“He seems to me a very foolish man, and very wretched,
who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world.”
King Alfred, the Great (849-899)
Leading up to the 10th century, England was divided by four Saxon kingdoms in 865 which warred against each other. All this strife left them ill-prepared for the plunderers from far North European kingdoms. Bands of Norsemen (Vikings), which were actually pirates the English called Danes, were fierce and warlike pagan people who worshipped a god they called Woden. From the Northlands they bore down upon the English coasts in long narrow ships displaying rows of shields along the sides and high curved prows carved with mastheads of beasts such as ravens, dragons and eagles. They plowed through the icy, foaming waves and boldly ran their boats up on the gleaming sands all around the British isle. Swarms of barbarians sprang off the vessels onto the shore and bearing savage horned headdresses they burned, plundered and pillaged while the Saxons fled, terrorized.
In the beginning, invasions from the north were primarily motivated by robbing or taking anything they could carry off to their own lands but eventually, as time passed, they began to settle in various parts of England. Eventually, the Saxons were overwhelmed by the power of their savage foes and dropped their differences, uniting in defense, with all eventually acknowledging King Ethelred, of the west Saxons, as their overlord. Ethelred, the third son in line to the English/Wessex throne of Ethelwulf, had fought nobly against the Danes but the chiefs who refused to acknowledge him, Ingwar and Hubba, (sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, the gigantic scourge of the North), took Edmund (the King of East England) prisoner. They demanded that he forsake Christianity and when Edmund stoutly refused, they bound him to a tree, taunted him with cruel jests, shot at him with arrows and finally cut off his head.
After Edmund’s death, King Ethelred died of wounds received in the Battle of Merton in 871, a month after being defeated there. England was suddenly in need of a strong and wise leader who could be a true hero of all the inhabitants. Meanwhile, the Danes were conquering most of Saxon England with only Wessex unoccupied by the invaders. Alfred, a Saxon royal and the last son remaining of Ethelwulf, ascended the throne of Wessex in the same year and he became the greatest King who ever ruled England. They called him Alfred the Great, born in 849 in a Berkshire village called Wanating (in the 9th century) but known today as Wantage within the borders of Oxfordshire. (Wanating was seated very close to the border between Mercia and Wessex.)
Even from childhood Alfred was a remarkable, sturdy, vigorous and intelligent boy. When he was only four years of age his father, Ethelwulf, had planned a journey to Italy to visit the Bishop of Rome. At the last moment, prevented from going himself, he chose Alfred from among all his sons, (one of whom was a grown young man) to go to the Bishop in his place! Alfred, his youngest son was a mere babe! The little fellow was sent with a mighty escort of nurses, servants and churchmen, over the sea to Flanders in an open boat rowed by oarsmen. From Flanders they proceeded on horseback, while Alfred- perhaps- swung in a special basket at the side of a horse. This veritable retinue made their way through the heart of Old Gaul (France) most likely stopping now and again at a warrior noble’s castle, then at a convent, now in a walled town, lingering for a time at the splendid court of Charles the Bald, King of the Western Franks, and from there, on over the towering, snow-capped alps across the Pass of St. Bernard and into Italy.
Northern Italy, at that time, was a place of most unsavory repute by reason of the number of bandit nobles who encamped in the area. Straight through their midst, by miraculous means, the child and his attendants marched by, and at length, in safety and eventually, beneath the great gates of Rome. So, before he was five years old, Alfred had made an incredible journey- tremendously long and difficult- even for adult men in such perilous times.
As a well-traveled youngster and once more at home in England, Alfred was brought to the rambling, drafty building where his father held court. Though he had seen a large part of the world he was still unable to read. For one so young this fact was perhaps not remarkable but his older brothers who were near grown youths, were equally unacquainted with letters. Such learning was disregarded in importance in those early days of England. One day Alfred and his brothers came strolling together into their mother’s room; a handsome chamber with rush-strewn floors and walls hung with magnificent tapestries. Osburga, their mother, was arrayed in a long, loose robe with full, flowing sleeves and sat in a cushioned armchair carved with lions’ heads and claws. On her lap she held a volume of Saxon poetry, and her sons came crowding up around her. Since printing was, as yet, unknown, the book was hand-illumined in richly painted, bright and beautiful letters. All the brothers cried out with admiration of the volume and the mother, hearing their words of praise said smilingly, “As you can see, this book is truly a treasure. I will give it to that one among you who first learns to read.” This challenge spurred little Alfred on to seek out a tutor, without delay and he applied himself so diligently and persistently to learning of letters that he won the volume.
When Alfred’s father Ethelwulf died, the boy by that time grown, served under his elder brothers loyally for a time. His superior talents were faithfully rendered to them in implicit obedience and humbleness. He was only twenty-three years of age when the death of Ethelred made him King of Wessex. All of England was in a panic by then and fearful of the Danes and many Saxon thegns (barons) deserted their homes and fled overseas to escape. Those left behind were far too disorganized, militarily, to offer any solid resistance against these over-proud Vikings. Yet the courage and energy of the young King Alfred lent spiritual strength to the dispirited people and eventually he administered many a sound rapping to these Norse marauders. While he was dealing with the burial, several battles were fought that virtually brought the Vikings to his door.
Initially, he paid off the invaders and they emptied out of Reading by Autumn of 871. During the next five years they moved off to London and other parts of west England. But Alfred had not seen the last of battle with the Norsemen. He had already fought alongside Ethelred through nine battles, beginning in the year 868, many of which they won and the year 871 was called Alfred’s Year of Battles- mostly in Wessex. Under their fierce leader, Guthrum and his men were inhospitable. No matter how faithfully in some hour of defeat, they might swear a strong oath never to plunder or pillage again, they would break their promise the minute it suited them. Following a signature defeat, they swore oaths on the sacred bracelets they wore, supposedly binding their savage pagan hearts but within a short time later they continued to war. During this period Alfred fought not only on land but defeated the Danish in a mighty battle at sea, creating the first naval engagement ever won by the English. He blockaded their ships at Devon and many of their fleet were broken up and scattered by a storm. Their gods clearly had nothing over on Alfred !
Battles continued until the year 878, the most glorious of all Alfred’s reign, albeit with great tragedy, when they swarmed Wessex in such great numbers that, as the old Saxon Chronicle says, “Mickle of the folk over sea they drove and of the others the most deal they rode over; all but the King Alfred. He with a little band hardly fared (survived) after the woods and on the moor-fastnesses.” In January of 878 the Danes made a surprise attack on Chippenham which was a royal stronghold where Alfred just happened to be staying during Christmas. Nearly everyone was killed but Alfred managed to escape and made his way back home by going through the woods and swamps.
Left with a few faithful followers, the young King found himself practically deserted. He hid in the marshes and wild bogs of Somerset for months. Though young, he was never arrogant or over-confident in victory and never cast down in defeat. Surely and persistently, steadfastly as ever, he laid plans to drive his foes out of England and from no selfish motives or personal ambition. He sought to save and secure the people over whom he felt that God had called him to rule, engaging him to a mission which he dared not to neglect. It was during this period, that he came to be taken in by a cowherder, who’s wife- not knowing who he was and taking him for a common vagabond- gave him a place to rest by her hearth. She happened to be baking some small cakes of bread and was soon to be called out of the hut on an errand and roughly told Alfred to watch her cakes and see that they did not burn. The King smilingly undertook to obey her but he was working at repairing a bow and arrow and became lost in his thoughts concerning the people of England and their problems. When the cowherder’s wife returned, the cakes were burned to a cinder.
“Now, now, idle dog,” scolded the woman, not realizing she was scolding her liege lord and king, “Could’st thou not even watch the cakes? Thou would’st have been glad enough to eat them!”
This simple but defining moment most likely brought Alfred out of his inclination to think his way out of his country’s problems and finally, to act.
Not long after, Hubba, who was a Danish earl, appeared in Devonshire with his army and awesome raven standard. Woven by the daughters of Ragnar Lodbrog- reputedly in a single afternoon- they believed the banner to be enchanted. They claimed the great raven rose up and flapped his wings before every battle in which they gained victory. However, the soldiers of Devonshire who met Hubba boldly on the battlefield, completely defeated him and took the raven banner as proof. The loss of this standard greatly discouraged the Danes and news of the victory was a source of much comfort to Alfred while he was still in his hideout.
By the time Easter came, Alfred had a sufficient number of men to build a fortress of wood and earthworks at Athelney on a little hillock located on an island in the midst of the marshes. Not far from Bridgwater, he planned to attack the foraging parties of Danes as they roved the countryside. Under cover of night he secretly issued forth disguised as a minstrel or gleeman (a serenader) and entered all alone into the camp of the enemy to find out their numbers, how they were armed and the true temper of their leader. He was received as a strolling gleeman and ordered to sing in the very tent of Guthrum himself. Alfred sat alert, with eyes wide open, singing along to the music of his harp, surrounded by those who, if they had known who he was, would have had his head on a stick.
Later, when Alfred knew his company was strong enough to attack the enemy, he ordered a huge bonfire to be built on a hill near Athelney, where the red flames streaking the sky could be seen as far away as the three lower southern counties, where the English were hidden by riding ground. All his men gathered together and even though they were not huge in numbers his men were deeply devoted and determined in spirit. At Ethandun (Edington) they fought a mighty battle against their foes and against the odds, sending them to flight and finally, closely pursuing all the way back to the fortress they had built at Chippenham in Wiltshire. There, they maintained a siege for fourteen long days and at the end of it the Danes were forced to surrender. Alfred finally had his enemies completely at his mercy and could have repaid Guthrum’s frequent treacheries with the same cruelty. Alfred, however, had a heart of courage and the most steadfast firmness in convictions with a strong penchant for mercy and tolerant charity.
Preferring to win his enemy over rather than annihilate him, he stipulated the return of hostages and for the men of Guthrum to become Christians. Alfred had hoped that the Danes might be led to keep the covenants they made and abandon the sureties of their flimsy pagan oaths. Three weeks later, Guthrum arrived with thirty men from his host which were the most worthy, to Wedmore (near Athelney) where Alfred actually lived. There, beneath a huge wide-spreading oak, the savage, stern, old pagan and his thirty bearded warriors, (all who once boasted descent from Woden) knelt before a cross and were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. It eventually became evident that this act, in truth, brought about change in the heart and spirit of Guthrum because he personally never broke the covenant made at Ethandun. He promised to remain within a territory allotted him further north and to stay out of Wessex. This boundary treaty, officially signed in 880, ran north from outside London up to Bedford.
For twelve splendid years England enjoyed relative peace. As bold and courageous a warrior that Alfred was, he became anxious to lay aside his sword and it is remarkable that one so able in war never fought a battle of conquest but solely in defense of his countrymen. Now that he had turned England’s occupying Norse foes into friends, he began organizing the country, bringing order out of chaos, and proving himself greater and wiser in peace than in war. He rebuilt the old Roman walls around London in 886 and added fortifications along the south bank of the River Thames. By 890 Alfred had worked out a definite system of laws (which became English common law) where no system had existed before and saw to it that the legal administration held safe and secure. Well documented with eight surviving manuscripts, his Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which were written by monks, laid down Saxon, Roman and Christian legal codes combined with history. An old English saying goes, “Treasures of gold and silver might be left lying on the streets and no man would dare to touch them.” Also, during this period, Alfred reformed a network of burhs (fortifications for cities) throughout southern England which were strategically placed 20 miles apart. This was true foresight because a network of fortified cities made it possible for the military to oversee any attacks in the kingdom and deal with invasion within a single day in most cases. He made his capital city Winchester and repaired stone walls and added ditches reinforced with wooden revetments or palisades-as evidenced at Burpham, Sussex.
Alfred the Great rebuilt fortifications, monasteries, churches and above all else, promoted the advancement of education. In a country where citizens had been kept in the darkest ignorance, he invited the greatest scholars of the age to England and established a school in his own court for the sons of Saxon nobles. He spent every spare moment of his own studying and translating books from Latin into Anglo-Saxon, thereby laying the first foundations of English literature. His broad and active interest in greater knowledge prompted him to send Saxon monks to the far-off Christians of India and a Saxon whaler to explore all the Northern Countries. He also encouraged great artisans, goldsmiths and jewelers in their respective crafts. One such piece of art was found near Athelney mid-20th century- a beautiful bejeweled artifact appearing to be the crest of a scepter with the figure of a man and likeness of Alfred holding a flower in each hand, wrought in colored enamel on gold under a plate of rock crystal and on the rim are the words, “Alfred mec heht gewyrcan,” that is to say, “Alfred ordered me to be made.”
The keynote to all the King’s unselfish persistence in doing good was his simple, sincere, devout Christianity. Always the thought of God stirred him to noble deeds and his days were filled with the activity of one whose whole life was consecrated to the highest form of religious service. He served his people as an extension of his devotion to all that was right and divine, never wasting an hour. Alfred devised a way to gauge the passing of time when, as yet, there were no clocks. He had candles made and set to burn four hours, notched with four notches at regular intervals. Six candles each day gave him the twenty-four hours of the day but he found them often flickering and burning unevenly in the drafty rooms. He next contrived a little case of wood or horn in which they could be set, bringing about the origin of the first lanterns.
In the last years of Alfred’s reign, further Viking attacks were fought during the last decade of his life. Among the many skirmishes, the Danish pirate Hastings sought to harry the land once more, but the Saxons had become so well organized and strong, that Hastings was defeated with very little difficulty. In the struggle with him, Alfred showed the same wonderful depth of charity that had characterized him before. Once the King captured a stronghold where he discovered the wife and children of Hastings, but he did them no harm whatever, letting them leave in safety.
In 901 Alfred died, leaving behind the England that he had taken on so many years before when the British people lived in terror of invasions. Instead of panic, he left a well ordered, strong and free nation all the better for his reign. Never before had the world seen a ruler who lived solely for the good of his people. Practical, energetic, patient as he was, always fair and temperate, always genial and lovable, always deeply religious and profoundly intelligent. Alfred embodied, as no other man had ever before, all that is best and most admirable in the English character. King Alfred is rightfully called Alfred the Saxon and, most of all, Alfred the Great.