Book 2, Chapter 4, 857 AD to 878 AD – Treaty between Alfred and Guthrun
Among the new leaders who had arrived from the north of Europe with a fresh and numerous band was Guthrun, who after wintering in East Anglia in 875, suddenly took to his ships and sailed round to the coast of Dorset, where he landed and by the swiftness of his attack, secured Wareham Castle, then the strongest place in Wessex. From this, parties issued forth and ravaged the entire district, until the approach of Alfred, with an army hastily gathered, warned them to retire within the fortifications.
Without fighting a battle, Alfred and Guthrun made a negotiation by which on payment of a sum of money the latter was to evacuate Wessex. It seems strange that after having experienced so often the perfidy of the Danes, any trust should have been placed in their word or in their oaths, yet Alfred appears to have considered the treaty binding upon them because they had sworn on their bracelets and on the relics of the saints, the former being deemed of special obligation by them, and the latter conveying solemn sanction to the mind of Alfred.
The various monasteries in England at that time, and for many years after, possessed innumerable relics, as Dugdale states, in many places in his Monasticon, where, among the inventories of possessions of religious houses, are specified the limbs, skulls, hair, dresses, etc. of martyrs and confessors, and even of apostles, pieces of the true cross and of the crown of thorns, enshrined amid gold and jewels, and it was a not infrequent occurrence for the larger abbeys and monasteries to despoil the smaller ones of their relics, in order to increase the store and to render their own shrines more attractive. The piety of that age attached great importance and solemnity to oaths taken upon these relics, and it was supposed that the most awful punishment would come upon any who dared to perjure themselves after such an appeal.
Evidently, by requiring the Danes to swear upon these relics, Alfred expected that the highest sanction would be given to the treaty, and that divine judgments would be incurred should it be violated, and so it is not fair to dismiss the matter with a contemptuous smile as an act of great simplicity on his part. He exacted these oaths from Guthrun, knowing the habitual falsehood and treachery of the race, and thereby invoked the punishment of heaven upon them if they proved faithless. Whether right or wrong in his opinion and expectancy, Alfred deserves to be honoured for his motives, even although it is the fashion with many in modern times to believe in no Providence but that which their own science or industry can furnish, and to despise the simple faith of a thousand years ago, which instead of tracing ‘events to their political causes, referred them immediately to the intervention of God, and considered misfortune as the instrument wherewith divine justice punished flagrant sins. To point out particular providences is one thing to scoff at all trust in Providence is a very different thing.
As the event proved, oaths could not bind such men as Guthrun any more than a giant can be restrained by rushes. Their first act after agreeing to the treaty was to attack a body of Anglo-Saxon cavalry off its guard, and seizing the horses to ride with all speed to Exeter, which they took after a short siege, ere Alfred could relieve the place. He instantly set out, and on his arrival invested the town, so that Guthrun was compelled to capitulate (this time giving hostages as well as taking oaths) and retire to Mercia. Success on the part of Alfred was in a great measure attributable to a plan formed and carried out only in the preceding year, of meeting and resisting the Danes on their own element, with a view, if possible, to prevent them from landing, or to harass and impede them after they had landed. As soon as the king became acquainted with the arts of attack and the modes of defence practised by the northern nations, several improvements suggested themselves to his superior sagacity. He ordered ships to be built of larger dimensions than those of the Danes. Their decks were higher, and their length double. The increased elevation gave his mariners an advantage over their enemies, who were compelled to direct their strokes upwards, and the greater bulk of the vessels added to their stability in the water, while the Danish ships were agitated by the slightest motion. That their celerity might not be retarded by the additional weight, he augmented the number of the rowers, and gave to all his vessels thirty, to several more than thirty, oars on a side. This fleet was so judiciously disposed in the different harbours, that the marauding squadrons of the barbarians found it difficult to approach, or to abandon the shore with impunity. The few ships which formed Alfred’s first flotilla were successful in their very first expedition, capturing a Danish vessel, one of seven which they met. More signal service was rendered at Exeter, by blockading the mouth of the river Exe, and thus preventing Guthrun receiving reinforcements by sea. This event is interesting, as it presents the germ of an idea which afterwards grew into a large and powerful navy, for the king never lost sight of the importance of defending the coast by a fleet, and was unwearied during his life in improving the art of navigation. The proud position to, which England has attained as Mistress of the Seas is owing in a great measure to what Alfred did in originating the idea of a national fleet.
The calm thus secured was but of short continuance. Guthrun had no intention to keep his promise a day longer then it suited his own convenience. Retiring only to Gloucester, he issued secret orders for all his followers who possessed horses to meet him on the first day of 878, and so well was the secret kept that Alfred and his people knew not of his attack until it burst upon them with the suddenness and fury of a tropical storm. They were observing the feast of the Epiphany at Chippenham when the astounding news was heard that Guthrun was approaching. There was no time for preparation, and the resistance, though brave, was brief. Most of the king’s army was dispersed, and so rapidly did the Danes follow up their first attack that they dispersed all who opposed them, and acquired the mastery of Wessex. Many of the Saxons were killed, many others escaped into France, and others sought to placate the Danes by surrendering part of their property in order to preserve the rest.
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
Treaty between him and Guthrun
Categories: Book 2