Hisotry Feature – King Alfred the Great

By Matty CA

After winning the Battle of Eddington in 878 and effectively ending the efforts of the Great Heathen Army, King Alfred the Great faced the challenge of preparing his grown kingdom for further incursions, to assure that Wessex wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms before it.

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In the 880s he had to deal with fewer raids by the Danes and could instead focus on making his kingdom stronger. A studied man, he established a court school and advocated the teaching of English and Latin, as literacy had plummeted amidst the decades of war. He employed his clergy to translate important scriptures into English and even translated some himself.

However his efforts at restoring his kingdom didn’t stop at education. In fact, the more immediate change he brought about was of a military nature.

Having reportedly taken a few pages out of the book of Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne himself, king of West Francia and later Holy Roman Emperor, he started rebuilding old Roman forts and fortifying Wessex settlements into “burhs”. Burh or burg was the Old English term for a fortified settlement, a word that resonates in the now more familiar borough or burgh.

The idea behind the burh system was to provide a defensive position for a port or town and its surrounding farms, villages and people. Accordingly, this meant that existing towns were being fortified with a series of walls and ditches. If a settlement had been built on an old Roman settlement, the Saxons tended to rebuild the old walls and towers.

In many cases a burh was built on a twin settlement, where two towns would lie on opposite banks of a river. Both would then be fortified with walls and connected by a fortified bridge. That way, if Viking raiders dared to attack via the river, they would first have to pass underneath the bridge, where archers and soldiers armed with boulders were waiting to greet them.

Alfred also created a network of roads between the burhs to allow for fast travel of people seeking refuge as well as armies and reinforcements.

This strategy proved to be highly successful against the Danes whose tactics had often consisted of surprise attacks, preferably against easier targets. They were now facing heavily fortified settlements which could be reinforced relatively quickly, without having the means to besiege them.

In the early 890s a large fleet, 330 ships strong, that hadn’t found success raiding on the continent made their way to England in two divisions. However, the well-organised Saxons under Alfred, his son and future King Edward (the Elder) and Alfred’s earldormen, were well prepared to fight back against the intruders, and ultimately the Danes were denied success. By the mid-890s they had had to retreat to the Danelaw in Essex and those who did not settle, ventured out to find their fortune on the continent.

Wessex had prevailed and was stronger than ever. Alfred had laid the foundation for the conquests of his son Edward and grandson Æthelstan in the decades to come.