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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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.

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.

Adventus Saxonum: A Brief Look at the Birth of England

Believe it or not, London wasn’t built in a day. If you ever visit, you’ll occasionally notice some ancient ruined walls around the perimeter of the central city. This is because London was once part of the Roman Empire and it was called ‘Londinium,’ in case you ever wondered where the name ‘London’ came from.

Statue of Trajan in front of a section of the Roman wall, Tower Hill.

Statue of Trajan in front of a section of the Roman wall, Tower Hill.

Emperor Claudius declared the island of modern-day Britain part of the Roman Empire in 43 A.D. and introduced theaters and paved streets. It is roughly estimated that Londinium had a population of over 30,000 people. Historians argue over the general population of the British Isles at that time, but it is estimated to have been between one and four million.

However, politics in Britain were weak. The Romans were more focused on their southern and eastern territories, and the Roman occupation of Britain was not even for civilians, it was primarily for military. As Roman soldiers faced constant battles against numerous barbaric tribes, on top of an economic collapse, the British cause was deemed (for lack of a better description) “not worth it.” Roman soldiers of Britain were ordered to return to Rome by Emperor Honorious in either 409 or 410 A.D. The natives of Britain, the Britons, were told they were on their own and that they needed to defend themselves from the now vicious invaders.

When the Romans withdrew from Londinium in 410, it left the land open to invasion from barbaric tribes that the Romans had been too busy to ward off. Ultimately, several Germanic warrior-like groups primarily invaded and settled around the Eastern parts of the country, such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who had started their invasions and settlements long before Roman withdrawal.

This, the Adventus Saxonum, was the beginning of England.

That is the Latin term used to describe the invasions of England by Germanic peoples, first used by Gildas in ca. 540 A.D. People from the North desperately needed new land. Continental Europe had become far too populated and the region experienced an ongoing series of marine transgressions, which caused floods that left layers of clay all over their land, causing heavy blows to their already-scarce crops and making the land inhabitable between 350-700 A.D. As a result, people left their homes, and emigrated elsewhere.

Statue of Gildas near the village of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys (France).

Statue of Gildas near the village of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys (France).

Gildas (500-570), a native Briton and a British cleric, authored De Exicidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which gives us some of the only narratives of the post-Roman history of Britain. This work is the only substantial source of information of this period written by a near-contemporary. He gives us an overview of Roman occupation from its conquest under the principate to the then-present era. He describes the “Groans of the Britons,” in which the native Britons make one last request for aide against the now-dominating invaders from the evacuated Roman military.

Detail from Lambeth Palace Library MS 6 folio 43v illustrating an episode in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae in which Vortigern meets the young Merlin, who explains that an underground fight between red and white dragons is causing Vortigern's fortress to collapse.

Detail from Lambeth Palace Library MS 6 folio 43v illustrating an episode in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae in which Vortigern meets the young Merlin, who explains that an underground fight between red and white dragons is causing Vortigern’s fortress to collapse.

Tradition tells us that the Saxons (as well as other tribes) first entered Britain in large quantities as part of a deal to protect the native Britons from the Picts, Gaels, and other tribes that were deemed dangerous to the Britons’ post-Roman society at the time. This deal is depicted in the Historia Brittonium, as well as De Exicidio et Conquesto Britanniae, in which the British King Vortigern allowed Germanic warlords to settle their people in exchange for their services as mercenaries. Vortigern was convinced to offer them more land, thus resulting in the beginning of a mass Germanic settlement in Britain.

Europe by the end of the 5th Century.

Europe by the end of the 5th Century.

Although he never mentions who led the Britons into battle, Gildas then mentions the victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus, a victory attributed to King Arthur in later sources.

It is said that the Saxons were slaughtered at the battle of Mons Badonicus, and Britain reverted to Romano-British rule. The 8th-century English historian Bede argues instead that the Saxon invasions continued after the battle of Mons Badonicus, along with invasions from the Jutes and the Angles, which resulted in a complete change of leadership in the entire Southeastern part of Britain. Ultimately, the Angles and the Saxons that had already settled would merge and form Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Four separate Saxon realms emerged: Essex, Middlesex, Sussex, and Wessex.

anglo-saxon_kingdoms

The Kings of Wessex would be the ones to eventually unite the country into the eventual Kingdom of England. Alfred the Great (849-899) became King of Wessex in 871 and remains famous for defending his kingdom against Viking attempts at conquests, which made him the dominant ruler out of all the other kingdoms. Following his victories, especially against the Danes (or ‘heathens’ as they became known), he became the first King of the West Saxons to style himself as King of the Anglo-Saxons. This would be the norm until 1066.

Statue of Alfred the Great in Wantage, England.

Statue of Alfred the Great in Wantage, England.

According to historians Peter Hunter Blair and Simon Keynes in An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, nothing suggests that there was a larger presence of Angles than there were Saxons. However in Medieval English, people referred to themselves as ‘Engles,’ and in Latin it was ‘Angli.’ The name Englaland eventually became England and was used regularly by the 11th century.