Vikings Essay, Research Paper
Question: Why was Alfred Able To Defeat The Vikings?
In the autumn of 856, Danish Viking ships sailed to England and invaded what is now Norfolk in East Anglia. By Easter of 878, the Danes held control of all of East Anglia, Mercia, most of Wessex (all save Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset) and had set up a puppet ruler in Northumbria. The invaders had destroyed or overrun almost everything that had been of the four great Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. However, by 896 King Alfred of Wessex and his countrymen had driven the Danes from Wessex completely and also from much of Mercia. When England came so close to becoming another Dane-land, how it was able to fight its way back from the very brink so that over 150 years later England was still decidedly Anglo-Saxon remains one of history s abiding mysteries. While one might argue that the chief factor in Wessex withstanding the Danish invasion was the marked resistance and singular stubbornness to accept defeat of its people, what is perhaps more reasonable to argue is that it was Alfred and his various qualities as king (not least of which was his own stubbornness to accept defeat) which were also reflected in the actions, if not the will, of the people of Wessex. Indeed, Alfred would seem to hold the key to the whole puzzle if only because it was he who from 868 to 896, first as secundarius to his elder brother and King, +thelred, then as King himself, led the long, exhausting and at times seemingly futile campaign against the Danish invaders. Therefore one must turn one s attention to the person and deeds of King Alfred.
The first place in the records of Asser, Alfred s biographer and author of most of the contemporary records we have of Alfred, in which one first begins to perceive Alfred s greatness is at only his second engagement of the Danish host at Ashdown on the Downs of Berkshire, probably near Uffington, in 870. At this time, Alfred was still secundarius to his brother +thelred but was forced to lead the attack himself when the Danes began to advance while +thelred was still at Mass in his tent. Despite the fact that the Danes held the high ground, it was Alfred who won the victory and it is to this incident that Asser, among others, ascribes his first winning of the people s confidence and affections. If nothing else, the incident shows Alfred s resourcefulness, leadership skills and courage; the battle was only the second recorded decisive victory won against a Viking force in Europe (the first being won by the Wessex ealdorman +thelwulf in this very same campaign). However, this incident alone cannot vindicate Alfred beyond a doubt as the catalyst that saved England from the Danish host. There were other men who did far more heroic deeds and who faltered at last before the Viking onslaught. Eudes, Comte de Paris, for example, held bravely the city of Paris before a Danish siege throughout the winter of 885 to 886. This is looked upon as another of the great resistances to the Vikings made by Europe. When Charles the Fat was deposed for his incompetence as king and Eudes erected in his place, however, even after several victories against the Danes, Eudes too fell before their swords. Alfred s military prowess was severely tested over the course of his reign and there are several such notable incidents that exemplify it. By far his finest hour was on the field of Ethandune (or Eddington) in 878 when Alfred, now King of Wessex, held the field against the Danes and pursued them from it, besieging them at Chippenham until they surrendered. This is accounted by scholars as one of the three great victories won by Europe against the Vikings. Another good example of Alfred s skill as a military tactician is shown in 895 when the Danes sailed their ships up the Thames and its tributary the Lea, there to set up camp and go raiding thence. Alfred commanded that the river be dammed so as to ground the Viking ships and prevent the Danes from receiving any more supplies or reinforcements. This was done and the Danes fled their camp to regroup elsewhere.
However, Alfred s creative thinking, resourcefulness and military prowess were not the sole saviours of the English way of life in the ninth century. After all, had not Charles the Bald of the Carolingian House defeated another Danish force with a similar tactic to the one Alfred used on the Lea at Angers on the Maine in 873? Alfred s victories were not his only strengths. He also triumphed in his weaknesses. Much has been made of the months that Alfred spent in the marshes of Somerset at the place that came to be known as Athelney. Alfred and the little of his forces that remained retreated there after the Danes led a surprise attack on Chippenham at the beginning of winter of that year and subsequently overran most of Wessex. Between March and May of 878 was the low point in the Anglo-Danish wars for the people of Wessex and indeed of all England. Many even yielded themselves and their possessions to those invaders whom they now believed to hold in their grasp all the English land. But even so, Alfred and his men, beaten to the very brink of annihilation, continued to hold the swampy stronghold of Athelney and to organise raids and guerrilla warfare in the woods upon small Danish forces. Asser writes, Alfred, with his vassals and the nobles of Somerset sallied forth to make frequent attacks upon the pagans. It was from this desperate position that Alfred and the West Saxons emerged to win the victory of Ethandune.
Asser also appears to believe in his writings that something much deeper had taken place within Alfred during these months hiding out at Athelney, saying that it forced Alfred to see life steadily and see it whole This implies that Alfred was also a very spiritually-minded king and not a purely superficial character. This inference is supported by many of Alfred s other ventures that he undertook during peacetime and also as much as he could while he was waging war. We have it on Asser s authority that Alfred oversaw the translation of many books into the Anglo-Saxon tongue from the Latin, and that he attempted to learn Latin himself, thereby to involve himself in this process. According to MacFadyen , the books that Alfred sought to translate may be used as a gateway into the mind of the king. It may be fitted into its place as part of his life-work. This may in turn assist us in understanding how he was able to so well unite his people under him. Some of the more notable titles that he had translated were Bede s Church History of the English, Boethius On the Consolations of Philosophy and Pope Gregory the Great s Cura Pastoralis. In these literary efforts can also be seen Alfred s wider perspective on the events of his time. Even during the Anglo-Danish wars, he engaged in peaceful pursuits and encouraged those around him to do the same. His focus exceeded the war in which he and his country fought for their very survival, looking forward to a time when culture would once more have its place in people s lives. Alfred s foresight also pertained to matters of war, however. Around 897, Alfred ordered that the West Saxons begin work on a fleet of ships so that they might engage the Danish Vikings on the sea as well as on land- the English Chronicle records, They [the English ships] were full nigh twice as long as the others; some had sixty oars, some had more; they were both swifter and heavier, and also higher than the others. They were shapen neither like the Frisian, nor the Danish, but as it seemed to [King Alfred] they would be most efficient. Most scholars see this as the very beginnings of the modern British navy . Although most of the initial attempts at naval battles made by the West Saxons were somewhat disappointing, Alfred s men did meet with some success on a number of occasions; for example on one occasion there were six Danish ships attacking the coast near the Isle of Wight whom Alfred s new ships engaged. Although nine of the English ships ran aground almost at once, two of the Danish ships also did the same while two escaped and two more were captured by the Saxons who subsequently put their crews to death . It was this remarkable foresight and resourcefulness that, among other things, enabled Alfred to win back his country from the Vikings.