Book 2, Chapter 4, 857 AD to 878 AD – Fresh Troubles with the Danes
Alfred appears prominently on the stage of history, for the first time, during the dreadful tragedy of 871, in his twenty-third year, when, as Asser says, “the army of the pagans, of hateful memory, came to the royal town of Reading, when the Danish chieftains, with a powerful escort of cavalry sallied out for the purpose of ‘obtaining booty. Others of them dug a trench between the two rivers, the Thames and the Kennet, to the right of the town. Ethelwulf, the ealdorman of Berkshire, met them with his troops, at a place called Englefield, (Inglefield,) and an engagement, obstinately contested on either side, took place.
At length, after a long resistance, one of the Danish chieftains having been slain, and a great part of their army destroyed, the rest of the Danes fled, and yielded the victory to the Saxons. “Four days after these engagements, Ethelred, king of the west Saxons, and his brother Alfred, with their collected forces, advanced to Reading. As they drew nigh to the gate of the town, cutting down all the pagans who were without the walls, the Danes suddenly rushed out upon them with all their fury. Long and fiercely was the contest waged on either side, at last, however, the Saxons fled, and left the victory in the hands of the Pagan’s.
In this conflict, Ethelwulf, the ealdorman, fell with many others. But the Saxons, urged on by shame and grief, again, after four days, offered battle with all their forces and a ready mind, at a place called /Escesdun, (Ashdown,) which is literally Ash tree Hill. The Danes, dividing themselves into two bodies, raised their shields into a tortoise arch, the command of the chief body they gave to their two kings, of the other body the command was en-trusted to their chieftains, several of whom were with them. When the Saxons perceived this disposition of the forces of the enemy, they divided themselves in like manner, and imitated their array. Alfred, with his division of the troops, pushed on with promptitude and eagerness to the place of combat, as indeed I have learned from those who witnessed it, and are worthy of credit.
But king Ethelred, his brother, remained mean while in his tent, engaged in prayer and hearing mass, and declaring that he would not leave alive till the priest had finished, nor quit the service of God for that of man. The Saxons determined that king Ethelred, with his division, should oppose himself to the two Danish kings, Alfred, his brother, was to encounter the attack of the other pagan leaders. When all things had been arranged on either side, the Danes came soonest to the place of combat. King Ethelred was still detained by his devotions, but Alfred, (although then possessing only a subordinate authority,) no longer able to endure the defying presence of the enemy, and forced either to retreat from before them or to lead his troops at once against them, resolved at once to take a decisive step.
Ethelred did not arrive, with manly courage, therefore, impetuous as the wild boar, and fully relying on the help and assistance of God, Alfred led his troops in condensed order against the Danes. And here it must be noted that the place of contest was not equally favourable to both parties The Danes occupied the higher position, whilst the Saxons drew up their line of battle upon the lower ground. There was also in the same place a solitary thorny tree, small in size, around which the contending armies shocked with fearful clamour, the one wickedly seeking that which was not theirs, the other fighting for their life, their country. And all that was dear to them.
When the battle had been carried on for some time with equal spirit and bravery on both sides, the Danes, being able no longer to endure the impetuous attacks of the Saxons, betook themselves to an ignominious flight, though not until the greater part of their forces had been slain. On the field of battle, one of the pagan kings and five of their chieftains were slain, and many thousands of the pagans, not only on that spot, but overall the plains of Escesdun, far and wide, fell by the swords of the Anglo-Saxons!’ Other battles were fought, at Basing, and at Morton or Mereton, and in one of these Ethelred received wounds of which he shortly after died in 871, leaving the affairs of the country in a most critical state.
It has been remarked in a former chapter that among the powers of the witan was the election of a monarch, and that in several instances the direct line of succession was broken, at the will of this body, acting as the supreme court of the nation. Alfred’s own accession is a familiar instance of this fact: he was chosen, to the prejudice of his elder brother’s children, but the nation required a prince capable of coping with dangers and difficulty, and Asser tells us that he was not only received as king by the unanimous assent of the people, but that, had he so pleased, he might have dethroned his brother Ethelred and reigned in his place. His words are: “In the same year (871) the aforesaid Alfred, who hitherto, during the life of his brother, had held a secondary place, immediately upon Ethelred’s death, by the grace of God, assumed the government of the whole realm, with the greatest goodwill of all the inhabitants of the kingdom, which indeed, even during his aforesaid brother’s life, he might, had he chosen, have done with the greatest ease, and by the universal consent, truly, because both in wisdom and in all good qualities he much excelled all his brothers, and moreover because he was particularly warlike, and successful in nearly all his battles.
Yet, after his accession to the throne, this success did not immediately attend him, on the contrary, his prospects, and those of his nation were most gloomy and threatening. The Danes held the Isle of Thanet, which gave them the command of the Thames and the coasts of Essex and Kent. They had conquered or overrun all Northumbria, from the Tweed to the Humber. They had planted a strong colony at York. They had desolated Nottinghamshire, Lincoln, Cambridge, Norfolk, and Suffolk, (using, for convenience’s sake, the modern designations) and, with numbers constantly increasing, they. Ranged through the whole length of the island, south of the Tweed, with the exception only of its western and extreme southern parts, and had established fortified camps between the Thames and the Severn.
Thus Alfred entered upon an impaired and shattered kingdom, and nothing but a determination to discharge his duty to the country in both a royal and a loyal manner could have sustained him under the amazing difficulties of his position. Had he been less firm and noble, he might have done what Burbred, the last king of Mercia, did in 875, for, finding that the Danes were ready enough to be bribed and yet without compunction attacked his dominions again forth with, this king, in despair, abandoned his throne and his country, and fled to Rome, where he passed the remainder of his days as a pilgrim. Alfred was made of sterner stuff, and although he was compelled to bend beneath the fury of the storm, he would not abandon his land and his people. It is a part of his lasting glory, that even in the darkest and most trying hour of his country’s history, he did not despair. He acted promptly, when action was called for, he suffered and waited, when nothing else could be done.
Chapter 4, Reign of Ethelbald
Chapter 4, Destruction of Croyland Abbey
Chapter 4, Alfred the Great
Chapter 4, Fresh Troubles with the Danes
Chapter 4, Treaty between him and Guthrun
Categories: Book 2