The Close of Alfred’s Reign and Beyond to Athelstan’s Reign

The Close of Alfred’s Reign and Beyond to Athelstan’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 of sixty 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.




Down to the end of the seventh century the English may be said to have carried out two great pieces of work. They had by that time conquered and settled England, and, secondly, they had accepted Christianity and established a Christian Church. Other movements of the eighth and ninth centuries now call for attention. The chief of these are, firstly, the tendency towards amalgamation among the English kingdoms, and, secondly, the struggle with the Northmen.

Of course the movement towards a unified England was not a new thing in the eighth and ninth centuries. Soon after the earliest settlement of English invaders on British soil the small kingdoms began a series of attempt to absorb one another. Milton, the poet of the seventeenth century, contemptuously refers to such struggles as “battles of kites and crows.” They were something more than that. They are interesting to us because they show the effort of Englishmen to make a united realm, and constitute the first steps towards the union now existing between England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. After different realms had stablished supremacies, like those of Ethelbert of Kent (560-616), Readwald of East Anglia (593-617), Oswald (634-642) and Oswy (642-655) of Northumbria, Ceadwalla (685-688) and Ine (688-726) of Wessex, and Offa of Mercia (757-796), King Egbert of Wessex (802-839) in 829 established a supremacy of such a wide kind that the smaller realms of Kent, Sussex, Essex and East Anglia became practically parts of Wessex, and the kings of Mercia and Northumbria became his dependents. England under him advanced further towards unity than he had done under any other English monarch. but whether his supremacy was based on more durable foundation than the many other supremacies which preceded it, is a question which cannot be answered, for in 834 the Northmen began to come against England with large forces. Throughout the rest of the ninth century Wessex had to give up hopes of making England into one realm, and fight for existence.

Under the year 787 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains an ominous entry-

“This year Beorhtric (of Wessex) took Eadburh, the daughter of Offa, to wife. And in his days first came three ships of the Northmen from Haerethaland. And the reeve (i.e. the king’s official) rode to them and would drive them to the king’s tun* for he knew not who they were. And there was he slain. These were the first ships of Danish man that sought the land of the English.”      *’The king’s tun was a royal estate managed by a reeve. In one of the villages on it the king probably had a hall or palace.’

The exact locality of Haerethland is not known; some authorities place it in Denmark, others in Norway. From these countries, and from Sweden, thousands of ships’ crews issued during the next three hundred years to prey upon the wealthier parts of Europe. They called themselves Vikings. * ‘The meaning of this word is doubtful. It may mean “warriors.” In Norse “vik” means “bay” so “Vikings” may mean “men of the bays.” There is, however, a district called “vik” in southern Norway; the inhabitants of this would naturally bear the name “Vikings,” and as most of the early rovers came from this district their name may have passed to all their companions and imitators, from whatsoever land they came. But every race that suffered at their hands gave them a different name. The Irish called them Ostmen or Eastmen, the English called them Danes. To the French they were Northmen or Normans. To the Slavs, living near Novgorod, they were Ruotsi, which apparently means “rowers” or “rovers.” The word was gradually corrupted into “Rus,” and then changed into the modern “Russia.”

Their native lands naturally compelled them to be sailors. Denmark, with its flat sandy coasts on the west, and its islands on the east, was the natural home of a maritime race. Norway and Sweden were fitted to be the home of sea rovers. Their inland parts are so rugged and untameable in many places that the population lived near the coast, and made the sea their highway. On the Norwegian coast long narrow inlets of salt water, called “fiords,” penetrate for scores of miles/kms inland between walls of rock so high and steep that the sun’s rays in many places cannot reach their base. Round almost the whole Scandinavian coasts runs a skerry fence, or fringe of islands, which protects the inner channels from the storms of outer sea. It was their calmness which tempted the early Scandinavian to become a skilled boat-builder and oarsman.

Other forces drove him seaward. The land was hard and cold. Much of Norway consisted of bare rock. Sweden had vast pine forests in the interior. Only at the heads, and sometimes on the sides of fiords and on the seacoasts, could the inhabitants find ground for houses and crops. The climate made agriculture difficult. The ground lying beneath cliffs and mountains is so damp that cut hay and corn has to be hung up for drying purposes today upon wooden frames, or raised upon the ends of poles. The chief support of the early inhabitants must have come from herds of cattle, which in the short summer were driven up the valleys and hillsides to pasture grounds on the very edge of mountain glaciers. The surplus population therefore turned naturally to the sea. Warrior after warrior, who could gather a boat’s crew together, spent the early months of the year in recaulking his vessel’s seams, repitching her sides, renewing her sails, spares, masts, ropes and oars, in patching old armour and gathering new. Then, at the first breath of spring, he and his men dragged their boat to the water’s edge, loaded her with food supplies, store of swords, shields and battle axes, and rowed her in tune to a warlike chorus down the dark waters of the fiord, turned southward within the protecting line of the skerry fence, and only put out to meet the Atlantic swell when the fence failed them. To cross the open water of the North Sea was dangerous. Even when England was their goal they usually coasted south of the Straits of Dover, and took their course from there.

The nature of their boats made them reluctant to do otherwise. The vessels, which were fitted for fiords and for sheltered channels, were unsuited to face the dangers of open water. One of them has been dug up at Gokstad, in southern Norway. About a thousand years ago it was hauled ashore, and converted into a last resting-place for the body of an old warrior, whose bones prove him tp have been gouty. After the interment, boat and al were covered with a mound of earth. The boat is 75 feet/22.8m long; its greatest width is 15 feet/4.5m. Its depth at the widest part is little more than 3 1/2 feet/1m. There were sixteen oars, 20 feet/6m in length, on each side. If the oars were always double-banked a full crew must have consisted of about seventy to a hundred men. There was no rudder; the vessel was steered by an oar or steer-board thrust over the right or starboard side near the stern. both prow and stern were pointed, so that the boat could travel equally well forward or backward. Usually a mast was carried, so that a sail could be hoisted when the wind blew fair. As the boats were flat-bottomed and had little keel they were unsuited for sailing, except when the wind blew almost directly from behind. In manoeuvres mast and sail were lowered. It is pretty certain that toil at the oars was frequent and prolonged. When the sail was up, the crew hung their yellow and black shields over the bulwarks; but when the oars were out the shields were taken down, for they covered the oar-holes. it was customary to carve the high wooden prow into the form of swan or dragon. So common were these shapes that “dragon’ become another name for warship, and the sea was called the “swan’s path.”

it is surprised that the Gokstad boat is larger than those in which the pirates sailed first from haerethaland. But, big as she is, she is clearly unfitted for open sea passages. With a freeboard (The freeboard is that part of the vessel’s side which shows above the water) so small as hers, and with no deck in any part, she must have run for harbour on the first appearance of rough weather. The storms which beat upon our coasts wrecked many hundreds of craft. But once the sea was left, and the rivers had been entered, the shallow draft of the vessels enabled them to sail far up-stream; their lowness in the water, once their masts were down, made it possible to conceal them under a river’s bank in some deserted spot, and their flat bottoms allowed to be beached upon a shelving shore.

The Northmen showed an equal daring on land, and brought to support it an excellent war-like equipment. Each man was well armed, and as their wealth grew with successful raiding so did their weapons improve. Many of them, towards the end of the raiding period, possessed shirts made of steel links; they called them “byrnies,” the poetical name for them being “war nets.” Their shields were round, made of wood, strengthened by a central boss of metal, and sometimes covered with a metal plate. They carried bows and arrows. The poets among them termed the latter “wound bees,” for they both hummed and stung. Another missile was the javelin. For swords they had a peculiar affection; a good one was passed as an heirloom from father to son, and famous ones were commemorated by name in songs; but their mightiest weapon was the two-handed battle-axe. The great blades of these, brandished by men whose frames were toughened by long toil at the oar, did terrific execution on the foe. The raiders greatest advantage, however, lay in the fact that each man was a warrior by profession, making a living by his prowess. Among the half-armed soldiers of the English levies, who were ploughmen by profession and ill-trained for war, the raiders at first found no one who could stand against them. Only the king’s companions and their well-armed followers could fight them on equal terms, and these were often too few in numbers to compensate for the inferiority of their comrades. In Ireland, France and Russia it was ever the same story.

Before the middle of the ninth century all Scandinavians had hailed freebooting as a new pastime, infinitely preferable to the dull life of wringing sustenance from a reluctant soil at home. They despised men who lived at home and sat drinking in chimney corners. They crossed the sea, dreaming of the fortunes they would bring back. At the commencement of the century the Vikings knew little of the position of monasteries or of cities as big as London, Rouen, Paris or Tours. Thus every headland which rose above the horizon might conceal wealthy buildings on its further side, every river mouth might disclose a passage to fortune. To the explorers the world was brand-new. Thus there was every inducement to sail the swan’s path. Sailing in crazy vessels, trusting mainly to the oar, and knowing nothing of the mariner’s compass, the sea rovers equalled, if they did not surpass, the achievement of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, of Frobisher and Franklin. One section of the raiders ravaged the Irish and Scottish coasts, and made its way by the Orkneys, Shetlands and Faroes to Iceland, Greenland and America. Another section won lands in France and England. A third, which crossed the Baltic, conquered the Slavs and Finns, who lived between the upper waters of the Dnieper and Lake Ladoga, and laid the foundations of the empire of Russia; they even sailed down the Dnieper to the Black Sea, attacked, with hundreds of vessels, the eastern emperor in his capital. Constantinople, and got afloat on the waters of the Caspian by way of the Don and the Volga, till the greatness of their name was known even among the Arabs. It ran in their minds, also, some day to attack Rome itself, the headquarters of Christianity. (Constantinople was the new Rome far greater than Rome and no one was above another amongst the five patriarchs of Christianity, just that Rome was first amongst equals).

But it is with their activities in England that we are chiefly concerned. After the arrival of the “three ships from Haerethaland” the Northmen did not visit England again till 793, when they destroyed Aidan’s monastery on Lindisfarne.

The very next year the monastery at Jarrow, the home and burial-place of Bede, was burned. The raiders destined the same fate for the monastery hard by at Wearmouth, but a storm caught their flimsy vessels as they coasted along, and flung them on a lee-shore, where their crews were slaughtered.

And then England ceased suddenly for a generation to be troubled by further inroads. Other countries – Scotland, Ireland and France – attracted the attention of the Northmen. Hardly for a year did burning and slaughtering cease on the west coast of Scotland and in Ireland. The peaceful monasteries founded on islands, where the only sound to be heard above the prayers and songs of the monks came from the roar of the waves or the call of the sea-bird, resounded with the shouts of the spoiler. Iona was sacked in 802, and again in 806. Its fame has secured it a mention; but many another monastery was wiped out alike from its promontory or island, and from the pages of memory.

In 834 the Vikings began to raid England once more. Until 860, or thereabouts, they made no attempt at conquering the land; they contented themselves with landing here and there unexpectedly on the coasts and carrying off what booty they could lay their hands on. If they seized the islands of Thanet or Sheppey, they used them as storehouses and temporary camps, not as jumping-off places for a conquest.

In 865 and in subsequent years, there came a change. Huge armies of Northmen began to camp permanently in England, not merely on islands off the coast, but in far inland places, such as York, Thetford in East Anglia, and Nottingham. When everything in the neighbourhood had been seized by foragers they moved on to other quarters, leaving a bankrupt people behind them to starve throughout the coming seasons. In this way they ate up Kent in 865; in 866 East Anglia was their home; in 867 they defeated the Northumbrians with great slaughter, and did as they pleased al that winter in Deira. The winter of 868 found them at Nottingham in comfortable quarters. In 869 they went back to York, and sat there a year.

This record of marching by the Northmen from winter quarters in one place to winter quarters in another place is monotonous to read in the Chronicle. It must have been monotonous for the Northmen themselves. Thousands of the hottest bloods of the north had spent five years in England, and not taken part in a single noteworthy battle except in Northumbria. No doubt there were foraging expeditions; but the recitations spoken by bards, as the warriors sat round camp fires, probably dealt not with these but with the deeds of old. New material must have been scarce, although the campaign was five years old. The raiders must have been glad of the variety which the year 870 was to provide.

The Chronicle says –

“That year the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and there fixed their winter quarters at Thetford. And in the winter King Edmund fought with them, but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king. Whereupon they overran all that land, and destroyed all the monasteries to which they came. At the same time they came to Medeshamstede, burning and slaying abbot and monks, and all that they there found.”

It was this king who was known later as St. Edmund, and became the chief saint of East Anglia (and England).

Then, in 871, the Northmen assaulted Wessex, and got a reception, which must have provided a curious contrast to their previous experience. Nine hard-fought battles – at least two of which were won by the West Saxons – and numberless skirmishes besides, gave the invaders their fill, and in the end, according to Bishop Asser who was Welsh in King Alfred the Great’s court and was Alfred’s biographer, “the Saxons made peace with the heathen, on condition that they should take their departure; and this they did.” No wintering in Wessex to eat up the salt pork and drink up the ale of the country folk! Clearly the West Saxon realm possessed something which the other realms had not, something which enabled it to hold its own against the best fighting men in Europe. Throughout the spring and summer, at a season when farmers are busy with ploughing and sowing, and with watching lambing flocks and herds, a West Saxon army had kept the field, and endured the ups-and-downs of victory and defeat. One reverse had been sufficient to ruin Northumbria and East Anglia; Mercia and Kent seem to have collapsed without the shock of any disaster at all. But the West Saxons were made of sterner and more patriotic stuff.

Welcome, therefore, would have been a full account of the events of the year 871, for they were the beginning of a fiery trial, which lasted till the end of the century, and which tempered Wessex to the strength of fine steel. Other realms had failed; Wessex alone made any real attempt to face the trial. She emerged from it a first-class fighting power, with the strength that was able to bring about the long-desired union of English kingdoms into one. The kingdom of England grew not out of Northumbria, nor Mercia, nor East Anglia, but out of Wessex. And because of this, and as a proof of it, a descendant of the West Saxon royal house still sits on the English throne. It was the events of the year 871 that made this possible. The kingdom of Wessex and its royal house, alone of all English kingdoms and of all royal houses, survived the onslaught of the Northmen. The history of 871 is therefore interesting to us today, for, looking backwards, we begin to see that in that year a foundation stone of England was well and truly laid in Wessex. The West Saxon leaders of that day cannot have realised the greatness of the task on which they were engaged. They were thinking not of all England but of the salvation of Wessex. As with leaders of many another time their work was greater then they knew, and all Englishmen have entered into the fruits of their labours.

A further interest attaches to this year 871. In it, while the fate of Wessex and of England was being decided, Alfred, the grandson of Egbert, first becomes really visible to us as an impatient prince, twenty-three years old, charging up-hill “like a wild boar” against the Viking position on the slopes of Ashdown in Berkshire. Here was the leader of a great cause. England is this man’s monument. He helped to found her. His life is still a force. Therefore the scenes amidst which he moved have an unending interest. Alas! all that the Chronicle gives us is a bare narration of battles and skirmishes and deaths, upon which no one can construct an intelligible scheme of the campaign. Asser, author of a confused life of Alfred, tells us little more. One of the great years of English history had not been happy in its historians.

The vigour of the West Saxons defence threw the raiders back upon more comfortable projects. It is almost laughable to read of. One large section of the pirates became suddenly in love with the desirableness of a quiet country life among the herds and crops, and settled down under their leader, Halfdene by name, to be country gentlemen in Yorkshire, turning the beaten Northumbrians into hewers of wood and drawers of water. No better proof could be found of the shrewdness of the blows struck by the West Saxon s in 871.

There was another section of the invaders who had not yet learned their lesson properly. Under their leaders Guthrum, Oscytel, and Asmund, in the winter of 878 to 879 they made the famous raid that drove Alfred into the island fastness of Somerset, and gave Wessex her darkest hour.

“They submitted to their will the greatest part of the people, but not Alfred the king.”

The main facts of the tale are well known. In the seventh week after Easter the Northmen were flying for safety to their Chippenham quarters, and a fortnight later Guthrum, by the Peace of Wedmore, promised to give up al projects of conquering Wessex, and to become a Christian. All England north-east of Watling Street, including London, was left in Viknig hands, and was termed the Danelaw. Soon Guthrum and his men settled down to humdrum occupations in East Anglia.

But raiders do not become husbandmen in a moment. In 884 a band of pirates that had been ravaging France crossed over to Kent. The temptation was too much for the East Anglian Northmen. They broke their peace with Alfred. The campaign against them lasted till 885. Alfred drove the raiders who had come from France back overseas, and punished their East Anglian friends by recovering London for the English. This capture was the beginning of a movement carried to success by Alfred’s descendants. Piece by piece in the tenth century all Danish territory was brought beneath West Saxon rule, and the unification of England which the Viking attack had interrupted was accomplished by Alfred’s son and grandsons.

Till 892 Wessex enjoyed peace. But in that year fleets of Vikings, consisting in all of 350 ships, arrived on English coasts, and stirred up the Northmen of Deira and East Anglia to join them. The experience of these combined forces during the next three years proves the amazing efficiency to which Wessex had been trained in her years of peace by Alfred. The Northmen were frequently too utterly cowed during these years to leave their forts, except when hunger drove them forth. The Chronicle gives us pictures of them defeated in battle, and “fleeing over Thames without looking for a ford,” of Viking forts stormed, and all the pirates’ money, women, children and ships captured and brought to London. It shows us a pirate force besieged at Buttington on Severn, “weighed down with famine and devouring their horses or perishing of hunger,” or another force “marching day and night on the stretch” from East Anglia to Chester, in order to escape Alfred’s veterans, and being hemmed in and starved within the ancient walls. We read of a band landing in Sussex and being hustled with heavy loss back to its ships by the garrison of Chichester, and of a Viking fleet caught in the river Lee by the construction of a boom lower down the water.

By the spring of 896 the foe realised that Wessex was too tough for them; they gave up the struggle. Some settled in Northumbria, others in East Anglia, and those “that were penniless got themselves ships, and went south overseas to the Seine. The foe, thank God, had not entirely destroyed the Angle kin.”




Alfred’s successes in the field were won at the expense of a world of labour and organization. Our soldiers in the most recent war (World War One) used the spade far oftener than the rifle. Alfred’s men dug incessantly. All along the southern coast of Wessex they threw up forts consisting of earthen rampart and ditch, and erected wooden palisades to crown the ramparts. Sometimes the ruins of a Roman wall, encircling now an English population, stood ready to their wants, and needed only restoration, as in the case of Chichester and Porchester, and other places. Wherever the enemy could land the West Saxon coast they found close to them one of these earthen forts or a restored Roman fortification, manned with Alfred’s troops. But the Northmen could sail up the Thames, or cross it by fords on their way from Mercia. London’s old walls were therefore strengthened to protect the citizens and a new garrison that was placed within them. other fortresses were dug and timbered at Wallingford and Oxford. Further up the Thames was constructed the fort of Cricklade; near it was Malmesbury, and between Malmesbury and the Bristol Channel lay Bath. (Others of these forts were Southwark, Rochester, Hastings, Lewes, Burpham, Southampton, Winchester, Wilton, Tisbury, Shaftesbury, Christschurch, Wareham, Bridport, Exeter, Watchet, Lyng, Langport, ect).

Alfred called these forts “works” or burhs. English folk resented the necessity for so much spade work, and failed sometimes to complete the defences and to maintain them when they were erected. But Alfred excelled in a capacity for getting things done, and before the end of his reign Wessex was encircled by these strong points.

To each of the burhs was assigned an area of territory, the inhabitants of which were responsible for construction and maintenance. Amongst such inhabitants Alfred relied most of all on the thanes, the country gentlemen, who were wealthy enough to provide themselves with several horses, spears and shields, a helmet and coat of mail, and money for a campaign. these man had followers, was companions, gesiths or cnihts, such as in later times were called squires, whom they supplied with horses and armour, maintained on the produce of their estates, and on whom they relied in wartime. These formed practically a standing army of professional soldiers. Alfred made great use of these thanes and of their followers for the construction, maintenance and defence of his burhs. He seems to have laid down a rule, that thanes should have one or more houses, according to their wealth, in the burhs; such a house was called a haga (plural, hagan). (There seems to have been 142 of these hagan in Chichester, 258 in Lewes, and 65 in Winchester, all erected by owners of neighbouring estates. See “The Domesday Boroughs,” By A. Ballard. Of course in Oxford, Chichester, Southwark, Exeter, and other burhs there were other houses than hagan, where ordinary folk lived. But in little burhs, like Lyng in Somerset, there may have been no residents except men on garrison duty, and no house except hagan). These hagan were military quarters. The thanes’ followers who occupied them were probably bachelors as a rule, doing garrison duty, and being maintained on the food collected from the thanes’ estates and other lands that surrounded the burhs. The cost of such maintenance must have been heavy, and many a tenant of the thanes, and many a small landowner, must have groaned at the demands for waggon-loads of beef, cheese, beer and other commodities, that had to be drawn continually to the burhs. In time of war such things must be endured; those who do not fight must work and pay. On the other hand, the folk that were already living in Chichester, Southwark, London, Rochester, Oxford, and in the other communities that became burhs may have rejoiced not only at the increased security thus granted against raids, but at the growth of population that brought greater chances of trade, and at the stern discipline that ruled in a garrison town, and ensured the safety in which merchants grow rich. (The view that thanes, who dwelt in villages lying on the land attached to a burh, had to maintain soldiers within the burh and house them in hagan is open to criticism. The thanes certainly owned hagan within the burh; the question is whether the occupants of these were professional soldiers. It has been maintained that they had been sent from the outlaying villages to dwell in the Hagans, in order that they might act not as soldiers but as agents, manufacturing or purchasing in the burh those articles which villagers needed but could neither manufacture nor purchase in the villages. see p. 204, below; see also “Victoria County History of Leicestershire,” vol. I, pp. 302-303.)

The garrison of such places called the burhware, and no doubt did watch and ward continually on the walls. The burhware of London never knew when the Thames below the bridge might be covered with a swarm of pirate craft, or when the Northmen of East Anglia might weary of following the plough, and make a dash to secure some bridge, and to cross the Thames into Wessex. The burhware of Chichester or Exeter or Wareham must have scanned the horizon continually for the first sign of Vikings’ oars whitening the waters of the English Channel. In the event of an inroad or landing it was the duty of the burhware of the nearest burh to sally forth at once to the attack, before the pirates could damage the countryside. It the foe were too strong for them, the burhware defended the burh until other forces could arrive to their help.

These other forces might consist, firstly, of the burhwares of neighbouring burhs; secondly, of the thanes and their followers from districts outside the limits of the areas which maintained the burhs; and, thirdly, of the local militia, consisting of oxherds, ploughmen, smiths, ditchers, thatchers and other rustics. these last marched on foot, and collected slowly at the place of the parade. They brought, perchance, spear and shield from the walls of their houses, or maybe merely their fork or flail with which they tossed or threshold corn, or perhaps but an axe or goad, or hedging knife or sickle. With these they streamed along ancient Roman roads or muddy English lanes to the mustering spot. These were not of the type that could face the well-armed Northmen, or follow them “night and day at the stretch” across England. Such rustic forces would only be called out in great emergency to fight within to or three days’ march of their homes.

Alfred relied chiefly on his professional warriors, namely the thanes and their men who manned the burhs, and the thanes and their followers that collected from beyond the burh areas. It was with these men that he saved Wessex in the dreadful years 892 to 896. Both the thanes who maintained the burhs and the thanes who lived beyond the burh districts were recruited by Alfred from the most prosperous men of his realm. Every man, who had 600 acres/242.8ha of arable land and sufficient tenantry to enable him to equip himself with horses and armour and to gather young and active followers into his hall, had the burden of military service laid heavily on him. He was given the noble rank of thane; but its duties also were imposed, namely, that he and his men should muster well horsed and well armed at the king’s call to defend their country, and, if need be, ride right across England and besiege a distant camp for weeks and months.

It was not only the landed proprietor but the prosperous merchant also that was made a thane. The wealthy citizen of London, and of places like Southwark, Southampton, Winchester, Rochester and Exeter did a thane’s duty in the burhs, and maintained his haga or hagen there. County gentry and city traders both alike fought at the head of their followers under the command of Alfred’s official. And in the rear of the armies toiled the peasantry, raising beef and cheese and poultry and other supplies for the fighting men. In days of dire peril those, too, took their place in the militia, armed with such equipment as they could find.

In 900 A.D., Alfred died. The annal in the Chronicle runs thus –

“This year died Alfred, the son of Ethelwulf, six nights before the mass of All Saints. He was king over all the English nation, except that part which was under the power of the Danes. He held the government one year and a half less than 30 winters, and then Edward, his son, took to the government.”

The king who saved Wessex from the Northmen, and thrashed the most dreaded soldiers of the time as no other king had done, might surely have won a better epitaph than this. To us he seems to combine in himself everything that is most royal in a king.




With the accession of Edward, Wessex passed from the defensive to the offensive; she set about the task of driving back the boundaries of the Danelaw, a task that Alfred had commenced in 886, when he recovered London and the lands round it. It was not by sweeping inroads and by great victories that Edward carried out his work. He did it piecemeal. year after year the West Saxons and the Mercians, who lived west of Watling Street, marched into the Danelaw, erected burhs and garrisoned them. A typical entry in the Chronicle runs this –

“In 911 Edward went with some of his force into Essex to Maldon, and encamped there, while his men built and timbered the burh of Witham. And many of the people submitted to him, who were before under the power of the Northmen.”

All traces of the stockades, and of the buildings which sheltered the garrison, have long since disappeared, but the earthen ramparts remain both at Witham and elsewhere.

Witham seems to have been but a small place. Some, however, of Edward’s burhs were populous centres before he captured them, and can have needed merely a restoration or strengthening of existing defences. Some are still important places in our own time, as, for instance, Hertford, Bedford, Huntingdon, Tamworth, Stafford, Towcester, Warwick, Buckingham, Colchester, Nottingham, and Manchester. Edward seems to have followed his father’s policy, and to have assigned to each burh a stretch of territory, the inhabitants of which were responsible for its upkeep. These territories were probably the origin of some of our midland counties, and the burhs they maintained are now often their county towns.

Success after success poured in upon Edward till, at the end of his reign, he was king of all England south of the Humber. North of the Humber Edward achieved a striking success, when Regnald, the Danish king of Deira, Constantine, king of the united Picts and Scots, Ealdred, the English king of Bernicia, and Owen, king of the Strathclyde Britons, chose him as “father and lord.” Edward died in 924.

His son Athelstan succeeded him, and pushed on the great task bequeathed to him with true West Saxon vigour. In 926 he drove out the Danish king of Deira and his brother, Anlaf, and took his kingdom under his own rule. In that year, therefore, it may be said that the kingdom of England, as we know it today, first appeared.

Something else appeared also. In Athelstan’s day, at the very commencement of its being, this new England found itself faced by problems which were to test its energies for nearly a thousand years. Dwellers in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland began to be conscious of a possible union that included much more then English territory. Pict, Scot, Briton and Welshman became fearful that the all-conquering power of Wessex, which had built up a realm of England, might go on to construct a still greater realm of Great Britain and Ireland. To King Constantine and his subjects in particular, such a prospect of absorption was peculiarly distasteful. Promptly the threatened realm joined forces with the Britons of Strathclyde, and stirred up Athelstan’s discontented subjects in Deira. Help was looked for from Northmen in Ireland, and especially from their king, Anlaf of Dublin, who had blood connection with the dispossessed brothers of Deira. This spectacle of a nervous Scotland bestirring herself against England and raising trouble among English subjects at home and rivals overseas became very familiar in later days, and, indeed, was seen far into modern times in the eighteenth century. Edward I (III)., Henry VIII., Elizabeth, George II., and many other monarchs, were but the inheritors of the problem. But it was new in Athelstan’s day, because England herself was new.

In 937 a mighty host came together to destroy the new power which threatened their independence, and a great battle, lasting from sunrise to sunset, was fought at a place called Brunanburh, or Brunanware, the site of which is unknown. Bromborough in Wirral, Birrenswark in Dumfriesshire, Burnley in South Lancashire, and Bourne in Lincolnshire, are some of the localities suggested. Somewhere probably in the north-west Saxons, Mercians, and probably East Anglians and Anglicised Danes met together to do battle with Northumbrian Danes, Irish Danes, Scots, Picts and Britons for the kingdom of England as we know it today, to strike a blow for their belief that Wessex had a right to unify beneath her rule the whole of England, and, if she had the power, to subdue surrounding nations, Scots, Welsh and Irish, to her will. Brunanburh is the first and the mightiest in a list of famous battles, which contains Bannockburn, Haldon Hill, Flodden, Pinkie, Boyne, Culloden, and many others. Some nameless Anglo-Saxon poet dimly recognised its greatness, and composed a battle song upon it which is worthy of its theme. In it the triumphant courage of a new England finds glorious expression. The scribe who composed the scanty annals of the Chronicle in Athelstan’s reign had the merit of recognising a good poem, and has inserted some of it. It tells us almost all that is known of one of the greatest events in English history. The quotations below are given from Lord Tennyson’s English version of the poem:-

“Athelstan King,

Lord Among earls,

Bracelet-bestower and

Baron of barons,

He with his brother,

Edmund Atheling,

Gaining a life-long

Glory in battle,

Slew with sword-edge

There by Brunanburh,

Brake the shield wall,

Hew’d the linden wood,

Hacked the battle shield,

Sons of Edward with hammered brands.