The Close of Alfred’s Reign


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 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.


The unification of England and the struggle with the Northmen


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 place was above another amongst the five patriarchs of Christianity, just that Rome was first amongst equals).