Alfred Defeats the Danes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

King Alfred defeated the Danes at Edington, encouraging further Anglo-Saxon resistance against Viking invasion and establishing the foundation for his transition from king of Wessex to king of the English.

Summary of Event

The Vikings, invaders from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, first arrived in England England;Viking raids on in 789 and raided Dorchester, Wessex, then under Mercian control. The raiders did not commit any plunder but exhibited their superior strength. When the royal reeve from Dorchester commanded them to meet the king (Brihtric), he was killed on the spot. In 793, the Vikings sacked the monastery of Lindisfarne Lindisfarne;Viking raid on off the coast of Northumbria. The following year, they hit the monastery of Jarrow Jarrow, Viking raid on at the mouth of the Don. Nearly half a century later, in 835, a Danish raiding party devastated the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames estuary. In 836, thirty-five Viking ships landed at Carhampton (Somerset), but King Egbert Egbert put up a stiff resistance. Two years later, a Viking fleet joined forces with the Britons of Cornwall, but the allies were defeated by Egbert’s West Saxon army at Hingston Down. [kw]Alfred Defeats the Danes (878) [kw]Danes, Alfred Defeats the (878) Danes, defeat of Alfred the Great England;878: Alfred Defeats the Danes[1050] Expansion and land acquisition;878: Alfred Defeats the Danes[1050] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;878: Alfred Defeats the Danes[1050] Æthelred I Alfred the Great Asser Guthrum Ragnar Lothbrok Halfdan Ivar the Boneless

A more serious phase of Viking operations in England began when they took to wintering on island bases in the river mouths, conveniently situated for quick resumption of campaigning at the onset of spring. In 851, after wintering on the Isle of Thanet, an army of 350 ships stormed Canterbury and London. It routed the army of King Berhtwulf Berhtwulf (king of Mercia) of Mercia but was defeated by Æthelwulf, king of Wessex, and his son Æthelbald at Aclea (“oak field”) in Surrey.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 865 records how the people of Kent promised the Viking army at Thanet protection money, or Danegeld Danegeld , and how the heathens broke their promise. In 866, a Great Army of Danes commanded by two brothers, Halfdan Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless Ivar the Boneless , took up winter quarters in East Anglia, and the East Angles paid them money to buy their peace. For fifteen years, this army terrorized England. According to Scandinavian folklore, the two young Danes wished to avenge the horrible murder of their father Ragnar Lothbrok Ragnar Lothbrok , “Hairy Breeches,” the most notorious Viking of his time. Evidently some years earlier, Ragnar’s ships had been wrecked by a great storm off the Northumbrian coast. He was captured by the Northumbrian king, Ælle Ælle , and flung into a pit of adders where the violent Viking met a horrible death.

An artist’s dramatization of Danes preparing for a raid on the English.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The Great Army conquered York in 866, East Anglia in 868, and by 870 had seized Reading at the junction of the Thames and Kennet Rivers. In January, 871, they were checked by Alfred the Atheling, brother of King Æthelred I Æthelred I of Wessex, who, as Asser, a monk from St. David’, Asser writes, charged the enemy “acting courageously, like a wild boar,” cutting them down at Ashdown. Although the Vikings were vanquished, they held their own and fought nine more battles that year. In April, 871, Alfred became king of Wessex on his brother’s death and decided to make peace by paying protection money to the Danish host. The Danes then turned to Mercia, forced King Burhred to abdicate in 874, and in his place appointed one of the royal thegns, Ceolwulf II Ceolwulf II (king of Mercia) , “a foolish king’s thegn,” in the contemptuous phraseology of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The peace that Alfred bought from the Danes gave his kingdom a respite for reorganizing its defense, though it must be recognized that the West Saxon army, the fyrd (national militia), was nothing more than an emergency force, though quite effective and expedient. Neither ealdorman nor king could keep it in the field indefinitely nor lead it far beyond the borders of the shire(county) of its origin. The inability to keep a battle-worthy army constantly at hand resulted in the near-destruction of Wessex when the second Viking invasion began toward the end of 875. This was the southern division of the army, commanded by the three kings: Oscetel, Anwend, and the foremost and most forceful, Guthrum Guthrum (Godrum). Under Guthrum’s leadership, the Danes quickly settled themselves at Wareham on the Dorset coast in 876 before the West Saxons could intercept them in the open country.

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Unable to dislodge them by force, Alfred soon came to terms with the Danes, who promised to leave the West Saxon kingdom. In actuality, however, they merely transferred their camp farther west and took up winter quarters for 876 to 877 at Exeter. Again, Alfred offered terms; this time, the Danes actually honored the agreement. In August, 877, they crossed the border into Mercia and established camp at Gloucester. Here they proceeded to share some of the land and to give some to King Ceolwulf II of Mercia, their protégé. The Viking settlement covered an extensive region of central and eastern Mercia comprising the Five Boroughs—Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham, Leicester, and Derby—as well as the land further south and southeast, around Northampton, Bedford, and London. Ceolwulf’s share lay in the southwesterly part of the kingdom, including the towns of Gloucester, Worcester, and Warwick.

The settlement of parts of Mercia Mercia, Viking settlement of in the autumn of 877 must have diverted Viking manpower, but still they had enough fighting men to undertake a third invasion of Wessex. The English had, on the other hand, mistakenly believed that their invaders followed a single method of attack: campaigning in summer and holding up in a fortified lair in winter. After departing from Exeter in August, 877, Guthrum’s army tarried for five months and then “in midwinter” 878, descended on Chippenham. Guthrum chose a surprise attack when the land of the West Saxons had hibernated for the winter and its army long dispersed. Chippenham was the royal residence, and probably the invaders attempted to kill Alfred and his body of councilors at one stroke. Although the attempt failed and Alfred decamped, this winter descent of the Danes surprised, confused, and appalled the West Saxons, who thought their king to be dead and thus lay at the mercy of the intruders.

Alfred actually fled southeast into the heart of Somerset, where he set up a guerrilla base on the Isle of Athelney and began mounting periodic incursions against the Vikings. His preparations were severe and precarious. He could not raise the full muster of Wessex but had to make do with the fyrds of Somerset, Wiltshire, and western Hampshire. In any case, in the late spring of 878, he rode to Egbert’s Stone east of Selwood, took command of the host, and led his men toward the northern fringe of the Salisbury Plain, where Guthrum’s men paused on their march through Wessex. At Ethundune Ethundune, Battle of (878) (Edington), as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records, Alfred drove the entire Danish army away from the battlefield, and they promised to quit Wessex and have their king Guthrum baptized. Accordingly, “three weeks later King Guthrum with thirty of the men . . . came [to] Athelney, and the king [Alfred] stood sponsor to him at his baptism there.” Guthrum may have faced growing unrest among his battle-weary host, who compared their uncertain and unstable condition on the field to the peaceful and settled life of Halfdan’s men in Northumbria and thus looked for a peace with the Christians of the south so that they would be free to pursue a normal settled life in East Anglia and southern Mercia. Christianity;Vikings

Significance

Alfred’s flight to Athelney and triumphant return to Egbert’s Stone, “where men were fain of him,” as well as his victory at Edington followed by Guthrum’s conversion to Christianity have become part of the folk history of England. These episodes showed Alfred in his magnificent best and glorified Christianity as a civilizing force for the pagan and nomadic Vikings who were to be Christianized and civilized. The immediate threat to Wessex was eliminated. Edington led to the eventual creation of a united Christian, Anglo-Scandinavian kingdom. To cite the concluding remarks of a distinguished historian, “whatever Alfred’s shortcomings as a military commander in the future might prove to be, Edington was truly his finest hour.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asser, John. Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. Translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. Meticulous, scholarly, indispensable account of Alfred’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asser, John. The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great. Translated by Alfred P. Smyth. New York: Palgrave, 2002. A translation of Asser’s classic ninth-century text, De Rebus gestis Aelfredi. Includes extensive bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham-Campbell, James. The Viking World. London: Frances Lincoln, 2001. A succinct account with a brief but helpful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loyn, H. R. The Vikings in Britain. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995. A concise and highly regarded history of the Vikings and Viking Age by a renowned medievalist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smyth, Alfred P. King Alfred the Great. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Erudite critical study of Alfred. Chapter 3 is especially pertinent to an understanding of the Battle of Edington.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sturdy, David. Alfred the Great. London: Constable, 1995. In an effort to counterbalance prevailing accounts, Sturdy’s biography is extremely critical of Alfredian myths and legends.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitelock, Dorothy. “The Importance of the Battle of Edington.” In From Bede to Alfred: Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Literature and History. London: Variorum Reprints, 1980. This lecture to the Society of Friends of the Priory Church of Edington comments on the long-term significance of the Battle of Edington.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitelock, Dorothy, David C. Douglas, and Susie I. Tucker, eds. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1961. An authoritative annotated translation of an important primary source from the period.

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