In 793, a surprise attack on an otherwise peaceful monastery at Lindisfarne marked the beginning of one of the most turbulent periods in English history. In this series I hope to provide an overview of events to explain what happened and why. Whilst the facts I’ve cited are not all universally accepted, they are gleaned from the research I undertook for my books in The Shadow of the Raven Series
It’s quite likely that strong trading links had existed between Saxon England and what we now call Scandinavia for many years. This changed following the attack on Lindisfarne (more about the motivation for that in Part Three of this series) which was followed by more raids until, in 865, a Viking army, known as the ‘Great Heathen Army’, landed in East Anglia determined to conquer England for themselves. This largely Danish force quickly secured most of the kingdoms which made up England at that time leaving just one, Wessex, to stand alone.
In 870 Wessex was ruled by King Aethelred who, with his younger brother, Alfred, held the Vikings off but the only significant victory they achieved was at the battle of Ashdown where Alfred earned his military spurs. His brother is said to have spent so long at Mass that Alfred pre-empted things and ordered the attack himself. Aethelred died later that year, probably from wounds received at the battle of Marton.
In those days there was no automatic right of succession. Kings were ‘chosen’ and Alfred, as an accomplished warrior, was the obvious contender to succeed his brother. As King, he fought a number of major battles but could not secure a decisive victory. He also tried to buy peace by paying tribute (i.e. gold or silver etc), which didn’t please the church or many of the senior Saxons. Then, in 877, he retired to his Royal Vill in Chippenham for the winter, thinking himself safe until Spring. But on the 10th day after Christmas – in January 878 – the Vikings under Jarl Guthrum launched a surprise attack. Alfred’s army – or at least that part of it which had remained with him – was all but annihilated. Alfred fled with a few survivors and took shelter in the desolate marshes at Athelney in the Somerset Levels, a time which features strongly in my first novel, Blood and Destiny.
Given the ferocity of the attack, Alfred was lucky just to be alive. In fact, luck is a key element in his story. For a start, he was ‘lucky’ that only about half the main Viking army took part in the attack on his Vill, a contingent which had split off from the main force. Had it been the full Viking army it’s doubtful he would have survived. In fact, he was ‘lucky’ to be King in the first place as, being the youngest of five brothers, he was destined for a life in the church until one by one his brothers predeceased him and he found himself as King.
But King of what? The marshes at Athelney were then a harsh and forbidding place and he had nothing which could be described as an army at his disposal. Estimates of the numbers who accompanied him vary but we are probably talking about twenty or so men at best, many of them wounded and no doubt dejected having lost family and friends in the attack. It is from this miserable and wretched period that many of the stories about Alfred emanate – such as the burning of the cakes and the contention that he disguised himself as a wandering minstrel and actually returned to Chippenham to spy on the Vikings. Make what you will of the story of the cakes (you might also like to read my blog post ‘So, Did Alfred Really Burn the Cakes’) but the idea of him returning to spy on his enemies is an unlikely proposition given that the prize for anyone prepared to betray him would have been wealth beyond all reckoning. Also, if he was betrayed as a spy, Alfred could expect no mercy for the Vikings hated spies, reasoning that whereas a murderer might kill one or two men, a spy could be responsible for the defeat of a whole army.
Having conducted what might best be described as a guerrilla campaign against the Vikings, by Easter Alfred had somehow managed to rally the Saxon people in sufficient numbers to strike back and win a decisive Victory at the Battle of Ethandune (sometimes called ‘Edington’) which then secured his realm of Wessex – and ultimately provided the basis for a united England, albeit that didn’t happen until several generations later.
The relevance of this surprising victory reaches deep into English culture for had King Alfred not triumphed there, virtually the whole of England would have been under Viking rule and Alfred himself either executed or slain. Had that occurred, many of the hugely important events which followed would simply not have happened; including quite possibly the Battle of Hastings given that the Vikings had such close ties with the Normans – the name ‘Norman’ is actually derived from the ‘Norsemen’ or ‘Northmen’ – Vikings who had settled in that part of France. Whilst not exactly brothers, they might be considered as cousins, albeit many times removed.
Alfred was merciful in victory and entered into a treaty with the Viking warlord, Guthrum, whereby he ceded control of lands to him (basically to the north of Watling Street) in return for leaving Wessex in peace. This provided a period of relative and much needed peace which, although it didn’t last, enabled Alfred to instigate the many reforms and initiatives for which he is renowned.