England, 868-878 CE
Seven hundred and ninety-three years after the Incarnation of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, dire forewarnings came over the land of the Northumbrians, miserably terrifying the people: excessive whirlwinds, lightening, and fiery dragons flying in the air. Added to these tokens was a great famine, and a little after, in the same year, heathen raiders lamentably destroyed God’s holy church at Lindisfarne with plunder and slaughter…. – The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
* * *
Seventy-five years after the Vikings burned the monastery on the isle of Lindisfarne, a young Saxon prince named Alfred contemplated the fact that these pagan barbarians were still harrying England. No one could stop them. Their depredations had brought the progress of civilization to a halt: indeed, their relentless ravaging had begun to drive the world backwards into darkness. People were losing hope. Alfred’s own land, Wessex, had never endured such a period of uncertainty since the madly jealous Queen Eadburh had accidentally murdered her own husband while trying to kill someone else.
On second thought, Alfred mused, perhaps Wessex has always been a mess, and this is nothing new.
“Burgred, the King of Mercia, craves our help, brother,” said Aethelred, Alfred’s elder brother, who now was King of the West Saxons. “The witan is assembling at Winchester to discuss the matter.”
“What is there to discuss?” Alfred asked, closing the dusty old chronicle as he turned to watch Aethelred walk into the room.
Aethelred at least looked the part of a proper Saxon king – he was big, brawny, and dangerous-looking. He strode, confidently, rather than walking, and his voice was deep and gruff. Alfred knew he could never muster such charisma, being scrawny and awkward, plagued by sickness all his days. Aethelred smiled at him, however, glancing around the stone-walled room with a gentle look.
“Mother used to enjoy this room – and these old books,” he said, joining his younger brother. “Do you miss her?”
“Of course,” Alfred replied. “But that’s not why I came here.” He took a deep breath, turning to Aethelred, and said, “These damned Vikings have been running us in circles for decades. I wanted to read the chronicles, recorded by the holy monks, to see if I could discern some pattern – some mistake we keep making that prevents us from defeating them.”
“Well,” Aethelred sighed, raising his eyebrows at the chronicle, “what would a monk know about war? Sometimes we win, sometimes they win. It goes back and forth. It’s all in God’s hands.”
“Where are the Vikings now?”
“Nottingham – they’ve camped there for the winter. If the witan calls out the fyrds, we will march, despite the weather, and besiege them in their stockade.”
Alfred considered the plan, which was not without merit. The Danish raiders tended to be cautious: they liked to send out one party to establish a base, followed by waves of reinforcements.
“King Burgred specifically asked for you,” Aethelred chuckled, winking at his younger brother.
“Perhaps because he knows I’ve been chosen as your heir, if anything should happen to you,” Alfred replied, seriously. “If we both die, your children would be too young to take the throne: Wessex would fall into the hands of Mercia.”
“Don’t be so suspicious,” Aethelred smiled. “Just because Mercia sent us one crazy queen doesn’t mean they’ll do it again.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“The Earl of Mucil, in Mercia, has a daughter named Ealhswith, and it’s time for her to marry. She’s sixteen. Well, she can’t marry me: I already have a wife.”
“No,” Alfred muttered. “You can’t be serious.”
“My goal this year, brother, is to get the Vikings out of Mercia, Ealhswith into your bed, and an alliance between Wessex and Mercia.”
“Just because I’m not bookish, like you, doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking,” Aethelred replied, thumping his brother’s arm. “One of the reasons why the Vikings almost always beat us is that we’re not united. If the Christian kingdoms of England were all united against the pagans, under a single high-king, we might just stand a chance. Mercia and Wessex are the two strongest Christian kingdoms, and Ealhswith is related to King Burgred through her mother.”
* * *
The witan agreed to assemble the fyrds – the militia of Wessex – and the army marched to Nottingham through the snow, to lay siege to the Viking stockade. It was not much of a struggle, however. There were not enough Saxons, even with the men from Mercia, to surround the Danish camp properly, nor enough to mount an attack. The Vikings demonstrated remarkable patience, and in the end King Burgred paid them to go away. Venal men, they marched off, satisfied.
After the Danes had retired to their stronghold at York, Aethelred and Alfred were invited to the royal hall of the Mercian king, near Repton, and there properly feasted, together with the earls of Wessex who had accompanied them. As his brother had predicted, the Ealhswith was present, as was her mother Eadburh, and her father, earl of Mucil. Alfred almost walked from the hall at the very sight of them.
“What’s wrong,” Aethelred hissed, grabbing his brother’s arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“She’s female,” Alfred said. “And you know what women do in our family – especially Mercian women. They kill their husbands. And her mother has the same name as the crazy queen.”
“Stop this,” Aethelred chided him. “I’ve seen you dodge Viking arrows. You may be the runt of the family, but you’re not without courage. Anyway, what’s wrong with her? Is she ugly?”
Alfred stole a glance at the young Mercian lady. “No,” he said. “By no objective standard could she possibly be considered ugly. But it’s the Welsh blood. The women here are all good-looking, but their tongues are as sharp as broken glass.”
“So what is the problem!” Aethelred snorted. “Are you afraid of a girl’s tongue? Now, pull yourself together.”
Alfred and Ealhswith were seated together, during the feast, both of them quite uncomfortable. She took a deep breath, eyeing him dubiously, tall and dramatic, dark-haired young lady that she was.
“A week ago, I was quite happy in the seclusion of a convent: and now I’ve been dragged here to celebrate another sham victory. And, presumably, to talk with you,” she said.
“Is it so bad?” Alfred asked, not knowing what else to say.
“The fact that you all failed, or the fact that they’re trying to arrange our marriage?”
“Take your pick.”
“Could you have defeated the Vikings, do you think?”
“Heavens, no,” Alfred replied, smirking. “We didn’t have enough men, and their position was too strong.”
“And the proposed marriage?” Ealhswith chuckled, but something seemed to soften her initial disdain. “I understand that you no longer have queens in Wessex.”
“It’s probably because one of your ancestors – our last queen – tried to kill one of mine,” Alfred smiled. “Well… actually she was trying to kill one of the earls, but there was a mistake.”
“Ah,” she laughed. “The curse of Queen Eadburh…. Well, I’m nothing like her, if you must know.” She glanced at him and asked, “What are you like? Tell me something interesting.”
“The hills of Tuscany, in Italy, turn golden in the late afternoon sunlight,” Alfred ventured, recalling a fond memory from childhood.
“And you know this how?”
“I’ve seen them. My father took me to Rome, on pilgrimage, when I was four.”
“Tell me something else.”
“One of my elder brothers married my step-mother: he’s dead, now, and she – I believe – is the Countess of Flanders. She’s led an interesting life.”
“This must be the infamous Lady Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald,” Ealhswith remarked. “Are you trying to scare me away, now?”
“Not really,” Alfred smiled.
“Good,” she said. “Can you read?”
“Of course – Mercian ladies are always well-educated. We have our Welsh monks and nuns to thank for that.”
“My mother was much the same. I love books – she taught me how to read herself,” Alfred said, earnestly. “Books are like magic. Or like a window into the mind of God.”
Ealhswith took a deep breath. Now it was her turn to search for words. At last, she simply looked into his eyes and said, “Maybe this wasn’t such a foolish idea, after all?”
* * *
They were married less than a week later, and it was a wonderful, glorious celebration, but at the very banquet, following the ceremony, even before their marriage could be consummated, Alfred was overcome by a sudden surge of panic. Sweating profusely, he felt dizzy – the room spun, and he fell. How strange it all was, like being in a bubble, numb, hearing voices only as echoes, indistinctly.
“Alfred – what happened?” Ealhswith asked, leaning over him, holding his hand.
They were alone, in a stone-walled, candle-lit room, its entrance covered with thick woolen curtains.
“I’m sick,” he admitted. “It comes and goes, but it’s worse… it tends to happen whenever I become too anxious.”
“Can nothing be done?”
Alfred had no answer for her. Indeed, he had none for himself. “Before he died, Bishop Ealhstan told me it was a divine test. My mother, Osburh, told me that the ancient believed my malady marked a person blessed by the gods.”
“What do you think?”
“The heathen gods don’t exist,” Alfred replied, “and – to be honest – I don’t feel very blessed right now.”
Ealhswith looked up as the royal physician appeared. “My lady, it is time to apply the leeches.”
“Please wait,” she said, sternly, employing a voice reserved for royal commands.
“We’re not married yet,” Alfred said, suddenly, as soon as the physician had withdrawn from the chamber.
“Hush,” she smiled. “We will be. I am not withdrawing my consent to your proposal.”
* * *
All the next year, the Danish army remained at its camp in York, under its warlord, Ivar Ragnarsson – Ivar the Boneless, as he was known. He was the son of Ragnar Lodbrok, the fierce warrior who had led one hundred and twenty long boats to the Seine, carrying fire and sword to the gates of Rouen and Paris. Ragnar, however, had met a cruel end at the hands of the King of Aelle of Northumbria, after being shipwrecked on the English coast. The Saxon ruler had thrown the old Viking raider into a pit full of poisonous snakes, where he cursed his executioner and called upon his sons to avenge his death. When Ragnar took York, he captured King Aelle and ordered him to be executed. He was killed according to the rite of the blood eagle: his back was slashed open, his ribs pulled out, one by one, in a gruesome parody of eagle’s wings, and his lungs torn out of his back. But Ivar was not satisfied. He once more raised the raven standard of the Danish army, this time leading his men off, on horseback, into the Kingdom of East Anglia, accompanied by his brother Ubba.
* * *
Ealhswith bore their first child, a daughter named Aethelflaed, in the year that the Danes overran East Anglia. It was a hard year, however, full of wretched reports.
“King Edmund was slain,” Alfred said, sitting down alone with his wife. “The Danes also sacked the monastery at Medeshamstead. They killed the abbot and eighty of the brothers.”
“Madeshamstead!” Ealhswith cried. “I know it well – that’s in Mercia. Father used to take us there. There was a library, full of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts.”
“We believe they will attack Wessex next,” Alfred added. “No doubt, they will send even more long boats soon.”
“Is there no end to these Norsemen?”
“Why are they attacking us?” Ealhswith asked, cradling their child. “What did we ever do to them?”
Alfred shook his head. “Some say the Vikings are madmen. Some say they have been forced to find new land because there are too many of them, and the weather is changing. Others say they have been stirred up against the Christians by the influence of Satan.”
“What does your heart tell you?”
“In my heart,” Alfred said, “I believe we are two cultures who know nothing about each other. Perhaps if we met in friendship rather than in battle, we would find common ground?”
“Sometimes the road to peace leads across the battlefield,” Alfred sighed. “At any rate, that is what my brother, Aethelred, says.”
The Danes invaded Wessex at the end of the year, just after Christmas, trudging through the snow to attack Reading. However, two earls rallied the local militia, and the Saxon forces routed the Vikings at Englefield. Four days later, Aethelred and Alfred arrived at Reading with all the fyrds of Wessex they had been able to muster, amounting to a thousand men.
Several days passed, and a battle was fought. The Danes worked themselves up into a frenzy, and their relentless, sudden onslaught was led by a crowd of berserkers who plunged through the Saxon shield-wall swinging great battle-axes.
Ealhswith rushed out of the royal lodge at the stronghold of Chippenham as soon as she heard the swift hoof-beats of the messenger’s horse.
“Pray, what news?”
“Aethelred and Alfred have been forced back – the Earl Aethelwulf is dead, and the pagans have possession of the place of slaughter.”
* * *
The Saxon host camped at Blowingstone Hill in the Berkshire Downs, not far from the ancient White Horse that was carved into the chalk soil of Uffington Hill. They were in retreat after their defeat near Reading, and runners had been sent out to bring in as many militia as possible, as well as all of the earls who had yet to ride to meet the red and gold dragon banner of Wessex. Everyone was anxious, rattled – Ivar and his men were on their heels, and the Danes were relentless. Aethelred had been certain they were only dealing with a raiding party, but it turned out to be an army, led by Ivar the Boneless himself.
“They’re on the Ridgeway!” a scout reported, galloping into the Saxon camp.
“Well?” Alfred asked, turning to his brother.
“Assemble the men,” Aethelred replied. “I will retire to the church in Ashdown to beseech the Lord for victory. Wait for me to return. It will take the Danes time to reach us.”
Alfred did not like this at all. It was strange, his burly brother stalking off, so conspicuously, to pray at a time like this. He regarded the little Saxon army with skepticism – a motley crowd of terrified men, farmers and shepherds mostly, mostly weak-limbed men like himself, who wore their iron helmets and leather jerkins like costumes, shivering in their cloaks, dragging spears and long, oval shields through the frosty grass of the Downs. The earls among them were a little more spirited, and properly-built for war, but nowhere did Alfred see confidence. The sight of their king slinking away, accompanied by peaceful, tonsured priests, did not inspire them.
“They shot King Edmund of East Anglia full of arrows before they cut his head off,” Aethelhelm remarked, noticing Alfred’s disquiet. He was one of the earls, and his cold contempt was palpable.
“They commit atrocities because they hope to scare us,” Alfred snapped. “If we give way to fear, they’ll beat us even before they arrive. That’s their design.”
“Well, here they are,” Aethelhelm snorted, nodding toward the Ridgeway.
The Danes had appeared sooner than expected – several hundred men running along the top of the ridge above the Saxon camp.
“The raven standard,” Alfred said, watching the enemy force divide into two wings. “Ivar and his brother, Halfdane – the other division must be the earls. There’s another banner, too – I don’t recognize it.”
“What should we do, my lord?” asked earl Boecca, joining Aethelhelm.
“Form the shield-wall,” Alfred commanded. “We must wait for the king.”
While the Danish warriors arranged themselves at the top of Ashdown, the Wessex fyrds ran to form a long double line, presenting their shields to the foe. At a shouted order, they moved closer together, shields overlapping. Alfred strode to the front of the little army, looking up the long, gentle slope toward a lone thorn tree. He could see Ivar, strutting in front of his warband, shouting indistinctly in the Danish tongue.
They hold the high ground, Alfred thought. We’re vulnerable… we must make the first move. Where is Aethelred?
His brother was still praying, apparently. Meanwhile, Ivar and Halfdane were working their men up for an attack, leading them in resounding victory chants, which were punctuated at intervals by long, low blasts from horns as the men rattled their spears against their shields. Alfred turned to look at the Wessex militia. The men were cringing, gazing up at the Danes in their black-and-silver armor.
A berserker can only attack, Alfred realized. A berserker cannot defend….
Turning his back on the Vikings, Alfred shouted, “Surely you can’t be afraid of a man named Ivar the Boneless?”
As the Saxon militia laughed, heartily, at this, Alfred thought, We must act – now.
“Who is with me!” He faced the enemy, reaching for the hilt of his sword, and began to run up the hill.
With a great cheer, the Saxons charged. The Danes were not expecting that.
* * *
King Aethelred and Alfred his brother fought against the whole host at Ashdown; and they were in two divisions – in the one was Bacsecg and Halfdane, the heathen kings, and in the other were the earls. King Aethelred fought against the troops of the Danish kings, and there was Bacsecg slain. Alfred, his brother fought the earls, and there was slain the earl Sidroc the elder and Sidroc the younger, earls Osbjorn, Freyna, and Harold. The enemy was put to flight… and the fighting continued until night…. – The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
* * *
They called it the Year of Battles. Never before had England faced such a terrible and persistent invasion. The attack on Reading was only the beginning, and the victory at Ashdown brought only a temporary reprieve. To make matters worse for Alfred, Bishop Heahmund was killed in the fighting, and not long after Easter his brother, Aethelred, died, cut down by Ivar the Boneless himself in the great battle fought near Merton, in Wiltshire. With a Danish army plundering the countryside, the witan had no choice but to confirm the king’s decision to pass over his own minor sons in favor of Alfred, who was crowned King of the West Saxons in a hurried ceremony.
He rushed directly from his coronation to battle: nine actions were fought with the Danes, and a number of raids were made against their foraging parties, but at the end of the year, exhausted, Alfred had no choice but to buy peace. His people were farmers, after all: they could not wage war all year round, and soon the fyrds would have to be disbanded, to prepare their fields, or else the planting season would be lost. Even so, the enemy had lost one king, nine earls, and hundreds of warriors, and this knowledge softened the sting of having to send tribute to the Viking camp.
* * *
Alfred and his family moved continually from one part of Wessex to another, although he preferred to remain near the eastern marches in case the Vikings broke the peace, which they were likely to do at any moment, being men who delighted in trickery. However, the raiders had fought so hard, and had made so little headway, during the Year of Battles that for four years they left Wessex alone and attacked the weaker Saxon kingdoms instead.
“So,” Alfred concluded, sitting alone with his books and thoughts one day, “the Danes were not beaten, but they are afraid of us.”
This was a difficult time for Ealhswith. She bore a son, named Edward, and another daughter, Aethelgifu, and then a second boy, Aethelweard, and finally a third girl, Aelfthryth. The news from Mercia was awful, however. The Vikings invaded Mercia, moving so swiftly that Alfred could not raise the Wessex fyrd quickly enough to save King Burgred. A treacherous earl, Ceolwulf, deposed Burgred with the Danes’ help, and the old ruler was compelled to go into exile, choosing to live out the remainder of his days as a pilgrim in Rome. The traitor, Ceolwulf, meanwhile, surrendered hostages to the invaders as surety for his good behavior and aid in the event of war, should Halfdane call the men of Mercia to the raven banner. Ealhswith’s family was able to escape to safety in Wessex, but most of the people of Mercia fell under the heavy yoke of Ceolwulf and his Viking masters.
The witan of the West Saxons met in Winchester, one of the only ancient Roman colonies that had not fallen completely into ruins, although it was now a Saxon town – wooden houses, covered with thatch, built upon foundations of stone laid by the Romanized Celts centuries before the Germanic tribes had invaded these islands.
Alfred sat with Ealhswith, attended by the earls who formed the witan, discussing the dire situation that was developing.
“The Danes are becoming too powerful, my king,” said Beocca, one of the leading earls of the kingdom. “They have Mercia in thrall. They occupy Northumbria from Lindsey to the Tyne, as well as East Anglia. Halfdane has been joined by three other heathen kings – Guthrum, Oskytel, and Anwend, who all have brought hosts with them from across the sea.”
“If we don’t do something, Wessex may go the way of Mercia,” counseled Aethelhelm, another of the earls.
“What can be done, except commend ourselves to God?” asked Denewulf, the Bishop of Winchester. “The heathens now hold two-thirds of the country.”
“With all due respect, my lord bishop, I do not think God would expect us to sit here and wring our hands, doing nothing,” countered a monk named Bjornhelm. He was not a member of the witan, but he was a member of Alfred’s court, acting as chaplain to Ealhswith and the other ladies of Mercia.
“Do you have anything more to say, Bjornhelm?” Alfred asked.
“Yes,” the monk replied. “The Lord gave us two eyes instead of one so that we could see things as they really are. True, the Vikings hold two-thirds of England, but we still hold the one-third that is worth the other two put together.”
Denewulf nodded, reluctantly, admitting the truth of what Bjornhelm said.
“My lords,” Ealhswith interjected, “our attention has been fixed on the land, but how did the Norsemen first come to this country? They came by sea, did they not?”
All of the earls glanced at each other, nervously.
“The Lady of Mercia is right,” Alfred added, smiling at his wife. “England is not a large country, like the Kingdom of the Franks; it must be defended from the sea. On land, in our present state, there is no way to stop the Danes from striking anywhere, whenever they want to. They can cross over from the German Sea to the Irish Sea in only four or five days – faster than we can assemble our fyrds.”
“What alternative is there – to build a wall, like the Mercians did to defend themselves against the Britons of Wales?” The question was put by Boecca, who regarded Alfred almost with open hostility in his eyes.
“King Offa’s Wall served its purpose,” Alfred reminded the witan. “It brought peace to the western marches. Now it lies in ruins, unnecessary. I propose that we establish fortified strongholds in every shire, to which the people can withdraw for protection. But first, we need to organize an alarm system, and we need to have the fyrd better organized and able to turn out, anywhere, at a moment’s notice. We might have fared better, during the Year of Battles, if our men had assembled more quickly.”
“But the Danes can still land anywhere along the coast,” Bishop Denewulf said. “What is to stop them?”
“Our own pagan ancestors came to these shores in long boats, too,” Alfred reminded them. “Have we forgotten our heritage? Let us build our own ships again and man them: let us stop these barbarians on the sea, before they can land.”
The witan was silent, absorbing Alfred’s idea.
“I hereby command the earls of Devon-shire and Cornwall to build a fleet of vessels and see that they are well-manned. Although the Danes have not attacked us since the Year of Battles, these conquests they are making are merely the preliminaries to what is coming. Mark my words, my lords – they mean to destroy Wessex, and if this kingdom falls, the light of civilization in these islands will be extinguished.”
“God would not allow such a fate to befall us,” Bishop Denewulf declared.
“Are you saying that you comprehend the thoughts of the Almighty, Bishop?” Alfred inquired. “Rome fell to a pagan host. Surely that proves that any kingdom can fall. Our faith teaches us that nothing of this world is eternal.”
“Even if we build these fortified towns, as you suggest, what would stop the Vikings from slipping between them?”
This question was posed by Wulfhere, earl of Wiltshire.
“The Danes mount horses and ride to battle. Our earls have horses, but the men of the fyrds do not: while our enemies gallop, we run. I thus propose that the earls keep up a permanently-embodied force of mounted warriors in every shire. This will give us the mobility to intercept the Danes anywhere.”
* * *
Guthram, commander of the Danish host camped at Cambridge, in East Anglia, rode to York to speak with Halfdane Ragnussen, his ally. He strode into the great wooden hall of the Viking chiefs there, surrounded by his henchmen, looking fierce and disgusted.
“What is this, Halfdane?” he asked, speaking without ceremony. “Where are your warriors? Instead of spears and swords, I see men plowing the land and walking around with pitchforks. Norsemen do not herd sheep. We eat sheep – other people’s sheep.”
“Mind your tongue, Guthram, or someone might cut it out,” Halfdane laughed. “We are settling here – creating a new kingdom: the Danelaw. The land is fertile. Goddess Freya smiles upon this country. Families will follow, from every part of the Northland. We have lost many men – we must replenish our losses. Our children will grow like weeds here. But fear not, Guthram. We have sent our raiders to the north, and they have returned with gold and silver. I’ll give you a brooch, if you like, or would you prefer a golden chalice? I have Pictish slave girls with bright red hair and green eyes.”
“Your men plunder churches,” Guthram remarked, his voice filled with contempt. “I have heard about your so-called deeds amongst the Picts and the Welsh of Strathclyde. Even an old woman with a hair-pin could sack a monastery.”
“I heard of your encounter with Alfred,” Halfdane smiled. “He attacked you at sea – took one of your long boats, I believe? Several brave warriors now dine in Valhalla, in consequence of this Saxon king’s cleverness.”
“That is why I have come,” Guthram admitted. “We must join forces. My spy at Winchester informs me that Alfred is laying plans against us. He is smart.” The Danish warlord tapped his head, giving Halfdane a knowing look. “We must destroy him, before he can build upon the foundations he is marking out.”
“We tried to invade Wessex, before you crossed the sea,” Halfdane replied in a very sober tone. “On the hills of Berkshire, you can find the tombs of those who did not return.”
“That is why I intend to strike the West Saxons where they are not expecting us – from the west, not the east.”
“And your plan?”
“My plan will work better if you are with me, Halfdane. That is, if you think these farmers of yours still remember how to fight?”
* * *
In the eight hundred and seventy-sixth year of the Incarnation of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, the pagan host stole away into Wareham, in Dorset-shire. Afterward King Alfred made peace with the host, who gave up hostages, the most honored men amongst them, and they swore oaths to Alfred upon the holy ring, sacred to Thor, which they never before had done for any other people, vowing to withdraw speedily from the kingdom. Under cover of this oath, however, the mounted Vikings escaped from the fyrd, in the night, and got away to Exeter…. And the ship-host sailed west about, but a great storm overtook them at sea, and at Swanage one hundred and twenty ships perished. King Alfred and his fyrd rode after the mounted raiders as far as Exeter, but could not overtake them before they had reached the safety of the fortress. There, they gave up as many important hostages as Alfred wished, swearing great oaths, whereupon they maintained the peace. And in the autumn, the Danish host marched to Mercia, apportioning part of that land to themselves, giving the rest to Ceolwulf. – The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
* * *
Alfred’s successes gave the people of Wessex peace and prosperity for six years, and one could feel hope returning. All over the kingdom, men and women were letting go of the fear they had been born and raised with. The harvest was brought in from the fields and stored up, and Alfred and Ealswhith retired to Chippenham for the winter with their children, servants, and retainers.
The wine that King Charles the Bald had sent to Alfred the previous year, from the vineyards of the Franks, tasted especially good. Alfred and his courtiers were filled with good cheer as they passed the Christmas season feasting in the great wooden hall of the winter lodge, under a pall of blue-tinted smoke, securely shuttered and bundled away from the howling wind and blowing snow outside.
“The Danish raids will be the making of Wessex,” Alfred remarked to Bjornhelm, his wife’s chaplain, on the feast of Twelfth Night. “Learned men, forced out of their monasteries in Scotland, Mercia, East Anglia, Wales, Ireland… they will come here, and we will make a refuge for them.”
“God be praised,” the chaplain smiled, belching, for he had drunk rather a lot for a normally abstemious man.
“I have in mind a resurrection of learning in these islands,” Alfred continued, turning with a smile to his lady. “Does it not concern you, Bjornhelm, that everywhere we look, we see the ruins of the Romans – a civilization far more advanced than our own, dead now, these past four hundred years?”
“God, my king, does not choose sides in the affairs of men,” Bjornhelm replied. “God is eternal – the divine perspective surpasses our understanding by definition.”
“This is what I like about you, Brother Bjorn,” Alfred laughed. “You’re theologically correct even when you’re drunk.”
Ealhswith could not suppress a gentle laugh, which Bjornhelm himself joined in. “Have you considered sending tribute to the Pope?” the monk asked.
“I will do so,” Alfred nodded, but added, quickly, “as an act of thanksgiving when we finally beat the Danes. Until then, what little treasure we have stays here, in England.”
“Do you think God would approve of that?”
“God knows what I have to deal with,” Alfred replied, suddenly sounding very sober and serious as he set aside his goblet. “In Rome, they will use the treasure I send them to decorate churches and monasteries. Here, I will use the treasure to save Christian civilization – thus doing the Lord’s work, surely?”
“You do not trust in God to deliver Wessex from the pagans?”
Hearing this challenge from Bjornhelm, Ealhswith glanced at her husband, who smirked, admitting the charge.
“I promise you, Brother Bjorn,” the king said, earnestly. “When the Danes are defeated, I will send my wife’s brother to the tomb of Doubting Thomas, the Apostle, in India, bearing gifts – the richest I can give.”
“India?” Ealhswith laughed. “Does India even exist? One only hears old fables….”
“Well, God willing, your brother will find out,” Alfred replied.
The good cheer in the royal hall was so loud and boisterous that they scarcely heard the shouting outside the heavy wooden doors, or noticed the doors swing open as the king’s guards fell back, pelted with arrows as they tried to shield themselves.
Alfred fought hard to control his panic. His first instinct was to reach for his sword, but he did not have one – he was at ease, among his friends, and all he could do was run, taking hold of Ealhswith’s hand. They dashed from the hall, into the adjoining apartment, herding their children together. Every moment mattered – every striding step toward the secret passageway through the stockade wall, and the desperate dash into the woods, through the snow, as Chippenham burst into flames behind them.
* * *
Ealhswith held Alfred in her arms kneeling in the snow, the two of them huddling in the woods with their children, trying not to freeze to death. The Danes were busy, not far away, wrecking, plundering, killing until there was no one else left who could fight back. The screams of women running to the butchered corpses of their husbands soon were replaced by the screams of the same women being raped. Scarlet flames curled up over the steep gables of the royal lodge, spewing black clouds into the starry winter sky.
“It happened again,” Ealhswith said when Alfred finally focused his eyes on her. “Another of your spells….”
“Where are we?”
“The Vikings have destroyed Chippenham – we must run,” she said, slowly helping him to his feet. “Children, stay close. You must do your best to keep up, be brave, and do not make a sound, or the pagans will take you….”
The children were terrified, standing around, staring at their father, who suddenly looked so weak and vulnerable, and at their mother, who almost seemed fierce, whereas she normally was quiet and reserved.
They made their way through the woods until they came to a charcoal-burner’s cottage. There they found shelter with the man and his wife – soot-stained, hard-working people, whose toil had made them old before their time. Ealhswith could see, at once, that the man and his wife did not recognize them, but this did not surprise her. Few people beyond the court actually knew what the king and his lady looked like.
“The Northmen have attacked Chippenham – we only just got away. May we hide here?”
“Aye, but morrow come, be gone with you,” the charcoal-burner answered. “They’ll be sniffin’ round like dogs, tho’ I trust they’ll wake well after sun-up. Out of sight, till dawn, tho’ – mind ye that?”
“We shall hide ourselves away like mice,” Ealhswith promised.
* * *
The Danish host overran the land of the West-Saxons and occupied it, and drove many of the folk over the sea, and almost everyone submitted to them except King Alfred. He, with a little band, fared with difficulty to the woods and fastnesses high atop the moors. That same winter, the brother of Ivar the Boneless and Halfdane landed on the coast of Devonshire with twenty-three ships and eight hundred men, but he was slain, and forty of his host with him. The raven banner itself was captured, and afterward, come Easter, Alfred and his little band built a fort at Athelney…. – The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
* * *
At Athelney there was a fort so ancient even the Celts could not tell their Saxon overlords when it had been built, or by whom. Some said it was raised by fairy-folk, like the strange circles of standing stones in Salisbury Plain, or like the Tor on Apple Island, once sacred to the druids. Athelney was an island, a cluster of willow trees rising out of the great expanse of the Somerset Marshes. This was a part of the land even the Romans had never touched, although they had built a grand city, nearby, at Bath. A narrow causeway connected the isle of Athelney to the dry land, protected by a moat and a dyke, atop which Alfred and his men had raised a wooden stockade, built according to the Saxon fashion. The island was home to an old monastery, but now the brothers’ peace was disrupted by the presence of all the men who had come here, singly or in small groups, to join their king and pledge their lives for Wessex and what little remained of Christian England. All the rest, in this dark hour, was in the hands of the pagan Danes, whose reign was fire and sword, rape, blood, and plunder.
Nearly all the men of Somerset-shire, Wiltshire, and Hampshire, remained true to Alfred, altogether some five hundred men, and under their king’s direction they carried on fighting against the Danes.
“The Vikings came here to plunder,” Alfred told his men. “To do that, they must divide into small bands, spreading out over the country. We will attack these small groups and cut them up piecemeal. We attack them. That keeps the initiative in our hands.”
The stronghold in the marshes was unassailable. The reed-choked, half-drowned landscape was too wet and muddy to enable the Vikings to advance against Athelney either aboard boats or on foot: the only way in was by the causeway, which was too strongly-defended. Thus, Halfdane had no choice but to wait, realizing that Alfred would have to venture forth, sooner or later, to replenish his supplies.
“How can we possibly win? We’re trapped on this island,” Ealhswith asked one night, after everyone who was not on guard had retired to bed.
“Halfdane expects us to walk into a trap,” Alfred whispered. “Instead, he will be the one trapped. He’s waiting for us to sally forth, in the spring, and we will, but this doesn’t end the way he thinks it will.”
In the Viking camp at Chippenham, meanwhile, Halfdane declared, “We wait: right now, the winter floods protect Alfred and his marsh-rats on their little island. But in the spring, the water will subside, and when we see the red cattle grazing in the fens, we will know we can attack the island on foot. Our numbers will overwhelm them, and then England will be ours. Our people will occupy the whole country – we will multiply. Goddess Freya will smile upon us. In three generations, when we have subjected all their women to ourselves, the Saxons and Celts will be us.”
Halfdane, however, did not realize just how busy Alfred and his men had been.
* * *
Easter came, and in keeping with their faith, Alfred and his people heard mass, praying and accepting communion and the blessings of the holy brothers of Athelney. Then, the King of Wessex took leave of his lady and rode to the dry land with his most trusted warriors, all those who had joined him, bringing proper armor, helmets, shields, and swords. They rode to King Egbert’s Stone, east of Selwood. Here, Alfred halted and dispatched riders in every direction, instructing them to raise the country and summon the fyrds. He then proceeded to Iley and then to Ethandun, with what remained of his little army, choosing his route as he learned of the movements of Halfdane’s force.
At Ethandun, the Saxons came up with the Danish host, who also had ridden to the field. Both armies dismounted in order to fight on foot, which was easier.
“Form shield-wall!” Alfred commanded, watching his men run to present to the enemy, as usual, a thin line of interlocking shields. “Archers – do not let their berserkers get close!”
Halfdane sent his berserkers forward, but they were shot down, with arrows, before they could reach the Saxon shield-wall. The rest of the Danish force charged behind the crazed warriors, but their first assault was repelled, some of their men being cut down by arrows, the others being beaten back with axe, sword, and spear.
“Attack their flanks!” Halfdane ordered, signaling the Danish archers to advance.
As the Danish warriors withdrew in order to organize a second assault, the Vikings’ own archers unleashed a hail of arrows, but the Saxons’ long shields caught these with a flurry of thuds. Alfred, cringing under his own shield, shouted, “Shield-wedge!”
By the time the Danes were ready to charge again, the Saxons had formed a triangle, moving forward behind their long shields, fending off arrows while deflecting every Viking who reached them, from every direction. The Danish host swirled around Alfred’s little army, trying to beat their way through the shield-wall, but they could find no point of entry. Eventually, however, the Saxons were surrounded, their enemies pressing in on every side, so that for a moment it seemed as if sheer weight of numbers might prevail.
But then the Viking ranks began to thin as men fell away, turning and running away from the Saxon shield-wedge. On all sides, in every direction, small bands of men armed with every weapon they could find – even wooden sticks – could be seen making their way toward the field of Ethandun. Many of these Saxon and Celtic peasants, however, were well-armed, despite their possessing no armor, having been led by Alfred’s messengers to secret caches of swords and spears that had been made at Athelney and buried, at night, all over the country. Soon, in no particular order at all, the men of three shires mobbed the Vikings, who scarcely knew which way to turn.
Instantly, from being the confident assailants, the Danes became the prey, panic-stricken, fleeing as fast as they could over the country, pursued by the Saxon forces, which lost all cohesion as every man of Wessex rushed after the foe, screaming, seeking whatever revenge could be had. No mercy was given – the invaders were driven across the green pastures for miles and miles, cut down, clubbed to death, tripped face-down into the mud to be shot full of arrows and beaten to bloody pulp with rocks. Some furious peasants, who lacked even rocks, simply held the Vikings helmet-clad blonde heads down into the mud until they were dead. The handful of Danes who escaped from the battlefield into the stockade of Chippenham surrendered after a siege lasting two weeks.
* * *
And then the host gave Alfred important hostages and many oaths that they would leave his kingdom, and also they promised that their king would receive baptism. Three weeks afterwards, the Danish king, Guthrum, came to him with thirty men, who were the most honored of their host, to Aller near Athelney, and there Alfred received him as his godson at baptism, and his chrism-loosing was at Wedmore; and Guthrum remained twelve days with the king…. – The Anglo-Saxon Chrionicle
This account of King Alfred of Wessex’s battle with the Vikings is based on The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and on the Welsh monk Asser’s Life of Alfred, written during the king’s lifetime. In this story, all of the characters are historical except the charcoal-burner and his wife. However, even they are based on the peasants in the legend of Alfred and the burning “cakes.” Because Alfred’s stockade at Athelney is located near Glastonbury, the legendary site of King Arthur’s Camelot, the mythical world of Arthur may, in fact, be a later medieval story based, in part, on the real reign and kingdom of Alfred. The medieval Arthurian legends, however, present Arthur as a Romano-Celtic king who resisted the invasion of England by the pagan Saxons – Alfred’s ancestors.
Alfred was the first Saxon ruler to unify England, if only briefly, and if only in part. His conversion-by-force of Guthrum actually worked: bound by a personal oath to Alfred, Guthrum became a sincere Christian, thus paving the way for the conversion of his entire people during the next few generations. True to his word, Alfred sent England’s tribute to Rome, and he also sent gifts, as promised, to the tomb of Saint Thomas, in India. Before his death, in 899 CE, Alfred patronized the displaced Christian scholars of the British Isles, undertaking on his own the translation into Anglo-Saxon English of a number of important texts. Ealhswith never became queen, in keeping with West Saxon law, but she controlled Wessex for several years during the last years of Alfred’s reign, when he was extremely ill, and also for a short time after his death.
The Vikings, deterred from making further assaults on Saxon England, turned their attention to France, eventually conquering Normandy. In northern France, the victorious Northmen came, in time, to refer to themselves as Normans: they swore oaths of fealty to the Frankish kings, adopted Christianity, and in due course, in 1066 CE, made a legitimate claim to the throne of England – a claim that led, ultimately, to the Norman Conquest.
Questions for Discussion:
1. What are some of the ethical issues that emerge in this story?
2. What are the main differences you see between pagan Viking and Christian Saxon culture? How similar would these two cultures be if the religious element was removed?
3. How does Alfred use religion? How is Alfred himself used by religion?
4. Do you think Alfred was right to accept the crown of Wessex given his physical disability?
5. In what ways did their Christian faith help the Saxons overcome the Vikings?
Copyright William Lailey, 2012