Medieval Warfare Vol III, Issue 5 - King Alfred the Great and the Great Heathen Army

Medieval Warfare Vol III, Issue 5 - King Alfred the Great and the Great Heathen Army

Medieval Warfare Vol III, Issue 5 - King Alfred the Great and the Great Heathen Army

Medieval Warfare Vol III, Issue 5 - King Alfred the Great and the Great Heathen Army

Alfred the Great is a key figure in the early history of England, helping to prevent a Viking conquest of the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom to survive and preserving the dynasty that led the unification of the country. This was all despite a constant stream of Viking attacks and a disastrous collapse of his power that famously saw Alfred forced to hide out on the Isle of Athelney.

The articles on the main theme cover a good cross-section of Alfred's career. We start with his part in the victory at Ashdown, fought before he came to the throne. There is a look at the army he inherited and used in his most important victories, the key victory at Edington which restored the situation after his lowest ebb and the reforms that he brought in to make sure that such a disaster didn't happen again. There is also a look at the strategy of the Viking army, viewing the war from the other side, and an examination of Asser's Life of Alfred, our most important source for his reign and the first biography of an Anglo-Saxon ruler.

Away from the main theme there is the second part of a two-part series on a fourteenth century Hungarian invasion of Italy, part of a power struggle in the Kingdom of Naples. This is a conflict I was entirely unfamiliar with, and also serves as a reminder of the real power of the Pope in Italy in this period. There is a look at the development of the halberd, its use in battle, and the reasons for its decline. Most interesting is a look at the birth of the noble infantry officer in the period when infantry became the main force on the battlefield and various rulers put a great deal of effort into convincing the nobility to join the infantry. There is a focus on the Imperial Landsknechts, a key force in the process, along with the Spanish tercios, a dominant force on the European battlefield for a time.

Articles
The 300-year nightmare - Historical introduction
Asser's Life of Alfred - A medieval English panegyric
The Battle of Ashdown - Victory, battlefield and the language of war
Danegeld, coups, oaths and treachery - Alternative strategies of the Great Army
The wyvern resurgent - Alfred's campaign of 878 and the Battle of Edington
Alfred's military reorganization - How to counter the Viking invasions of England
The halberd - The Swiss weapon of choice
Joanna returns - The Hungarian invasion of Italy Part II
From knight to officer - The birth of a noble infantry



The Great Heathen Army of Vikings That Invaded England

The Great Heathen Army was a coalition of Viking warriors that invaded England in AD 865, which according to lore was in response to the death of the legendary figure Ragnar Lodbrok, at the hands of King Ælla of Northumberland.

The tales of Ragnar and his sons in Norse poetry, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and the Icelandic sagas depict Ragnar leading an expedition of only two knarrs to ravage and burn England. His forces were overwhelmed by Ælla, and Ragnar is captured and thrown into a snake pit to die.

His sons Inwaer (Ivar the Boneless), Halfdan Ragnarsson, and Hubba (Ubbe) lead a Viking army that captures Ælla and supposedly performs the blood eagle (a ritualistic method of execution in which the ribs are severed from the spine with a sharp tool, and the lungs are pulled through the opening to create a pair of “wings”) in revenge.

Scholars debate the validity of the literature and historical provenance connecting Ragnar to the events that led to the invasion of England. Contemporary text is often regarded as fictitious, with the image of Ragnar being an amalgam of historical figures and literary invention.

The true reason for the invasion is obscured although most likely for monetary gain, but in AD 865 a sizeable force estimated to be no more than 1,000 men (although some historians believe the army numbered in the thousands) landed in East Anglia and wintered until next season.

The Great Heathen Army then marched north and captured Northumbria and its capital, York, defeating both the recently deposed King Osberht of Northumbria and the usurper Ælla of Northumbria. A puppet ruler was placed on the Northumbrian throne called Ecgberht I, who simply served to tax the population to fund further Viking campaigns.

With a northern powerbase established, the Great Heathen Army marched to the Kingdom of Mercia and wintered near present-day Nottingham. After several skirmishes between the Vikings and a combined Mercian/Wessex army, the Mercian’s agreed to pay a danegeld (a tax raised to pay tribute to prevent the land from being ravaged) and the Vikings returned north.

In AD 869 the Great Heathen Army marched back to the kingdom of East Anglia and wintered in Thetford where they killed King Edward, who would later be known as Edmund the Martyr. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the event: ‘here the army rode across Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter-quarters at Thetford and that winter King Edmund fought against them, and the Danish took the victory, and killed the king and conquered all that land’.

In AD 871, reinforcements referred to as the ‘Great Summer Army’ arrived from Scandinavia and the Viking’s attention was now placed on the Kingdom of Wessex. After several small battles, the Great Heathen Army met the armies of Wessex led by King Ethelred and his younger brother (the future King Alfred the Great) at the Battle of Ashdown.

The Great Heathen Army was routed and gave flight, with many Viking warriors cut down in the Wessex advance. Three months later, Æthelred died and was succeeded by Alfred, who paid a danegeld to allow him to buy time and prepare for the next Viking incursion.

In AD 874, the Great Heathen Army drove King Burgred of Mercia into exile and finally conquered the Mercian Kingdom leaving Wessex to stand alone.

According to Alfred the Great’s biographer Asser, the Vikings then split into two bands, one led by Halfdan which raided north into Scotland, and another led by Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend which campaigned against Wessex.

Over the next several years, Wessex continued to resist the Viking threat and eventually defeated the Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Edington. This culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Wedmore (no document survives), an accord referenced in Asser’s biography of Alfred in which Guthrum submits to be baptised and withdraw the remnants of the Great Heathen Army from Wessex lands.

A formal treaty was later agreed called the ‘Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum’ which sets out the boundaries between Alfred and Guthrum’s territories as well as agreements on peaceful trade, and the weregild value of its people.

Although several Viking armies emerged to threaten Wessex, Alfred defended his kingdom and the armies would eventually disperse to East Anglia and Northumbria, establishing the demarcated territories between Wessex and the Viking Danelaw.


Contents

The first Viking raid on Anglo-Saxon England is thought to have been between 786 and 802 at Portland in the Kingdom of Wessex, when three Norse ships arrived their men killed King Beorhtric's reeve. [4] At the other end of the country, in the Kingdom of Northumbria, during 793 the holy island of Lindisfarne was raided. [4]

"This year dire forwarnings came over the land of the Northhumbrians, and miserably terrified the people these were excessive whirlwinds, and lightnings and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these tokens and a little after that, in the same year, on the 6th before the Ides of January, the ravaging of heathen men lamentably destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne through rapine and slaughter."

After the sacking of Lindisfarne, Viking raids around the coasts were somewhat sporadic until the 830s, when the attacks became more sustained. [5] In 835, "heathen men" ravaged Sheppey. [5] In 836, Ecgberht of Wessex met in battle a force of 35 ships at Carhampton, [5] and in 838 he faced a combined force of Vikings and Cornishmen at Hingston Down in Cornwall. [5]

The raiding continued and with each year became more intense. [5] In 865–866 it escalated further with the arrival of what the Saxons called the Great Heathen Army. [5] The annals do not report the size of the army, but modern estimates suggest between five hundred and a thousand men. [6] It was said to have been under the leadership of the brothers Ivar the Boneless, Ubba, and Halfdan Ragnarsson. [6] What made this army different from those before it was the intent of the leaders. These forces began "a new stage, that of conquest and residence". [7] By 870, the Northmen had conquered the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia, and in 871 they attacked Wessex. Of the nine battles mentioned by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle during that year, only one was a West Saxon victory. In this year, Alfred succeeded his brother Ethelred, who died after the Battle of Merton. [8]

Mercia had collapsed by 874 and the Army's cohesion went with it. Halfdan went back to Northumbria and fought the Picts and the Strathclyde Welsh to secure his northern kingdom. [9] His army settled there, and he is not mentioned after 876, when "[the Danes] were engaged in ploughing and making a living for themselves". [9] Guthrum, with two other unnamed kings, "departed for Cambridge in East Anglia". [9] He made several attacks on Wessex, starting in 875, and in the last nearly captured Alfred in his winter fortress at Chippenham. [9]

By 878, the Danes held the east and northeast of England their defeat at the Battle of Ashdown had paused but not halted their advance. [10] Alfred the Great had spent the winter preceding the Battle of Edington in the Somerset marsh of Athelney, protected somewhat by the natural defences of the country. [11] In the spring of 878, he summoned his West Saxon forces and marched to Edington, where he met the Danes, led by Guthrum, in battle. [12]

Guthrum and his men had applied the usual Danish strategy of occupying a fortified town and waiting for a peace “treaty”, involving money in return for a promise to leave the kingdom immediately Alfred shadowed the army, trying to prevent more damage than had already occurred. This started in 875 when Guthrum's army “eluded the West Saxon levies and got into Wareham”. [13] They then gave hostages and oaths to leave the country to Alfred, who paid them off. [14] The Danes promptly slipped off to Exeter, even deeper into Alfred's kingdom, where they concluded in the autumn of 877 a "firm peace" with Alfred, [13] under terms that entailed their leaving his kingdom and not returning. [15] This they did, spending the rest of 877 (by the Gregorian calendar) in Gloucester (in the kingdom of Mercia). [15] Alfred spent Christmas at Chippenham (in Wessex), thirty miles (50 km) from Gloucester . The Danes attacked Chippenham "in midwinter after Twelfth Night", [13] probably during the night of 6–7 January 878. They captured Chippenham and forced Alfred to retreat "with a small force" into the wilderness. [13] (It is to this period that the story of Alfred burning the cakes belongs. [16] )

Alfred seems at this time to have ineffectually chased the Danes around Wessex, while the Danes were in a position to do as they pleased. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle attempts to convey the impression that Alfred held the initiative it is "a bland chronicle which laconically charts the movements of the Danish victors while at the same time disingenuously striving to convey the impression that Alfred was in control", [14] although it fails. Even if Alfred had caught up with the Danish force, it is unlikely that he could have accomplished anything. The fact that his army could not defend the fortified Chippenham, even in "an age. as yet untrained in siege warfare" [14] casts great doubt on its ability to defeat the Danes in an open field, unaided by fortifications. There was little that Alfred could do about the Danish menace between 875 and the end of 877, beyond repeatedly paying the invaders off.

This was even truer after the Twelfth Night attack. With his small warband, a fraction of his army at Chippenham, Alfred could not hope to retake the town from the Danes, who had in previous battles (for example at Reading in 871) proved themselves adept at defending fortified positions. [8] So he retreated to the south, preparing himself and his forces for another battle, and then defeated Guthrum and his host. The first we read of Alfred after the disaster at Chippenham is around Easter, when he built a fortress at Athelney. [18] [19] In the seventh week after Easter, or between 4 and 7 May, [20] Alfred called a levy at Ecgbryhtesstan (Egbert's Stone). [21] Many of the men in the counties around (Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire) who had not already fled rallied to him there. [18] The next day, Alfred's host moved to Iley Oak, [22] and then the day after that to Eðandun. [18] [19] [23] There, on an unknown date between 6 and 12 May, [24] they fought the Danes. According to the Life:

"Fighting ferociously, forming a dense shield-wall against the whole army of the Pagans, and striving long and bravely. at last he [Alfred] gained the victory. He overthrew the Pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress."


After the victory, when the Danes had taken refuge in the fortress, the West Saxons removed all food that the Danes might be able to capture in a sortie, and waited. [19] After two weeks, the hungry Danes sued for peace, giving Alfred "preliminary hostages and solemn oaths that they would leave his kingdom immediately", just as usual, but in addition promising that Guthrum would be baptized. [18] The primary difference between this agreement and the treaties at Wareham and Exeter was that Alfred had decisively defeated the Danes at Edington, rather than just stopping them, and therefore it seemed more likely that they would keep to the terms of the treaty.

The primary reason for Alfred's victory was probably the relative size of the two armies. The men of even one shire could be a formidable fighting force, as those of Devon proved in the same year, defeating an army under Ubbe Ragnarsson at the Battle of Cynwit. [19] In addition, in 875 Guthrum had lost the support of other Danish lords, including Ivar and Ubba. Further Danish forces had settled on the land before Guthrum attacked Wessex: in East Anglia, and in Mercia between the treaty at Exeter and the attack on Chippenham many others were lost in a storm off Swanage in 876–877, with 120 ships wrecked. [20] Internal disunity was threatening to tear the Danes apart, and they needed time to reorganize. Fortunately for Wessex, they did not use the time available effectively.

The primary sources for the location of the battle are Asser's Life of King Alfred, which names the place as "Ethandun" and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which has Eðandun. The chronicle was compiled during the reign of Alfred the Great and is thus a contemporary record. [25] It is believed that Asser's Life was originally written in 893 however, no contemporary manuscript survives. [26] A version of the Life written in about 1000, known as the Cotton Otho A. xii text, lasted until 1731 when it was destroyed in a fire. Before its destruction this version had been transcribed and annotated it is this transcription on which modern translations are based. [26] Some scholars have suggested that Asser's life of King Alfred was a forgery. [27]

The location of the battle accepted by most present-day historians is at Edington, near Westbury in Wiltshire. [28] However, the location has been much debated over the centuries. [28] In 1904 William Henry Stevenson analysed possible sites and said "So far, there is nothing to prove the identity of this Eðandun [as named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle] with Edington" but then goes on to say that "there can be little reason for questioning it". [29] [30]

The reasoning to support the Eðandun of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Ethandun of Asser's Life being Edington in Wiltshire is derived from a trail of information from ancient manuscripts. [31] [32] Edington, Wiltshire, is known to have been part of Alfred's family estate. [31] He left a manor called Eðandun to his wife in his will. [33] A charter records a meeting of the king's council at Eðandun, although a later scribe has annotated the same document with Eðandun. [30] [34] In 968, another charter reported that King Edgar had granted land at Edyndon to Romsey Abbey. [35] The Domesday book has an entry for Romsey Abbey holding land at Edendone in the county of Wiltshire at the time of Edward the Confessor (before 1066) and also in 1086, and this is known to be at Edington, Wiltshire. [36]

Alternatives to Edington, Wiltshire, have been suggested since early times. The Tudor historian Polydore Vergil appears to have misread the ancient texts for the battle site, as he places it at Abyndoniam (Abingdon) instead of Edington. [37] [38] In the 19th century there was a resurgence in interest of medieval history and King Alfred was seen as a major hero. [39] Although most early historians had sited the battle as in the Edington area, the significant interest in the subject encouraged many antiquarians to dig up Alfredian sites and also to propose alternatives for the location of the battle. [40] [41] Arguments for the alternative sites were generally name-based, although with the large interest in everything Alfredian in the 19th century, any site that had an Alfredian connection could be guaranteed large numbers of tourists, so this was also a driving force to find a link. [41] [42]

Some alternative suggestions for the battle site, by author
Author Year Location of Ethandun
Daniel Lysons 1806 Eddington, Berkshire [43]
J. Whitaker 1809 Slaughterford, Wiltshire [44]
J. M. Moffat 1834 'Woeful Danes', Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire [45]
J. Thurnham 1857 West Yatton, Wiltshire [46]
G. Poulett Scrope 1858 "Etton Down", Yatton, Wiltshire [47]
W. H. P. Greswell 1910 Edington, Somerset [48]
Albany Major 1913 Edington, Somerset [49]

Three weeks after the battle, Guthrum was baptised at Aller in Somerset with Alfred as his sponsor. [25] [50] It is possible that the enforced conversion was an attempt by Alfred to lock Guthrum into a Christian code of ethics, hoping it would ensure the Danes' compliance with any treaties agreed to. The converted Guthrum took the baptismal name of Athelstan. [51]

Under the terms of the Treaty of Wedmore, the converted Guthrum was required to leave Wessex and return to East Anglia. Consequently, in 879 the Viking army left Chippenham and made its way to Cirencester (in the kingdom of Mercia) and remained there for a year. [52] The following year the army went to East Anglia, where it settled. [53]

Also in 879, according to Asser, another Viking army sailed up the River Thames and wintered at Fulham in Middlesex. [54] Over the next few years this particular Danish faction had several encounters with Alfred's forces. However, Alfred managed to contain this threat by reforming his military and setting up a system of fortified cities, known as burhs. [51]

In 885 Asser reports that the Viking army that had settled in East Anglia had broken in a most insolent manner the peace they had established with Alfred, although Guthrum is not mentioned. [55] Guthrum reigned as king in East Anglia until his death in 890, and although this period was not always peaceful he was not considered a threat. [51] [56]

In 886, the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum defined the boundaries of their two kingdoms. The kingdom of Mercia was divided up, with part going to Alfred's Wessex and the other part to Guthrum's East Anglia. [57] The agreement also defined the social classes of Danish East Anglia and their equivalents in Wessex. It tried to provide a framework that would minimise conflict and regulate commerce between the two peoples. [58] It is not clear how seriously Guthrum took his conversion to Christianity, but he was the first of the Danish rulers of the English kingdoms to mint coins on the Alfredian model, under his baptismal name of Athelstan. By the end of the 9th century, all of the Anglo-Danish rulers were minting coins too. By the 10th century, the Anglo-Saxon model of kingship seems to have been universally adopted by the Anglo-Danish leadership. [58]

After the defeat of Guthrum at the Battle of Edington, Alfred's reforms to military obligations in Wessex made it increasingly difficult for the Vikings to raid successfully. By 896 the Vikings gave up with some going to East Anglia and others going to Northumbria. It was under Alfred that the Viking threat was contained. However, the system of military reforms and the Burghal Hidage introduced by Edward the Elder enabled Alfred's successors to retake control of the lands occupied in the North of England by the Danes. [59] [60]


Alfred the Great Quotations

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Alfred was extraordinary for an early medieval king in several respects. He was a particularly wily military commander, successfully keeping the Danes at bay, and he wisely shored up defenses when the enemies of his kingdom were occupied elsewhere. At a time when England was little more than a collection of warring kingdoms, he established diplomatic relations with his neighbors, including the Welsh, and unified a substantial portion of the heptarchy. He displayed remarkable administrative flair, reorganizing his army, issuing important laws, protecting the weak, and promoting learning. But most unusual of all, he was a gifted scholar. Alfred the Great translated several works from Latin into his own language, Anglo-Saxon, known to us as Old English, and wrote some works of his own. In his translations, he sometimes inserted comments that offer insight not only into the books but into his own mind.

Here are some notable quotations from the notable English king, Alfred the Great.


Conquests in the British Isles

By the mid-ninth century, Ireland, Scotland and England had become major targets for Viking settlement as well as raids. Vikings gained control of the Northern Isles of Scotland (Shetland and the Orkneys), the Hebrides and much of mainland Scotland. They founded Ireland’s first trading towns: Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow and Limerick, and used their base on the Irish coast to launch attacks within Ireland and across the Irish Sea to England. When King Charles the Bald began defending West Frankia more energetically in 862, fortifying towns, abbeys, rivers and coastal areas, Viking forces began to concentrate more on England than Frankia.

In the wave of Viking attacks in England after 851, only one kingdom–Wessex–was able to successfully resist. Viking armies (mostly Danish) conquered East Anglia and Northumberland and dismantled Mercia, while in 871 King Alfred the Great of Wessex became the only king to decisively defeat a Danish army in England. Leaving Wessex, the Danes settled to the north, in an area known as �nelaw.” Many of them became farmers and traders and established York as a leading mercantile city. In the first half of the 10th century, English armies led by the descendants of Alfred of Wessex began reconquering Scandinavian areas of England the last Scandinavian king, Erik Bloodaxe, was expelled and killed around 952, permanently uniting English into one kingdom.


Military reorganization

Alfred the Great silver offering penny, 871–899. Legend: AELFRED REX SAXONUM ('Alfred King of the Saxons').

The Germanic tribes who invaded Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries relied upon the unarmoured infantry supplied by their tribal levy, or fyrd, and it was upon this system that the military power of the several kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England depended. ⎤] The fyrd was a local militia in the Anglo-Saxon shire in which all freemen had to serve those who refused military service were subject to fines or loss of their land. ⎥] According to the law code of King Ine of Wessex, issued in about 694,

If a nobleman who holds land neglects military service, he shall pay 120 shillings and forfeit his land a nobleman who holds no land shall pay 60 shillings a commoner shall pay a fine of 30 shillings for neglecting military service

Wessex's history of failures preceding his success in 878 emphasized to Alfred that the traditional system of battle he had inherited played to the Danes' advantage. While both the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes attacked settlements to seize wealth and other resources, they employed very different strategies. In their raids the Anglo-Saxons traditionally preferred to attack head-on by assembling their forces in a shield wall, advancing against their target and overcoming the oncoming wall marshalled against them in defense. ⎦]

In contrast the Danes preferred to choose easy targets, mapping cautious forays designed to avoid risking all their accumulated plunder with high-stake attacks for more. Alfred determined their strategy was to launch smaller-scaled attacks from a secure and reinforced defensible base to which they could retreat should their raiders meet strong resistance. ⎦]

These bases were prepared in advance, often by capturing an estate and augmenting its defences with surrounding ditches, ramparts and palisades. Once inside the fortification, Alfred realized, the Danes enjoyed the advantage, better situated to outlast their opponents or crush them with a counter-attack as the provisions and stamina of the besieging forces waned. ⎦]

The means by which the Anglo-Saxons marshalled forces to defend against marauders also left them vulnerable to the Vikings. It was the responsibility of the shire fyrd to deal with local raids. The king could call up the national militia to defend the kingdom but, in the case of the Viking hit-and-run raids, problems with communication, and raising supplies meant that the national militia could not be mustered quickly enough. It was only after the raids were underway that a call went out to landowners to gather their men for battle. Large regions could be devastated before the fyrd could assemble and arrive. And although the landowners were obliged to the king to supply these men when called, during the attacks in 878 many of them opportunistically abandoned their king and collaborated with Guthrum. ⎧] ⎨]

With these lessons in mind Alfred capitalized on the relatively peaceful years immediately following his victory at Edington by focusing on an ambitious restructuring of his kingdom's military defenses. On a trip to Rome Alfred had stayed with Charles the Bald and it is possible that he may have studied how the Carolingian kings had dealt with the Viking problem. Learning from their experiences he was able to put together a system of taxation and defense for his own kingdom. Also there had been a system of fortifications in pre-Viking Mercia that may have been an influence. So when the Viking raids resumed in 892 Alfred was better prepared to confront them with a standing, mobile field army, a network of garrisons, and a small fleet of ships navigating the rivers and estuaries. ⎩] ⎪] ⎫]

Administration and taxation

Tenants in Anglo-Saxon England had a threefold obligation based on their landholding: the so-called "common burdens" of military service, fortress work, and bridge repair. This threefold obligation has traditionally been called trinoda necessitas or trimoda necessitas. ⎬] The Old English name for the fine due for neglecting military service was Lua error in Module:Unicode_data at line 15: attempt to call field 'length' (a nil value). . ⎭]

To maintain the burhs, and to reorganize the fyrd as a standing army, Alfred expanded the tax and conscription system based on the productivity of a tenant's landholding. The hide was the basic unit of the system on which the tenant's public obligations were assessed. A hide is thought to represent the amount of land required to support one family. The hide would differ in size according to the value and resources of the land, and the landowner would have to provide service based on how many hides he owned. ⎬] ⎮]

Burghal system

The walled defense round a burh. Alfred's capital, Winchester. Saxon and medieval work on Roman foundations.

At the centre of Alfred's reformed military defense system was a network of burhs, distributed at strategic points throughout the kingdom. ⎯]  There were thirty-three burhs, spaced approximately 30 kilometres (19 miles) apart, enabling the military to confront attacks anywhere in the kingdom within a day. ⎰] ⎱]

Alfred's burhs (of which twenty-two developed into boroughs) [lower-alpha 2] ⎲]  ranged from former Roman towns, such as Winchester, where the stone walls were repaired and ditches added, to massive earthen walls surrounded by wide ditches, probably reinforced with wooden revetments and palisades, such as at Burpham in West Sussex. ⎴] ⎵]  The size of the burhs ranged from tiny outposts such as Pilton in Devon, to large fortifications in established towns, the largest being at Winchester. ⎶]

A contemporary document now known as the Burghal Hidage provides an insight into how the system worked. It lists the hidage for each of the fortified towns contained in the document. For example, Wallingford had a hidage of 2,400, which meant that the landowners there were responsible for supplying and feeding 2,400 men, the number sufficient for maintaining 9,900 feet (3.0 kilometres) of wall. ⎷]  A total of 27,071 soldiers were needed, approximately one in four of all the free men in Wessex. ⎸]  Many of the burhs were twin towns that straddled a river and were connected by a fortified bridge, like those built by Charles the Bald a generation before. ⎪]  The double-burh blocked passage on the river, forcing Viking ships to navigate under a garrisoned bridge lined with men armed with stones, spears, or arrows. Other burhs were sited near fortified royal villas, allowing the king better control over his strongholds. ⎹]

The burhs were connected by a road system maintained for army use (known as herepaths). These roads would allow an army to be quickly assembled, sometimes from more than one burh, to confront the Viking invader. ⎺]  This network posed significant obstacles to Viking invaders, especially those laden with booty. The system threatened Viking routes and communications making it far more dangerous for them. The Vikings lacked the equipment for a siege against a burh and a developed doctrine of siegecraft, having tailored their methods of fighting to rapid strikes and unimpeded retreats to well-defended fortifications. The only means left to them was to starve the burh into submission but this gave the king time to send his mobile field army or garrisons from neighbouring burhs along the army roads. In such cases the Vikings were extremely vulnerable to pursuit by the king's joint military forces. ⎻]  Alfred's burh system posed such a formidable challenge against Viking attack that when the Vikings returned in 892 and stormed a half-made, poorly garrisoned fortress up the Lympne estuary in Kent, the Anglo-Saxons were able to limit their penetration to the outer frontiers of Wessex and Mercia. ⎼]

Alfred's burghal system was revolutionary in its strategic conception and potentially expensive in its execution. His contemporary biographer Asser wrote that many nobles balked at the new demands placed upon them even though they were for "the common needs of the kingdom". ⎽] ⎾]

English navy

Alfred also tried his hand at naval design. In 896 ⎿] he ordered the construction of a small fleet, perhaps a dozen or so longships that, at 60 oars, were twice the size of Viking warships. This was not, as the Victorians asserted, the birth of the English Navy. Wessex had possessed a royal fleet before this. King Athelstan of Kent and Ealdorman Ealhhere had defeated a Viking fleet in 851 capturing nine ships, ⏀] and Alfred himself had conducted naval actions in 882. ⏁]

Nevertheless, 897 clearly marked an important development in the naval power of Wessex. The author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle related that Alfred's ships were larger, swifter, steadier and rode higher in the water than either Danish or Frisian ships. It is probable that, under the classical tutelage of Asser, Alfred utilized the design of Greek and Roman warships, with high sides, designed for fighting rather than for navigation. ⏂]

Alfred had seapower in mind—if he could intercept raiding fleets before they landed, he could spare his kingdom from being ravaged. Alfred's ships may have been superior in conception. In practice they proved to be too large to maneuver well in the close waters of estuaries and rivers, the only places in which a naval battle could occur. ⏃]

The warships of the time were not designed to be ship killers but rather troop carriers. It has been suggested that, like sea battles in late Viking age Scandinavia, these battles may have entailed a ship coming alongside an enemy vessel, lashing the two ships together and then boarding the enemy craft. The result was effectively a land battle involving hand-to-hand fighting on board the two lashed vessels. ⏄]

In the one recorded naval engagement in 896 Alfred's new fleet of nine ships intercepted six Viking ships at the mouth of an unidentified river in the south of England. The Danes had beached half their ships and gone inland. ⏅] ⎿] Alfred's ships immediately moved to block their escape. The three Viking ships afloat attempted to break through the English lines. Only one made it Alfred's ships intercepted the other two. ⎿] Lashing the Viking boats to their own, the English crew boarded and proceeded to kill the Vikings. One ship escaped, because Alfred's heavy ships became grounded when the tide went out. ⏄] A land battle ensued between the crews. The Danes were heavily outnumbered, but as the tide rose they returned to their boats which, with shallower drafts, were freed first. The English watched as the Vikings rowed past them. ⏄] But they had suffered so many casualties (120 dead against 62 Frisians and English) that they had difficulty putting out to sea. All were too damaged to row around Sussex and two were driven against the Sussex coast (possibly at Selsey Bill). ⎿] ⏄] The shipwrecked crew were brought before Alfred at Winchester and hanged. ⎿]


Military reorganisation

The Germanic tribes who invaded Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries relied upon the unarmoured infantry supplied by their tribal levy, or fyrd, and it was upon this system that the military power of the several kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England depended. [34] The fyrd was a local militia in the Anglo-Saxon shire, in which all freemen had to serve those who refused military service were subject to fines or loss of their land. [35] According to the law code of King Ine of Wessex, issued in about 694:

Wessex's history of failures preceding his success in 878 emphasised to Alfred that the traditional system of battle he had inherited played to the Danes' advantage. While both the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes attacked settlements to seize wealth and other resources, they employed very different strategies. In their raids, the Anglo-Saxons traditionally preferred to attack head-on by assembling their forces in a shield wall, advancing against their target and overcoming the oncoming wall marshaled against them in defence. [37]

In contrast, the Danes preferred to choose easy targets, mapping cautious forays designed to avoid risking all their accumulated plunder with high-stake attacks for more. Alfred determined their strategy was to launch smaller scaled attacks from a secure and reinforced defensible base to which they could retreat should their raiders meet strong resistance. [37]

These bases were prepared in advance, often by capturing an estate and augmenting its defences with surrounding ditches, ramparts and palisades. Once inside the fortification, Alfred realised, the Danes enjoyed the advantage, better situated to outlast their opponents or crush them with a counter-attack as the provisions and stamina of the besieging forces waned. [37]

The means by which the Anglo-Saxons marshaled forces to defend against marauders also left them vulnerable to the Vikings. It was the responsibility of the shire fyrd to deal with local raids. The king could call up the national militia to defend the kingdom however, in the case of hit and run raids by Vikings, problems with communication and raising supplies meant that the national militia could not be mustered quickly enough: It was only after the raids were underway that a call went out to landowners to gather men for battle. Large regions could be devastated before the newly assembled fyrd arrived. And although the landowners were obliged to the king to supply these men when called, during the attacks in 878, many of them opportunistically abandoned their king and collaborated with Guthrum. [38] [39]

With these lessons in mind, Alfred capitalised on the relatively peaceful years immediately following his victory at Edington by focusing on an ambitious restructuring of his kingdom's military defences. On a trip to Rome, Alfred had stayed with Charles the Bald and it is possible that he may have studied how the Carolingian kings had dealt with the Viking problem, and learning from their experience was able to put together a system of taxation and defence for his own kingdom. Also, there had been a system of fortifications in pre-Viking Mercia that may have been an influence. So when the Viking raids resumed in 892, Alfred was better prepared to confront them with a standing, mobile field army, a network of garrisons, and a small fleet of ships navigating the rivers and estuaries. [40] [41] [42]

Administration and taxation

Tenants in Anglo-Saxon England had a threefold obligation based on their landholding the so-called "common burdens" of military service, fortress work, and bridge repair. This threefold obligation has traditionally been called trinoda neccessitas or trimoda neccessitas. [43] The Old English name for the fine due for neglecting military service was fierdwite or fyrdwitee [36]

Burghal system

At the centre of Alfred's reformed military defence system was the network of burhs, distributed at strategic points throughout the kingdom. [45] There were thirty-three in total, spaced approximately 30 kilometres (19 miles) apart, enabling the military to confront attacks anywhere in the kingdom within a single day. [46] [47]

Alfred's burhs (later termed boroughs) ranged from former Roman towns, such as Winchester, where the stone walls were repaired and ditches added, to massive earthen walls surrounded by wide ditches probably reinforced with wooden revetments and palisades such as at Burpham, Sussex. [48] [49] The size of the burhs ranged from tiny outposts such as Pilton to large fortifications in established towns, the largest at Winchester. [50]

A contemporary document now known as the Burghal Hidage provides an insight into how the system worked. It lists the hidage for each of the fortified towns contained in the document. For example, Wallingford had a hidage of 2400 which meant that the landowners there were responsible for supplying and feeding 2,400 men, the number sufficient for maintaining 9,900 feet (3.0 kilometres) of wall. [51] A total of 27,071 soldiers were needed system wide, or approximately one in four of all the free men in Wessex. [52]

Many of the burhs were twin towns that straddled a river and connected by a fortified bridge, like those built by Charles the Bald a generation before. [41] The double-burh blocked passage on the river, forcing Viking ships to navigate under a garrisoned bridge lined with men armed with stones, spears, or arrows. Other burhs were sited near fortified royal villas allowing the king better control over his strongholds. [53]

This network of well-garrisoned burhs posed significant obstacles to Viking invaders, especially those laden with booty. The system threatened Viking routes and communications making it far more dangerous for the Viking raiders. However, the Vikings lacked both the equipment necessary to undertake a siege against the burh and a developed doctrine of siegecraft, having tailored their methods of fighting to rapid strikes and unimpeded retreats to well defended fortifications. The only means left to them was to starve the burh into submission, but this allowed the king time to send assistance with his mobile field army or garrisons from neighbouring burhs. In such cases, the Vikings were extremely vulnerable to pursuit by the king's joint military forces. [54] Alfred's burh system posed such a formidable challenge against Viking attack that when the Vikings returned in 892 and successfully stormed a half-made, poorly garrisoned fortress up the Lympne estuary in Kent, the Anglo-Saxons were able to limit their penetration to the outer frontiers of Wessex and Mercia. [55]

Alfred's burghal system was revolutionary in its strategic conception and potentially expensive in its execution. His contemporary biographer Asser wrote that many nobles balked at the new demands placed upon them even though they were for "the common needs of the kingdom". [56] [57]

English navy

Alfred also tried his hand at naval design. In 896, [58] he ordered the construction of a small fleet, perhaps a dozen or so longships, that, at 60 oars, were twice the size of Viking warships. This was not, as the Victorians asserted, the birth of the English Navy. Wessex possessed a royal fleet before this. King Athelstan of Kent and Ealdorman Ealhhere had defeated a Viking fleet in 851, capturing nine ships, [59] and Alfred himself had conducted naval actions in 882. [60]

But, clearly, the author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and probably Alfred himself regarded 897 as marking an important development in the naval power of Wessex. The chronicler flattered his royal patron by boasting that Alfred's ships were not only larger, but swifter, steadier and rode higher in the water than either Danish or Frisian ships. It is probable that, under the classical tutelage of Asser, Alfred utilised the design of Greek and Roman warships, with high sides, designed for fighting rather than for navigation. [61]

Alfred had seapower in mind—if he could intercept raiding fleets before they landed, he could spare his kingdom from ravaging. Alfred's ships may have been superior in conception. In practice they proved to be too large to manoeuvre well in the close waters of estuaries and rivers, the only places in which a naval battle could occur. [61]

The warships of the time were not designed to be ship killers but troop carriers. It has been suggested that, like sea battles in late Viking age Scandinavia, these battles may have entailed a ship coming alongside an enemy vessel, at which point the crew would lash the two ships together before boarding the enemy craft. The result was effectively a land battle involving hand-to-hand fighting on board the two lashed vessels. [62]

In the one recorded naval engagement in the year 896, [3] [58] Alfred's new fleet of nine ships intercepted six Viking ships in the mouth of an unidentified river along the south of England. The Danes had beached half their ships, and gone inland, [58] either to rest their rowers or to forage for food. Alfred's ships immediately moved to block their escape to the sea. The three Viking ships afloat attempted to break through the English lines. [58] Only one made it Alfred's ships intercepted the other two. [58]

Lashing the Viking boats to their own, the English crew boarded the enemy's vessels and proceeded to kill everyone on board. The one ship that escaped managed to do so only because all of Alfred's heavy ships became grounded when the tide went out. [62] What ensued was a land battle between the crews of the grounded ships. The Danes, heavily outnumbered, would have been wiped out if the tide had not risen. When that occurred, the Danes rushed back to their boats, which being lighter, with shallower drafts, were freed before Alfred's ships. Helplessly, the English watched as the Vikings rowed past them. [62] The pirates had suffered so many casualties (120 Danes dead against 62 Frisians and English), [58] that they had difficulties putting out to sea. All were too damaged to row around Sussex and two were driven against the Sussex coast (possibly at Selsey Bill). [58] [62] The shipwrecked sailors were brought before Alfred at Winchester and were hanged. [58]


Last Years

At the beginning of the 890s, England was again attacked by a large Viking army, who attempted to seize the fertile lands of the southern part of the kingdom. Alfred defeated the Danish fleet and repulsed the attack of the Welsh. Alfred’s fleet completely cleared the strait from sea marauders. During the last years of his life, Alfred was devoted to the plans of the union of Christian states against invasions of heathen Normans. King Alfred, nicknamed The Great, died in Winchester in 899. He was succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder. He remains historically one of the great English rulers.


7 medieval kings of England you should know about

With lands to conquer, rebellions to quash and finances to raise, ruling over medieval England was no mean feat. Some monarchs flourished, while others floundered. Here, we look back on the reigns of seven kings whose leadership changed the course of English history.

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Published: June 21, 2021 at 8:50 am

Richard I

Despite being one of England’s most iconic medieval kings, Richard I (r1189–99) spent only six months of his decade-long reign on English soil and may not have even spoken English. His energies were undoubtedly focused towards international war-mongering rather than affairs within England itself. Writing for History Extra, Andrew Gimson argues that Richard’s “only use for England” was to raise money through taxes in order to wage war abroad.

As his epithet ‘Lionheart’ suggests, Richard boasted a reputation as a fearless warrior king. He is best remembered for his efforts in the Third Crusade, a religious campaign to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslim sultan and military leader Saladin.

On the battlefield, Richard was a strong commander and renowned military tactician. Although he is often portrayed as the stereotypical chivalric medieval knight, Richard’s actions in the Middle East were often far from gallant and honourable by modern standards. Following a dispute over the city of Acre in 1191 he ordered the killing of 2,700 Muslim prisoners, including women and children. Yet despite several victories in the Holy Land, Richard never achieved his ultimate aim of conquering Jerusalem for the glory of western Christendom. Following infighting with other European crusade forces and a year-long stalemate, he made a truce with his opponent Saladin. After years of pouring the nation’s finances and men into the crusade, he was forced to concede failure and head back towards England.

Yet the king’s route home was far from simple. On his return to Europe, Richard was captured and handed over to German king and Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. Henry ransomed Richard, demanding a crippling payment of 150,000 marks from England for his return. This return was short-lived however, as Richard headed straight back out to the battlefields of Normandy and Aquitaine. He led successful campaigns there for a further five years before being mortally wounded by a crossbow bolt during a siege battle.

King John

History has not been kind to King John (r1199–1216). He is most frequently remembered as the cruel and greedy villain of the Robin Hood legend, who attempted to usurp his beloved brother Richard, backtracked on Magna Carta and threw England into civil war.

In 1193, John gained his reputation as a usurper by unsuccessfully attempting to seize the throne while his elder brother King Richard I was imprisoned in Germany. After this plot failed, John was subsequently banished. In 1199, following the brothers’ reconciliation and Richard’s death, John finally gained the throne by legitimate means.

John’s reign was marred by rebellion and discontent, and he faced significant antagonism from both outside and inside of England. War with France cost him dearly – he lost large amounts of money and land, including Normandy, Anjou and Maine. Taxes to fund the war grew enormous and the situation significantly damaged John’s reputation.

The king’s attempts to quash opposition at home proved equally unsuccessful. By 1215, discontent within England had reached breaking point, and John was forced into a civil war with rebel barons. He was consequently compelled to agree to Magna Carta, a peace treaty that would go on to be recognised as one of the founding documents of the English legal system. By sealing Magna Carta, John dealt a huge blow to the power and prestige of the monarchy, as the document asserted that no man was above the law, not even a king.

However, the king was quick to backtrack on the democratic promises of the treaty, arguing he was forced to concede to its terms under duress. England was plunged back into civil war. The future French king Louis invaded at the request of the barons, and John was condemned as a coward for fleeing from the French invaders. Peace was only negotiated following John’s death in 1216.

Edward I

Known as ‘Longshanks’ due to his tall stature, the Plantagenet king Edward I (r1272–1307) is often credited with beginning the unification process of the British Isles. This process was far from peaceful however – Edward led a harsh campaign of suppression in order to force Wales and Scotland to bend to English will.

Edward’s troubles in Wales began when the Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, refused to pay homage to him. In response, Edward chose to force Wales and its leaders into submission, building a chain of castles along the Welsh north coast in order to block supplies into the region. Welsh hopes of independence were quashed and the country was conquered. After Llywelyn’s defeat in battle in 1282, Edward later bequeathed the title of Prince of Wales upon his own son – a tradition that still remains today.

Known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, Edward also led major campaigns in Scotland, including a successful invasion of the country in 1296. He faced significant rebellions from the Scots, including William Wallace (whose execution he ordered in 1305) and, later, Robert the Bruce. After Edward’s death his land gains in Scotland were quickly lost by his son Edward II.

Alongside this aggressive foreign policy, Longshanks was also responsible for tackling corruption and significantly reforming England’s administrative and legal systems. His extensive military ventures required considerable financial backing – money that ultimately came from the pockets of his heavily taxed subjects. One result of this increased taxation was an increase in parliamentary meetings. Another was the persecution of England’s Jewish money-lenders, and in turn, Jews in general. After executing 300 Jews in the Tower of London, in 1290 Edward expelled all Jews from the country.

Edward II

Edward II (r1307–1327) has been widely accepted as both an unpopular king and inept military leader, whose reign was characterised by conflict and poor decision-making. Writing for HistoryExtra, Kathryn Warner said that Edward’s reign “lurched from one crisis to another: endless conflict with his barons, constant threats of civil war, and failed military campaigns.”

One of Edward’s infamous failures was losing the significant military gains his father had made in Scotland. The defeat of his forces at the hands of Robert the Bruce at the battle of Bannockburn was a humiliation that helped secure Scottish independence from English rule.

Edward was an unconventional monarch personally as well as politically, reportedly revelling in the company of peasant labourers, fishermen and carpenters. Throughout his life, Edward alienated many of England’s barons by promoting unsuitable and unpopular personal favourites, who were widely believed to hold a negative influence over him. First came Piers Gaveston, whom the barons hated so much that they repeatedly banished him before executing him in 1312. Edward later shifted his favour to Hugh le Despenser and his son, sharing significant power with the pair and supporting their campaigns in Wales. This was an immensely unpopular decision that would prove fatal to Edward’s reign. Civil war broke out and Edward found himself devoid of supporters.

The final nail in Edward’s coffin proved to be a coup led by his own wife, Isabella of France (who despised the Despensers) and her lover Roger Mortimer. In 1326, the pair invaded England, successfully deposing Edward II and placing his teenage son (Edward III) on the throne. Following his humiliating downfall, Edward was imprisoned at Berkeley Castle in 1327, where it is generally accepted he was murdered. According to a popular and enduring myth, the former king was killed in grisly fashion with a red-hot poker.

Henry V

Although he went on to become one of the most famous monarchs in English history, Henry V (r1413–1422) was not initially intended for the throne. Aged 13, his fate was transformed by the actions of his father Henry Bolingbroke, who usurped the then king, Richard II, and seized the throne for his own dynastic line.

Henry began developing his promising military skills as a teenager. In 1403, he proved a strong commander, leading troops in the battle of Shrewsbury. He was just 16 at the time, and was shot in the face with an arrow that pierced his cheek. Henry also led significant campaigns to help his father tackle Welsh rebellion. His hands-on role as Prince of Wales was not all smooth sailing however, as his passionate involvement in policy-making led to heated disputes with his father.

By the time Henry inherited the throne in 1413, he was itching to reclaim lost French territories – something that his father had resisted for several years. After swiftly quashing an attempted coup by rival Edmund Mortimer, his first key action as king was to launch a major attack on France.

Henry’s finest hour has commonly been seen as his defeat of the French at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. It is for this victory that he is best remembered – perhaps largely due to the rousing immortalisation of this moment in William Shakespeare’s Henry V. Victory at Agincourt led to further triumphs in France – Henry went on to conquer Normandy and Rouen. In 1420, these victories culminated in the Treaty of Troyes, which recognised Henry as heir to the French throne.

Yet only two years later, the all-conquering king met an unpleasant end. In 1422, he died suddenly after contracting dysentery at the siege of Meaux.

Edward IV

A major player in the Wars of the Roses, Edward IV (r1461–1470 and 1471–83) is best known for leading Yorkist efforts to claim England’s throne and for his unconventional choice of bride.

Edward came from the Yorkist branch of the Plantagenet dynasty – his claim to the throne derived from the fact that his parents were descendants of Edward III. Although England had been ruled by the opposing Plantagenet faction, the Lancastrians, since 1399, Lancastrian king Henry VI’s grip over England was weakening. With the support of the Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as ‘The Kingmaker’, Edward made a bid for the throne. After a series of victories including the 1461 battle of Towton, he succeeded in overthrowing Henry VI and was crowned king.

Historian Amy Licence describes the young Edward as being “charismatic, tall and handsome, renowned for his love affairs and athleticism.” Yet, one of these love affairs was to prove intensely politically problematic, ultimately plunging England back into civil war.

In 1464 Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville. Woodville was a highly controversial choice of bride for Edward. Not only was she a Lancastrian, a widow and a mother – she was also a commoner. The marriage undermined attempts to secure a politically advantageous French match for Edward and saw Woodville’s relatives given enviable royal favour. The ramifications of Edward’s decision were huge, as it lost him the support of Warwick. The angered earl proved to be a dangerous ally to alienate – he transferred his allegiances to the exiled former king Henry VI, fuelling a strong Lancastrian revolt against Edward.

Faced with deposition and death, Edward made a swift escape to the Netherlands. After six months in exile, he launched a remarkable comeback. With only a small force, he crushed his rivals, defeating Warwick in battle, imprisoning Henry in the Tower of London and reinstating himself on the throne. Edward’s second reign proved a much more sedate and stable period than his first. Although he was still involved in conflict, tackling a revolt by his brother and launching an invasion of France, these events passed relatively smoothly until Edward’s sudden death aged 40 in 1483.

Richard III

Undoubtedly the most hotly debated of all England’s medieval monarchs, Richard III (r1483–85) has continually fascinated both academics and the public alike. The discovery of the body of the ‘king in the carpark’ in September 2012 fuelled even greater debate over Richard’s reign. Was he a usurping murderer, or a misunderstood monarch?

Following the death of his brother Edward IV, Richard was appointed protector of the realm and charged with safeguarding the underage king – his 12-year-old nephew Edward V. Aspersions were cast on the legitimacy of the young king and his brother and in June 1483, Richard assumed the role of king.

Shortly afterwards, the princes (later known as the ‘princes in the Tower’) mysteriously disappeared while in Richard’s care, leading to pervasive rumours that their usurping uncle had murdered them. While these claims have not been comprehensively proven, the princes’ disappearance conveniently eliminated any future threat they could pose to Richard’s rule.

Nevertheless, Richard’s grip on England quickly disintegrated, as former allies began to defect. In August 1485, just two years after he had been crowned, Richard’s reign was dealt the final blow. A Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor, launched an attack on England. He came to blows with Richard at the battle of Bosworth. At the outset, Richard’s chances at Bosworth looked promising. He outnumbered Henry Tudor’s forces three to one and was reportedly so confident of victory that he was “overjoyed” at the chance to take on his rival. However, Richard’s advantage was undermined by the defection of several of his main supporters and he met with a devastating defeat. After reportedly refusing to flee, he was killed on the battlefield.

Richard’s death at Bosworth heralded the end of the medieval era. Decades of fighting in the Wars of the Roses were drawing to a close, as a new royal dynasty came to prominence – the Tudors.

This content was first published on History Extra in June 2016


Ealhswith, Wife of Alfred the Great

Ealhswith, Wife of Alfred the Great

Ealhswith was a Mercian princess who married Alfred, Anglo-Saxon king of Wessex. She was never called queen and she never witnessed any charters during Alfred’s administration. But she was the mother of illustrious children and she is remembered as “the true and beloved lady of the English”.

We know very little about Ealhswith’s life. Alfred’s contemporary biographer, Bishop Asser doesn’t even name her. She was the daughter of Aethelred Mucil, an east Mercian nobleman. Asser tells us he was the ealdorman of the Gaini around Gainsborough. This may be an ancient tribe of Mercia. Ealhswith’s mother was a scholar named Eadburgh who was well known at court.

In the year 868, Alfred and his brother King Aethelred were campaigning, trying to rid England of the Vikings. King Burhred of Mercia was invaded by the “Great Army” of Scandinavians and they had camped out near Nottingham. Burhred sent a message to Alfred and Aethelred, appealing for help in the fight. Alfred and Aethelred took their troops to Nottingham and began a siege. This is where Alfred met and wooed Ealhswith. To seal the alliance with Mercia, Alfred and Ealhswith were married.

The ceremony took place in the royal vill of Sutton Courtenay. There was feasting and gift-giving that lasted long into the night. But the festivities were interrupted when Alfred fell ill. We don’t really know what the illness was but he seemed to suffer from some intestinal disorder. It was the beginning of an affliction that would last for the rest of his life.

Alfred succeeded his brother Aethelred as King of Wessex in 871. Ealhswith and Alfred had five children who survived and she may have had other children who died in infancy. All the children were educated as Alfred was an ardent advocate of education. Their first child was a daughter, Aethelflaed who was born c. 868. She would marry Aethelred of Mercia and became a formidable warrior who fought the Vikings and won. She was known as the Lady of the Mercians.

Another daughter named Aethelgifu was born c. 869 and would become the Abbess of Shaftesbury. Their next child was a son who would be known as Edward the Elder. He succeeded his father as king of Wessex when Alfred died. A daughter named Aethelthryth or Elfrida was born c. 877. She married Count Baldwin of Flanders in 893 and was an ancestress of Matilda of Flanders who married William the Conqueror. Their last child was a son named Aethelweard, born c. 880. He would show a strong interest in books and learning and was educated at his father’s school at court.

At Christmas in January of 878, the Viking leader Guthrum made a surprise attack on Alfred’s royal palace at Chippenham. Alfred fled with Ealhswith and his family to the rough and desolate island of Athelney in Somerset where they lived for about four months. Alfred led guerilla attacks on the Vikings and made plans for a huge offensive against Guthrum. The Battle of Eddington was fought in May of 878 and Alfred was victorious. A treaty was negotiated delineating boundaries for the kingdoms of Alfred and Guthrum.

While there was relative peace in the kingdom, Ealhswith turned her attention to the establishment of the Nunnaminster (St. Mary’s Abbey) at Winchester. She may have dedicated the land of an urban estate that she owned there for the institution. She was responsible for the four stages of the foundation: construction of the monastic buildings, assembling the group of nuns to inhabit the Nunnaminster, the appointment of the first abbess who was named Aethelthryth and for the provision of the community’s endowment. She was prevented from finishing her project by death but her son Edward the Elder completed the foundation and dedicated his daughter Edburga as a nun.

Alfred died on October 26, 899. In his will, he designated that Ealhswith be given one hundred pounds in cash along with two great estates in Berkshire. One was Lambourn and the other was Wantage where Alfred was born. He also gave her his estate at Eddington, the site of his great victory over Guthrum. Alfred was initially buried in the Old Minster at Winchester.

Ealhswith survived Alfred by three years and died on December 5, 902. She was buried in the Old Minster next to Alfred. Edward finished his father’s project of building the New Minster at Winchester and had his parents relics transferred there when it was completed.

Further reading: “Alfred the Great: The Man Who Made England” by Justin Pollard, “The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study of West Saxon and East Anglian Cults” by Susan J. Ridyard, “The Kings and Queens of Anglo-Saxon England” by Timothy Venning, “Alfred the Great” by David Sturdy, “The Royal Line of Succession” by Hugo Vickers, “Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources” Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge

Susan Abernethy is the writer of The Freelance History Writer. You can Like her on Facebook as well on Medieval History Lovers. You can also follow Susan on Twitter @SusanAbernethy2


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