Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

King Alfred on Athelney


[FROM the beginning of Alfred's reign, in 871, he was greatly distressed by the ravages of the Danes. Seven years later, because of military weakness, exhaustion of the resources of the country, and perhaps by discouragement on the part of his subjects, the king ceased to make active resistance, and withdrew to the island of Athelney. Here he remained for several months, lost to both friends and foes.
The Editor. ]

The king, then, disappears in January, 878, from the eyes of Saxons and Northmen, and we must follow him, by such light as tradition throws upon these months, into the thickets and marshes of Selwood. It is at this point, as is natural enough, that romance has been most busy, and it has become impossible to disentangle the actual facts from monkish legend and Saxon ballad. In happier times Alfred was in the habit himself of talking over the events of his wandering life pleasantly with his courtiers, and there is no reason to doubt that the foundation of most of the stories still current rests on those conversations of the truth-loving king, noted down by Bishop Asser and others.

The best known of these is, of course, the story of the cakes. In the depths of the Saxon forests there were always a few neat-herds and swine-herds, scattered up and down, living in rough huts enough, we may be sure, and occupied with the care of the cattle and herds of their masters. Amongst these in Selwood was a neat-herd of the king, a faithful man, to whom the secret of Alfred's disguise was entrusted, and who kept it even from his wife. To this man's but the king came one day alone, and setting himself down by the burning logs on the hearth, began mending his bows and arrows. The neat-herd's wife had just finished her baking, and, having other household matters to attend to, confided her loaves to the king, a poor tired-looking body, who might be glad of the warmth, and could make himself useful by turning the batch, and so earn his share while she got on with other business. But Alfred worked away at his weapons, thinking of anything but the good housewife's batch of loaves, which in due time were not only done, but rapidly burning to a cinder. At this moment the neat-herd's wife comes back, and, flying to the hearth to rescue the bread, cried out, "D'rat the man! Never to turn the loaves when you see them burning. I'ze warrant you ready enough to eat them when they're done." But besides the king's faithful neat-herd, whose name is not preserved, there are other churls in the forest, who must be Alfred's comrades just now if he will have any. And even here he has an eye for a good man, and will lose no opportunity to help one to the best of his power. Such a one he finds in a certain swineherd called Denewulf, whom he gets to know, a thoughtful Saxon man, minding his charge there in the oak woods. The rough churl, or thrall, we know not which, has great capacity, as Alfred soon finds out, and desire to learn. So the king goes to work upon Denewulf under the oak trees, when the swine will let him, and is well satisfied with the results of his teaching, and the progress of his pupil, as will appear in the sequel.

But in those days the commonest necessaries of life were hard enough to come by for the king and his few companions, and for his wife and family, who soon joined him in the forest, even if they were not with him from the first. The poor foresters cannot maintain them, nor are this band of exiles the men to live on the poor. So Alfred and his comrades are soon out foraging on the borders of the forest, and getting what subsistence they can from the pagans, or from the Christians who had submitted to their yoke. So we may imagine them dragging on life till near Easter, when a gleam of good news comes up from the west, to gladden the hearts and strengthen the arms of these poor men in the depths of Selwood.

Soon after Gu thrum and the main body of the pagans moved from Gloster, southwards, the Viking Hubba, as had been agreed, sailed with thirty ships of war from his winter quarters on the South Welsh coast, and landed in Devon. The news of the catastrophe at Chippenham, and of the disappearance of the king, was no doubt already known in the west; and in the face of it Odda the alderman cannot gather strength to meet the pagan in the open field. But he is a brave and true man, and will make no terms with the spoilers; so, with other faithful thegns of King Alfred and their followers, he throws himself into a castle or fort called Cynwith, or Cynnit, there to abide whatever issue of this business God shall send them. Hubba, with the war-flag Raven, and a host laden with the spoil of rich Devon vales appear in due course before the place. It is not strong naturally, and has only "walls in our own fashion," meaning probably rough earthworks. But there are resolute men behind them, and on the whole Hubba declines the assault, and sits down before the place. There is no spring of water, he hears, within the Saxon lines, and they are otherwise wholly unprepared for a siege. A few days will no doubt settle the matter, and the sword of slavery will be the portion of Odda and the rest of Alfred's men; meantime there is spoil enough in the camp from Devonshire homesteads, which brave men can revel in round the war-flag Raven, while they watch the Saxon ramparts. Odda, however, has quite other views than death from thirst, or surrender. Before any stress comes, early one morning, he and his whole force sally out over their earthworks, and from.the first "cut down the pagans in great numbers"; 840 warriors (some say 1200), with Hubba himself, are slain before Cynnit fort; the rest, few in number, escape to their ships. The war-flag Raven is left in the hands of Odda and the men of Devon.

This is the news which comes to Alfred, Ethelnoth the alderman of Somerset, Denewulf the swine-herd, and the rest of the Selwood Forest group, some time before Easter. These men of Devonshire, it seems, are still stanch, and ready to peril their lives against the pagan. No doubt up and down Wessex, thrashed and trodden out as the nation is by this time, there are other good men and true, who will neither cross the sea or the Welsh marches, nor make terms with the pagan; some sprinkling of men who will yet set life at stake, for faith in Christ and love of England. If these can only be rallied, who can say what may follow? So, in the lengthening days of spring, council is held in Selwood, and there will have been Easter services in some chapel, or hermitage, in the forest, or, at any rate, in some quiet glade. The "day of days" will surely have had its voice of hope for this poor remnant. Christ is risen and reigns; and it is not in these heathen Danes, or in all the Northmen who ever sailed across the sea, to put back his kingdom, or enslave those whom he has freed.

The result is that, far away from the eastern boundary of the forest, on a rising ground—hill it can scarcely be called—surrounded by dangerous marshes formed by the little rivers Thone and Parret, fordable only in summer, and even then dangerous to all who have not the secret, a small fortified camp is thrown up under Alfred's eye, by Ethelnoth and the Somersetshire men, where he can once again raise his standard. The spot has been chosen by the king with the utmost care, for it is his last throw. He names it the Etheling's eig or island, "Athelney." Probably his young son, the Etheling of England, is there amongst the first, with his mother and his grandmother Eadburga, the widow of Ethelred Mucil, the venerable lady whom Asser saw in later years, and who has now no country but her daughter's. There are, as has been reckoned, some two acres of hard ground on the island, and around vast brakes of alder-bush, full of deer and other game.

Here the Somersetshire men can keep up constant communication with him, and a small army grows together. They are soon strong enough to make forays into the open country, and in many skirmishes they cut off parties of the pagans and supplies. "For, even when overthrown and cast down," says Malmesbury, "Alfred had always to be fought with; so that, when one would esteem him altogether worn down and broken, like a snake slipping from the hand of him who would grasp it, he would suddenly flash out again from his hiding-place, rising up to smite his foes in the height of their insolent confidence, and never more hard to beat than after a flight."

But it was still a trying life at Athelney. Followers came in slowly, and provender and supplies are hard to wring from the pagan, and harder still to take from Christian men. One day, while it was yet so cold that the water was still frozen, the king's people had gone out "to get them fish or fowl, or some such purveyance as they sustained themselves withal." No one was left in the royal but for the moment but himself and his mother-in-law Eadburga. The king (after his constant wont whensoever he had opportunity) was reading from the Psalms of David, out of the Manual which he carried always in his bosom. At this moment a poor man appeared at the door and begged for a morsel of bread "for Christ his sake." Whereupon the king, receiving the stranger as a brother, called to his mother-in-law to give him to eat. Eadburga replied that there was but one loaf in their store, and a little wine in a pitcher, a provision wholly insufficierit for his own family and people. But the king bade her nevertheless to give the stranger part of the last loaf, which she accordingly did. But when he had been served the stranger was no more seen, and the loaf remained whole, and the pitcher full to the brim. Alfred, meantime, had turned to his reading, over which he fell asleep, and dreamt that St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne stood by him, and told him it was he who had been his guest, and that God had seen his afflictions and those of his people, which were now about to end, in token whereof his people would return that day from their expedition with a great take of fish. The king awaking, and being much impressed with his dream, called to his mother-in-law and recounted it to her, who thereupon assured him that she too had been overcome with sleep, and had had the same dream. And while they yet talked together on what had happened so strangely to them, their servants came in, bringing fish enough, as it seemed to them, to have fed an army.

The monkish legend goes on to tell that on the next morning the king crossed to the mainland in a boat, and wound his horn thrice, which drew to him before noon 500 men. What we may think of the story and the dream, as Sir John Spelman says, "is not here very much material," seeing that whether we deem it natural or supernatural, "the one as well as the other serves at God's appointment, by raising or defecting of the mind with hopes or fears, to lead man to the resolution of those things whereof He has before ordained the event."

Alfred, we may be sure, was ready to accept and be thankful for any help, let it come from whence it might, and soon after Easter it was becoming clear that the time is at hand for more skirmishing expeditions. Through all the neighboring counties word is spreading that their hero king is alive, and on foot again, and that there will be another chance for brave men erelong of meeting once more these scourges of the land, under his leading.

A popular legend is found in the later chroniclers which relates that at this crisis of his fortunes, Alfred, not daring to rely on any evidence but that of his own senses as to the numbers, disposition, and discipline of the pagan army, assumed the garb of a minstrel, and with one attendant visited the camp of Guthrum. Here he stayed, "showing tricks and making sport," until he had penetrated to the king's tents, and learned all that he wished to know. After satisfying himself as to the chances of a sudden attack, he returns to Athelney, and the time having come for a great effort, if his people will but make it, sends round messengers to the aldermen and king's thegns of neighboring shires, giving them a tryst for the seventh week after Easter, the second week in May.

On or about the 12th of May, 878, King Alfred left his island in the great wood and his wife and children and such household gods as he had gathered round him there, and came publicly forth amongst his people once more, riding to Egbert's Stone (probably Brixton), on the east of Selwood, a distance of twenty-six miles. Here met him the men of the neighboring shires; "and when they saw their king alive after such great tribulation, they received him, as he merited, with joy and acclamation." The gathering had been so carefully planned by Alfred and the nobles who had been in conference or correspondence with him at Athelney, that the Saxon host was organized, and ready for immediate action, on the very day of muster. Whether Alfred had been his own spy we cannot tell, but it is plain that he knew well what was passing in the pagan camp, and how necessary swiftness and secrecy were to the success of his attack.

According to a Somersetshire tradition, the signal for the actual gathering of the West Saxons at Egbert's Stone was given by a beacon lighted on the top of Stourton Hill, where Alfred's Tower now stands. Such a beacon would be hidden from the Danes, who must have been encamped about Westbury, by the range of the Wiltshire hills, while it would be visible to the west over the low country towards the Bristol Channel, and to the south far into Dorsetshire.

Not an hour was lost by Alfred at the place of muster. The bands which came together there were composed of men well used to arms, each band under its own alderman or reeve. The small army he had himself been disciplining at Athelney, and training in skirmishes during the last few months, would form a reliable center on which the rest would have to form as best they could. So after one day's halt he breaks up his camp at Egbert's Stone, and marches to Æglea, now called Clay Hill, an important height, commanding the vale to the north of Westbury, which the Danish army were now occupying. The day's march of the army would be a short five miles. Here the annals record that St. Neot, his kinsman, appeared to him, and promised that on the morrow his misfortunes would end. After resting one night on Clay Hill, Alfred led out his men in close order of battle against the pagan host, which lay at Ethandune.

Guthrum fought to protect Chippenham, his base of operations, some sixteen miles in his rear, and all the accumulated plunder of the busy months which had passed since Twelfth Night; and it is clear that his men behaved with the most desperate gallantry. The fight began at noon and lasted through the greater part of the day. Warned by many previous disasters, the Saxons never broke their close order, and so, though greatly outnumbered, hurled back again and again the onslaughts of the Northmen. At last Alfred and his Saxons prevailed, and smote his pagan foes with a very great slaughter, and pursued them up to their fortified camp on Bratton Hill, or Edge, into which the great body of the fugitives threw themselves. All who were left outside were slain, and the great spoil was all recovered. The camp may still be seen, called Bratton Castle, with its double ditches and deep trenches, and barrow in the midst sixty yards long, and its two entrances guarded by mounds. It contains more than twenty acres, and commands the whole country side. There can be little doubt that this camp, and not Chippenham, which is sixteen miles away, was the last refuge of Guthrum and the great Northern army on Saxon soil.

So, in three days from the breaking up of his little camp at Athelney, Alfred was once more king of all England south of the Thames; for this army of pagans shut up within their earthworks on Bratton Edge are little better than a broken and disorderly rabble, with no supplies and no chance of succor from any quarter. Nevertheless, he will make sure of them; and so Bratton Camp is strictly besieged by Alfred with his whole power. It is a matter of a few days only, for food runs short at once in the besieged camp. At the end of fourteen days he sends to Alfred suing humbly for terms of any kind; offering on the part of the army as many hostages as may be required, without asking for any in return; once again giving solemn pledges to quit Wessex for good; and, above all, declaring his own readiness to receive baptism.

Alfred accepts Guthrum's proffered terms at once, rejoicing over the chance of adding these fierce heathen warriors to the Church of his Master by an act of mercy which even they must feel. The ceremony of baptism was performed at Wedmore, a royal residence which had probably escaped the fate of Chippenham, and still contained a church. Here Guthrum and his thirty nobles were sworn in, the soldiers of a greater than Woden, and the white linen cloth, the sign of their new faith, was bound round their heads. Alfred himself was godfather to the viking, giving him the Christian name of Athelstan; and the chrism-loosing, or unbinding of the sacramental cloths, was performed on the eighth day by Ethelnoth, the faithful Alderman of Somersetshire. After the religious ceremony there still remained the task of settling the terms upon which the victors and vanquished were hereafter to live together side by side in the same island; for Alfred had the wisdom, even in his enemy's humiliation, to accept the accomplished fact, and to acknowledge East Anglia as a Danish kingdom. The Witenagemot had been summoned to Wedmore, and was sitting there, and with their advice the treaty was then made, from which, according to some historians, English history begins.

by Thomas Hughes

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