Alfred and the Great Army

In 864 AD, the Viking nuisance became a lot more serious. For nearly a century, Scandinavian seafarers had been making brief raids on the coasts of western Europe. Unco-ordinated and opportunistic, the attacks caused disruption and spread fear. While the loss of a few farmers and fishermen was no great worry, the problem with these raids was that they made European kings and nobles look weak, unprepared and ineffectual.

The year 864 saw a different kind of Viking activity. Having seen the effect a few shiploads of armed men could cause by arriving unexpectedly, the leading Danes began to realise that they could use the panic and consternation they caused to undermine kingdoms. Instead of seizing a few armloads of booty, a well-planned campaign could be used to exact a much larger quantity of tribute from the kings in the west.

Arriving in large numbers, the Great Army (se micla here) under its three leaders used the threat of extensive violence to take a payment in return for peace. Some of the Vikings – suddenly enriched beyond their dreams - used their new wealth to buy land and to settle, but the Danish leaders were cautious enough to avoid doing so. Taking tribute from kings was one thing, but experience showed that their great advantage was in the structure of their army – or rather, its lack of formal structure. The Great Army was not the military force of a nation state – rather, it was a joint-venture consortium brought together for the duration of a campaign with no further obligation on any ship’s crew than it was ready to negotiate.

One by one the smaller kingdoms in England fell into the hands of the Viking leaders, who enjoyed a parasitic relationship with their hosts. The Vikings set up no states of their own, and any settlement that took place was the result of individual decisions by free men. The flow of silver into the coffers of the army’s leaders was an embarrassment to the reputations of their opponents, and only served to make the Viking adventure seem more attractive.

In Wessex, the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom to suffer sustained attack by the Danes, the elderly king Aethelwulf had five sons who all took part in the defence of their lands, and four of whom paid for their duty with their lives. The last son, Alfred, the youngest, who had foreseen a comfortable career in the church, took to the field alongside his brothers and watched each of them die. Eventually, the Vikings came with demands for payment, and Wessex had to pay. But with Alfred on the throne, the money did not go to waste.

An Anglo-Saxon king’s reputation was his qualification for the job: kings who appeared weak or greedy, who failed on the battlefield or did not share their winnings, were soon challenged and often replaced. Recognising that he had no opportunity to avoid handing over the silver, Alfred determined that he would use the time he had bought with it to turn Wessex into a military power better equipped to deal with its enemy. The king re-organised the conditions of army service so that fewer men came out and for a shorter period, but the service was staggered so that there were always fresh troops available. He designed new types of ship and brought in Frisian sailors to help use them against the Danes. He created a series of strongholds across Wessex which he could use as protective forts and as bases for counter-attack.

Alfred had seen fighting at first hand. He knew that Viking armies could be beaten – they often were – but they kept coming back because the lure of silver was too strong. The armies were composed of mainly poorer men with no reason to return to Scandinavia, often no home to return to. Alfred reasoned that a military victory was not enough, he had to find a way to deal with the Vikings on a political and diplomatic level.

Fortunately, the leadership of a Viking jarl (earl, chieftain) was similarly dependant on providing booty to his followers. They liked open warfare and the seizure of booty which followed it, but they liked even more the use of threats and intimidation to squeeze chests of silver out of their foes without even having to risk their lives. A jarl who could provide wealth with little danger was a man to follow.

After the great battle of Edington in May 878 AD, which resulted in a resounding Wessex victory, Alfred could easily have ordered the execution of the Viking leaders and sold the captive warriors into slavery. But the king was too clever for that: the removal of one Viking leader left a void which another would fill, and the recent military defeat would quickly become the opportunity a young, ambitious warrior was looking for to take command and mount another campaign. So Alfred planted a seed in the mind of his defeated foe, the jarl Guthrum. The wars between Wessex and the Vikings were costing many lives and perpetuating grievances and blood-feuds which could only be self-perpetuating. How much better would it be if Alfred offered Guthrum a crown instead of the sword’s edge?

To Guthrum, this must have seemed like a providential opportunity. He had been a leader for many years, and he knew that there were few Viking jarls with grey beards – when they began to get old, slow and cautious, their men replaced them. Alfred offered him a way to avoid that fate – to make him a king (cyning) with lands and resources and taxes to collect. There was of course one stipulation that was unpalatable: Guthrum and his leading men had to become Christian, which meant deferring to the authority of the Anglo-Saxon church, and which also cemented the relationship between these leaders and the Wessex nobles. They would henceforth be brothers in Christ’s church. Since Alfred was prepared to sponsor the Danish leaders at their baptism – and present them with gifts at a public ceremony which marked their induction into the Christian world – the King would always have the position of patron and superior to them, they could never be his equals.

Guthrum, of course, accepted. A division of the land was agreed which in effect meant that in the east Danish law was observed and taxes were paid to Guthrum, while in the west Alfred’s Wessex retained control.

The Danish threat had plagued western Europe for nearly a century. Combat and severe punishment had not proved a deterrent to further attacks. Through the far-sightedness of one king and the self-interest of one jarl, the Vikings were outmanoeuvred and their principal advantages were surrendered. Henceforth, Viking leaders in England drew wealth, support and men from defined territories, and began to become part of the wider western European society. 

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