King Aelfred became a legend in his lifetime, Keen on early mediaeval history, Alan reveals a story few are familiar with ,
Led by Ragnar's sons, the Danes land in East Anglia and the North, aiming to seek revenge for their father's death - some are more ambitious!
From the Levels to a High Kingship
'I cannot be king, father - I was meant to follow the path of Jesus!' A young Aelfred had learned to read, write and reason. His older brothers fell prey to the invaders from across the sea, unequal to the task demanded of them. They were being sidestepped at each turn. One by one Aethelbald, Aethelberht and Aethelred fell to the Danes in battle.
In mid-9th Century the Danes had fallen on the Christian kingdoms of southern Britain. The civilised world was once more beset by Barbarians. There had been raids on the coast from the end of the 8th Century but this was different. Three different armies landed on the coast of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia with different aims. One, led by a minor chieftain named Guthrum was set on taking land, pure and simple. The other two, led by Ubbi, Sigurd 'Snake-eye', Halfvdan and Ivar 'the Boneless' were intent on taking land, plunder and vengeance. In Northumbria Aella was dealt with swiftly in revenge for the death of their father Ragnar. A puppet king was put in his place and on they went into Mercia. Burgred, was chased from his kingdom and again a puppet was installed, Ceolwulf. These 'kings' would do the Danes' bidding or suffer the consequences. Eadmund of East Anglia was chased to his church at Bury (now Bury St Edmund's, Suffolk), considered unworthy of his kingdom for fleeing the field of battle and dealt summary justice. Guthrum assumed kingship of the region but was hungry for more. He pursued the Saxons and their Jutish neighbours in Kent, the southern kingdoms, finally defeating Aethelred I at Meretun in 871.
Unwillingly Aelfred was pressed into kingship. He had been schooled by his father for the Church. Yet after seeing his older brother die slowly of his wounds after the battle, he saw no other way. The youngest of four brothers, why should anyone have expected him, a sickly youth, to ascend the throne? After Meretun Aelfred and his West Saxons were pressed ever westward. Guthrum took the West Saxons by surprise as Aelfred's court celebrated Christ's birth in mid-winter, AD 878, at the royal borough of Cipanham (pron. Chippenham) pushed them into a corner, into Wessex itself. They were bottled in with little hope. Aelfred sought shelter on an 'island' in a watery hell known as Aethelney, the isle of the princes, in the north of Sumorsaetan (Somerset). With the Danes scouring the levels, and a price on his head Aelfred was firmly cornered. He had to make himself small and, unknown, sought shelter with fisherfolk. Aelfred was at a low ebb, wondering whether he should declare himself - he was king, after all - or stay unknown until the Danes called off the search.
'You, watch my cakes by the fire!' the fisherman's wife cuffed him over the ears and pointed at the oatcakes. Oatmeal was scarce with the Danes scouring the land for whatever food they could find to feed their hundreds of hungry mouths. The menfolk in the levels grumbled about the lack of leadership in the kingdom and stared at the unkempt young fellow in his monk's robes. He looked the part, and no-one suspected the king was under their noses. Would they have surrendered him to Guthrum in return for a full belly and gold? Many had been outlawed by the old king and felt they stood to gain nothing from loyalty to one they had never seen.
'Hey you, all I can smell is burning cakes!' the fisherman's wife thumped Aelfred's ear, knocking his shoulder as she passed, pulled the oatcakes away from the flames and blew on them, scraping away the blackened edges. 'Useless oaf, what are you good for?!'
Aelfred endured her wrath silently, fearfully. The Danes withdrew from the marshes and Aelfred's men returned to him by and by, the ealdormen and thegns. It dawned on these poor folk of the levels that a source of funds had been within their grasp all the time, a way out of misery! Aelfred made it known that if the menfolk of Sumorsaetan - many of them outlawed for petty crimes - fought with him against the Danes their crimes would no longer be held against them.
'What is there for us?' many asked. The answer 'freedom from the rule of the Danes' would not be such an attraction. Being kept underfoot by the west Saxon hierarchy was no different to being trodden underfoot by Guthrum.
'Freedom in they eyes of the law, and a share in the spoils once the Danes are beaten', is what they wanted to hear. Aelfred was not exactly going to offer them that, after all the spoils had been taken from Mercia, Northumbria and elsewhere, mostly from churches or monasteries. 'Freedom in the eyes of the law' was what they were offered, and accepted.
Aelfred led his men - and some women - against the Danes and in May defeated Guthrum's army at Edantun (Edington), then laid siege to them at Cyppanhamme. The Danes accepted Aelfred's terms for withdrawal from Wessex by treaty at Wedmor (Wedmore). One condition of the Danes' agreement to he treaty was Guthrum's acceptance of the Christian faith and the baptismal name of 'Aethelstan'. What they were given in exchange was the land east of Watling Straet (Watling Street) that led diagonally across the land from London to Chester. The Mercians were not happy, after all, this was their land, and the eastern shires would now ring to the sound of Danish voices. The 'five boroughs', Deoraby (Derby), Leagacester (Leicester), Lindcylne (Lincoln), Snotingaham (Nottingham) and Staenford (Stamford) were fortified by the Danes, but Aelfred had them out of Wessex. for now this was as much as he could expect from the deadlock. Aelfred married his daughter Aethelflaed to an ealdorman, Aethelred appointed by him to rule the rest of Mercia as regent. Much against local feeling Aelfred put himself forward as leader of the Angles and Saxons not under Danish rule. The Northumbrians and Mercians bided their time, however, looking ahead to a time when they would be free of the 'southerners', the Saxons.
In AD 886 Aelfred took Lundenwic (London) from the Danes after Guthrum's violation of the agreement, forcing the Danish king to honour the equality of the Saxons under his rule. Fortifications were built on the eastern side of Middilseaxe (Middlesex), on the banks of the Leag (River Lea) facing the East Saxons to keep out the Danes. The defences were tested by a new onslaught of Danes from Frankia in AD 892, reinforced by more from around the Danelaw, but held and following raids by Aelfred's Saxons many from the Danes' army withdrew to the Danelaw in AD 896, some back to Frankia.
Somehow Aelfred believed the Danes' attacks were a punishment from God for the laxity of the English church, and consequently began educational reform to bring the clergy back to the standard he thought they never should have let go of. He brought in scholars from overseas and had major Christian works translated into the vernacular, and began an official 'diary' of events across his and other kingdoms within his rule known to us as the Saxon Chronicles.
Eclipsed by the reputations of his successors Eadward 'the Elder' and Aethelstan, Aelfred did however come into his own in later years. He had been acknowledged by the Danes within his own lifetime, awarded the title 'the Great' by them and this was re-awarded in his honour by an Anglo-Norman chronicler William of Malmesbury. In summing up his achievements, bringing his kingdom back from the brink, Aelfred can be said to unique amongst early mediaeval European kings.
Aelfred, as the youngest son of Aethelwulf and Osburh was destined for the clergy. Had it not been for his father and older brothers being slain or badly injured in battle with the Danes, he would have entered the Church. As it was he was nearly captured when the land-hungry self-styled king of East Anglia, Guthrum, made an overland raid on Chippenham in mid-winter after they had concluded a treaty. It was the Danes who gave Aelfred the honour of being called 'Great' after they had been fought to a stand-still - Alfred P. Smyth's translation uses the account of Alfred's contemporary the Welsh priest Asser to pinpoint the era from an early mediaeval perspective.
Aelfred reaches Aethelney in the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury
In the dead of winter, after twelfth night, AD 878 Guthrum took an army overland from Gloucester.
They passed through the hoar frost and fell on the West Saxons at Chippenham, almost taking Aelfred from his bed. The West Saxon king escaped by the skin of his teeth with a few of his thegns, fleeing westward as detailed above. You might like some background to this episode about the man, Guthrum:
The self-appointed Danish king of East Anglia, a war band chieftain in Denmark, joined the Micel Here (Great Army) of Ragnar Lothbrok's sons in AD 871, taking part in the takeover of Eastern Mercia between AD 873-4. When the Micel Here divided the year after Guthrum and two sub-kings Osketil and Eyvind went to Grantaceaster to overwinter. Little is known of him when he came to England, nothing is known of him before then. His opportunism allowed him to carve out an albeit small kingdom for himself, with Ragnar's sons to watch his back.
All was quiet for a time, the West Saxons were lulled into thinking all was over and done with. Then suddenly Aelfred had to flee to Aethelney (the isle of the princes) in the Levels, the low-lying, flood-prone land near Glaestingabyrig (Glastonbury). This was when Aelfred took it upon himself to masquerade as a minstrel in the Danish camp to spy on Guthrum. Legend has it they pelted him with bones for singing mournful dirges instead of 'jollying' them along with rousing tales of heroism.
The turn in fortunes came when Aelfred surprisingly defeated Guthrum at Aethandun (Edington) with a hastily drawn army that apparently included women. Guthrum submitted to baptism with the name Aethelstan (not to be confused with Aelfred's grandson through his daughter Aethelflaed). A treaty was agreed between them at Wedmor (Wedmore) through which the Danes gained all the land east of Watling Street. (The Danelaw boundary ran from London to Chester along the old Roman road, cutting Mercia roughly in half).
Guthrum broke the treaty in AD 885, bringing Aelfred's wrath on him. The West Saxons took Lundenwic (London) a year later. For lack of resources to enforce his will, Aelfred was obliged to acknowledge Guthrum's kingship over East Anglia. A condition of acknowledging the boundary was the equal treatment of non-Danes in the Danelaw territories (Norfolk, Suffolk in the east, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire in the midlands,. The territory between the Humber in the east and the Mersey in the west as far north as the Ribble near Lancaster in the north-west and the Tees in the north-east became the Kingdom of Jorvik (York), thus isolating Bernicia between the Tees and the Forth.
Guthrum died in AD 890, Aelfred nine years later, to be succeeded by his own son Eadward. Another succession dispute loomed between Eadward and Aelfred's nephew Aethelwold (son of Aethelred I), leaving Aethelwold going over to the Danes and being made nominal king of Jorvik. .
The Vikings - Danes and Norsemen - had established themselves on the fringes of Britain. They needed little excuse to expand into the disparate kingdoms that would one day make up the fledgling England under Aethelstan. The eastern half of Mercia, half of Northumbria from the Tees to the Humber and much of East Anglia would be taken over within the Danelaw. The Norse impact on culture and language in the Anglian kingdoms went deeper than was comfortable for the West Saxon kings who had their own dreams of ruling beyond Wessex.
© 2011 Alan R Lancaster