February 2015

Alfred the Great & the defence of Wessex in the Viking Age
February 2015

The speaker at the February Meeting of the Society was Professor Ryan Lavelle who took as his subject ‘Alfred the Great and the Defence of Wessex in the Viking Age’.

Although Alfred was crowned King of Wessex in 871, the speaker discussed his kingship from the date of the seizure of Chippenham by the Danes in 878. This was the nadir of Alfred’s reign when he had to seek refuge amongst his closest friends and supporters living at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset. But this proved to be the turning point in terms of his relationship with the Danes. Previous years had been notable for the constant battles, incursions and raids by the Vikings. The Vikings had proved to be hardy, aggressive, strong and fearless warriors. They were flexible in their methods, able quickly to move inland on horseback or fight from static positions on the shore. In addition any treaties and agreements made were often broken and ignored; all leading to havoc and disorder not only in Wessex but also in the other kingdoms. Alfred realised that he faced significant challenges in the future.

The time spent in Somerset allowed Alfred the opportunity to reorganise his defences, revitalise his supporters and develop his future strategies. Later in the year 878, Alfred’s forces fought a major battle and defeated the Danes at Edington in Wiltshire. This resulted in a treaty being drawn up which was largely observed. This treaty yielded many initiatives. It redefined the border of Danish influence The Danish King Guthrum and several of his principle supporters were converted to Christianity. It cemented the position of Alfred, within his own people so that he was able to turn his attention to other priorities such as the development of the Christian Church and Education.

However, Alfred was always aware of the danger from the marauding Danes and applied professional standards to his actions of re-ordering his resources for the defence of Wessex. In particular he made many of his principle towns into defensive burhs which primarily meant the incorporation of strong earthworks into the towns’ walls and was effectively the equivalent of the castles built by the Normans two centuries later. He improved the navy, building longships capable of engaging successfully against the Danish marauders. His army was better trained and well able not only to defend both the coast and the towns but also to outfight the Danes in most situations. Nineteenth century historians suggested that this vibrant period of our history provided the prelude or genesis of the later unified English nation.

This was a stimulating and interesting talk, prompting many and varied questions from the audience. The next meeting of the Society will be held on 27 March 2015 when the speaker will be Jude James, the President of the Society, whose subject will be ‘Sir Harry Burrard Neale – his life and his Monument’.