A reasonable attempt at illustrating the larger sized English ships and therefore their crew’s advantage in battle. Alfred responded to the threat by constructing a fleet of large longboats, each of which could carry a hundred men, to meet and fight off the invaders before they landed. This navy’s first battle was against four Danish ships in the Stour Estuary in 882, but it was his victory over the invading forces in the Thames estuary and off the coast of Essex in 897 that won Alfred the epithet ‘the Great’. King Alfred is now considered to be, in a way, the founder of the Royal Navy.
The treaty with Guthrum gave Alfred the breathing space he needed to fortify and revitalize Wessex. As the last outpost of independent England, it was essential for Wessex to have an efficient military.
Throughout his realm, Alfred built strongholds known in Anglo-Saxon as burhs (the origin of the modern English word “borough”). Each held a garrison of about 160 men, plus an undetermined number of servants to do all the cooking, cleaning, and tending of horses. Traditionally the English army moved on foot, but Alfred realized that given the speed with which the Vikings struck English targets, the English must be able to respond quickly, too. The burh garrisons, therefore, were all cavalrymen. For the same reason, the king established his burhs in close proximity—none was more than 20 miles away from another.
The expense of maintaining the burhs fell upon the local lords, even if that lord was a bishop. (High churchmen had always insisted that they ought to be exempted from such obligations, but in times of crisis English kings compelled the bishops to assume their share of the cost of defending the realm.)
Alfred also reorganized Wessex’s army, keeping half of the men on duty at any given time. And although Alfred is famous as the father of the English Navy, kings before Alfred had used war ships. Nonetheless, recognizing that swift ships were just one more advantage the Vikings held over the English, Alfred brought over from Frisia (modern-day Holland) skilled shipwrights to build his new navy.
Responding to the sad state of religious and intellectual life in England, Alfred refounded ruined abbeys and convents, brought over learned monks from France to reestablish schools, and set the example for the revival of literacy in the land by personally translating religious and secular books from Latin into English.
Guthrum gave Alfred seven years to rebuild his kingdom, but then the double-dealing Viking broke the treaty and invaded Wessex in 885 and laid siege to Rochester. But Alfred’s new military defensive measures worked. Mobilizing his standing army, his burh garrisons, and his navy, he broke the Danish siege easily, then sent his fleet up the River Thames to capture London.
In 886, after seventeen years of occupation under the Vikings, London was in English hands again. Alfred pressed his advantage by requiring, in a new treaty with Guthrum, that English Christians under Viking rule in the Danelaw enjoy the same legal protections as the settlers from Scandinavia; beaten and humiliated, Guthrum agreed. Four years later, Guthrum, apparently without giving Alfred any more trouble, died in Hadleigh.
The Invasions Continue
In spite of Guthrum’s defeat and death, the Vikings continued to mount sporadic raids on Alfred’s territory. But a serious invasion with eighty ships was mounted from France in 892, led by a Viking chief named Hastein who had been terrorizing the inhabitants of the Loire Valley. He ordered part of his force to disembark in Kent, then beached his ships at Benfleet in Essex. Danes from East Anglia and York joined Hastein’s army, but once again Alfred’s military proved its worth. The infantry harried the Vikings, while Alfred’s navy destroyed many of Hastein’s long ships in a battle off the coast of Devon in 893. After several more reverses on land, Hastein and most of his army retreated up the old Roman road, Wading Street, to Chester.
Bad luck pursued Hastein’s army for another three years. The Vikings abandoned Chester in 894 and invaded northern Wales, but the ferocious resistance of the Welshmen and the lack of supplies forced the Vikings to retreat. The next year they attempted to establish a base on the River Lea north of London, no doubt positioning themselves to take the city back from Alfred, but the English hit them so hard that the Vikings had to retreat for safety into the Danelaw, leaving their dragon ships behind. In 896, the Vikings were encamped along the Severn when Alfred attacked again. The Vikings scattered: Some went north to York, and others sailed back to France in hope of easier plunder.
As the sole English king of the old stock, Alfred became an inspiration and arguably even a rallying point for the English, especially for the English in the Danelaw. He had come back strongly from almost certain annihilation, smashed his enemies, reclaimed his kingdom, and made that kingdom so strong it could drive off or defeat every Viking invasion for the rest of his life.
But Alfred also realized that there was more to a nation than military strength. So he revived learning and literature, reformed the English legal code, founded new monasteries to replace the ones destroyed by the Vikings, and brought over monks from the Continent to get the new communities off to a strong start.
Rarely has a country teetered so closely on the brink of destruction than did England in 878. Rarer still has it fallen to one man to bring his nation back from near-disaster. Yet that was the destiny of King Alfred; without him, England as we know it would not exist.