking Danes seemed to roam and occupy areas as they pleased - demanding tribute to leave. Once more, the Vikings were paid to leave and Guthrum left the Kingdom of Wessex to Alfred, no doubt laughing at the ease of the money his army were earning.

In January AD 878, Guthrum broke the treaty again and attacked King Alfred's court at Chippenham. The Saxon king managed to escape capture by fleeing into the night with a few of his Saxon followers. This time he retreated into the sanctuary of marshes in the west of his kingdom. From these marshes, in Somerset, he gathered other stragglers and began to launch a guerrilla campaign against Guthrum's Viking force. (It was here that the legend of Alfred burning the cakes comes.) How effective this guerrilla war was, is not truly known, though it could not have had time to do much damage to the Vikings. It is likely beefed up by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

The Vikings usually occupied areas and fortified, waiting for their opponents to attack or try and pay them off. However, by this time in AD 878, it is probable that Alfred realised he had to do something more substantial to drive out the Vikings. The same thing kept happening as the Danes invaded and held strongholds, they could wander around the Kingdom of Wessex and do as they pleased. Eventually, they might bring the Saxon kingdom under Danelaw as Guthrum had done in East Anglia making it a totally Danish controlled kingdom.

Alfred managed to gather many Saxon men from the surrounding counties and a famous council at Egbert's stone was held. He formed a new army and met the Viking Danes in open battle at a place called Ethandun. It was a hard fought battle, but King Alfred and his Saxons managed to inflict a very heavy defeat, once the Viking ranks broke. They pursued the routed Vikings, inflicting many casualties upon the fleeing force.

The Vikings withdrew to Chippenham - the place they captured in early January. King Alfred surrounded the stronghold and starved the Vikings into submission. Guthrum was forced to sue for peace and part of the condition of the peace agreement was that Guthrum and other Vikings chieftains were made to convert to Christianity.

The Viking Danes left Wessex and returned to the Danelaw territory of East Anglia. Guthrum did stick to this treaty and lived out the remainder of his reign over the East Anglia Danelaw kingdom as a Christian king over his Christian Anglo-Saxon subjects of the territory.

Although the Viking King Guthrum was taken from the main threat; King Alfred still had to fight other Viking chieftains who continued to raid from the sea. He built a navy and fought a number of small naval engagements against these new Viking raiders and achieved victories in open sea warfare. He also repelled a raid in Rochester Kent, where the Vikings fled to their long boats upon sighting King Alfred's Anglo-Saxon force.

He also launched a sea attack into East Anglia winning a victory and plundering spoils, though this Anglo-Saxon naval force was defeated coming out of a river estuary by another Viking fleet.

In AD 886, King Alfred was able to re-occupy London and strengthen its fortifications. He was becoming more prominent among all English peoples, though he was not yet king of all England, just the expanding Kingdom of Wessex. He never proclaimed himself king of all England, though many outside of Wessex looked up to him with an acceptance of his kingship. His reputation was growing stronger with every year.

In AD 893 a new force of Viking Danes was forced to leave the mainland of Europe and try to colonise parts of Kent. Alfred led an army and camped in a position where he could watch over the Viking forces that had two camps. He was planning a method of attack, but one of the enemy camps broke out and headed northward. The Viking Danes were met and defeated in open battle. There followed a serious of campaigns that left the Viking forces retreating into Essex, then still under East Anglia Danelaw. Guthrum had passed away in AD 890.

From this retreat, the new Viking colonisers raided across England and captured Chester near the border of Wales. However, they were pursued and starved into surrender by Anglo-Saxon forces all during the winter. The new Viking colonisers were forced to return to Essex under Danelaw. Even here they were constantly harassed by Alfred's Anglo-Saxon force.

King Alfred and his Anglo-Saxons had become more adept at fighting the Viking Danes. Eventually, the new Viking forces were forced to live within the Danelaw areas of England while some, with no connections in England, gave up the quest of colonisation to return to mainland Europe.


The year of Alfred's death is not certain. Most historians claim from between AD 899 and AD 901. He is believed to have suffered from Crohn's disease throughout his life and was not formidable in build, but he never lacked courage and was very intelligent. It is his versatility and learning that historians think allowed him to exceed and defeat the Vikings. He found new ways of confronting them.

He also enriched the nation's economy, founded a navy and passed good laws. His legacy echoes through England's history and many people of other nations know of his reign and fight against Viking migrants.  




If you would like to know more on Alfred the Great please click the link below:

http://jungle.bbc.westminster.ac.uk/navigator/programme/p003k9gm


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