Alfred the Great and The Battle of Edington

Ethandun Memorial Stone By: Unknown, Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s a brisk May morning at the site of Egbert’s Stone in Wiltshire England. The year is 878 and Alfred, the great King of Wessex, is awaiting what’s left of his allies to rally with him and ride into battle against the Viking invaders. The location has been set for the field at Edington, where Alfred intends on surprising his enemy to some degree. King Alfred’s target is the always clever and fearsome Jarl Guthrum, and his Great Heathen Army of pagan Viking warriors. This great hoard of Vikings has formed to wipe out King Alfred and his Kingdom of Wessex, the last Anglo-Saxon stronghold left on this, the isle of Britannia. And, if their gods are with them, they might be able to do so.

Relative locations of Chippenham, Athelney and Edington By: By Asncvikingage – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons

After what can be best described as a rather worrisome, yet, hopeful wait at Egbert’s Stone, Alfred was greeted by and thus properly sat at the head of the men from Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire west of Southampton Water and ready to ride closer to the camp at Chippenham.1 The plan is to meet the Jarl Guthrum on the field at Edington, and should God see fit, King Alfred will rout the Jarl Guthrum and his forces, and be rid of the Viking threat. The field at Edington sat a mere fifteen miles to the south of Guthrum’s camp at Chippenham.2 Upon recognizing the hour before them, the forces of Alfred then made camp themselves to make preparations for battle, as this was as good a location as any other. With the stage finally set, the battle was ready to commence.

Ethandun Memorial Stone
By: Unknown, Source: Wikimedia Commons

At dawn, Alfred called upon his will and the will of his men to make way to the field at Edington, just a few miles from their camp. It was there, on this soon to be bloody field of men laid waist by combat, that Alfred would make his stand to save England from sure destruction at the hands of such menacing Viking Invaders. It is widely disputed among historians just how many warriors where present at this battle, but the best estimates calculate that Alfred was able to muster a force that at minimum was two thousand troops to upwards of five or six thousand. While, the Jarl Guthrum’s force is estimated to be equal to that of Alfred’s or slightly less. This mass of men, four to ten thousand strong, had formed their battle lines and prepared their shield walls and thus, the two armies finally began to march towards one another.

With shields clashing against shields, the two armies met in the middle of the field at Edington. Life and limb were forfeit for many of those on both sides who chose to venture into battle for their collective causes. The process of battle during the late ninth century was a gruesome affair. With sword, ax, spear, and shield in hand, warriors from both sides would fight till the death, and would continue to do so until a victor was declared. The Battle at Edington was swift and decisive according to Asser, the great biographer and chronicler of Alfred’s Life. He writes in The Life of Alfred, that, “The next morning he removed to Edington, and there fought bravely and perseveringly against all the army of pagans, whom, with divine help, he defeated with great slaughter, and pursued them flying to their fortification.”3 With the Jarl Guthrum’s forces effectively routed after the few hours of fierce fighting, they retreated to their fortification at Chippenham, with Alfred in quick pursuit. The siege at Chippenham was about to commence.

Alfred the Great
CC BY 2.0

At this point one might be asking who is this King Alfred, and why is he so highly praised for this seemingly quick battle against the forces of the Danes at Edington. To better describe Alfred, we must move backwards in time to the beginning of his life. Alfred was born the fifth son while also being the sixth child of King Ethelwulf of Wessex, by his first wife Osburh of Mercia.4 Being the fifth son of a king afforded Alfred no real training in kingship from an early age. By all accounts, Alfred should have never became King of Wessex. Which, in a sense, can account for the education that Alfred did receive. At the age of four, Alfred was sent on a pilgrimage by his father to Rome, to meet God’s representative here on earth, Pope Leo IV.5 It was here that Alfred was named an honorary Consul of Rome.

Taking these facts into account, it is rather easy to recognize that Alfred’s path in life should have followed that of a cleric. His birth order and recognition by the Pope should have sent Alfred down the path of the cloth and into ecclesiastical affairs as a priest or bishop, as was common for many of those of royal birth, yet having an undesirable birth order. However, as Alfred aged into his teenage years, his brothers passed away one by one, all meeting somewhat untimely deaths.6 As his last surviving brother, King Aethelred I (reign 865-871) sat upon the throne, Alfred began preparing himself for the likely scenario that he too would soon wear the crown of Wessex. This moment did indeed come to pass with Aethelred’s untimely passing in the year 871. By the action of King Aethelred naming his brother Alfred as his successor before his death, provided the ability for Alfred to come to the throne of Wessex with little to no problems posed by the Witten, the governing collective of nobles in Wessex.

After providing an explanation of whom Alfred was, alongside the description of his unlikely rise to power, we can now move onwards, forward in time. Thus, returning to the current situation at hand in Alfred’s realm, the formal siege of Chippenham. With the Jarl Guthrum’s forces successfully defeated at Edington, the Viking hoard hastily retreated to their camp at Chippenham.7 Despite the inevitable losses that Alfred must have experienced at the Battle of Edington, Alfred pursued the Jarl Guthum to his encampment with as much fury as he pursued the Jarl Guthrum in battle. Upon arriving at the walls of Chippenham, Alfred set about a formal siege of the fortification, blocking off any access to the encampment from any direction, and successfully surrounding the Jarl Guthrum’s forces inside.

The siege at Chippenham was carried out over the course of a fortnight, which is approximately ten to fourteen days. King Alfred’s forces successfully closed off Jarl Guthrum’s encampment from receiving resupplies of men and provisions. As commonly seen with the out and out battles of the era, siege warfare was just as, if not more, gruesome of an affair as battle. The systematic starving of your enemy’s resources is a form of psychological warfare like no other. The screams and cries of those whom had been mortally injured from the battle must have pierced the air surrounding Chippenham, as Alfred laid siege on the fortification. Day after day hearing the screams and cries gradually disappear, as those injured pass on and find their ways to Valhalla or Heaven.8 By now seven days had passed since the siege commenced, yet, the Jarl Guthrum still showed little to no signs of surrender.

At this point, one might be curious as to whom these Viking warriors are, who is the Jarl Guthrum, and why is he at the center of this conflict with King Alfred? To best answer this question one must again take a trip backwards through time to the great Viking invasion of 865. This invading force, known as the Great Heathen Army, bore the Raven banner of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok. It is the remanence of this great invading force that the Jarl Guthrum held control of during the Battle of Edington and the Siege of Chippenham. This force had laid waist to much of the Kingdoms of Kent, Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia during the thirteen year period prior to the Battle of Edington.9 They found secure wintering in areas that were firmly under Danish control.

According to David Pratt, the author of The Political Thought of Alfred the Great, the Vikings were, “Dominated by the redistribution of moveable wealth, Viking needs tapped plunder, ransoming, and tribute. Initially pursued by piece meal raiding, from mid-century such income found exploitation by larger armies, borne by substantial fleets of well over 100 ships; corroborated by independent annals, such figures support armies numbering thousands rather than hundreds.”10 This insightful comment referring to the needs of these Viking invaders, speaks to the reason behind Guthrum and Alfred’s conflict with one another. The Jarl Guthrum needed to raid and plunder territory in order to sustain his troops and quench their thirst for plunder, whereas Alfred needed to prevent such actions from happening for the security of his Kingdom, and of all Anglo-Saxons.

Returning forward in time, back to the ongoing siege at Chippenham, Alfred’s forces are beginning the eighth day of the formal assault. By this point the Jarl Guthrum’s forces are waning under the increased pressure of King Alfred’s successful siege tactics. Suffering under the grip of Alfred’s troops, the Vikings are becoming increasingly desperate. The suffering of the siege carried on for four more days with numerous numbers of men on both sides finally succumbing to their mortal wounds. The time was now for the famed Viking, Jarl Guthrum, to appear and make his plea for surrender to Alfred. So, with no desire to continue to suffer any further, the Jarl Guthrum emerged from the walls of Chippenham, bearing the wooded branches of peace above his head. He then approached Alfred’s camp and offered his formal surrender.11 This surrender was an absolute surrender and is well documented within the Treaty of Wedmore and the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, witnessed and probated in 878 on the field at Wiltshire and at the encampment of King Alfred at Athelney, just outside the beset fortifications at Chippenham.

A Victorian representation of Guthrum’s baptism in 878 By James William Edmund Doyle – Doyle, James William Edmund (1864) ;in A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485, London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, Green, 52 | Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Despite the confusion amongst historians as to the efficacy and legitimacy of the Treaty of Wedmore, which is often grouped along with the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, historians have made these assertions. By most accounts, the Treaty of Wedmore was carried out on the field at Wiltshire, where the Jarl Guthrum agreed to the terms presented by Alfred for surrender and released a number of hostages into Alfred’s care. The absence of the Jarl Guthrum receiving hostages is another clear identifier of his defeat at Alfred’s hand. This treaty is what officially ended the battle of Edington and the siege of Chippenham. The terms delineated within this treaty asked for the removal of all Danish forces from the lands of Wessex, while also requesting that the Jarl Guthrum, be baptized in the Christian faith. These terms where felt to be agreeable by both parties, and thus the battle and subsequent loss of life was now ended.12 With the Treaty of Wedmore agreed upon, the remainder of the Viking hoard removed itself to the lands of East Anglia.

Three weeks had passed since the agreement reached by the Treaty of Wedmore, upon which time Alfred sent for the Jarl Guthrum and thirty of his closest warriors to be entertained at Alfred’s encampment at Athelney. The Jarl Guthrum arrived and was taken into Alfred’s company for nearly a weeks time. Near the end of this week, the Jarl Guthrum was then taken into the waters at Athelney and he was baptized. Upon the completion of Jarl Guthrum’s baptism, he was instructed to take on a Christian name, Athelstan. King Alfred took the now King Athelstan of East Anglia into his family as his Godfather.13 This marked the ending phase of the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.

Territories of England Circa 878
By: By Hel-hama – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Aside from the Jarl Guthrum, now King Athelstan’s baptism, more important points where laid out within the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum. Probably most important was the establishment of a recognized pagan area in East Anglia, referred to as Daneland. Daneland was governed under Danelaw, which King Athelstan was allowed to administer.14 This territory was marked by a specific boundary, Watling Street. This historic street or causeway had been established since Roman times during the fifth century and was widely known by all, making it the perfect boundary line.15 Those who crossed Watling Street in the direction of East Anglia knew that they where then in Daneland, and should act accordingly. On the opposite, those who crossed Watling Street towards Wessex, knew they where entering the realm of Alfred and thus entering the realm of Christendom.

With the completion of the two treaties, Wessex was safe from further mass incursion of Viking invading forces for a considerable period of time. This allowed for Alfred to focus more deeply on the state of his Kingdom of Wessex. In doing so, King Alfred left behind an incredible legacy for his progeny to attempt to follow. To better understand the lasting legacy that King Alfred left, his life’s works must be described and detailed. To begin King Alfred in the year 886, a mere eight years after his great victory at Edington, became the first King of all Anglo-Saxons.16 This was the first and most important step to creating a unified England under one King.

King Alfred’s legacy is not limited to only government and military affairs. King Alfred was also able to impact his kingdom both culturally and technologically. Alfred’s cultural impact was left by his insatiable apetite for learning and education. Through the individual efforts of Alfred, he was able to translate St. Gregory the Great’s work The Book of Pastoral Care from Latin into Old English so his kingdom’s citizens could read it. This work, alongside other great works that Alfred himself translated or that Alfred commissioned to be translated, helped to foster a great importance in education within his realm.17 As mentioned, Alfred’s legacy also reached into technological advancements as well. During his countless hours spent in reflection of his deeds in Wessex, Alfred was able to derive a sustainable method of keeping time by using candles. One candle of a certain size would burn through in a twelve hour period, allowing for the consistent measurement of a twenty four hour day.18

This legacy, Alfred’s legacy, was only made possible by his victory at Edington and Chippenham. It is often argued as to what the state of England would have been had Alfred lost this short yet decisive battle at Edington. Many believe that an England would have never even occurred, arguing that the Danes would have made the Isle of Britannia an appendage to their kingdoms of origin, be it Denmark, Norway, or any other Scandinavian nation.

  1. F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd ed, (Oxford, EN: Oxford University Press, 1971), 255.
  2. F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd ed, (Oxford, EN: Oxford University Press, 1971), 255.
  3. Asser, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (New York: Penguin Publishing Group 1984), 34.
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020, s.v. “Alfred,” by Dorothy Whitelock.
  5. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020, s.v. “Alfred,” by Dorothy Whitelock.
  6. Asser, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 1984), 2-4.
  7. Melvyn Bragg, John Hines, Richard Gameson, Sarah Foot, “Alfred and the Battle of Edington,” In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, London EN: BBC4, Apr 7, 2005.
  8. Melvyn Bragg, John Hines, Richard Gameson, Sarah Foot, “Alfred and the Battle of Edington,” In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, London EN: BBC4, Apr 7, 2005.
  9. F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd ed, (Oxford, EN: Oxford University Press, 1971), 252-257.
  10. David Pratt, The Political Thought of Alfred the Great, (Cambridge, EN: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 93.
  11. Melvyn Bragg, John Hines, Richard Gameson, Sarah Foot, “Alfred and the Battle of Edington,” In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, London EN: BBC4, Apr 7, 2005.
  12. F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd ed, (Oxford, EN: Oxford University Press, 1971), 255.
  13. F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd ed, (Oxford, EN: Oxford University Press, 1971), 256.
  14. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020, s.v. “Alfred,” by Dorothy Whitelock.
  15. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020, s.v. “Alfred,” by Dorothy Whitelock.
  16. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020, s.v. “Alfred,” by Dorothy Whitelock.
  17. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020, s.v. “Alfred,” by Dorothy Whitelock.
  18. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020, s.v. “Alfred,” by Dorothy Whitelock.

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23 Responses

  1. This article does an outstanding job of describing Britain, Alfred the Great, and its history. It is very interesting to see how Alfred the Great did not receive any real training in kingship and was never meant to be King of Wessex. Also, the Viking’s context is very intriguing, and it is fascinating to know that the center of the conflict went back to the great Viking invasion of 865. The background information was very well written as it gives the reader a context to base upon for further reading, setting the stage for the article and its main points. Also, the article, for me, was fascinating to read since it can be argued that without Britain and its empire, the legacy of King Alfred, and his actions, many of the events in history would be completely different or wouldn’t happen at all.

  2. What I find intensely fascinating about history, is how it’s a series of events that, if even one part were changed slightly, we would be living in an entirely different world. As the article pointed out, it is likely that England would have stayed Danish if King Alfred did not win the battle of Edington. A very well written article, highlighting the cultural and political contexts of both sides of the battle.

  3. Great article on early medieval Britain, It’s funny how those who were not supposed to rule become rulers themselves by luck. It is also amusing how Alfred was not considered to lead, but he became one of the few British monarchs who have the title of the Great. I also did not know that he helps standards around the world via candles in his free time.

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