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.

The Siege of Jerusalem in AD70

The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez

In Jerusalem, even a pile of rocks is significant. Early in 2016, archaeologists working for the Israel Antiquities Authority found heaped up rocks and stones while investigating part of the Russian Compound in central Jerusalem. But, this being Jerusalem, these were stones that told a story of blood and terror, of the gods and God.

In 70AD, the Roman general, Titus, laid seige to Jerusalem. Under his command were four legions – 60,000 men. Inside the city were about half a million Jews, most of whom were families caught in what had become a death trap. Judea had long been a fractious part of the Roman Empire, the unhappiness of its subjects worsened by a series of inept governors. In the chaos that surrounded the final years of the Emperor Nero’s rule and the fighting following his death, the Jews rose in revolt, declaring an independent state with its capital in Jerusalem and its heart in the great Temple. But when Vespasian took control of the Empire he dispatched his son, Titus, to put down the Jewish revolt.

Despite having four years to prepare for the Roman attack, the new Jewish state had squandered energy and manpower in internal fighting. The gangs of three warlords fought through the streets of Jerusalem, even into the Temple itself. But worship and sacrifice nevertheless continued, with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover in April 70AD. And there they were trapped. Titus invested the city, trapping residents and pilgrims alike.

But the rebels were confident they could withstand the Romans. Jerusalem itself was ringed by walls and watchtowers and, at its centre, the Temple was as much citadel as place of worship. And the rebels had completed the Third Wall, begun by Herod Agrippa in 40, which protected the more vulnerable northern side of the city. We have a witness to what happened next in the appalled and self-exculpatory work of Josephus, one of the leaders of the Jewish revolt who, captured, defected to the Romans and became interpreter to Titus.

Standing beside his master outside Jerusalem, Josephus looked upon a city that held his own parents as well as many friends. It must have looked impregnable. “Many towers, 35 feet high and 35 feet broad, each surmounted with lofty chambers and with great tanks for rain water, guarded the whole circuit of the walls, 90 being in the first wall, 14 in the second, and 60 in the third.”

It was this Third Wall that Titus attacked first. And it’s the debris of this assault that Israeli archaeologists found in the Russian compound, scattered in front of the excavated line of the wall. They found more than 70 ballista stones right in front of the wall. The bombardment was intended to attack the sentries guarding the wall and to provide cover for the Roman forces so they could approach the wall with battering rams and thereby breach the city’s defenses.

They did. But the Jews fought on.

The Romans stormed the second wall, then had to retake it all over again when the Jews counterattacked. Titus invested the city, building a wall around Jerusalem’s walls to seal the inhabitants into their city tomb, and then settled down to let famine do his work. According to Josephus, people walked ‘like shadows, all swollen with famine, and fell down dead…a deep silence and a kind of deadly night seized the city.’  The Romans crucified anyone who attempted to escape, sometimes killing 500 people a day: the Mount of Olives was covered with crosses.

Finally, at the end of July, Titus ordered his legions to make the final attack on the Temple. The defenders fought over every stone, but they were overwhelmed and fire spread in the wake of the blood madness.

The Temple, the seat of God’s presence on earth, burned.

The History of Mont Saint-Michel part 4: Decline and Fall and Rise Again

Photo by Lubosz

The Mount, set in a tidal bay, did not need defences until the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War. During the course of the war, battlements were built around the island, and the abbey itself was fortified.

By 1520, the last great addition to the abbey church, the late-Gothic choir, had been completed. It was just in time. In 1523, King Francis I granted the abbacy in commendam to the nobleman (and later cardinal) Jean le Veneur. This was basically a grant for an absentee abbot to milk the abbey of its income. Le Veneur, and the succeeding abbots in commendam, did so, to such an extent that there were barely any monks left at the outbreak of the French Revolution. The rabidly anti-clerical Revolutionary government closed the monastery and turned it into a prison, mainly for priests and religious. They also renamed it Mont Libre, apparently without any intended irony. To haul provisions to the top of the mount, the prisoners had to tread a huge wheel that pulled a cart up a steep incline: wheel, chain and incline (called ‘poulain’ in French) are all still visible.

The Mount remained a prison until 1863, when a campaign by French men of letters, including Victor Hugo, led to it being declared a historic monument. Some urgent repairs were needed to stabilise and restore the building after the modifications made to hold prisoners. As part of the restoration, the spire atop the central tower was added, with the statue of St Michael crowning it.

In 1966, after a gap of over 150 years, monks returned to the abbey. Appropriately, they were Benedictines, and once again the great work of monks, the daily office of prayer and chant, was heard flowing through the choir. In 2001, the Jerusalem Community, a joint institute of monks and nuns, took over at the abbey. They chant lauds and vespers in the morning and evening, with a midday mass; for those wanting to engage more deeply in the spiritual heritage of Mont St-Michel, the Community have a retreat house on the Mount. These are the best times to visit the abbey: as the chant silences the tourist chatter and the sound, more profound than silence, reaches to heaven.

Michael, looking down from his high vantage point, must be pleased.

The History of Mont Saint-Michel part 3: A Miracle in Stone

Mont Saint-Michel as it appeared in 1865.

Faced with a lax community of monks, Richard the Fearless (933-996) brought in those great renewers of monastic life: the Benedictines. Richard gave the epicurean monks of the mount an ultimatum: accept a properly rigorous monastic life as a Benedictine or leave. All but one left. This year, 966, marks the start of the Benedictine foundation that would work miracles in rock.

As the power of the Dukes of Normandy grew, so did their reliance on the protection of their great patron, St Michael. In 1020, Richard the Good (ruled 996-1027), son of Richard the Fearless, commissioned Abbot Hildebert to build a new abbey church upon the mount.

Romanesque architecture was in its infancy, but in their ambition to glorify the archangel, Richard and Hildebert asked extraordinary things of their new church. The rock of St Michel was shaped like a sugar loaf, rising 78.6 metres (258 feet) above the mean sea level. The obvious architectural choice would have been to cut the top off the mountain to create a solid and level foundation for the new church. But that would have been to step down from heaven. Instead, Abbot Hildebert took the apex of the rock for the the ground level of his new church, and built out in all directions to provide the foundations.

The apex of the rock is the centre of the church, the crossing point where nave and transept meet and join. On this rock, Hildebert built his church, the central tower rising directly from the apex of the mount, supported by the four piers that still hold the tower up, thrusting the statue of St Michael (a 19th-century addition) into the sky. Abbot Hildebert and his successors built out westward about two hundred feet from the cross of the church.

A great medieval church never being properly finished, they were still building 150 years later, when Abbot Robert de Torigny rebuilt the west front of the church with two towers. That was two towers too many. One fell in 1300. Slowly, slowly the west front gave way, so that in 1776 the whole façade and three spans of the nave had to pulled down. Today, four of the seven original seven spans of the nave survive.

Looking up at the abbey church today, standing serenely above the world, it seems untroubled and stable. This appearance masks the reality of its history. For the abbots built out as enthusiastically eastwards as they did westwards, with the same result. On the east, Abbot Hildebert’s foundations stood until 1421, when they gave way while the mount was beseiged during the Hundred Years’ War. It was rebuilt and completed in 1520 in a last flowering of Gothic architecture. Stand in the western door and you can see the original and terminal styles of medieval architecture, the Romanesque and the Gothic, together, the sober spans of the Romanesque nave framing the flamboyance of the Gothic choir.

The History of Mont Saint-Michel part 2: the Normans

Mont Saint-Michel by Antoine Lamielle

When the founder of the Norman dynasty, Rollo, was given Normandy by the king of France, Mont Saint-Michel was not originally part of the package. But Rollo’s son, William Longsword, won the monastery from the Dukes of Brittany and the Dukes of Normandy became enthusiastic patrons of the monastery.

By this time, Mont St-Michel had already been a place of pilgrimage for two hundred years. Pilgrimage was the great passion of the Middle Ages, bringing together every class of society in a shared pursuit that accommodated the sacred and the profane. To imagine the gusto with which people embraced pilgrimage, think of the trackways and roads of Europe thronging with people off to see their favourite football team play, taking their summer holiday, trawling the information channels of the internet for gossip and searching for healing of body and soul. Pilgrimage encompassed all these human needs and desires, and more. As Chaucer wrote in the 14th century of another group of pilgrims setting off after a long winter:

Then longen folk to gon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken strange strondes.

Far from keeping to their manors from birth to death, medieval men and women, no less than those today, were keen to seek out strange strands and new worlds. Mont St-Michel, which by its physical and spiritual geography united sea and sky, and heaven and earth, was a major stop on the developing network of pilgrimage routes.

But for the monks on their once lonely mount, the influx of pilgrims brought spiritual dangers, for wealth flowed in the wake of the wanderers. Rollo, full of zeal for his new religion, repaired the damage caused to the buildings during the vicissitudes of the Viking incursions and his son, William Longsword, endowed the abbey further. The rich and powerful, no less than the poor, enjoyed going on pilgrimage, but they expected to be received with proper pomp and the monks of Mont St-Michel began to accommodate their behaviour to that of their rich guests, rather than the other way round.

The History of Mont Saint-Michel part 1: Foundation

Mont Saint-Michel by Arnold Prentl

‘La Merveille’ – the Marvel.

That’s what they call Mont Saint-Michel. Approaching it across the polders and salt marshes, with the sea melting into the sky, you’ll see the truth: it is a marvel. Looking at the walls rising to heaven, you’ll think such a creation impossible without the aid of Hollywood CGI (indeed, should it appear strangely familiar, the design of Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings films was inspired by Mont Saint-Michel). But this is real, the work of men’s hands. And, mostly, it was the work of men who lived a long, long time ago.

La Merveille began, appropriately enough, as miracle. In 708, according to tradition, the Archangel Michael appeared to Aubert, bishop of Avranches, and ordered him to build a shrine, dedicated to the angel, on the rocky outcrop in the middle of the vast shallow bay where the River Couesnon drains into the Channel. The bay, now named after its most famous landmark, has the widest tidal range in Europe: at low tide, the mud flats stretch for miles out from the shore, the highest tides see the water level rise 16 metres and the mount upon which the abbey stands transformed into an island.

Bishop Aubert, faced with the order to build an oratory in such an unpromising place, prevaricated. Michael, not to be put off, appeared again in dream, and a third time, when still the bishop hesitated. This time, to drive home his point, the archangel repeatedly poked his forefinger at Aubert’s head. According to tradition, the angel’s touch burned a hole in Aubert’s skull; the relic is on show today, at the Basilica of St Gervais in Avranches, with a hole clearly visible (sceptics maintain the hole is evidence of prehistoric trepanation rather than medieval angelology).

Michael, the leader of the army of heaven, would prove an apt patron for the men who were to become lords of the mainland near the angel’s mount.

St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall

St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall

Lying east of Penzance, in the bight of sea between Land’s End and the Lizard, a rocky tidal island rises from the water. Now crowned with a castle rather than an abbey, St Michael’s Mount is the Cornish cousin of its cousin in Brittany, Mont St Michel. The story of how St Michael’s Mount was given and then lost by Mont St-Michel is fascinatingly twisty.

First, there is the question of whether the monastery on the island predated the Conquest. The monks there claimed it did, citing an ancient charter in which Edward the Confessor granted St Michael’s Mount to the Benedictines many years before William arrived in England. The problem with this claim is that the charter is, historians now agree, almost certainly forged. But, if so, it was forged by Norman monks who came over from Mont St-Michel after the Conquest. So why would Norman monks need to prove to Norman lords that they had long had title to a monastery that they might have expected those same Norman lords to give them?

Two answers have been proposed. Firstly, that by proving their ancient title to the land, the community on St Michael’s Mount would free themselves from the play of great lord politics, with its shifting alliances and occasional spectacular falls. With title to their monastery, the monks of St Michael’s Mount would be able to stand back and watch as spectators the clash of ambitions of powerful lords. The other, related, proposal is that the charter was forged as ammunition during a dispute with the Norman lord, Robert de Mortain.

De Mortain was half brother to William (they shared a mother) and one of his key allies. He was a member of the councils that agreed to William’s plan for invasion, he provided 120 ships and he fought at the Battle of Hastings. In return, De Mortain was given Cornwall. There is a charter, with copies surviving in Exeter and Avranches, which gives St Michael’s Mount to the abbey of Mont St-Michel in De Mortain’s name. A later dispute apparently developed between the monks of St Michael’s Mount and De Mortain over the ownership of the manor of Truthwall, and this may have led the monks to assert their ancient and immemorial rights – even if this required a little finessing of the past.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the Hundred Years’ War broke the connection between the houses on either side of the Channel. Henry V made the definitive break in 1414, giving St Michael’s Mount into the keeping of Syon Abbey. The monastery itself was broken by England’s greatest vandal, Henry VIII, when he appropriated the country’s monastic inheritance and the mount became a coastal fortress. It served as such through the centuries – pillboxes mark its most recent defences during World War II – but it is now one of Cornwall’s main tourist destinations, accessible via causeway at low tide, or by boat the rest of the time.

The History of Lindisfarne part 5: the Vikings attack

Guests from Overseas by Nicholas Roerich (1901)

Sited on an island, with defences consisting of a ditch and bank, Lindisfarne must have seemed like a help-yourself buffet to the scouts for the first Viking attack. They duly helped themselves, reaping a harvest of the precious vessels and books (for the jewelled covers, they weren’t interested in the contents), and people, to sell at the Viking slave markets. It was 793 and the Viking Age had begun. The shock of the sacking of Lindisfarne, the most holy site in Britain, reverberated through Europe among the diaspora of scholarly Northumbrians who were spreading the fruits of a century of scholarship through the kingdoms of north-west Europe.

Alcuin, who was helping kickstart the Carolingian Renaissance at the court of Charlemagne, wrote of his shock and horror: “Pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar; laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of saints like dung in the streets.”

Further attacks led the monks to abandon Holy Island. They moved to Norham on the River Tweed around 830 before finally abandoning any thought of returning to Lindisfarne in 875. The monks of the community, carrying their holy relics – in particular the remains of St Cuthbert – settled first at Chester-le-Street before finally moving to Durham.

Still conscious of the link with their first foundation, the monks at Durham set about re-establishing themselves on Lindisfarne when it was safe, in the early 12th century. The church, whose remains we see today, was completed around 1150. Monks were seconded to Lindisfarne from Durham for two or three years but, with the outbreak of continuing, intermittent war between England and Scotland after 1296, the monastery had to be fortified, although the monks don’t seem to have held much of an armoury: just three lances, one helmet, one breastplate and one pair of iron gloves in 1362. With income from monastic estates declining because of the unrest, the monastery declined, so that just two or three monks lived there.

When Henry VIII declared himself head of the church in England, the cash-strapped monarch suppressed the country’s monasteries in a land grab only equalled, in English history, by William the Conqueror. Lindisfarne was closed in 1537. The building was not dismantled at once, but when the lead was taken from its roof around 1613, the church quickly fell into the romantic but ruinous state of today.

But stand there, when the daytrippers have crossed back over the causeway and the island is an island once more, and you will hear the silence of the centuries and the whisper of the sacred past.

The History of Lindisfarne part 4: After Aidan

King Ecgfrith attempting to persuade St Cuthbert to leave his hermitage and become a hermit.

Aidan died on 31 August 651. With his death, the simmering controversy over when to celebrate Easter came to a head. Developing in relative isolation, the Irish church had come to calculate the date of Easter differently from the rest of the church, with the result that King Oswiu (Oswald’s brother, who reigned after him) might be fasting while his queen, who followed the Roman method, was celebrating.

Such disunity in the royal household could not continue and, at a synod held in Whitby in 664, Oswiu decided for Rome. Those monks at Lindisfarne who would not accept the changes returned to Iona. But to ease the Northumbrian church into these new ways, Oswiu installed Cuthbert as prior of Lindisfarne.

With the backing and protection of the kings of Northumbria, the monks of Lindisfarne seeded daughter monasteries through the north east: Whitby, Melrose, Jarrow and Wearmouth, Ripon. Although the political strength of Northumbria lessened in the 8th century, the Northumbrian church entered a cultural golden age, producing extraordinary works such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the vernacular poetry of Cædmon, not to mention Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, without which our knowledge of the era would be bare indeed.

It was from Lindisfarne that Christianity spread. Faced with a choice between the religion of the people they had defeated and their own ancestral paganism, the Anglo-Saxons, through the 7th century, freely chose Christianity. The example and teaching of men like Aidan and Cuthbert, and women like Hild, abbess of Whitby, was crucial in this conversion.

The History of Lindisfarne part 3: Aidan

St Aidan of Lindisfarne

Christianity in Ireland had developed in a land never conquered by the Roman Empire, a country entirely without the towns that provided bases for bishops elsewhere. In response, Irish Christianity established itself around monasteries, with bishops often also acting as abbots. Aidan himself was both abbot and bishop, but he arrived in Northumbria with a significant disadvantage: he didn’t speak the language. While he learned it, Oswald acted as his interpreter. One imagines that, having the king act as translator, must have aided Aidan’s initial missionary effort considerably.

But an early Medieval king was peripatetic, travelling with his court to royal estates throughout his kingdom, doling out justice and consuming the food renders that were the chief forms of taxation. With Oswald so often away, it was down to Aidan to spread the new word.

He did this through a mixture of stringent self-discipline and humility, coupled with open-handed generosity. As a member of the nobility, Aidan was entitled to ride a horse – indeed, having a horse would have made his job much easier, enabling him to ride between the widely-scattered settlements of Northumbria. But, when he was given a fine and expensive horse by the king, he promptly gave it away to the first poor man he passed. When remonstrated with, Aidan pointed out that any son of Adam, however poor, was worth more than any son of a mare, no matter how valuable.

The self-discipline was evident in the monastery Aidan built on Lindisfarne. Surrounded by a ditch and bank, Aidan’s monastery constituted only those buildings strictly necessary for the daily round of prayer and labour that was the great work of monks. There was a church, made of wood and thatched, a cemetery, the most basic accommodation for the monks, and the workshops and sheds necessary for the other great work of early Medieval monasteries: book production. That was it. Even royal guests had to rough it.