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Filled with drama and action, here is the story of the ninth-century life and times of Alfred—warrior, conqueror, lawmaker, scholar, and the only king whom England has ever called "The Great." Based on up-to-date information on ninth-century history, geography, philosophy, literature, and social life, it vividly presents exciting views of Alfred in every stage of his long career and leaves the reader with a sharply-etched picture of the world of the Middle Ages.
Wessex BEFORE THE TIME OF ALFRED
THE NINTH CENTURY in all its course was the century of Alfred the Great. Its first half, from 800 to 849 A.D., saw, as it were, the preparation of the theater, the gradual building of the background, in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, in France, in Germany, in Scandinavia. Against this background, of invasion and of war, of destruction and of lawlessness, of constant struggle on English soil between the foreign intruder and the native-born, of ignorance deep and universal, ignorance concerning the things of God and of man, this king played his leading part, and for the high manner of his playing stands alone among the rulers of English land.
We begin our story, then, in the first years of this ninth century: in 802, to be exact, the year in which Egbert, Alfred's grandfather, came on the scene as ruler of Wessex, the kingdom of the West Saxons. As its king he governed in the south and west of England the shires of Somerset, Dorset, and Devon, Wiltshire and Hampshire. In Cornwall the Celtic British were still holding out against West Saxon conquest, and Berkshire was a debatable region, swaying between West Saxon and Mercian control.
In these years, indeed, the word "Mercian" meant much to Wessex, for the kings of Wessex, one after another, acknowledged the supremacy of Mercia, the Midland kingdom of the Trent Valley. This power of overlordship had been won during the previous, the eighth, century by those great rulers of Mercia, Ethelbald and his more famous successor, Offa. Offa, as king of Mercia, at his death in 796 had been not only lord of Mercia proper, in the lands of Stafford, Derby, Nottingham, Warwick, Worcester, and Leicester. His power as supreme head was also acknowledged among all peoples south of the river Humber; from what is now Lincolnshire to the Middle and the East Anglians, to the border peoples of Cheshire, Shropshire, and Hereford, to the men who dwelt about the Severn, to the Angles of Kent, to the Saxons of the east, the middle, the south, and the west. London itself was a Mercian city.
Such was still the position of Wessex when Egbert, Alfred's grandfather, came to its throne. The history of his coming holds interest for us. Sixteen years before this time, in 786, he had laid claim to this throne as one of direct descent in the royal House of Wessex as well as a prince of Kent. His claim was strong. But it had met a stronger force. In this same year of 786 the crown of Wessex was gained by one named Beorhtric, a man of obscure ancestry but fortunate in the support of Offa himself, king of Mercia and overlord of Wessex. Offa had sealed this alliance in 789 by giving to Beorhtric his daughter, Eadburh, in marriage. Promptly Egbert fled from England to find refuge among the Franks at the court of Charles the Great, and Beorhtric remained king of Wessex for these sixteen years.
In 802 Beorhtric suddenly died. The manner of his dying, strange and violent, if we may believe the gossip down the years of West Country tradition, brings King Alfred into our story. Long afterward Alfred told all that he himself had heard about it to his friend and counselor, Asser of Wales, and we still have Asser's reporting of the tale. Alfred told, and Asser must have hung upon his words, that the Lady Eadburh, after her marriage to Beorhtric, had become so haughty and overbearing toward her husband at the Wessex court that she did everything in her power to injure anyone for whom he cared. She also accused of evil in his presence all who had in any way offended her, hoping to deprive them of influence or even of life. If her efforts failed, men declared, she slipped poison into their drink; and one day her husband, King Beorhtric, drank by mistake of the cup which she had poisoned for another and so came to his end.
Her own end, Alfred went on to tell, was even more miserable. After Beorhtric's death she packed up all her jewels and other valuable possessions and crossed with them to the court of King Charles in Frankland. And, as she stood before him, holding out many gifts in hope of his friendship, the king said: "Choose which of us you will, Eadburh, either me or this son of mine who stands here by my side."
In her folly, said Alfred, she answered, with never a moment's hesitation: "If choice be given me, I choose your son, for he is younger than you."
Then Charles answered her with a smile and said: "If you had chosen me, you should have had my son. Now, for this choosing which you have made, you shall have neither of us." He thereupon sent her to a convent of nuns, who in their reverence for her high birth made her their abbess; but her evil heart led her into sin with a man of her own country. She was cast out, and she ended her days as a beggar on the street corners of Pavia in Italy.
The rule of Wessex now lay open to Egbert. At his accession, like Beorhtric, he knew Mercia as overlord. But Egbert was no son-in-law of a Mercian king, bound by gratitude; on the contrary, that very Mercian king had driven him from his country and from the throne he claimed. The years of his exile, moreover, had done much for him. He was now immeasurably stronger and wiser, far more ambitious to extend his kingdom's holding. Not in vain had he watched Charles the Great, king and emperor, ruling Franks and Saxons of France and of Germany and many other nations which had been subdued in many campaigns, administering law, exacting allegiance from people and from nobles alike.
Now, then, during the thirty-six years of the rule of Wessex by this ancestor of Alfred, we are to trace the turn of the tide in his kingdom, from subjection to Mercia to a new independence, a freedom from Mercian power. No doubt Egbert rejoiced as in a happy omen when, on the very day of his enthroning, his men of Wiltshire routed and drove back the Mercian invaders who were hurrying to raid Wessex fields.
Yet he waited long for decisive action, perhaps that he might gather his strength and abide his hour. At last, when in 815 the Celts of Cornwall rose against the West Saxons who were steadily encroaching upon their land and liberty, he marched to work destruction in Cornwall from east to west and made over to the West Saxon church a tenth part of that land.
Ten years later, in 825, Egbert was ready for war against his overlord, the king of Mercia, at this time one Beornwulf by name. Their armies met at "Ellendun," now known as Wroughton near Swindon in Wiltshire. The battle was decisive. Beornwulf was conquered, and threefold fruit of victory fell into Egbert's hands. The men of East Anglia yielded to him their homage and service; secular rule over Kent, Essex, Sussex, and Surrey now passed to Wessex as a lasting heritage of its kings; and henceforth Wessex was free from the supremacy of the Mercian throne. Four more years went by, and in 829 Egbert attained his highest hope. Again he met Mercia's army and Mercia's king, now one Wiglaf, in another great battle, and now he conquered Mercia itself.
This victory over Wiglaf, it is true, did not bear permanent result. In the course of time the Mercian kings regained their crown and much of its substance, held sway as of old over Middlesex and London and Berkshire, and commanded homage in matters of the church from the bishops of Kent and Sussex, including Canterbury.
Egbert, however, successfully continued to extend his power. In this same year of 829 his presence at the head of his army at Dore in Derbyshire brought the men who lived in Northumbria, north of the river Humber, to peace and submission to his will. The following years he won the same from the Welsh by marching into Wales. Lastly, before he died he led his army a second time into Cornwall against the Celtic Cornishmen, still stubbornly resisting the West Saxon invaders, and completed their subjection to his rule by a new victory at Hingston Down.
Egbert, then, had followed the inspiration of his friend and protector, Charles the Great, so far as his power of mind and character could carry him. His kingdom had been delivered from Mercian control; the boundary of its rule and influence had been greatly extended; and its repute among Englishmen was now far higher than he had found it at his coming.
Egbert died in 839, and his son Ethelwulf followed him on the royal throne of Wessex. History remembers Ethelwulf as the father of Alfred the Great and, more generously, as another leader in battle, though of far less achievement than Egbert. He had taken part in Egbert's wresting of supremacy from Mercia. At his father's command he had marched with Ealhstan, the fighting bishop of Sherborne, and with Wulfheard, "ealdorman," governor under the king, of Hampshire, at the head of a great army into Kent in 825; the passing of Kent and Essex and Sussex and Surrey from the rule of Mercia into the kingdom of greater Wessex had been in part carried out by him and his men. He himself had become ruler of these regions under King Egbert, and now in turn he gave them over to his own eldest son, Athelstan, to govern in the same minor way.
Ethelwulf was not, however, by nature a man of arms. His heart lay in the peaceful practice of devotion to the Catholic church, that church which from its head and center in Rome had taught and tended the peoples of England since the sixth century, which from the seventh century had seen bishop and clergy, monks and missionaries, in Wessex. This father of Alfred was destined by fate to do his best to defend his church and his land from sudden and savage attack; and it is to his credit that he met with courage, throughout much defeat and some success, the menace which was to fall upon his kingdom.
At the beginning of his reign he sent his envoys across the Channel on a mission to Frankland. These envoys found in the kingdoms of the Franks, in France and in Germany, a state of affairs very different from that of the time of Charles the Great. Charles had now been dead twenty-five years, and his son, Louis the Pious, had long been trying to hold together the Empire of the West. Louis, like Ethelwulf, was devout and eager in the service of the church; for her he poured out all he had, of time, of energy, of money. But he could not control his rebellious sons, Lothar and Louis the German, and their half-brother, Charles the Bald. Long before he died these three sons were quarreling in their haste to grasp the various lands of his empire, left finally at his death in 840 helpless against its disruption and its fall.
It was in 839, shortly before the death of Louis, that Ethelwulf as king of Wessex sent to ask of him permission to pass through the land of the Franks on his way to Rome. He was going, he said, on a pilgrimage of prayer, for his people had been terrified by a vision revealed to a priest among them. An angel had appeared to this man of God, warning that the sins of Christian men were crying aloud in their iniquity and that even the prayers of the Holy Souls offered day by day for men's repenting could no longer hold back the wrathful justice of heaven. Already blight was falling upon the fields and orchards of England. Unless its people turned speedily to penitence and kept with due respect the days set apart for worship of the Lord, forthwith there would come upon them heathen men, with an immense multitude of ships, to destroy both the land and its inhabitants with fire and the sword.
Whatever the vision, its prophecy, its foreboding, was realized only too soon. It was in Ethelwulf's reign that the Vikings of Scandinavia first began in force that work of destruction which was to haunt and harry his son Alfred's life from childhood to death. Not for sixteen years was Ethelwulf himself able to leave England for pilgrimage of prayer at Rome.
The origin of the word "Viking" has been disputed. Scholars have explained it as meaning "one who frequents a creek or fjord," from the Old Norse vik, a bay; otherwise, as "a warrior," from the Old Norse vig, battle; and still otherwise, in connection with the Old English wic, a camp, as "one who came from a settlement to work havoc." But in any case the word from early medieval days came to mean everywhere "a pirate from overseas." As such the Viking was pictured, by the Christian chroniclers who told his deeds, in the blackest colors of brutality, sacrilege, and all evil. And this was literally a truthful picture of these Scandinavian adventurers who during this ninth century overran Europe—France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Russia, and the British Isles—who destroyed their harvests, stormed their towns, looted their holy places for the treasures these guarded, killed their priests, monks, and layfolk, and raped their women.
But the Vikings were only part of the Scandinavian picture and, moreover, were the cause in other ways of actual benefit to Europe. And since they were of so great import, for evil or for good, to England, Scotland, and Ireland of Alfred's day, it is well to place them against their Scandinavian background.
The dwellers in Scandinavia—Norway, Sweden, and Denmark—come to light in the Stone Age, roughly prior to 1500 B.C., as people hunting with arrows and harpoons of bone and horn the wild boar, the deer, and the wolf in their forests, the whale and the seal and lesser prey in their fjords and streams; raising wheat and barley in rude fields; tending among their huts and byres cattle, sheep, and pigs. During the thousand years that followed, from 1500 to 500 B.C., we see them plying their oars in primitive boats across the Baltic to meet traders from southern Europe, who brought them in exchange for furs and amber the bronze from which they now fashioned their weapons, their plows, trappings for their horses, and utensils for their daily need at home. During another thousand years, from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D., first, during the history of Rome as Republic, they were laying the foundations of their future prosperity; then, during the Roman Iron Age, they were building ships to sail the seas; commerce was carried on with traders of the Roman Empire; intercourse with Roman culture was giving them new inspiration for defense, for invention of things of practical necessity and things of artistic form. Already settlers were coming across the North Sea to join them, to take possession of land which lay within reach and only needed clearing.
This progress was far more marked in the period of the Great Migrations which heralded and followed the fall of Rome in the West, when barbarian peoples wandered north, and Scandinavian fighters drifted into barbarian hordes on the Rhine and the Danube to attack and raid the Roman armies in their latter years. It was not surprising that the treasures brought home as reward of battle should excite these men of Scandinavia, now growing from primitive energy of physical life into a mature ambition, a conscious desire, for the possession, for the actual creating in their own land, of the beauty and the luxury which they had found abroad, for the going-forth of their ships in search of new prizes, fresh models for their own increasing skill.
Legends from the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. tell of the Yngling line of kings of Sweden, of the Scylding dynasty in Denmark. But not until the Viking Age was at its dawn, about 800, can we think of Sweden as united under one king; and, except for Horik the Dane in the mid-ninth century, no power was to draw the people of Denmark together under one rule until long after Alfred lay dead.
The tradition of Norway's unifying as one kingdom is of special interest. About that same year of 800, on Norway's west coast, in the land of Vestfold which bordered on Oslo Fjord, there was ruling one Gudröd, of the old Swedish Yngling royal house. He was known to men as the Hunter King, and his queen was Asa, daughter of King Harold Redbeard. Story, fostered in Norway and in Iceland, declared that this King Harold had refused to give his daughter to Gudröd and that Gudröd had fallen upon him by night and killed him; that then in revenge Queen Asa sent a page of her household one evening to murder her husband as he was coming down the gangway from his ship, merry with feasting. She was his second wife, and it was their son, Halfdan the Black, and still more their grandson, Harold Fairhair, who during Alfred's reign were, one after the other, drawing Norway's jarls to submission to one single crown.
When the Younger Iron Age, which saw the Viking conquests, was beginning its course, also about that year of 800, Scandinavia was still parceled out in farms, and its people were still living on the soil. But the farms were steadily growing larger, as more and more forest land was cleared for use. On each individual farm lived the family which owned it, from the head, who held chief control, to his sons and sons-in-law, who dwelt on the same wide estate, shared in its farming, and shared, too, in the rights of its property. The heads of neighboring estates and their families and households met on days of feast in their common sanctuary for the worship of their gods, on days of council for the discussion of laws and secular affairs. Presiding over both, as priests, as judges, as leaders of debate, were the chieftains, the jarls, whose families owned the largest estates, who as warriors and administrators fulfilled somewhat the same offices as ealdormen in England.
Excerpted from Alfred the Great by Eleanor Shipley Duckett. Copyright © 1956 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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1. Wessex before the Time of Alfred
2. The World of Alfred's Boyhood, 849-65
3. Alfred and His Brother, King Ethelred, 865-71
4. King Alfred and the Great War against the Danes, 871-86
5. King Alfred and His Rule in Wessex
6. King Alfred and His Scholars and Teachers
7. King Alfred and the Later War against the Danes, 892-96
8. King Alfred and His Earlier Translations
9. King Alfred and His Later Translations
10. King Alfred at Home
Brief List of Books