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Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great


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Alfred, the youngest son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex and Osburh, was born at Wantage, in about 848. He had a sister, Ethelswith and three brothers, Ethelbald, Ethelberht and Ethelred, who survived childhood. Alfred's grandfather, King Egbert, was the founder of the Wessex supremacy in 802 and ruled for over 40 years. (1)

Ethelwulf was a very religious man and when his son was four years old he was sent to Rome to meet Pope Leo IV. He wrote to Ethelwulf that he had arrived safely: "We have now graciously received your son Alfred, whom you were anxious to send at this time to the thresholds of the Holy Apostles, and we have decorated him, as a spiritual son, with the dignity of the belt and the vestments of the consulate, as is customary with Roman consuls." (2)

Douglas Woodruff points out that this was an experience none of his brothers nor any other English king had in early life, and it is perhaps not fanciful to think that the impression Rome made on him accounted for the quite exceptional devotion to learning as well as to religion that was to mark him in his maturity." (3)

Alfred experienced poor health as a child. According to John Assler he had these problems "from the first flowering of his youth" and it was feared that he would die before reaching adulthood. (4) A doctor who has studied his symptoms has suggested that he was suffering from tuberculosis or/and Crohn's disease. (5)

In 856 Ethelwulf visited Rome for the first time. Alfred went with him and he left two of his sons, Ethelbald and Ethelberht to rule Wessex while he was away. Ethelbald became very angry when he heard that his father had married Judith of Flanders, the daughter of Charles the Bald, the king of Italy. Ethelbald was concerned that she might "produce heirs more throne-worthy than he". (6)

Ethelwulf died eleven months after his return from Italy. Ethelbald now became king of Wessex. He also married his father's young widow, Judith. This caused a great scandal as this was forbidden by the Church. Ethelbald only survived his father by only a little over three years and died on 20th December 860. (7) John Assler described Ethelbald as "iniquitous and grasping", and his reign as "two and a half lawless years". (8)

Ethelberht replaced his brother as king. As well as Wessex he also became king of Kent. During this period Alfred lived at East Dene and according to one biographer, spent a good deal of time in Alfriston. (9) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes his reign as one of good harmony and great peace. Although this was true of internal affairs, the Vikings remained a threat, unsuccessfully storming Winchester and ravaging all eastern Kent. Ethelberht died in the autumn of 865 and was buried at Sherborne beside his brother Ethelbald. (10)

Ethelred, who was only aged eighteen, became the next king of Wessex. In 868 Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of a Mercian nobleman. They had five or six children together, including Edward the Elder, Ethelweard, Ethelflaed (who married Ethelred, the ruler of Mercia) and Elfthryth (who married Baldwin II the Count of Flanders). (11)

The Vikings increased their attacks on England and over the next five years they conquered and installed their own rulers over Northumbria and East Anglia. They also captured Nottingham in Mercia. In 870 they turned their attention to Wessex and set up base at Reading. Alfred joined his brother in battle against the Vikings. A victory at Ashdown was followed by defeat at Basing. (12)

Ethelred was badly wounded in battle and died of his injuries on 15th April, 871. Alfred was now the king of Wessex. "Never before and never since in our history have four brothers succeeded each other on the same throne, and all inside ten years. Ethelbald, Ethelberht and Ethelred were not slain in battle, although they all fought battles, but it is very possible that wounds in battle played their part in cutting short their lives." (13)

Alfred faced a serious military crisis. The kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia had all recently fallen to the Vikings. Wessex under Alfred was the only surviving Anglo-Saxon province. As Barbara Yorke has pointed out: "Alfred promoted himself as the defender of all Christian Anglo-Saxons against the pagan Viking threat and began the liberation of neighbouring areas from Viking control. He thus paved the way for the future unity of England." (14)

Alfred was faced with a serious threat from Scandinavian leaders that included Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that these warriors had settled in Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. There is also evidence for a Danish and Norwegian presence in Yorkshire and the Lake District. Scandinavians took their paganism seriously, and destroyed a large number of churches in England. (15)

The Vikings had developed new methods of war. The moved fast at sea in their long, many-oared ships carrying up to 100 men apiece, and on the land by rounding up all the horses where ever they touched and turning themselves into the first mounted infantry. They also learnt to build strong, stockaded forts, and when defeated retired behind these and were able to resist attacks from the British tribes. (16)

Guthrum, a Danish chieftain, became a serious problem for Alfred with his army raiding Wessex. Alfred confronted him in a series of skirmishes but Guthrum's hopes of conquering all of Wessex came to an end with the Battle of Edington in May 878. The Danes were pursued to Chippenham and was besieged for ten days, until agreeing to surrender. Under the Treaty of Wedmore the borders dividing the lands of Alfred and Guthrum were established. (17)

To show his good will, Guthrum converted to Christianity and took on the Christian name Ethelstan with Alfred as his godfather. (18) As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle pointed out: "Then the raiding army granted him (Alfred) hostages and great oaths that they would leave his kingdom and also promised him that their king (Guthrum) would receive baptism; and they fulfilled it. And three weeks later the king Guthrum came to him, one of thirty of the most honourable men who were in the raiding army, at Aller - and that is near Athelney - and the king received him at baptism; and his chrism loosing was at Wedmore." (19)

Guthrum upheld his end of the treaty and left Alfred's territory unmolested. According to Douglas Woodruff, the author of Alfred the Great (1974) argued: "Alfred himself, the respect the Danes could not withhold from him as a fighting man, the magnanimity of his spirit, and his deep personal conviction of the truths of Christianity, which made a lasting impression on Guthrum, putting him in a class apart from the other Danish leaders. He kept his pact with Alfred, and it was no doubt by agreement that after a year at Cirencester he moved his army into East Anglia, and began settling them on the land." (20)

Alfred also took control of Mercia, including London, its capital, in 886. Some of his charters now called him "king of the Anglo-Saxons". Assler described Alfred as "ruler of all Christians of the island of Britain" and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle asserts of Alfred that all the people "except what was under subjection to the Danes submitted to him". (21) David Pratt points out that although almost all chroniclers agree that the Saxon people of pre-unification England submitted to Alfred, he did not adopt the title King of England himself. (22)

Alfred introduced several military reforms. One, reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's annal for 893, was the division of the fyrd into two "so that always half were at home and half on service". In 896, the annal reported that Alfred began to build ships to an enlarged sixty-oar design of his own. This reform resulted in some historians claiming that Alfred was the father of an English navy. The third major reform was "building a chain of forts around his kingdom, from Devon and Somerset to Sussex and Surrey." (23) He also creating a standing army that served for six months in every year. (24) It has been claimed that "Alfred's defensive arrangements enabled the mass of the people to live and work in peace." (25)

Alfred's close associate, John Assler, explained: "He (Alfred) was a bountiful giver of alms, both to his own countrymen and to foreigners of all nations, incomparably affable and pleasant to all men, and a skilful investigator of the secrets of nature. Many Franks, Frisians, Gauls, Pagans, Britons and Scots, and Bretons submitted voluntarily to his dominion, both noble and ignoble, all of whom, according to their birth and dignity, he ruled, loved, honoured, and enriched with money and power." (26)

Douglas Woodruff has argued that Alfred introduced several important legal reforms. At that time Judgement by Ordeal was a widespread custom among the people of Britain. For example, someone accused of a crime might be made to eat a specially baked cake. It was believed if the person was lying, God would make sure he choked and died.

Ordeal by fire involved the accused plunging his bare arm into boiling water and fetch out a stone from the bottom of the vessel. His arm was then bandaged and left for three days. At the end of the time, priests, in the presence of witnesses, unbandaged the arm and if it was completely healed he would be acquitted. On other occasions a man would have to carry a very hot iron rod for a number of paces. The test of innocence was the burns should disappear in three days.

In about 890, Alfred issued a law code, consisting of his "own" laws followed by a code issued by his predecessor King Ine of Wessex. About a fifth of the law code is taken up by Alfred's introduction. Alfred encouraged the use of local courts where jurors knew something about the person accused of a crime. "The beginnings of the jury system rested on the principle that one of the best guides to who was telling the truth was the good name or the less good name that a man enjoyed among his neighbours. The guiding principle was exactly the opposite of what was later to become the essence of the jury system, that the jurors must have no previous knowledge of the parties to a suit and if possible no knowledge of the facts or preconceived opinions." (27)

Alfred surrounded himself with scholars such as John Assler, Grimbald of St Bertin, John the Old Saxon and Plegemund of Mercia. He insisted that all his officials obtain wisdom (learnt to read). According to Patrick Wormald the "idea of wisdom observably drove Alfred's programme of spiritual and cultural revival". Alfred wanted his officials to learn Latin as well as English. (28)

His biographer, John Assler, argues: "Meanwhile amid wars and the frequent hindrances of this present life, the incursions of the Pagans and his own daily infirmities of body, the King did not cease to carry on the government and to engage in hunting of every form; to teach his goldsmiths and all his artificers, his falconers, hawkers and dog-keepers; to erect by his own inventive skill finer and more sumptuous buildings than had ever been the wont of his ancestors; to read aloud Saxon books, and above all, not only to command others to learn Saxon poems by heart but to study them himself in private to the best of his power... Moreover, he loved his bishops and the whole order of clergy, his earls and nobles, and all his servants and friends with wonderful affection, and he looked upon their sons, who were brought up in the royal household, as no less dear to him than his own, never ceasing night and day, among other things, to instruct them in all good morals and to teach them letters." (29)

Alfred the Great introduced a new education system. The emphasis was on a school at court itself rather than in the kingdom's major churches. Children of lesser as well as noble birth were schooled there. "The schooling was to begin in the vernacular, not for its own sake but, as Alfred said, to lay foundations on which Latin learning could then be built in those continuing to higher rank.... The vernacular received such a boost that English now became a language of prose literature, with all that was to mean for its survival." (30)

Alfred decided to translate books into Anglo-Saxon. His first book was Pastoral Care, a treatise on the responsibilities of the clergy, that had been written by Pope Gregory I in about 590. This was followed by
History against the Pagans by Paulus Orosius. This book was written in about 416 and Alfred added a lot of historical information that was not in the original book. He also provided an Anglo-Saxon translation of Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a book that had been produced in Latin by Bede. It is this work that has given him the title of the "father of English prose". (31)

In 892 the Danish commander Haesten sailed to England from Boulogne to the Kent coast. His army landed in 80 ships and occupied the village of Milton Regis, whilst his allies landed at Appledore with 250 ships. Alfred positioned his army between them to keep them from uniting, the result of which was that Hastein agreed terms, including allowing his two sons to be baptised, and left Kent and established a camp at Benfleet. (32)

Hastein used this camp as a base to raid Mercia. Alfred's troops captured his fort, along with his ships, women and children. This included Hastein's own wife and sons. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Hastein negotiated the release of his family. Shortly afterwards, Hastein launched a second raid along the Thames valley and from there along the River Severn. Eventually they returned to the fortress at Shoeburyness. "After many weeks had passed, some of the heathens (Danes) died of hunger, but some, having by then eaten their horses, broke out of the fortress, and joined battle with those who were on the east bank of the river. But, when many thousands of pagans had been slain, and all the others had been put to flight, the Christians were masters of the place of death." (33)

Alfred the Great died on 26th October 899. He was barely fifty. His successor was his son Edward the Elder. It has been claimed by his biographer, Patrick Wormald: "It is needless to endorse all that has been thought of Alfred as history transmuted into myth. The historical record plainly establishes that he was among the most remarkable rulers in the annals of human government." (34)

Barbara Yorke has argued that "Alfred’s lack of a saintly epithet, a disadvantage in the high Middle Ages, was the salvation of his reputation in a post-Reformation world. As a pious king with an interest in promoting the use of English, Alfred was an ideal figurehead for the emerging English Protestant church". Archbishop Matthew Parker "did an important service to Alfred’s reputation by publishing an edition of Asser’s Life of Alfred in 1574." (35)

John Foxe, the author of Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563) also wrote favourably about Alfred. It has been argued that this is one of the most important books published in the English language: "The Book of Martyrs, with the full force of government propaganda behind it, undoubtedly had a powerful effect on the English people, and is one of the few books which can be said to have changed the course of history." (36)

It was during the reign of Queen Victoria, that Alfred really gained his impressive reputation. Joanne Parker, argues in her book, England's Darling: The Victorian Cult of Alfred the Great (2007) that "the Saxon monarch became increasingly promoted as a moral role-model for everyone, and his personal achievements, accomplishments and character were investigated and discussed as much as his civic institutions and establishments." Parker quotes the Victorian historian, Edward Augustus Freeman, the author of The History of the Norman Conquest of England (1867-1879) as describing Alfred as "the most perfect character in history". (37)

Charles Dickens also loved Alfred and in his book A Child’s History of England (1851-53) he puts forward the viewpoint that he was our greatest king: "As great and good in peace, as he was great and good at war, King Alfred never rested from his labours to improve his people. He loved to talk with clever men, and with travellers from foreign countries, and to write down what they told him, for his people to read.... He founded schools; he patiently heard causes himself in his Court of Justice; the great desires of his heart were to do right to all his subjects, and to leave England, better, wiser, happier in all ways, than he found it." (38)

In the 20th century Alfred was acclaimed by Marxist historians. A. L. Morton, the author of A People's History of England (1938) claims that his achievements in the field of education makes him "one of the greatest figures in English history". Morton points out: "Alfred encouraged learned men to come from Europe and even from Wales and in middle age taught himself to read and write in Latin and English... He sought eagerly for the best knowledge that the age afforded and in a less illiterate time would probably have attained a really scientific outlook. Constantly in ill health, never long in peace, the extent of his work is remarkable." (39)

As soon as Alfred had the combined forces at his disposal, he set out towards Chippenham. The Danes met him on the Wiltshire downs at Ethandune near the village of Edington. After a long day's fighting, the Saxons won a victory which proved decisive. The Danes were pursued to Chippenham and there besieged, and after ten days, instead of trying to break out sued for peace, offering all the hostages Alfred chose to demand. We are told that the Danes were reduced to privation and despair, which suggests that their considerable encampment must have been totally surrounded, and surrounded in sufficient strength to convince them that an attempt to break out was hopeless. They also promised that their king, Guthrum, and a number of his leading followers would, before they departed northwards, accept baptism, and we are told that Alfred had pity on them, and agreed that he would himself stand sponsor at the font for Guthrum.

Although Chippenham was a Saxon royal vill, the ceremony did not take place there, though the Saxons re-possessed themselves of all the booty the Danes had collected and not, as yet, consumed. Then Alfred took Guthrum and thirty of his picked companions all the way back to Athelney. At Aller nearby, the baptism was duly performed. Guthrum received the noble Saxon name of Athelstan. In addition to the baptismal rites of water, he was anointed with chrism and his head bandaged, after which for several days, at another Somerset royal vill further north at Wedmore, not far from the Bristol Channel, Alfred entertained him royally and gave him gifts which included houses. It must have been uphill work entertaining the discomforted Northman with a different language and little conversation except military boasting - singularly out of place..

Alfred himself, the respect the Danes could not withhold from him as a fighting man, the magnanimity of his spirit, and his deep personal conviction of the truths of Christianity, which made a lasting impression on Guthrum, putting him in a class apart from the other Danish leaders. He kept his pact with Alfred, and it was no doubt by agreement that after a year at Cirencester he moved his army into East Anglia, and began settling them on the land.

Meanwhile amid wars and the frequent hindrances of this present life, the incursions of the Pagans and his own daily infirmities of body, the King did not cease to carry on the government and to engage in hunting of every form; to teach his goldsmiths and all his artificers, his falconers, hawkers and dog-keepers; to erect by his own inventive skill finer and more sumptuous buildings than had ever been the wont of his ancestors; to read aloud Saxon books, and above all, not only to command others to learn Saxon poems by heart but to study them himself in private to the best of his power...

He was a bountiful giver of alms, both to his own countrymen and to foreigners of all nations, incomparably affable and pleasant to all men, and a skilfull investigator of the secrets of nature. Many Franks, Frisians, Gauls, Pagans, Britons and Scots, and Bretons submitted voluntarily to his dominion, both noble and ignoble, all of whom, according to their birth and dignity, he ruled, loved, honoured, and enriched with money and power...

Moreover, he loved his bishops and the whole order of clergy, his earls and nobles, and all his servants and friends with wonderful affection, and he looked upon their sons, who were brought up in the royal household, as no less dear to him than his own, never ceasing night and day, among other things, to instruct them in all good morals and to teach them letters.

The noble King Alfred... in his single person, possessed all the Saxon virtues. Whom misfortune could not subdue, whom prosperity could not spoil, whose perseverance, nothing could shake. Who was hopeful in defeat, and generous in success. Who loved justice, freedom, truth and knowledge....

As great and good in peace, as he was great and good at war, King Alfred never rested from his labours to improve his people. He founded schools; he patiently heard causes himself in his Court of Justice; the great desires of his heart were to do right to all his subjects, and to leave England, better, wiser, happier in all ways, than he found it.

There can be no doubt that Alfred’s reign was significant, both for the direction of the country’s development and for the fortunes of his descendants. After the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia had fallen to the Vikings, Wessex under Alfred was the only surviving Anglo-Saxon province. Alfred nearly succumbed to the Vikings as well, but kept his nerve and won a decisive victory at the battle of Edington in 879. Further Viking threats were kept at bay by a reorganisation of military service and particularly through the ringing of Wessex by a regular system of garrisoned fortresses. At the same time Alfred promoted himself as the defender of all Christian Anglo-Saxons against the pagan Viking threat and began the liberation of neighbouring areas from Viking control. He thus paved the way for the future unity of England, which was brought to fruition under his son and grandsons, who conquered the remaining areas held by the Vikings in the east and north, so that by the mid-tenth century the England we are familiar with was ruled as one country for the first time.


His preservation from the Vikings and unexpected succession as king after the death of four older brothers, seem to have given Alfred a sense that he had been specially destined for high office. With the help of advisers from other areas of England, Wales and Francia, Alfred studied, and even translated from Latin into Old English, certain works that were regarded at the time as providing models of ideal Christian kingship and ‘most necessary for all men to know’.

Alfred tried to put these principles into practice, for instance, in the production of his law-code. He became convinced that those in authority in church or state could not act justly or effectively without the ‘wisdom’ acquired through study, and set up schools to ensure that future generations of priests and secular administrators would be better trained, as well as encouraging the nobles at his court to emulate his own example in reading and study. Alfred also had the foresight to commission his biography from Bishop Asser of Wales. Asser presented Alfred as the embodiment of the ideal, but practical, Christian ruler. Alfred was the ‘truthteller’, a brave, resourceful, pious man, who was generous to the church and anxious to rule his people justly. One could say that Asser accentuated the positive, and ignored those elements of ruthless, dictatorial behaviour which any king needed to survive in ninth-century realpolitik. Alfred and Asser did such a good job that when later generations looked back at his reign through their works they saw only a ruler apparently more perfect than any before or after.

(1) Patrick Wormald, Alfred the Great : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Pope Leo IV, letter to King Ethelwulf (c. 853)

(3) Douglas Woodruff, Alfred the Great (1974) page 27

(4) John Assler, The Life of Alfred the Great (893)

(5) G. Craig, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (May 1991)

(6) Sean Miller, Ethelbald : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(7) Douglas Woodruff, Alfred the Great (1974) page 43

(8) John Assler, The Life of Alfred the Great (893)

(9) Douglas Woodruff, Alfred the Great (1974) page 47

(10) Sean Miller, Ethelbert : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(11) Janet L. Nelson, Rulers and Ruling Families in Early Medieval Europe (1999) pages 60-62

(12) Sean Miller, Ethelred : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(13) Douglas Woodruff, Alfred the Great (1974) page 56

(14) Barbara Yorke, History Today (10th November, 1999)

(15) A. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 32

(16) Patrick Wormald, Alfred the Great : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(17) David Horspool, Why Alfred Burned the Cakes (2006) pages 123-124

(18) H. R. Loyn, The Vikings in Britain (1977) page 59

(19) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (878)

(20) Douglas Woodruff, Alfred the Great (1974) page 86

(21) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (886)

(22) David Pratt, The Political Thought of King Alfred the Great (2007) page 106

(23) Patrick Wormald, Alfred the Great : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(24) Barbara Yorke, History Today (10th November, 1999)

(25) A. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 35

(26) John Assler, The Life of Alfred the Great (893)

(27) Douglas Woodruff, Alfred the Great (1974) page 107

(28) Patrick Wormald, Alfred the Great : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(29) John Assler, The Life of Alfred the Great (893)

(30) Patrick Wormald, Alfred the Great : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(31) Douglas Woodruff, Alfred the Great (1974) page 139

(32) Thomas D. Kendrick, A History of the Vikings (1930) page 242

(33) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (892)

(34) Patrick Wormald, Alfred the Great : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(35) Barbara Yorke, History Today (10th November, 1999)

(36) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 226

(37) Joanne Parker, England's Darling: The Victorian Cult of Alfred the Great (2007) page 168

(38) Charles Dickens, A Child’s History of England (1851-53) page 13

(39) A. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 35


Alfred the Great: 10 Major Accomplishments

Children: Æthelflaed, Edward the Elder (future king), Æthelgifu, Æthelweard, and Ælfhryth.

Reign: 871 – 899

Title: King of the West Saxons (871- c. 886), King of the Anglo Saxons (886 – 899)

Predecessor: Æthelred

Successor: Edward the Elder

Also known as: King of the English

Most famous for: Quelling the Viking threat his victory against the Great Heathen Army in the Battle of Edington (878)


Contents

Mercia was the dominant kingdom in southern England in the eighth century and maintained its position until it suffered a decisive defeat by Wessex at the Battle of Ellandun in 825. Thereafter the two kingdoms became allies, which was to be an important factor in English resistance to the Vikings. [1]

In 865 the Viking Great Heathen Army landed in East Anglia and used this as a starting point for an invasion. The East Anglians were forced to buy peace and the following year the Vikings invaded Northumbria, where they appointed a puppet king in 867. They then moved on Mercia, where they spent the winter of 867–868. King Burgred of Mercia was joined by King Æthelred of Wessex and his brother, the future King Alfred, for a combined attack on the Vikings, who refused an engagement in the end the Mercians bought peace with them. The following year, the Vikings conquered East Anglia. [2] In 874 the Vikings expelled King Burgred and Ceolwulf became the last King of Mercia with their support. In 877 the Vikings partitioned Mercia, taking the eastern regions for themselves and allowing Ceolwulf to keep the western ones. He was described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as "a foolish king's thegn" who was a puppet of the Vikings. The historian Ann Williams regards this view as partial and distorted, that he was accepted as a true king by the Mercians and by King Alfred. [3] The situation was transformed the following year when Alfred won a decisive victory over the Danes at the Battle of Edington. [4]

Ceolwulf is not recorded after 879. His successor as the ruler of the English western half of Mercia, Æthelflæd's husband Æthelred, is first seen in 881 when, according to the historian of medieval Wales, Thomas Charles-Edwards, he led an unsuccessful Mercian invasion of the north Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd. In 883 he made a grant with the consent of King Alfred, thus acknowledging Alfred's lordship. In 886 Alfred occupied the Mercian town of London, which had been in Viking hands. He then received the submission of all English not under Viking control and handed control of London over to Æthelred. In the 890s, Æthelred and Edward, Alfred's son and future successor, fought off more Viking attacks. [5] Alfred died in 899 and Edward's claim to the throne was disputed by Æthelwold, son of Alfred's elder brother. Æthelwold joined forces with the Vikings when he was unable to get sufficient support in Wessex, and his rebellion only ended with his death in battle in December 902. [6]

The most important source for history in this period is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle but Æthelflæd is almost ignored in the standard West Saxon version, in what F. T. Wainwright calls "a conspiracy of silence". He argues that King Edward was anxious not to encourage Mercian separatism and did not wish to publicise his sister's accomplishments, in case she became a symbol of Mercian claims. [7] Brief details of her actions were preserved in a pro-Mercian version of the Chronicle known as the Mercian Register or the Annals of Æthelflæd although it is now lost, elements were incorporated into several surviving versions of the Chronicle. The Register covers the years 902 to 924, and focuses on Æthelflæd's actions Edward is hardly mentioned and her husband only twice, on his death and as father of their daughter. [a] Information about Æthelflæd's career is also preserved in the Irish chronicle known as the Three Fragments. According to Wainwright, it "contains much that is legendary rather than historical. But it also contains, especially for our period, much genuine historical information which seems to have its roots in a contemporary narrative." [9] She was praised by Anglo-Norman chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester [10] and she has received more attention from historians than any other secular woman in Anglo-Saxon England. [11]

Æthelflæd was born around 870, the oldest child of King Alfred the Great and his Mercian wife, Ealhswith, who was a daughter of Æthelred Mucel, ealdorman of the Gaini, one of the tribes of Mercia. [b] Ealhswith's mother, Eadburh, was a member of the Mercian royal house, probably a descendant of King Coenwulf (796–821). [14] Æthelflæd was thus half-Mercian and the alliance between Wessex and Mercia was sealed by her marriage to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. [15] They are mentioned in Alfred's will, which probably dates to the 880s. Æthelflæd, described only as "my eldest daughter", received an estate and 100 mancuses, while Æthelred, the only ealdorman to be mentioned by name, received a sword worth 100 mancuses. [16] Æthelflæd was first recorded as Æthelred's wife in a charter of 887, when he granted two estates to the see of Worcester "with the permission and sign-manual of King Alfred" and the attestors included "Æthelflæd conjux". The marriage may have taken place earlier, perhaps when he submitted to Alfred following the recovery of London in 886. [17] Æthelred was much older than Æthelflæd and they had one known child, a daughter called Ælfwynn. Æthelstan, the eldest son of Edward the Elder and future king of England, was brought up in their court and, in the view of Martin Ryan, certainly joined their campaigns against the Vikings. [12] [18]

Æthelred's descent is unknown. Richard Abels describes him as "somewhat of a mysterious character", who may have claimed royal blood and been related to King Alfred's father-in-law, Ealdorman Æthelred Mucel. [19] In the view of Ian Walker: "He was a royal ealdorman whose power base lay in the south-west of Mercia in the former kingdom of the Hwicce around Gloucester". [20] Alex Woolf suggests that he was probably the son of King Burgred of Mercia and King Alfred's sister Æthelswith, although that would mean that the marriage between Æthelflæd and Æthelred was uncanonical, because Rome then forbade marriage between first cousins. [21]

Compared to the rest of England, much of English Mercia —Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire —was unusually stable in the Viking age. It did not suffer major attacks and it did not come under great pressure from Wessex. [22] Mercian scholarship had high prestige at the courts of Alfred and Edward. [23] Worcester was able to preserve considerable intellectual and liturgical continuity and, with Gloucester, became the centre of a Mercian revival under Æthelred and Æthelflæd that extended into the more unstable areas of Staffordshire and Cheshire. Charters show the Mercian leaders supporting the revival by their generosity to monastic communities. [24] In 883 Æthelred granted privileges to Berkeley Abbey and in the 890s he and Æthelflæd issued a charter in favour of the church of Worcester. This was the only occasion in Alfred's lifetime when they are known to have acted jointly generally Æthelred acted on his own, usually acknowledging the permission of King Alfred. Æthelflæd witnessed charters of Æthelred in 888, 889 and 896. [25] In 901 Æthelflæd and Æthelred gave land and a golden chalice weighing thirty mancuses to the shrine of Saint Mildburg at Much Wenlock church. [26]

At the end of the ninth century, Æthelred and Æthelflæd fortified Worcester, with the permission of King Alfred and at the request of Bishop Werferth, described in the charter as "their friend". They granted the church of Worcester a half share of the rights of lordship over the city, covering land rents and the proceeds of justice, and in return the cathedral community agreed in perpetuity to dedicate a psalm to them three times a day and a mass and thirty psalms every Saturday. As the rights of lordship had previously belonged fully to the church, this represented the beginning of transfer from episcopal to secular control of the city. In 904 Bishop Werferth granted a lease of land in the city to Æthelred and Æthelflæd, to be held for the duration of their lives and that of their daughter Ælfwynn. The land was valuable, including most of the city's usable river frontage, and control of it enabled the Mercian rulers to dominate over and profit from the city. [28]

Æthelred's health probably declined at some stage in the decade after Alfred died in 899, and Æthelflæd may have become the de facto ruler of Mercia by 902. [c] According to the Three Fragments, the Norse (Norwegian) Vikings were expelled from Dublin and then made an abortive attack on Wales. When this failed they applied to Æthelflæd, her husband being ill, for permission to settle near Chester. Æthelflæd agreed and for some time they were peaceful. The Norse Vikings then joined with the Danes in an attack on Chester, but this failed because Æthelflæd had fortified the town, and she and her husband persuaded the Irish among the attackers to change sides. Other sources confirm that the Norse were driven out of Dublin in 902 and that Æthelflæd fortified Chester in 907. [33] Æthelflæd re-founded Chester as a burh and she is believed to have enhanced its Roman defences by running walls from the north-west and south-east corners of the fort to the River Dee. [34] Simon Ward, who excavated an Anglo-Saxon site in Chester, sees the later prosperity of the town as owing much to the planning of Æthelflæd and Edward. [35] After Æthelflæd's death, Edward encountered fierce resistance to his efforts to consolidate his control of the north-west and he died there in 924, shortly after suppressing a local rebellion. [36] Æthelred was well enough to witness charters at a meeting of Edward's court in 903, but he did not witness any later surviving charter. [37]

In 909 Edward sent a West Saxon and Mercian force to the northern Danelaw, where it raided for five weeks. [38] The remains of the royal Northumbrian saint Oswald were seized and taken from his resting place in Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire to Gloucester. [12] In the late ninth century Gloucester had become a burh with a street plan similar to Winchester, and Æthelred and Æthelflæd had repaired its ancient Roman defences. In 896 a meeting of the Mercian witan was held in the royal hall at Kingsholm, just outside the town. [39] The Mercian rulers built a new minster in Gloucester and, although the building was small, it was embellished on a grand scale, with rich sculpture. [40] The church appears to have been an exact copy of the Old Minster, Winchester. [41] It was initially dedicated to St Peter but when Oswald's remains were brought to Gloucester in 909, Æthelflæd had them translated from Bardney to the new minster, which was renamed St Oswald's in his honour. [12] The relics gave the church great prestige as Oswald had been one of the most important founding saints of Anglo-Saxon Christianity as well as a ruling monarch, and the decision to translate his relics to Gloucester shows the importance of the town to Æthelred and Æthelflæd, who were buried in St Oswald's Minster. [42] Simon Keynes describes the town as "the main seat of their power" and Carolyn Heighway believes that the foundation of the church was probably a family and dynastic enterprise, encouraged by Alfred and supported by Edward and Bishop Werferth. [43] [44] Heighway and Michael Hare wrote:

In the age when English scholarship and religion reached their lowest ebb, Mercia and in particular the lower Severn valley seem to have maintained traditional standards of learning. It is in this context that the establishment of a new minster at Gloucester by Æthelred and Æthelflæd is to be seen. [45]

Mercia had a long tradition of venerating royal saints and this was enthusiastically supported by Æthelred and Æthelflæd. [46] Saintly relics were believed to give supernatural legitimacy to rulers' authority, and Æthelflæd was probably responsible for the foundation or re-foundation of Chester Minster and the transfer to it of the remains of the seventh-century Mercian princess Saint Werburgh from Hanbury in Staffordshire. She may also have translated the relics of the martyred Northumbrian prince Ealhmund from Derby to Shrewsbury. [47] In 910 the Danes retaliated against the English attack of the previous year by invading Mercia, raiding as far as Bridgnorth in Shropshire. On their way back they were caught by an English army in Staffordshire and their army was destroyed at the Battle of Tettenhall, opening the way for the recovery of the Danish Midlands and East Anglia over the next decade. [38]

On her husband's death in 911, Æthelflæd became Myrcna hlædige, "Lady of the Mercians". [12] Ian Walker describes her succession as the only case of a female ruler of a kingdom in Anglo-Saxon history and "one of the most unique events in early medieval history". [49] In Wessex, royal women were not allowed to play any political role Alfred's wife was not granted the title of queen and was never a witness to charters. In Mercia, Alfred's sister Æthelswith had been the wife of King Burgred of Mercia she had witnessed charters as queen and had made grants jointly with her husband and in her own name. Æthelflæd benefited from a Mercian tradition of queenly importance, and was able to play a key role in the history of the early tenth century as Lady of the Mercians, which would not have been possible in Wessex. [50]

When Æthelred died, Edward took control of the Mercian towns of London and Oxford and their hinterlands, which Alfred had put under Mercian control. [12] Ian Walker suggests that Æthelflæd accepted this loss of territory in return for recognition by her brother of her position in Mercia. [51] Alfred had constructed a network of fortified burhs in Wessex, and Edward and Æthelflæd now embarked on a programme of extending them to consolidate their defences and provide bases for attacks on the Vikings. [12] According to Frank Stenton, Æthelflæd led Mercian armies on expeditions, which she planned. He commented: "It was through reliance on her guardianship of Mercia that her brother was enabled to begin the forward movement against the southern Danes which is the outstanding feature of his reign". [52]

Æthelflæd had already fortified an unknown location called Bremesburh in 910 and in 912 she built defences at Bridgnorth to cover a crossing of the River Severn. In 913 she built forts at Tamworth to guard against the Danes in Leicester, and in Stafford to cover access from the Trent Valley. In 914 a Mercian army drawn from Gloucester and Hereford repelled a Viking invasion from Brittany, and the Iron Age Eddisbury hill fort was repaired to protect against invasion from Northumbria or Cheshire, while Warwick was fortified as further protection against the Leicester Danes. In 915 Chirbury was fortified to guard a route from Wales and Runcorn on the River Mersey. Defences were built before 914 at Hereford, and probably Shrewsbury and two other fortresses, at Scergeat and Weardbyrig, which have not been located. [53] [d]

In 917 invasions by three Viking armies failed as Æthelflæd sent an army which captured Derby and the territory around it. The town was one of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw, together with Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford. Derby was the first to fall to the English she lost "four of her thegns who were dear to her" in the battle. [12] Tim Clarkson, who describes Æthelflæd as "renowned as a competent war-leader", regards the victory at Derby as "her greatest triumph". [55] At the end of the year, the East Anglian Danes submitted to Edward. In early 918, Æthelflæd gained possession of Leicester without opposition and most of the local Danish army submitted to her. A few months later, the leading men of Danish-ruled York offered to pledge their loyalty to Æthelflæd, probably to secure her support against Norse raiders from Ireland, but she died on 12 June 918, before she could take advantage of the offer. No similar offer is known to have been made to Edward. [56] According to the Three Fragments, in 918 Æthelflæd led an army of Scots and Northumbrian English against forces led by the Norse Viking leader Ragnall at the Battle of Corbridge in Northumbria. Historians consider this unlikely, but she may have sent a contingent to the battle. Both sides claimed victory but Ragnall was able to establish himself as ruler of Northumbria. [57] In the Three Fragments, Æthelflæd also formed a defensive alliance with the Scots and the Strathclyde British, a claim accepted by Clarkson. [58]

Little is known of Æthelflæd's relations with the Welsh. The only recorded event took place in 916, when she sent an expedition to avenge the murder of a Mercian abbot and his companions her men destroyed the royal crannog of Brycheiniog on Llangorse Lake and captured the queen and thirty-three of her companions. [59] According to a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle strongly sympathetic to Edward the Elder, after Æthelflæd's death "the kings among the Welsh, Hywel and Clydog and Idwal, and all the Welsh people sought to have [Edward] as their lord". Hywel Dda was king of Dyfed in south-west Wales, Clydog ap Cadell probably king of Powys in the north-east, and Idwal ab Anarawd king of Gwynedd in the north-west. Gwent in south-east Wales was already under West Saxon lordship but, in the view of Charles-Edwards, this passage shows that the other Welsh kingdoms were under Mercian lordship until Edward took direct power over Mercia. [60]

No coins were issued with the name of Æthelred or Æthelflæd on them, but in the 910s silver pennies were minted in west Mercian towns with unusual ornamental designs on the reverse and this may have reflected Æthelflæd's desire to distinguish specie issued under her control from that of her brother. After her death, west Mercian coin reverses were again the same as those on coins produced in Wessex. [61] No charters of Edward survive for the period between 910 and his death in 924, [62] whereas two survive in Æthelflæd's sole name, S 224, possibly dating to 914 and S 225, dated 9 September 915, issued at Weardbyrig, one of the burhs she built at an unidentified location. [63]

Æthelflæd died at Tamworth on 12 June 918 and her body was carried 75 miles (121 km) to Gloucester, where she was buried with her husband in their foundation, St Oswald's Minster. [12] According to the Mercian Register, Æthelflæd was buried in the east porticus. A building suitable for a royal mausoleum has been found by archaeological investigation at the east end of the church and this may have been St Oswald's burial place. Placement next to the saint would have been a prestigious burial location for Æthelred and Æthelflæd. William of Malmesbury wrote that their burial places were found in the south porticus during building works in the early twelfth century. He may have been misinformed about the position but it is also possible that the tombs were moved from their prestigious position next to the saint, when the couple became less known over time or when tenth-century kings acted to minimise the honour paid to their Mercian predecessors. [64]

The choice of burial place was symbolic. Victoria Thompson argues that if Æthelflæd had chosen Edward's royal mausoleum in Winchester as the burial place for her husband and herself, that would have emphasised Mercia's subordinate status, whereas a traditional Mercian royal burial place such as Repton would have been a provocative declaration of independence Gloucester, near the border with Wessex, was a compromise between the two. [65] Martin Ryan sees the foundation as "something like a royal mausoleum, intended to replace the one at Repton (Derbyshire) that had been destroyed by the Vikings". [66] Æthelflæd died a few months too early to see the final conquest of the southern Danelaw by Edward. [6] [e] She was succeeded as Lady of the Mercians by her daughter, Ælfwynn, but in early December 918 Edward deposed her and took Mercia under his control. [13] Many Mercians disliked the subordination of their ancient kingdom to Wessex, and Wainwright describes the Mercian annalist's description of the deposition of Ælfwynn as "heavy with resentment". [68] Edward died in 924 at Farndon in Cheshire a few days after putting down a rebellion by Mercians and Welshmen at Chester. [69]

To the West Saxon version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Æthelflæd was merely King Edward's sister, whereas for the Mercian Register she was Lady of the Mercians. [70] Irish and Welsh annals described her as a queen and the Annals of Ulster, which ignore the deaths of Alfred and Edward, described her as famosissima regina Saxonum (renowned Saxon queen). [71] [72] She was also praised by Anglo-Norman historians such as John of Worcester and William of Malmesbury, who described her as "a powerful accession to [Edward's] party, the delight of his subjects, the dread of his enemies, a woman of enlarged soul". He claimed that she declined to have sex after the birth of her only child because it was "unbecoming of the daughter of a king to give way to a delight which, after a time, produced such painful consequences". According to Nick Higham, "successive medieval and modern writers were quite captivated by her" and her brother's reputation has suffered unfairly in comparison. [10] In the twelfth century, Henry of Huntingdon paid her his own tribute:

Heroic Elflede! great in martial fame, A man in valour, woman though in name: Thee warlike hosts, thee, nature too obey'd, Conqu'ror o'er both, though born by sex a maid. Chang'd be thy name, such honour triumphs bring. A queen by title, but in deeds a king. Heroes before the Mercian heroine quail'd: Caesar himself to win such glory fail'd. [73] [f]

Some historians believe that Æthelred and Æthelflæd were independent rulers. In the Handbook of British Chronology, David Dumville refers to "Q. Æthelflæd" and comments, "The titles given her by all sources (hlæfdige, regina) imply that she wielded royal power and authority". [76] Alex Woolf concurs [77] and Pauline Stafford describes Æthelflæd as "the last Mercian queen", referred to in charters in such terms as "by the gift of Christ's mercy ruling the government of the Mercians". Stafford argues that Æthelred and Æthelflæd exercised most or all of the powers of a monarch after Alfred's death but it would have been a provocative act formally to claim regality, especially after Æthelwold's rebellion. Stafford sees her as a "warrior queen", "Like . Elizabeth I she became a wonder to later ages." [78] According to Charles Insley,

The assumption that Mercia was in some sort of limbo in this period, subordinate to Wessex and waiting to be incorporated into "England" cannot be sustained . Æthelred's death in 911 changed little, for his formidable wife carried on as sole ruler of Mercia until her death in 918. Only then did Mercia's independent existence come to an end. [79]

Wainwright sees Æthelflæd as willingly accepting a subordinate role in a partnership with her brother and agreeing to his plan of unification of Wessex and Mercia under his rule. Wainwright argues that he probably sent his oldest son Æthelstan to be brought up in Mercia, to make him more acceptable to the Mercians as king Æthelflæd does not appear to have tried to find a husband for her daughter, who must have been nearly thirty by 918. [80] In Wainwright's view, she was ignored in West Saxon sources for fear that recognition of her achievements would encourage Mercian separatism:

[Æthelflæd] played a vital role in England in the first quarter of the tenth century. The success of Edward's campaigns against the Danes depended to a great extent upon her cooperation. In the Midlands and the North she came to dominate the political scene. And the way in which she used her influence helped to make possible the unification of England under kings of the West Saxon royal house. But her reputation has suffered from bad publicity, or rather from a conspiracy of silence among her West Saxon contemporaries. [81]

Simon Keynes points out that all coins were issued in Edward's name, and while the Mercian rulers were able to issue some charters on their own authority, others acknowledged Edward's lordship. In 903 a Mercian ealdorman "petitioned King Edward, and also Æthelred and Æthelflæd, who then held rulership and power over the race of the Mercians under the aforesaid king". Keynes argues that a new polity was created when Æthelred submitted to Alfred in the 880s, covering Wessex and English (western) Mercia. In Keynes's view, "the conclusion seems inescapable that the Alfredian polity of the kingship 'of the Anglo-Saxons' persisted in the first quarter of the tenth century, and that the Mercians were thus under Edward's rule from the beginning of his reign". [82] Ryan believes that the Mercian rulers "had a considerable but ultimately subordinate share of royal authority". [66]

In Higham's view, Keynes makes a strong case that Edward ruled over an Anglo-Saxon state with a developing administrative and ideological unity but that Æthelflæd and Æthelred did much to encourage a separate Mercian identity, such as establishing cults of Mercian saints at their new burhs, as well as reverence for their great Northumbrian royal saint at Gloucester:

There must remain some doubt as to the extent to which Edward's intentions for the future were shared in all respects by his sister and brother-in-law, and one is left to wonder what might have occurred had their sole offspring been male rather than female. Celtic visions of Æthelred and Æthelflæd as king and queen certainly offer a different, and equally valid, contemporary take on the complex politics of this transition to a new English state. [83]

In June 2018, Æthelflæd's funeral was re-enacted in front of a crowd of 10,000 people in Gloucester, as part of a series of living history events marking the 1,100th anniversary of her death. [84]

The 1,100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflaed was marked throughout 2018 in Tamworth with a number of major events, including the unveiling of a new six-metre statue, [85] the creation of the town's biggest ever piece of community art, [86] a major commemorative church service, talks, a special guided walk, commemorative ale and an academic conference weekend drawing academics and delegates from all over the world. [87]

This article was submitted to WikiJournal of Humanities for external academic peer review in 2018 (reviewer reports). The updated content was reintegrated into the Wikipedia page under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 license ( 2018 ). The version of record as reviewed is: "Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians" (PDF) . WikiJournal of Humanities. 1 (1): 1. 24 October 2018. doi:10.15347/WJH/2018.001. ISSN 2639-5347. Wikidata Q59649817.


Despite numerous battlefields, Alfred didn't die by the sword

And while that conflict was significant (and, frankly, ongoing), Alfred also became lauded for his commitment to learning. He only mastered literacy later in his life, but in addition to writing and translation work (Latin to Anglo-Saxon) codified his nation's laws, says the BBC. He established the first English navy and was deeply religious as well, credited with facilitating the conversion to Christianity of the Danes who took up peaceful residence in England.

Just because you're king, and roundly lauded as Great, doesn't mean there won't be mysteries around your life and, for that matter, your death. There doesn't seem to be any consensus about what prompted Alfred to join the Choir Invisible. New World Encyclopedia relates that even the king's death date is disputed — October 26, 899, but only probably. "How he died is unknown," we're told. "He had suffered for many years from a painful illness," gastrointestinal in nature, that would sometimes confine him to his rooms for days or even weeks at a time with cramps and diarrhea. Some historians speculate Alfred suffered from Crohn's disease, says History Hit — an "inflammatory bowel disease," says The Mayo Clinic, that's "painful and debilitating" and can lead to malnutrition and even death — perhaps even Alfred's, which would not be so great. But nobody knows for sure.


Alfred the Great Quotations

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Alfred was extraordinary for an early medieval king in several respects. He was a particularly wily military commander, successfully keeping the Danes at bay, and he wisely shored up defenses when the enemies of his kingdom were occupied elsewhere. At a time when England was little more than a collection of warring kingdoms, he established diplomatic relations with his neighbors, including the Welsh, and unified a substantial portion of the heptarchy. He displayed remarkable administrative flair, reorganizing his army, issuing important laws, protecting the weak, and promoting learning. But most unusual of all, he was a gifted scholar. Alfred the Great translated several works from Latin into his own language, Anglo-Saxon, known to us as Old English, and wrote some works of his own. In his translations, he sometimes inserted comments that offer insight not only into the books but into his own mind.

Here are some notable quotations from the notable English king, Alfred the Great.


Census records can tell you a lot of little known facts about your Alfred The Great ancestors, such as occupation. Occupation can tell you about your ancestor's social and economic status.

There are 3,000 census records available for the last name Alfred The Great. Like a window into their day-to-day life, Alfred The Great census records can tell you where and how your ancestors worked, their level of education, veteran status, and more.

There are 642 immigration records available for the last name Alfred The Great. Passenger lists are your ticket to knowing when your ancestors arrived in the USA, and how they made the journey - from the ship name to ports of arrival and departure.

There are 1,000 military records available for the last name Alfred The Great. For the veterans among your Alfred The Great ancestors, military collections provide insights into where and when they served, and even physical descriptions.

There are 3,000 census records available for the last name Alfred The Great. Like a window into their day-to-day life, Alfred The Great census records can tell you where and how your ancestors worked, their level of education, veteran status, and more.

There are 642 immigration records available for the last name Alfred The Great. Passenger lists are your ticket to knowing when your ancestors arrived in the USA, and how they made the journey - from the ship name to ports of arrival and departure.

There are 1,000 military records available for the last name Alfred The Great. For the veterans among your Alfred The Great ancestors, military collections provide insights into where and when they served, and even physical descriptions.


Alfred the Great - History

E ngland was invaded by "Dane" Vikings from Scandinavia who destroyed churches, libraries and defeated all opposition except for 23-year-old King Alfred.

Forced into the swampy, tidal marshes of Somerset, Alfred, King of the Anglos and Saxons, began a resistance movement in 878 AD.

According to biographer Bishop Asser, " Alfred attacked the whole pagan army fighting ferociously in dense order, and by divine will eventually won the victory."


King Alfred's battle song was:

When the enemy comes in a'roarin' like a flood,
Coveting the kingdom and hungering for blood,
The Lord will raise a standard up and lead His people ,
The Lord of Hosts will go before defeating every foe
defeating every foe.

For the Lord is our defense, Jesus defend us,
For the Lord is our defense, Jesu defend.


Some men trust in chariots, some trust in the horse,
But we will depend upon the Name of Christ our Lord,
The Lord has made my hands to war and my fingers to fight.
The Lord lays low our enemies, but He raises us upright
He raises us upright.

For the Lord is our defense, Jesus defend us,
For the lord is our defense, Jesu defend.

A thousand fall on my left hand, ten thousand to the right,
But He will defend us from the arrow in the night.
Protect us from the terrors of the teeth of the devourer,
Embue us with your Spirit, Lord, encompass us with power
encompass us with power.

For the Lord is our defense, Jesus defend us,
For the Lord is our defense, Jesu defend.

Alfred drove the Danes back to England's coastal area of East Anglia, where he gave their King Guthrum the choice of sailing back to Scandinavia or converting to Christianity. He chose the latter.

G.K. Chesterton's narrative poem about Alfred, called "The Ballad of the White Horse" (1910), is said to have influenced J.R.R. Tolkien in his writing of The Lord of the Rings.

Afterwards, King Alfred the Great wrote his Law Code, drawing from as far back in history as:

- Lucius King of Britons (c.156 AD) "prayed and entreated . he might be made a Christian"
- St. Patrick's Celtic 'Senchus Mor' Laws (c.438 AD)
-Laws of Æthelberht of Kent (c.602 AD)-the first Saxon king in England to be baptized, by St. Augustine of Canterbury
-Laws of Christian King Ine of Wessex (c.694 AD), and
-Laws of Christian King Offa of Mercia (c.755 AD).

King Alfred the Great was credited with beginning the University of Oxford.

He included in the preface of his Law Code the Ten Commandments, passages of the Book of Exodus, Christ's Sermon on the Mount, and the Acts of the Apostles.

King Alfred wrote:

"These are judgments which Almighty God Himself spoke to Moses and commanded him to keep.

Now, since the Lord's only begotten Son our God and healing Christ has come to Middle Earth (the Mediterranean World) He said that He did not come to break nor to forbid these commandments but to approve them well, and to teach them with all mild-heartedness and lowly-mindedness."

King Alfred's Law is considered the basis for English Common Law as it contained concepts such as liberty of the individual family and church, a decentralized government and equal justice for all under the law:

" Doom very evenly! Do not doom one doom to the rich another to the poor! Nor doom one doom to your friend another to your foe!"

Winston Churchill wrote in his Nobel Prize winning book, A History of the English Speaking Peoples (1956, vol. 1):

" King Alfred's Book of Laws . as set out in the existing laws of Kent, Wessex, and Mercia, attempted to blend the Mosaic code with Christian principles and old Germanic customs."

Around the year 911 AD, on the opposite side of the English Channel, "Norse" Vikings, called "Normans," invaded an area that came to be called Normandy, in northern France.

The Normans eventually became Christians.

In 1066, the Norman King, William the Conqueror, crossed the English Channel and invaded England.

William the Norman replaced King Alfred's law with a feudal system of government which concentrated power into the hands of the king.

This continued in England till the Magna Carta.

While England's King Richard the Lionheart was away fighting the Muslims in the Third Crusade, his brother John was left in charge.

The legend of Robinhood is considered to have originated during this time period.

Richard the Lionheart returned to England in 1192, but was killed in 1199, leaving King John to rule.

Though the Normans had originally come from Normandy over a century earlier, King John lost Normandy and almost all the other English possessions to King Philip II of France by 1205.

England's barons became so frustrated by this loss and by King John's absolute and arbitrary despotism that 25 of the leading barons surrounded him on the plains of Runnymede.

There they forced him to sign the Magna Carta, the Great Charter of English Liberties, on JUNE 15, 1215.

British judge, Lord Denning, described the Magna Carta as "the greatest constitutional document of all times - the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot."

The Magna Carta limited the unbridled centralized power of the king.

Winston Churchill stated in 1956:

"Here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general character is the great work of the Magna Carta and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it."

Sir Edwin Coke stated: "The Magna Carta will have no sovereign."

The Magna Carta began the process of redefining government's purpose from dominating people's lives into guaranteeing individual rights, culminating in the U.S. Constitution. Political power changed from top-down to bottom-up.

Sir Edwin Coke's book, Institutes on the Laws of England, which emphasized the importance of the Magna Carta, was studied by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Sir Edwin Coke had written in a 1610 case:

"When an act of Parliament is against common right or reason . the common law will . adjure such an act void."


When Britain imposed the hated Stamp Act on the American colonies, the Massachusetts Assembly responded that it "was against the Magna Carta and the natural rights of Englishmen, and therefore, according to Lord Coke, null and void."

The Magna Carta, Clause 1: "the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired"

is reflected in the 1ST AMENDMENT:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The Magna Carta, Clause 6: "If . our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man . and the offense is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us . and claim immediate redress"

is reflected in the 1ST AMENDMENT:

"and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The Magna Carta, Clause 12: "No scutage (tax) nor aid . shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel"

is reflected in the the Revolutionary phrase,

"No taxation without representation" and the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE,

"deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The Magna Carta, Clause 13: "We also will and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports shall enjoy all their liberties and free customs"

is reflected in the U.S. CONSTITUTION, ARTICLE IV, SECTION 2:

"The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States"

"Full faith and credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State"

The Magna Carta, Clause 20: "For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood"

is reflected in the 8TH AMENDMENT:

"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

The Magna Carta, Clause 28: "No constable or other bailiff . shall take corn or other provisions from anyone without immediately tendering money"

is reflected in the 5TH AMENDMENT:

"nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

The Magna Carta, Clause 38: "No official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it"

is reflected in the 6TH AMENDMENT:

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

The Magna Carta, Clause 39: "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him . except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land"

is reflected in the 5TH AMENDMENT:

"(N)or shall any person . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law"

"nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

The Magna Carta, Clause 40: "To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice"

is reflected in the 6TH AMENDMENT:

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury."

If King John did not adhere to the Magna Carta, the 25 barons promised to levy war against him.

The U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Bank of Columbia v. Okely, 17 U.S. 235, 244 (1819):

"The words from Magna Carta . were intended to secure the individual from the arbitrary exercise of the powers of government, unrestrained by the established principles of private right and distributive justice."

In over 100 U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the Magna Carta is referenced regarding:

- due process of law,
-trial by jury of one's peers,
-the importance of a speedy and unbiased trial, and
-protection against excessive bail or fines or cruel and unusual punishment
.

Acknowledging America's debt to the Magna Carta, the American Bar Association erected a monument to it in England at Runnymede in 1957.

Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., stated in a "Re-dedication Address to The American Bar Association's Memorial to the Magna Carta" (19 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 55, 1985):

"The Magna Carta, in Bryce's words, 'was the starting point of the constitutional history' .

Throughout the 196 year history of the Supreme Court of the United States, the bedrock principles of the Magna Carta have had and continue to have, a profound influence over the Justices' deliberations."

The Magna Carta ends:

". for the salvation of our souls, and the souls of all our . heirs, and unto the honor of God."

___
The Magna Carta was signed by King John, the younger brother of Richard the Lionheart, who was renown for fighting the Muslims in the Third Crusade.

For a background of the Third Crusade, continue reading:

Jerusalem had been a Jewish city since time of King David around 1000 BC, and it had been a Christian city since Emperor Constantine, 313 AD.

Muslims under Caliph Umar took Jerusalem away from the Byzantine Patriarch Sophronius and forced Christian and Jewish inhabitants to live as second-class citizens under a set of "Jim Crow" style laws called "dhimmi."

Christian pilgrims began to be harassed, massacred and crucified. In the 700's, Christians were banned from giving religious instruction to their children and displays of the cross were banned in Jerusalem.

In 772 AD, Caliph al Mansur ordered Jews and Christians to be branded on the hand.

In 923 AD, Muslims began destroying churches in Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday in 937 AD, Muslims plundered the Church of Calvary and the Church of the Resurrection.

In 1004, Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah began a ten year persecution where thousands were forced to convert or die and 30,000 churches were destroyed.

In 1009, Caliph al-Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

In 1075, the Muslim Seljuk Turks captured Jerusalem from Arab Muslims. Gregory Bar-Hebraeus (1226-1286), a Syrian Orthodox Church leader, wrote how Seljuk Turkish Muslims initially tolerated Christians tolerably, then:

". having seen very much modesty and other habits of this kind among Christian people, certainly the Mongols loved them greatly at the beginning of their kingdom, a time ago somewhat short. But their love hath turned to such intense hatred."

DVD Islamic Conquest-Past and Present

Travelers returning from pilgrimages to the Holy Land shared reports of Muslim persecution of "dhimmi" Christians.

Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt, which had all been Christian lands, were conquered by Muslims, who then conquered Sicily.

In 1057, the Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard took control of Calabria in the "toe of Italy" and fought against the Muslims of Sicily.

Italian city-states of Pisa, Genoa and Catalonia fought the Muslims who were raiding Italy's coasts, Majorca, Sardinia, and Catalonia.

In 1071, the Muslims inflicted a major defeat on the Byzantine Christians at the Battle of Manzikert and took control of all but the coastlands of Asia Minor.

Cries for help were carried back to Europe. Europe sent help, it was called the Crusades.


Europeans had just two centuries of crusades compared to Islam's fourteen centuries of jihad crusades which are still continuing, killing an estimated 240 million.

The Europeans nine major Crusades lasted from 1095 till 1291, when Acre was finally recaptured by the Muslims.

The First Crusade began when, in desperation, the proud Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus humbled himself and sent ambassadors to the Council of Piacenza in March of 1095, appealing for aid from his religious rival, the Roman Catholic Pope.

The seriousness of this call for help is underscored by the fact that it occurred just a few years after the Great East-West Schism where the Byzantine Church and the Roman Catholic Church split.

Pope Urban II gave an impassioned plea at the Council of Clermont in 1095 for Western leaders to set aside their doctrinal differences and come to the aid of their Byzantine Christians brethren.

Pope Urban II described how Muslims "compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow." (Robert the Monk, Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University.)

With Spain exuberant after successfully driving the Muslims from Toledo and Leon a few years earlier, the First Crusade began in 1097, led by Godfrey of Bouillon. It freed Iconium from the Muslims, though it was later lost.

The First Crusade defeated Turkish forces at Dorylaeum and Antioch, and captured Jerusalem in 1099, holding it for nearly 100 years.

After Muslims conquered Edessa, another crusade was called for by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1147. It was made up of French and German armies, led by King Louis VII and Conrad II.

In 1148, Muslim leader, Nur ed-Din, slaughtered every Christian in Aleppo.

The Second Crusade failed to take Damascus and returned to Europe in 1150. Bernard of Clairvaux was disturbed by reports of misdirected violence toward some Jewish populations.

On July 4, 1187, Saladin captured Crusaders at Hattim and ordered their mass execution.

In 1190, Pope Gregory VIII called for a Third Crusade. It was led by German King Frederick I, called Frederick Barbarossa (meaning Redbeard), who was the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He was joined by Richard I of England and Philip II of France.

Frederick led 100,000 soldiers across Byzantium, driving out Muslims and temporarily freeing Iconium.

He most likely would have freed Jerusalem had he not fallen off his horse while crossing the Göksu River in Cilicia, Asia Minor.

Being 67 years old and weighted down with heavy armor, he drowned in waist deep water and the Crusade went into confusion.

Richard the Lionheart was suddenly in charge leading the Crusade and successfully captured Acre. Due to rivalries, Philip II, without warning, abandoned the Crusade and returned to France in 1191.

Richard's troops came within sight of Jerusalem in 1192, but grew weary as it did not look like they were making an impact.

Then word came to Richard that Phillip II was trying to take away Normandy from England, so Richard quickly ended the Crusade to go back and defend his kingdom.

Richard later discovered Saladin was on the verge of defeat and was propping up dead soldiers along the walls.


Saladin allowed some Christians to leave Jerusalem if they paid a ransom, but according to Imad al-Din, approximately 15,000 could not pay their ransom and were enslaved.

Richard sailed away, but was shipwrecked and had to travel on foot across Europe in disguise.

He was recognized near Vienna and captured by Duke Leopold V of Austria. The Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, imprisoned Richard at Dumstein for three years.

Legend has it that Richard's loyal minstrel, Blondel, traveled from kingdom to kingdom across Europe trying to find him by singing Richard's favorite song. When Richard heard the song, he sang the second verse from the prison tower, and was found.

Richard's brother, King John, had to raise taxes for the "king's ransom."

This was the origins of the story of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood.

The Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, prepared for another crusade in 1197, but died from malaria.

Once back in England, Richard ruled only a few years before being shot with an arrow during the siege of a castle in Normandy.

His brother, King John, raised taxes and ruled oppressively.

When he lost Britain's claim to Normandy after the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, English baron's were upset, as they also lost their titled lands there.

Angry barons then surrounded King John on the plains of Runnymede on JUNE 15, 1215, and forced him to sign the Magna Carta -- the cornerstone of English liberty.


Early Christianity in Britain – And the Role of Alfred the Great

We look at early British history here, including how Christianity arrived in Britain and the battles between King Alfred (Alfred the Great) and the Vikings that consolidated Christianity in the country. Daniel Smith explains.

Daniel’s new book on mid-19thcentury northern California is now available. Find our more here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

An 18th century painting of Alfred the Great by Samuel Woodforde.

In the 1stcentury, the British Isles was turning over to a new cultural-era of change. Christianity was introduced to Britain, and it is rumored that the catalyst to the Christian hold on the island was attributed to Joseph of Arimathea. Churches were built in villages and towns at random, as the church itself was decentralized. The Catholic and Orthodox Christian sects of religion, which were developed in the Roman and Byzantine Empires, are two examples of centralized religious hierarchy. By A.D. 150, the Pastors of the Celtic Churches preached the common language from interlinear bible translations called “glosses.” The most famous and well known of all the pastors was Patrick. He left England and went on to spread the Gospel to all of Ireland.

Patrick was made to be King Loeghaire’s “Annchara,” or personal counselor, after he was converted. It was here that Biblical law was introduced into the civil realm. Patrick was the author of Liber Ex Lege Moisi(Book of the Law of Moses), which he penned in 432 and that was applied by local chieftains throughout Ireland. The emerald isle was not yet a united political entity, only a Biblical/religious unity that brought the people and government together. It emphasized the rule of law and local self-government. These of course being two fundamental principles of basic Christian government.[1]

Two Anglo-Saxon brothers arrived in Britain around 428 A.D. by the names of Hengist and Horsa. The barbarian brothers had been called upon to help the king of Kent fight off his rivals. In fact, the king of Kent also invited them to bring their relatives as well. After Kent was saved from capture, the barbarians would end up staying and living in Britain. After some time, families grew on the island, eventually taking it over and naming it Anglo-land, or Engel-land (today’s England).

At the very start of emigration into Britain, the Anglo-Saxons turned on the native Celts. They killed countless numbers of them. During one event, they killed 1200 Celtic Pastors in the middle of prayer. In a stroke of Divine Providence however, while the Saxons conquered the Celts militarily, the Celts would conquer the Saxons spiritually. Over time, gradually the Saxons were converted to Celtic Christianity. Catholicism did not actually arrive in Britain until 597 A.D. Celtic influences emphasized the Bible (or Scriptural authority) over Papal authority. This was even after the introduction of Catholicism. A loyal follower of Patrick, named Columba, left his Ireland during this time, and would come to evangelize the king of the Picts (today’s Scotland). Columba also translated Liber Ex Lege Moisi in the Scottish language.[2]

Struggle in Wessex

King Alfred was the first leader revered enough to bring together all of England into one nation. Alfred was known from that time on as Alfred the Great, who ruled from A.D. 871 to 899. Interestingly enough though, just before Alfred was crowned king, most of England had been taken over viciously by the Vikings through a long series of ferocious battles. Wessex, in southern England, was the only area that remained open for Alfred to rule. For years to follow, Alfred would be continually thrown into the thick of battle with the Viking Danes.[3]

Historian David Chilton wrote of this struggle:

“In 876 the Danish chieftain Guthrum attacked Wessex in earnest with a powerful host, aiming to break Alfred’s hold on the country once and for all. The Vikings succeeded: in the winter of early 878 Guthrum pushed Alfred into the marshes, where the king and a small group of loyal followers were forced to hide out on the Isle of Athelney. Historians have called this time of testing Alfred’s “Valley Forge,” where he had to bide his time while virtually all England was overrun with pagan enemies of the faith who sacked churches and monasteries, wiping out the tattered remains of a Christian past. The legends say, however, that the bold and daring Alfred entered the Viking camp disguised as a minstrel and actually performed for Guthrum and his chiefs—getting a chance to listen to their plans and plotting his own strategy.

When spring came, Alfred rallied the English army for a final push against the invader’s vastly superior forces. This time Alfred was victorious. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicleputs it, “he fought against the entire host, and put it to flight.” The Vikings agreed never to attack Wessex again, and they submitted to the terms of peace. Alfred did not banish Guthrum and his men. He didn’t have them executed, either. His solution to the problem of the Vikings seems incredible to us, but it worked. The peace treaty he imposed on them included this provision: that Guthrum and “thirty of the most honorable men in the host” become Christians!

Guthrum accepted the conditions, and he was baptized into the Christian faith, Alfred standing as his godfather. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Alfred embraced his newborn brother in Christ and threw a twelve-day feast for him and his men. And then, as if this weren’t enough already, Alfred made the strangest political move of all. He said to Guthrum, in effect: “My brother, this land is much too big for me to rule all by myself and the important thing isn’t who’s in charge. The real issue is a Christian England. So don’t go back to Denmark. Stay here and rule this land with me, under the lordship of Jesus Christ.”[4]

Alfred’s Code

King Alfred moved to institute Christian reforms, and with the newfound peace, many areas in Britain included the creation of government that served the people’s needs. He, himself, was taught how to read the Asser (the Celtic Christian scholar), and also studied Patrick’s Liber. His knowledge allowed him to establish the Ten Commandments as the basis of civil law and adopted many other patterns of government from the Hebrew Republic. As far as English politics were concerned, the nation organized itself into units of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands and elected an assembly called a “Witen.” The representatives of these units had official titles: a tighingman (over 10 families), a vilman (over 50 families), a hundredman (over 100 families), and an earl.

The land that the earl would rule over was called a “shire,” and his direct assistant was called the “shire-reef,” which is where the word Sheriff today comes from. There was also an unelected group made up of nobleman within the Witen however at this time—the king was an elected position—not a hereditary one. Thus their laws of the land were created by their consent. King Alfred’s civil laws became the root of all English and American common law, trial by jury, and habeas corpus. It was Alfred’s legal code which was derived from Mosaic Law and Jesus’ golden rule.

Thomas Jefferson said about Anglo-Saxon laws:“…the sources of the Common Law…[and] the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the 8th century…”Thomas Jefferson said that Anglo-Saxon laws should be printed on one side of the American National Seal proposed by him in 1776, saying:“the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by the night.”But, on the other side, Jefferson offered images of “Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs… whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”[5]Ultimately this is true because of the Germanic Saxons’ contact with the Celtic Christians (or British natives), but the Saxon culture in Germany from which they originated provided no constitutionalism whatsoever to guide their civilization.

In the 9thcentury, the clergy would begin to serve as the judges in England and would build common law based on the Bible, but Anglo-Saxon law was eroding by the time of Norman Conquest in 1066. The Normans, then under William the Conqueror, established a royal dynasty—a system which destroyed the rights of the people, yet increased efficiency by centralization of common law under King Henry II. In the end, the English people would experience a period of over 400 years of civil and religious stagnation until 1215, when King John would reluctantly sign the Magna Carta.[6]

Daniel’s new book, 1845-1870 An Untold Story of Northern California, is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

You can read Daniel’s past articles on California in the US Civil War (here ), Medieval Jesters (here ), How American Colonial Law Justified the Settlement of Native American Territories ( here ), Spanish Colonial Influence on Native Americans in Northern California ( here ), Christian ideology in history ( here ), and the collapse of the Spanish Armada in 1588 ( here ).

[1]Jurasinski, Stefan. 2014. “Noxal Surrender, the Deodand, and the Laws of King Alfred.” Studies in Philology 111 (2): 195–224. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mlf&AN=2014289482&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[2]"Tribal Roots Point to Hebrew Origins." United Israel World Union. Last modified October 16, 2017. https://unitedisrael.org/tribal-roots-point-hebrew-origins/.

[3]DiLascio, Tracey M. 2015. “BYZANTIUM AND WESTERN EUROPE IN THE EARLY MIDDLE AGES: The Laws of Alfred, Guthrum, and Edward the Elder.” Defining Documents: Middle Ages, July, 19–25. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=118279323&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[5]"The History of the Seal of the United States." Internet Archive: Digital Library. Accessed August 21, 2019. https://archive.org/stream/historyofsealofu00unit/historyofsealofu00unit_djvu.txt.

[6]Beliles, Mark A., and Stephen K. McDowell. America's Providential History: Including Biblical Principles of Education, Government, Politics, Economics, and Family Life. 1989. pp. 39-42.

Bibliography

Mark A. Beliles, and Stephen K. McDowell. America's Providential History: Including Biblical Principles of Education, Government, Politics, Economics, and Family Life. 1989. pp. 39-42.

David Chilton, "The Origin of Common Law." The ARK Foundation. Accessed August 21, 2019. http://www.arky.org/Constitution/IOTC/W2%20The%20Origin%20of%20Common%20Law.pdf .

Tracey M. DiLascio, 2015. “BYZANTIUM AND WESTERN EUROPE IN THE EARLY MIDDLE AGES: The Laws of Alfred, Guthrum, and Edward the Elder.” Defining Documents: Middle Ages, July, 19–25.

Stefan Jurasinski,2014. “Noxal Surrender, the Deodand, and the Laws of King Alfred.” Studies in Philology 111.


Alfred the Great

Alfred was the fifth and favorite son of Ethelwulf, the Saxon king of Wessex and Kent. In addition to the military training that was expected of a prince, he also learned to read and write and from a young age was very interested in books and learning. This was at an age when fighting skills were considered far more important prerequisites for rule than 'book-learning'. Each of his elder brothers reigned before him, and all of their reigns were plagued with attacks by the Danish Vikings. In many cases small fleets of Danish pirates landed, pillaged, and retreated before the Saxons could raise an army against them, but in 866 a large Army of Danes under the sons of the famous Ragnar Lodbrok arrived in England, proceeded to attack and pillage Northumberland, and seemed to take up permanent residence. It was this "Great Heathen Army" that began attacking Wessex during the reign of Ethelred, one of the older brothers of Alfred.

It was the reign of Ethelred, when Alfred was still a very young man, that his great martial and leadership skills were first recognized. In 871 a great series of battles were fought with an army of Danes who had taken over a Saxon fortress at Reading, and in these fights, Alfred was the leading general. After several skirmishes at Englefield and Reading , the great Battle of Ashdown was fought and the Saxons won a great victory. This famous battle did much to establish Alfred's reputation as the greatest military leader of the Saxons, and made him greatly feared and respected among the Danes.

Ethelred died shortly after Ashdown, and although the late king had several sons, the need for a strong military leader was so obvious, the Saxon nobles unanimously selected Alfred as king in favor of his nephews. The first five years of Alfred's reign were not particularly notable. Early on, he made a somewhat inglorious treaty with the Danes by which they promised to leave his domains unmolested if Alfred would promise not to make alliances with the other Saxon kingdoms against the Danes. This brought several years of relative, peace, but this only served to make the Wessex Saxons unprepared, when another band of Norsemen, this time under Guthrum, attacked the realm. Knowing that Alfred was their greatest threat, the new army of Danes made a surprised attack on his stronghold in mid-winter. Alfred barely escaped, but his army was scattered, and he was driven into exile at Athelney. From this position of extreme disadvantage he managed to secretly pull together another army. After planning his attack, reconnoitering the Danish camp, and carefully waiting for the right opportunity, he made a very successful attack against the Danes at the Battle of Edington . With Guthrum and his officers at his mercy, instead of killing them, he made a radical proposal. If they Danes would convert to Christianity, accept Alfred as their overlord, and help defend the coast of England from further attacks, Alfred would allow them to retain possession of certain lands in England to the north of Wessex. Guthrum agreed to this proposal and signed the Treaty of Wedmore , which created a Christian Danish region in England, independently governed but subject to the King of Wessex.

Alfred's trouble with the Danes was far from over, but the treaty with Guthrum gave a great respite, and the Danes who settled on the coast of England helped prevent further Viking pirate attacks in the area, since it was their own villages in greatest risk of being plundered. Arthur also improved him navy to help combat pirate raids of the Saxon Shore. The Danish threat somewhat relieved Arthur turned his attentions to the devastated communities of Saxon England. He rebuilt churches and schools, and brought teachers and learned men from the continent. He tried to restored the Saxon Christian culture that had been wrecked by two generation of depredations, and he established a code of laws that later became the basis of English Common Law. His conduct during the last twenty years of his reign was in every manner laudable, as a ruler, a soldier, an administrator, a Christian, and a scholar. He is the only English monarch in history to be awarded the appellation "the Great."


Watch the video: King Alfred. The Great King Of England. Vikings (May 2022).