It’s easy to think that he lived in a simpler world, to romanticize the ninth century and see it as a time of short lives, hard labor, and communal values. The West Saxons were Christians, and they didn’t have to be distinguished as Roman Catholic Christians, because that was the only category available in most of western Europe. The people of Wessex were mostly farmers, except for the thegns who lived with the king, and except for the monks, although many of these weren’t adverse to tilling their own lands. These monks had much to worry about, as had everyone else. Terrible news came repeatedly from the east of England. The Vikings were invading in great hordes, toppling the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and burning the monasteries. The poor monks must have heard about the deaths of their friends and brothers with great regularity, and their mourning must have been increased when they were told that the monasteries in the east had been burned to the ground, that the holy relics and worship objects had been lost or defiled, and, most terrible of all, that the books had been burned or torn to pieces. These books were of vital importance, since the monks kept the only repositories of knowledge in England. Often they were the only ones who could read. They had access to the golden legacy of all the human thoughts and hopes that had come before, and because of this, they had a sense of the diversity of the world beyond their own small kingdoms. The deprivations of the Vikings brought a very real narrowing to the Anglo-Saxon’s sense of what it meant to be a human being.
There had been large Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but Wessex was not one of them. It had been a client kingdom of Mercia, to the north. But Mercia soon fell to the Vikings, just like everywhere else. Wessex stood alone. Some historians say that leadership isn’t important in history, that the story of humankind is determined by vast material and economic forces, even geologic forces from time to time. Wessex stands as a counter argument. It was small and unimportant, but it had the advantage of a wise king, Aethelwulf, who may have been a monk before he got married. Aethelwulf had five sons, and when he died these sons, adopting the wisdom of their father, decided that the inheritance would pass between them, since they didn’t want to endanger Wessex by allowing one of their young children to inherit the crown. In ten years, three of the brothers became king and then died while battling the vikings. In this way, the crown finally came to Alfred in the year 871. He was twenty-one years old. The year before he had distinguished himself in battle by defeating the Vikings at Ashdown. He understood that his kingship had one great task before it. He had to defeat his powerful enemy and somehow preserve his tiny kingdom. Wessex had every military disadvantage. It had no navy, and the Vikings terrorized the coast with their long ships. The fighting men of Wessex were also farmers, and as they marched and trained they worried about their crops, and about getting in the harvest so that their wives and children wouldn’t starve during the long winter. If the Vikings happened to attack at harvest time, Alfred’s army had a tendency to drift away, as the men laid down their spears and picked up their scythes to work in the fields.
The first seven years of Alfred’s reign didn’t go particularly well. The Vikings raided repeatedly and then, in 878, they launched an all-out attack, led by the ferocious King Guthrum. They penetrated into the kingdom and seized one of Alfred’s palaces at Chippenham. The West Saxons fled before them. Alfred himself fled into the Sedgemoor Marshes, to an island fastness with the charming name of Burrow Mump. He was accompanied by a rag-tag group of thegns and refugee monks, and as he wandered through his remaining kingdom, organizing a guerrilla resistance, he was often alone. He was so threadbare and bedraggled that a woman living in the swamp mistook him for an ordinary traveller, and set him the task of watching some cakes she had cooking on the hearth while she went outside to cut more firewood. The king, preoccupied with the task of saving his kingdom, stared into space and didn’t notice the cakes burning. When the housewife came in she roundly berated him. This story got about, and the West Saxon’s grew in affection for their king. Here was a man who was humble enough that the lowliest of his subjects could yell and scream at him, while he sat quietly and admitted his wrong. But here was a man who was also strong enough that he could gather together an army at Burrow Mump, and lead them out to fight the Vikings. He met the Viking horde on the northern edge of Salisbury plain, drove his troops between them, divided their forces, and defeated them. The Vikings went fleeing back to Chippenham. Alfred followed and lay siege, and the Vikings soon surrendered. Alfred made peace, and became his enemy Guthrum’s godfather when the Viking king was baptized soon afterwards.
England was split in two, with the Vikings controlling the east and north, and Alfred controlling the west and south. Now that he had peace and stability, his first concern was how to maintain it. He called upon European allies to supply him with the expertise to build a navy. And he created a system of forts, called burhs, which could defend the land. These burhs didn’t have permanent garrisons, but were defended by the people who lived around them. They were places that the people could flee to in times of danger. They were also the places where the people held their markets, and these burhs became some of the most important cities in England. Alfred reorganized his army by creating a rotating system of service. When the army was called up, half of it stayed at home for part of the year, working the land, and then rotated into the ranks so that the other half could go home to plow or harvest. These changes gave the West Saxons a tenacious strength and a stable environment in which to work and raise their children.
It also gave them the chance to reinvigorate learning. Alfred was a devout Christian who enjoyed spending time with the monks, and it was through their influence that he came to learn Latin and prioritize scholarship in general. Once he had turned his mind to learning, he was surprised to find how many of his people were illiterate, and how few books there were in his kingdom. The church services were in Latin, and few people understood what was going on. Alfred set about the task of translating many of the great philosophical and theological classics into the Anglo-Saxon tongue. He himself undertook some of these translations. He also created an enduring record of the social and economic status of his kingdom. He had monks keep careful records in their separate monasteries, and these records collectively became the Anglo-Saxon chronicle.
He did all of this while living the everyday life of a human being, and the occasionally vexatious life of a leader. His times were no simpler than our own. They were in many ways harder, involving a life and death struggle against the Vikings, not to mention against disease and agricultural disaster. And through it all, people were still people. They still squabbled and fought over unimportant things. They still hurt each other intentionally or unintentionally. They still clung to their petty privileges and cared more about status than they cared about goodness. But Alfred could see past all of that with compassion. He bothered to understand them and their needs, and he remained humble before them, dedicated to serving them and keeping them safe. As he himself said, “It has ever been my desire to live honourably while I was alive, and after my death to leave to them that should come after me my memory in good works.”