the end of the 8th century, the British Isles were raided again
by another non-Christian people, from Scandinavia. In 793 the
Vikings, as we call them, destroyed the monastery of Lindisfarne,
drowning some of the monks and stealing precious objects.
The Vikings were a sea-going people; they had the best boats
yet seen in Europe, powered by oar and sail. They crossed the
Atlantic, founding a colony in Newfoundland 500 years before
Columbus discovered America; they rounded Lapland and sailed
up the rivers of Russia; they raided Europe from the Baltic
to the Mediterranean. Norsemen sailed around Scotland and down
the west coast of Britain as far as the Mersey; they established
colonies in northern Scotland and created a Scandinavian kingdom
in Ireland. Danes raided the east coast of England, burning
and killing, exulting in violence. Nothing stopped the Vikings,
not even the northern winter.
These long-haired warriors wore coats of mail, carried hefty
battle-axes and long shields. No one had the ships to match
them at sea, and when they landed they moved so fast - rounding
up all the horses in the neighbourhood - that they could destroy
a town, burn a church and slaughter the people before a force
could be raised against them. When they were brought to battle,
they were often too strong for the motley group of poorly armed
peasants who confronted them, and when they were defeated they
were back again, stronger than ever, a year or two later.
What began as raids for quick plunder soon developed into something
more. The Danes descended on England in ever-larger bands and
raided steadily farther inland. In 851 a Danish host spent the
winter in Kent. A few years later they wintered near London.
The English were in no position to prevent them. Northumbria
was feeble, with rival kings fighting for the crown. In Mercia
another royal argument was going on, and the midland kingdom
was squeezed between the Danes from the east and the forces
of the Welsh prince, Rhodi Mawr, from the west.
That was the situation in 865, when a Danish army larger than
any before arrived in England. This time the Danes came not
merely for plunder, and they had no plans to return in the autumn
or the following spring. They meant to conquer England.
fell in 866, and the rival kings of Northumbria were killed.
East Mercia was overrun and the rest of the kingdom saved, for
a short time only, by a truce bought with Mercian gold. In 869
King Edmund of East Anglia (St Edmund of Bury) was savagely
murdered while a prisoner. Essex was conquered. By 870 only
Wessex was left to resist the barbaric Danes, whose main camp
at Reading was well placed to receive reinforcements up the
Soon after the Danes turned against Wesses, the West Saxons
gained a new king, who was only about twenty-two years old.
His name was Alfred (849-899), and we know him as 'the Great'.
He is the only English king who has earned that title.
After one stirring victory, Alfred was forced on to the defensive,
and for a few years it looked as though Wessex too would soon
be submerged. By 878 Alfred was a fugitive, hiding in the wintry
marshes of Somerset. (It is from this period in his life that
legends later grew - stories like the tale of the burning cakes
which the king was supposed to be watching while the farmer's
wife was out of the kitchen.)
But Alfred's West Saxon peasant-warriors, or most of them,
remained loyal. With the spring, he surged out of the marshes
to harass the Danes. In May, the men of Wiltshire and Hampshire
met him in the forest near Southampton. They told him they were
'glad to see him'. Two days later Alfred's Christian army smashed
the Danes at the battle of Edington. 'The turn of the tide!'
Under their able commander, Guthrum, the Danes fell back to
Chippenham. Alfred swept the surrounding country bare of food
and horses, and in two weeks the Danes were forced to surrender.
They promised to leave the country. Guthrum accepted Christian
baptism, with Alfred acting as god-father.
What made Alfred a great man was not just his military victories
but his statesman-ship. After years and years of bloody conflict,
he saw the futility of trying to destroy the Danes by force.
He believed that a man who grows content will cease to be a
dangerous enemy, and he was determined to reach friendly agreement
with the defeated Danes. This he did. His treaty with Guthrum
gave the Danes a large part of eastern England, where Alfred
hoped they would settle down as peaceful farmers.
Alfred's statesmanship showed itself also in his ability to
learn from his enemies. When new groups of Vikings resumed the
attack some years later, they found England far better prepared.
Having studied the defenceworks of Guthrum's camps, Alfred set
up a system of strongly fortified burghs in southern England.
(Traces of his fortifications can still be seen at Wareham in
Dorset, among other places.) He also built warships on the Danish
pattern and, as the English were not experienced sailors, he
hired men from the coastal districts of the Low Countries to
man his navy. We know that more than once Viking raiders were
defeated at sea by Alfred's ships, and prevented from landing.