King Alfred and The Vikings

It is an interesting thought that the spread of Christianity throughout the British Isles may well have the spark that drew the Vikings to these shores to raid and plunder.
They were a pagan society who quickly understood that the portable items of gold crosses and church plate, the beautifully chained and jeweled bibles and the wealth of coins struck by King Offa, often stored in monasteries, were there for the taking.

When the Viking raids began, Offa was king, they targeted Christian sites such as Lindisfarne, showing unprecedented brutality. This may in part, have resulted from their fierce suspicion of the Christian religion, they were a Pagan people who held strongly to their beliefs. The raids ebbed and flowed and the wealth built up over hundreds of years by the Anglo Saxons, with their lightly defended towns, started to look very vulnerable.

This unsettling period continued until the mid 860’s when the Vikings launched what can only be described as a mass invasion. Thousands of Vikings led by formidable leaders tracked their way from settlement to settlement murdering the people and burning them to the ground. It was an incredibly barbaric time, the Vikings showed no mercy and were relentless in pursuit of their goal.

For ten years the raids continued and by the end of that time the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia ceased to exist. Men of learning, men of the church, had been slaughtered, as had warlords and members of the wealthiest families. Cut adrift from their natural leaders, the people of Britain were caught like rabbits in the headlights, uncertain which way to turn.

Alone, amongst all this carnage, the kingdom of Wessex held together.

Wessex was unusual in that it already had a long succession of relatively stable kings and overlords stretching back hundreds of years. It had trade, through Southampton, an ecclesiastical power base in Winchester and wealth but perhaps most importantly it had, waiting in the wings a king who was intelligent, diplomatic and educated, Alfred.

Alfred was the youngest son of Aethelwulf. Being the youngest meant that he had more time possibly to spend with his father, whatever the case Alfred the child went on a journey with his father to Rome, where he stayed for over a year, absorbing all that he could, his education reaching far and wide but possibly more important than that, he and his father stopped at the Frankish court and there Aethelwulf married the great grand daughter of Charlemagne, Judith.

Judith was a literate woman who encouraged Alfred to learn to read and further extend his learning. This learning and erudition would serve him well for what was to come.

The death of his father saw the succession pass from son to son until Ethelred became king and Alfred his deputy and then the Viking began their attacks, first in the north sweeping all before them.

In 870 the Vikings switched their attention to the south and the Thames Valley and faced Wessex.

Ethelred and Alfred prepared for the inevitable battle and gathering a small army headed for Reading where the Vikings were encamped. The outcome was disappointing for both sides. In a battle at Ashdown, Alfred proved to be a more than competent warrior and made a small gain against the Vikings but there was to be no letting up, in the Summer of 871 another force of Vikings arrived and King Ethelred died.

Alfred was hurriedly made king but there was little time to dwell on the fact as the Vikings attacked Alfred at Wilton and forced him to retreat. If the Vikings had continued with the offensive it is unlikely that Alfred could have held out, as it happened, events in the North forced the Vikings to swing about and this gave Alfred the space he needed.

By 875, the Vikings had carved the land up into three parts and a Viking overlord, Guthrum.

Guthrum was determined to take Wessex and burnt and pillaged his way across the region, Alfred could do little as Guthrum occupied Exeter and Wareham. He paid for peace with the Viking king but Viking peace agreements were generally dishonourable and it wasn’t long before Guthrum, who had promised to retreat to Gloucester and leave Wessex, attacked again.

The Alfred Jewel found close to Altheney

Alfred was close by, spending the Christmas with his royal household at Chippenham. An audacious attack by Guthrum saw Alfred fleeing with a small army. He fled to an area where he felt safe and secure, an island in the fenlands of Somerset, Athelney.

Here Alfred considered how he was going to remove the Vikings from his kingdom. His education and learning maybe made him more of a thoughtful leader, one whose intellectual skills could be applied to outwitting the invaders for brute force alone was not going to do it.

It appears he had the common touch, his vassels revered him, the people of Wessex were confident in his leadership and it was this, that made Alfred act as he did.

Alfred had, through careful and masterful management of the hundred and shire system, maintained his overall authority across Wessex and it was through this system of local ‘courts’ and local governance that he devised a plan to oust the Vikings.

He sent messages out from Athelney, spreading the word through the local court system for a meeting of people at Egbert’s Stone.

An army of many thousand were mustered and King Alfred invoked the idea of a crusade, a Christian crusade against the pagan Vikings. Thus energized the army moved towards Guthrum who was laid up in a royal fortress at Edington.

Site of Battle of Edington

The battle that ensued was bloody, for Alfred it was imperative that he defeat Guthrum absolutely. He did and Guthrum bowed to his authority, becoming baptized  with Alfred as his godfather. That, in itself, was a clever move, tying the Viking to him in a spiritual way, friends close but enemies even closer, Alfred understood diplomacy.

The impact of this victory should not be underestimated. King Alfred used it to draw the people of Wessex together making them stronger and more able to ward of subsequent Viking raids. He built a navy, he structured a military force that could rally itself quickly, again using the system of shires and hundreds, he built burhs, fortified buildings, defended by the people for the people. The whole was a sophisticated system of organization.

King Alfred did it with the people of Wessex, for the people of Wessex. In short Alfred created a kingdom that served the people. Towns grew out of the burhs (boroughs) and trade expanded. Wessex became rich and powerful.

King Alfred then set his sights on releasing London from its Viking control and into his. It must have taken a great act of diplomacy to bring London under his rule. It was a rich and commercially powerful town and had been Mercian prior to the Viking invasions.

If Alfred’s game plan was to rule over all England, securing London was a triumph and the point at which King Alfred could and did become ruler of the English Nation.