Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great

(Wantage and Ashdown in Berkshire; Winchester in Hampshire; Snareshill in Norfolk; Athelney and Aller in Somerset, etc)

In the following brief account of the life of Alfred the Great, and the greatness of the danger by which our country was menaced in his reign. Between 793 and 851 A.D., the terrible Vikings had sacked cities such as Utrecht, Antwerp, Hamberg and Bordeaux on the Continent, and London, Canterbury, Rochester, and many others in England; how they had looted monasteries and churches far and wide, carrying off enormous spoil; and how large areas in the north of the European continent, all Ireland, and a considerable part of Britain, had been utterly wasted by them.

At the time of Alfred`s birth, 849 A.D., it seemed likely that Christianity and civilization would be stamped out in these lands by the pagan Danish Vikings; and a state of panic prevailed on all sides, while in England conditions were not improved by the fact the Alfred`s father, Aethelwulf, King of the West Saxons (Wessex), the most important monarch in the island, was a mild and pious personage who seems to have been much more anxious to keep himself in the good graces of the Church than to use his sword against the invaders.

Alfred was born at Wantage in the Vale of the White Horse in Berkshire; but except for the so-called “Alfred`s Well” in that town no trace is left there of his times, though a modern statue of him is now to be seen. He was Aethelwulf`s youngest son, his mother being Queen Osburgh, daughter of Oslac, a nobleman who was by descent a Jute from the isle of Wight; but the boy was his father`s favourite, and at the age of four was sent to Rome, where, as a compliment ti his family, he was invested with the name and insignia of a Roman consul. In 855 A.D., Aethelwurf himself paid a visit to Rome, the six-year old Alfred going with him; and there the King made magnificent presents to the ecclesiastical authorities, including gold and silver in money, a crown weighing four pounds of pure gold, two gold vases, a gold-mounted sword, two gold statues, and other valuable articles, all revealing the wealth of the Kingdom of Wessex. In fact, in spite of the Viking plunderers, he was so rich that in that same year he made over to the church in England one-tenth of his estates.

While still on the Continent Althelwulf received news of the death of Queen Osburh, and shortly afterwards he married Princess Judith, the pretty little thirteen-year-old daughter of King Charles the Bald of France. He survived his return to England with his child-wife for only two years, and was succeeded by his eldest son Aethelbald, a scamp who, actually, had seized the throne during his father`s absence abroad, but had been forgiven by his mild and pious parent, and now added to his crimes by falling love with the pretty Judith.

Judith, a widow of fifteen years of age, at once married the new King, this son of her late husband, although it was against the law to do so; and when he died in disgrace less than three later, she ran away to France, where her father clapped her into a nunnery. There, however, she secretly met and fell in love with Count Baldwin of Flanders, and eloped with him; and Matilda of Flanders who married William the Conqueror, `vassal of the king of France, his liege lord,`was a descendant of this union, so that our present Queen has the romantic little Judith as a remote ancestress.

Meanwhile, the Vikings had renewed their raids on Britain, and, sailing up the Bristol Channel, or the Estuary of the Dee, had devastated Shropshire, while at about the same time we find other bands of them plundering Spain and the Barbary Coast. In 860 A.D., they sacked and burnt Winchester, though the parent-church of the present cathedral, which had just been fortified by Bishop Swithun, escaped; but while they were marching off with the plunder they were attacked and almost annihilated by the men of Hampshire and Berkshire, who recovered the stolen goods.

In passing that this Bishop Swithun, who died in 862 A.D., is the st. Swithun on whose festival a fall of rain is supposed to foretell a period of 40 wet days. Swithun was interred at his own request outside his church, desiring in his humility that his bones should not havethe shelter of the interior; and whenever it rained the water from the eaves drenched his grave. Now it seems that by chance there were some noticeable period of wet weather which happened to begin at about the date of Swithun`s festival and lasted xome 40 days; and thus people began to say at such times, perhaps, that the saint was subjecting his flesh to a posthumous mortification the idea leading ultimately to the established belief that when it rained on the day of the festival the traditional 40 days of penance was about to begin.

Aethelbald was succeeded in turn by his two brothers, Aethbert and Aethelred, and both had to fight against the Danish Vikings; but it was in 866 A.D., in the reign of the latter, that the most serious invasion of the country began. The Vikings had now formed themselves into what was known as the “Grand Army,” a vast assembly of cavalry and infantry; and the brunt of the first attack was borne by Northumbria, whose two joint kings were killed while fighting the enemy in the streets of York. Thenceforth the north-east coasts of Britain were largely settled by these Danes, and their blood still runs in the veins of many an Englishman of those parts.

In 868 A.D., the Grand Army captured Nottingham but were afterwards themselves besieged there by King Aethelred`s forces from Wessex, amd having come to terms with him, marched back to York. At this time Alfred, who fought beside his brother, the King, at Nottingham was 18 years of age, and had just married Ealhswith, daughter of Aethelred, surnamed the Mickle, Ealderman of the Gainas, a people whose name survives in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. This Mercian lady, however, plays no part whatsoever in the drama of her time, and either was of too extraordinary a character to contribute anything elevating to the historians, or else was of too ordinary a disposition to contribute anything at all! But she was the mother of some extradinary children of which nothing could be done without them, and their mother who bore them! Why her husband King Alfred held her in such high esteem.

In 870 A.D., the Viking army marched southwards, burning Peterborough, Ely, and other places; but at Snareshill, near Thetford, in Norfolk, they were met by the East Anglians under the King Edmund, a vassal of Wessex, afterwards canonized as a saint and martyr. The invaders were victorious, and Edmund having been captured, was tied to a tree and shot to death with arrows. On the heath near Snareshill you may see several mounds which are believed to be the graves of the men who fell in this battle; but Edmund`s body was taken in the end to his palace of Bedricsworth, the name of which place was on that account changed to Bury (i.e. Burgh) St. Edmund`s, where the famous abbey was afterwards erected over his tomb.

The Grand Army wintered at Thetford, and in the spring of 871 A.D., marched against Wessex, capturing on their way the city of Reading, an important Anglo-Saxon centre, where many graves of the period have been found. A few days later the royal army of Wessex, under the King and his young brother Alfred, arrived on the scene, noly, however, to sffer defeat; after which the invaders advanced south to the Berkshire Downs.

Here, at that part of the Downs known as Ashdown, Alfred led an attack on them; “charging up hill like a wild boar”; and when his forces had been joined by those of his brother, the Vikings fled back to Reading, leaving their King, five of his generals, and thousands of men, dead upon the Downs. There is a sword in the British Museum which was found at Ashdown, and which is probably a relic of this battle. This great success, however, was followed by almost as great a defeat; for shortly afterwards the reinforced Viking army was victorious at Marden, near Bedwyn in Wiltshire, and King Aethelred was mortally wounded. He died a few days later and was buried at Wimborne in Dorset (where, however, there vare now no remains of the period) and Alfred, then aged 22, was crowned in his stead; but within a month of his coronation he was badly defeated in a fierce engagement at Wilton in Wiltshire.

The Viking army spent the following winter in London, where their King Haldene caused his coins to be struck, and some of these, bearing an ancient Roman device, are to be seen in the British Museum. In 873 A.D., we find the Grand Army at Torksey in Lincolnshire, and in 874 A.D., at Repton. In 875 A.D., half the army was garrisoned at Cambridge; but in the following year they marched again against Alfred and his Kingdom of Wessex, and so great was their concentration on this objective that no raids elsewhere in Britain or on the Continent are recorded at this time. Alfred, in fact, had to meet the entire Viking power; and his ultimate victory over them can truly be said to have saved western Christendom.

The Grand Army got as far as Wareham in Dorset, but here they were besieged by Alfred. The Viking cavalry, however, burst out of the town and rode to Exeter, where again they were besieged; and meanwhile a storm wrecked the invaders` fleet as it was passing under the cliffs of Swanage, and 120 ships were sunk, all of the crews being drowned. A truce was called, and the Vikings retired to Gloucester; but in 878 A.D., they broke the pact and again marched into Wessex, seizing Chippenham in Wiltshire, and makin it the base of a campaign which, by its swiftness and unexpectedness, threw the whole kingdom into panic.

Alfred and his chief nobles fled to Athelney in Somerset, then an island in the marshes of the Parret, and there amongst the reeds and osiers they lived for some months, in memory of which a monastery was afterwards erected on the spot by the King, but no traces of it remain. It was here in Athelney that the well-known incident of the burnt cakes took place; but it is not now thought that the King was ever actually a friendless refugee, as the story relates, he having been resident here with his court and his army. (possibly it had a meaning of the King not looking after his kingdom, whilst he had the chance to make it ready for any future attacks by the Vikings).

The famous jewel, like a locket, inscribed with his name, which is now to be seen in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, seems to have been lost by him at this place; for it was found here in 1693 A.D. it is made of gold and enamel, and bears the words: Aelfred mee heht gewyreon, “Alfred had me worked.” There is a facsimile of it to be seen in the British Museum.

The tide of the Vikings` success in this campaign turned when a considerable body of them was nearly annihilated in Devonshire, at the Iron Age fort overlooking Lynmouth, the Devonshire fyrd had been fled to the fort, but unexpectedly burst out to defeat the Vikings who had sailed over from South Wales, so to create a pincer movement with the Vikings in Chippenham, this crucial victory allowed Alfred to leave Athelney and meet his troops at Penselwood in Somerset, and marched to Iley near Warminster in Wiltshire where he formed up his army ready to meet the Vikings. He lead his army to Ethandum, probably Eddington, whither the Viking Grand Army had advanced from Chippenham to meet him.

The battle was a complete victory for Alfred, and the remnant of the Danes, under their king Guthrum, fled back to their base, leaving hecatombs of dead behind them. A few days later Guthrum surrendered on terms which included a promise to leave Wessex, and to accept the Christian faith.

Three weeks later the Viking monarch and 29 of his generals came humbly to the little Somersetshire village of Aller, near Athelney, and were baptised, king Guthrum became Aethelstan on being baptised. The magnanimous Alfred, in whom we can already recognise the typical English gentleman, then entertained the fallen Vikings sumptuously for some three weeks at Isle of Wedmore where Alfred had a palace, after which they were permitted to return to Chippenham, whence they marched their men to Cirencester, and so back to East Anglia.

Guthrum/Aethelstan behaved equally honoroubly, for in the following year another host of Vikings landed at the mouth of the Thames, and established themselves at Fulham, now part of London; but Guthrum/Aethelstan at once got in touch with them, told them, apparently, that the English were unconquerable, and persuaded them to depart, whereupon they went off to Ghent, and during the next thirteen years harried Flanders, burnt Aachen and other cities, and were only prevented from sacking Paris by the payment of a great sum of money.

It will be remembered that in 870 A.D., the Vikings had murdered Edmund, the East Anglian King, whose body was afterwards buried at Bury St. Edmund`s; and now, only ten years or so later, we find the converted Guthrum amongst the pilgrims at his tomb, and in the British Museum you may see coins struck by him in honour of this royal English martyr, who for many is the patron saint of England, as he died for our Christian faith and for England.

The next chapter will tell of Alfred`s later years, of his renewed wars with, and victory over the Vikings, and of the many works he carried out; but to understand the story of the times aright it must be realized that the east coast of England was now almost entirely in the hands of the invaders, and though Alfred`s Kingdom of Wessex was free of them, they held York, Nottingham, Leicester, Derby, Lincoln, Stamford, and other inland centres in the Midlands and North.