With each breath the pain of his illness worsened, as if the swords of the Danes themselves pierced his belly. This predicament was untenable, simply absurd. Unable to fight, unable to run; Time his only ally.
Hiding in the marshlands of Somerset, Alfred must’ve looked a broken man. Years of planning in the wake of Ashdown had seen Wessex become one of the most heavily fortified kingdoms in Europe. His system of Burg’s had ensured that anyone seeking to enter Wessex by force would be met with stiff resistance.
Wessex’ naval power had also grown, and the kingdom was flourishing. In 878AD however, this was all to come crashing down, forcing Alfred to run and hide within his own kingdom. A king on the run, how could it come to this?
The Dark Days of Wessex
Alfred was similar in character to his brother, Aethelred. The former king was generally regarded as a good man, and commanded great respect among the kings of Saxon England. To take his place would be no easy task, but Alfred possessed all the qualities of a great king; A great tactician, shrewd and willing to compromise.
His personality was a perfect fit for kingship, however his body was not. Historians acknowledge the fact that Alfred most likely had Crohn’s Disease, a debilitating illness in 2017 so one can imagine difficulties in the 9th century. The quintessential warrior king he was not, but that would not stop Alfred. His mind was his greatest weapon, and in his opinion, it was far superior to that of any Dane.
Upon ascending the throne he went to work securing Wessex’ position. Bribes were given to the Danes and tentative border agreements declared. In establishing a temporary peace, Wessex could prepare to defend itself adequately, but also to expand. England was ripe for the taking and the Danes could be defeated, were the time right. With East-Anglia and Northumbria in the hands of the Danes, and with the complete collapse of Mercia in 874, the opportunity for Wessex to grow was now.
Several years passed and the house of cards came crashing down. Guthrum, King of East-Anglia was the archetypal Dane; Unrelenting, vicious, and with a lust for power. On the 6th of January 878, he and his army poured into Wessex like a torrent. Murdering, raping and pillaging as they moved. Razing villages and leaving very few alive, the populace scattered along with any resistance.
The capture of Chippenham by the Danes was a catastrophic blow for Alfred. It is said to have been the town that his sister, Aethelswith was married in, truly a holy place. In addition to this, he narrowly avoided capture, escaping by the skin of his teeth and being forced into hiding.
During this period, Alfred struggled with ill-health. Hiding in the marshes of the Somerset levels would likely not have been an adequate situation for a man with such an ailment. He continued to coordinate attacks against Danish forces and disrupt their movements. A guerrilla campaign in his own kingdom, a shameful moment in his reign.
It is in these moments that myths are created. Moments in which our heroes have their great epiphany, their surge of determination, and Alfred is no different.
It is said that whilst in hiding, Alfred took refuge in the home of a peasant woman. The woman was baking cakes, but whilst she milked the cows, it fell to Alfred to watch the cakes and ensure they did not burn. With an empty belly, a hollow kingdom and an army scattered and in disarray, Alfred could be forgiven for not focusing. With his mind firmly focused on tomorrow, the cakes burned.
The peasant woman scolded Alfred, much to his surprise. For he was king, who would dare speak to him in such a manner?
The triviality of it all may have struck Alfred. Here he wallowed caring not for the troubles of a peasant woman when his kingdom was falling. But to her, this was life. This was her only request, and he had failed her.
These moments of despair emboldened Alfred, his outlook changed and his resolve strengthened, he moved. God would grant him victory, and in a matter of days Alfred had begun to assemble the Fyrd’s of Wessex once again.
A mere tale, but one can wonder where his mind travelled to in such dark moments. He was scheming again, devising his plan to become king of all Saxons, and at Edington he would have the chance.
A Date with Destiny
The West Saxons were on the march. Boot heels and hooves muddied the earth beneath them. Edington was the destination and Alfred was in no mood to compromise. There would be no parlay, no bartering of bribes and no empty treaties. The Danes would pay in blood and know their place in England.
Guthrum once again offered terms to leave. But gold would not be exchanged, they would leave or they would die – And the follow days would see to that.
Formed in shield-walls, the forces of Wessex met the Danes and the slaughter was absolute. The sides were of relatively equal size, and utilising the same tactics, there was only one solution; Slog it out.
Facing up the slope, Alfred pushed hard against the Danes. He ordered there be no retreat, only forward into the very faces of the enemy. Accounts from the time describe Edington as a slaughter, with the earth drenched in the blood of Dane and Saxon alike.
Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ described the affair as such:
“Fighting ferociously, forming a dense shield-wall against the whole army of the Pagans, and striving long and bravely…at last he gained the victory. He overthrew the Pagans with great slaughter.”
The Danish line was broken, a gap in the shield wall one could never have imagined. With Saxons pouring through the Danes broke and fled to nearby Burg’s and villages. Alfred however would not allow them the luxury of hiding. A quick pursuit of the forces allowed food supplies in areas surrounding the Burg’s to be drained; The Danes would surrender or starve.
The political and cultural ramifications of the following events would be enormous for Saxon England. The ensuing peace negotiations saw Guthrum baptised.
In adopting Christianity he – to an extent – gained the favour of Alfred and large parts of Christendom. In addition to this, it proved a vital blow to the Norsemen. If the Christians were victors, then this surely signalled that the Christian god favoured the Saxons? Adopting his ways may prove fruitful.
For many of the Norse earls and kings, this proved to be a stumbling point. Baptisms continued and more Danes adopted this new faith, abandoning the gods of their ancestors and delivering them into the hands of their now fellow Christians.
The Quiet Years
Peace negotiations had established clear, fine cut borders in southern England. Areas of Mercia and Essex were assimilated into the Kingdom of Wessex and thus began the rebuilding of Saxon England.
This isn’t to say that all was peaceful however. On several occasions in the 890’s Alfred was met with challenges from Norse raiders, which were summarily crushed. The pinnacle of these engagements being conflict with Earl Hastein, whom had travelled from mainland Europe.
With a precarious grip on North Western Europe, Danes regularly sailed across the English Channel with the intention of plundering and colonising. On this occasion, Edward’s son proved the victor at Farnham in Surrey, then again Alfred defeated a Danish force in Benfleet.
Wessex’ budding naval power allowed the West Saxons to engage the Danes on the high seas, as well as launch raids into Danelaw. Plunder was not exclusively reserved for the Danes, it seems.
Although Alfred’s military actions throughout the years gained him notoriety, it is his reorganisation of the military, taxation and educational structures within Wessex that laid the foundations for a modern military, and a modern England.
Centuries old traditions such as the Fyrd’s were effective, but slow. Standing armies were crucial and would prove their worth in the centuries to come. Alfred’s military reforms were far-reaching and enabled Wessex to expand whilst maintaining a degree of security. The Burghal System was crucial to this defensive system, and was expanded further in the latter years of his reign.
The “Trinoda Neccessitas” or Three Fold Tax system was reformed, and new, expansive regulations taxed landowners based on the value and productivity of property. Given the era, this system is incredibly modern and allowed the conversion from Fyrd’s to standing armies.
London was rebuilt following decades of sieges, with the original Roman Walls repaired and the town itself expanded. Fortifications across the Thames River provided the security that would see London become the epicentre of English trade, culture and might in the coming centuries.
It could be said that Alfred worshipped Charlemagne, and saw aspects of the great king in himself; Pious, strong and progressive. Following suit, court schools were established not only for the nobility, but those of common birth – given that they were lucky enough to be accepted.
Alfred realised the potential of education and its application to the spread of Christendom. This laid the path to widespread education in the English language; Latin was a dying language and restricted largely to the nobility and clergy at the time. Through spreading the language, Wessex would spread Saxon culture.
In 899AD Alfred passed. By this point, many Saxon English had come to acknowledge him as King of England, although he never adopted the title himself. It is in centuries following that he is granted the title ‘Alfred the Great’ – most likely during the romantic era of chivalry, a title befitting of one of England’s greatest historical figures.