In the previous article, From Charlemagne to Egbert and Wessex, we looked at the real Ecbert and some history of Wessex. I used representations and comparisons from Michael Hirst’s Vikings Saga. In this article, I will continue with that and in addition, I will add some comparison to the upcoming BBCA Last Kingdom series based on Bernard Cornwell’s books about that time period. I hope this will gives fans a bit more real history on how Alfred actually came to inherit the crown of Wessex.
Viewers and fans of the Vikings Saga by Michael Hirst are waiting to see what the fate of Ecbert, Aethelwulf, and little Alfred will be in Hirst’s version of history. Hopefully there will be some answers or resolution in the upcoming season. Right now, we are left with the puzzle of how Hirst will weave facts into his ongoing story of the Vikings. He has promised us and made assurances that baby Alfred is indeed based on the Alfred the Great of history and will eventually be King of Wessex. He has also made reference to a future in which the sons of Ragnar will grow up and become those well known warriors involved in the Great Heathen conquests of the Kingdoms of Britain, fighting against Alfred.
Fans and potential viewers of the upcoming Last Kingdom are aware of history from Uhtred’s personal point of view after Alfred has succeeded to the throne of Wessex and becomes embroiled in the fight to save Wessex from the Heathen Armies of Northmen. Cornwell does an excellent job of presenting the history from Uhtred’s perspective and of providing a look at the events taking place after Alfred inherited the Crown.
The unanswered question or puzzle remains… What happened in between those times? How did Wessex go from Egbert’s dream or fantasy of conquering it all and being that all powerful Bretwalda to being a last holdout against the Danes with a sickly young King stuck in a swamp having little hope of holding on to his own Kingdom let alone uniting all of them to defeat the Northmen, the Heathens.
We covered Egbert’s actual role in the events that led to his rise and his eventual fall in the previous article. Along with that, we also covered much of Aethelwulf’s role and history as it relates to Wessex. We do need to look a bit closer at some of Aethelwulf’s history here because it does set up the path for his younger son Alfred to come into his own as King of Wessex.
We know that Aethelwulf was the only child of Egbert and on Egbert’s death in 839, Aethelwulf inherited the throne of Wessex. his wife Osburh was the mother of all his children. She was the daughter of Oslac, described by Asser, as a man who was descended from Jutes who had ruled the Isle of Wight. Æthelwulf had six known children. His eldest son, Æthelstan, was old enough to have been appointed King of Kent in 839, so he must have been born by the early 820s, and he died in the early 850s. The second son, Æthelbald, is first recorded as a charter witness in 841, and if, like other brothers, he began to attest or witness documents when he was around six, he would have been born around 835; he was King of Wessex from 858 to 860. Æthelwulf’s third son, Æthelberht, was probably born around 839 and was king from 860 to 865. The only daughter, Æthelswith was probably born around 840 and married Burgred, King of Mercia in 853. The other two sons were much younger: Æthelred was born around 848 and was king from 865 to 871, Alfred was born around 849 and was king from 871 to 899.
aethelwulf with baby Athelred
In the interest of condensing the timeline and history, Hirst conveniently eliminated some of these children in his version of the history. In Hirst’s story, we see depictions of only the youngest two sons and a change in the Mother from Osburh to Judith (Judith’s background has been completely changed presumably to allow for some added connection between Wessex and Northumbria). Whether or not Judith will bear any more children is still unknown to viewers at this time… the only way this would play any importance in Hirst’s story depends partially on how he deals with the plaguing detail or issue of Mercia. We will see how the issue of Mercia was dealt with in the real history of Aethelwulf and his children. We also see a slightly more accurate accounting of Mercia’s fate in Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series.
ecbert showers affection on alfred and wonders about Athelstan
I understand Hirst’s rationale for leaving the other children out of the story in his effort to tighten up the storyline and focus more on a future that directly involves those two youngest brothers in the wars against the Vikings. Those other children however, are important to the history of Wessex, to how the real Alfred came to his power and how he maintained relationships and allies with such Kingdoms as Mercia.
In the previous article, we established that for the most part, Aethelwulf provided a well balanced and stable reign of Wessex from 839 until his death in 858. He had limited encounters with Viking attacks or raids and other than a few defeats, he managed to contain any real threat from them. During his reign he took measures to improve his Kingdom’s relationship and alliance with Mercia by marrying his only daughter, Aelswith to King of Mercia, Burgred in 853. He then assisted Mercia in a successful attack on Wales to restore the traditional Mercian hegemony over the Welsh. These events helped to seal the formal allegiance between Mercia and Wessex even after Mercia began to be taken over by the Danes. This alliance would become critical in later years when Alfred would be dealing with Mercia. Personally, I would like to see Hirst address this ongoing alliance in his story because it is so important to later events.
Aethelwulf provided a well balanced and stable reign for his Kingdom, and he attempted to maintain stability in his family life despite some rather difficult situations. Aethelwulf had six children by his first wife Osburh. It is not known what actually happened to Osburh… she probably died but then again, may have been set aside so Aethelwulf could make the advantageous marriage to Judith of Flanders. Which ever the case, to say that Aethelwulf’s older sons were unhappy with their Father’s second marriage is an understatement of the event! What caused much of the dissent was the fact that as part of the marriage agreement, Judith would be given the status of anointed Queen, and therefore any offspring she might produce would immediately take precedence in the succession of rule. Fortunately, Judith never had any children by Aethelwulf so that issue did not come up. By the time of his second marriage in 856, his older sons were adults and were already capable of ruling in some capacity. Oldest son, Athelstan was ruling as King of Kent up until the early 850s. He would have been the first in line for succession after Aethelwulf but unfortunately died before any of this mess started. So, one son down- four to go… the two youngest, Athelred and Alfred were children during this time and would probably not have had any expectations of ever really ruling anyway. That leaves two remaining sons to be discontented with Father’s marriage and possibly take matters into their own hands.
Athelbald was the second son, and after his brother’s death in 851, he was next in line to rule Wessex. In 855 he became regent of Wessex while his father, Æthelwulf, visited Rome. His younger brother Æthelberht became king of Kent. When the sons learned of Aethelwulf’s marriage to Judith, there was a plot or threat of rebellion against Aethelwulf. Æthelwulf returned to Wessex to face a revolt by Æthelbald, who attempted to prevent his father from recovering his throne. We need to give Aethelwulf some credit here as he went out of his way to appease Athelbald and avoid a civil war by allowing Aethelbad to continue to rule Wessex itself (or the western part of Wessex) while he took Kent and the other eastern parts of the kingdom.
In Aethelwulf’s will, he made provisions for the succession of rule. The kingdom was to be divided between the two oldest surviving sons, with Æthelbald getting Wessex and Æthelberht taking Kent and the south-east. The survivor of Æthelbald, Æthelred and Alfred was to inherit their father’s bookland – his personal property as opposed to the royal lands which went with the kingship – some historians argue that this probably means that the survivor was to inherit the throne of Wessex as well. Other historians disagree. Nelson states that the provision regarding the personal property had nothing to do with the kingship, and Kirby comments: “Such an arrangement would have led to fratricidal strife. With three older brothers, Alfred’s chances of reaching adulthood would have been minimal.” This would have immediately discounted any children of the three older brothers for succession and set a dangerous precedent for any offspring in future lines. I do not believe that Aethelwulf would have willingly set up such a precedent and have to agree that he most likely assumed it to mean that Athelred and Alfred would receive shares of his personal holdings. What is interesting to note here is that in this basic history of Aethelwulf, his reign, his trip to Rome, or his will , there was no mention of any writ or provision that may have been made for Alfred’s future accession of the crown.
Æthelwulf died on 13 January 858. He was succeeded by Æthelbald in Wessex and Æthelberht in Kent and the south-east. The prestige conferred by a Frankish marriage was so great that Æthelbald then wedded his step-mother Judith, to Asser’s retrospective horror; he described the marriage as a “great disgrace”, and “against God’s prohibition and Christian dignity”. When Æthelbald died only two years later, Æthelberht became King of Wessex as well as Kent, and Æthelwulf’s intention of dividing his kingdoms between his sons was thus set aside. In the view of Yorke and Abels this was because Æthelred and Alfred were too young to rule, and Æthelberht agreed in return that his younger brothers would inherit the whole kingdom on his death, whereas Kirby and Nelson think that Æthelberht just became the trustee for his younger brothers’ share of the bookland.
It was shortly after Aethelwulf’s death that the Danes would begin to have their impact on all of the Kingdoms including Wessex. As Aethelbald’s reign was so short and marred by the scandal of his marriage to his Father’s wife, Judith, there little is known of his reign. Only one charter survives, witnessed by king Æthelbald, king Æthelbert and Judith, suggesting that he was on good terms with his brother. Æthelbald died at Sherborne in Dorset on 20 December 860. Asser, who was hostile to Æthelbald both because of his revolt against his father and because of his uncanonical marriage, described him as “iniquitous and grasping”, and his reign as “two and a half lawless years. Asser was of course, biased in his opinion and would have considered anything done by Aethelbald as lawless. He died childless so the rule of Wessex went to his brother Aethelberht.
With the death of Aethelbald, the separate rule of Wessex and Kent was set aside. Unlike his predecessors, Æthelberht did not appoint another member of his family as under-king of Kent probably because his brothers were too young to take over that role and there were no other family members. A charter issued in the first year of Æthelberht’s reign reflects an extraordinary new kind of assembly: it was the first charter of a West Saxon king to include a full complement both of West Saxon and of Kentish witnesses. Aethelberht ruled Kent from 858 and then ruled all of Wessex from 860 until 865. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes Æthelberht’s reign as one of good harmony and lasting peace. Though this was true of internal affairs, the Vikings were becoming a great threat, unsuccessfully storming Winchester and ravaging eastern Kent. He died in 865 leaving no children.
If you look at the rule, the early deaths and the lack of offspring by any of the older sons, it’s probably easy to see why Hirst chose to eliminate them from his storyline as being unimportant to the overall story. While they may indeed seem insignificant or unimportant, they do show how Wessex suffered from some instability and lack of true leadership or guidance after Aethelwulf’s death. There was a quick succession of rulers who had little time to get a firm grasp on the events that were taking place around them. This all led directly to the turmoil and disarray that would suddenly leave Alfred in charge.
A number of other things contributed to Alfred’s unique and unexpected inheritance besides his brothers’ untimely deaths. Aethelwuth for all practical purposes had planned well for the future of Wessex but as much as he had planned, some things just did not go according to those plans. Take for instance, the marriage of his daughter to the King of Mercia… this marriage should have well sealed that alliance and put a descendant of Aethelwulf on the throne of Mercia. Unfortunately, the marriage did not result in any children. Her marriage did probably signal the subordination of Burgred to his father-in-law and the Saxon kingdom at a time when both Wessex and Mercia were suffering Danish (Viking) raids. Repeated Danish incursions over the years gradually weakened Mercia militarily and in 868 Burgred was forced to call upon Æthelswith’s brother King Æthelred of Wessex to assist him in confronting an entrenched Danish army at Nottingham. In 874, the Danes would achieve some victory in Mercia when they succeeded in driving Burgred out of the country. He fled to Rome along with wife Aethelswith. Bergred died in Rome and Aethelswith died sometime later at Pavia, Italy. If the name of Pavia sounds a bit familiar, that is because it is the same place that the earlier Queen Eadburh ended up at!
On the surface, the failure of Ealswith to produce an heir and the abandoning of his Kingdom by husband Bergred might look like part of the bad luck and worst case scenarios for Aethelwulf’s plans. In reality though, they went along with all of the other coincidental events that became part of Alfred’s miraculous fortune or seemingly blessed fate. These events left Mercia without a stable or strong King and extremely vulnerable to later Viking attacks and conquest. They also left Mercia easily open to later being taken over and controlled by Alfred. The situation with Mercia could have, and almost did go so wrong, yet somehow it ended up working in Alfred’s favor just as other events did.
As I mentioned, Aethelwulf planned well for the future and could hardly be blamed for the events that changed those plans. Earlier I mentioned Aethelwulf’s trip to Rome and the mysterious writ or document that would come to play such an important part in Alfred’s claim to the crown later. Much is made of this document as some proof that Aethelwulf was paving a way for Alfred’s ascent to the crown. In reality, why would he have done such a thing? He could not have foreseen the events that would take place in his Kingdom and had already paved the way for his older sons to inherit. Since this document did play such an important part in the future, we should look at what really happened on that trip to Rome and what that writ actually was.
In 853, Aethelwulf sent not just Alfred, but his older brother Athelred as well to Rome, probably in connection and preparation for his own forthcoming visit. So, first of all this was not some special visit set up just for young Alfred’s benefit. Later historians and biographers such as Alfred’s own monk, Asser would lessen the focus on Athelred and alter the facts to the promotion of Alfred. The reality is that both sons were sent on this early trip as emissaries of goodwill in preparation for Aethelwulf’s future trip in 855. Some historians argue that the journey suggested Alfred was intended for the Church. Others argue that the trip and a declaration by the Pope were actually intended for just the opposite purpose by Aethelwulf. By gaining the Pope’s favor and affirmation of throne worthiness for them, he was protecting both of them against the possibility of being forcibly tonsured to the Church by the older brothers.
The document was simply a letter from Pope Leo IV in which he responded to Aethelwulf’s goodwill gesture of presenting his sons to the Pope. Pope Leo IV most likely invested both boys with a belt of consul and referred to them as his spiritual sons thus creating a spiritual link or alliance between the two Fathers. Alfred, and possibly Æthelred as well, were invested with the “belt of consulship”. Æthelred’s part in the journey is only known from a contemporary record in the Liber Vitae of San Salvatore. What this term consul meant at that time was that the Pope was simply recognizing them as official Diplomats. This investiture was by no means any bestowal of anointment to Kingship. At some later point historians such as Asser would misconstrue or misrepresent the term (probably on purpose) and the letter from the Pope to mean that Alfred was being confirmed as anointed King. There is absolutely no evidence, reason, or justification for such an action by the Pope at that time nor any reason that Aethelwulf would ever have had such intent or plan in mind for his youngest son. No one could have foreseen any future that would call for such an action that would spell disaster for any Kingdom and certain death for those two youngest sons should the Pope take such a controversial and extreme step.
No one, not even the Pope could foresee a future for Wessex that would involve three adult sons- three Kings dying in quick succession with no heirs and a grown daughter married to a King also producing no heir! No one could foresee a Kingdom so wealthy and so stable, falling so quickly into disarray that it was left basically to the two youngest sons who were never expected or trained to rule the Kingdom. No one could foresee a future that included all of the other Kingdoms quickly falling to Viking conquests and leaving that last Kingdom of Wessex with it’s unprepared new rulers to fend off such a similar attack and fate. No one, certainly not Aethelwulf, the Pope or even young Alfred himself could foresee or envision a future that would require a frail and sickly last son (who would probably have preferred a quieter, more churchly life) to step forward, become the leader of his Kingdom and all of the other Kingdoms against an invading army intent on conquering all of Britain.
The trips to Rome were not special treatment or favor shown to Alfred or his brother Athelred. The trips were part of Aethelwulf’s plan to improve his own alliances with Rome and with the Frankish Empire. The youngest sons were allowed to go on these trips because they were considered expendable… the succession to the throne was already firmly set in place and if something should happen to either Aethelwulf or the boys during their trip, the throne was safe in the hands of the older brothers. Aethelwulf took the boys on his trip and there was no ulterior motive to any of it other than what may have possibly been Aethelwulf’s own plan to secure himself a second wife and a closer alliance with Francia. The boys would most likely have looked at the entire trip as a grand adventure. Athelred was born in 848 and Alfred in 849, so at the time of these trips they were very young children of no more than 6 or 7 years old. They were not destined to be rulers so would have been allowed some greater freedom from political and reigning indoctrinations… meaning they would have probably enjoyed the trip for what it was to them, not much more than a family vacation. They went on this extended vacation with their Father and returned home to Wessex with a new Step Mother who was not all that much older than them. That event also would not have been such an odd occurrence and the boys would have just went on with their lives as usual. Even their Father’s death in 858 would not have had all that great of impact on these youngest boys’ lives. Aethelwulf had made solid plans and arrangements for everyone’s futures and as the boys were so young and not considered really important to the matter of succession, once again they would probably have carried on as usual with their studies and little thought toward the future.
At the time of their trips to Rome with Aethelwulf, the boys would have been close in age to these two young boys who will portray Athelred and Alfred in season 4 of the Vikings.
The two boys who will portray Athelred and Alfred in season 4 of Vikings.
Little is known about the childhood of either Athelred or Alfred other that their trip Rome and Francia with Aethelwulf. There is mention that Alfred was sickly from the time of his childhood and it is thought that he probably suffered from Crohn’s disease. There is also some mention that he spent time in Ireland seeking cures for his ailments. As such a sickly child, he probably spent much of his time doing things that did not require a great deal of physical ability- such as reading or studying with tutors and Priests. He may not have been expected even to survive to adulthood and so less attention would have been paid to his overall training or expectations of him. He was probably left much in the care and raising of those tutors and Priests who would have assumed that should he survive to adulthood, he would naturally choose a life with the church. What other option or choice would there be for him realistically as a youngest son too frail and sickly to fight and make a name or wealth for himself on his own? His older brother Athelred was given more recognition and attention. Athelred held the title of Aetheling at least as early as 854. He first witnessed his father’s charters as an Ætheling in 854, and kept this title until he succeeded to the throne in 865. There is no evidence or mention of this title being attached to Alfred during his childhood, so one would have to assume that at that time, Alfred was deemed of far less importance than even his brother that was so close in age to him.
During the earliest years of the Anglo-Saxon rule in England, the word ætheling was probably used to denote any person of noble birth. Its use was soon restricted to members of a royal family. The prefix æþel- formed part of the name of several Anglo-Saxon kings, for instance Æthelberht of Kent, Æthelwulf of Wessex and Æthelred of Wessex, and was used to indicate their noble birth. According to a document which probably dates from the 10th century, the weregild of an ætheling was fixed at 15,000 thrymsas, or 11,250 shillings, which was equal to that of an archbishop and one-half of that of a king.
Everything began to change for Wessex and for the two youngest sons of Aethelwulf when those older brothers died in such quick succession leaving no heirs. In addition to those untimely deaths, the Danes decided to take their conquest of Northumbria further south into Mercia and were paying close attention to what was happening within Wessex. Wessex, after all was the true prize. Wessex was the wealthiest and the most stable of all the Kingdoms thanks to Egbert and to Aethelwulf. In the early 860s, the Northmen which included Norse as well as Danes began to arrive on the isle of Britain in great numbers seemingly with the sole intent of conquering it for their own. Prior to this time, there had been Viking raids or attacks throughout the Isle in limited numbers and for the most part the Kingdoms of Britain had always been able to defend themselves and keep the attacks contained. Wessex was so successful in their prior defenses that when the Heathen Army decided to strike in full force in the 860s, they chose to avoid Wessex and begin their assaults further north instead. Some might assume or suggest that this initial assault was more of a personal revenge attack designed and orchestrated by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok as a retaliation against Aelle of Northumbria for his killing of their Father.
What one needs to do though is look at the invading forces and the initial assaults for what they actually were and what they entailed or involved. This was not a simple onslaught or personal attack led by one particular family or country against one person or Kingdom. The Great Viking Army or Great Danish Army, known by the Anglo-Saxons as the Great Heathen Army was a coalition of Norse warriors, originating from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, who came together under a unified command to invade the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that constituted England in AD 865. Since the late 8th century, the Vikings had settled for mainly “hit-and-run” raids on centres of wealth, such as monasteries. However, the intent of the Great Army was different, it was much larger than the usual raiding party and its purpose was to conquer and claim land more so than just spoils or riches. This was a well planned campaign to settle, not to seek revenge or wealth and leave. These forces had no intent devour, destroy and depart, they were determined to conquer and remain.
During early campaigns, the Danes had made attempts to take Wessex and were always defeated, this would suggest that they chose instead to focus on the Northern areas first, build up their forces and conquests before again attempting to defeat the prize of Wessex. The Vikings had been defeated by the West Saxon King Æthelwulf in 851, so rather than land in Wessex they decided to go further north to East Anglia. Legend has it that the united army was led by the three sons of Ragnar Lodbrok: Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubba. Norse sagas consider the invasion by the three brothers as a response to the death of their father at the hands of Ælla of Northumbria in 865, but the historicity of this claim is uncertain.
As I mentioned, this was a well planned campaign, probably years in the making and involving a great deal of intense preparation and forehand knowledge of what was going on in the Kingdoms of Britain. The Danes did not go into this war on a whim or a sudden and intense desire for personal revenge… if the possibility for such personal revenge happened to come up during such battles then so be it, that would just be an added bonus for those who were able to carry that revenge out in addition to their overall goal. Just as with any well planned, organized campaign, the Danes would have had their own spies deep within the kingdoms to keep them apprised of the situations in each area and allow them to determine which places would be most easily defeated first. They probably knew full well the weaknesses of the various kingdoms and made their initial decisions based on those weaknesses. This would have been their reasoning for starting further north and working down towards Wessex, all the while paying close attention to the critical events taking place in Wessex… namely the weakening and demise of capable rulers. The Danes were in no hurry to grab and go this time, and as they quickly managed to conquer the other kingdoms, they could settle in and wait for Wessex to weaken because they had every assumption that these last two rulers of Wessex would be easily defeated and controlled just as the other kingdoms had been.
If you look at a map of the Army conquest that includes a timeline, you can see that their initial focus was East Anglia and then to move on to Northumbria before attempting to gain control of Mercia and Wessex. Obviously, East Anglia was an important coastal territory for them and as we will see in a future discussion of Northumbria, that kingdom was already in serious disarray because of feuding between royal families, so would have been an easy target. If Ragnar’s sons chose to extract some type of personal revenge during that assault, well so much the better for them on a personal basis, but I do not think that Northumbria was singled out specifically for just that reason!
Right now, we are only focusing on the events of Wessex that led up to the frail and most unlikely candidate for King anyone might imagine, Alfred to end up as ruler of Wessex. We’ll look at the events of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia in separate discussions.
As I already mentioned, the third brother Aethelberht was King of Wessex from 860 to 865 when he died with no heirs. In 865, Athelred became King. Keep in mind that with the demise of those three older brothers, Wessex was left with the two youngest sons who no one, not even they themselves had ever expected to become King. Athelred would have been about 17 at the time he took over the rule. He was young and most likely somewhat inexperienced, and at same the time he took the crown, the Heathen Army arrived. Within only a few short years, that army would take over East Anglia, Northumbria and move into Mercia. In 868, Athelred’s brother in law, Bergred of Mercia appealed to Wessex for help against the Danes. Æthelred and his brother, the future Alfred the Great, led a West Saxon army to Nottingham, but there was no decisive battle, and Burgred bought off the Vikings. In 874 the Vikings defeated Burgred and drove him into exile.
Despite Athelred’s youth, he did manage to accomplish something his older siblings failed at… he produced heirs! A charter of 868 refers to Wulfthryth regina and there were two known sons, Æthelhelm and Æthelwold. Æthelwold disputed the throne with Edward the Elder after Alfred’s death in 899. The accepted assumption on them not succeeding to the rule is that they were too young so the crown passed to Alfred instead.
From 868 on, Wessex was deeply involved in the war against the Heathen Armies, assisting in the fight to keep Ivar the Boneless out of neighboring Mercia. By 870, the Vikings turned their attention to Wessex, and on 4 January 871 at the Battle of Reading, Æthelred suffered a heavy defeat. Although he was able to re-form his army in time to win a victory at the Battle of Ashdown, he suffered further defeats on 22 January at Basing, and 22 March at Meretun.
Surprisingly, despite the youth and inexperience of both Athelred and his younger brother Alfred, they were capable fighters and defenders. Alfred joined his older brother in the battles, fighting along side him and was credited with the success of their battle at Battle of Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs, possibly near Compton or Aldworth. Even though they seemed to be fighting a losing war, the two young brothers proved themselves to be worthy opponents. They were not about to just give up and run like their brother in law Bergred would do.
alfred is crowned and england is born
In April 871, King Æthelred died, and Alfred succeeded to the throne of Wessex and the burden of its defence, despite the fact that Æthelred left two under-age sons, Æthelhelm and Æthelwold. This was in accordance with the agreement that Æthelred and Alfred had made earlier that year in an assembly at Swinbeorg. The brothers had agreed that whichever of them outlived the other would inherit the personal property that King Æthelwulf had left jointly to his sons in his will. The deceased’s sons would receive only whatever property and riches their father had settled upon them and whatever additional lands their uncle had acquired. The unstated premise was that the surviving brother would be king. Given the ongoing Danish invasion and the youth of his nephews, Alfred’s succession probably went uncontested.
While he was busy with the burial ceremonies for his brother, the Danes defeated the Saxon army in his absence at an unnamed spot, and then again in his presence at Wilton in May. The defeat at Wilton smashed any remaining hope that Alfred could drive the invaders from his kingdom. He was forced instead to make peace with them, according to sources that do not tell what the terms of the peace were. Bishop Asser claimed that the ‘pagans’ agreed to vacate the realm and made good their promise. the Viking army did withdraw from Reading in the autumn of 871 to take up winter quarters in Mercian London. Although not mentioned by Asser or by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred probably also paid the Vikings cash to leave, much as the Mercians were to do in the following year. Hoards dating to the Viking occupation of London in 871/2 have been excavated at Croydon, Gravesend, and Waterloo Bridge. These finds hint at the cost involved in making peace with the Vikings. For the next five years, the Danes occupied other parts of England as well.
Because this discussion is meant only to give us some insight into how Alfred came to rule, I am not going to go into how he proceeded with his reign and his long battle to defeat the Heathen Army despite insurmountable odds. We’ll save that for a future discussion. The only additional and important matter to remember right now is his alliance, however shaky at the time, with Mercia. In 868, when his brother in law Bergred asked Wessex for help against the Heathen Army, Alfred married a member of the Mercian Royal family. This move would back up the alliance already put in place with his sister’s marriage to Bergred. While his sister’s marriage produced no offspring which would further firm the alliance and put a Wessex descendant on the throne of Mercia, Alfred’s marriage would prove fruitful and enable him to gain sufficient control of Mercia. When Alfred took over his rule and managed to regain enough power to take back Mercia, he took control of Mercia by marrying his daughter Aethelflaid to an Ealdorman of Mercia who was one of his supporters in the English part of Mercia.
Alfred’s battles against the Danes would continue for most of his life. He died in 899 and the Danes did not give up on the thought to conquer Wessex completely until around 896. At the end of this year and early in 895 (or 896), the Danes drew their ships up the River Thames and River Lea and fortified themselves twenty miles (32 km) north of London. A direct attack on the Danish lines failed but, later in the year, Alfred saw a means of obstructing the river so as to prevent the egress of the Danish ships. The Danes realised that they were outmanoeuvred. They struck off north-westwards and wintered at Cwatbridge near Bridgnorth. The next year, 896 (or 897), they gave up the struggle. Some retired to Northumbria, some to East Anglia. Those who had no connections in England withdrew back to the continent.
Alfred, against all odds managed to basically be the last man or heir standing in line for the rule of Wessex. Fortunately for Wessex and the rest of England, he was by no means as weak or frail as everyone supposed him to be. He was a highly intelligent, well educated man who was keenly adept at the strategies of warfare. While he was devoutly religious, he was open minded and not so rigidly set in past “acceptable” doctrines or rules. This mindset enabled him to often think outside the box and do what ever he deemed necessary to find solutions to the situation with the Heathen Armies. From 879 on, Alfred carried out a dramatic reorganisation of the government and defences of Wessex, building warships, organising the army into two shifts which served alternately and establishing a system of fortified burhs across the kingdom. This system is recorded in a 10th-century document known as the Burghal Hidage, which details the location and garrisoning requirements of thirty-three forts, whose positioning ensured that no one in Wessex was more than a long day’s ride from a place of safety. In the 890s these reforms helped him to repulse the invasion of another huge Danish army – which was aided by the Danes settled in England – with minimal losses.
Alfred also reformed the administration of justice, issued a new law code and championed a revival of scholarship and education. He gathered scholars from around England and elsewhere in Europe to his court, and with their help translated a range of Latin texts into English, doing much of the work in person, and orchestrated the composition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As a result of these literary efforts and the political dominance of Wessex, the West Saxon dialect of this period became the standard written form of Old English for the rest of the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond.
The Danish conquests had destroyed the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia and divided Mercia in half, with the Danes settling in the north-east while the south-west was left to the English king Ceolwulf, allegedly a Danish puppet. When Ceolwulf’s rule came to an end he was succeeded as ruler of “English Mercia” not by another king but by a mere ealdorman named Aethelred, who acknowledged Alfred’s overlordship and married his daughter Aethelfaid. The process by which this transformation of the status of Mercia took place is unknown, but it left Alfred as the only remaining English king.
To see more of Alfred’s battle for Wessex, you should plan to watch BBCA’s upcoming series, The Last Kingdom based on those novels of the Viking era by Bernard Cornwell! I would also suggest that you read the books! You knew I would get this plug in eventually- It starts on October 10 and I will be here with my thoughts on all of it!