Wars of Alfred the Great


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Transcript of Wars of Alfred the Great

  • The Wars of Alfred the GreatAlfred the Great was a brilliant military leader and organiser. Throughout the870s, Wessex was beset with a sustained series of Viking raids, which costamong other things Alfred's brother, King Aethelred. After assuming the throneand carrying on the fight, Alfred negotiated a peace and used the time purchasedby his tribute to turn Wessex into a heavily armed citadel. When the Vikingsreturned in 892, Alfred held them in place with his fortified burghs and drove themoff with his mobile field army. By the time of his death in 899, Alfred ruled much ofEngland, and had secured his Wessex throne against the Vikings...

    The campaigns of the Great Heathen Army 865-879.

    Heathen Raiders from Across the Sea

    The first recorded Viking raid upon England occurredin the year 793.The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports:

    Here terrible portents came about over the land ofNorthumbria, and miserably frightened the people:these were immense flashes of lightning, and fierydragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine, andafter that in the same year the raiding of the heathenmiserably devastated God's church in Lindisfarneisland by looting and slaughter.'

    For the first half of the ninth centu4r, the Vikingssporadically raided the English coast. While costly,these raids were never more than a nuisance. Butin 865 a great wave of Viking marauders arrived inEngland, settling first in Kent before plundering theirway north. The Anglo-Smon Chronicle calls themthe 'great heathen army'. They ravaged East Anglia,Mercia, and Northumbria, sacking cities like York,killing kings and nobility, and taking everything ofvalue. Having exhausted the resources ofnorthern andeastem England, the Vikings looked west to Wessex,the kingdom of the West Saxons.

  • Armies and Weapons in the$truggle for England

    To defend Wessex, Aethelred andAlfredhad the furd. The furd was an Anglo-Saxon militia led by ealdormen andthegns. The latter were the rich landowners and nobility who were rewardedwith the king's favour in exchangefor military service. They were oftenarmed with swords and outf,tted withmall byrnies and conical helmets. Thefyrd's rank and file was lower-classfreeholders and commoners. These mencarried a simple spear, which could bethrust or thrown, and a small, roundwooden shield. covered in leather andringed by a metal band. In combat, theywould lock shields and form a wall. Intheory the shield wall would stand firmin defence or press forward in atlack.2

    The Vikings, who did not start usingtheir infamous two handed battle axe

    until the tenth century used similararms and equipment. They were alsoorganized along similar lines. Raidingparties would form around kings whopromised great glory and plunder. Thekings delegated much authority to jarls;nobility and prominent men in commandof raiding parties or sections of raidingparties. The Vikings were accomplishedsailors who used their longboats forstrategic mobility (though they surelywould never have called it that). Theycould be brutal and recreationallycruel. Contemporaries often substitutethe word Dane for Viking, though theyhailed from all over Scandinavia.3

    The Vikings come toWessex

    In late 870 the 'great heathen army'invaded Wessex. Led by the Vikingkings Bagsecg and Halfclan, the army

    An evocation of the Saxon shield wall.

    crossed the Thames and made campat Reading, about thirty miles up theThames from London. The Vikingsfortified the camp and sent raidingparties against the counhyside. In theNew Year the local fyrd, commandedby an ealdorman named Aethelwulf,was heavily defeated at Englefield.A few days later, King Aethelred andAlfred arrived with the rest of the WestSaxon furd and united with Aethelwulf'sremaining forces. The combined armymarched on Reading. Here a bloodybattle was fought and the West Saxonsinflicted great slaughter upon theVikings who then retreated to theirfortified camp. But when Aethelred andhis men reached the gates the Vikingsstormed out in a furious charge 'likewolves' says Asser, Alfred's biographer,and routed the West Saxons. Aethelwulfwas killed, but Aethelred and Alfredescaped.a

    Four days after the battle of





  • Alfred's f inal campaigns, 892-896.

    Reading, Aethelred and Alfrccl attackedBagsecg's forces at Ashclorvu. aboutflfteen rniles northwest of thcir Reaclingbase. Bagsecg held the high ground ancic'leployed his troops in two sectior.rs alonga ridge; one division he cotlmandedrvith Halfdan. while the other was ledby their izr'l lieutenants. Aethelred andAlfled agreed to split their forces intu,o. Aethelred wor.rld attack Bagsecgand Halfdan: Alfi'ed would deal withthe.jut'ls. Alfi'ed led his men into battlefirst. br-rt Aethelred did not follow.Apparently he refused to attack beforehe finished his prayers, so Alfred foundhimself confronting the entire Mkingarmy on his own. Alfred ordered hismen to close ranks and charge. Alfredpersonally led the assault, Asser tells us

    'l ike a wild boar', and held the Vikingsin check unti l Aethelrecl's forccs arrivedand fell upon the Viking flank and rear.clriving them frorn the field. Not onlyhad 1he Vikings fled; King Bagsecg andl:re jurl.s rvere kil led. Alfi 'ed and hisbrother won a great victory for Wessex.

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    Yet after Reading, the West Saxons knewonly setbacks. A few weeks later anotherbattle was fought at the royal estate ofBasing, ten miles south of Reading.After what Asser calls 'a violent clashon all fi'onts' the Vikings prevailed. Inlate March another battle was fought atthe royal estate of Merettn. The West

    Saxons fought savagely and pusir. ' .back the Vikings. But the Viking-regrotrped and counterattacked an.overwhelmed the Anglo-Saxons. Wor:.a gleat f leet arrived. Under the colnmdnLlof the Viking kings Gr.rthmrn. Oscetcl.and Anwencl, the fleet etnbarkecl fi'orrthe continent as word filterec'l back thltWessex was ripe for plunder and lightl. 'clef'cnc1ed. Wessex was to suffet'auothcrblow when, after Easter, Aethelrecl clicdAt thc age ol'twenty two. with Wesscrunder firrious attack, Alfi'ed 'witlt thcapproval of divine wil l ancl accorcliug tt,the unanin.rons wish of all the inhabitantsof the k ingdorn. ' (o l so Asser te l ls us) .assurnecl the throne.

    A n.ronth afler taking thc throne. Alfi'cdled his fblces into battlc at Wilton, aboutseventy-fivc nri les south of Readirtg.The batl lc lasted all clay, with neitheLsicle gaining a clear advantage. Finall l,.the Vikings withdrew frorn the ficldand Alfi 'ecl pursued with a srnall bancl.Seeing that Alfl'ecl lackecl the lnanpowclto overwheltn thcrn. the Vikingscounterattackccl aud def-eatccl Alfi'ed'sfbrce. Thc Vikings continued to infl ictclepravaliotis uport the countrysicle.But All iecl would t.tot go qtrictly. hrall, the year' 871 saw no less than nincbattlcs between the West Saxons ancl thcVikings. Accorcling to Asscr:

    ' . . . the Saxons were virtually annihilatcd

    to a man in th is s ingle year . . . leavingasidc the inuumelable skimrishes byday and night which Alfi 'ed...hadfought ceasclessly and intently againstthe Vikings. How rnany thottsands c'rlthe Viking army were killed in thescfrequent skinnishes (Quite aparl frontthose who were slaughtered in the eightbattles mentioned above) is not krown.except to God alone.'

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    Even so, the Vikings proved to be totrmuch for Wessex and by the end of theyear Alfred's resources were exhansted.Alfred was forced to make peace withthe Viking invaders and paid them ttr

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    Landings of the Great Armyand of HasteinnRrids of 893

    Campaigns of894

    Campaigns of 895-6 and thedlspersal of the Great Army

    rl Saxon vlctory

    ,l Norse fortlficatlon

    I Alfred's burghs

  • abandon their base at Reading and leaveWessex altogether. After Alfred boughtthem off, the Vikings spent 872-875ravaging Mercia and Northumbria,after which they returned to Wessex andcamped at Wareham. Remembering thechaos brought about by the last Vikingraid, Alfred was in no mood to fightand negotiated terms with the Vikingswhereby he paid them tribute in returnfor leaving Wessex alone.

    Viking Treachery

    In December of 876 the Vikings broketheir word - Asser calls it 'their usualtreachery'- marched into Devonshire,and occupied the forhess of Exeter.Alfred rallied the fyrd and surroundedthe forhess. With their fleet largelydestroyed in a violent storm off Devon,thereby cutting them off, the Vikingsagreed to terms and left Wessex forMercia. But the Vikings would be back.This agreement only bought time.

    In 878 Guthrum led an army intoWessex and seized the royal estate ofChippenham, northwest of Wiltshireon the River Avon, where Alfred heldcourt. Alfred was unprepared forGuthrum's attack. At the same time. aViking fleet of twenty-three ships, ledby a brother of Halfdan, raided alongthe coast of Devon and besieged thefortress of Countisbury. Rather then bestarved into submission, the local fyrdburst from their fortifications, caughtthe Vikings unaware, and defeatedthem. Nevertheless. it must have beena drain on the already weak resourcssof Wessex, for the Viking raids fromChippenham were unusually fierce; somuch so that many of the West Saxonsfled their lands or pledged allegiance toGuthrum. No longer could Wessex resistthe heathen onslaught and most of thecounkyside fell into Viking hands.

    Alfred Fights On

    But Alfred was unwilling to concede.Tn March 87R Alfred fled his esfAfes

    with a small band to the marshlands ofSomerset and made a camp on the Isle ofAthelney near Taunton. From hereAlfredcontinued to resist, sallying out of themarshes to wage a partisan war againstthe Vikings. Word sprea