You are on page 1of 54

Alfred the Great: Viking Wars and Military Reforms


Gary Mc Dermott
SH History

Supervised by Dr. David Ditchburn.

Declaration .......................................................................................................................... i Acknowledgements .............................................................................................................. ii List of plates ....................................................................................................................... iii Maps
Map 1.............................................................................................................................................. iv Map 2............................................................................................................................................... v Map 3.............................................................................................................................................. vi Map 4............................................................................................................................................. vii Map 5............................................................................................................................................ viii Map 6.............................................................................................................................................. ix

Introduction ......................................................................................................................... 1 Chapter 1 - The First Viking War ....................................................................................... 3 Chapter 2 - Influences ......................................................................................................... 6 Chapter 3 Alfreds Military ........................................................................................... 13 Chapter 4 Army Reform ................................................................................................ 17 Chapter 5 - Fortifications .................................................................................................. 21 Chapter 6 - Navy ............................................................................................................... 25 Chapter 7 The Second Viking War ................................................................................ 30 Conclusion ........................................................................................................................ 33 Bibliography ..................................................................................................................... 40


I hereby declare that this dissertation is all my own work.

6/4/2009 Gary Mc Dermott


I am most grateful to Professor Terry Barry and Dr. David Dithburn for overseeing this work.

I would like to thank Ms Rhona Dineen for her continued advice and unfaltering support.

Gregory Yates Esq. must also receive an honourable mention for his continued input throughout the course of the year.

Finally I would like to sincerely thank my family without whose support I could never have completed such an undertaking.


List of plates

Plate 1 Men of the fyrd .............................................................................. 36

Plate 2 Shield-wall and archer ................................................................... 36

Plate 3 Street pattern of the Burhs ............................................................. 37

Plate 4 Burh defences ................................................................................ 38

Plate 5 - Different burh sites ......................................................................... 39



Map 1

Britain at the time of Alfreds birth

A. P. Smyth, King Alfred the Great, (Oxford, 1995), p. 22.


Map 2

Alfreds first Viking War 865-79

R. Abels, Alfred the Great: war, culture and kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1998), p. 356.

Map 3

Burghal Hidage sites

D. Hill, An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 1981), p. 86.


Map 4

Major roads in Anglo-Saxon times

D. Hill, An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 1981), p. 116.


Map 5

The kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons c. 890

R. Abels, Alfred the Great: war, culture and kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1998), pp. 354355.


Map 6

Alfreds second Viking war 892

R. Abels, Alfred the Great: war, culture and kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1998), p. 357.


In the ninth century the British Isles were subjected to several sustained assaults by the Vikings. They descended upon the island and destroyed the native kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia. They later settled in what became known as the Danelaw. Alfred not only had to deal with overseas invasions in two major campaigns but also the threat of the inhabitants of the Danelaw joining their brethren in constant raiding. The kingdom of Wessex alone survived this onslaught and went on to absorb its neighbours and later rose to become a unified kingdom of England.

The purpose of this piece is to examine Alfred the Greats Viking wars and to ascertain why his kingdom of Wessex survived the Viking onslaught in the ninth century. How he dealt with the Vikings mobility and their battle hardened war bands, stemming the tide which flowed over England. It will attempt to identify what reforms or policies that were followed regarding the military. Furthermore it will evaluate these policies to see if they were successful and whether they can be credited as the reason for the survival of the Kingdom of Wessex. It will rely heavily upon the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Assers life of Alfred and the Burghal Hidage as its primary sources. As the first two of these sources are likely to have been produced at Alfreds court and behest they naturally suffer from a certain amount of bias. The Chronicle is particularly detailed for Alfreds reign and it does exclude much relevant information regarding other kingdoms on the island showing where its sympathies lay. There appear to have been several scribes working on this document and their relative merits and drawbacks have been noted.1 It is of particular use regarding Alfreds military reforms as the entries in the section 893 to 896 seem to be written in some detail by a single author. Given the level of detail this section may be taken as especially reliable but it is still necessary to be cautious of partiality at all times.

S. Keynes and M. Lapidge, Alfred the Great Assers Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources, (London, 2004), pp. 223-227.

Assers work is a panegyric in tone and therefore must be treated carefully. Like Virgils quandary when writing the Aeneid for the Emperor Augustus, Asser would hardly have wished to offend his patron by including negative material and as a result his work does gloss over some unpleasant facts. This is exemplified by Alfred making peace with the Vikings on several occasions. This is likely to have involved the payment of Danegeld but Asser conveniently leaves this detail out. This deficiency would seem to be balanced out by the fact he was a close confidant of the king and had access to information that the Chronicle did not. This allows the historian to get a picture of the king and his achievements if the panegyric tone and bias are offset by the detail. It will draw upon several other supplementary sources such as the Bayeux Tapestry.

Chapter 1 - The First Viking War

In his days a great Viking army, arriving from the sea aggressively attacked and laid waste to the city of Winchester2

The great army arrived in England in 865 and proceeded to destroy all the other major kingdoms, Northumbria in 867, East Anglia in 870 and Mercia in 874. (See Map 1) This left Wessex alone to weather the storm that was breaking upon the shores of England. As this piece is concerned with the role of Alfred it will only examine the course of this first was with regard to Wessex. In 871 the Viking army of hateful memory left East Anglia, and went to the kingdom of the West Saxons, and came to an estate called Reading.3 (See Map 2) Having fortified the site they proceeded to ravage the surrounding countryside and this provoked a response from local forces. It took several days before King Ethelred and his brother Alfred led a great army to Reading and fought against the army.4 Suffering defeat in this encounter the kings army re-grouped and tried again at Ashdown where it was victorious. This engagement was not conclusive though and a fortnight later the two sides were again engaged at Basing. The Vikings had the vict ory this time and yet another battle followed at Meretum in which the Danes again won. The Vikings then moved back to Reading and seemed ready to conquer the kingdom when King Ethelred died shortly after. This was a critical moment for the kingdom of Wessex but unlike Northumbria there was no contest for succession. Alfred had been identified as heir apparent as there was no question of King Ethelreds young son assuming control with an enemy army at large in the kingdom. Coming to power at such a difficult time must have been somewhat of a mixed blessing for Alfred. He was hardly secure in his position having been in battle for an extended period and his forces were severely reduced. However the Chronicle records that Alfred fought with a small force

Asser, Life of King Alfred, Trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge in Alfred the Great Assers Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources, (London, 2004), 18., p. 73. 3 Ibid.,, 35., p. 78. 4 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle [ASC] in English Historical Documents c500-1042 Vol.1 ed. D. Whitlock (London, 1955), p. 177.

against the whole army at WiltonAnd during that year nine general engagements were fought against the Danish army in the kingdom.5 This suggests that Alfred fought the Vikings to a stalemate and both sides opted to make peace. It is highly likely that this involved the payment of Danegeld. This gave the king some breathing space but the Vikings merely retreated and attacked Mercia. There they drove king Burgred across the seaAnd the same year they gave the kingdom of the Mercians to be held by Ceolwulf, a foolish kings thegn.6 By this point the Viking army had been in the field for nearly ten years and part of it choose to return to Northumbria and settle.

The remainder were not long in returning to Wessex, capturing Warham in 878 and Alfred chose to pay off the Vikings but they broke their agreement and merely moved on to capture Exeter. Alfred was trying to engage them but given nature of his military, discussed below, he found it hard to compete on a level footing. He was outmanoeuvred on several occasions and increasingly began to rely upon Danegeld to solve his Viking problem. Yet another section of the great army chose to settle in Mercia at this point and it is likely that Alfreds stalling tactics were done in the hope that the entire force would colonize the territory it had already conquered removing the threat to Wessex. Alfred seems to have believe this was the case and somewhat relaxed his guard. Caught completely by surprise by a mid-winter attack in 878 he was forced to flee to the woods and the fen-fastness with a small force7 Managing to avoid the Vikings he regrouped his war weary army and prepared for a counter attack. It is during this time in the wilderness that Alfred is likely to have begun to formulate a new response to th e Vikings. Realising that they could very well keep returning he seems to have come up with a scheme that would transform his kingdom and protect it from future attack. However it was the Vikings who were in control of the kingdom as very nearly all the inhabitants of that region submitted to their authority.8 Alfred had to recover power to be in a position to begin his reforms and it was at the battle of Edington that he fought

5 6

Ibid., 871, p. 178. Ibid., 874, p. 178. 7 Ibid., 878, p. 179. 8 Asser, Life, 52., p. 83.

against the whole army and put it to flight.9 This victory seems to have finally exhausted the last reserves of the Vikings and they chose to enter into a peace treaty with Alfred. This established the boundary between the remaining Anglo-Saxon lands and the new Danelaw of the Vikings. The remaining forces of the great army chose to finally settle but at this point it was unclear how long this peace would last.

The first Viking war revealed to Alfred that he faced an unparallel threat. After coming within a hairs breadth of destruction he only just managed to maintain control of his kingdom. His forces had operated inadequately during the course of the conflict and there were some serious flaws that he urgently needed to address. He realised that in order to be ready for a new assault he would have to reform his military and even the kingdom itself.

ASC, 878, p. 180.

Chapter 2 Influences
He also travelled to Rome that year in great state, taking his son Alfred with him, for a second time on the same journey, because he loved him more that than his other sons; there he remained for a whole year. After this, he returned to his homeland, bringing with him Judith, daughter of Charles [the Bald], king of the Franks.10

The reforms that Alfred instituted regarding his military were quite varied and it seems that he looked to several sources for inspiration. It would have been quite natural for Alfred to look to his contemporaries for ideas and a course of action regarding the Vikings. The Carolingians had been dealing with increased activity of the Northmen for some time. There are in fact several links between Alfreds regime and the royal court in Francia.11 Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, whose daughter Judith was given as queen by paternal consent to thelwulf, king of the West Saxons.12 Alfreds father had stopped at the court of Charles in 856 to secure this marriage alliance. Alfred was with him and this visit may have had a great impression upon the young boy. As a result it may be that Alfred was keen to later take advantage of the links which had been established preceding his reign. It is likely that new ideas and travelled to England along with the new bride but defining exactly how much influence can be ascribed to the Carolingians is very difficult define. One indicator of this may be what has been termed the continental interlude in Chronicle.13 This would suggest a link with the court or at least the passage of detailed information into Wessex in the years 880 to 891. Along with this information on the happenings at the Frankish court ideas may also have been disseminated. This link is probably due to the scholars at Alfreds court, his Advisors,

Asser, Life, 11., p. 70. See Joanna Story, Carolingian connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750-870, (Aldershot, 2003). 12 Asser, Life,, 68., p. 87. 13 A. P. Smyth, Alfred the Great, (Oxford, 1995), pp. 99-116.

Grimbald and John the Saxon.14 Both of these learned men were from the continent and the links suggest that Alfred and his court were aware of the methods and strategies being used across the channel. As a result the king may called upon them when attempting to deciding upon the best course of action. The similarity of the Carolingian fortified bridges and some of Alfreds later burhs have been noted.15 Given the diversity of sites relating to Alfred fortifications it is not likely that this connection was his sole inspiration, although it is hard to believe given the level of interaction that the continental examples did not influence Alfred in his reform policies. This would seem to have been bared out in his army reform and in the design of certain burhs.

Another likely influence would have been placed closer to home. As mentioned the role of Mercia had been preeminent for some time within England. The methods and thinking of its ruling elite would surely have filtered into its contemporaries at other courts on the island. It is quite straightforward to identify several of the likely factors that influenced Alfred regarding his reforms. Offas Dyke is the only other existing example t hat is comparable to Alfreds own fortification system.16 It was a huge construction which secured the western frontier of Mercia against the Welsh. Asser even notes that There was in Mercia in fairly recent times a certain vigorous king called Offa, who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea.17 The dyke runs for roughly 150 miles (241 kilometres) over a wide variety of terrain, it consisted of a ditch 1.8 meters (6 feet) wide and a rampart of 7.6 meters (25 Feet) high from the bottom of the ditch.18 It is a clear example of the scale of projects that could be accomplished by a determined monarch although Offa did not have to carry out such an undertaking while fending off large scale attacks from a determined enemy. It shows that Alfred could look closer to home for

14 15

Asser, Life, 78., p. 93. Smyth, Alfred the Great, pp. 141-142; D. Hill, The origins of Alfreds urban policies in T. Reuter (ed.), Alfred the Great: Papers from the Eleventh-Century Conferences, (Aldershot, 2003), pp. 223-225. 16 For a history of excavation of Offas Dyke see D. Hill, Offas Dyke: pattern and purpose Antiquaries Journal, 80 (2000), 195-206 and Idem, 'Offa's and Wat's Dykes: some aspects of recent work, 1972-1976'. Transactions of the Lancashire & Cheshire Antiquarian Society , 79 (1977), 21-33. 17 Asser, Life, 14., p. 71. 18 D. Hill, An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 1981), p.75; P. Wormald, Offas Dyke in J. Campbell (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons, (Oxford, 1982), pp. 120-121.

inspiration regarding his reforms. Indeed the presence of defences at Hereford and Tamworth which bear a striking resemblance to his burhs show that it is highly likely that a tradition of fortification existed in Mercia.19 The ample charter evidence shows that Offa was keen on the use of common burdens and this reliance was transmitted to Wessex in the mid ninth century.20 Again the links of his own royal family indicate the means of transmission and as noted the two kingdoms enjoyed cordial relations in the years leading up to the arrival of the great heathen army. This leads to the conclusion that the means and design of fortified sites was known in Wessex before Alfred became king, but what marks him apart is, like Offa, the scale of the scheme he undertook.

It does seem as if the time spent in the wilderness of Wessex was a watershed for Alfred. Having fought the Vikings with what could be described at best as mixed results he sought to overhaul his military so that it could better meet the threat to his kingdom. This reform does, as described above, seem to have had several likely influences from outside the kingdom. It would no doubt also have relied upon the kings own firsthand experience. With this in mind it is necessary to examine the nature of Viking warfare and the likely influence this would have had upon Alfred. That they were brave and fearsome warriors is beyond question but it is their mobility which gave them a key advantage in warfare. In the early ninth century the Vikings were concerned with raiding and plunder in which their ships afforded them the ability to strike targets largely at will along the coast or situated on navigable rivers. It was this mobility which made them such a formidable opponent. By 865 however their modus operandi had changed and they were more concerned with conquest. This moved their area of operations away from the coastline of England to the interior of the island. As a result the role of ships in maintaining their mobility declined and another means had to be sought. That the great army, micel here as contemporaries called it, was aware of this can be seen from the fact that soon after their arrival in England there they were supplied with horses21 by the

M. Biddle, Towns in D. Wilson (ed.) The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1976), p. 120-121. 20 N. Brooks, The development of military obligations in eighth - and ninth-century England in P. Clemoes and K. Hughes (eds.), England before the Conquest: Studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock, (London, 1971), pp. 69-84. 21 ASC, 866, p. 176.

men of East Anglia. That the army turned its attention to this matter within the initial phase of their invasion demonstrates the significance of mobility to the Vikings. They followed the same pattern in an incursion into Francia in 881 when shortly after arriving the Vikings procured horses and became a mounted force.22 Separated from their ships they would surely have had to rely upon other means of transportation, horses represented the ablest means of moving men and material over long distances. Statements such as the raiding army rode across Mercia into East Anglia23 attest to the Vikings likely speed of movement. Essentially this method of transport allowed the Vikings to strike at targets thought to be out of their reach. Their early attacks vividly attest to this, moving from East Anglia to attack York in 867, York to Thetford in 869, both roughly 15f0 miles apart. Then in 870 from Thetford to Reading, roughly 100 miles distant. It is this use of mobility that gave them a critical advantage over their opponents. They retained their mobility even when placed on dry land and could strike largely at will over vast distances. Another advantage of this mobility was that the Vikings could often choose which battles they wished to fight. Frequently in the face of a superior force they simply choose to move on rather than risk casualties in battle for little or no reward. This is illustrated by entries in the Chronicle such as: In this year the enemy army s lipped passed the army of the West Saxons into Warhamthe mounted army - stole by night away from the English army to Exeter .24 Part of this ability to choose their engagements must surely have relied upon good reconnaissance and mounted troops have traditionally excelled in this type of operation. A screening force of mounted troops could travel ahead of the main force and either attack targets of opportunity or warn the main body of the enemies position. Paddy Griffith alludes to this in his book stating that; On land an army would doubtless employ specialised scouts to fan out on horseback a few miles ahead and to the flanks, regardless of whether the main body was travelling on land or on a river. They might operate less as individuals

22 23

Asser, Life, 62., p. 86. ASC, 870, p. 177. 24 Ibid.,, 876, p. 179.

than as troops strong enough to force any individual farm or hamlet to surrender its food, money and news, but not big enough to encumber rapid movement25.

This would seem to be the system that the Vikings operated as they moved, as the Chronicle states, in small bands and mounted companies, by whatever side it was then undefended by the English army.26 This suggests that the Vikings did indeed utilise a scouting system that provided them with intelligence. The mobility that the great army enjoyed gave it a key advantage and the forces of Wessex were hard pressed to respond. Even when Alfred managed to counter them with the limited amount of his own mobile household retainers he found it difficult to outmatch his opponents. This is shown in the Chronicle entry for 877 when King Alfred rode after the mounted army with the English Army as far as Exeter, but could not overtake them.27 Clearly the more experienced Vikings enjoyed better cohesion as a force on the move and they employed scouts which were able to move swiftly over large distances. This lesson is most vividly illustrated by the attack which caught Alfred unawares in 878. In this year in midwinter after twelfth night the enemy came stealthily to Chippenham28 and put Alfred to flight. The timing of the attack would have caught the king off guard but the Vikings would seem to have moved from Gloucester to Chippenham extremely rapidly and nearly been able to capture or kill King Alfred and it was only his flight to the wilderness that saved himself and his kingdom. The Vikings certainly followed Sun Tzus adage to Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places you are not expected.29 The role played by mobility cannot have been lost on Alfred as it hampered his efforts to engage the enemy and it also very nearly ended his life. It would play a central role in the reform of his army and it is very likely that he learned this lesson from his enemy rather than from any other source. Perhaps he drew on his first hand experience to respond to the Viking threat.

25 26

P. Griffith, The Viking Art of War, (London, 1995), p.148. ASC., 893, p. 185. 27 Ibid., 877, p. 179. 28 Ibid., 878, p. 179. 29 Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. L. Giles in T.R. Philips (ed.), Roots of Strategy: a collection of military classics, (London, 1943), p.17.


Another element of Viking warfare which seems to have had an impact on Alfred was their use of fortifications. Indeed this was a key element of their strategy. 30 The period is littered with examples from their use of the roman defences at York in 867 to their construction of fortified camps at Reading in 871 and Repton in 874. Alfred encountered this element form the beginning of his encounters with the Vikings. Having been called on by the Mercians to aid in the fight against the army Alfred accompanied his brother on campaign. The forces of Wessex arrived at Nottingham within Mercian territory and came upon the enemy in that fortress and besieged them there. There occurred no serious battle there and the Mercians made peace with the enemy.31 This is a typical example of how the Vikings operated. Having entered a region they seized an important site which often had rudimentary defences, such as a royal centre, and proceeded to fortify it further. With a secure base to operate from they would then ravage the surrounding area. The camp served as a base where they could store plunder, food and even their boats. The Vikings certainly knew that in a camp, well chosen and entrenched, the troops both day and night lie secure within their works, even though in view of the enemy.32 This left the Anglo-Saxon forces in a weak position as they could not overcome such defences and often sought and paid for peace rather than risk an assault. This use of fortified camps is important because in Alfreds first encounters with the Vikings they relied heavily on such tactics. In 871 when their forces entered Wessex proper they seized a royal estate at Reading and fortified it. Asser states that some rode out for plunder, while others constructed a rampart between the two rivers Thames and Kennet.33 When the army of Wessex arrived they attempted to assault their enemies fort but the Vikings like wolves they burst out of the gates and joined battle with all their might.34 This sally caught the Anglo-Saxons off guard and they were routed.

These encounters would have shown firsthand the value of fortifications. As Abels states When confronted by a superior enemy army, the Vikings would retreat to the safety of
30 31

F. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1971), p. 247. ASC, 869, p. 176. 32 Vegetius, The Military Institutions of the Romans, trans. J. Clarke in T.R. Philips (ed.), Roots of Strategy: a collection of military classics, (London, 1943),Book I., p.48. 33 Asser, Life, 35., p. 78. 34 Ibid., 36., p. 78.


their camp. Though the defences of these camps were slight, they nonetheless proved effective against an enemy unfamiliar with siege warfare and saddled with a logistical system designed for short, decisive campaigns.35 In the second battle the English forces having expended a lot of energy in mopping up a few stragglers and attempting to assault the works were extremely vulnerable to a counter attack and were subsequently routed. Any force wishing to overcome these types of defences would have to have a greater superiority in numbers to carry an assault and even if this was the case the morale of attacking troops would undoubtedly have suffered when faced with the Herculean task of overcoming an entrenched enemy. The rout of the English forces in this instances shows that morale could quickly collapse when faced with and assault and subsequent sally by the garrison. It is highly likely that these two encounters had a serious impact on Alfred as it gave him his first taste of battle and he learned the hard way the value of fortifications. His elevation to the throne shortly afterwards meant that he was in a position to take more action in combating the threat to Wessex and he must surely have drawn on these first encounters and learned valuable lessons.

It is clear from the discussion above that Alfred could draw upon several areas for inspiration. Historical examples such as Offa and Charles the Bald would have shown what a vigorous and energetic king could accomplish. He also drew upon established traditions from within his kingdom, from Mercia and overseas. The reshaping of these elements to suit his needs show the king was willing to change the way his kingdom functioned. The links his dynasty enjoyed with other kingdoms would also have meant that ideas and policy filtered to his royal court. Alfred was wise enough to look around for the help he needed but he also relied upon his own experiences. There is no substitute for firsthand experience and it would seem that this played a key role in inspiring the King to remedy the perceived deficiencies in his military so that it could better combat the Vikings.


R., Abels, English Logistics and Military Administration, 871 -1066: The Impact of the Viking Wars, in A. N. Jrgenson and B. L. Clausen (eds.), Military aspects of Scandinavian Society in a European Perspective, AD1-1300, (Copenhagen, 1996), p. 258.


Chapter 3 Alfreds Military

He advanced to war with spear in hand; as long as he might grasp his shield and broad sword, he kept his purpose firm.36

Alfreds military had been found wanting after the first Viking War and he certainly realised this. To examine what changes Alfred made to his military it is necessary at this point to examine the way it functioned so that his later reforms can be identified. At the heart of his military were his household retainers. These men were the well equipped and well trained core of his army who may be considered a personal following or bodyguard. It seems as if they were the forerunner of the later medieval retinue. It is not clear as to their numbers but it is likely that they would have constituted a force of a hundred or thereabouts. At the heart of military tradition of this time was the act of gift giving. This idea that when gifts passed between unequals, i.e. a lord gave to his men things they coveted, the return was loyalty and service. Above all, in gifts to unequals the donor was present in the thing given and had not altogether relinquished it.37 Essentially the men owed the land granted to them as a gift by the king but there were certain common burdens which they had to fulfil. Nicholas Brooks has identified the extent and range of services these burdens entailed in his excellent survey of military obligation in the Anglo-Saxon period.38 The charters of the period are full of references to these common burdens of military service only, and the building of bridges and fortification of fortresses.39 These were seen as essential elements to the survival of the kingdom. Bridgework and fortresses will be examined later. The burden of military service fell upon the aristocracy and the common people alike. The aristocracy served, as mentioned, as the Kings professional standing army. Their numbers were sufficient for small scale tribute warfare and for policing the realm but were too few for it to conduct
36 37

The battle of Maldon, ed. D. Whitlock, (London, 1995), p. 293. K. J. Leyser, Communications and Power in Medieval Europe. Vol. 2: The Gregorian Revolution and Beyond, (London, 1994), p. 36. 38 Brooks, military obligations, pp. 74-75. 39 English Historical Documents c500-1042 Vol.1, ed. D. Whitlock, (London, 1955), Charter 93., p. 489.


full-scale campaigns on its own. For this they were augmented by the fyrd. This was a more wide ranging army which was based upon the common people of the kingdom. It would seem that it operated upon the five hide unit.40 Essentially this meant that one man from five hides of land was obliged to serve in this select fyrd. The various ealdorman and thegns would assemble the men required to serve in a locality and join the king and his household element on campaign. The select fyrd was essentially a sporadic levy of the kings men which were raised as the need arose. This method of recruitment was able to deal with the sporadic warfare of the preceding centuries but it became clear that it was wholly inadequate to deal with the threat of the Vikings. Its main drawback was that it took time for a particular ealdorman or thegn to gather his men and by the time the warriors could be gathered from the various localities, a highly mobile raiding party could have devastated an entire region and moved on.41 That the Vikings did not represent a normal threat quickly became clear and it would seem that the recruitment or conscription practiced in Wessex widened. It was only in the regions directly threatened that this wider method was used, in that the population had no wish to see their homes and fields burned and ravaged so they often turned out to help defend the locality. As Hollister states; ordinarily, an invasion was met by the select five-hide army buttressed by the freemen of the immediate vicinity.42 The varied nature of troops available to Alfred can be surmised by the depiction of the Anglo-Saxons in the Bayeux Tapestry, there seems to be several different troop types depicted fighting for King Harold. (See Plates 1 and 2) This more general levy has been called the great fyrd and was not really a formal body but rather the people of a particular locality intent on defending themselves. Hollister again sums up the concept of the great fyrd when he said in an emergency every freeman of a particular region might be summoned to defend his home land against invasion.43 Overall it would seem there were three tiers of military support available to the king. Firstly his well equipped mounted household retainers, secondly the select fyrd based on the five hide unit who would have been adequately armed foot

C. W. Hollister, Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the eve of the Norman conquest, (Oxford, 1962), pp. 38-58; Brooks, military obligations, p. 71. 41 R. Abels, From Alfred to Harold II: the military failure of the late Anglo -Saxon state in The Normans and their Adversaries at War: Essays in memory of C. Warren Hollister, eds. R. Abels and B. S. Bachrach, (Boydell and Brewer, 2001), p. 19. 42 Hollister, Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions, p. 26. 43 Ibid., p. 26.


soldiers and finally the larger body of the greater fyrd who would have been ill-armed locals. This type of system was good for combating sporadic raids by the Vikings, such as practiced in the early part of the ninth century, or for enforcing submission on a client kingdom but was not able to stand up to sustained operations against the Vikings when they had conquest in mind. What is clear from this discussion is that Alfred was not lacking in manpower but he could not employ it as he wished as there was a distinct local bias of defence. The full weight of manpower could only be brought to bear after some time and only in a particular locality.

This local bias of defence did enjoy some successes as ealdormen acting on their own initiative often defeated Viking raiding parties such as when Earldorman thelwulf encountered them at Englefield, and fought against them there and had the victory.44 Even when Alfred was put to flight after Chippenham Asser records a Viking war band coming to grief in 878 at the hands of local forces acting completely independently of the king when a Viking leader named Ubbe met an unhappy death with 1,200 men, at the hands of the kings thegns.45 It would seem however that these type of victories were infrequent and the military system. From 868 when the forces of Wessex went to the aid of Mercia to 871 when the Vikings entered Wessex proper the army was found lacking. After of large battles, such as Ashdown, Basing and Mereton, the forces of Wessex were severely reduced. Indeed shortly after his elevation to the throne the Chronicle records Alfred fought with a small force against the whole army at Wilton.46 The sustained nature of the warfare meant that the army was not able to adequately defend the kingdom. Indeed the Chronicle states that during that year nine general engagements were fought against the Danish army in the kingdom of the south of the Thames, beside the expeditions which the kings brother Alfred and ealdormen and kings thegns often rode on, which were not counted.47 Asser too shows the level to which the army of Wessex had sunk when he said; nor should it seem extraordinary to anyone that the Christian

44 45

ASC, 871, p. 177. Asser, Life, 54., p. 84. 46 ASC, 871, p. 178. 47 Ibid., 871, p. 178.


had a small number of men in the battle: for the Saxons were virtually annihilated to a man in this single year.48

A final example of the inadequacies of his military is found in the events surrounding Alfreds flight to the wilderness of Athelney in 878. The Vikings moved rapidly from Gloucester and caught Alfred off guard forcing him to flee into the fen-fastness as the Chronicle puts it. It is only after a delay of some time that the king was able to rally his forces. It seems the Vikings attacked in the winter of 878 and it was only after several months that Alfred was able to respond with his own troops and those of the surrounding shires. Asser puts the battle of Edington in Easter, 4th-10th of May, of 879 and this represents a delay of roughly five months to gather sufficient forces to respond. 49 Although the timing of the attack was unexpected it clearly illustrates the time taken for the manpower of the fyrd to assemble so as to be of use to the king. This was the fyrds main disadvantage, in that time was needed to assemble the levies of men. The maxim that a general is not easily overcome who can form a true judgement of his own and the enemies forces50 truly applies to Alfred. Not only did he examine his own military to identify its shortcoming but he also studied that of his enemy and managed to devise a series of reforms that he hoped would revamp his forces.

48 49

Asser, Life, 42., p. 81. Ibid., 55., p. 84 50 Vegetius, Military Institutions of the Romans, Book III, p.92.


Chapter 4 Army Reform

I sought the resources with which to exercise my authority, in order that my skills and power would not be forgotten and concealed: because every skill and every authority is soon obsolete and passed over, if it is without wisdom51

Most historians put the introduction of his reforms in the 880s and much of the evidence does confirm this.52After being put to flight to the wilderness Alfred must have thought long and hard about how he could strengthen his kingdom. He had several months over which to ponder this challenge and it is likely that he formed a basic plan of reform at this point. Following his victory at Edington he seems to have set about instituting a number of changes to the way his military and kingdom operated. The first area where Alfred seems to have acted was his army. It was the inability of the fyrd to defend the kingdom that forced him to make some interesting changes to the way it worked. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the first change in 893 where it states The king had divided his army in two, so that always half its men were at home, half on service, apart from men who guarded the boroughs.53 This rotational system ensured that his men would be available to fight throughout the campaign season in two contingents. This would seem to have overcome one problem Alfred faced in that it overcame the local bias of his forces. The manpower of the fyrd was based upon a rural population and would often have been more concerned with returning home as quickly as possible rather than embarking upon an extended campaign. The frequent payments of Danegeld, such as in 871, 876 and 877, would seem to indicate this may have been the reasoning behind buying off the enemy. With his troops weary from battle and anxious to return home it was more expedient for Alfred to simply buy off the Vikings rather than have his weary and possibly mutinous army face battle. Even with the reforms in place he still faced trouble during the initial
51 52

Alfred, Consolation of a Philosophy, XVII, p. 132. penguin Alfred R., Abels, Alfred the Great: war, culture and kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1998), p. 194; J. Haslam, 'King Alfred and the Vikings: Strategies and tactics 876-886 AD' in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology & History, 13 (2006), p. 146. 53 ASC, 893, p. 185.


period. The Chronicle describes how in 893 the army had completed their term of service and used up their provisionswhen he was on the way there and the other English army was on its way home.54 This shows that many men of the army did not wish to be in the field for extended periods and were likely eager to return to family and farm. The rotational system would also have done something to overcome the local bias of his forces in that it allowed some men to stay at home and tend to the essential business of agriculture. Alfred would surely have had no kingdom at all if the harvests could not be gathered as a result of this continued drain of manpower. This economic aspect of his army reform was crucial to the survival of the kingdom as it allowed the economy to function despite being in a state of near constant warfare for several years.

Another benefit of this rotational system was that it negated the main drawback of the fyrd system, noted above, which was the time taken for men to assemble. With forces working on a rotational basis Alfred would not have had to concern himself with wasting time gathering troops as he would have had a force at hand ready to react to any Viking attack. The time for the second contingent to assemble would doubtless be the same as before but Alfred could have factored this into the length of service and covered the time with the force he had at hand. It was a novel idea that completely overhauled his military and at a stroke allowed him to compete with his enemies on a level playing field. This must surely be identified as one of the key elements of his reform as it had an impact from its implementation as will be seen later.

The inspiration for this solution is unclear but Alfred used a similar method within the royal household to effectively govern the kingdom.55 He also seems to have applied such a solution regarding Asser himself. As the monk had obligations with the monastery of St. Davids in Wales Alfred proposed the condition that for six months of every year I would remain with him either, if I could, I would spend six months at a stretch, or else would take it in turns spending three months in Wales and three months in the Saxon

54 55

Ibid., 893, p. 186. Asser, Life, 100, p. 106.


land.56 Asser is most likely to have been brought to Wessex in 885 and the application of this solution suggests the king had already hit upon it as a method of reform for several spheres.57 It is unclear where Alfred got the idea from but it has been suggested by Richard Abels and David Howlett that it was inspired by King Solomons rotational work force.58 This is a very interesting idea and surely finds some weight given the character of Alfred and the mould in which many at court tried to portray him. Asser modelled his work upon that of Einhards Life of Charles the Great and Charlemagne himself took great inspiration from both King David and King Josiah.59 It is quite likely that Alfred or at least some of his advisors would have been aware of this. The use of a Biblical example should not be ruled out as Alfred was an extremely pious man and would have liked to style himself as a respectable Christian king.

The rotation of his troops was not the only reform Alfred introduced to the fyrd. It would seem that the king did indeed learn from his enemies and adopted their means of warfare. The Chronicle entries for the early 890s suggest that Alfred turned at least some part of the fyrd into a mounted force. The year of 893 seems to be of critical importance in this respect as the English army first intercepts a Viking force. This wording suggests it was mounted and as mobile as its enemy. Then the army even overtakes a marauding band and begins to besiege these Vikings when they retreated into their fortified camp. The Vikings were finally reduced to eating the greater part of their horses.60 This proves that the Viking band was indeed mounted and as a result the English forces, or at least a significant part thereof, must also have been in order to overtake them. Finally the English army burnt all the corn, or consumed it by the means of their horses.61 Confirmation of the supply of horses to the fyrd comes in 895 when the English army rode after the enemy.62 The language used in these entries suggests that it took time to supply the majority of the fyrd with horses. It is key that it is the English army and not Alfred riding after the enemy, as this shows it is not merely the household element but
56 57

Ibid., 79., p. 94. Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred, p. 52 and pp. 213-214. 58 Abels, Alfred the Great, p. 197. 59 D. Wilson, Charlemagne: Barbarian & Emperor (London, 2005), p. 88. 60 ASC, 893, p. 187. 61 Ibid., 893, p. 187. 62 Ibid., 895, p. 188.


rather the wider force that has been mounted. Alfred probably expanded the mounted contingent from the limited numbers of his household to a much wider swathe of his forces. It is only after several years that his forces ride after the enemy and this suggest his reform in this area did succeed after a number of years. Along with rotation, this mounting of the fyrd was a critical change in the Anglo-Saxon military as it allowed Alfred to compete on an equal terms with the Vikings. It is interesting to note that both sides in this conflict used horses for transport and did not actually engage in battle on horseback. The poem The battle of Maldon illustrates this; Then he bade each warrior leave his horse, drive it afar and go forth on foot.63 This shows that it was mobility that mattered and once combat was joined the horse was of little or no use to a warrior except maybe to make a quick exit from a lost battle.

These two elements of reform combined to ensure that his military was a more capable force. Firstly, it became as mobile as its enemy which allowed it to hasten to attack or defend any threatened point in the kingdom. Secondly, by rotating his forces Alfred negated the main flaw in his recruitment system and ensured that his forces were always ready to do battle. Both these reforms must have taken time and it seems as if there were initial problems and shortcomings. The course of the last phase of his Viking war would be the true test of his reforms and this will be examined below.


The battle of Maldon, ed. D. Whitlock, (London, 1995), p. 293.


Chapter 5 Fortifications
If you lay siege to a town you will exhaust your strength. 64

Linked to his reform of the army was the construction of a system of fortifications that it was hoped would protect the kingdoms from the Vikings. As mentioned earlier the common burdens that the king could impose on the kingdom included bridgework and fortress work. The Mercians had led the way in this field.65 In Wessex there are increasing references to borough work from the 840s and 850s onwards. 66 As the Viking menace grew it would seem that Alfreds use of these burdens also escalated. The few fortified centres at his disposal were clearly inadequate as the Vikings often seized them in their early campaign (865-879). The documentary evidence available in the form of the Burghal Hidage shows that a ring of about 30 fortresses were built.67 (See Map 3) Although this document is likely dated to the reign of his son, Edward the Elder, it surely represents a framework and system put in place earlier.68 The Chronicle refers to the men who guarded the boroughs in 893 so the system is likely to date from before this. 69 Indeed Asser talks of the cities and towns to be rebuilt and of others to be constructed where previously there had been none.70 This is a clear indication that Alfred embarked upon a major construction campaign to fortify his kingdom.

64 65

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, p. 12. Hill, urban policies, pp. 220-223. 66 Brooks, military obligations, pp. 69-84. 67 Burghal Hidage, Trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge in Alfred the Great Assers Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources, (London, 2004), pp. 193-194. 68 H. Lyon, Towns in late Anglo-Saxon England: the evidence and some possible lines of inquirey in P. Clemoes and K. Hughes (eds.), England before the Conquest: Studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock. (London, 1971), p. 117; Yorke, B., Wessex in the Early Middle Ages, (London,1995), p 114. 69 D. Whitelock, English Historical Documents c500-1042 Vol.1, (London, 1955),p. 71; P. H. Blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, (Cambridge,1977), pp. 292-293; Haslam, King Alfred and the Vikings, p. 146. 70 Asser, Life, 91., p. 101.


The diversity of the system is striking. Alfred and his advisors used a synergy of tried and tested methods along with some genuine invention in its formation and execution. This is seen in the wide assortment of sites chosen to become the burhs of Alfreds kingdom.71 (See Plate 5) Pre-existing sites were chosen which already had some form of defences in place. This is particularly true of the Roman towns which had large stone walls which could easily have been restored or supplemented; Bath, Exeter and Winchester are prime examples of this type of site. Iron Age hill forts were also used. These would have had some pre-existing defences too and would have already proven themselves as first rate defensible sites many times over; Chisbury72 and Halwell73 are both examples of this type of structure. Aside from pre-existing sites what is novel about Alfreds approach is that, as Asser stated, he actually founded new sites which would be part of the system of fortification. Firstly there were the smaller military outposts. These were purely functional affairs and it would seem they were often placed to plug perceived gaps in the network. They, like the hill-forts, were sited in highly defensible positions which used the terrain and topography to their advantage. Lyford,74 Lyng,75 and Langport76 are examples of this particular type of construction. In terms of new towns the approach that was taken was to lay out sites which were rectangular in pattern and had two major streets or roadways intersecting them. A grid of ancillary back streets was also laid out along with what is likely to have been a perimeter roadway for ease of movement to any part of the walls. 77 (See Plate 3) This approach represents an early attempt at town planning and the subsequent prosperity and development of these town sites shows the merit of their design and siting. Crickdale, Warham and Wallingford are examples of this type of site.

For an overview of all the sites listed in the Burghal Hidage see D. Hill, Gazetteer of Burghal Hidage sites in D. Hill and R. Rumble (eds.), The Defence of Wessex: the Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon fortifications, (Manchester,1996), pp. 189-231; C. R. Radford, The pre-Conquest boroughs of England, ninth to eleventh centuries, (Oxford, 1980), pp.131-153; D. Hinton, Alfreds kingdom: Wessex and the South 800-1500, (London, 1977), pp. 30-39. 72 Hill, Gazetteer, p. 197; Hinton, Alfreds kingdom, p. 33. 73 Hill, Gazetteer, p. 204; Hinton, Alfreds kingdom, p. 35. 74 Hill, Gazetteer, pp. 208-209.; Hinton, Alfreds kingdom, p. 35. 75 Hill, Gazetteer, p. 209; Hinton, Alfreds kingdom, p. 36. 76 D. Hill, Gazetteer, p. 206.(Langport); Hinton, Alfreds kingdom, p..36. 77 P. Wormald, The Burhs in J. Campbell (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons, (Oxford, 1982), p. 153; Radford, The pre-Conquest boroughs, p. 141; Biddle, Towns, p. 122.


Some forts have yet to be located, namely Chisbury, Sashes and Eorpeburnan, but likely sites have been identified and hopefully in the future these positions will in fact be confirmed.78

Many of these new constructions share the same defensive features. This consisted of a ditch and earthen bank, dump construction being employed. (See Plate 4) The bank was most likely topped off with a timber revetment. The ramparts were generally 3 meters (10 feet) high and ten meters (33 Feet) wide.79 Although this type of protection was not as formidable as their Roman counterparts they would still have been quite an obstacle to any Viking army. In fact even when there were Roman defences, they were often augmented with ditches such as at Winchester. The lack, of siege equipment would have meant that the Vikings could not easily overcome these seemingly slight defences. The likely merits and effectiveness of such defences have been noted in an extremely technically detailed yet informative piece on the burhs.80 Indeed this piece brings to light the often forgotten figure of the archer in the Anglo-Saxon military. Again the Bayeux Tapestry illustrates that the archer did have a place within the English military long before the more renowned longbow man. (See Plate 2)

The varied nature of the Burhs themselves is mirrored by their strategic function. Some were placed to block access to major waterways. (See Map 5) These are similar to the efforts of Charles the Bald on the continent.81 Others were placed with a similar function in mind but relating to roads. (See Maps 4 and 5) The extensive network of Roman roads would have allowed men on horseback or even foot to move at greater speeds than cross country. The distances covered by the Vikings in their first campaign have been noted and it is likely due in some part to their use of roads. The herepaths of the Anglo-Saxons, which were essentially track ways or roads, would have added to transport infrastructure


N. Brooks, The Unidentified Forts of the Burghal Hidage Medieval Archaeology, 8 (1964), pp.74-89. Radford, pre-Conquest boroughs, p. 149.; Idem., The later pr-Conquest Boroughs and their Defenses, Medieval Archaeology 14 (1970) pp. 83-104. 80 B. S. Bachrach and R. Aris, Military Technology and Garrison Organization: Some Observations on Anglo-Saxon Military Thinking in Light of the Burghal Hidage, Technology and Culture 31 (1990) 1-17 81 Hill, urban policies, pp.224-224.


and convergences of these routes also had to be guarded.82 (See Map 5) This network of roads and track ways had to be guarded but it also allowed ease of movement which in turn would have aided defence. Finally major population centres were also fortified and defended as they would have been prime targets for Viking attacks. The level of foresight in the layout of this plan is significant as the burhs were placed about one days march away from each other, approximately a distance of 25 miles (40 Kilometres).


would have allowed the population of the local villages to seek shelter from a Viking raid but it also meant that the burhs were mutually supporting. This is a remarkable strategic element which was extremely farsighted; if the burhs had been place too far apart they would have been seriously weakened and made more vulnerable to attack.

Overall the positioning of the burhs meant that in a strategic sense they controlled the access to and interior lines of communication of the kingdom. As Blair states The scheme outlined in the Burghal Hidage represents a strategic plan designed to ensure the defence of England south of the Thames against military attack. 84 The fortifications would prove to be a formidable obstacle to the Vikings as they denuded them of their most valued trait, mobility. Without freedom of movement the Vikings were unable to make any progress and found it hard to avoid battle. They were unable to ravage the countryside without risking exposure to the Kings army or even forces from several surrounding burhs themselves. This shows that the system embarked upon by Alfred was a success and it became apparent in the course of his second Viking war.

82 83

Abels, Alfred the Great, pp. 203-204. Wormald, The Burhs, p. 152; Hinton, Alfreds kingdom, p. 31. 84 P. H. Blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, (Cambridge, 1977), p. 292.


Chapter 6 - Navy

Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, transferred his fleet and its compliment of fighting men from Kent to East Anglia, in order to plunder that area.85

Finally we come to Alfreds last reform and like the story of the man himself, it is shrouded in mystery. The king is sometimes credited as the founder of the Royal Navy. This is later addition largely attributed the romantic ideals of the Victorian age and it only adds to his myth akin to the story of the burning cakes86. He did leave his mark on naval affairs, but it would be foolish to believe that he started the process which led to the emergence of the Royal Navy. The Anglo-Saxons themselves were once invaders who crossed from Europe and as a result Alfred inherited a rich maritime tradition. The Chronicle has several mentions of fleet actions in the reigns of his predecessors and naval warfare would not have been unknown to him. Indeed his eldest brother, King thelstan, is recorded in 851 as having fought in shipscaptured nine ships and put the rest to flight.87 This shows that Wessex had a fleet in existence which actively sought battle with its enemies. Excavations at sites like Sutton Hoo have shown the skill and likely standards in Anglo-Saxons shipbuilding.88 The ships of Wessex were however too few to cope at first with the sheer scale of opposition ranged against them from the Irish Sea to the Channel. Their numbers must have dwindled in the first years of the conflict as the kingdom was largely unprepared to face such a threat. The Vikings seemed to be able to move and attack at will; a great naval force came inland and stormed Winchester. 89 In 893 Viking ships allowed them to escape when confronted; When the king turned west
85 86

Asser, Life, 67., p 87. See M. J. Swanton, king Alfreds Ships: Text and context in Anglo-Saxon England 28 (1999) 22; Smyth, Alfred the Great, p. 153. 87 ASC, 851, p. 173. 88 See R. Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo ship-burial. Vol.1,; Excavations, background, the ship, dating and inventory, (London, 1975), pp. 345-424. and R. Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo ship burial : a handbook, (London, 1979), pp.76-80. 89 ASC, 860, p. 175.


with the army towards Exeter and the Danish army had laid siege to the borough, they went to their ships when he had arrived there.90 Events like these show that Alfred needed to try and interdict the invaders before they landed and even if they attempted to flee. If Alfred is to be credited in the naval sphere with any accolade it is only that he realized the meaning of sea power. It was this ability that allowed his enemies to transfer troops and concentrate their forces on targets of their choosing and it is because of this that he had to involve himself in naval affairs. It is recorded in 875 that King Alf red went out to sea with a naval force, and fought against the crews of seven ships, and captured one ship and put the rest to flight.91 Asser puts the Viking total for the same encounter at six.92 Alfred is again in command in 882 when he went out with ships to sea and fought against four crews of Danish men.93 It would seem that Alfred enjoyed mixed success on the seas as in 885 he, sent a naval force from Kent into East Anglia. Immediately they came to the mouth of the Stour they encountered 16 ships of Vikings and fought against them, and seized all the ships and killed the men. When they turned homeward with the booty, they met a large naval force of Vikings and fought against them on the same day, and the Danes had the victory.94

This encounter shows that Alfred followed stop-gap policy during these years, in that he sought to press captured ships into service for himself. On this occasion it would seem the need to crew all the captured vessels weakened the fighting ability of the fleet and they suffered a defeat when counter attacked. On other occasions however he enjoyed more success. This would seem particularly true when dealing with the stored boats the Vikings had in their fortifications. The Kings forces are recorded in 893 of having either broke up or burnt all the ships, or brought them back to London or to Rochester.95 Again in 895 the men from London fetched the ships, and broke up all
90 91

Ibid., 893, pp. 186-187. Ibid., 875, p. 179. 92 Asser, Life, 48., p. 82. 93 ASC, 882, p. 181. 94 Ibid., 885, p. 182. 95 Ibid., 893, p. 186.


which they could not bring away, and brought to London those which were serviceable.96 On these two occasions a stormed fortress provided the king with an opportunity to carry off many fine and useful vessels. This method could only provide a certain amount and was largely followed in the early 890s as a temporary solution to his lack of ships. The real reform occurred later when he seems to have embarked on a major shipbuilding effort. It was in 896 that, King Alfred had long ships built to oppose the Danish warships. They were almost twice as long as the others. Some had 60 oars, some more. They were both swifter and steadier and also higher than the others. They were built neither on the Frisian nor the Danish pattern, but as it seemed to him himself that they could be most useful.97

This entry shows that Alfred was keenly aware that he had to produces his own ships to counter the threat of the Vikings and to this end embarked on a major shipbuilding effort. He is even using his own design and the relative merits of the ships have been noted by several authors.98 The significance of Alfreds involvement is not just his design but it seems likely that he took the ad hoc system of constructing ships and tied it to tenurial obligations. This would have meant that he could rely upon marshalling a certain number of ships every year. Unfortunately we do not have a Burghal Hidage type document to confirm this but the size of his new ships, larger than contemporary designs, mean it is highly likely that he had to establish an administrative framework to manage their construction just as he did in other areas. It is from later evidence that we get a glimpse of what Alfred started. In this year the king ordered that ships should be built unremittingly over all England, namely a warship from 310 hides, and a helmet and corset from eight hides.99 This system allowed Alfreds successors to amass large fleets of some 90 ships

96 97

Ibid., 895, p. 188. Ibid., 896, p. 189. 98 For a full discussion of Alfred Long Ships See E. and J. Gifford, Alfreds new longships in Alfred the Great: Papers from the Eleventh-Century Conferences, ed. T. Reuter, (Aldershot, 2003), pp. 281-289; M. J. Swanton, King Alfreds ships: text and context in Anglo-Saxon England 28, ed. M Lapidge, (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 1-22. 99 ASC, 1008, p. 219.


and 3,380 armed sailors from Wessex alone.100 These types of figures are related to a fully functional system which in Alfreds day would surely have had teething troubles and undoubtedly been capable of lesser results. By allocating a certain number of hides to vessels and men he could easily tie the total to various estates which would in turn provide ships and sailors. The similarity with the Burghal system is striking and lends weight to the idea that Alfred did indeed implement a reform of how ships were constructed. It could be said that he is likely to have streamlined the process used earlier and given it a focus that applied to the entire kingdom on a regular basis instead of raising ships on an ad hoc basis as the need arose. This when coupled with his new design show that he did indeed embark upon a reform policy regarding his navy. The success of this reform however is uncertain and will be examined below.

However many ships he could produce it would never be enough to cover the entire coastline of his kingdom and the king and his advisors seem to have realised this. Although the evidence is as times scant, it seems likely that the Anglo-Saxons of Wessex used a type of coast watch and beacon system to warn of Viking attacks. This system seems again to be tied to the administrative focus of the reforms in that resources would have been assigned for the upkeep of the system and to provide the manpower for it to function effectively.101 It would have given early warning of the approach of enemy ships and allowed the various forces to prepare for an assault.

This navy reform and coast watch is important because it was an early warning system which gave other facets of his military more time to react and protect the borders and people of his kingdom. It must be viewed within the context of the other reforms that Alfred introduced. The ships would protect his coastline and where possible destroy the enemy or at least deny them freedom of the seas. Failing this the beacon system and coast watch would serve as an early warning scheme which would signal to forces that an attack was eminent and therefore giving them time to prepare. It could be said that this

Hill, Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England, p. 92. D. Hill and S. Sharp, An Anglo-Saxon Beacon System in Names, places and people: an onomastic miscellany in memory of John McNeal Dodgson eds. A. Rumble and A. D. Mills (Stamford, 1997) 157165; Hill, Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England, p. 92.


was Anglo-Saxon civil defence at work and was the forerunner of a system that would serve the kingdom for centuries to come.


Chapter 7 The Second Viking War

I would advise everyone who is strong and has many wagons to direct his steps to that same forest where I cut my props, and fetch more for himself and to load his wagons with well-cut staves so that he may weave many elegant walls and put up many splendid houses and so build a fine homestead, and there live pleasantly and in tranquillity both in summer and winter as I have not yet done!102

The Vikings returned to menace Wessex in 892, having pillaged quite a large area of the continent it would seem that England offered a better target. They are reported as crossing the Channel in one journey, horses and all, and then came up into the estuary of the Lympne with 200 ships.103 Again the importances of mobility is underlined as they actually had the horses transported with them. This force immediately went on the offensive and stormed a fortress. Inside that fortification there were a few peasants, and it was only half made.104 This shows that even though Alfred had indeed begun his reforms it was not a simple process to get his wishes carried out. Asser also laments this fact; during the course of these royal admonitions, the commands were not fulfilled because of the peoples laziness, or else (having begun too late in the time of necessity) were not finished in time to be of use to those working on them (I am speaking here of fortifications commanded by the king which have not yet been begun, or else, having been begun too late in the day, have not been brought to completion) and enemy forces burst in by land and sea(or, as frequently, by both!) 105


Alfred, Soliloquies, Trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge in Alfred the Great Assers Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources, (London, 2004), Preface, p. 138. 103 ASC, 892, p. 184. 104 Ibid., 892, p. 185. 105 Asser, Life, 91., p.102.


This shows that it was an uphill struggle to implement the reforms, particularly the fortress work. As mentioned some of the forts were newly established entities and getting the local population to go off into the wilderness to build them seems to have been a major problem. At another point in his work Asser again complains, And what of the mighty disorder and confusion of his own people to say nothing of his own malady who would undertake of their own accord little or no work for the common needs of the kingdom.106 It is uncertain how the king overcame this problem but it is likely that once the Vikings returned these reluctant parties ceased their objections. Two bands of Vikings began to operate in Kent after the seizure of the half built fortress. (See Map 6) They, as usual, constructed their own fortified camps in the region. Alfred reacted quickly and collected his army, and advanced to take position between the two enemy forces.107 This show of force with his reformed army is likely to have worried the Vikings as they, according to the Chronicle, did not come out of those encampments more than twice.108 When they did emerge it was only in small bands and mounted companies to travel through areas undefended by the English forces. This shows the presence of Alfreds army did indeed worry them as they tried to grab what plunder they could before sneaking back to the Danelaw. The effectiveness of Alfreds reforms can be gauged by the fact that even when these small raiding parties did emerge they were sought by other bands, almost everyday, either by day or night, both from the English army and from the boroughs.109 This shows that the Vikings tried, as in the first war, to simply bypass the kings army. This tactic did not work as their progress was blocked by the burhs and they were harassed by the garrisons at every opportunity. This slowed their progress and the field army intercepted them and fought against them at Farnham, and put the enemy to flight and recovered the booty.110 The English then perused then pursued the Danes but they managed to escape when, as mentioned above, one section of the fyrd returned home without waiting for the second division to relieve it.
106 107

Ibid., 91., p. 101. ASC, 893, p. 185. 108 Ibid., 893, p. 185. 109 Ibid., 893, p. 185. 110 Ibid., 893, p. 185.


Overall the Vikings did not enjoy any great success in this war and there penetration into Wessex was limited. They spent much of their time raiding English Mercia and even Wales suggesting that they found the going too hard in Wessex. This shows that Alfreds reforms can be judged to have been successful. They had been put to the test in this second campaign and the lack of material evidence for Vikings in Wessex is testimony to the effectiveness of the defences organized by the King of the West Saxons.111 Alfred emerged from his second war victorious and it was this achievement that earned him the epithet the Great.


Yorke, Wessex in the early middle ages, p. 114.


for every man must say what he says and do what he does according to the capacity of his intellect and the amount of time available to him.112

A comparison of Alfreds two Viking wars show that there are clear differences regarding how the kingdom reacted. During the first war both the king and his military struggled to fight off the attacks of the great army. After a series of sustained assaults the kingdom came extremely close to being taken over by new Viking overlords. It is only due to the determination and perhaps a little luck that Alfred avoided this fate. The reason it struggled so badly was largely due to the inadequacies of its military forces. Although these forces did win a number of battles they were unable to decisively check the invaders. The reliance upon paying off the invaders, in the form of Danegeld, show that it was seriously weakened and unable to deal with the Viking invaders decisively. This method only encouraged its enemy who often broke agreements and merely returned after a brief sojourn.

In comparison during the second Viking war the kingdom acquitted itself exceptionally well and it was regularly victorious over its enemies. The progress of this second campaign illustrates that the Vikings did not manage to make serious inroads into the kingdom and also did not repeat the level of raiding and pillage that it had earlier. The lack of reliance upon Danegeld shows that the military forces of Wessex were able to effectively counter the threat of the Vikings and successively defend the kingdom.

It must surely be due to internal change and reform that the military was able to respond so effectively. King Alfred looked to many sources for inspiration for his policy of military reform. Drawing upon traditions from other rulers, kingdoms and even the bible he designed a comprehensive scheme that he hoped would free him from the threat of the

Alfred, Consolation of a Philosophy, Trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge in Alfred the Great Assers Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources, (London, 2004), Preface, p. 132.


Vikings. He also relied upon his own experiences from a hard fought first campaign and was not merely reliant upon other peoples ideas. It may never be established which elements truly inspired the king but it is likely that he opened himself to a myriad of influences showing that he was both an open minded and intelligent king.

The reform that he brought about fundamentally changed the way his military worked. First he set about modifying the way his army, the fyrd, worked. Having pinpointed its main drawbacks he took steps to turn it into a well equipped standing army. Firstly, by proving it with horses he was able to turn it into a highly mobile force that could speedily react to any incursion by enemy forces. Secondly, he ensured that it worked on a rotational basis for a set term so that he would always have a contingent in the field and ready to respond. Although these changes may seem small they significantly overhauled the fyrd from a tribal force into a more professional army that was able to take on the Vikings.

He also supplemented his army with a system of fortification. These burhs were well defended strong points placed in key strategic locations around the kingdom. They protected the coastline as well as controlling the interior lines of march. They represent a remarkable achievement due to their sheer diversity and the tremendous effort required to complete such a scheme during a time of great conflict. Within the burh system there are several features that are both ingenious and novel. They represent a mutually supporting defence in depth system that proved to be the bane of the Viking way of war. They perfectly complemented the kings field army and were even capable, using their own garrisons, of inflicting defeats upon the Vikings. The system was perfectly adept at countering the strategies practiced by Alfreds enemies and was a key element in his eventual victory.

Finally he even went as far as instituting a naval reform programme. Realising that it was best to stop his enemies from ever landing in his realm he set about reforming his fleet. Like the fyrd it suffered from an inadequate recruitment system that Alfred set about changing. The results of this change are difficult to gauge in the time of Alfreds reign 34

but later evidence suggest it was enormously successful. He also tried his hand at ship design showing he truly was a man of several talents. Lastly he seems to have instituted a civil defence programme in the form of a coast watch and warning beacons. This would have served as his early warning system which was crucial in allowing the rest of his forces to respond in a timely fashion. Again it is mainly from the reigns of his successors that the effectiveness is of these reforms is seen. As Lyon states The two centuries which followed his death elaborate and complicate the structure, but the basic lines of development were firmly drawn in their distinctive paths during the reign of King Alfred.113 This could be said to be true of all his reforms and not just his navy and maritime civil defence.

Overall it is clear that these reforms were no small undertaking and the ingenuity and drive needed to see them from mere ideas to fully implemented functioning systems was huge. Each element could perform on its own to combat Vikings but the genius of the reforms was that they were perfectly integrated with each other. The complete failure of the second Viking incursion in the 890s show that Alfred had indeed managed to completely overhaul the military and channel its resources effectively so that it became the preeminent force that would eventually allow a untied Kingdom of England to be formed.


H. R. Lyon, The governance of Anglo-Saxon England 500-1087, (London, 1984), p. 62.


Plate 1 Men of the fyrd

Men of the fyrd fighting on a hill. The lack of armour suggests these were men of the great fyrd.
F. Stenton, The Bayeux tapestry: a comprehensive survey, (Phaidon Press,1965), p. 165.

Plate 2 Shield-wall and archer

An Anglo-Saxon archer firing from behind the shield wall. The armoured men could be considered well trained and equipped men of the select fyrd.
F. Stenton, The Bayeux tapestry: a comprehensive survey, (Phaidon Press,1965), p. 159.


Plate 3 Street pattern of the Burhs

The gridded street pattern of newly laid out burhs.

P. Wormald, The Burhs in J. Campbell (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons, (Oxford, 1982), pp. 153-54.


Plate 4 Burh defences

C. Radford, The pre-Conquest boroughs of England, ninth to eleventh centuries, (Oxford, 1980), p. 141.

Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, 'Wareham West Walls', Medieval Archaeology 3, (1959), 32.

J. D. Richards, The English Heritage book of Viking Age England , (Batsford, 1991), p. 54.


Plate 5 - Different burh sites

M. Biddle, Towns, in D. Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1976), pp.126-127.



Primary Sources Keynes S., and Lapidge, M., (eds.), Alfred the Great Assers Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources, (London, 2004).

Philips, T. R., (ed.), Roots of Strategy: a collection of military classics, (London, 1943). Whitelock, D., English Historical Documents c500-1042 Vol.1, (London, 1955).

Secondary Works
Abels, R., English Logistics and Military Administration, 871 -1066: The Impact of the Viking Wars, in A. N. Jrgenson and B. L. Clausen (eds.), Military aspects of Scandinavian Society in a European Perspective, AD11300, (Copenhagen, 1996). Abels, R., From Alfred to Harold II: the military failure of the late AngloSaxon state in The Normans and their Adversaries at War: Essays in memory of C. Warren Hollister, eds. R. Abels and B. S. Bachrach, (Boydell and Brewer, 2001). Abels, R., Alfred the Great: war, culture and kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1998).

Aris, R., and Bachrach, B., Military Technology and Garrison Organization: Some Observations on Anglo-Saxon Military Thinking in Light of the Burghal Hidage, Technology and Culture 31 (1990). Biddle, M., Towns in D. Wilson (ed.) The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1976). Blair, P. H., An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, (Cambridge,1977). Brooks, N., The development of military obligations in eighth- and ninthcentury England in P. Clemoes and K. Hughes (eds.), England before the Conquest: Studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock, (London, 1971). Brooks, N., The Unidentified Forts of the Burghal Hidage Medieval Archaeology, 8 (1964). Bruce-Mitford, R., The Sutton Hoo ship burial : a handbook, (London, 1979). Bruce-Mitford, R., The Sutton Hoo ship-burial. Vol.1,; Excavations, background, the ship, dating and inventory, (London, 1975). Gifford, E., and J. Gifford, Alfreds new longships in Alfred the Great: Papers from the Eleventh-Century Conferences, ed. T. Reuter, (Aldershot, 2003). Griffith, P., The Viking Art of War, (London, 1995). Haslam, J., 'King Alfred and the Vikings: Strategies and tactics 876-886 AD' in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology & History, 13 (2006). Hill, D., Gazetteer of Burghal Hidage sites in D. Hill and R. Rumble (eds.), The Defence of Wessex: the Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon fortifications, (Manchester,1996). Hill, D., Offas Dyke: pattern and purpose Antiquaries Journal, 80 (2000).


Hill, D., The origins of Alfreds urban policies in T. Reuter (ed.), Alfred the Great: Papers from the Eleventh-Century Conferences, (Aldershot, 2003). Hill, D., An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 1981). Hill, D., and Sharp, S., An Anglo-Saxon Beacon System in Names, places and people: an onomastic miscellany in memory of John McNeal Dodgson eds. A. Rumble and A. D. Mills (Stamford, 1997). Hill, D., 'Offa's and Wat's Dykes: some aspects of recent work, 1972-1976', Transactions of the Lancashire & Cheshire Antiquarian Society, 79 (1977). Hinton, D., Alfreds kingdom: Wessex and the South 800-1500, (London, 1977). Hollister, C. W., Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the eve of the Norman conquest, (Oxford, 1962). Leyser, K. J., Communications and Power in Medieval Europe. Vol. 2: The Gregorian Revolution and Beyond, (London, 1994). Lyon, H. R, Towns in late Anglo-Saxon England: the evidence and some possible lines of inquiry in P. Clemoes and K. Hughes (eds.), England before the Conquest: Studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock. (London, 1971). Lyon, H. R., The governance of Anglo-Saxon England 500-1087, (London, 1984). Radford, C. R., The later pr-Conquest Boroughs and their Defenses, Medieval Archaeology 14 (1970). Radford, C. R., The pre-Conquest boroughs of England, ninth to eleventh centuries, (Oxford, 1980). Smyth, A. P., Alfred the Great, (Oxford, 1995). Stenton, F., Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1971).

Story, J., Carolingian connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750-870, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003). Swanton, M. J., King Alfreds ships: text and context in Anglo-Saxon England 28, ed. M Lapidge, (Cambridge, 1999). Wilson, D., Charlemagne: Barbarian & Emperor (London, 2005). Wormald, P., Offas Dyke in J. Campbell (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons, (Oxford, 1982). Wormald, P., The Burhs in J. Campbell (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons, (Oxford, 1982).