It was late in the year 871 when the 23-year-old Alfred, newly-appointed king of the last free Saxon kingdom in Britain, sat down for peace talks with two sons of Ragnar Lothbrok and other leaders of the Great Heathen Army. For young Alfred, it would be impossible not to feel intimidated by the situation. Halfdan Ragnarson and his half-brother Ubba (or Hubba) were twice Alfred’s age and had ten times his experience. Alfred had met these Viking champions three years before – but in 868 he had only been in the entourage of his older brother, King Aethelred, and they had been bargaining for the peace of neighboring Mercia and not Alfred’s own home of Wessex. Now in 871, when the Viking hosts had only been in the country for 5 years, Aethelred and all of Alfred’s other once-powerful brothers were dead, and Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria (with Bernicia), and Kent had all fallen. At least Ivar the Boneless had returned to Ireland – but more Vikings had come that summer. The kings of these reinforcements, including one named Guthrum, sat across from Alfred now, adding to the malice in the room and the sense that Alfred was a stag surrounded by a pack of wolves.
But Alfred, as we shall see, was never one to show fear.
The Viking Invasion of Wessex and Alfred’s Ascendancy to the Throne
Wessex was the southernmost portion of Britain. It was wealthy and fertile, with the best trading routes to the continent, so of course, the Vikings could never consider their conquest complete until they had dominion over this territory. The invasion came as a surprise attack in the dead of winter, January 871. The Vikings won that attack at a place called Reading (which gave them an all-important winter base for their campaign), but just two weeks later King Aethelred and his little brother, Alfred met them on the slopes of nearby Ashdown.
At Ashdown, the Vikings had the high ground as well as the edge of a five-year winning streak. The Saxons split their forces, but then on the fateful morning of the battle, King Aethelred was reluctant to attack. We are told the pious young king was in prayer, but Prince Alfred realized they could wait no longer. He led his men into battle "charging in like a wild boar." His brother finally joined him, catching the Vikings in a pincer attack. It was Alfred’s first real command, and it was a great victory for the Saxons. The slopes of Ashdown were littered with Viking dead, including one of their kings (a Dane named Bagsac) and five jarls.
But the Vikings were back in the field for a rematch almost immediately. The two West Saxon brothers would repeat the strategy a few times, and fought well, but never with the same success as at Ashdown. Time after time, the Vikings “held the place of carnage.” By Easter that year, Aethelred – only in his mid-twenties with six years on the throne – was exhausted and succumbed to a fatal illness.
Alfred took his brother’s place as king and continued the fight. A total of nine battles were fought that year, with the West Saxons losing a little ground each time. There would be no way to sustain this war, and yet there seemed no way to turn it around.
But for the Great Heathen Army, it was much more than they had bargained for. They had expected Wessex to fall as everywhere else had. The kings and jarls had expected to make themselves and their men rich. But every battle was hard-won, and they were losing a lot of warriors to the sword or to desertion for easier gains elsewhere. What was more, the hard fighting that enmeshed them here was keeping them exposed in their other semi-conquered kingdoms, like Mercia and Northumbria. It was time to talk.
So, when Alfred met Halfdan Ragnarson, Ubba, Guthrum, and the others at the close of that long, violent year of upheaval, both sides wanted the same thing – time.
Though the course of the next hours or days were probably full of posturing, threats, boasting, intimidation tactics, and scabbard-rattling, the West Saxons and the ‘Danes’ (as Old English sources usually collectively call Vikings) finally came to an agreement – there would be a cease-fire for a period of five years.
For the Vikings, it was a mistake. Had Ivar the Boneless still been with The Great Heathen Army, he would probably have told them to kill Alfred when they had the chance.
Young Alfred had already shown himself to be a warrior king, but in the ninth century, warrior kings were a dime a dozen. But Alfred was more than that. Alfred's name meant "Elf Wise" or "Elf Counsel," and his Christian parents named him this old Pagan name at a time when names were not given for the ring of their sound, but as a hope of the blessing they might convey. Alfred’s name in our culture would basically mean “supernaturally intelligent,” and he was to live up to it. The man had an uncommon amount of static, dynamic, and emotional intelligence as well as a visionary spirit. He backed these attributes up with tremendous discipline in both his personal actions and his policies. These qualities would shape his every move in life, war, and diplomacy.
The Genius of Alfred
Though Alfred would go on to be one of the more learned kings of his day and would even translate Roman philosophers into English, throughout his childhood he could not read. While this was normal for most of the population of Medieval Europe at the time, it was not typical for a royal household. It was not until Alfred was 12 – almost a man by the standards of the day – that he was able to teach himself (with a little help) to read and write.
Alfred’s mother told the 12-year-old that he could have her book of Saxon poems if he could learn to read it. His motivation suddenly fired, Alfred found people to read him the book until he memorized every word, and then used his knowledge of the poems to decipher the writing. Once he had done this, he had ‘learned how to learn' and would go on to read in several languages as well as gradually acquiring skill in the essential academic disciplines of the day (rhetoric, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, arithmetic, and geometry).
Alfred’s intellect was not only oriented towards the theoretical and academic. He was an inventor and made developments ranging from improvements to the hand-held lantern, to coming up with candles that could precisely mark time, to designing a fleet of ships for coastal defense.
Alfred began working on his ships the moment the Vikings left Wessex, though the project would take years. His ships were twice the size of dragon ships, with 60 oars or more, and their sides and decks were higher to give their crews the advantage when vessels came broadside to fight. But though they were fast, Alfred’s ships did not have the maneuverability of dragon ships, were expensive to build, and were hard for his Saxon and Frisian sailors to handle. So, while the young King was right that sea power would one day be a key to British military superiority, Alfred’s fleet never made much of an impact in his Viking wars.
Of course, the acid-test of Alfred’s genius was not in the books he translated, his tinkering with inventions, or his military projects, but in his diplomacy and leadership, as we shall see.
Alfred’s Chronic Illness
Asser (Alfred's contemporary biographer) tells us that King Alfred’s constantly-active mind and the near-perpetual crisis of his times came at a high personal cost to him. Implacable on the exterior, the King was nearly-consumed by stress within, and his time spent in religious pursuits were as much to seek solace and find fortitude as they were to set any examples for onlookers. Probably because of the amplification of these stresses by his intense mind, Alfred suffered from chronic pain. Though Asser goes on at length about the King's affliction, he is vague in his description. One gets the sense that it might have been something like ulcerative colitis, bleeding peptic ulcers, or diverticulitis. Whatever the case may be, Asser tells us that "there was not an hour that went by that the King did live with pain or in fear of that pain." In keeping with the peculiar bent of the Medieval Christian mind, both Alfred and Asser felt the disease was a sign of God's hand in his life.
And Alfred was going to need God’s hand, for in the spring of 877 the peace treaty between the West Saxons and the Vikings was to end, and all of Wessex was about to collapse.
The Last Kingdom
The treaty between Wessex and the Kings of the Great Heathen Army ended around 877, and Guthrum wasted no time before invading with an overwhelming force. Alfred’ preparations had not come to fruition yet, though, and the Saxon King met the Vikings with his own army while waving the banner of truce. New terms were drawn up, new gold surrendered to Guthrum (Halfdan Ragnarson seems to have stayed in Northumbria), and new oaths were taken. The Vikings swore an oath of peace upon a sacred arm ring. But the treaty was a ruse, and the Great Heathen Army took advantage of the West Saxons' good faith and immediately raced to attack Exeter.
It was the first colossal embarrassment of Alfred’s young career. The walled town of Exeter fell to the Vikings – who were following their familiar pattern of taking a fortified city by treachery and then using that fortress as a base of operations for deeper incursions. But Guthrum’s oath-breaking was to be punished by divine hands. For as his massive fleet moved to join him near Exeter, a terrible storm blew in from the cold Atlantic.
This violent storm wrecked 120 or more ships, dashing them on the rocks of Britain and drowning 5000 Vikings. The Great Heathen Army had swollen to “incalculable” numbers, but no army of the day could shrug off such a loss of men and ships, nor ignore the spiritual implications of such a disaster. The Vikings were forced to make peace and to accept that they were being punished by their gods for their duplicity in breaking the treaty. They swore stronger oaths and moved further off from Wessex. This time, Guthrum would wait five whole months before breaking his word.
And so, it was not until the twelfth night of Christmas (January 5, 878) that the Viking army attacked the unsuspecting and drink-sodden West Saxons at the height of their revelry. The attack was so well-timed and well-planned that the Saxons could hardly mount a defense at all. Alfred, his housecarls (personal retinue), family, and some of his followers escaped into the wild. There was no friendly refuge they could reach, and they were forced to go into hiding. Almost every major city found itself besieged, every ealdorman discovered his lands hemmed in. Guthrum and his Danes saw to it that each Saxon force remained isolated and could not join together in any strength.
It seemed certain that the last kingdom in Saxon Britain had fallen.
The Outlaw King
In a single night, he had lost his entire kingdom, his army was scattered, and all Saxon Britain was under the dominion of the Vikings. Few Kings have ever recovered from such a turn of events. Alfred did not quit, though. He was a king in exile within his own lands, hiding "in the fastness of the moors" and in the swamplands of southern Britain – the wilderness that would be hard for anyone to cover much less control.
Perhaps the Vikings hardly cared. They were busy taking the wealth of Wessex and mopping up resistance. Alfred could not hide forever, and every day he was gone, their hold on the land strengthened.
Always moving, Alfred would lie in hiding throughout the winter. Many folktales commemorate this time, passed down from mothers to children about a wandering king in disguise, a proto-Robin Hood waging a guerrilla war against an invading power. We hear of Alfred posing as a harpist at a Viking feast so that he could learn their plans. Another famous tale tells of a housewife who yells at the King when he lets the bread burn, unaware of who was sheltering in her house.
Probably the West Saxons in the winter of 878 were also encouraging each other by spreading these rumors. They did not want to face the facts that all seemed lost and that instead of the “Englaland” that people had once imagined – a united kingdom of Saxons, Angles, Britons, and others – there was instead to be a patchwork of Danish principalities.
But a new rumor silenced any hopeful stories they could tell. Twenty-three more ships had just arrived in Wessex from Dyfed in Wales, carrying well-over a thousand Vikings. This new force was led by Ubba, one of the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, and he carried with him the Raven banner.
Ubba’s army caught an un-named Saxon ealdorman in Devonshire. The Saxons were besieged, but instead of surrendering or giving themselves up to a slow death of starvation they rushed as one from the gates of their stronghold and fell upon the Vikings with all the desperation and fury that fell winter had engendered. The son of Ragnar and 840 of his Vikings were slain, and the legendary Raven banner was captured.
This victory had a profound effect on the West Saxon morale, and Alfred did not waste the opportunity. He had already been gathering strength, even leaving the wilds to build a wooden fort at Athelney, near Somerset. As summer drew near, King Alfred marched his housecarls and the survivors of his winter war out into the open. From all corners, the Saxons gathered to him.
King Alfred and his new army attacked Guthrum’s Danes near Eddington. This time, the Saxons would not be beaten, and the Vikings were put to flight. Those that survived the battle took refuge in the fortress there. Realizing that they could not long endure the siege, Guthrum surrendered after a fortnight.
Wessex was saved. Alfred had learned his lesson well, though, and would not be appeased by a few oaths and hostages from the Vikings. He, Guthrum, and other leaders sat down to draw up a lasting treaty. It was not enough for Wessex to keep its independence while the Vikings carved up the rest of Britain – a boundary was set for each domain. This boundary line was the old Roman road that ran diagonally from Dover in the southeast all the way to Wales. In the 9th century, this via was called Watling Street. To the south and west of the road would be Wessex’s dominion, which included much of Mercia (Wessex’s old rival). Everything to the other side of the road would be the Danelaw, a place where the Vikings could make their rules, fight their wars, worship their gods and do whatever they decided to do. The Saxons and the Vikings were to each keep to their side of the tracks.
As the treaty was being decided on, many people must have realized the implications. Britain had been many kingdoms – Pictland, Dal Riata, and Strathclyde (by then, all Alba) in the far north; the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Bernicia, Cumbraland, East Anglia, Mercia, Kent (or Cent), and Wessex; and the Britons of Wales and Cornwall. Most of these territories still existed in peoples’ minds, but in practicality, the formation of the Danelaw was reducing all of Britain into really just four domains: Alba, the Danelaw, Wessex, and Wales. The idea of an England may have seemed unlikely when there were so many kingdoms, but now it really came down to just two, the way the Saxons saw it.
Alfred was probably the most aware of this. Though peace and protection for his people was his first concern, there is every reason to believe that he dreamed of creating an England. While England would not exist until the time of his grandson’s reign, several times the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to Alfred as “the King of the English people.” This was not at that time an official title, but it appears to be how people were beginning to think of it.
Though many Vikings got bored with peace and went elsewhere, most of the Great Heathen Army settled down to enjoy their dominion, in the Danelaw. They divided up their conquered lands equitably, and Viking raiders became yeomen farmers. They married local women and the similar languages of Old Norse and Old English blended along with their bloodlines.
This is not to say that the Vikings of the Danelaw and the Saxons stopped fighting after the treaty of 878. Far from it! The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle follows the movements of “the army” for at least 30 years. Alfred would go on to wrestle London from the Danes, and fight incursions for the rest of his life (he died of illness – perhaps the culmination of his chronic illness or the cancers that can arise from these types of conditions – around the age of 50). New Vikings were always coming in, and new Viking leaders were always trying to exceed the glory of their predecessors. Alfred would never see a united England.
Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great is often thought of as the man who united England and kicked out the Vikings. Those are both extreme oversimplifications. As we have seen, Alfred did – against all odds – break the momentum of the Viking conquerors of Britain and push them back into a confined territory that his progeny would eventually retake. Alfred also united the Saxons of Britain into a common cause, and ultimately, they would meld into a single people. In that, Alfred can safely be called the father of a nation, though the title of the first King of England belongs more rightly to his grandson, Aethelstan. In that Alfred did all this against all the odds, and not only avoided the political annihilation and material subjugation of his people but instead put them on the path of ultimate success is why he deserves to be called Alfred the Great.
But it was not only the Saxons that were melding into the English – it was the Vikings, too. Alfred did not drive the Vikings out, and neither did Aethelstan. Most of the Vikings stayed, put down roots, and they also became English.
In Britain, the Saxons, Danes, and earlier natives became one people, the English. Without the vision, tenacity, and valor of Alfred the Great and his scions it probably would not have happened that way. It is also true that without the Vikings Britain would have continued as a land of warring tribes for a long time to come. Vikings were the catalysts that led to the birth of England, and their legacy would always be felt strongly there.
This article is an abridged excerpt from the book, Sons of Vikings by David Gray Rodgers and Kurt Noer.