The Coming of Alfred the Great

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At last we come to Alfred, one of the greatest monarchs the British Isles have ever produced.

The fifth son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex he was, and so he didn?t inherit the throne until all of his older brothers had had their turn. It will be recalled that Aethelbald took the throne for himself while his father was away from home and actually held onto it after Aethelwulf returned. Aethelbald ruled for only a few years until he died and then was replaced by Aethelbert, who himself ruled for only a few years. Aethelred (not “the Unready”) succeeded his older brother but succeeded in ruling for only a few years. It wasn?t until 871 that Alfred finally got to sit on the throne.

During this turbulent time, the Vikings had made considerable headway in the north. They had taken York for themselves in 857 and driven a Norse wedge through East Anglia and Mercia, claiming those entire kingdoms for their own. Then, they attacked Wessex.

Alfred, together with his brother Aethelred, the king, took the field. They won a great victory at Ashdown but suffered more defeats. Soon, Aethelred was dead.

Alfred became king at age 21.

His was a keen military mind. He had obviously heard tales of the mobile expertise of the Vikings, and he certainly saw it for himself when the Vikings used it almost to perfection in precision strikes against Wessex from their newly conquered and fortified base in Chippenham, Wiltshire. In a stunning turn of events, he decided to adopt the very fighting style that the Vikings had used so well to their advantage in northern Britannia.

This decision proved to be one of a few well-defined turning points in the Viking occupation of Britannia. Alfred, together with all fighting men who would join him, retreated to the marshes of Hampshire and there built a base from which to conduct guerrilla warfare. These strikes proved so successful that they drew the Vikings ever deeper into the marshes, culminating in the Wessex victory at the Battle of Edington in 878.

Resulting from this smashing victory was the Treaty of Wedmore, which basically put an end to the Vikings? desire to move farther south than their northern base of operations (in other words, East Anglia). In a further stroke of genius, Alfred got the Danish King, Guthrum, to convert to Christianity, with Alfred himself as godfather.

With their souls and their spoils secure, the Vikings returned northward, there to settle down and enjoy the fruits of the land, as the Saxons had done generations before.

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