Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Should Alfred Be Known as the Come-back King?

By Chris Bishop

My title may seem to be rather ‘trite’ when referring to one of the truly iconic figures from English history but it is surprisingly apt.  There are many stories of great men who have lost almost everything yet managed to restore themselves and Alfred the Great must surely rank highly among them.  Let me explain why.

His story actually starts in 793 - nearly a hundred years before the era for which he is best remembered - when there was a surprise Viking attack on a monastery at Lindisfarne.  This was followed by more raids until, in circa 865, a Viking army, known as the ‘Great Heathen Army’, landed in East Anglia determined to conquer England for themselves.  This largely Danish force quickly secured most of the kingdoms which made up England at that time leaving just one, Wessex, to stand alone.

By 870 Wessex was ruled by King Aethelred who, with his younger brother, Alfred, held the Vikings off but the only significant victory they achieved was at the Battle of Ashdown in 871.  There Aethelred is said to have spent so long at Mass that Alfred pre-empted things and ordered the attack himself, thus enhancing his military reputation.  Aethelred died later that same year, probably from wounds received at the Battle of Marton.

England 878 Attribution Link

In those days there was no automatic right of succession.  Kings were ‘chosen’ and Alfred, as an accomplished warrior, was the obvious contender to succeed his brother (though not the only one).  As King, he continued his campaign against the Vikings but could not secure a decisive victory.  He also tried to buy peace by paying tribute, an act which didn’t best please the church or many of the senior Saxons.  Then, in 877, he retired to his Royal Vill in Chippenham for the winter, thinking himself safe until Spring.  But on the 10th day after Christmas (in January 878) the Vikings under Jarl Guthrum launched a surprise attack.   Alfred’s army – or at least that part of it which had remained with him - was all but annihilated.  Alfred fled with a few survivors and hid in the desolate marshes at Athelney in the Somerset Levels, a time which features strongly in my first novel, Blood and Destiny.

Given the ferocity of the attack, Alfred was lucky to escape with his life.  In fact, luck is a key element in his story.  For a start, he was ‘lucky’ that only part of the Viking army attacked his Vill.  Had it been the full force it’s doubtful he would have survived.  Also, he was ‘lucky’ to be King in the first place as, being the youngest of five brothers, he was destined for a life in the church until one by one his brothers predeceased him and he found himself as King.  

But King of what?  His kingdom was all but lost and he had nothing which could be described as an army at his disposal.  Estimates of the numbers who accompanied him vary but it’s likely that many of them would have been wounded and no doubt dejected having lost family and friends in the attack - and the marshes at Athelney were a harsh and forbidding place in which to survive the winter.  Yet it is from this miserable and wretched period that many of the stories about Alfred emanate - such as the burning of the cakes and the contention that he disguised himself as a wandering minstrel and actually returned to Chippenham to spy on the Vikings.  Make what you will of the story about the cakes (you might like to see the blog on my website ‘So, Did Alfred Really Burn the Cakes?’ www.chrisbishopauthor.com) but the idea of him returning to spy on his enemies is an unlikely proposition given that the prize for anyone prepared to betray him would have been wealth beyond reckoning.  

Undaunted, Alfred conducted what might best be described as a guerrilla campaign against the Vikings and, by Easter that same year, had somehow managed to rally the Saxon people in sufficient numbers to strike back and win a decisive victory at the Battle of Ethandune which then secured his realm of Wessex and ultimately provided the basis for a united England, albeit that didn’t happen until several generations later. 

Stained-glass window in Gloucester
Cathedral depicting Cuthbert -
Attribution Link
 My novel, Blood & Destiny, offers one possible explanation of how he achieved this incredible ‘come back’ but it remains a mystery.  The Saxons had efficient mechanisms for calling their men to battle but after so many years of war it’s likely that most would have had their fill of raids and fighting, particularly as Alfred, having gone into hiding, would have been thought by many to have been slain or to have fled abroad.  If so, his reappearance at Easter may have been seen as some sort of ‘resurrection’ in itself, something which would have helped to stir many loyal Saxons into action.  After all, they were fighting not just for themselves and their families, but for their freedom, their religion and for their whole way of life. 

One other important aspect of the battle is that Alfred claimed to have had a visitation from St Cuthbert who urged him to avenge the Christian church.  The ‘support’ of such a holy and much-loved saint would have encouraged many Saxons to follow Alfred, especially as the visitation would have seemed believable given that St Cuthbert had been disinterred from his grave at Lindisfarne and moved to keep his remains safe from Viking hands.  If no longer at rest, it would have been easy and heartening for the deeply religious Saxons to think of the goodly saint supporting their cause. 

So, what do we know about this important battle? 

Memorial stone to the battle at Edington,
erected in 2000 - Attribution Link
Well, the answer is not very much.  We’re not even sure exactly where it took place – some claim it was in Somerset but more likely it was close to a place called Edington near Chippenham and is therefore sometimes called ‘The Battle of Edington.’  

We also know very little about the tactics employed that day or how the battle progressed, though my novel does include a detailed account of what I think may have happened.  This is based on the fact that typical Saxon tactics would have involved a defensive shield wall with their foes pressed up hard against them locked in desperate hand to hand combat – but on foot, not on horseback as is sometimes depicted, for at that time most warriors tended not to ride into battle.  There is a story of Alfred leading a charge at the Battle of Ashdown mounted on a white horse but I find this to be unlikely as commanders usually positioned themselves at the rear of the shield wall from where they could best direct their men using runners to ensure their orders were properly relayed to all.  Ironically, a full-scale charge on horseback was probably first used against the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings to devastating effect – but that’s another story.  

Battle reenactment scene - Attribution Link

The outcome of the battle was a surprising victory for Alfred, forcing the Vikings to retreat to Chippenham where they held out for many days before surrendering.  When they did, Alfred actually showed compassion and wisdom in agreeing the terms of a peace treaty (The Treaty of Wedmore) which eventually ceded control of lands to the Vikings to ensure they didn’t trouble Wessex again (The Danelaw).  This respite provided a period of relative and much needed peace which, although it didn’t last, enabled Alfred to instigate the many reforms and initiatives for which he is renowned.

The relevance of this surprising victory reaches deep into English culture for had King Alfred not triumphed there, virtually the whole of England would have been under Viking rule and Alfred himself either executed or slain.  Had that occurred, many of the hugely important events which followed would simply not have happened; including quite possibly the Battle of Hastings given that the Vikings had such close ties with the Normans – the name ‘Norman’ is actually derived from the ‘Norsemen’ or ‘Northmen’,  Vikings who had settled in that part of France.  Whilst not exactly brothers, they might be considered as cousins, albeit many times removed.  

There is one postscript to the battle in that recent archaeological evidence suggests that Alfred may not have stood alone at Edington.  Coins struck just after the battle depict Alfred and Ceolwulf II of Mercia sitting side by side, suggesting that he enlisted – or perhaps accepted - help from Ceolwulf to fight a common foe.  Or did it reflect the alliance between them once victory had been achieved?  
Either way, Alfred must be credited for restoring his realm and turning utter defeat into triumph – no mean achievement when you consider the forces he was up against and what he went on to accomplish. Little wonder that he is one of the few people in the history of the world to be afforded the title ‘The Great’.

[Illustrations: all sourced from Wikipedia/Commons Licence - click on attribution links for more details]


Chris Bishop is the author of the Shadow of the Raven series, a trilogy set in the time of Alfred the Great.

Website: www.chrisbishopauthor.com
Twitter: @CBishop_author
Chris is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Historical Writers' Association

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, it's amazing how much you were able to convey, giving the scanty facts. When it's so long ago, with few records, one does have to sift through facts, legend and story, like panning for gold, to arrive at a reasonable account. Thank you!


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