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.”

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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

EDWARD THE CONFESSOR
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:

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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.

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?

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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.

Debating the Barbarity of Norman Society (1066)

It can be argued that the Normans were barbaric by examining various accounts of their actions. According to scholars, they invaded foreign lands simply because they needed more land. With that information alone, one could easily assume that they lead a very primitive and barbaric culture. However, when looking further into the issue, the reasons why they needed more land can lead to a less barbaric view of their ways. The Normans were a society in search of wealth. They ventured into foreign lands and were great at taking control over weaker people and there is no doubt that their advanced military spread over a great portion of Europe. Still, despite the fact that they were willing to conquer to achieve better standards of life, they did not do it at the actual expense of life.

Several contrasting sources would claim it to be a very organized culture and all agree that it was very militaristic and mobilized for war. According to William of Jumièges in his “Gesta Normannorum Ducum,” the English King Edward died in 1065 without heir, and the kingdom was left to Duke William of Normandy (who later would become William the Conquerer).[1] However, Harold, “the greatest of all earls in his realm in wealth, honour [sic] and power,” who had sworn fealty to William as the rightful successor, seized England as his own immediately. According to the document, which is very undoubtedly pro-Norman, Harold not only ignored the duke’s requests to abandon his plans, but he turned the English against him.

Harold Godwinson depicted on the Bayeaux Tapestry.

Harold Godwinson depicted on the Bayeaux Tapestry.

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

William, Duke of Normandy. Later ‘William the Conquerer.’

This document later highlights the strength of the Normans. When the duke observed how quickly Harold grew support from the English, “he had a fleet of up to 3000 ships hastily put together and anchored at Saint-Valéry in Ponthieu, full of vigorous horses and very strong [and armed] men” (115). Sailing from the north of France, once the Normans arrived in the southern part of England, they charged forward towards Hastings. Harold’s army met them there, and thus the ‘Battle of Hastings’ occurred, in which Harold was slain and William took his place as the rightful king of England, becoming known to history as William the Conquerer. William is described as “…a very fortunate war-leader, supported by an excellent council…” (117) and the English accepted him as the rightful king, even if they were unhappy to lose Harold (who had just victoriously returned to London from a successful battle against the Norwegians).

William commanding his troops at Hastings.

William (left, saluting his soldiers) commanding his forces at Hastings.

This document highly glorifies William and the Normans, but even without the exquisite descriptions with fancy words describing how valiant and occasionally how the results were God’s will, it is still unfair to suggest that they were a barbaric people. By this evidence, it can be assured that they were definitely people that held true to rules and regulations. William and Edward had agreed that William would succeed him as king. Based on this text alone, it can be argued that William was mostly furious that Harold disregarded an organized plan and a promise that did not even greatly concern him, and it seems like he was reacting to a large bit of disrespect and treason.

Historians discover the possible site of the Battle of Hastings.

William of Poitiers in his “Deeds of Duke William” explains the very same story. According to van Houts, William was formerly a chaplain of William the Conquerer (118). He based his writings between 1071-1077 on the eyewitness accounts of others since he was not present during the invasion of England in 1066 (118). Here, Harold is depicted as a “…mad Englishman…[who] could not endure to wait the decision of a public election… [and] on the tragic day when that best of all men was buried, while all the people were in mourning, he violated his oath and seized the royal throne…with the connivance of a few wicked men” (118). Duke William is then depicted as a valiant soldier, determined to take what was rightfully his by inheritance.

The wickedness of Harold’s actions, as written by William of Poitiers, agrees with William of Jumièges in that the Normans were insulted by the fact that they were cheated of what was rightfully theirs. Despite any language that William of Poitiers may use to glorify William the Conquerer, the bottom line is that the Norman militaristic response cannot be justified as an act of ‘Barbaric’ nature over their English conquest. It was never intended to be a conquest. It was the result of an Englishman who provoked it to become one, and this act of cheat and betrayal would not be tolerated today any less than it was then.

England, 1066.

England, 1066.

England, 1087.

England, 1087.

Other accounts of the Normans during their period of European conquests suggest that they were not barbaric at all. In fact, they often integrated into the cultures that they dominated. For example, the Tower of London is a fine example of Norman architecture built during the time of William himself, which is still in use today. Countless Norman structures exemplifying their great sense of art in architecture still stand today throughout England and Europe, leaving a lasting impression of their assimilation to the places they conquered. These castles that we still marvel at symbolize that they were there to stay, not there to rule from afar.

800px-Tower_of_London_viewed_from_the_River_Thames

Construction for the Tower of London began in 1066 as part of the conquest. It is one of the finest surviving examples of Norman architecture that we have today. Photo Credit: Bob Collowan/Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0.

The “Deeds of Count Roger and his brother Duke Robert” by Geoffrey Malaterra (c. 1090) suggests that the invasion of Southern Italy was not a quest for power or the spread of a massive empire, but to make sure that people had enough land (238). It is written that in the province of Normandy in the village of Hauteville, the sons of Tancred (the hereditary ruler) felt that their neighborhood was too small to be divided amongst them and their heirs. To prevent any kind of arguments, they left their homeland to seek fortune through arms elsewhere, and this is why they discovered the Italian province of Apulia (239). This document states that Normans were peace-seekers and used their militaristic skills to eliminate feuds between the princes of Cadua and Salerno once they arrived. According to William of Apulia years later after winning control of the southern part of Italy, in his “Poem on the Deeds of Robert Guiscard,” Norman people returned to their native land where they actually “encourage[d] their relatives to come with them to Italy” (236).

Geoffrey Malaterra stresses that the fertility of the land attracted the Normans. Elisabeth van Houts supports this, stating “…[The] fertility of Campania, the area on the Mediterranean coast around Naples, with its vineyards, fruit, trees, springs, and plains, was an important aspect of the Normans’ wish to settle permanently” (225). It is also mentioned that intermarriage was used as a way of assimilating into the culture, and this was done through the working class as well as the aristocracy. In this instance, the pursuit of wealth and prosperity of the Normans was apparently the main goal of Norman conquests. Van Houts, citing Norman historian Graham Loud, also writes that “…[land] is not mentioned in any of the early sources and is therefore unlikely to have been the Normans’ main motivation” (225). After all, Italy would be much better for agriculture than the colder parts of Northern Europe. Therefore, it is unfair to suggest that the Normans were a vicious, power-hungry people if they conquered a land and then actually settled in it permanently. This adaptation was done over a period of decades and is unlike the barbaric characteristics of Norman society that have been exaggerated over the course of many centuries, and any initial violence caused by the conquest was rapidly superseded by intermarriage and assimilation.

And on top of the need for land, which in fact was not the main motivation for these migrations, one of the original reasons the Normans came to Italy was for religious purposes (224). Religious motivations sent them from their homelands as pilgrims (224). This claim is supported by “Poems on the deeds of Robert Guiscard” by William of Apulia, “Deeds of Count Roger and his brother Duke Robert” by Geoffrey Malterra, and “History of the Normans” by Amatus of Montecassino (235, 238, 241). According to van Houts, pilgrims were originally the force behind the first moves. It was a nonviolent invasion of sorts, or at least more diplomatic than we imagine in modern minds (225). They were cultured and sophisticated. Also according to van Houts’ description of Norman pilgrimages, as a leading expert on the subject, she describes that they integrated with societies south of their homeland and were willing to and did accept Christianity. It could be seen as a way of infiltrating society to maintain their presence (225). Once it became part of their norm after intermarrying with the elite, the Normans began to make their profound presence known with their massive, awe-inspiring cathedrals, which were not limited to just Italy. Many of them are still even used today.

And so, overall, the Normans can be summarized as a society that were sophisticated, educated, highly militarized and willing and open to compromise, and one with a great respect for elders and ancestry (239). If a single invasion truly were ruthless, it would have been for a fair and protective reason. This was a society that was smart and educated and made moves that would ultimately help its people, leaving no one behind. The invasions to Italy best help to summarize this and, when examined carefully, show a society that has been victimized by centuries of the Middle Ages being considered an era of darkness, brutality, torture, and sheer uncivilized chaos.


[1] According to Elisabeth van Houts, Orderic Vitalis updated the document text in 1115 in order to add information that would have been common knowledge during the time of William of Jumièges. Pro-Norman sentiments were distinctly toned down.

Æthelstan, The First King of England (c.893-939)

Æthelstan was the King of Wessex who would become the first to style himself as ‘King of the English.’ He was the son of Edward the Elder and the grandson of Alfred the Great.

Athelstan, c.895-939. Illuminated manuscript from Bede's Life of St Cuthbert, c.930. Originally from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287.

Athelstan, c.895-939. Illuminated manuscript from Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, c.930. Originally from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287.

There’s just no other way to say it. Æthelstan was Disney prince material. Chronicler William of Malmesbury described the king as handsome, slim, and blond. He was also extremely educated and personally brave. It’s written that he “won by the sword’s edge undying glory in battle.” In other words, if we didn’t have proof of his existence, he would be as legendary as King Arthur.

Æthelstan, King of Wessex

Æthelstan was born in Wessex in either 893 or 895. When his father, Edward the Elder died in battle in 924, the Mercians accepted him as king. It is widely believed that he had an older half-brother, Ælfweard who became King of Wessex after the death of Edward the Elder, but he died within only a few weeks of Edward. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dictates that the two were even buried together at Winchester. Manuscript D of the Chronicle states that Ælfweard outlived his father by only 16 days. It is unknown whether or not he was actually assassinated. Either way, chronicler William of Malmesbury related that Æthelstan succeeded Edward immediately as part of the terms of Alfred the Great’s will (since lost).

Æthelstan centralized government and increased and maintained control over the production of charters. He also might be one of the first kings, if not the first, to basically invent ‘state visits,’ as he invited rulers from foreign areas to attend his councils, particularly the neighboring Welsh kings. Historian Thomas Charles-Edwards writes that the most dominant figure in Wales at this time was Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, who is described as “the firmest ally of the ‘emperors of britain’ among all the kings of his day.” The Welsh kings attended Æthelstan’s councils which created a strong alliance between England and Wales. Also by attending these councils, the Welsh acknowledged Æthelstan’s overlordship (an overlord is a person who has authority over other people in power; in this case, a lord who has power over other lords. The Welsh kings therefore were sub-kings of the English sovereign).

A large-scale map of Britain (up to Edinburgh) in the reign of King Æthelstan (924-39), showing settlements, bishoprics, and known mints, with lots of historical notes in the margins. Map drawn by Reginald Piggott for Simon Keynes.

A large-scale map of Britain (up to Edinburgh) in the reign of King Æthelstan (924-39), showing settlements, bishoprics, and known mints, with lots of historical notes in the margins. Map drawn by Reginald Piggott for Simon Keynes.

Æthelstan, King of the Anglo-Saxons

Unlike the Welsh, the Scots and the Vikings were resistant to accept him as a supreme ruler of the British Isles. In 927 AD, Æthelstan invaded and reconquered the last remaining Viking kingdom, York. This victory is what officially made him the first Anglo-Saxon ruler of England, and from 927 until his death, he was styled as King of the English.

Once he had gained control of York, the king was persistent in trying to persuade them to acknowledge him as the supreme ruler of all Britain. Instead of force the Archbishop of York (the most important lieutenant in the region) to submit to him, Æthelstan purchased a major territory in Lancashire and gave it to him. He showered ministers in York in gifts. Still, despite southern England swearing allegiance to him without question, and despite his peaceful-like tactics, he was still resented in the North, and the northern British kingdoms allied elsewhere, in one instance with the pagan Norse of Dublin.

Anxious for the Scots to accept his rule and accompanied by four Welsh kings, Æthelstan invaded Scotland in 934 and forced King Constantine to submit to him. Several factors made Æthelstan extremely comfortable with this invasion. Firstly, his half-brother Edwin died in 933, removing any insecurities that his people in Wessex might have against his rightful claim to the throne (which by now he’d held for ten years). Furthermore, the Norse king of Dublin, Guthfrith (who briefly ruled Northumbria in Northern Britain) died in 934. Guthfrith’s death created an insecurity among the Danes which gave Æthelstan a flawless opportunity to make his claim over the North. Two sources briefly explain this invasion. The Annals of Clonmacnoise (a 17th century translation of a lost Irish chronicle covering events in ireland from pre-history to 1408 AD) explains that Constantine and Æthelstan were disputing over who rightfully should claim the territory that Guthfrith left behind. The Chronicle briefly explained the expedition without an explanation but a twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester stated that Constantine had broken a former treaty with Æthelstan.

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A modern sketch of Æthelstan.

Whatever the reason, filled with resentment, the Scots and Vikings retaliated by invading England. They were defeated at the Battle of Brunanburh, a victory that gave Æthelstan a major prestigious status across continental Europe.

The Battle of Brunanburh

The Battle of Brunanburh was fought against a combined army of Scots, Vikings, and Britons. The battle has been deemed “the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before the Battle of Hastings” by historian Alfred Smyth. Another historian, Michael Livingston claims that Brunanburh marked the moment when Englishness came of age. The site of the battle is unknown but it is well recorded in dozens of sources in Old English, Irish, Welsh, Middle English, Latin, and more. The Battle of Brunanburh is also a poem recorded in the Chronicle.

Never, before this,

were more men in this island slain

by the sword’s edge–as books and aged sages

confirm–since Angles and Saxons sailed here

from the east, sought the Britons over the wide seas,

since those warsmiths hammered the Welsh,

and earls, eager for glory, overran the land.

The poem also describes the deaths of five kings and seven earls among Æthelstan’s enemies, among them Constantine’s son:

Five lay still

on that battlefield – young kings

by swords put to sleep – and seven also

of Anlaf’s earls, countless of the army,

of sailors and Scotsmen. There was put to flight

the Northmen’s chief, driven by need

to the ship’s prow with a little band.

He shoved the ship to sea. The king disappeared

on the dark flood. His own life he saved.

So there also the old one came in flight

to his home in the north; Constantine,

that hoary-haired warrior, had no cause to exult

at the meeting of swords: he was shorn of his kin,

deprived of his friends on the field,

bereft in the fray, and his son behind

on the place of slaughter, with wounds ground to pieces,

too young in battle.

Æthelstan’s defeat of the Norse-Celtic army confirmed England as a fully unified kingdom. He was now officially the first King of the English.

Æthelstan, King of the English

Fortunately, we have many texts and manuscripts surviving from his reign, more than any other king prior to the 1000’s. As a religious leader, Æthelstan was famous for collecting relics and founding churches across England. He was extremely intelligent especially in the areas of foreign relations, and even had some of his sisters married off to other rules of Europe at the time. This offered him a great deal of protection and greatly supported his throne.

Æthelstan can be seen in many stained glass windows in churches across Europe because of his support for learning and his support for the church. He was one of the most religious Anglo-Saxon kings.

Æthelstan can be seen in many stained glass windows in churches across Europe because of his support for learning and his support for the church. He was one of the most religious Anglo-Saxon kings.

King Æthelstan built on his grandfather’s efforts to rebuilt, support, and maintain ecclesiastical scholarship. He was praised in his day for his piety and encouragement for learning. His reputation as a collector of books and relics attracted very intelligent educators to his court and he also aided Breton ministers who fled Brittany (in France) following it’s Viking conquest in 919. He sent to those clerics from Brittany, now exiled in Central France, some of his relics of Breton saints. This resulted in a major foreign interest in England for commemorating Breton saints.

Æthelstan took many grand and extravagant titles as the first King of England. Coins and charters of his time describe him as Rex totius Britanniae, King of the Whole of Britain. Charters from 931 on record him as ‘King of the English.’ Many historians regard him as a bit pretentious. For example, historian Sarah Foot writes in Æthelstan: the first king of England (pp. 212–213) that he was styled in one manuscript dedication as basileus et curagulus, the titles of Byzantine emperors. His titles reflect something very important: his status. Greatness was not something he solely saw in himself. It was recognized everywhere. Continental rulers saw him as a Carolingian emperor, and historian Veronica Ortenberg further argues that he was clearly treated as the new Charlemagne, writing:

Wessex kings carried an aura of power and success, which made them increasingly powerful in the 920s, while most Continental houses were in military trouble and engaged in internecine warfare. While the civil wars and the Viking attacks on the Continent had spelled the end of unity of the Carolingian empire, which had already disintegrated into separate kingdoms, military success had enabled Æthelstan to triumph at home and to attempt to go beyond the reputation of a great heroic dynasty of warrior kings, in order to develop a Carolingian ideology of kingship. (Ortenberg, The King from Overseas, pp. 211–222).

Something remarkable about Æthelstan is that he also wasn’t selfish. He was very kind and giving to other rulers, of course, if they showed him respect. Having married his sisters off to other kings, he had many young nieces and nephews around the known world. He supported them greatly in times of need. In 936, he sent an English fleet to help his foster-son, Alan II, Duke of Brittany, to regain his lands that had been conquered by the Vikings. He also assisted the son of his half-sister Eadgifu, Louis, to take the throne of West Francia. After having helped another possible foster-son, Hakon (the son of the king of Norway) to reclaim his throne, he was known by the Norwegians as ‘Æthelstan the Good.’

Stained glass window, All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. Originally obtained from Warden and Fellows of All Souls, Oxford.

Stained glass window, All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. Originally obtained from Warden and Fellows of All Souls, Oxford.

A miniature of St. Matthew in the Coronation Gospels presented by King Athelstan to Christ Church Priory. The manuscript is Carolingian in origin. British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A ii.

A miniature of St. Matthew in the Coronation Gospels presented by King Athelstan to Christ Church Priory. The manuscript is Carolingian in origin.
British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A ii.

Æthelstan died at Gloucester on October 27, 939. Although his father Edward and his grandfather, Alfred the Great had been buried at Winchester, he chose not to honor that opposed his rule. He was buried therefore at Malmesbury Abbey, where his cousins that died at Brunanburh were interred.

His bones were lost during the Dissolution of the Monestaries, but he is commemorated by an empty fifteenth-century tomb.

The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England.

The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England.

The Wessex Family Tree. Courtesy of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and www.royal.co.uk.

The Wessex Family Tree. Courtesy of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and http://www.royal.co.uk.

 

Edward the Elder (c.874-924)

Alfred the Great died in 899. He was succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder (c.874-77 – July 17, 924), as King of Wessex.

Edward the Elder.

Edward the Elder.

Edward is a very important Anglo-Saxon ruler for his success in extending his father’s victorious achievements. Alfred preferred a defensive look against threats from the Danes, whereas Edward took an aggressive approach.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that Edward struggled with realms outside of Wessex as early as 907, which was when the document states that Edward regained Chester. The fact that it’s mentioned in such a noteworthy document full of battles and important losses and victories, it’s likely that Chester was won back by Edward in battle.

Edward sent an army to antagonize Northumbria in 909, whom retaliated by attacking Mercia. Once the Northumbrians arrived there, they were met by the combined armies of Mercia and Wessex and it became known as the Battle of Tettenhall. The Northumbrian Danes were destroyed. The result of this victory is that the Danes never came further south than the River Humber.

Edward then had a number of burhs, or fortresses built to keep the Danes at bay.

Following a series of impeccable victories in 917, Edward captured Essex and the East Midlands was able to force the Vikings of East Anglia to submit to the rule of Wessex. Then, in 918, he expanded the kingdom even further by taking control of western Mercia (which was ruled by his niece, Aelfwynn) and then conquered Danish Mercia (the Five Boroughs). His aggression was vicious, his determination was clear, and his success in domination was incomparable by any of his predecessors to date.

The Five Boroughs and the English Midlands in the early 10th century. Adapted from Falkus & Gillingham and Hill.

The Five Boroughs and the English Midlands in the early 10th century. Adapted from Falkus & Gillingham and Hill.

Edward died in battle at Farndon-Upon-Dee on July 17, 924. At the time of his death, his kingdom was the most powerful in the British Isles.

He was buried in the New Minster in Winchester, which he established in 901, which eventually was replaced by Hyde Abbey to the north of the city. Edward’s body was transferred there but is now lost. His last known resting place is marked by a stone slab.

The last known resting place of Edward.

The last known resting place of Edward.

The Elder was first used in Life of St Æthelwold by the Anglo-Saxon monk, writer, composer, and scribe, Wulfstan (c.960-1000’s) to distinguish him from a later monarch, Edward the Martyr.

The Wessex Family Tree. Courtesy of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and www.royal.co.uk.

The Wessex Family Tree. Courtesy of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and http://www.royal.co.uk.

The Danelaw

The Danelaw was the term used to describe Scandinavian England following the Viking conquests by the Danes. The term ‘Danelaw’ itself comes from an early eleventh century description, Dena lage, which has been modernized. Historically, people have defined it many different ways. The way I understand it personally agrees most with historian Gwyn Jones in A History of the Vikings, (1968: 421):

The Danelaw was by name and definition that part of England in which Danish, not English, law and custom prevailed. It comprised the Danish conquests and settlements in Northumbria, East Anglia, the Five Boroughs of Stamford, Leicester, Derby, Nottingham, and Lincoln, and the south-east Midlands.

Historian Cyril Hart’s definition compliments the one that Jones gives us. In his work, The Danelaw (1992: 3) he describes the Danelaw as:

…those parts of England in which the customary law observed in the shire … and in the smaller units of local administration exhibited a strong individuality, arising from the Danish influences which prevailed there.

A map of Wessex and Danelaw, 870.

A map of Wessex and Danelaw, 870.

All in all, historians generally agree that once the Danes had conquered the listed regions of England and settled, they assimilated by re-creating their own Danish culture in their newly won land, which was ruled by Guthrum during the time of Alfred the Great.