The Man Who Was So Nearly King


It was a brilliant stroke, an attack, through the dark and chill of a winter’s night, that won a kingdom. Guthrum led his Viking war band south, riding hard from his base in Gloucester, heading for the royal estate at Chippenham. They were going to kill a king.

Traitors At Home

Riding fast, the Viking war band made its way through the winter locked countryside. Although they rode through Wiltshire, land owing fealty to Alfred, king of Wessex, no hands or swords were raised against them. Their lord, Guthrum, had made his preparations well. In the months before their winter ride, Guthrum had made surreptitious contact with the ealdorman of Wiltshire, one Wulfhere. Like many of the great men of Wessex, Wulfhere had lost faith in his young king, Alfred. The agents Wulfhere had received from Guthrum during the autumn of 877 had whispered promises to him, promises of preferment, possibly even of a throne. For the Great Heathen Army that had conquered the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain over the last 12 years had in Mercia and Northumbria installed client kings rather than ruling directly. For Wulfhere, maybe the prospect of a throne, even one held at the behest of Guthrum, might have seemed more attractive than more years bolstering Alfred’s uncertain regime. Whatever the blandishments or threats uttered by Guthrum’s agents, they worked. On that night in early January, the men that Wulfhere had set on the border between Anglo-Saxon Wessex and Danish-controlled Mercia stood aside as the king of the Danes rode past them.

To Catch a King

For Guthrum, this was the final push towards making himself the pre-eminent king in Britain. Already king of East Anglia, and with a puppet installed on the throne of Mercia beholden to his support, only the kingdom of the West Saxons held out against him. This winter attack was Guthrum’s third attempt to crack the Wessex nut and, as with his other attacks, he carried it out with his customary secrecy and speed. The aim was nothing less than to kill the king, celebrating the last days of the long Christmas feast at his royal estate in Chippenham. After a week or more of feasting, Guthrum hoped to find Alfred and his retainers bloated with food and sodden with drink: ready pickled for the killing.

But word reached Alfred just in time. Perhaps one of Wulfhere’s men, gagging at the silence enjoined on him by his ealdorman, rode south ahead of the Danes, bringing warning to Alfred and his family. As the realisation sank in, Alfred was faced with a sudden, life-or-death choice. Stay, and make a stand with the men of his household, or run. Part of Guthrum’s appeal to the disaffected magnates of Wessex was that their young king was unable to protect them. By running, Alfred would be making that claim real: he was unable even to protect his own family. But staying meant a fight against unequal odds with Guthrum’s picked assassination squad.

King on the Run

Alfred ran. With his family and the men of his household he fled, heading west, towards the marshes of Somerset. Arriving at the all but deserted hall, Guthrum pulled the news of the direction of the king’s flight from a left behind servant. And, hearing the news that Alfred had fled to the west, Guthrum smiled. He had planned for this. If the young king escaped the net in Chippenham, Guthrum had cast another to catch Alfred as he tried to escape. Another Viking army, led by Ubba, the last survivor of the sons of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, was even now sailing down the Bristol Channel to make landfall in north Devon. Alfred was about to be caught between two armies. The hard Wessex nut was shortly to be cracked.

But this was when Guthrum’s carefully worked out strategy started to unravel. Despite Ubba’s fearsome reputation and the fact that he was carrying the fabled raven banner of the sons of Lothbrok, the army he led was defeated and Ubba himself was killed by a surprise attack from the army of Odda, the loyalist ealdorman of Devon. As for Guthrum, finding himself now tied down having to defend fixed positions as Alfred launched a guerrilla war against him from his stronghold in the Somerset levels, the Viking leader suddenly realised the difficulty of fighting a war against an enemy that could choose where and when to fight. Alfred was starting to out Viking the Viking.

The Final Battle

So it came as a considerable relief to Guthrum to learn, early in May of 878, that Alfred had emerged from the marshes and was assembling an army at Egbert’s Stone east of Selwood Forest. Guthrum had fortified Alfred’s base at Chippenham during the last few months as he had tried to bring Wessex definitively under his control. Now, with Alfred coming out into the open, the matter was there for the settling.

For Guthrum, the news must have brought more relief than trepidation. His men were professional soldiers and now, finally, they would have a chance to come to grips with the phantom that had plagued them these past months. Faced with his own strategic choice – whether to remain behind his defences at Chippenham or to march out to meet Alfred in battle – Guthrum did not hesitate. He marched. With the advantage of mobility – most of his forces had horses – he called in all the patrols that could reach him in time and set out, south from Chippenham. Alfred had come out of the marshes, but Guthrum would choose the ground of their final meeting.


With his scouts reporting that Alfred was marching towards Chippenham, Guthrum reacted immediately. Leaving a small garrison in his base, Guthrum marched the Great Army south to intercept the army of Wessex. He took up position on Bratton Castle, an Iron-Age hillfort on the western edge of Salisbury Plain. The old hillfort, long abandoned but with its earth banks still impressive today, rose 740 feet (225 metres) above the farmlands running north towards Chippenham (the Westbury White Horse, a chalk figure cut into the grass, lies on the side of the hill, documented from 1742). From its vantage point, Guthrum could keep watch for miles around for Alfred’s army. Without a water source, it was no place for a main camp, but it was ideal for reconaissance, and provided the high ground should Alfred be willing to close on Guthrum.

As Alfred marched north his scouts brought back their reports: Guthrum had left Chippenham and taken up position on the fort of the old people. Soon, the king could see for himself the Great Heathen Army, their spear points glinting as they looked down from Bratton Castle. Although Alfred had attacked up hill at the Battle of Ashdown, here it was out of the question; the slopes were too steep. But rather than occupying the summit of a hill, Bratton Castle lies on a long ridge. Alfred could lead his men up on to the ridge and then advance on Guthrum. But, shading his eyes to take in the enemy position, Alfred must have grudgingly acknowledged Guthrum’s field skill: by positioning himself on the narrow ridge, the Viking leader had ensured that his shieldwall could not be outflanked. Thus, at one stroke, Guthrum had neutralised Alfred’s advantage in manpower. The Great Army had been whittled away in the previous months.

Choosing the Ground

However, with the narrow neck of land atop the ridge, and the careful use of the ditches marking out the hillfort, Guthrum could funnel Alfred’s shieldwall tight, so it could not come around to outflank him. As Alfred led his army on the long march up hill, the king would have been all too aware that the battle he was about to enter was going to be a brutal and bloody shoving match.

As the two kings dressed their lines, high above the Wiltshire Plain, they both knew this was the crucial battle. The battle-hardened warriors of the Great Heathen Army knew what they were about: they had had years of virtually unbroken conquest and, while their confidence may have been knocked by the unexpected defeat and death of Ubba, there was no reason for them to expect the fate weavers had started sewing a different pattern. The core of Alfred’s army was made up of his personal retainers, man for man, as good troops as the warriors of the Great Army. But the majority of Alfred’s army were not trained soldiers, but farmers and artisans, free men who owed service to their lord, and who fought for their families and their land. Such men marched to battle with whatever weapons they had to hand. Among these men there would be barely an item of armour, and precious few, if any, swords.

Preparing the battle space

The Northmen waited, in solid line, their painted shields interlocked, spears prickling out through the wall like a porcupine. As the army of Wessex approached, the commanders detailed to each flank pushing the men on the inside tighter to stop the shieldwall spreading, the men drummed on the rims of their shields. Boasts, insults, threats rang out as the lines closed and it became clear, to each man in the converging shieldwalls, whom he would face in the enemy line. This was war at its most up close and personal.

In these battles there was none of the clouds of gunpowder smoke that would obscure later battlefields – everything was stark in its clarity. But kings could not take advantage of this clarity by standing back and directing the battle; of necessity, their place was in the centre, in the front rank.

Size does matter

As the battle wore on, sheer fatigue started to play as much a part as battlefield losses. And this is likely where Alfred’s advantage in manpower started to pay off. The sources tell us the battle lasted a long time, long enough for the adrenaline rush of battle to begin to wear off, long enough for even the experienced warriors of the Great Heathen Army to begin to flag against weight of numbers and the sheer, dogged determination of Alfred and his men. Unlike so many other Anglo-Saxon armies before them, they did not break and they did not flee, but, with Alfred safe at the centre of the line and his banner flying, the men of Wessex began to break through the shieldwall of the Great Heathen Army.

When the end came, it was probably quick. The Great Heathen Army broke. The shieldwall cracked open, the exhausted, triumphant, blood driven men of Wessex burst through, cutting men down as they ran, bypassing those who retreated in good order, shields and spears presented outwards, as the lust for spoil and the wonder of still being alive drove them on.

Guthrum, with his ring-given men, the best and toughest of the Great Army, retreated to the tethered horses, and leaping upon them made their getaway. It had all come down to this one battle, the Battle of Edington, and Guthrum had lost.

King of East Anglia

After two weeks’ siege, Guthrum surrendered to Alfred. As Alfred’s God had proven his worth on the battlefield, Guthrum agreed to be baptised, with Alfred standing as godfather, a position that emphasised Alfred’s spiritual and temporal position over Guthrum. The Viking, now bearing the name Æthelstan, withdrew to East Anglia, settling down there reasonably peacefully: there was the odd bit of raiding – what was a Viking who did not go viking? – but no further serious attempt to conquer Wessex. The two kings, Æthelstan née Guthrum and Alfred, also signed a treaty, the text of which survives, that created the Danelaw as a legal entity. The text defined the border between the territories ruled by Alfred and those under Danish law: up on the Thames, and then up on the Lea, and along the Lea unto its source, then straight to Bedford, then up on the Ouse to Watling Street. Guthrum, who had come within a battle victory of taking all of England, lived as king of the Danelaw until he died of natural causes in 890: the man who almost turned England into Daneland.

The Strategy of Alfred the Great 3: the burhs

The warriors who would have defended Alfred’s burhs looked like this.

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 Strategy of Alfred the Great 2: the navy

Foto : Runar Storeide

How Alfred founded the Royal Navy.

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.

The Strategy of Alfred the Great 1: the army

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.

Rebuilding Wessex 4: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

As a boy, Alfred loved reading and books.

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.

Rebuilding Wessex 3: The Burhs

Alfred was the most scholarly of the Anglo-Saxon warrior kings.

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.

Rebuilding Wessex 2: The Army

Alfred the Great turned his army into a mobile, horse-mounted reserve.

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.

Rebuilding Wessex 1: Education

The Alfred Jewel, front and back.

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.

Big Announcement Number 1

Finally, a new book!

Drum roll…

I’ve finished writing my next novel. And here are the very first lines.

“Bloody Danes.”

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.)