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.”

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.

Alfred the Great (849-899)

Alfred the Great (849-899) was the fifth son of Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. By the time of his death, he had become the dominant ruler in England after defending his kingdom against a major Viking attempt at conquest.

Statue of Alfred the Great, Wantage, Oxfordshire, England.

Statue of Alfred the Great, Wantage, Oxfordshire, England.

Alfred was born in Wantage in 849 and died in 899. Upon the death of his father, Aethelwulf, Alfred’s elder brothers first succeed their father in order of birth. This was Aethelwulf’s way of making sure the seat of power didn’t pass to someone who was too young to reign, amidst a very unstable time. Unstable it certainly was, as the Kingdom of Wessex was under the threat of Viking raids by the Danes.

Based on Stenton 'Anglo-Saxon England.' An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England' p40-1.

Based on Stenton ‘Anglo-Saxon England.’ An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England’ p40-1.

A map of Wessex and Danelaw, 870.

A map of Wessex and Danelaw, 870.

By 870, all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had fallen to the Vikings. The Vikings eventually established a territory that we refer to as ‘Danelaw.‘ Wessex alone was still standing, unconquered. As anticipated by Alfred and his older brother, King Aethelred, by the end of that very year, Wessex was under attack. Alfred and King Aethelred commanded the kingdom’s forces themselves. The following year, 871, has been historically described as “Alfred’s year of battles.” Nine recorded battles were fought with varying outcomes.

Alfred became king upon the death of his brother on April 23, 871. The raids ensued. The Danes were on a mission to take over the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom standing, and despite all odds, Alfred was on a mission to defend it and ward them off. While Alfred was preoccupied with burial ceremonies for his brother, the Vikings took a vicious victory at Wilton that May. This defeat smashed Alfred’s hope to drive the Danes from his kingdom. Instead, he was forced to make peace, the terms of which are unknown. According to Richard Abels in Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, the result was that the Danes were probably paid cash to vacate the realm, much as the neighboring Mercians would do the following year. Still, this major loss at Wilton left Alfred in retreat for several years, and thanks to his likely peace treaty, the Danes occupied other parts of England for the next five years.

In 876, the Danes had a new leader, Guthrum, who intended to finish what his predecessor started. The Danes slipped past the English army and took control of Wareham in Dorset. Alfred tried to blockade them, but the battle was true to be a loss. According to the ancient Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he negotiated peace by exchanging hostages and oaths. The Danes swore on a “holy ring” associated with the worship of Thor. The Danes, however, broke their word. They killed their hostages and escaped to Devon in the middle of the night. Alfred blockaded them and they were forced to submit.

Plaque on the site of Chippenham today, where a museum is located. Visit their website at http://www.chippenham.gov.uk/museum.

Plaque on the site of Chippenham today, where a museum is located. Visit their website at http://www.chippenham.gov.uk/museum.

However, in January 878, the Danes made a surprise attack on a royal stronghold called Chippenham. Alfred had been staying there over Christmas. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dictates that “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.

A popular legend originating in the 12th century states that Alfred took refuge in the home of a peasant woman who did not recognize him. She asked him to watch her cakes on the fire while she stepped out, but he let them burn as he was preoccupied with the struggles of his kingdom. Many paintings and sketches depict him getting scolded by the peasant.

A popular legend originating in the 12th century states that Alfred took refuge in the home of a peasant woman who did not recognize him. She asked him to watch her cakes on the fire while she stepped out, but he let them burn as he was preoccupied with the struggles of his kingdom. Many paintings and sketches depict him getting scolded by the peasant.

Around May 878, Alfred rode to Egbert’s Stone, where people of three neighboring provinces gathered to rejoice at his sight as he emerged from the hidden marshland stronghold he had been living in. Much like a hero right out of a Lord of the Rings novel, he rode in on a horse to visit people who viewed him as a symbol of hope, even though his survival after the January attack was likely debated.

King Alfred's Tower (1772) on the supposed site of Egbert's Stone, the mustering place before the Battle of Edington.

King Alfred’s Tower (1772) on the supposed site of Egbert’s Stone, the mustering place before the Battle of Edington.

Alfred’s emergence was part of a careful plan to unite the fyrds of three different shires. A fyrd was an army mobilized from freemen to defend their shire during a royal expedition. All of them swore their allegiance to him.

Somewhere between the 6th  and 12th of May 878, Alfred and his kingdom took a major victory at the Battle of Edington. According to Asser, a Welsh monk alive during the time of Alfred, described in his Life of King Alfred: “Fighting ferociously, forming a dense shield-wall against the whole army of the Pagans [the Danes/Vikings], and striving long and bravely…at last he [Alfred] gained the victory. He overthrew the Pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress [i.e., Chippenham].”

Following Alfred’s 878 victory, the Danes took refuge in Chippenham, and the West Saxons removed all the food that their enemies might take from the area. Starving, the Danes begged for peace, and Alfred was given hostages and the oath that they would leave his kingdom immediately. Unlike the last treaty Alfred made with them (which they broke), they had been completely defeated this time, and were less likely to abandon their word.

Following his victory in defending England against “the Great Heathen Army” (as described by The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) and after signing the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum after another less-vicious confrontation in 884Alfred still had to fight off several other minor independent Viking raids, but he maintained his victorious status. He became the most powerful king in England at that time, and even had Guthrum (now king of East Anglia, ruled by his fellow vikings) convert to Christianity, which shows the major shift in power. He built up the defences of Wessex to ensure the Danes wouldn’t threaten it again. He reorganized his army and built extremely well defended settlements throughout southern England. He also established a navy to ward off the independent Viking raids that ensued across the coast.

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.

Alfred advocated for justice and order and established a code of laws and reformed coinage. He also established many schools because of his belief that education was of the upmost importance (he himself even learned Latin in his late thirties). He arranged and even helped with the translation of books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon, or as we call it today, “Old English.”

A Family Tree showing the descent of St. Edward the Confessor from Alfred the Great. Courtesy of Her Majesty, The Queen and www.royal.co.uk.

A Family Tree showing the descent of St. Edward the Confessor from Alfred the Great. Courtesy of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and http://www.royal.co.uk.

By the time of his death in 899, Alfred’s charters and coinage were referring to him as ‘king of the English.’

Richard III (with his legendary twisted spine and all) was discovered underneath a modern-day parking lot in 2012, making global headlines. Richard III and Alfred the Great's bodies were buried in Catholic churches, which were dissolved and ruined following Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century after he broke with Rome in order to divorce his wife.

Richard III (with his legendary twisted spine and all) was discovered underneath a modern-day parking lot in 2012, making global headlines. Richard III and Alfred the Great’s bodies were buried in Catholic churches, which were dissolved and ruined following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century after he broke with Rome in order to divorce his wife.

He was buried at his capital, Winchester, and following the successful discovery of the body of Richard III, a search for his body is now under way.