Europe's History

King Alfred

For 72 years, since the Viking raid on Lindisfarne, Northmen have ravaged the coasts of Britain. But this is no raid. It’s the great heathen army. They come seeking farmland, driven from Scandinavia by crop failures and political instability. They are not here for treasure; they are here to found a nation.

This series is brought to you by a Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia. A new strategy game was set during this time period. Ten bloody years pass. The great army has toppled thrones and slain kings. Of the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that existed on their arrival, two have been overthrown, and a third is melting away like winter ice. Only Wessex still stands. King Halfdan, the great army’s leader, has decided to settle and dig in around the Danish-held city of York. He had invaded Wessex two years before, but the young king, Alfred, had paid him a Danegeld, a tributary bribe never to return. But the army’s other king, Guthrum, had taken no Danegeld and made no vow, and Guthrum craved a kingdom of his own. He had also been watching this young king, Alfred, and knew his position was precarious. Halfdan had nearly finished him off. The Wessex military was based on a fyrd system, peasant militias, which took time to call up and would desert if held too long. That made Alfred slow to respond, and weak during sieges. Alfred also had some pretty bad scouts. Guthrum’s scouts though were skilled. Very skilled. He sent them to scour Wessex, and they quickly found a way in. In midwinter, Guthrum’s army slipped out of their base at Cambridge. They used back roads and low ground. Anyone who encountered them did not live to tell the story. Guthrum marched a hundred and seventy miles (273km) into Wessex, straight to the town of Wareham without raising a single alarm. The Vikings fell upon Wareham without warning, sacking it for provisions and holing up in its earthen fort. Gutrhum hadn’t marched all this way just to sack a town. Wareham was to be a beachhead. Once his allies marshaled their fleet, the largest since the great army first arrived, a hundred and twenty dragon ships would come to join him. Alfred could see what Guthrum was up to, though. He raised the fyrd and bottled Wareham up in a siege. And that stalemate would continue for nearly a year. Guthrum’s provisions drained, and Alfred’s militia eventually started to trickle home. And those a hundred and twenty dragon ships were still nowhere to be seen. Tiring of this, Alfred offered to negotiate. Gutrhum accepted and went to haggle with this young king. Each sized the other up.

They finally agreed to exchange money and hostages, and Guthrum prepared to move out. Alfred celebrated. This Guthrum was a different kind of Dane: one he could work with. Halfdan had negotiated for a year before coming to terms, but this was solved within days. Perhaps God had finally begun to turn the hearts of these pagans. And it was right around that moment that Gutrhum slaughtered his hostages, killed all of Alfred’s horses, and rode hard west to take Exeter. Now, he had a fresh fortress full of provisions and could hold out another year. The fleet could just as easily meet him at Exeter. And if it had landed at Wareham as originally planned, well, then they would just snare Alfred between them. Alfred had essentially just paid Guthrum to move house. But the fleet still hadn’t come. Months passed. Food dwindled. Warriors got restless. Being under siege for over a year will start to wear anybody out. Alfred, again, offered to negotiate, and Guthrum agreed.  

This time, there was no haggling. Guthrum agreed to all Alfred’s terms. He gave up hostages and took none. Then, he crawled north into Mercia and settled down to plow, cowed and reformed. A new man. Months passed, until 12th night, 877. The Court of Wessex was feasting. Botching things with Guthram had frayed Alfred’s reputation with the nobles, and, to help mend the rift, he had gathered the court at Chippenham to renew their oaths. Twelve nights of Christmas toasts and merriment “a celebration of surviving another year”, but right at that night Guthram stricks with an attack.

Oh, he had had to bribe a few Wessex noblemen to pull it off, but he had lots of money from that nice fat Danegeld Alfred paid. And, he had timed the strike to fall on the 12th night when the Wessex guards would be celebrating and drunk on Wassail. Where Alfred clearly knew nothing of the Danes, Guthrum had studied his enemy’s culture and used it to his advantage. Where was Alfred, anyway? This strike would only be complete when he was captive or dead. But as Guthrum’s men turned Chippenham inside out, the young king was nowhere to be found. maybe, he’d probably escaped to the Somerset marshes with a handful of men?

No matter. He was dethroned, out of power, ruling from a mire. Alfred could be king of the muck for all Guthrum cared. Because every week Alfred hid, more Wessex noblemen recognized Guthrums claim, and Danish reinforcements were coming. But there was some difficulty. Small parties of Danes did occasionally turn up slaughtered on the road. Anglo-Saxon gangs possibly remain of the broken army, ransacked camps at night, stealing supplies and weapons. They attacked, then disappeared. Viking tactics. And then, the marauders hit the Wessex nobles who had taken Guthrum’s gold, one by one. Stories circulated that Alfred lived. That he was still a ring giver. That he walked abroad, punishing traitors. Guthrum was tied down, repressing small uprisings and responding to these marauders, unable to secure all of Wessex. He needed more men. But when his reinforcements landed at Devon, they met a small force, an elderly lord and his untrained peasants, holding a fort. As the Vikings prepared a siege, not even equipped for battle, the peasants sallied out in a desperate, furious assault. Eight hundred Danes lay slain, a whole army, gone. It was almost a relief when Guthrum then heard reports of Alfred gathering an army at Egbert’s stone. Finally, the ghost king shows himself. Time to banish him.

 The armies met at Edington. The Wessex men advanced, shouting prayers to the Virgin, Saint Cuthbert, and the rest of their weird Christian gods. The armies exchanged a rain of insults, and then, one of the spears. Shield walls met with the sound of a ship’s keel striking rocks. The shoving began. Spears probed and struck like viper heads. The Danish line bowed inward. Alfred had numbers on his side, and desperation as well. The Danes could always settle in the conquered lands back East if things went bad, but these Anglo-Saxon men of Wessex had nowhere to retreat to. The Danes broke, cut down as they fled. Guthrum himself rode for Chippenham, with a small party, slamming the gates behind him. Once again, a siege. But this time, the Danes didn’t have the food, the men, or the heart. Twelve days later, Guthrum offered to talk. Alfred set the terms. Guthrum must march for East Anglia, and never return. For real this time. And no Danegeld. Further, Guthrum must accept Christian baptism. Alfred would be his godfather. With his life thus rededicated to god, Guthrum would rule East Anglia as a friend of Wessex. Guthrum agreed. After all, maybe there was something to this Christian god that had wrecked his fleet. It seemed to be working for Alfred anyway. Plus, I mean, Guthrum already worshipped a lot of Gods. So, sure, throw one more on the pile.

 At the baptismal, Alfred himself pushed Guthrum’s head into the font and gave him his new Christian name: “Aethelstan”. A twelve-day feast followed, a symbolic reminder of when Guthram ruined Christmas. Alfred showered his nobles with gifts, a ring giver once more. Guthrum sat in his stained baptismal robes, accepting Alfred’s gifts like just another Wessex thane. Then, he limped back to East Anglia to secure his previous conquests, and rule the kingdom of Guthrum. And, surprisingly, it appears he kept the treaty. Whether due to religious conversion, pragmatic statecraft, or just not wanting to tangle with Alfred again, Guthrum opted out of future attempts to conquer Wessex. He ministered to his own realm, minting coins printed with his Christian name, Alfred’s one friend in Danish territory. And with that continued peace came another treaty: “The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum”, laying out a political boundary between Wessex and the Danish controlled kingdoms, a land where Danes ruled, and their laws held sway: The Danelaw. Guthrum had his kingdom, and though it would last less than a century, Guthrum had his kingdom, and though it would last less than a century, it would change England forever.

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