Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England


Steve Muhlberger

We left King Alfred of Wessex in the early months of 878, when he was hiding from the Danish invaders in the marshes of Somerset. The Vikings who had beaten all the other English kings and subjugated their kingdoms appeared to have taken Alfred's kingdom as well. In the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Vikings "drove a great part of the inhabitants overseas." This doesn't mean the general population fled -- the refugees were undoubtedly the ruling class, the big property owners. They abandoned the kingdom, or they stayed and submitted.

Alfred's few months in the marshes are the most famous part of his life -- legend-makers could not resist the image of the fugitive king who was nevertheless destined to win in the end.  From what we know of Alfred, he may have indeed spent some of his time in the marshes contemplating God's will. But he was not alone, and he was preparing himself in a practical way to make his big comeback. He had a base at a royal estate in the marshes, and when the time seemed right, he moved.

In the spring of 878, he left the marshes and summoned the men of the western Wessex to his standard. Gratifyingly, they responded, and within three days he was leading an army. He beat the invaders in the field at a place called Edington, then besieged them in their fortified encampment. After two weeks, the Vikings asked for terms. Alfred agreed to let them out if they would leave his kingdom, give hostages guaranteeing peace, and, finally, agree that their leaders would be baptized as Christians. All the terms were fulfilled. Three weeks after the Viking army left Wessex, their king, Guthrum and 29 other chief men returned to Wessex and were baptized. Guthrum was sponsored by Alfred himself, and thus became the godson of his former enemy.

Symbolically, this move was very important, for it showed a willingness of the invaders to bow, at least temporarily, to English standards. It was the beginning of a process of accommodation.

Alfred's victory was a crucial one for him. Attacks on Wessex did not immediately end,but Alfred began to make some gains. In 886, he took London, quite an important town, from the Vikings, and about the same time he made a treaty with Guthrum, now the king of East Anglia and the leading Dane in the south of England. The treaty (pp. 171-172) drew a boundary between English held Mercia and Wessex on one hand, and Danish held areas on the other. It also recognized the legal equality of the Engish and the Danes. Two men of the same rank were to have the same weregild, whatever their nationality. The Danes again were making an effort to fit into English society.

Alfred posed in the treaty of 886 as the chief representative of all the native English -- he acted with "the councillors of all the English race," and was looking out for native interests in dealing with the Danes. Whether he was accepted as such by other Englishmen is a doubtful matter. But in regard to Mercia, Alfred did show the magnanimity that one would expect from the king of all the English. . He returned the rich port of London to Mercian control very soon after he took it. Rather than earning resentment, he won an ally. Aethelred, the Mercian "ealdorman" married Aethelflaed, Alfred's daughter, and was a faithful adherent to Alfred's family for a quarter of a century.

Between Alfred's return in 878 and 892, Alfred worked to reorganize his kingdom against the possibility -- near-certainty, rather -- of further Viking attacks.

The actions Alfred took can be broken down into three parts.

First, Alfred established a navy.  He was the first English king since the seventh century to show much interest in the military use of ships.  Alfred's fleet was not a great formidable force. It was used for close in defense, and seldom if ever strategically. But the innovative attitude it reveals is impressive.

Second, Alfred reorganized his army. He enforced his right to call up free men to fight in defense of the kingdom, and exercised that right in a systematic manner. The levy of free men, called the fyrd, was divided into two parts, which were called up in rotation when necessary. This made it possible to get service from poorer free men who could not afford to fight full time.  Alfred's arrangements were not perfect. The ASC tells us in 893 of a levy leaving the moment their term was up, even though they were besieging a dangerous Viking force. Yet Alfred's system generally seems to have provided him with troops when and where he needed them.

Alfred's third innovation was the establishment of a series of forts called burhs -- in modern English, boroughs. These served as the backbone of Alfred's defensive system, and were to evolve into the basis of English local government. Alfred created in the course of his reign about 30 strongholds.The new strongholds were meant as places of refuge and as obstacles to invasion. They were very well situated for both purposes. There was a burh within twenty miles of almost every spot in Wessex.

Not only were these places fortified, practical arrangements were made to ensure garrisons for them. The evidence for them is a brief document known as the Burghal Hidage (pp. 193-194). On the surface it is pretty cryptic, being just a list of burhs with the number of hides (units of assessment) attached to them. The explanation tacked on to the end, however, gives the key. Each hide is to supply one man, and the number of hides assigned to each city is enough to put four men on each pole (or 16 and 1/2 feet). The Burghal Hidage is a plan to assign 27,000 men to the various royal strongholds whenever garrisons are needed. Nor is the BH merely fantasy -- or at least it is very careful fantasy. Modern archaeology has found that the length of wall attributed to the burhs in the BH is very close to the actual length of wall at the time. Somebody made accurate measurements.

Right from the beginning most burhs were more than bare forts. They were towns with regular street plans, drawn up in anticipation of permanent settlement. They were centers of royal administration, or quickly became so. This is where mints were located -- for security and to service the merchants who gathered there. Merchants were there because Alfred (or at least his successors) required trade to be done in towns, where royal officials could collect taxes and prevent the sale of stolen goods.

Alfred's network of burhs made his successors the lords of all the most important towns in the kingdom, to their great financial and political benefit. The assignment of districts to those burhs encouraged the development of the traditional shires or counties of medieval and modern England.

Alfred and his planning was tested in the years 892-895. The last of the ninth century Viking attacks on England took place in that year, and they were aimed at Wessex, the center of resistence. The response of Wessex, as documented in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, was quite impressive. The landing of Viking raiding parties in Wessex was invariably met by an immediate response. The Vikings were pinned down, besieged in their camps, sometimes cut off from their boats, and then chased away or defeated. The army of Wessex not only held its own, but, with the support of Mercians and some of the Welsh, fought the Vikings in disputed Mercia, and forced them finally to give up. Those who had property in England went home. The rest sailed for France, to raid up the Seine.

Alfred's success should be neither under- nor over-estimated. He was able to defend his kingdom better than any king on the Continent, and came out of the war with his power strengthened rather than diminished. But then it must be remembered that he had a small kingdom. He should be compared not to Charlemagne's descendents, who failed to hold their vast domains together; he rather should be compared to the newer warlords, the so-called feudal princes, the dukes and counts who gained power because they were effective defenders and organizers of territories threatened by war. Alfred did about as well as the Counts of Flanders of his time, or the Dukes of Burgundy.

Alfred's victories cannot be seen as "English" victories in a modern national sense.  Alfred was still a sectional king, though he desired to be more. So much for qualifications. Alfred's victories are pretty impressive, and were won by hard work and intelligence.

Alfred's military and political success is only part what makes him a pivotal figure in the history of pre-Norman Conquest England. Alfred was something of a literary man, even a scholar, a fact that makes him the most knowable of pre-Norman kings. Asser, Alfred's biographer says  Alfred spent every moment he wasn't fighting the Danes or hunting lamenting that he never had the time to study. You might be tempted to dismiss Asser's picture of Alfred the scholar too easily.

At first glance it seems hard to reconcile Asser's Alfred with Alfred the warrior-king. Yet the combination if unusual, is not unique, even within Alfred's own century. Charlemagne is the classic case of a phenomenally successful warlord who was also a dedicated patron of learning. Charlemagne, like Alfred, like most medieval men who thought about such things, identified learning with Christianity, which is of course a religion based on books. Charlemagne, like Alfred, believed that only rulers who deserved God's favor could hope for continued victory in this world, not to mention salvation in the next. The maintenance of religion, and therefore learning, was a duty and a necessity. The loss of learning would by itself diminish religious life, by making the proper praise and service of God, the proper rituals, impossible.

 It is evident, however, that Alfred was something more than a patron. He was personally involved in the actual educational work. Alfred was alarmed by the loss of literate men -- literate in Latin, that is -- which cut the English off from Scripture and other religious works. He saw the solution in translations, not of the Bible, but of other morally uplifting books, so that men who knew no Latin would still have some fundamental moral and theological knowledge. Alfred himself became the mainspring of the translation project.

Alfred was something of a philosopher, and convinced, like all philosophers, that many of the world's problems came from a lack of philosophy. Alfred was a Christian philosopher, of course, and recognized that England's troubles were due in great part to purely moral failings. But he also blamed them on a lack of Wisdom with a capital W. Wisdom was something that could be found in books. The moral exhortations and philosophical reflections of ancient figures such as Boethius and Gregory the Great were things that all of the leaders of society should be exposed to. Alfred was particularly concerned that people should really believe the basic truths of religion -- for instance, in the immortality of the soul. If they did, they would act more sensibly, for long-term advantage and not foolishly and selfishly.

I have the feeling that Alfred may have been a rather uncomfortable king to be around. The works from his court have an intense, almost self-righteous atmosphere. Nevertheless, once again Alfred commands our respect. His intellectual achievements and those he inspired in others were the basis for the most successful western European vernacular tradition in the early Middle Ages. That he did this while he was fighting or preparing to fight is nearly as amazing as Asser would have us believe.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.