When Alfred the Great met the Vikings

The monarchy of Great Britain has become something of a figurehead in the 21st century. Go back more than 1,000 years and the history books will tell you epic tales of kings leading vast armies into battle.

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As the great novelist Rudyard Kipling once said, if we were taught history in the form of stories, it wouldn’t be forgotten. Imagine a king leading his troops in guerrilla-style warfare and hiding out in local people’s homes to evade the enemy.

This is what happened in the ninth century, when the warrior king Alfred the Great met the Vikings on the battlefield to fight for British sovereignty.

Who was Alfred the Great?

In the fifth century, England had been divided into seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, each with its own king. Different royals ruled each region separately for centuries.

When Britain was first invaded by marauding Vikings in the late eighth century, it heralded the start of a continual onslaught of raids for generations.

Ultimately, the warfare unified the nation and changed the core power structure – leading to Alfred the Great being recognised as the first king of all England, rather than just ruler of a region. He is the only English monarch in history known as “the Great” – a tribute to his momentous impact on the future of the nation.

The first Viking invasion took place in 793 AD., when raiders crossed the sea from Denmark in mighty longships to conquer vast areas of northeast England. They landed first at historic Lindisfarne Monastery on the small tidal island off the coast of Northumbria and continued sailing across the North Sea, raiding Scotland and Ireland as well.

During the next century, the invaders occupied many settlements in Britain, merging with the Anglo-Saxon population and introducing their own language and culture.

How did Alfred the Great become King?

Born to Ethelwulf’s wife Osburh, a noblewoman, in 849 AD. in the market town of Wantage, in Berkshire; Alfred the Great was the youngest son of Ethelwulf, the King of Wessex, a Saxon kingdom in southwest England. It would have seemed unlikely that Alfred would ever become king, as he had four older brothers. He was given a military education, which was the norm for a young man of high social rank.

King Ethelwulf died in 858. As his oldest son, Ethelstan, was already the King of Kent, the second-oldest boy, Ethelbald, was crowned King of Wessex. His reign was short-lived, as he died in 860. Ethelbald was succeeded by the third son, Ethelberht, but he too died young in 865. Ethelred, the fourth son, then became king. This made Alfred next in line to the throne.

Alfred’s first active service was in 868, aged 19, when he and King Ethelred joined the army of King Burgred of Mercia, the kingdom between the Humber and the Thames. They prepared to do battle against the Danish army that had seized Mercia in 867. However, peace was restored after the Danes backed down from a full-scale war.

What happened at the Battle of Ashdown?

Alfred and Ethelred continued to fight against the Vikings, but Mercia later fell, and England seemed doomed to its fate. By 870, six of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been overrun by the Danes. Only the Kingdom of Wessex remained independent – but the Vikings were preparing to attack. The Battle of Ashdown, on 9th January 871, became one of the most famous battles in British history.

While its exact location is unknown, many historians believe it took place on Kingstanding Hill in Berkshire. The Vikings seized the ground at the top of the ridge and divided their troops into two contingents.

The Saxons’ scouts reported this to Alfred and Ethelred, who copied the formation. Alfred led one contingent and Ethelred the other. Both sides created walls of shields to protect their troops as they advanced.

The battle raged throughout the day. At one point, it was feared Alfred’s contingent was going to be overwhelmed, but Ethelred led his men in an uphill charge that surprised the Vikings. After fierce fighting, the Saxons were victorious. Alfred and Ethelred became national heroes.

Sadly, Ethelred died three months later, leaving Alfred to succeed him as King of Wessex. While the Saxon forces had won the battle, they had yet to win the war.

King Alfred and the cakes

Alfred was a great leader and continued to fight against the Vikings. When the Viking leader, King Guthrum, launched a surprise attack on King Alfred’s base at Chippenham on 6th January 878, he and a small group of soldiers were forced to flee into the rugged Somerset Levels. He knew the area well from his childhood and a period of guerrilla warfare followed.

Alfred and his army lived in the coastal plains and marshes. They struck the Vikings when they could and then disappeared back into the wilderness again.

They depended on local people for shelter and food while fighting the stealth war. Legend has it that while hiding at the home of a peasant woman, Alfred was asked to keep an eye on her cakes, or small loafs of bread, which were baking by an open fire. However, he was distracted as he planned the next phase of the war and let the cakes burn – a serious matter for a family without money. He was scolded by the woman for not watching them properly!

When did Alfred become King of England?

King Alfred built a fortress on the site of an Iron Age fort at Athelney and connected it to the settlement of East Lynn. After gathering a 3,000-strong army from West Hampshire, Somerset and Wiltshire, they forged new weapons.

The Saxon army attacked King Guthrum’s Viking army in May 878 at Edington. A ferocious battle, most of the Danish troops were killed. The survivors fled and Guthrum finally surrendered.

The Danish king, a pagan, agreed to be baptised as a Christian along with 30 of his soldiers on 15th June 878 at Aller village in Somerset. The event was known as the Peace of Wedmore.

The Saxon king became known as Alfred the Great in recognition of his military skills and also because he had united the previously fragmented English kingdoms and made peace with most of the Danes.

A report in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said all the English people then acknowledged Alfred as their king, apart from those still under Danish rule in the North and East. Today, he is generally recognised by historians as the first King of England. He reigned until his death on 26th October 899. The true tale of King Alfred shows how a meeting can significantly change the course of history. Without his victory over the Vikings, Britain might have been a very different place today.

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