Viking Settlement in England (History in a Nutshell No.6)
In the years 874 to 875 AD the invading Danes (or Vikings) under the leadership of Halfdan, had begun to settle in Northumbria, Northern England. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they won the land they settled on through the sword, as always.
The northern territories now came under Danish rule and became known as the Danelaw. That meant that any pre-existing laws of Anglo-Saxon origin were wiped out and replaced with the feudal system and laws which governed the Danes in their own homelands. The existing English peoples in these regions were subjugated under these laws.
The Danelaw basically covered the north-eastern parts of the country, and English rule covered the south-west. If an oblique line were drawn from London to the westernmost parts of Northumberland, cutting the island in half diagonally, that line would describe the area roughly covered by the Danelaw. It would include all of East Anglia and most of the Midlands, which was once under the Kingdom of Mercia. Wessex ruled the entire southern hemisphere of the country and Mercia ruled the western parts of the Midlands.
Further to the historical evidence for Viking settlement in these lands, we can see the genetic inheritance amongst the people born and raised in these locations, to this day; the predominance of blonde or red-haired people with blue eyes is marked compared to that of the South. In the north-east to this day, ceremonies are still held which reflect the Scandinavian past of the people there, who regularly dress up in Viking costume, brandishing flaming torches and blowing on Viking rams' horns.
King Alfred's Navy
Meanwhile, in the South in the Kingdom of Wessex, King Alfred was not idle. Although not yet powerful enough to completely defeat the invaders, Alfred had been busily developing a stronger naval force of his own. Having examined some of the captured Danish longships, Alfred ordered that his shipbuilders copy the longship design but to improve upon it by building his ships larger, sitting higher out of the water.
In the year 875 Alfred put his ships to the test and sailed them out to meet the Danes at sea. The strength of his new navy was such that he put seven Danish longships to flight, and captured one of them. The average Danish longship could hold about 30 men, so although this was not a numerically strong force of marauders, the King had stopped them before they had a chance to land and create havoc. It demonstrated that England could have a strong sea-going force of its own.
Alfred's efforts in developing the first real British fleet, later gave him the epithet "Father of the English Navy" and is likely the reason why the British navy is called The Royal Navy to this day. It is also known as the Senior Service of all the military services in Britain, being the oldest to develop into a regular fighting force.
King Alfred had recognised the value of fighting the enemy at sea, to beat them at their own game before they could land and disappear into the countryside. He perceived, wisely, that if the navy was strong, the island would be safe from invasion. This keen observation would hold true for hundreds of years to come, up to the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada, to Napoleon and Nazi Germany in later centuries. It could be speculated that if King Harold, in 1066 had met William the Conqueror at sea with a powerful navy, there might have been a completely different outcome for the nation of Britain. But that remains for another time in this series.
The Vikings Defeat King Alfred
In early January of the year 878 the Vikings, under the leadership of Guthrum, invaded Chippenham in Wiltshire, Wessex. King Alfred was taken by surprise as he had been celebrating Christmas in this Royal estate, and the victory was so overwhelming that he and his surviving forces were forced into exile. This was a severe reversal of fortunes for the king and for the peoples of southern England.
Many of King Alfred's prominent men fled to France, and the Kingdom of Wessex was put into complete disarray. Alfred, with his family and loyal supporters, fled into the marshes of Somerset. Here, Alfred set up camp on the Isle of Athelney which was an area of raised land, rather like a small hill, that was almost perpetually surrounded by regular flooding from the marshes. It was a cold, lonely and desolate isle encircled by a natural moat. However, this afforded the king and his followers some natural protection and a chance to regroup and reorganise.
The Burning of the Cakes?
It is during this period of utter defeat, that the story of King Alfred accidentally burning the cakes (likely to be small loaves of bread) occurs. The legend, recorded by Alfred's loyal monk and close advisor, Asser, is that Alfred was in disguise, along with some companions, and attempting to find out Guthrum's plans in the neighbouring area. Alfred and some of his followers came upon a herdsman's hut, and Alfred, seeming no more than a mere serf, was told to watch the cakes of bread. The story goes that he fell asleep, and the herdsman's wife upbraided him for burning the cakes.
Whether the burning of the cakes is a work of fancy or not, we cannot know for certain. I like to think that this is a true account, faithfully recorded by Asser, who documented the life of the king he loved meticulously in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It illustrates just how hard things had become for him, and how desperate the situation was for England.
Alfred Rallies his Forces
In May 878 King Alfred rode to Selwood Forest, near Salisbury Plain, where stood ancient Stone Henge, which still stands to this day. In the forest there was a large stone known as Egbert's Stone, (King Egbert was Alfred's Grandfather) a rallying place of his grandfather's time. The local men from the neighbouring areas came in force to meet their king, rejoicing that he still lived. A new army was gathered into the fyrd, or local militia, and Alfred led these forces to Ethandune (modern Edington) in Wiltshire, near Salisbury Plain. Here, he met Guthrum's forces in a massed battle and defeated them.
King Alfred then pursued the Danes all the way to Chippenham, which they were using as their stronghold. He besieged it for two weeks until the Vikings gave in and surrendered. He took prisoners as 'hostages' which was common practice in those times, but gave no hostages in return to Guthrum. This was unprecedented, showing that the Danes had no room for bargaining, such was their complete defeat. Not only that, King Alfred made Guthrum a Christian and he was baptized. Alfred was the victor. Guthrum and his army departed for East Anglia, where they settled under oath never to attack Wessex again.
The Siege of London
By the year 886, the Vikings had captured London itself. London had been under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Mercia, and was not the capital city in those days. Winchester in Wessex was the capital city, but London remained as it always has been, an important trading city and an easy passage for ships up the Thames. Therefore, it was relatively easy for the Viking longships to negotiate the often shallow waters of this great trading river.
King Alfred dislodged the encamped Danes from London by setting fire to the city and besieging it. After defeating the Vikings of London, Alfred re-fortified the city and set up a permanent garrison force there, and for the first time London became a fortress against future Viking raids. Its importance as a defensive city began to be realised.
Now that the Kingdom of Mercia had become severely weakened, King Alfred was regarded as the High King or Bretwalda of all England. He was now King Alfred the Great.
© 2019 S P Austen