The Birth of the English Navy

If I asked you what you think of when I say the word ‘Viking,’ you’d probably think of a Viking warship. You’d know that it looks curly and has a very specific look to it. You know that the people who rode them might have worn helmets with horns. But the real question we never ask ourselves is: why were they riding the seas? And why did this make them famous?

Let’s step outside of history for a moment. Let’s say we live in a cold, harsh place and every year it is becoming increasingly difficult to produce food for our children. However, we know that not too far away is an island rich in soil for food, open land to set up homes, and easy access to mainland Europe. Obviously, we are going to pack our bags and move there, especially if it’s our only option.

The Vikings, however, did not come as peacefully as you might be picturing. In fact, the first records of Viking raids on ancient Britain and France are documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle circa 787 A.D. as follows:

And in [King Beohtric's] days came for the first time three ships: and then the reeve rode thither and tried to compel them to go to the royal manor, for he did not know what they were, and they slew him. These were the first ships of the Danes to come to England.”

By the 830s, the raids on England had become intense. Historically, we do not know exactly why the sudden raids became so violent (and… well, sudden). Some reasons could include overpopulation in Scandinavian regions, wars within their own territories (which resulted in mandatory exiles and ‘adventurers’ hoping to escape that), and new naval technology (the true keel), which allowed for longer ocean voyages. The seas also attracted the less-attractive constituents of society, being that increased trade by sea meant an increase in piracy.

Obviously, as the King of Wessex (later called England), King Alfred had to do something. If anyone would be able to do anything, it would have been him. Unlike most royals of his time, he had a thirst for knowledge. Even as a child, he had always been a curious researcher of things that made him ask ‘how’ and ‘why.’ It is perhaps for this reason that he successfully reorganised the military of his kingdom.

Royalty in the 800s was not as it is today. King Alfred and his ancestors and heirs were warriors that wore uniforms and rode horses and lived inside cold, dark castles designed to keep the realm’s most important figures safe. This is a very different sense of ‘royalty’ as experienced by his 32nd great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, whose role has been reduced to a symbolic figurehead of English constitutional democracy. Although, we must consider some aligning facts that make her worthy of becoming the second monarch to take the epithet ‘The Great.’ She is the second longest-serving sovereign in history, a chunk of Antarctica is named after her, she just broke champagne on England’s largest aircraft carrier yet, she is the last surviving head-of-state to have served in World War II, and most importantly – she is the latest Bond girl credited on IMDB.

Having the sole job of sitting down and pondering ways to better England and protect her from her enemies was beneficial to Alfred, being that he had a brilliant and cunningly strategic mind.

The main thing he realized was that if his people were being attacked by sea, then the sea is where his people needed to focus. And thus, the ancestor to the Royal Navy was conceived and born.

Along with his desires to create a fleet of ships to protect his kingdom, he created the burghal hidage. This was a series of fortified towns along the rivers and pre-existing roads (built by ancient Romans) of Wessex. Picture thirty-something versions of the Village of Bree from The Lord of the Rings – each one close enough to send help to another that might need immediate help.

The Alfredian Navy and the Burghal Hidage were both major parts of Alfred’s design to refortify the kingdom. They might seem like simple fixes, but they had never been accomplished before. And if they had been former ideas, they had not been conducted successfully. Most importantly, they robbed the Vikings of two major pieces of their strategy: surprise, and mobility.

Along with the conception of the general idea of creating a fleet, Alfred himself designed it. In 896, he ordered the construction of a dozen or less ships. His ships were to have 60 oars – making them twice the size of Viking warships. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler is clearly biased (and very excited) in his opinion of the fleet:

“King Alfred had…long ships‟ built to oppose the Danish warships. They were almost twice as long as the others. Some had 60 oars, some more. They were both swifter and steadier and also higher than the others. They were built neither on the Frisian nor the Danish pattern, but as it seemed to him himself that they could be most useful.”

A ship built to the design of Alfred the Great by Dan Escott.

A ship built to the design of Alfred the Great by Dan Escott.

It was important for The King to design larger ships. Back then, warships did not serve to kill, but instead carry as many troops as possible. In contrast to the enormous battleships we have today, ships back then would come alongside an enemy vessel and climb aboard to tackle the enemy by sword or hand.

A visual depiction of a Danish ship clashing with one of Alfred's new English ships. Edited painting by A. Forrester.

A visual depiction of a Danish ship clashing with one of Alfred’s new English ships. Edited painting by A. Forrester.

Ultimately, Alfredian ships were too big to maneuver easily in the waters where any battles would occur.

The first naval engagement in English history occurred in the year 897 – testing Alfred’s new fleet, which was also completely new in design. About six Danish Viking ships were beached, perhaps to replenish them with food. Nine English ships then emerged from the distance and attacked the Danes. According to an edited excerpt from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“Then the king (Alfred) ordered [his men] to put out with nine of the new ships, and they blocked off to them [the Danes/Vikings] the harbour entrance from in front of the outer bay. Then they [Danes] came out against them [English] with three ships. And three [Danish ships] were in the upper part of the harbour on dry land…then they [the English] captured two of the three ships at the outside of the harbour entrance and massacred the crews. And one [Danish ship] made its escape, and on that, too, the men were killed except for five, those [five] got away because the ships [of the English] were grounded.”[1]

In summary, the English blocked the Danes’ exit from the bay, and had won their first battle on the sea by advancing on them from there. However, it seems to have been a messy occasion. One ship is credited to have escaped. The reason behind that is mostly because, as mentioned, the ships were too large to maneuver. Ultimately, we can view the Vikings in this light sort of like pirates because of the way that they attacked their enemy at sea. Although it’s not as organized as Johnny Depp might go about it, it’s still the same concept of climbing onboard and taking control.

Although Alfred is considered the ‘father of the navy,’ he was not the founder of The Royal Navy – which wouldn’t exist until the 1500s – and whose power would not be demonstrated at least until the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The creation of the navy during this military reform was vital to the success of England during the reigns of Alfred’s successors. And although we do not know many facts about this era in history, but what we do know is that the establishment of a navy and of a fleet unique in design shows us the power of King Alfred and his willingness to explore new options to protect his people.

[1] Ryan Lavelle. Alfred’s Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2012. Print.

Could A British Abdication Be Next?

This week, jokes are on the table that Prince Charles is kicking his mother under the table at breakfast following the news of King Juan Carlos of Spain’s abdication “in favor of a new generation.” Twitter and other social media sites flared up wondering the same question – is Elizabeth next?

The answer is no.

Juan Carlos’ intention to abdicate in favor of his son, Georgetown grad Prince Felipe, follows a string of abdications around Europe.

The string began with Pope Benedict XVI, who abdicated for health reasons on February 28, 2013. He was the first pope to abdicate in almost 600 years. Typically, a pope carries out his duties until death.

Benedict XVI was swiftly followed by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who abdicated two months later in favor of her son, Willem-Alexander. Unlike the papacy, abdication is a tradition in the Netherlands. Beatrix’s mother Juliana abdicated after almost 30 years, as did her grandmother Wilhelmina. Willem-Alexander is the first male leader of the Netherlands since the nineteenth century.

Two months after that, King Albert II of Belgium abdicated. Like the Pope Emeritus, he abdicated for health reasons. He was succeeded by his son, Philippe.

Fast forward a year later, and King Juan Carlos I of Spain announces his plans to call it quits. Juan Carlos was restored as monarch of Spain following the death of Francisco Franco, and was considered a beacon of hope following Franco’s treacherous and oppressive rule. If you’ve seen the film Pans Labyrinth (2006), the film takes place in the early Francoist period, and the general in the film is loosely based on Franco himself.

Juan Carlos, 76, believes the monarchy, which is currently seemingly very unstable right now in the Iberian peninsula, should be taken into newer, younger hands.

Why then, is an octogenarian still leading the British people?

The answer is perseverance. The British monarchy is mostly symbolic, and it is surely a symbol of strength, determination, and finishing the course. Few British monarchs in over 1,000 years of history have abdicated – Richard II and Edward II were forced off the throne, James II is considered to have abdicated, and Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 in favor of a marriage not supported by the government.

If all continues to go according to tradition, Europe will continue to see abdications across the continent, and Britain may very well celebrate her first Platinum Jubilee in 2022.

Alfred the Great: His Character and Appearance

Alfred the Great – the only monarch in English or British history to behold the epithet of ‘the great’ – ascended the throne of Wessex (later England during the reign of his grandson, King Æthelstan) 1,143 years ago. Normally as a society, we lose track of certain things. We remember the names but so seldom do we remember the epic tales that surround the names. Rarely do we remember the face.

This leads to the next question – how do we know what he looked like? The answer lies within primary sources. Historians require primary sources, or documents from the time that one is studying, in order to form arguments about that time. How would you like it if someone 400 years from now judged you and everything you did without reading what you or those you knew personally had to say for yourself? Obviously, if the people of the future read your words or those of people who understand you, you are likely to be remembered differently.

Primary sources sometimes offer us something truly wonderful. Sometimes, we are offered a look at the person we are trying to discover. Yes, they may mostly just hold details about the battles they fought and the laws they implemented, but when it comes to King Alfred, sources on how he looked are quite abundant.

We are fortunate to have a primary source provided by Asser, which describes the appearance and character of Alfred.

Asser wrote of Alfred in his Life of King Alfred,

“Now, he was greatly loved, more than all his brothers, by his father and mother – indeed, by everybody – with a universal and profound love, and he was always brought up in the royal court and nowhere else…[He] was seen to be more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour… [and] in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.”

It is also written by Asser than Alfred did not learn to read until he was twelve years old or later, which is described as ‘shameful negligence’ of his parents and tutors. It is true, however, that Alfred was an excellent listener and had an incredible memory, and he retained poetry and psalms very well. A story is told by Asser about how his mother held up a book of English poetry to him and his brothers, and said; ‘I shall give this book to whichever one of you can learn it the fastest.’ After excitedly asking, ‘Will you really give this book to the one of us who can understand it the soonest and recite it to you?’ Alfred then took it to his teacher, learned it, and recited it back to his mother.

Alfred is also noted as carrying around a small book, probably an ancient version of a small pocket notebook, which contained psalms and many prayers that he often collected. Asser writes: “[these] he collected in a single book, as I have seen for myself; amid all the affairs of the present life he took it around with him everywhere for the sake of prayer, and was inseparable from it.

An excellent hunter in every branch of the sport, Alfred is remembered as an enthusiastic huntsman against whom nobody’s skills could compare. However, it is recorded that his skills and success did not strive in vain.

Although he was the youngest of his brothers, he was probably the most open-minded. Despite eventually becoming one of the greatest warriors and forgers of peace in the kingdom, he was an early advocate for education. His desire for learning could have come from his early love of English poetry and inability to read or physically record them until later in life. Asser writes that “[Alfred] could not satisfy his craving for what he desired the most, namely the liberal arts; for, as he used to say, there were no good scholars in the entire kingdom of the West Saxons at that time.”

The Battle of Hastings and the Birth of the English Language (1066)

Adventus Saxonum: The Backdrop

When Rome abandoned ‘Britannia’ in 410 AD, the British Isles were open to invasion. Sure enough, Germanic tribes such as the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes (among many others) invaded and settled along the eastern coast of modern-day England. This mass migration of Germanic tribes became known as the Adventus Saxonum, which is Latin for ‘Arrival of the Saxons.’

The Saxons eventually rose to power as the most prominent of the other settlers and would become mostly united by the middle of the 900s. Think of it this way, do you remember how the American colonies were settled? The Dutch came over and founded New Amsterdam, and then the English who had already ruled all of New England took over Manhattan and renamed it New York after the Duke of York, then eventually claimed everything else. It’s pretty much the same kind of thing. Only here, in early Britain, the Angles and the Saxons had mostly intertwined, giving birth to the term ‘Anglo-Saxon.’ Although we have no evidence to say that there were more Angles than Saxons or vice versa, the land eventually became known as ‘Anglialand’ over time, which became ‘England’ and there they spoke the Anglo-Saxon language that we call Old English. It was slightly similar to the language we speak today and we still use some Anglo-Saxon words. In fact, you’ve probably spoken a few of them today, such as above, apple, awake, back, blood, body, daughter, ear, evening, ice, king, man, open, queen, quick, right, say, shadow, walk, winter, yes, and you (just to name a few).

England was ruled by the Anglo-Saxons until the last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, died in 1066. Edward is described in the Vita Ædwardi Regis as

“…a very proper figure of a man—of outstanding height, and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands, and long translucent fingers; in all the rest of his body he was an unblemished royal person. Pleasant, but always dignified, he walked with eyes downcast, most graciously affable to one and all. If some cause aroused his temper, he seemed as terrible as a lion, but he never revealed his anger by railing.”

EDWARD THE CONFESSOR Reigned 1042-1066

Reigned 1042-1066

The Imperial State Crown - the blue sapphire in the cross on top of the crown was once a ring worn by Edward the Confessor. The crown also has the Black Prince's Ruby, the Cullinan II , the Stuart Sapphire, and Queen Elizabeth I's pearls.

The Imperial State Crown – the blue sapphire in the cross on top of the crown was once a ring worn by Edward the Confessor. The crown also has the Black Prince’s Ruby, the Cullinan II, the Stuart Sapphire, and Queen Elizabeth I’s pearls.

There is no denying that Edward was a great king. He was the first and only Anglo-Saxon sovereign of England to be canonized. He was exceptionally pious and unworldly for a man of power of his time, and when he died in January 1066, England suffered a succession crisis between several claimants to the throne.

After the Death of Edward the Confessor

Edward slipped into a coma before he died, never naming his plans for succession. Historians debate Edward’s intentions as to who he believed should have been his successor as king. Some say William, The Duke of Normandy was his rightful heir, others argue that the rich and powerful aristocrat Harold Godwinson was the rightful one.

Regardless of what Edward may or may not have wanted, Harold became king. The Witenagemot* intervened and elected him to rule.

*From the seventh to eleventh centuries, the Witenagemot was an assembly of the ruling class whose function was to advise the king. It was comprised of a group of England’s most powerful noblemen. Harold was crowned on January 6, 1066.

Once word reached Normandy that Edward was dead and Harold had succeeded him, Duke William of Normandy was absolutely furious.

Death of Harold as depicted by William Blake in his work Visionary Heads.

Death of Harold as depicted by William Blake in his work Visionary Heads.

The Bayeux Tapestry, which is one of the most well-preserved documentation of this story, is showing here the coronation of Harold as King of England.

The Bayeux Tapestry, which is one of the most well-preserved documentation of this story, is showing here the coronation of Harold as King of England.

Norman Interest in the Throne

(I’ll be honest, it’s starting to get confusing, even for me. So, take a peek at the family tree if you’re really interested in this section, especially if you are a visual learner like I am.)

Family tree showing Edward the Confessor's relation to his brother-in-law, Harold, and his cousin, William, The Duke of Normandy.

Family tree showing Edward the Confessor’s relation to his brother-in-law, Harold, and his cousin, William, The Duke of Normandy.

Present-day Normandy in France was settled by Viking invaders from the North (hence the term ‘NORmans’), and a duchy was established there. In 1002, King Æthelred II of England married Emma, the sister of Richard II, then-Duke of Normandy. Their son was King Edward the Confessor. Edward’s Norman roots created a very strong interest in English politics for the Normans, especially since Edward had continually called on them for support throughout his reign. It is believed that Edward even encouraged William to succeed him on the throne. Some historians even suggest that William was promised it.

According to the website of the British monarchy, “William’s claim to the English throne was based on his assertion that, in 1051, Edward the Confessor had promised him the throne (he was a distant cousin) and that Harold II – having sworn in 1064 to uphold William’s right to succeed to that throne – was therefore a usurper.”

Were the Normans ‘barbaric’ and trying to invade England just to gain more power, or were they men of honor with a legitimate claim to what they were promised?

William had a lot of support for his vision of England. Not only did he have the allegiance of Emperor Henry IV, but he also had the approval of the pope. The pope has always been considered the closest man to God. In 1066, this was exceptionally true, and to have the pope’s help meant that you also had God’s.

A map depicting the locations of where the King of Norway's forces landed in York in the north, and where William and the Norman forces landed in the south for the Battle of Hastings.

A map depicting the locations of where the King of Norway’s forces landed in York in the north, and where William and the Norman forces landed in the south for the Battle of Hastings.

The Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest of England

On September 28, 1066, William landed on the south coast of England and within a week had raised fortifications at Hastings. By this time, Harold’s army was exhausted. They had just fought off a Norwegian invasion in the north (near York) that month, eliminating the King of Norway’s claim to the throne. Learning that the Normans had landed and were setting up camp and getting ready to fight, Harold and his army were forced to march south. They covered 250 miles in about nine days to meet William. Many people died or had to stop marching along the way and were replenished by completely inexperienced soldiers. This was a major advantage for William and his army.

On October 14, 1066, fighting began around 9am and lasted until the sun was setting. Harold’s army was still weak not only from the battle against the King of Norway’s army up north, but also from the trek down to where the Normans were waiting for them. However, they had the advantage of being based uphill from the base of Duke William’s army. Also to the advantage of the English was that their army included Europe’s best infantry equipped with two-handled battle axes.

The Normans made the first move by having their archers shoot uphill at the English shield wall. This failed. The arrows probably bounced off the shields or flew over them completely, since the arrows had to be shot uphill. Historian Matthew Bennett writes in his Campaigns of the Norman Conquest (2001) that William then sent the spearmen forward to attack the English, who were met with a barrage of missiles and not arrows but spears, axes, and heavy stones. They couldn’t break the shield wall and after failing to make headway, a general retreat began. As the Normans were slowly withdrawing, Harold’s army suddenly charged after them.

It was rumored that William had been killed. To dismiss all confusion, he raised his helmet on the battlefield to show his troops that he was still fighting alongside them.

As the English charged after them (which may not have been an order given by Harold, since a contemporary source relates that Harold ordered his army to stay in formation), the Duke then led a counter-attack against them. Some of the English then rallied on a hillock before facing the massive forces of William’s army.

The Bayeux Tapestry shows that Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were killed just before the confrontation by the hillock. The fact that they were even depicted on the tapestry suggests that they may have started the initial charge against the retreating enemy. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings, ca.1067), one of the earliest written sources of the battle, states that William slew Harold’s brother Gyrth in combat.

Harold was then killed. Since there are few to little sources that tell us how he died, it is believed that was hit by an arrow and then taken down by a mounted knight’s sword. The Bayeux Tapestry doesn’t clarify much, but it depicts a figure holding an arrow sticking out of his eye next to a figure being hit by a sword. Above this, it says “Here King Harold has been killed”, not specifying which figure. Traditional stories say that Harold really was hit through the eye. The earliest mention of that comes from the 1080s from a history of the Normans by the Italian monk, Amatus of Montecassino. The tradition is later supported by William of Malmesbury who stated that an arrow went through his eye and pierced his brain, and then was hit by a knight’s sword. Other than this one consistent and probably true theory, other chroniclers state completely different and contrasting causes of death for the King.

The Bayeux Tapestry reflects the tradition that Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow, although it is debated that the figure (second from left) with the arrow in the eye is him. (The arrow is very faint, it almost blends with the background).

The Bayeux Tapestry reflects the tradition that Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow, although it is debated that the figure (second from left) with the arrow in the eye is him. (The arrow is very faint, it almost blends with the background). It reads “Here Harold was killed.”

The battlefield. The Abbey was built over the spot where Harold was killed.

The battlefield. The Abbey was built over the spot where Harold was killed.

Without a leader, the English army finally collapsed. Most that remained fled, and those who were close to Harold bravely stayed put and fought off as many remaining Normans as they could before being destroyed by William’s outstanding and already-victorious forces.

The next day, Harold was identified either by the marks on his body or by his armor and officially confirmed dead. Peter Rex, the former Head of History at Princethorpe College writes in Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) that Harold’s personal standard was then presented to William and sent to Rome.

William, Duke of Normandy. Later 'William the Conquerer.'

William, Duke of Normandy. Later King William I of England, or ‘William the Conquerer.’

William was crowned King of England on Christmas in Westminster Abbey in 1066. It took a total of six years for him to consolidate his conquest of England, and faced constant challenges both there and in Normandy, where he remained Duke. One of his first actions as king was to built an abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings (or Sandlac, as it is also commonly known) in the modern-day town of Battle, England. The high altar of the abbey was erected on the site where Harold was killed. Battle Abbey was destroyed during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monestaries from 1536-1541. The ruins still stand today.

Battle Abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings. Photo by Antony McCallum.

Battle Abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings. Photo by Antony McCallum.

The location where Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings, later the site of the high altar. Photo taken by Néstor Daza.

The location where Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings, later the site of the high altar. Photo taken by Néstor Daza.

Culture Shock: The Birth of the English Language

The Normans did not remain in Normandy. Once they acquired England, many gathered as families and moved there. They took advantage of the land and made it their home. They even married the natives and assimilated. As they slowly over time became English, they also ended up creating a new language. It was a blend of the Germanic Old English and Norman ‘Old French.’ This new language that evolved after 1066 is known today as ‘Middle English.’

As you probably noticed earlier, Old English words were pretty simple. They had one or two syllables and they were rough and to the point. Norman words were much more elegant and less harsh. This culture shock with the language spoken in England created some of the first synonyms of our language. This is why we have two words for almost everything, such as hug: very short and rough; and embrace, which is much more elegant and fitting of the sophisticated Norman culture. Consider these other example of Old English and Old French words that we still use today:

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 10.50.36 PM

You’ve probably been told at some point in your life that when you speak English, you’re really speaking a bunch of ancient French and German at the same time. Now you can see exactly what they meant. The reason the French language truly became mixed with the Anglo-Saxon language though is because once William marched into London and forced the English to submit to him, he changed the official language of the kingdom into Old French. The commoners maintained their Anglo-Saxon language at home and the elite or those working with the governing body spoke French. Descendants of both bodies eventually learned both. Over time, the two languages simply evolved into one complex Middle English language, making one of the most common things of our everyday lives today a descendant of the Battle of Hastings. It is only one of numerous profound contributions the Normans made to the world of our ancestors.

Queen Elizabeth’s Oak


Queen Elizabeth's Oak

Under the branches of this tree, it’s been said for centuries that Henry VIII danced with Anne Boleyn and enjoyed private time with her during their courtship. Years later as a girl, their daughter (the future Elizabeth I) enjoyed picnics in it’s shade.

This ancient tree was planted roughly around the 12th century, died in the late 19th century, and remained hollowed out until it finally fell in 1991.


Victoria’s Secret


Victoria's Secret

After the unexpected death of Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert in 1861, the monarch was thrown into 40 years of deep mourning. She wore black every single day and had his clothes laid out every morning until her own death in 1901.

Few people noted that Victoria wore colorful, sexy lingerie beneath the deep black layers, as risque corsets were the fashion craze at the time. Whether or not the depressed queen actually did this or not became known as Victoria’s Secret.

In this photograph is pictured The Queen with Mr. Brown, the subject of the movie Mrs. Brown starring Judi Dench.

King Alfred’s Ambitious Vision For a Secure Kingdom (878-899)

Wessex Under Attack

Alfred possessed all the qualities that only a legendary king would have. His character was one of honesty, courage, brilliance, and piety, and he was just as good at peace as he was valiant in battle. The only thing about his legendary reign is that, for starters, it isn’t exactly ‘legendary.’ Alfred was real, and in many ways, he truly honors his epithet of ‘The Great.’

A modern sketch of Alfred the Great.

A modern sketch of Alfred the Great.

Vikings from modern-day Denmark (referred to as the Danes) ravished the northern kingdoms of England. Northumbria first succumbed to their wrath, then East Anglia, and shortly afterwards, Mercia fell to their control. They were called ‘The Great Heathen Army’ and they were unstoppable, ruining everything in their path like a plague of locusts.

When Alfred succeeded the throne of the southern kingdom of Wessex, the Danes stopped their vast expansion. They probably did so to gather and save their strength for a massive attack on Wessex, which they surely would have known they would need to defeat a recognized war hero like Alfred. Eventually, they did attack. Alfred suffered a major blow after a surprise attack in January 878.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dictates:

…most of the people they [the Danes] killed, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way by wood and swamp, and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe.

From there, Alfred is known to have forged a massive resistance movement.

Alfred is often depicted, ever since his death, as a victorious hero valiantly moving forward. This is likely symbolic of his victory at Edington after being viciously defeated beforehand. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images).

Alfred is often depicted, ever since his death, as a victorious hero valiantly moving forward. This is likely symbolic of his victory at Edington after being viciously defeated beforehand. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images).

Alfred would rise from the marshes of Somerset to defeat the Danes with a major victory at the Battle of Edington in May 878. According to Alfred’s biographer, Bishop Asser:

‘Alfred attacked the whole pagan army fighting ferociously in dense order, and by divine will eventually won the victory, made great slaughter among them, and pursued them to their fortress (Chippenham) … After fourteen days the pagans (Danes) were brought to the extreme depths of despair by hunger, cold and fear, and they sought peace.’

This contemporary source is extremely important because it ends up providing some credibility of Alfred’s greatest ‘legendary’ traits, which were his brilliance as a warrior, and his ability to stem peace from chaos. Alfred knew that he was unable to drive the Danes from the rest of the land. Instead, he made peace with them in the Treaty of Wedmore. Guthrum, King of the Danes was converted to Christianity. Alfred, a devout Christian, even stood as his godfather.

Alfred then negotiated a partition treaty and a frontier was designed, allowing northern and eastern England to remain under the jurisdiction of the Danes, where most had settled as farmers.

This became known as ‘Danelaw.’

A map of the territories clearly outlined by the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.

A map of the territories clearly outlined by the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.

King Alfred and His Ambitious Vision For a Secure Kingdom

  1. Burghal System
  2. Taxation
  3. A Navy

Although all seemed to be falling into place, Wessex was still very much under threat from the Danes. Alfred used the time of peace following Edington as an opportunity to completely reconstruct his kingdom’s military defense system. He believed that defense and prosperity were interdependent, and so he took on this ambitious project with this philosophy as one of it’s foundations.

The inspiration for his ideas may have come to him on a visit to Rome. According to Richard Abels in Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (1998), Alfred studied how the Carolingian kings dealt with Viking invasions. By learning from their experiences, he was able to design a system of taxation and defense for Wessex. Another influence could have been a system of fortifications that had been built in pre-Viking Mercia.

  • The Burghal System

Alfred designed a network of burhs (later called boroughs) which became known as the Burghal system. These were fortifications that were distributed strategically throughout Wessex. Each one was nineteen miles away from the other, enabling the reorganized military to confront any attack within the kingdom in a single day. The Burghal system was revolutionary because of it’s strategy and how it was supported through taxes.

A Map of the Burhs of the Burghai System. Image based on information 'The Defence of Wessex' by Hill and Rumble. Image by Hel-hama.

A Map of the Burhs of the Burghal System. Image based on information ‘The Defence of Wessex’ by Hill and Rumble. Image by Hel-hama.

An example of what one of Alfred's newly designed burhs would have looked like.

An example of what one of Alfred’s newly designed burhs would have looked like.

  • Administration and Taxation

The people of Anglo-Saxon England had to pay a heavy tax for reform based on their landholding for the “common burdens” of the military, the Burghal system, and bridge repair. According to Ryan Lavelle in Alfred’s Wars Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age (2010), the original term for this threefold tax was called trinoda neccessitas. The Old English term for a fine due (if you didn’t pay this tax) was called fyrdwitee.

  • English Navy

In 897, Alfred designed and ordered the construction of a small fleet. This was not the very first English fleet since we have records of a royal fleet long before the reign of Alfred. This was also not the birth of the Royal Navy, which truly flourished during the sixteenth century. This small fleet was, however, to become the first English navy to combat Viking longships.

The entire thought process behind this was that Viking ships should be intercepted before they could reach the coast. This way, Alfred’s navy could spare their kingdom from being ravaged like the other kingdoms had recently been by the invaders, most of whom had come by sea.

And so, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle regarded 897 as a very important development in the naval forces of the kingdom. The chronicler wrote:

…King Alfred gave orders for building long ships against the esks, which were full-nigh twice as long as the others. Some had sixty oars, some more; and they were both swifter and steadier, and also higher than the others. They were not shaped either after the Frisian or the Danish model, but so as he himself thought that they might be most serviceable.

These were perhaps some of the earliest battleships in England. The chronicler is extremely fond of them, clearly pointing out that they were ‘swifter and steadier’ than Danish or Frisian ships. Not to mention, they are also described as rising higher above the seas than the others. With a hero like Alfred on the throne, where better a direction to make an enemy face than up?


And yes, these ships did rise higher, because Alfred’s designs were based off of Greek and Roman warships with high sides good for fighting, instead of for navigating. However, according to Richard Abels (pp. 305–307), these early English battleships were brilliant in conception, but in practice they turned out to be too large to maneuver well in the waters they were used in, such as rivers, where any naval battles would have likely occurred.

Overall Conclusion

The actions for taken by Alfred were indeed ambitious, but this is extremely dependent on the important factor of trust. Political instability was extremely huge at this time. Several kingdoms surrounding Wessex had completely fallen to invaders in just a short period of overall Anglo-Saxon history. Alfred was one man, just like any other sovereign of those realms. So, in order for this to work, Alfred would have seriously needed to have been trusted by his people. Not that they had a choice in paying taxes (because they would be fined if they didn’t), but it looks like they did because they trusted the proposed system. And even though the nobility is reported to have been iffy about spending their money on what the king considered a ‘common good for the people’ that the court should help provide, no mass protests were demonstrated, and nobody migrated to the Danelaw over the border of Wessex. Alfred’s people had sworn him allegiance, and by doing so, they gave the king who rose from the marshes after a defeat their whole trust to protect them.

An 887 penny forged during the reign of Alfred. It reads "Ælfred Rex." Rex is Latin for 'King' and is still used when referencing a king (or 'Regina' for queen) on English currency. A British monarch still signs their name with "R" after their name for either Rex or Regina. © National Portrait Gallery, London

An 887 penny forged during the reign of Alfred. It reads “Ælfred Rex.” Rex is Latin for ‘King’ and is still used when referencing a king (or ‘Regina’ for queen) on English currency. A British monarch still signs their name with “R” after their name for either Rex or Regina. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Alfred’s success is greatly measured by the way he valiantly carried himself with dignity, completely unwilling to accept defeat, yet absolutely willing to compromise. Perhaps at the end of the day, he simply asked his subjects to do just that. For many, given the fact that the taxes were paid and the burhs and the ships were completed, a compromise was the greatest way to give hearty ‘thanks’ to the hero of their home. And sure enough, when Viking raids returned in 892, Alfred and the Kingdom of Wessex were extremely prepared.