In Search of Alfred the Great: The King, The Grave, The Legend
By Edoardo Albert and Katie Tucker
Amberley Publishing, 2015
Alfred, son of Æthelwulf, king of the West Saxons, ran. Behind him, the takers of his land and kingdom fanned out, searching for the fleeing king …
Buried in AD 899 as the king of the English at his capital city of Winchester, Alfred the Great’s bones were thought to have ultimately been moved to an unmarked grave. His remains had been completely lost to us for centuries until researchers at the University of Winchester discovered what is in all probability a piece of his pelvis in a cardboard box. This exciting discovery has reawakened interest in one of our most notable monarchs.
The only English monarch ever to have had the epithet ‘the Great’, Alfred’s reputation reaches down to us through the years. Within these pages, discover Alfred’s dramatic story.
Read an Excerpt: Chapter 6: To Kill a King
Guthrum had lost a fleet. He had renewed his oaths, given on pagan rings rather than Christian relics, and handed over hostages he was less inclined to lose. Alfred had faced him in two protracted bouts of negotiation, first with Guthrum holding the whip hand and then when he was able to enforce his own terms. Alfred knew his man well. He was con dent he had beaten him. He was wrong.
As Alfred shadowed the Great Army out of Wessex in August 877, Guthrum noted the rich land his depleted army was marching through. Making his base in Gloucester, he took over the western half of Mercia from Ceolwulf, the puppet king, and began parcelling it among his chief men. This was as Halfdan had done when the Great Army split after taking Repton, leading his men up to York and dealing out the estates of Northumbria to his magnates. When news of Guthrum’s actions reached Alfred, he must have felt a quiet satisfaction that he had finally seen off the Great Army.
But it appears to have been a ruse. While Guthrum handed out estates, he was also drawing in reinforcements to replace the men lost in the sea disaster that had overtaken his fleet. It is likely he also sent out messengers. Although Ivarr the Boneless and Halfdan were dead, there was another of the sons of Ragnar left alive: Ubba. After his role with the Great Heathen Army when it first descended upon Britain and then took the kingdom of East Anglia, Ubba disappears from the Chronicle. It seems he took his ships and men to Ireland, where the great Viking port of Dublin served as a hub for the trade in goods and slaves that drove the Viking expansion. But sometime in the later part of 877, Guthrum’s messengers reached Ubba and the last of the sons of Ragnar gave his assent: he would join the final assault on Wessex.
While his messengers sailed across the Irish Sea, Guthrum had been making other preparations. His previous attacks on Wessex had depended on surprise and secrecy, and this one was to be no different. Although Guthrum had failed to drive Alfred from the throne, the king’s failure to defeat the Viking lord had weakened his prestige in the eyes of his magnates. Looking north, the powerful men in the land contemplated nervously the fate of the magnates of the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia. Those who had not resisted the Great Army had generally been retained in their halls and their prestige, if not with as much power as they had had previously, but those who had resisted had been removed – either dying or fleeing. To the watching magnates, the Viking tide must have seemed inexorable: even when the Great Army suffered a reverse, fresh recruits flooded in from the Continent or the Viking homelands and it renewed its assault. Surely it was better to admit that God, for whatever reason, had deserted the Anglo-Saxons and come to an accommodation with the new overlords – after all, even the Christian bishops of the conquered kingdoms had managed to establish a working relationship with their new pagan kings. Besides, despite Asser’s protestation that Alfred was ‘victorious in virtually all battles’,1 in reality his most notable battle eld achievement, apart from the solitary triumph at Ashdown, was getting out alive with enough of his army intact to ght again. This, though, was no inconsiderable skill: keeping a fighting retreat from turning into a rout, particularly in the days when there were very few long-range weapons to lay down cover, is the most difficult of all military skills. That Alfred had lost so many battles in his year of battles in 871, and yet still lived, shows extraordinary battlefield ability and the absolute faithfulness of his household warriors. However, the magnates of Wessex were beginning to question their loyalty to Alfred.
From his base in Gloucester, Guthrum sent out spies, probably concealed as traders, into Wessex to keep tabs on Alfred’s movements. Given the surreptitious nature of his operation we cannot be certain of its details, but hints in the records suggest that he also sent agents to at least some of the magnates of Wessex, with an offer. All they had to do was stand aside, keep their men in hall and their swords sheathed, while he made his move. It would not, after all, be a betrayal, but simply a failure to act – and the strike, when it came, would be so swift this time that there would be no blame attached to their inaction. Particularly since a new king, one more acceptable and beholden to Guthrum, would then be in place. It appears that at least one of Alfred’s ealdormen gave ear to Guthrum’s message: Wulfhere, ealdorman of Wiltshire and the magnate whose lands abutted the part of Mercia where Guthrum now ruled.
A charter, dating from the reign of Edward the Elder, Alfred’s son and successor, states that Wulfhere ‘deserted without permission both his lord King Alfred and his country in spite of the oath that he had sworn to the king and all his leading men’ and, as a result, had lost his position and his lands. The fact that Wulfhere appears to have escaped with his life suggests an alternative explanation: rather than actively betraying Alfred, he may have simply been too paralysed to act when Guthrum attacked and, taking fright, fled the country. Wulfhere’s failure must have been a particular blow to Alfred, for he was an old and experienced ealdorman whose service stretched back through the reigns of his brothers, all the way to Alfred’s father.
His plans laid, Guthrum waited for the night dark of midwinter to draw down upon the country. Alfred, with his household, repaired to Chippenham in Wiltshire for the Christmas of 877 and there he saw in the New Year as well. The Christmas feast stretched over twelve days, from the Nativity of the Lord on 25 December to the Epiphany, the celebration commemorating the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, on 6 January. Chippenham was a royal estate, some thirty miles south of Gloucester. Although Alfred had the men of his household with him, it seems that the other warriors of the Wessex fyrd had returned to their homes.