Alfred’s Forts and Alfred’s soldiers
Alfred’s successes in the field were won at the expense of a world of labour and organisation. Our soldiers in the recent war (World War One) used the spade for oftener than the rifle. Alfred’s men dug incessantly. All along the southern rampart of Wessex they threw up forts consisting of earthen rampart and ditch, and erected wooden palisades. 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 along 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 strenghtened to protect thecitizens 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, Christchurch, Wareham, Bridport, Exeter, Lyng, Langport, etc.).
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 much 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 men had followers, war companions gisiths 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 their followers for the construction, maintainance 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 houses 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 hagan, 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 not purchase in the villages. See “Victoria County History of Leicestershire,”vol. i, pp. 302-303.).
The garrison of such places was 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. If the foe were too strong for them, the burhware defended the burh until other forces could arrive to their help.
These other forces 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 homes, or maybe merely their fork or flail with which they tossed or threshed 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 rustics forces would only be called out in great emergency to fight within two 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 upon 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 Hagan there. County gentry and city traders both alike fought at the head of their followers under the command of Alfred’s officials. 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 these, too, took their place in the militia, armed with such equipment as they could find
In 990 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.