Sunday, April 14, 2013

Alfred the Grrrrrreat

The Anglo-Saxon occupation of England was a trying time in British history. After the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxons had to make England function on its own. After many struggles, England's future was starting to look bright. The Vikings would then invade England and lay siege on the kingdoms for the next few centuries. England's kingdoms were slowly defeated with the exception of Wessex.

Fearful that Christian civilization might disappear from England due to the repeated attacks from the Vikings, Ethelwulf, King of Wessex, designated one-tenth of his kingdom's revenues be given to the Church to ensure that learning continued. Ethelwulf's strong sense of duty to resist the destruction of Christendom was passed along to his son, Alfred.

Alfred was the first known person to defeat the Danes in open battle. After this battle in 870, the Vikings decided not to mess with Wessex anymore. After the victory it occurred to Alfred that the only way to stop the Vikings calling for reinforcement was to defeat them at sea before they reached land.

Alfred enlisted the help of the Frisians, the Vikings old enemy, to show the English how to build their style of ships which had previously been a match for the Vikings. The new ships were faster and longer than those of the Vikings. The Vikings were defeated by Alfred's navy and their fleet was destroyed. Because of this, Alfred is recognized as the father of the Royal Navy.

In 878 a warning was issued that an enormous Danish army was "covering the earth like locusts" and on its way. Alfred took refuge on the island of Athelney in Somerset and built an invincible fort where his family could be safe. He continued to resist the Danish by guerrilla raids and after secretly gathering an army, led a triumphant 14 day siege against the Vikings.

The Treaty of Wedmore was devised, the first the Vikings ever made, which stated that the Vikings had to vacate Wessex and surrender southern and western Mercia to Alfred. One Danish king, Guthrum, had to be baptized with Alfred standing as the godfather. There was now a relationship between the Vikings, but surrounding territories still remained hostile.

Apart from Alfred frightening off the Vikings for good, his enormous social and political reforms truly solidified the 'Great' in his name.

Starting with defense, Alfred needed his burhs (towns) to be sturdy so he enclosed them in walled fortresses. He divided the army in two, with one side on active service and the other on home leave to rest. Alfred became a symbol of hope for the English. He had reconquered and rebuilt London and burned Danish settlements. He became acknowledged as the leader of all the English against the Danes, an important stage in the advance of the English peoples towards a political unity.

Alfred's fame spread all over Europe. It is said that the pope sent him what was supposedly a piece of the True Cross on which Christ had been crucified - the greatest honor he could bestow. Now that the kingdom had been restored against further threats, more reforms required his attention.

Alfred reformed the local government in Wessex by dividing the country into official shires. The shire and burh were run by one of Alfred's royal ealdormen, whose powers could override those of the local lord. He found men to garrison the burh and implemented royal commands to raise taxes.

The judges of his kingdom were told that they would either have to improve their legal knowledge or resign. He further promoted education by establishing his own school at the royal court and educated  boys in the kingdom as future clerks for his civil service.

Alfred never stopped his revival of monastic life. Half the royal taxes were donated to the Church each year to rebuild monasteries at home and abroad and so began the revival of learning. He paid for scholars to come from abroad - Frisians, Franks and the Welsh - to help him raise the educational standards.

He had to mount a national recruiting campaign to find men and women to become monks and nuns. The condition of the clergy was so poor that the abbot for the monastery on Athelney had to be brought in from Frisia.

We are aware of Alfred and his accomplishments largely in part to a history of England called The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Alfred commissioned this project to help his people acquire some knowledge of themselves and their history. It is the first history of the English people in their own language.

Alfred was succeeded by his son and died in 899. In March certain bones were exhumed from an unmarked grave in Winchester and set aside for later analysis. Probably due to the discovery of Richard III, there is optimism that these could be the remains of Alfred. Fingers crossed...


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