King Alfred the Great (History in a Nutshell No.7)

Updated on January 30, 2019
Stephen Austen profile image

History is one of S.P. Austen's favourite topics and he is fascinated how it has shaped us all.

In my previous accounts in this short history series concerning the life and times of King Alfred of Wessex, we have seen how Alfred had fought hard against the invading Viking forces, being defeated by them and rising again to become victorious over them.

King Alfred of Wessex, of Anglo-Saxon descent, ultimately became the High King or Bretwalda of all England. Even the original British peoples of Cornwall, Somerset, Devon and Dorset and the Welsh peoples, forever enemies of foreign rulers, were now loyal subjects under Alfred's English kingship. Alfred had defeated the Viking marauders, by and large, and although he allowed some of them to settle in places such as East Anglia, they too were subject under Alfred's overlordship.

Attribution: Saxon England from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Attribution: Saxon England from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle | Source

The rule of King Alfred meant that the country now had one High King who spoke for and defended all the peoples. Whilst it was true that in the northeast of England the Danelaw or Danish (Viking) rule held sway, the south and west of the country were free under English rule. It was thanks to the courage, wisdom and will of King Alfred that these events came about.

For people in modern times, it may be hard to comprehend that in the times of King Alfred, most of Europe was under threat of total subjugation by the Vikings. France had been attacked by Viking forces, and Paris had been besieged for 2 whole years. Had England failed to defeat the invaders, it is likely that not only the northeast of the country, but all the rest of it, would have fallen to the Viking onslaught.

Hundreds of churches and monasteries had been stripped of their wealth, the monks and nuns slaughtered and these spiritual buildings burned to the ground by the invaders. What had initially begun as small raiding parties of Vikings had eventually escalated into full-scale attacks in wave after wave of Viking assaults. Many Viking kings and earls wanted to make their mark and gain wealth and land in England, but fortunately for the English, they were not generally a united force. This may have been their main undoing.

Many of England's inhabitants, including chief officials and leaders, had fled the country and gone abroad to escape the pillage. Had this state of affairs continued, however, the very existence of Christian civilization might well have collapsed in England altogether. We have King Alfred to thank for the heroic efforts that he and his loyal thanes (captains) and military forces exerted in order to preserve Christian England.

Renewed Viking Assaults

In general, there was stability in the Kingdom of Wessex, and Alfred, whose name on coinage stated Aelfred Rex Anglorum, or Alfred, King of the English, had united his people. But in the year 892 AD a massive force of Vikings returned to England, landing in Kent. There were principally two separate forces of Vikings who joined with one another, with a combined fleet totalling around 330 ships. If the average longship could hold about 30 men, then that is a force of almost 10,000 invaders. For the times, that would have constituted a large and powerful army.

However, we must allow for provisions and horses and possibly women and children in some of the ships, if some were intending on settling in England with their families. At any rate, England found itself under threat of invasion once again.

Attribution: Cassell's History of England 1909
Attribution: Cassell's History of England 1909 | Source

To make matters worse for King Alfred, the new invaders received aid from the settled Vikings already in Northumbria and East Anglia, and they began to strike wherever they willed. This new force was commanded by King Haesten and he was assisted by King Eric of East Anglia, who had broken the oath to serve King Alfred which Guthrum the Dane had sworn before him.

King Alfred's forces defeated the Danes at Benfleet in East Anglia, and the wife and the young sons of Haesten were captured and brought before King Alfred. But Alfred, ever merciful, did no harm to them, and had them returned to Haesten. It seems that this kind act had no effect upon Haesten, and he scornfully carried the war into the heart of Mercia, continuing to wreak havoc on the country.

By the year 895 Haesten's army occupied Chester, an old Roman town in the northwest of England, and from there they ravaged Wales, whose inhabitants were now loyal to King Alfred. This force of marauding Danes set up camp in Essex, about 20 miles from London.

Alfred Punishes the Danes

The Danes had stationed their ships in the River Lea, not far from London. Alfred commanded that two forts be built on each side of the river and he had drainage channels cut to drain the Lea into the Thames. Subsequently, the Danish ships could not sail out of the now very shallow waters. The result was that Haesten and his forces broke out and escaped across the country to the banks of the River Severn, near Wales, leaving behind all their longships. They then made fortifications there.

Eventually, the Danes under Haesten's leadership dispersed into East Anglia and others into Northumbria. Alfred continued to plague the Viking invaders wherever he found them, and in one instance, due to the abject cruelty of the Danish invaders, he had the crews of two Danish longships hanged for their crimes of pillage, plunder and murder. Whether these particular Vikings were any worse than the usual horde of marauders who inflicted death and mayhem on the English peoples, we do not know; but certainly, King Alfred was now so moved with anger and outrage by them that he made an example of them through this punishment.

Realising that he could not defeat King Alfred or settle in England, by the year 896 King Haesten sailed for the continent and never returned to England again.

The Last Years of the King

We know little of the final few years of King Alfred's life, save only that he continued to translate many spiritually oriented books such as Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care, Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, and St. Augustine's Soliloquies, and some of the Psalter.

As a general rule, people in the days of King Alfred did not live into what modern people view as advanced old age. Given that he personally fought in battle, as most rulers of his time did, and sustained wounds and suffered many privations, (apart from the stresses of constant invasion by marauding hordes of Vikings who were overrunning the country) Alfred probably aged quickly. He died in the year 899 on 26 October. He was fifty years old.

Statue of King Alfred the Great, Wantage, Oxfordshire. Attribution: Philip Jelley
Statue of King Alfred the Great, Wantage, Oxfordshire. Attribution: Philip Jelley | Source

Yet King Alfred left behind a legend of his life that is comparable to that of King Arthur, the Dark Age mythic ruler of previous centuries. He was not seemingly likely to have become king, but the successive deaths of his father and no less than four older brothers, led him to the Crown of Wessex and ultimately to that of all England. He was devoted to the study of spiritual things, yet the circumstances of his life took him through a different door, that of temporal ruler and warrior-king. Never losing sight of his interest in books and learning, he shared his knowledge with his people, having the Bible translated into the English of his day, amongst other great and important works.

He led his nation against the most hostile and vicious forces roaming Europe at that time, and by and large, he emerged victorious. His greatest achievement was the preservation of England as a Christian nation, free from the ravages and depravities of Viking paganism, bloodshed and cruelty. The path that King Alfred was forced to walk, tested him to the fullest and made of him possibly the greatest of all English Kings.

He still remains for us, who care about the importance and destiny of British history, King Alfred the Great.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 S P Austen

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      • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

        S P Austen 

        5 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

        Thank you so much, John; your kind comments are always welcome, and I truly appreciate it.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        5 months ago from Queensland Australia

        Another wonderful account here Steve. Prior to this series, I knew very little about King Alfred, but I am now convinced he may have been England's greatest king. Thank you for sharing.

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