Alfred the Great: do we overplay his 'greatness'?

Did the Anglo-Saxon icon owe his success to serendipity? Alex Burghart asks if we’re guilty of overplaying Alfred’s greatness...

Alfred in a 13th-century manuscript. (British Library)

For Anglo-Saxon England, AD 878 marked the nadir of the Viking wars. Had events played out only slightly differently the whole history of England might have been fundamentally altered. In that year the great Viking army that had been plundering and conquering Anglo-Saxon kingdoms since 865 marched on King Alfred’s Wessex.

During the previous 12 years almost all the great kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England had fallen to the Danish Vikings. In 866 they stormed York and killed the two kings of Northumbria. In 869 they martyred King Edmund of East Anglia by tying him to a tree and filling him full of arrows. And then, in 877, they divided the ancient kingdom of Mercia in two.

By 878, very roughly, England north of the A5 (or Watling Street as the Anglo-Saxons called it) lay in Danish hands. Alfred’s Wessex effectively stood alone. Now the Viking army fell upon Wessex with a vengeance. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle would remember that: “In this year [878] in midwinter after 12th night the enemy army came stealthily to Chippenham, and occupied the land of the West Saxons and settled there, and drove a great part of the people across the sea, and conquered most of the others; and the people submitted to them, except King Alfred. He journeyed in difficulties through the woods and fen-fastnesses with a small force.”

This ambush – a lightening strike launched from Gloucester (a mere 30 miles away) – was designed to capture the king while he was celebrating Christmas at the royal manor of Chippenham. Confronted with such a swift, targeted invasion, Alfred was lucky to escape. He did so with the support of a small band of men, fleeing to the seclusion of the nearby Somerset marshes.

Having regrouped, Alfred managed covertly to muster forces across the kingdom and, within the year, defeated the Viking army at Edington in Wiltshire, converted the Danish king, Guthrum, to Christianity and had him leave Wessex. Without this reversal, there would probably have been no England and no English language. Alfred would have been a mere footnote in the history of ‘Daneland’ – which would have been written in Anglo-Danish.

This was not the only time in Alfred’s life that luck played a critical role – something that’s not always been borne out by histories of the king. Although it was only in the 16th century that writers tagged him with his ‘Great’ epithet, Alfred swiftly came to be treated as the saviour – and even father – of England (even though England was not unified until the reign of his grandson, Æthelstan).

At times the reviews have been a touch too rave. The eminently bearded Victorian historian, Edward Augustus Freeman, called Alfred “the most perfect character in history”. Indeed, his reputation as a ‘great’ king has often obscured those moments in his reign where chance played more of a part than wisdom. On a number of occasions, his fate – and that of the kingdom – hung by a fortuitous thread.

 

A famous victory

Alfred may have succeeded in pushing the Vikings out of Wessex in 878, but the army that he faced was actually only one part of a much larger Danish force. This was not the first time this had happened. His first run-in with the Danes took place in 871 while his brother, Æthelred I, was still on the throne.

In that year he fought nine battles against the Danes and had a famous victory at Ashdown. Yet this was only half the army that had invaded Britain in 865. In 869, two years before the battle of Ashdown, the Danish host had divided into two after it had conquered the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia, sending one group north and the other south. Alfred only had to fight one division of the great army that had conquered two of his neighbours – and his victory was, by all accounts, extremely close.

Similarly, in 878, when Alfred managed to overcome the Danes after they had captured Chippenham, he only had to fight one part of the full Danish force.

Although a new war band led by Guthrum joined the southern army after the battle of Ashdown in 871, causing Alfred to “make peace” (for which read ‘pay off’), it too was to split. Leaving Wessex following the clash at Ashdown, it went to London and then to Northumbria and Lincolnshire before conquering Mercia in 874.

Having driven the Mercian king Burgred into exile, it divided and sent one contingent to Northumbria while the other went to Cambridge, from where it would attack Wessex (in 876) – marching first to Wareham, then to Exeter and finally to Chippenham via Gloucester. As was to be the case in 878, Alfred found himself fighting a smaller army than that which had vanquished his neighbours – and even then, he was nearly defeated.

Had the full Danish army marched directly on Wessex in 866, or had they not divided in 874, it’s likely that – for all the tales of Alfred’s military prowess – his kingdom would have been conquered.

 

Welsh attacks

If anything symbolises the turnaround in Alfred’s fortunes, it’s the decision of Æthelred, the ruler of western Mercia – the part that the Danes had not conquered – to subject himself to the Wessex king’s lordship in 879.

For centuries the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex had been arch-enemies, waging wars against each other and, on more than one occasion, nearly wiping each other out.

The union of the two kingdoms was a remarkable moment, one that would seem to underscore the dynamism of Alfred’s rule. Yet closer inspection of the sources shows that the Mercian ruler’s decision to submit to Alfred had more to do with developments on the Welsh border. The Mercians and the Welsh kingdoms had long been at odds. A few years before, the Mercians had defeated and killed the great Rhodri Mawr of Gwynedd. But then, around 879/880, Rhodri’s sons are said to have avenged their father by exacting a heavy defeat upon Æthelred of Mercia.

Æthelred was now in an extremely vulnerable position. Not only were there two deadly Danish armies marauding through the land, but he was also at risk of being overrun by a resurgent kingdom of Gwynedd on his western borders. He needed friends and he needed them quickly – Alfred, who had just secured peace with one Danish army and who was a powerful influence in Welsh politics, was simply the best port in a storm. Through no direct intervention of his own, the union with Mercia fell into Alfred’s lap.

Perhaps the greatest stroke of luck that Alfred enjoyed was becoming king at all. At the time of his birth, it must have been considered unbelievably unlikely that he would ever wear the crown. As the youngest of King Æthelwulf of Wessex’s (died 858) five sons, the odds were heavily stacked against him.

As it was, fate intervened. Alfred’s eldest brother, Æthelstan, predeceased their father. His next brother, Æthelbald, died in 860, followed by the third, Æthelberht, in 865, and, finally, the fourth, Æthelred in 871. Within 20 years, Wessex had lost four king’s sons from the same generation.

This loss was Alfred’s gain. But the profusion of royal sons – almost unparalleled in Anglo-Saxon history – was also an enormous stroke of luck for the kingdom. Had Wessex had fewer kingly scions there would undoubtedly have been a succession crisis once the last had gone the way of earthly flesh. This is something that the Vikings would have been keen to exploit – their attack on Northumbria in 866 appears to have been timed to coincide with a civil war between two claimants for the throne.

Yet, perversely, being the fifth-born, runt of the litter may also have brought with it advantages. As the last in line, it is possible that Alfred was being groomed for a career in the church. Alfred’s much celebrated love of learning and bookishness may have stemmed from an education that was priming him for a more academic career.

Alfred is the only ruler before Henry VIII whose philosophical writings survive. His translations of Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and St Augustine’s Soliloquies into Old English are subtly infused with his personal views of kingship. These were underscored by his law code, which attached great emphasis on loyalty to the king – likening the relationship between subject and ruler to that between disciple and Christ, and declaring that no mercy could be offered for treachery: “…since Almighty God adjudged none for those who despised Him, nor did Christ, the Son of God, adjudge any for the one who betrayed Him to death; and He commanded everyone to love his lord as Himself.”

Such scholarship was typical of Alfred’s rule. He understood the power of the written word and obliged all of his nobles’ sons to learn to read. He also seems to have commissioned both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – which charts the West Saxons’ rise to fame – and his own biography, Bishop Asser’s Life of King Alfred which, while no hagiography, gives an extremely favourable view of the king’s career. If the picture that historians draw of Alfred is sometimes too rosy, it is because the king himself was clever enough to supply a lot of our source material.

This resourcefulness is found in spades following the Viking attack on Chippenham in 878. Such a resurgence can only have been predicated on the loyalty of countrymen, without which he could have raised no army and won no victory. His decision to convert Guthrum to Christianity bound the Viking king to him and neutralised a threat – never again would Guthrum attack Wessex.

Although a decade of fragile peace followed, Alfred did not stand idly by, and instead organised a flurry of fortification. Towns or forts – known as burhs – had their defences strengthened or established for the first time, and precise arrangements were made for their garrisoning: local landowners were obliged to provide four men to defend each ‘pole’ of wall (ie a length of 5½ yards).

So, when Danish armies again turned their attention to Wessex in the early 890s, the kingdom was ready. This defensive network and military reorganisation – partially based on earlier Anglo-Saxon systems, partially on those of Alfred’s stepmother’s father, the French king Charles the Bald (d877) – meant that his son Edward and grandson Æthelstan could conquer the Danelaw, and so establish the kingdom of England.

This is heady stuff, so it is perhaps unsurprising that historians have sometimes gotten carried away. But in their excitement, they’ve often overlooked a number of factors – not least, how much of Alfred’s success was built on luck. Recognising the role of chance in this feted reign helps bring a touch of realism to the Alfredian tale and, rather than detracting from his greatness, helps show it as it really was. Doing this is important, because it reveals just how fragile the conditions were that surrounded the birth of England – a slip-up here, a Viking raid there, a premature death or an infertile marriage and everything might very easily have been extraordinarily different.

This is not to say that Alfred was not great – by any standards his was a remarkable reign – but it is to acknowledge that his success did not derive from talent alone and that the creation of the English kingdom was anything but inevitable.

Alfred the Great was recently voted one of the top 10 historical figures you’re most interested in at the moment in our History Hot 100 poll. See the full shortlist and vote for the person who fascinates you most here!

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