The Coming of the Vikings

The next year, Halfdan took an army to Ireland in an attempt to retake his brother’s kingdom, and was reportedly killed in the fighting although other sources state that he was killed a year later while fighting Alfred at Countisbury Hill. Even in these troubled times we still see some Saxons attempting to carve out their own kingdoms with Eadulf of Bamburgh, a relative of the old king of Northumbria declaring Bernicia his own. His isolated mini kingdom is not recognised by anyone and he allies himself to Alfred for protection.

The invaders, led by Guthrum were clearly here to stay and although they were comfortable enough in Mercia and Northumbria, they recognised that Wessex remained a threat to them. In January 878AD, they attacked Chippenham, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been staying over Christmas and, as recorded in the Chronicle, “most of the people they reduced except the King Alfred and he, with a little band, made his way by wood and swamp and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney and from that fort kept fighting against the foe”. Guthrum used the town as a secure base from where he could raid at will throughout Wessex. Local people either surrendered or fled, some to the Isle of Wight.

 It was during this period of Alfred hiding from the invaders that some of the many fables about him were started. The story of him being given shelter by a peasant woman and asked to watch the cakes began here when he, dreaming of success in his battles with the invaders, allowed them to burn. Another story tells of him entering the Norse camp disguised as a minstrel and learning of their battle plans. All these are probably fables, but what is known that from his hideout on the Somerset levels he was able to harass the enemy and to keep alive some hope of victory.

He raised sufficient forces from the areas of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset that he was able to inflict much damage on the Vikings and at the Battle of Countisbury Hill it is recorded that eight hundred Norsemen were killed, plus forty of the Danish King’s retinue.

Later in the same year, Alfred consolidated his position by defeating the invaders at the Battle of Edington (or Ethandun) near Westbury in Wiltshire. The Vikings were led by kings (more properly warleaders) Hingwar and Ubba, the elder brother of Ivor the Boneless and Halfdan. The Norsemen suffered a major setback when, crossing the River Kennet in sight of the enemy, Hingwar’s horse stumbled and the Danish leader drowned. The place was given the name, Hingwars Ford, now known as Hungerford.

The white horse, carved in the chalk at Westbury is said to commemorate the battle. It is said that Alfred’s forces stood behind a shield wall much as the Romans once did and absorbed the shock of the enemy charge before moving forward in line to rout them. The result was a decisive victory for Alfred and the Welsh monk Asser, later to become the Bishop of Sherborne, writes “Alfred attacked the whole pagan army fighting ferociously in dense order and by divine will eventually won the victory”. Ethandun was a turning point for Alfred in his war against the invaders, yet the Chronicle records merely that “he went from these camps to Lilly Oak and one day later to Ethandun and there he fought against the entire host and put it to flight”.

More importantly, the victory was so thorough that Alfred was able to pursue the enemy back to their stronghold at Chipenham and lay siege to it. He had already captured their cattle and horses and after a fortnight, the northmen surrendered, “and in the end, by despair, sought peace”.

Later that year, a party of invaders landed on the English coast at Combwitch and the Saxon defenders, under their leader Eolferman Odda, retreated to a fort at Cynuit. The raiders besieged the fort expecting the defenders to surrender through lack of water.  The Saxons charged from the fort at dawn, surprising the Danes and defeated them, killing Ubba in the process.

Asser also told of the Danish leader Guthrum, plus thirty of his followers accepting Christianity and being baptised following the Treaty of Wedmore. This treaty formalised the division of the country into two parts, the southern part being ruled by the Wessex Saxons and the north eastern part, (the Danelaw) including London, by the Danes. Guthrum kept his part of the treaty inasmuch as he left the boundary unmolested, but the treaty also legitimised his authority and rule in the north. He was also smart enough to change his name to Aethelstan, the name of Alfred’s elder brother, thereby reassuring his subjects that they would continue to be ruled by a Christian rather than a heathen chieftain.

By 879AD, all of Wessex and Mercia west of Watling Street were cleared of the invaders. Later that year another raiding party occupied Fulham. The Chronicle records “the sun darkened for one hour of the day” Guthrum took his forces to Cirencester for the winter and in the New Year he took over the land of the East Anglians installing himself as king. The Fulham raiders went over the sea to Frankland, but were clearly no more welcome there than in England. In 881AD they fought and won a major battle with the Franks, re-equipping themselves with the spoils into the bargain, the Chronicle stating “and there the force was horsed”.

Despite the treaty, there was little peace in England with Alfred forever on the move to hold back the invaders. In 882, Alfred’s ships met with a group of four raiders, killing the crew of the first two before the others surrendered, this incident showing the growing proficiency of his navy.

In Europe the Norsemen were roaming and raiding as they had in England, using the Meuse, the Scheldt and the Somne to travel inland which did reduce pressure on England, but in 885AD a Danish force of sixteen ships landed at Plucks Gutter, a village on the mouth of the River Stour in Kent. Alfred’s forces repelled them, the Chronicle reporting that “They seized all the ships and killed all the men”, but returning home with the spoils, Alfred’s force met another fleet of raiders and were defeated in the ensuing battle.

The Stour raid and this last victory did however encourage the East Anglian Danes to rise up Alfred moved against them and recaptured London in the process. The resulting treaty, known as The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum did give a little respite to the hard pressed English. He set his Eolderman Aethere of Mercia in charge of the city. Under Alfred’s guidance, London, in its unique position being on the borders of Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia, was rebuilt, fortified and repopulated. The city was to become the centre of trade and defence for the whole of England.

Alfred was tireless in his efforts to expel the invaders, creating alliances by marrying his daughter Aethelflaed to Aethere; he himself had married the Mercian noblewoman Ealhswith. He also married his other daughter Aelfthrith to the Count of Flanders who had a strong navy at a time when the Danes were settling in eastern England.

In addition to building up his sea power, he regularised the duties of the Fyrd, the Old Saxon levy system of military service, ensuring that all shared equally in the defence of the country as well as being released for harvesting etc. He started a programme of building a series of fortified towns or Burghs throughout southern England, in which settlers received plots in return for manning the defences in time of war. When completed, no part of Wessex was more than 20 miles from the refuge of one of these settlements.

Such plots in London under Alfred’s rule shaped the street plan which still exists today between Cheapside and the Thames. Alfred’s skills were not just confined to fighting however, he was a devout and pragmatic man who learned Latin in his thirties from his biographer, the monk Asser and was concerned at the general deterioration in learning and religion following the destruction of so many churches and monasteries. He gathered learned men from Mercia and Wessex to help translate a handful of books from Latin into Anglo Saxon that he thought “most needful for men to know and to bring it to pass…if we have the peace that all the youth now in England…may be devoted to learning”.

He established a legal code for the country by assembling all the laws of Offa and the kingdoms of Wessex and Kent adding his own administrative regulations to form a definitive body of Anglo Saxon law.

The raiders in Europe continued their trail of destruction along the towns of the Seine and the Marne and were aided by the internecine battles that broke out among the Franks following the death of Charles, their king. The country was divided up into five parts, each ruled by a pretender “they ravaged the land, then repeated it, each driving the other out again”. This fighting enabled the invaders to more or less go where they would, but in 891AD, Earnulf, the only Frankish leader with some kinship to the old king, gathered a force of Franks, Saxons and Bavarians and defeated the Danes in a number of running battles.