History explorer: Alfred and the Vikings
Charlotte Hodgman talks to historian Ryan Lavelle about the enduring legacy of Alfred the Great and visits eight places related to the Viking raiders of the ninth century
This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
The Viking age began in earnest during the ninth century, a time when England was a prosperous and well-organised set of kingdoms with riches ripe for the seizing. Royal economies were developing, increased wealth was starting to be extracted from the land and the production of treasure within monasteries all made the British Isles an attractive destination for potential raiders. Early Viking invaders took advantage, landing at various points across the British Isles and moving between kingdoms in search of opportunities for easy pickings.
It is unclear why some Vikings chose to leave their homes and travel to Britain. One school of thought is that overpopulation and poverty drove Viking chieftains and bands of followers overseas in search of land and loot. What is known, though, is that Viking ships landed across many parts of the British Isles during the ninth century; some were already operating in France and on the continent, while other Viking parties travelled to Ireland from Norway.
“In the international world of the Middle Ages the Vikings certainly got around,” says Dr Ryan Lavelle, senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Winchester, “but they were not necessarily the massive military juggernauts that legend would have us believe. Although many of the initial Viking raids began as smash-and-grab forays where small groups of invaders seized opportunities to raid coastal towns or monasteries, the mid-ninth century AD saw a number of Viking war bands group together under the realisation that they could make greater progress by working together and settling in one area.”
As pagans, Vikings would not have subscribed to the norms and expectations that Christian people would have obeyed – so monasteries and their mostly unguarded treasures were easy targets. The wealth gathered through their raids helped Viking war bands to coalesce and attract more followers.
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Viking raiders were met with a variety of responses from those living across the British Isles. The popular myth that marauding Vikings wielding huge axes were met by Anglo-Saxon peasants holding spears and rocks are relatively unfounded, and resistance was a much more organised affair.
“Anglo-Saxon England was a construct rather than a national entity at this time and many of the English kingdoms boasted powerful warrior aristocrats who weren’t prepared to see their lands seized without first putting up a fight,” says Lavelle. “In many cases, Viking raiders were met by local armies and forced to move on. Mobility, therefore, was key to Viking success.”
One of the most significant Viking victories was that of the city of York, a settlement of symbolic importance to the establishment of the kingdom of Northumbria. The Vikings secured their hold on York in 867, ruling it through a member of the Northumbrian royal dynasty. Probably the most famous resistance offered to the Vikings during the ninth century was that of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, a ruler idealised greatly during the 19th century as the most perfect man in English history.
“There’s no doubt that Alfred’s achievements were significant,” says Lavelle, “but his iconic status has engineered great debate among historians, many of whom believe Alfred to be a creation of great propaganda. Much of the information we have on Alfred comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of a national history developed by Alfred the Great and therefore recording only his version of events.”
Alfred became king of Wessex in AD 871 and a series of campaigns against the Vikings ensued, fought out by Alfred and his brother Æthelred. Some of these were won, others lost, but unlike other kingdoms, Alfred managed to establish peace with the Vikings on various occasions via more organised routes than fighting, notably by paying raiders to move on or exchanging hostages – he was one of the first kings to do so as part of an organised strategy.
A victory against the Vikings at Edington in AD 878 sealed Alfred's legendary status, but it was far from the end of a Viking presence in the British Isles. Realising that he was unable to drive the invading forces out of England altogether, Alfred took advantage of the breathing space gained by his victory and undertook military and defensive reforms in his kingdom of Wessex in a way that no other ruler of his time in the British Isles had done before. Alfred developed a unique system of burhs – a network of forts scattered around the kingdom – while restructuring his army to ensure a reliable supply of fighters and developing his naval force.
“It is during this time, after Edington, that Alfred started to adopt the notion of ‘Englishness’,” says Lavelle, “referring to himself as king of the Anglo-Saxons, rather than king of the Saxons.” The notion of Englishness itself, though, was not a new one. Bede, who wrote in Northumbria a century before, was the first to use this term but Alfred seizes this idea for himself. He assumed the role of a figurehead, ruling over many across Britain, perhaps even claiming authority over Anglo-Saxons in Danish-held areas which the West Saxon rulers had never had a claim to.
Alfred looks set to remain a significant figure in British history and his feats continue to provoke much discussion among historians. Some believe that he was successful because the Viking forces he fought against may have been smaller than those fought by the Mercian, Northumbrian and Irish kings. Others see Alfred as the embodiment of the perfect king and man. “There’s no doubt that Alfred’s achievements were impressive,” concludes Lavelle, “and he established a system that allowed his kingdom to survive. Would we know so much about Alfred if his dynasty had not survived though? We’ll never know.”
Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Dr Ryan Lavelle, senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Winchester. His latest book, Alfred's Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age, is published by Boydell & Brewer (2010).
Where history happened: Alfred and the Vikings
Saint Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral (Armagh)
Where Dublin’s Vikings took a bloody retribution
Armagh was an important spiritual centre in the north of Ireland during the ninth century and from an early date tried to claim ecclesiastical primacy for the whole of Ireland. “Associated with an important and influential dynasty, Uí Néill (later the O’Neills), Armagh was subject to at least ten Viking raids between 832 and 943. But it was the attack on a monastic settlement, now home to Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, in 869, that is representative of the way the Vikings were starting to establish themselves in Ireland at this point,” says Lavelle.
The attack, led by a Viking chieftain later known as Olaf the White, was typical of the sort of reciprocal warfare seen in early medieval Ireland, and is thought to have been a revenge attack for the burning of a fortress held by Olaf outside Dublin two years earlier. A number of other churches and oratories in Armagh were destroyed during the raid and Armagh was not free of Viking threats until 1014 when the Irish High King Boroimhe (Brian Boru) defeated the Danes at the battle of Clontarf.
Attacks on prominent religious centres are thought by some historians to have been deliberate statements of power by the pagan Vikings who probably did not believe in the kind of retribution that might be visited upon them for stealing from religious sites. It is also likely, though, that religious sites were attacked because they were great repositories of treasure, donated by local magnates to ensure a good afterlife and to exert their influence.
Dumbarton Rock, Dumbarton (West Dumbartonshire)
Where Vikings delivered a devastating blow to the kingdom of Strathclyde
Dumbarton Rock, known as Dun Breatann (Fortress of the Britons) or Alt Clut (Rock of the Clyde), was once the cultural and royal centre of the kingdom of Strathclyde, which stretched along the river Clyde, north into Stirlingshire and south into Ayrshire.
During the ninth century, the kingdom was home to a people who spoke a language that was closely related to Welsh. They were distinct from the Picts and Gaels of northern Britain, and remained relatively untouched by the Viking raids taking place elsewhere in Scotland during the period.
In AD 870, however, Irish Vikings Olaf the White and Ivar (perhaps ‘the Boneless’ of saga legend) laid siege to the rock fortress. According to the Annals of Ulster, a chronicle spanning AD 431–1540, “Amlaíb and Ímar returned to Áth Cliath [Dublin] from Alba with 200 ships, bringing away with them in captivity to Ireland a great prey of Angles and Britons and Picts”. The siege lasted four months until the fortress’s well dried up and the Vikings broke in, delivering a significant blow to the kingdom of Strathclyde. The victorious Vikings did not settle in Dumbarton and returned to Ireland, indicating that they were more concerned with asserting power than with settling.
Go to www.visitscotland.com
Wystan's church (Repton, Derbyshire)
Where a Viking army took the seat of Mercian royal power
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a work compiled on the orders of King Alfred the Great in around AD 890, Wystan’s church, once part of the influential kingdom of Mercia, was home to the men of Ivar the Boneless during the winter of AD 873/74.
The Viking army quartered themselves at the church and “drove the king [of Mercia], Burgred, over sea, when he had reigned about two and twenty winters, and subdued all that land”. They then replaced him with a puppet ruler of their own.
In another example of the disregard held by the Vikings for places of Christian worship, the church was probably used as a defensive base for the wintering army, a theory supported by the discovery in 1976 of a U-shaped earthwork, similar to that found in Ireland at the time, which incorporated the building itself in a central position along the defence line.
The crypt, built during the reign of King Æthelbald in the first half of the eighth century, is the oldest part of the building, and was used as a royal mausoleum, the final resting place of Mercian kings.
A number of remains, thought to be Viking, have been discovered in the churchyard and some historians claim that Ivar the Boneless himself was once buried in the church grounds.
Anglo-Saxon walls (Wareham, Dorset)
Where Alfred bought peace with the Vikings
In AD 876, during his first confrontation with Alfred the Great, the Danish chief Guthrum and his Viking army defeated Alfred’s forces and seized the town of Wareham, setting up camp in the town’s nunnery and quartering there over the winter.
Having already lost a number of other locations within his extensive kingdom of Wessex, Alfred was forced to buy peace with the Vikings, exchanging hostages and money. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Vikings “swore oaths to King Alfred upon the holy ring, which before they would not do to any nation; and they delivered to the king hostages from among the most distinguished men of the army, that they would speedily depart from his kingdom”. However, the Viking army broke its word and instead made its way to Exeter whereupon Alfred’s army besieged Guthrum’s camp. After making a peace agreement with the king, the Vikings retreated to Gloucester.
The town of Wareham is an excellent example of the scale of the types of defended fortresses of the late Anglo-Saxon period. The earth-embankment walls are still visible on the edge of the town, and the main parish church in Wareham is built on the earlier foundations of the nunnery that quartered Guthrum and his forces in 876.
Go to www.visit-dorset.com
King Alfred's monument (Athelney Island, Somerset)
Where Alfred sought refuge from a Viking invasion
Just after the Christmas celebrations of AD 878, Guthrum and his forces made a surprise night-time attack on Alfred and his court at Chippenham, Wiltshire. They forced Alfred to flee to Athelney, once a low and isolated island in the marshes of the Somerset Levels. It was during his stay here that Alfred planned his guerilla campaign against the Viking invaders, regrouping enough of an army to eventually go head-to-head with Guthrum and his army at Edington later that year.
It was from Athelney that many of the legends surrounding Alfred stem. One famous story tells how, when he first fled from Chippenham, Alfred was given shelter by a swineherd and asked to watch a batch of cakes that were baking. Apparently preoccupied by the problems of his kingdom, Alfred let the cakes burn.
During the 880s, following his victory over the Vikings at Edington, Alfred founded an abbey in gratitude to the island that provided refuge. This abbey was dissolved during the Reformation but a 19th-century monument now stands on the island marking where it once stood. Although not accessible to the public, it is visible from a lay-by on the A361 between East Lyng and Burrowbridge.
Go to www.visitsomerset.co.uk
Battle of Ethandun memorial (Edington, Wiltshire)
Where a strategic victory was won by Alfred
In May AD 878, Alfred made the decision to take the battle to Guthrum’s army, which by now had taken over most of Wessex. “Nineteenth-century historians got very hot under the collar about which of the many possible ‘Edingtons’ in England the battle took place in,” says Lavelle, “but now it is widely believed to have taken place in Edington, Wiltshire, a royal estate and one of deep meaning to the West Saxon royal family. In addition, its proximity to Chippenham where Guthrum’s army was encamped makes it a logical choice of battleground.”
Alfred and his small band of followers, gathered during his time in Athelney, drove the Danes back to Chippenham, trapping them within the fortress there. After 14 days, Guthrum surrendered to Alfred and “then the [Viking] army gave him hostages with many oaths, that they would go out of his kingdom. They told him also, that their king [Guthrum] would receive baptism.”
The Viking leader’s conversion to Christianity took place at the small town of Wedmore, very near Athelney where Alfred had spent his long winter planning the assault at Edington. His choice of site is likely to have been no coincidence, and the vision of Alfred marching Guthrum back to Athelney, every bit the triumphant victor, was probably a symbolic use of territory on Alfred’s part. Guthrum, newly converted to Christianity, remained in East Anglia until his death ten years later.
Although the exact site of the clash is unknown, there is a small stone memorial to the battle of Ethandun situated near the Iron Age hillfort of Bratton Castle in Wiltshire. It overlooks the area believed to have been the site of the battle.
The Westbury White Horse, cut into the hillside in 1778, is believed to have replaced an older horse which, according to local legend, was created to commemorate Alfred’s victory there.
Go to www.visitwiltshire.co.uk
Where a combined force defeated an army of Danes
In AD 893, Alfred’s modified and improved defence system was put to the test after an army of Danes under the command of Hastein made its way up the Thames and Severn rivers to Buttington, near Welshpool. The invading army then occupied an existing fort or structure before attempting an invasion of Wessex. They were beaten by Alfred and an army comprising men from various kingdoms across England and Wales.
It was at Buttington that we see Alfred’s greater influence as a traditional overlord bringing together groups with a vested interest in keeping raiding Viking armies out of their territories. This was an event so significant that in the later tenth century a chronicler named Æthelweard wrote: “These things done at Buttington are still proclaimed by old men”. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Alfred gathered men from “every town east of the [river] Parret, as well as west of Selwood, and from the parts east and also north of the Thames and west of the Severn, and also a certain part of the north-Welsh people” (possibly distinguishing the Britons from Wales from the ‘west Welsh’ of Cornwall). This indicates some kingdoms across the British Isles were beginning to look to Alfred for protection.
Some historians believe that Buttington All Saints church is built on the site of the fort used by the Viking forces, and around 400 apparently battle-scarred skulls, thought by some to be Viking, were found in the churchyard in 1838.
Go to www.visitwales.co.uk
King Alfred's statue (Winchester, Hampshire)
Where Alfred flexed his royal power
Winchester in Alfred's time was a royal town in West Saxon England that was rapidly growing in importance, and quickly established itself as one of Alfred's principal burhs. Alfred is only officially recorded as being present in the town once, although it is likely he spent more time there.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that Alfred was present in the city in AD 896 for the hanging of Viking pirates who had been captured after a small naval battle with Alfred’s forces. The captured crews were sent to Winchester, where they were hanged as a warning to others in a public demonstration of the king’s royal power.
With the pause in Viking threats to his kingdom by the end of the ninth century, Alfred was able to concentrate on a number of reforms, the results of which can be seen in Winchester. In 901, two years after Alfred’s death, the city’s New Minster was built next to the seventh-century Old Minister. It is thought that Alfred had intended to build the monastery in his lifetime, but died before he had the opportunity to do so.
Alfred was initially buried in the New Minster but his bones were moved to New Minster’s successor Hyde Abbey, located just outside the city walls, during the time of Henry I. It is not known where they now lie. The gateway to Hyde Abbey still remains and the city boasts a magnificent bronze statue of Alfred, erected in 1901 to mark what was believed to be the millennium of his death, although he actually died in 899.
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