- James Houser
May 878 - Alfred the Great & the Battle of Edington
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May, 878. In southwest England, an army of villagers and farmers gathers to take part in the decisive event of their times. Their mission: defeat the Viking King Guthrum and his Great Heathen Army. Their leader: Alfred the Great. Let’s throw a little light into the Dark Ages.
In the 700s AD, the lands we now know as England were divided. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the invasion of the Germanic Angles, Saxons and Jutes had established multiple Anglo-Saxon kingdoms all squabbling for power. The names of some of these kingdoms will be passingly familiar, such as East Anglia (the Kingdom of the Angles), Wessex (the West Saxons) and Sussex (the South Saxons.) By 800 AD, these lands were all Christianized as well, tied into the greater European culture and economy. Until around 800 AD, their biggest problem was each other.
The first Viking raid came in 793, when the Christian monastery at Lindisfarne on the east coast was raided and brutally pillaged. After that, the raiding continued sporadically until it really stepped up in the 830s. Soon huge numbers of Viking ships, as many as 35 at a time, would descend on remote sections of the coast, strike a town, carry off its riches (and many of its people as slaves) and be gone before anyone could respond. The Vikings proved to be a terrible scourge all over Europe, but due to their proximity the British Isles simply got the worst of it.
Last month, in my post about the Irish defeat of the Vikings, I mentioned that there were three stages to Viking attacks in a general pattern across Europe from Ireland to Russia:
STAGE 1: Vikings come, they raid, they go home.
STAGE 2: Vikings come, create a fortified camp, then raid from there till they get tired and leave.
STAGE 3: Vikings come to conquer and set up kingdoms.
In 865, England hit Stage 3. I’m given to understand that much of this is depicted in the shows Vikings and The Last Kingdom, which I haven’t watched, so I can’t answer your questions about them. Sorry.
Do please keep in mind with all of this that the history tends to be somewhat scanty. For many of these events we have maybe one or two sources, written by a monk about a hundred years after it went down. If there’s incomplete information or questionable events, we just don’t know.
What the Saxons called the Great Heathen Army landed on the shores of England in 865. It probably numbered between 500 and 1000 Danish Vikings, which doesn’t seem like a lot but for Dark Ages England it was a terrible host. It was led by the brothers Ivar the Boneless, Ubba, and Halfdan Ragnarsson, allegedly sons of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok, who may or may not have even existed. Halfdan’s surname “Ragnarsson” implies that, but we have virtually no coherent records of who these leaders actually were. We know they were Danish, and that they were brothers, and that’s about it.
The Great Heathen Army began Stage 3 of Viking attacks: conquest and residence. By 870, the Vikings had overrun Northumbria and East Anglia, executing some of their foes by the terrible method of “blood-eagling” – that is, severing their ribs from behind and pulling their lungs out the gashes in the back to create “wings.” The sons of Ragnar did this to King Aella of Northumbria who had (allegedly) murdered their father. The “blood eagle” was, according to the Sagas, a ritual sacrifice to Odin.
The two English kingdoms left standing by 870 were Wessex in the southwest and Mercia in the west. Wessex was led by King Aethelred and was one of the only kingdoms to put up decent resistance to the Great Heathen Army. Aethelred was a fair king, but his brother Alfred, only 21 in 870, was a remarkable leader. Despite crushing defeats at the hands of Halfdan Ragnarsson in southern England, Aethelred and Alfred managed a brilliant victory at Ashdown in 871, though this was quickly followed by, well, more crushing defeat.
In 871, though, Aethelred died, leaving his younger brother Alfred as King of Wessex. Despite a couple of slim victories, the Saxon armies had been rolled by the Danes in almost every encounter, and unless he wanted to end up like King Aella, Alfred knew he had to sue for peace. He paid a substantial sum of money to get them to leave – but this was not a lasting settlement, as many unfortunate Europeans had already learned. The Vikings could be bought off, but that meant you were now a reliable source of money; that meant they would come back. The only way to permanently deal with the Vikings was to beat them in battle.
Alfred, in his 20s, tried to rebuild the defenses of Wessex as the Vikings overran the rest of England. The weakness of the Saxon armies was that, unlike the Vikings, they were farmers, laborers, and townsfolk. The Vikings, however, basically existed to fight, conquer, and live off what they looted and seized. This made them better-trained and more powerful warriors than the barely capable Saxon militia, whose only real tactic was “form shield wall and hope they don’t kill you all.” This was not usually enough.
The situation rose to emergency status when, in 874, the Danes finally destroyed Mercia, including the major urban center of London. This left Alfred’s Wessex as the only major Saxon kingdom left to face the onslaught of the Great Heathen Army. Alfred caught a break, though. At this point the Viking leaders were starting to fight amongst themselves.
With Mercia – their greatest threat – collapsed, the leaders of the Great Heathen Army decided to go their separate ways. Halfdan moved north to fight the Picts (the future Scots) and the Welsh, while Ivar headed off to try and conquer Ireland. This left Ubba (apparently the worst brother) and a capable leader named Guthrum, who quickly took command of the Viking forces left in southern England. This placed Alfred squarely in Guthrum’s crosshairs.
In 876, the Danes launched a new attack into Wessex. The army under Guthrum slipped around Alfred’s militia army and occupied the city of Wareham, taking multiple hostages. This was a typical and less aggressive Danish strategy – occupy a fortified town and demand a payment of money and hostages in return for a promise to leave. If this demand was refused, they went a-pillaging. The problem, of course, was that this deal was only as good as the Vikings’ word.
Alfred surrounded Wareham but was unable to take it by assault, so he agreed to pay the Danes to leave in exchange for a great sum of money. In 877, he forced the Danes to swear on a “holy ring” apparently sacred to Thor, which seems like it was a lie. Guthrum took the cash…then massacred the hostages and marched right on to the town of Exeter. This time Alfred pursued quickly, and the Vikings almost escaped before a storm scattered their rescue fleet. Humiliated, they had to ask Alfred for peace terms yet again. This time Alfred would give them no money and no hostages, but they would be allowed to go in peace.
Guthrum and the Danes were mad. They had spent almost two years marching around Wessex and had nothing to show for it. Alfred had bested them, but it was their turn. Alfred was staying at the royal stronghold of Chippenham, deep in the swamps of western England, to celebrate Christmas, and the Vikings launched a surprise attack. In January 878 Guthrum and his men stormed Chippenham, killing almost all of the people in the town except for Alfred. The young King of Wessex barely escaped with his life as his court burned behind him.
One of the great myths of England emerges from this period. Wandering through the swamps in the disguise of a beggar, King Alfred was on the run from the Vikings when he asked for refuge in the home of a poor peasant family. The family took him in, not knowing who he was. He agreed to help out, and one night the woman of the house asked him to watch some cakes that were cooking on the hearthstone. The young King Alfred, all of 29 years old, was burdened by his problems and worries. He had to wonder if he could ever recover his kingdom from the Danish invaders. As he let his mind wander in preoccupations, he forgot the cakes and let them burn.
When the woman returned, she was angry with the young King and sharply criticized him, saying that he was too lazy to turn the cakes he was happy to eat. Only then did she recognize him as their King, and immediately tried to apologize; Alfred, though, replied that he was sorry to have burned her cakes, and promised to do better. Even though he was a King, and could have punished the woman for talking to him that way, he knew he had done wrong and never let the cakes burn for the rest of his stay. A king must worry about the small people and the small things as well as the big ones.
Inspired and with his will strengthened by his lesson (allegedly), Alfred knew that Wessex was the last hope of the Anglo-Saxons. All the other kingdoms were gone, and his teetered on the edge of ruin. He crisscrossed the swamps, sending messages and making liaison with other rulers and towns. He discovered that they were finally ready to rise, unite, and fight the Danes off once and for all; despite his defeats, their loyalty remained as long as he was willing and able to lead. His confidence even in the greatest depths of adversity inspired them. As Alfred gathered the recruits he needed, he came to the point where he was ready to challenge Guthrum once again.
Word leaked out to the Vikings, and they were there to confront Alfred’s army as it poured from the swamps. They met on the field of Edington, somewhere around May 4-10, 878. (We are uncertain of the date; the records just say that it was the seventh week after Easter.) Guthrum had brought his whole host, but Alfred had called levies out from across England, and probably outnumbered the Vikings by some amount. Guthrum’s fights with other Viking leaders, though, had left his army reduced in numbers.
We know very little detail about the Battle of Edington, but we know that the Saxon shield-wall prevailed over the Viking attacks and that Alfred won the fight. He pursued the retreating Vikings all the way back to his old stronghold of Chippenham, where he surrounded them and proceeded to starve them out. After a few weeks, Guthrum and the Danes were ready to sue for peace, but Alfred was not letting them get off easy. This time the Vikings would give *him* hostages for good behavior, as well as solemn oaths to Thor and Odin – and with one new addition. Guthrum had to agree to be baptized.
The victory at Edington and Guthrum’s surrender probably saved England as we know it. Guthrum’s baptism symbolized a sea change in Viking rule in England, as well: as time went on, the Vikings behaved less like bloodthirsty conquerors and more like the kings their subjects expected them to be. Soon they were minting coins, passing laws and (gasp!) attending church services. Alfred’s Wessex had survived – the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom to outlast the Great Heathen Army – and became the nucleus of resistance for Christian residents of Britain. Although Alfred would never live to see it, his grandson Aethelstan would be the first King of England after he had finally defeated the last Viking realms.
The Vikings would be a threat to England until the Norman Conquest 200 years later, but Alfred ensured that there was still an England to be threatened. For this reason, as if you needed another one, we know him today as “Alfred the Great.”