How Alfred defended the country and kickstarted the development of towns.
The army and navy provided offensive options, but the kingdom needed defence in depth. Places of safety where people could take shelter when the Vikings raided and bases from which to harry the enemy as he advanced and retreated. To that end, Alfred built fortresses, or burhs, across the kingdom, each carefully placed in a strategic location.
But a fortress without men to guard it would simply provide convenient strongholds for the Vikings themselves. They were adept at throwing up quick defences. The Vikings particularly liked to fortify the ‘Y’ at the junction of two rivers, building a palisade between the two waterways and mooring their boats there.
To make surethe Vikings did not use the burhs for their own defence, Alfred had to ensure manpower. So he created fortified towns, the first since Roman times, with each given sufficient land to ensure it was economically viable.
Furthermore, Alfred placed the burhs so that nowhere in Wessex was more than 20 miles – a day’s march – from the refuge they provided. In particular, Alfred guarded rivers – building burhs in Southwark, Sashes, Wallingford and Cricklade to guard the Thames – and along the coast to guard the mouths of rivers and the best harbours. Inland burhs were sited to guard the Roman road system and Britain’s ancient trackways.
Now, when the Vikings raided, they found the local populace sheltering behind high earth ramparts surmounted with wooden palisades. Should they choose to bypass the burh, they left themselves vulnerable to attack from the rear or an assault on their moored boats.
By slowing down the enemy, the burhs also allowed Alfred to get to the Vikings with his own army and force them to battle or to flee. This was a classic example of area denial, a key military concept that is still practised today.
Also, by founding these fortified towns, Alfred provided a major impetus to local economies, providing centres of population that began to grown organically. It was an extraordinary achievement.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions four naval actions in the whole 9th century: Alfred took part in three of them. Alfred was all too aware of the importance of sea power and even more conscious of how the Anglo-Saxons had ceded the advantage to the Vikings.
In his analysis of the Vikings’ strategic advantage Alfred had realised the importance of sea power. The freedom of the sea allowed the Danes to choose when and where to attack, as well as providing them with a means to retreat should the Alfred’s men catch up with them.
So Alfred set about trying to counter this. The Chronicle records that Alfred ordered ships to be built, twice the length of Viking longships, with sixty oars or more. Alfred personally designed them to be faster and steadier than the enemy ships. His plan was to engage the Danes at sea or soon after landing.
With bigger ships, Alfred aimed to bring superior numbers to bear in a battle whose outcome would be largely determined by strength of numbers. In a battle in AD 897, Alfred’s navy was blooded for the first time, blockading a Danish fleet of six ships in the mouth of a river. The fighting was vicious, with losses on both sides, but the Danish fleet was crippled. Only three ships managed to escape, and two of these were driven ashore by storms and their crews captured and taken before Alfred. He ordered them to be hung. Of the six Viking ships, only one escaped.
So among Alfred’s many achievements was the foundation of the English navy.
How Alfred re-organised the army, founded the navy and re-built the country.
The success of the Vikings was down to two key strategic advantages: mobility and surprise. If they encountered a substantial enemy force, the Northmen preferred to retire behind their defences and wait them out, knowing full well that the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms could not keep an army in the field for long: after a few months, men would start drifting back to their homes and fields.
To counter this, Alfred realised he needed a standing army, and a mounted one at that, to match the Vikings’ mobility. So, he set about creating one: ‘the king’s reforms kept half the warriors on duty and half in reserve’. The horses were not the great war beasts of the high medieval period, but smaller animals, ideally suited for carrying the relatively lightly armoured warriors of the time. Now, they could get to the Vikings before they could get away.
All Early Medieval kings were acutely conscious of their image. Glory was the best advertising for a king: it deterred enemies and attracted followers.
Alfred was no less aware of that than his fellow kings, so he commissioned the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This tale of years, with its bald statements of battles and deaths, is a crucial historical document. Without it, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, it would be impossible to write the history of England between the Romans leaving and the Normans arriving.
Despite the importance of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it must still be viewed carefully. The history of the time before Alfred’s reign was patched together from a variety of sources, notably Bede and a variety of existing chronicles detailing the histories of Mercian, Kentish, South Saxon and West Saxon kingdoms.
After the compilation of the first version of the Chronicle, copies were dispatched through the land which then formed the basis for ongoing chronicling. There are eight extant manuscripts, each different, and the disentangling of sources, influences and histories is an ongoing scholarly pursuit.
Although there is little comment in the Alfredian portion of the Chronicle, the choice and, in particular, the omissions were part of the image Alfred and his circle wanted to project of a West Saxon king as the culmination of Anglo-Saxon history and the bulwark against pagan invaders. Still, where it has been possible to check the Chronicle independently it has proved a reliable historical guide, so the previous notion that it is pure Alfredian propaganda has been quietly put to one side. It would be better regarded as an honest record, but one informed and formed by its point of view and time of composition.
Alfred’s reform of his army was only half the solution to the problem of enabling Wessex to withstand future Viking attacks. Even with a mounted army, the Viking mastery of amphibious operations meant they could still achieve first strike along the long coastline of Wessex, or along its navigable rivers. To protect against the sudden threat of the dragonships appearing on the horizon, Alfred had to improve the defences of his kingdom, and make them accessible to his people. To that end, he set about the most sustained programme of building since the Romans conquered Britain seven centuries earlier.
Alfred built fortresses, burhs (from which comes ‘borough’), right across his kingdom, each of them carefully placed in a strategic location. These were not simply defences, but rather fortified towns, able to function economically and independently, yet able to combine with each other to form a defensive screen across Wessex. The thirty burhs were placed so that no one and no where in Wessex was more than twenty miles – or a day’s march – away from a refuge.
The burhs defended harbours, rivers, Roman roads and the old trackways of Britain. Where Roman or Iron Age forts already existed, Alfred was perfectly happy to reuse and renovate what was on the ground. But where there was nothing he built from scratch. Although we don’t know for certain, it seems likely that Alfred made use of his new standing army in the construction of the burhs. As any commander knows, keeping bored men occupied and out of mischief is difficult. Digging ditches and raising palisades ensured that the army had work to do when it wasn’t fighting. Most of the new burhs were built near Alfred’s existing royal residences. These were already strongholds, but with essentially a fortified town near a royal estate, each helped to defend and support the other.
A burh was not just a fortress but a planned town. The people living in the town provided much of the manpower to defend the burh, and ensured that it would be defended and guarded. In some cases, such as at Winchester, Alfred was simply expanding what was already there but in others he created a town on a green-field site. For the burh to remain effective as a defensive bastion, it had to be a viable economic unit, and land was allocated to each for its supply and provision.
But the building of protected settlements with concentrations of population had the result of kickstarting towns, and their attendant trade and wealth creation, into existence. Although there’s very little left of Alfred’s original burhs, the street plan of somewhere like Wallingford, with its regular grid, probably dates from its foundation. If so, it shows just how ambitious Alfred’s building programme was, for Wallingford covered one hundred acres (forty hectares): the king had created, from scratch, the second biggest town in his kingdom.
In order to support each burh, Alfred created a system of administration that ensured sufficient land and resources were allocated to each burh for its maintenance and its defence. Now Wessex was ready. Let the Vikings come, if they dared.
Alfred believed the Vikings had been allowed to ravage his kingdom because his people had given up their commitment to truth and learning. Having set about rebuilding education in Wessex, and having learned to read and write Latin himself, Alfred moved on to the second stage of his plan to protect the kingdom against further Viking incursions.
The Viking’s key strategic advantages were mobility and surprise. When faced with an organised defensive force, a Viking raiding party preferred discretion over valour. Despite their reputation for berserk fury, most Vikings were in it for the money. Given the choice, they would seek refuge behind fortifications or take to their boats than risk everything in a full-scale battle. But the time taken to assemble the fyrd, the free men of a district, meant that any half competent Viking commander could raid and depart before anything could be done to stop him. Even the Great Army that Alfred had defeated, which was set upon conquest rather than raiding, used the same tactics, picking the time and place to strike, often waiting for when its enemies were occupied with harvest or festivals.
Alfred dug deep into the problem he faced, working down to first principles. He saw that, to counter the mobility of a Viking army, he required forces that could be assembled quickly and moved fast: he needed a mounted, standing army. This was a radical change from Anglo-Saxon practice. What’s more, it would be far more costly to the magnates required to provide the mounted troops. But by 893, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes in passing the results of the changes the king had inaugurated, Alfred had persuaded, cajoled, suborned and wheedled his nobility into line. Half the kingdom’s warriors were kept on duty, with the other half held in reserve.
We know this force was mounted because, in its description of the actions and campaigns of the 890s, the Chronicle repeatedly refers to Alfred’s forces riding after the Viking army. The horses were not the great war beasts of the high medieval period but smaller animals, not that much larger than ponies, but ideal for transporting the relatively lightly armoured warrior of the time.
By retaining half the warriors in reserve, that is, still living in their landholdings, Alfred also ensured the maintenance of the king’s peace. For these warriors fulfilled the function of a police force as well as an army, deterring bands of brigands from raiding the small farming communities and religious establishments that dotted the land. Having men in place on the ground also meant that those on service were less likely to go running back to their homes to look after hearth and family. But this mobile strike force was only half the solution. Alfred still needed to find a way to protect the ordinary folk of his kingdom, the ones whom the Vikings would seize and sell at the slave markets of Dublin.
The Vikings would be back. While Alfred had defeated Guthrum in 878 he knew that the Vikings would return. But next time, he would make sure that Wessex was ready for them.
Alfred tackled the matter with the systematic intelligence that was characteristic of him. First came the question of ‘why’? Why had God allowed pagan men to ravage the Christian kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons? For Alfred did not believe in a universe of chance. Things happened for a reason, and he applied to recent events the same self-analysis that the Jews applied to their own history in the Bible. Alfred saw the English as a new Chosen people, set apart by God for his purposes. But while the Jews came to understand their own history in terms of their falling away from the ancestral covenant they had made with God, Alfred came to a different conclusion with respect to his own people. It wasn’t so much that they had failed morally (although the temptation to vice was ever present and often consummated), but rather that they had failed by abandoning their previous commitment to learning and education. Whereas in the seventh and eighth centuries, Anglo-Saxon scholars such as Bede and Alcuin had been among the most learned men in the world, by Alfred’s reign learning had fallen off so precipitously that the scribes for Canterbury Cathedral, the mother church of the whole country, were unable to produce texts in intelligible Latin. It was this failure to nurture their patrimony of learning, Alfred believed, that had caused God to remove his protection from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
So, having established the cause, Alfred set out to remedy it, and he started with himself. He had only learned to read and write English when he was 12. This was better than for many other people but it was still a source of embarrassment to Alfred. What was more, he could not read or write Latin, the language of scholarship. So, somewhere in his mid-30s, Alfred started to learn Latin. But Alfred wanted not just to be able to read Latin. His aim was to achieve a high-enough standard in the language that he would be able to translate key Latin books into English. For Alfred had decided to embark upon a programme of education for his people and himself. To do that he recruited to his court the most able clerics he could find, from Britain and abroad, men such as Asser, a Welshman, Plegemund, a Mercian, John from Saxony and Grimbald from France. Alfred’s court was becoming an international institution.
Recognising that most of his people had neither the time nor the opportunity to learn Latin, Alfred and his court scholars set about translating the books ‘most necessary for all men to know’ into English. These included the Dialogues and Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and the first fifty Psalms. These works are full of spiritual, moral and practical wisdom, from the Consolation’s advice on how to deal with turns of fortune that leave you destitute – something Alfred himself was all too familiar with – to sound precepts for how a bishop should do his job in Pastoral Care.
Alfred sent a copy of Pastoral Care to every bishopric in the country and, being Alfred, was shrewd enough to guess that Gregory’s pastoral advice might best be gold-plated with an earthly gift, so included with each book a beautiful and valuable text pointer. One of those pointers, the Alfred Jewel, pictured above, has survived to today and is on display at the Ashmolean Museum.
To ensure that the knowledge in these books reached beyond the episcopacy, Alfred established a court school to teach not only his own children but also the children of the nobility and even many among the common born. To recover from the ravages of the Vikings, Alfred fostered a thorough going cultural renewal. That Alfred, while burdened with all the duties of a king, should still find time in his day to translate Latin texts into English for the good of his people marks him out as truly exceptional among monarchs. There have been many great warrior kings. There have even been a few scholar kings. But Alfred is pretty well unique in being both.
The All About History bookazine on the Anglo-Saxons is out now and most of it is written by me. It covers the whole of the Anglo-Saxon era, from the Romans leaving to the Normans arriving, with lavishly illustrated articles on the Heptarchy, King Alfred and the Conquest among much else. It’s available in larger newsagents and bookshops or you can order it here.
I’ve finished writing my next novel. And here are the very first lines.
I looked away from my horrified regard of what was happening to the man beside me.
“Bloody, bloody Danes,” Brother Odo muttered again, staring fixedly through the slats of the sty.
“Yes, they are,” I hissed. “And it’ll be our blood they’ll be covered with if you don’t shut up.”
Brother Odo turned terror struck eyes towards me. “Where did they come from?”
“The Danes? Where do you think?” I squinted back out through the slats. “Idiot.”
There you go. Does it make you want to read more? As you can tell, this story is again set in Anglo-Saxon England, but two centuries later than the Northumbrian Thrones, during the invasion of the Great Heathen Army. But if that is par for my normal writing course, the ‘hero’ isn’t, for he is a liar, a cheat and a coward; a man whose only virtue is the fact that he knows he is completely without any redeeming virtue. The story begins with the Great Army laying waste the kingdom of East Anglia and reaches a climax at the Battle of Ashdown, taking in martyrdoms, mysteries and a very unusual place to find a bishop’s ring along the way.
The book will be published by Endeavour Ink, the paper imprint of Endeavour Press, probably in the spring of 2018. (I can’t give you a title yet, as we haven’t decided on one.)
If you thought £20 was a bit much to pay for the hardback edition of In Search of Alfred the Great: the King, the Grave, the Legend (and although it has lots of pictures and diagrams and some lovely words, that is quite a lot of money) then now is the time to click on the link – for the lovely people at Amberley Publishing have just released it in paperback. So, sit back and discover just why Alfred is the only king of England to be called ‘great’.