Alfred The Great And The Last Kingdom (Part 2)

February 28, 2021

Alfred The Great And The Last Kingdom (Part 2)
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After a humiliating defeat, Alfred retreats to the swamps of Wessex and desperately tries to pickup the pieces of his shattered kingdom.

Meanwhile, Viking Warlord Guthrum recruits more Danes to help subdue the troublesome realm.

The fate of England balances on the edge of a knife...

Sources and Further Reading

The White Horse King, The Life of Alfred the great - Benjamin Merkle

Life Of King Alfred - Asser

King Alfred : burnt cakes and other legends - David Horspool


  • Who succeeded Alfred The Great
    • Alfred was succeeded by his firstborn son, Edward the Elder.
  • When did Alfred The Great die
    • Alfred died on the 26 October 899.
  • What did Alfred the great do
    • Alfred defended the English kingdom of Wessex from Viking raids in the 9th century.


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The Awakening by Patrick Patrikios
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A Fallen Cowboy by Sir Cubworth
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Welcome to part two of Alfred the Great and the Last Kingdom.
It might be worth listening to part one to get the full story, but if you're just that eager
to hear about some Vikings getting knocked about then I don't begrudge you for that.
In part one we covered Alfred's childhood, his family, his love of learning, his love of the
church, the Battle of Ashdown, the death of his father and brother, his internal crisis on
ascending to the throne, the siege of Wareham and the miracle in the English Channel. At the end of
the episode Guthrum and his men had ambushed Alfred in the midst of the Twelfth Night Festival.
Alfred and his family and a few guards had only just managed to escape and lose Guthrum
in the swamps of Somerset in the West Indies.
So at the lowest point of his life comes the most well-known story of King Alfred.
As Alfred and his men snuck through the swamps, evading Guthrum's men searching for them,
they came across the heart of a swineherd named Danewolf.
In his bedraggled state Alfred looked nothing like a king and posing as a humble traveller
he asked Danewolf if he and his entourage could stay with his family for a few days.
Danewolf agreed, providing the group helped out with chores around the farm,
which Alfred agreed to. A few days later Danewolf's wife was baking loaves of bread in the oven
she suddenly had to attend to the pigs outside so she asked Alfred to keep an eye on the loaves
and make sure they didn't burn. But Alfred, so lost in his own thoughts about his kingdom,
he completely spaced out and by the time she came back inside the loaves had burnt through.
Annoyed, she turned to the king, her king, and scolded him,
you hesitate to turn the loaves which you see burning yet you're quite happy to eat them once
they come from the oven. Alfred was taken aback. He had never been spoken to in such a way that
by a woman of such low standing but he accepted the criticism and offered to help her with the
next batch but once it became clear he had no idea what he was doing he was hurriedly shooed
out of the kitchen. The amusing story has been told and retold countless times with countless
variations. In some Alfred forgets the bread because he's sharpening arrows for the upcoming
war and in others he makes Danewolf one of his bishops later on. Even though this story was
first told by a monk 100 years after Alfred's death, it has become an enduring symbol of the
determination and humility of Alfred's character. In no retelling of the story does Alfred lord
himself over the peasant woman. There is no do you know who I am? Instead, despite an obvious
mistake, he stays the course. It's fair to say that throughout his life, Alfred burnt his fair
share of cakes but was never shy on working on a new loaf. I've put a picture of an artist's
rendition of this scene on our Instagram page. After leaving Danewolf's farm, Alfred and his
retinue set themselves up on the small marshy island of Athlone. With his usual resoluteness,
he wastes no time and gets to work on a temporary base sending scouts out into the countryside to
find out what the state of affairs was. The reports came back in that one of his
eldermen had betrayed him and now served Guthrum but others had not decided either way. This was
all he needed, it meant there was still time. With whatever fighting forces he had left,
he raided Guthrum's supplies and ambushed his patrols. Wulfher, the elderman of Wiltshire who
had betrayed him, received the same treatment. His message was clear, Wessex still had a king
and he expected you to keep your oath. Guthrum knew that while Alfred still lived,
his hold on the kingdom was shaky, but his scouting parties that entered the marshes came
back with less men than they left with or not at all. Old Saxon legends say that Alfred worked to
continue to feed his people during this troubled time and one particularly tall tale has him
multiplying loaves of bread in the same way Jesus did. Other bizarre tales tell us of him dressing
up as a minstrel and wandering through the Danish camps. As he delighted crowds with the loot he
somehow learned to play, he listened carefully to all the rumors, gossip, and plans of his enemies.
Disregarding these stories, Alfred really did seem to do whatever he could to maintain the
loyalty of his eldermen during this difficult time. One of the men who had rejected Guthrum's
alliance was Oda, elderman of Devon. Hailing from the coast, Oda had experienced the devastation
that the Danes had brought with him and when Guthrum's offer came to him, it was immediately
rejected. In retaliation, Guthrum sent Uba, one of Ragnar's little pigs, to deal with him.
Uba and his men marched south with their usual breakneck speed,
much too quickly for a fjord army to be summoned by Oda. Knowing the militia he had slapped
together would be no match for the Danish warriors, Oda and his men barricaded themselves
in a hill fort near Somerset. The Danes surrounded the fort and banked on the surrender of Oda and
his militia once their supplies ran low. Uba and his men were confident in victory and they had
every right to be. Apart from the hardened warriors, they had a secret weapon. A magical
banner that could predict the outcome of battles. The banner was believed to be sewn by Uba's sister
under orders of their father, Ragnar Logbrok. The banner featured a white raven against a black
background and with the correct wind, it looked like the raven was flying. This was said to signal
a victory and this is what Uba and his men saw. With Odin on their side, the Danes relaxed and
waited for their foretold victory. But while they relaxed, the hill fort was abuzz with activity.
The Saxon men knew their only chance was a surprise attack. They had to catch the Danes
off guard. So the very next day, as the sun began to rise in the sleepy Danish camp,
Oda and his militia burst out of the fort and barrelled downhill into the Danish camp.
The sheer audacity of the attack completely blindsided Uba and his men, who had barely put
together any defensive perimeter whatsoever. They blitzed through the front lines, armed with
garden hose, hand axes and old swords. They butchered the Danes before they even had a chance
to fight back. Uba himself was killed in the carnage and Oda took the faulty magical banner
as a prize. Whatever men were remaining made haste back north. As Alfred built up his makeshift
capital in Athelnae, it's stories like this that sustained him, knowing that the men of Wessex had
not laid down to Danish rule. So he sent out his scouts again, this time with a message.
On the 5th of May 878, his eldermen would call their levies and assemble before their king
at the plains of Ekbert stone, and there they would together reclaim their lands.
With Alfred in exile, Guthrum had given his men free reign to plunder Wessex, eager to
punish the countryside for protecting their king. Crops had been burned, family members murdered
and kidnapped, and churches ransacked. In a way, they had played right into Alfred's hand,
swaying any fence-sitting locals who may or may not have decided on capitulating.
Down on the coast, the eldermen of Devon and Dorset were still loyal to Alfred, but their
men were needed on the coast in case of another surprise landing. Wulfher, the elderman of
Wiltshire, had betrayed him to Guthrum, but Alfred was hopeful that perhaps some of his
bannermen would still answer the call of their rightful king. But truthfully, it was the
men of Somerset and Hampshire who he was relying on. Finally taking a page from the Danish
handbook, Alfred commanded his men to gather on the Christian festival of Whitsunday. This
was unorthodox, and he was banking on the Daners not expecting it. So, on the field
of Eckbert Stone, just south of Wiltshire County, Alfred met his men for the first time
in months. Much of the population had heard about his resistance, but few would have seen
him in person. By the time the day was through, 4,000 vengeful Saxons had rallied to fight
for Wessex, including many men of Wiltshire who had turned their back on Elderman Wulfher.
Alfred had his army and now he had to use it. Timing was everything. The assembly was
still a secret, but a gathering this size would not stay so for long.
Alfred and his eldermen quickly agreed that they would move north and besiege Chippenham,
Guthrum's capital, but by the time they broke camp the next day, word had already
reached the Danes. Guthrum hurriedly summoned all the men he could and marched out of the
city. A decisive victory on the battlefield was now the only option.
Guthrum, with reinforcements, headed for a hill fort south of Bath, and Alfred and his
men camped nearby. A somber and pensive mood blanketed the Saxon camp that night. Time
was spent praying, sharpening weapons, burying gold and other trinkets. At 5 am they broke
camp and marched to Guthrum's hill fort, finding him and his men already dug in and
waiting. From the imposing Danish shield wall came the jeers of Guthrum's men, beating
their shields and calling out, taunting the Saxons to go and take their last shot. The
taunts made it clear what would happen to the men's wives and children and land after
they'd finished with them.
Stalwick and unmoved, Alfred rode up and down his lines. While his own shield wall formed,
he praised his men for their bravery and their commitment to the realm. Looking individual
men in the eye, he spoke of the dishonor of running from the shield wall, and the debt
that each man owed to the man standing next to him. And then he interlocked himself amongst
them and started the march forward. As both armies closed the distance, the armies threw
their spears. The throwing spear they used was a variation of the old Roman Pella and
was barbed at the end as to render his shield useless once it was lodged in. If any man's
shield was hit in this way, he quickly moved to the back of the line and the next man stepped
forward to take his place. It's possible Guthrum had a few berserkers at the front
of his line. Berserkers were half-crazed warriors who wore almost no armour and fought in a
drug-induced frenzy, ignoring pain, cold and heat as they fought on until they were literally
cut apart. More of a psychological weapon than a physical one, Guthrum would have deployed
these men to weigh on the psyche of the Wessex army. After the berserkers had been cut to
ribbons, the battle commenced. The two shield walls crashed into each other where they remained
for the majority of the day. As Guthrum and Alfred worked to keep the resolve of their
men up, the ranks of the fallen in the front row slowly grew. The groans of the dying and
the wounded carried across the battlefield as men strained against the weight of the
other. Those in the front lines had nowhere to go, being held in place by their own army
behind them and the enemy in front. All they could do was keep their shield up and look
for opportunities to stab and slash. But by the mid-afternoon the Danes' resolve had
started to give out. While Alfred and his men fought for their land and for their religion,
the Danes fought for plunder. As it became clear that the Danes' strength was wavering,
Alfred, drenched in sweat, dirt and blood, cheered his men forward. Asa tells us,
He defeated with great slaughter and pursued them flying to their stronghold.
Immediately he slew all the men and carried off all the horses and cattle he could find.
As the men of Wessex surged forward in the final push of victory, whatever Danes were still holding
the lines broke and ran. As the sun set on the day, Guthrum, broken and dirty, limped
back into Chippenham. Alfred and his men arrived shortly after and blockaded the city. Guthrum
played for time, but after fourteen days with no food or reinforcements he was forced to
unconditionally surrender to King Alfred. Alfred's conditions were lenient considering
the bargaining position. Guthrum was to leave Wessex and never return. He was to provide
hostages to Alfred who would provide none back, but uniquely he was also baptised into
the Christian faith by Alfred himself. Alfred's belief was a cornerstone of his character
and it's likely that this gesture was to show thanks to God and with any luck the baptism
would imbue Guthrum with some good Christian values. And so a few weeks later, a very apprehensive
Guthrum met Alfred near the village of Wedmore. Thirty battle-hardened Danes watched in amazement
as Alfred tenderly took the head of his worst enemy and plunged him into the icy lake.
Guthrum the pagan was submerged below the water, but it was Athelstan the Christian
that emerged from it. Alfred and his new godson Athelstan spent the next two weeks feasting,
celebrating, and gift-giving. This must have been surreal to both parties. These were the
men from the other side of the shield wall who they had been told were wild beasts, lowly
Christians, or godless heathens, and they now sat alongside them feasting and drinking.
We've got an artist's impression of the baptism on our Instagram page,
at anthologyofheroes, or one word. I know what you're thinking, a sneaky old
Guthrum up to his old tricks again. This baptism would last about as long as he leaves Alfred's
court. Well, you'd be wrong. Although there were occasional raids into Wessex from Guthrum's
domain, this peace treaty really did mark the end of hostility between these two men.
The baptism seems to have stuck as well. Not too long after,
Guthrum began to print coins with his new Christian name, Athelstan, on them.
Even more incredibly, when a fresh batch of Guthrum's kin arrived from Denmark,
he refused their request to join forces in another war against Wessex.
And ultimately, the invasion was called off. It seemed that finally Alfred's faith in the
Lord was validated. Guthrum had finally given up the idea of ruling Wessex, and seemed to
realize that an alliance and a shared faith with its ruling family would be more advantageous in
the long run. The year 878 had been the most turbulent and
difficult year of Alfred's life. His fall from grace and his revival almost seemed like a
biblical story itself, but there was more work to be done. At the moment, Wessex could stand
proudly, but for how long? Almost all of England still remained in Danish hands, and the very
weaknesses that pushed Alfred to the very edge of complete defeat were still glaringly obvious.
First was the outdated Fjord army model, which time and time again had been exploited by the
Danes who had come and gone by the time the Fjord was summoned. Alfred set to work reforming this
from the ground up. The idea likely came to him on a trip to Rome when he met the French King,
Charles de Bald. Charles had constructed a series of fortifiable strongholds that the vulnerable
could fall back to in the event of a raid. Alfred copied this idea in what would become known as the
burgle system. Apart from the construction of strongholds, Alfred also standardized how many
men were required for the defense of each, and how much food the local lords would need to have
stockpiled. The idea was expensive to implement and unpopular with the local lords, who had to
shell out extra funds for it to work. But if it did, it meant that the Danes would be outside in
the cold trying to take a walled city while Alfred had time to summon his army and deal with the
invasion. In case you're listening from England, this is the origin of the word bara which is used
for neighborhoods today. As Alfred wrestled with his barons over the needs of his kingdom,
he was continuously bedridden for weeks at a time. Whatever sickness had afflicted him in his earlier
days still plagued him now. Even so, he was determined to ensure his children were educated
from a young age and spared no expense finding the best tutors in England or abroad. Asa tells
us that he personally read to his children. The same fondness he had for Anglo-Saxon poetry seems
to have persisted into adulthood. Across the relative security of Wessex, the arts began
to flourish. Underpinning these reforms was Alfred's obsession with piety and godliness.
The spot where he had won his victory at Eddington had an impressive chapel built to top of it.
Henry VIII demolished this chapel, but there's still a small monument standing on the spot.
I'll be adding it to our Instagram page if you're ever in Bath and want to check it out.
Whatever free time Alfred had, he pored over the Saxon translations of the old Latin works,
but was limited by whatever passages that the monks had previously transcribed.
Sparing no expense, he ramped up the efforts and recruited any literate monk he could find
to get to work. And when this was still not enough, he took the unprecedented step of
learning Latin in his late 30s. This coming from a man who learned to read English at age 12 is an
incredible achievement, and speaks volumes about his dedication to the church, literally.
Incredibly, we still have some of his very translations to this day.
In a preface written by the king himself, he writes on his reasons for performing the
translations this, quote,
I remembered also that I saw, before it had all been ravaged and burned, how the churches
throughout the whole of England filled with treasures and books, and there was also a
great multitude of God's servants, but they had very little knowledge of the books, for
they could not understand anything of them, because they were not written in their own language.
He then goes on to lament how literacy had fallen since the time of his ancestors, quote,
Our forefathers, who formerly held these places, loved wisdom, and through it they obtained
wealth, and bequeathed it to us. In this we can still see their tracks, but we cannot
follow them.
As Wessex began to revive itself, many minor rulers in Wales submitted themselves to Alfred's
rule, and it became the vassal lord for a good portion of Wales. Alfred continued his
efforts on centralisation, creating a code of laws that provided guidance on legal issues.
Some of these laws were downright odd, such as, If a man intentionally kills another man
by letting a tree fall on him, then this tree shall be given to the kingsman of the slain.
But the idea behind the code was sound, and it was meant to consolidate many different
decentralised law codexes that had been written in the past. But what was the point of the
laws if his eldermen could not read them? In his most radical decision yet, Alfred declared
that all his eldermen needed to have a basic comprehension of the English language, or
step down from their post. Out of all his reforms, this was met with the most pushback,
and had the potential to isolate Alfred from the men most loyal to him, men who had stood
by his side at Eddington when others had deserted him. Eventually, Alfred made some concessions.
If his eldermen could pay for the service of a clerk to read in their stead, this was
an acceptable compromise. Perhaps as a reward for those who stepped up, Alfred created one
of the most beautiful examples of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship that we still have today.
In 1693, a farmer ploughing his fields discovered a golden trinket about the size of his palm.
It was teardrop shaped and showed a figure made from coloured quartz, framed in gold
with lettering around the border. The translation of the lettering read,
Alfred ordered me made. Incredibly, the farmer had found the best and only surviving example
of Alfred's cultural revival. The exact purpose of the jewel is debated.
With its long needle-like point, some believe it was given as gifts to his eldermen to help
them focus on the line they were trying to read. Others believe it may have been the
head of a staff, and others believe it was intended to be placed in a court.
We've got a picture of this totally unique item, now known as the Alfred Jewel, on our
Instagram. Or, even better, once lockdown ends, go see it yourself at the Ashmolean
Museum in Oxford. As Alfred approached his mid-40s, he continued
to steer Wessex through its golden age. As his children grew up, their education began
to pay off. His daughter, Athel, fled, married into the mercy and nobility, and implemented
Alfred's ingenious burgle system to help protect their lands. Alfred's sickness took
more and more time of him as he aged. Asa says that by 45 years old, not a single hour
went by when Alfred was not in pain. But even when bedridden, he worked hard to translate
as many Latin texts as he could get his hands on.
Alfred knew it would soon be time to meet his maker, but it seemed there was one final
trial left for the weary king. With Wessex now armed to the teeth, the new
hotspot for the Vikings was over the Channel, in France. Paris had been subjected to the
same plunder that England had previously, and the Danish war chief, Haafstein, had well
and truly had his fill. Usually this would have been of no great concern to Alfred. In
East Anglia, Guthrum, aka Athelstan, had proven loyal, but two years later, Alfred's
successor, Eoruch, had avoided swearing the same oath that Guthrum had.
With Guthrum out of the way, Haafstein and another commander decided East Anglia was
a prime recruiting ground. The two armies made up around 320 ships, a humongous fleet,
but very likely half filled with booty and slaves from France. Due to the sheer size
they needed to arrive at different ports, they were able to make their way to France.
As they arrived, Alfred's new standing army blocked the route between the two hosts, preventing
them from linking up. Alfred tried the same tactic he had with Guthrum, but all the duels
and praise took him back when Haafstein casually told him that he'd already been baptised,
several times in fact. The negotiations ended inconclusively, and the Viking raids continued
across southern England. However, Wessex held its ground. The burgles, in which his eldermen
had objected so vocally to, proved their worth time and time again, keeping the civilians
of Wessex safe while they waited on the standing army to arrive.
With his legacy firmly in place, Alfred of Wessex slipped away one night, likely due
to complications from his illness. He was only 50 years old, and he had left his realm
in a much, much better place than he had found it 13 years earlier.
Though the Viking threat was still there, it had been blunted. Alfred's son Edward
would not only keep Wessex strong, but with the help of his sister in Mercia, forced the
Vikings out of Mercia and East Anglia, their only remaining holdout being Northumbria.
Alfred's body was interred in a cathedral in Winchester, where his wife and son were
eventually laid to rest also. Sadly, due to Norman invasions and Henry VIII's crackdown
on Catholicism, their bodies were moved again and again, until in 1788 when the small abbey
they were buried in was used as a stone quarry. A few convicts found the tomb of Alfred and
sold the ornate stones that entombed him, smashed apart his bones and scattered them
around the areas. It's truly lamentable to think of a few men smashing apart the bones
of a man who had such a profound impact on their life and the very language they were
speaking at the time. In a 2002 poll by the BBC, King Alfred ranked
number 14 in the top 100 greatest Britons of all time. No king appeared ahead of him.
For a country with history as rich as England, it says a lot about what he left behind. But
Alfred's legacy is not so straightforward. What historians dub the cult of Alfred did
not crop up overnight. Though always a cult hero in western England, Alfred being a symbol
of English liberty is relatively new. The title he was known, the Great, was only coined
in the 16th century. Interestingly, his legacy is blended into that of the mythical English
figure King Arthur. I'm not sure if it's the name or the shared godliness, but I even
met an English guy at a hotel a few years back who was insistent King Arthur and Alfred
were the same person. Alfred never was or even tried to pretend he was King of England.
The title did not even exist yet, but his campaign certainly paved the way for the development
of English identity. In fact, it was only two generations later that his grandson, Athelstan
– that's no relation to Guthrum – would claim the title King of England for the first
time. The British navy that, at its peak, controlled
a good portion of the known world has also been attributed to starting with Alfred. Along
with his burglar reforms, he tried his hand at crafting a fleet intending to stop the
Danes before they even reached his shores. For me personally, Alfred of Wessex represents
determination and grit. He was a mortal man, he made mistakes, many of them, but he always
stayed the course and made the most of the hand he was dealt.
Not too long ago, I took a trip out to the west country and after a few dead ends found
King Alfred's Tower, an impressive 18th century tower in the middle of the woods built
on the site of Eckbert Stone where Alfred rallied his men after his exile. It was a
surreal feeling to stand on the very spot where the history of a nation as pivotal as
England was decided by the determination of one man. The plaque there reads, Alfred the
Great, AD 879, on this summit erected his standard against the Danish invaders. To him
we owe the origin of juries, the establishment of the militia, the creation of a naval force.
Alfred, the light of a benighted age, was a philosopher and a Christian, the father
of his people, the founder of the English, monarchy and liberty.
In a story that sounds too ridiculous to be true, the tower was damaged in 1944 when a
single engine plane flew into it, knocking off the hand of the statue of Alfred at the
top. The plane's name? The Naudian Norseman. Those Danes really do hold a grudge, don't
I really hope you enjoyed my first Anthology of Heroes two-parter episode. I tried my best
to keep this as a single podcast, but I love Alfred's story and didn't think it would
be doing him justice to compress so much information into a single episode. If you've enjoyed
this one, it would be great if you could rate this podcast on Apple or follow us on Instagram
at Anthology of Heroes. We've got a load of interesting pictures coming for this episode.
Not just artists' impressions, but also scenes, coins, maps, pictures I took myself,
all the good stuff. I'm also very interested in what country you'd like to hear next.
I've ditched the A-Z routine, and while I've got a plan in my head, if there's
a story that you think is worth sharing, I'd love to hear it, so please reach out.
Take care, and see you on the next episode.