The Close of Alfred’s Reign
(Shaftsbury in Dorset; Winchester in Hampshire; Benfleet in Essex; Gloucester, etc.).
In the last chapter, it related how King Alfred of Wessex got the better of the Danish Vikings in 878 A.D.,how Guthrum, one of their kings, became a Christian and retired peaceably to East Anglia; and how the “Grand Army” turned its attention to the Continent, leaving Alfred unmolested in Wessex for many years, though large areas of eastern, northern and middle England were now in Viking hands.
Meanwhile the great Wessex ruler, realizing that the power of the Vikings depended on their command of the seas, built a large fleet, including battleships ofsixty oars and more, twice the length of the usual vessel of the period; and at the same time he organized the army, fortified the cities, regulated the laws of the country, and introduced a scheme of education of the most far-reaching character, which brought back to England the glories of the Golden Age of learning after a period of almost complete extinction.
Alfred`s biographer, Asser, afterwards Bishop of Sherborne, who was a Briton from Wales, has left us a fairly full account of the great King`s life and works, an English translation of which is now accessible in print; while the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, begun in his reign and also now to be obtained in English, supplies other details. Thus the interested reader of today can easily make themselves acquainted with the facts and, with the help of such standard works as Sir Carles Oman`s `England before the Norman Conquest,` or Sir Frank Stenton`s `Anglo-Saxon England,` are two excellent books of this age and will bring the events of this important clearly before your mind.
Alfred is generally recognized as having been a man of the highest possible character, honourable, dauntless, tolerant to a fault, hard-working, the father of his people, a wise king, a keen scholar, a mighty hunter and sportsman, a gallant fighter, recklessly brave, cheery in adversity, modest in the days of his glory, and deeply religious in an unostentatious way. He was, however, a sick man; and his biographer tells us that he was always either in pain, or else in a state of anxiety and dread in regard to his next attack. What his ailment was nobody knows, but it has been suggested that it wassome form of intermittent neuritis, or possibly Crohns desease which is debilitating on the person. In spite of this physical infirmity, however, he was extraordinarily energetic, and his short life was filled to overflowing, his influence being felt in all directions, and the memory of his many activities surviving in men`s minds for centuries to come.
At Shaftesbury Alfred founded the abbey of St. Mary the Virgin in 880 A.D., and made his daughter Aethelgifi (Ethelgiva) its first abbess; and William of Malmersbury, writing in the Twelfth Century, tells us that in his time a foundation inscription of that reign existed there. This abbey afterwards became so rich that people used to say: “If the Abbess of Shaftesbury might wed the Abbot of Glastonbury” – another wealthy religious house – “their heir would have more land than the King of England.” The abbey was razed to the ground at the reformation, but modern excavations have revealed the foundations, and the coffin of King Edward the Martyr whose relics now lie in the monastery of St. Edward`s brotherhood at Brookwood, in Surrey which is an Orthodox church.
At Winchester Alfred founded the abbey of St. Mary, and also a minster on the north side of the Cathedral there, both of which survived until the Reformation. He also restored the minster which stood where the present Cathedral now rises, most of the outline of this minster can now be seen as a line of bricks to the left side at the front end of the cathedral. And, to give an idea of the civilization of the Anglo-Saxon age, no more than a century after his time there was an organ in the minster which possessed 400 bronze pipes and 26 sets of bellows.
In connection with the King`s many religious works it is interesting to notice that in 883 A.D., he sent two envoys, with a large sum of money for charitable purposes, to Rome and to India; and William of Malmesbury states that some jewels brought back from India by these men were still to be seen at Sherborne in his time. This, could possibly be the first time that Englishmen set foot in India; and it gives us a connection with that country of uver a thousand years. The King also corresponded with the Patriach of Jerusalem, who asked him to contribute to a fund for the ransom of some Christian bishops and monks who had been captured by the Muslims.
Asser tells us that Alfred “constructed in wonderful style royal halls and chambers of stone and wood, and ancient kingly residences of stone were moved by his orders from their former positions, and sumptuously rebuilt in more suitable places.” References is perhaps made here to some of the old Roman ruins, the masonry of which was thus reused; for there are several existing churches in England of Anglo-Saxon date, clearly built of Roman stane, and it maybe that a closer examination of some of our ruined castles would reveal similar work.
Asser also tells us that he established great schools whre Latin and English literature was taught; and he says “it was a strange sight to see even the old noblemen, who had been illiterate from infancy, learning how to read, preferring this unaccustomed and laborious discipline to losing the exercise of their power.” The King himself translated many books into English, and he made a great collection of early English poetry, which is now lost, but may yet one day be found.
In 892 A.D., after nearly 15 years of peace, our country was again attacked by the main body of the Vikings, who are to be distinguished now from those who had settled north of Wessex after the first campaigns; and once more Alfred had to take to the field. For the invasion the Vikings had collected a fleet of 250 ships at Boulogne, on which the Grand Army was embarked with its horses and material; and at the same time another army in a fleet of eighty ships, under a leader named Hasting or Haeston, prepared to work with them.
The Grand Army landed at Lympne on the coast of Kent, near Folkstone, and Hasting`s force passed up the Thames Estuary to Milton, some nine miles/14,4km east of Chatham; but after some months of sporadic warfare the Danes who had settled on the east coast after their last defeats joined with their kinsmen, and a concerted attack was made on Alfred`s dominions.
The southern English met them and routed them at Farnham, Surrey; but meanwhile some of the enemy ships had coasted round to Devon to get at Wessex from the other side, and had laid siege to Exeter. Alfred, however, marched to its relief and again was victorious, the enemy retreating apparently, to the coast of North Devon. Meanwhile Hasting had transferred his base to Benfleet in Essex, a little town now famous for its oysters, six miles/9.6km west of Southend; but here they were attacked by another English force, the camp was captured, a vast mass of plunder was taken Hasting`s wife and two sons were made prisoners and the ships of the fleet were either broken up, burnt, or brought up the Thames to London.
When the railway line through Benfleet was being constructed the remains of many of these burnt Vikng ships were found; and some earthworks which are thought to have formed a corner of Hasting`s stronghold can still be seen near the churchyard.
Hasting himself was away on a raid inland at the time of this disaster, and he now joined up with the Danes who were living in East Anglia, the Midlands of Mercia, and Northumbria, and marched right across England, north of Alfred`s Kingdom, to the Severn, intending to effect a junction with the force which had been driven from Exeter, and was apparently moving northwards along the coast. But the English, who now had the British of Wales as allies, surrounded him at Buttington, perhaps the village of that name near Shrewsbury, and though Hasting escaped with part of his force back to Essex, the main body was annililated.
Some time later, however, the Viking leader made a sudden raid across the Midlands to Chester, which was then a deserted city, but, after being besieged here, he and his army retired north-eastwards into Northumbria, and so marched southwards back to East Anglia.
In 895 A.D., the Vikings, with a large number of their lighter vessels, pushed up the river Lea into Hertfordshire, and formed a camp at or near Ware; but Alfred by an ingenious piece of engineering, diverted the course of the river snd left the enemy`s ships high and dry, with the result that when the Vikings were driven out of their stronghold te entire fleet was captured.
A few months later the troops of the Grand Army broke up, some flying into East Angliaand the country further north, where they were absorbed into a population already largely Danish; and others escaping to their remaining ships and going back to the Continent, where defeats were rare and plunder easy. “Thanks to to God,” says theAnglo-Saxon Chronicle, “the Grand Army had not,” as it had intended, “utterly broken down the English nation.” Alfred behaved with the utmost magnanimity to the routed Vikings: he restored Hasting`s wife and sons to him, and apparently allowed him to leave the country unmolested; and he took no steps to eject the other Danes from those parts where they had settled, and who now recognized his supremacy.
Thus the terrible Viking menace was dissipated, and for the four remaining years of Alfred`s life there was peace in the land, the remnant of the settled Danes living on good terms with the English as though some strange spell of the land itself had tamed them and transformed them into law-abiding citizens.
The great king died on 26th, October, 899, at the early age of 52 and was buried at Winchester. There his body lay for over 200 years in the minster founded by him; but in 1110 A.D., it was removed to the abbey of Hyde on the north side of the city, just beyond the walls.
At the reformation this abbey was destroyed and Alfred`s bones are supposed to have been removed to the Cathedral, where to this day you may see a stone casket of the time of King Henry VIII on which there is an inscription stating that it contains them. But it maybe that they were scattered; for the Reformers, with a sound British objection to superstition which is some excuse for their vandalism, openly said that they intended “to sweep away all the rotten bones that be called relics.” The matter is further complicated by the fact that in the reign of King George III, the ruins of the abbey of Hyde left by King Henry VIII`s men were cleared away, the county jail being built upon the spot, and in the course of this worka great sarcophagus, believed by some to be Alfred`s, was discovered. It was broken up, however, ans its contents were tipped onto the dust-heap.
Moreover, even if the bones were removed to the Cathedral it is doubtful whether they are certainly contained in the casket supposed to hold them; for in the Civil War the Puritan troops wrecked the place, routing out the bones of ancient Kings, and using them as missiles with which to break the stain-glass windows.
In passing there are six caskets preserved in Winchester Cathedral, purporting to contain the remains of sovereigns of the Anglo-Saxon period, including several early kings of Wessex and their successors the Kings of all England: you may see them resting on top of the great screen in front of the choir.
Further to King Alfred and his bones. A community dig led by Winchester City archaeologists during 1997 – 1999, found the east end of the church and the presumed graves, set in front of the altar site of King Alfred the Great, Queen Ealhswith and their son King Edward the Elder. Hampshire Gardens Trust felt the site should not disappear again and so proposed a garden be built there, a group of `Friends` was formed and from 2003 too the 22nd October 2007 when these gardens were officially opened, the garden has been very tastefully created, opened by a great garden man Alan Tichemarsh.
At the moment 2014, there is real thought of digging down where the three ledger stones are, which mark the royal graves, as evidence has shown that there is something down there, hope from hope, could there be there the actual bones of this great King and that Exceptional family, that once ruled Wessex and later all England.
Alfred left several children, amongst whom must be mentioned Princess Aethelflaed, who married a great Mercian nobleman, and is generally spoken of as “Lady of the Mercians.” She was a woman of outstanding character. In 907 A.D., she rebuilt and repeopled the city of Chester, which, in its present form, thus ows its foundation to her; and in the succeeding years she fortified a number of places, including Cherbury on the Welsh frontier, Runcorn at the mouth of the Mersey, Shrewsbury, Bridgenorth in Shropshire, Eddisbury in Cheshire, and many others, with her help, her brother King Edward the Elder was able to capture large areas of the Danelaw and bring back under English control.
At Gloucester she founded the minster of St. Oswald, and conveyed thither the body of that sainted King of Northumbria, at the time she had a raiding party set deep into the Danelaw to retrieve the body; and when she died she was herself buried here. Only a few fragments are left of the building: you may see them in what was once St. Catherine`s churchyard, but is now a railed-off area amongst the streets at the back of Gloucester Cathedral.
A younger daughter of Alfred named Aelfthryth married Baldwin, Count of Flanders, (whose mother was that Judith mentioned in the previous chapter) and, dying in 929 A.D., was buried beside him in the church of St. Peter in Ghent. Her descendant, Matilda of Flanders, married William of Normandy, (vassal of the King of France). Thus bringing back to the royal house of England the blood of this most famous Anglo-Saxon King, the noblest sovereign who has ever worn the crown of England.