Nothing in the life of King Alfred the Great was simple or easy, so it is fitting that he had an inaugural year that was fraught with trials and peril. In early 871, Alfred was the heir of his brother, King Æthelred, who had been in power since 866. Alfred was about eighteen years old when his brother became king, and by early 871 he was twenty-two or twenty-three years of age. King Æthelred seemed to cherish his brother’s advice and company—whenever Æthelred martialed his forces, Alfred was always by his side. Luckily for Wessex, this hands-on battlefield and leadership experience likely gave Alfred some confidence when the crown was unexpectedly thrust upon his head.
The world in which Æthelred and Alfred lived must have seemed grim. Around 865, a coalition of Vikings landed a so-called “Great Heathen Army” on British soil. The Great Army, made up of a multitude of Nordic kings, jarls and adventuring warlords, wreaked havoc on the unprepared Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In particular, the leading brothers of the Great Army—Ubba, Halfdan, and Ivar the Boneless—were so feared and infamous that their lives evolved into legend. The scholars of Wessex did an admirable job writing down the movements of the Great Army. In 865, the Army ravaged Kent and, during 866, the Great Army occupied East Anglia. Next, the Army invaded Northumbria in 867 and annihilated the forces of the Northumbrian kings, Ælle and Osberht, at York. After that great victory, the Army moved into Mercia by 868 and camped at Nottingham. Fortunately for the Mercians, their king, Burgred, had seemingly developed an alliance with Wessex. Therefore, King Æthelred and Alfred (who had a Mercian wife) led a force to the relief of Mercia and the Great Heathen Army retreated without any reported fighting.
The expedition of Æthelred and Alfred into Mercia in 868 would be the closest they came to fighting the Great Heathen Army until the events of 871. In the years between those two dates, the forces of the Great Army retraced their steps, crushing any resistance that had popped up in places such as Northumbria and East Anglia. Yet, in early 871, the Army began marching for a land thus far undisturbed—the kingdom of Wessex. In the opening months of the year, the Great Heathen Army crossed into Wessex and camped at Reading. There, the Vikings set about constructing some sort of rampart between the Thames and Kennet Rivers.
The first armed fight of the campaign occurred when two reckless jarls detached themselves from the Great Army to go raiding. This raiding party was discovered by Ealdorman Æthelwulf, the administrator and military leader of Berkshire (Æthelwulf was basically an Anglo-Saxon equivalent to a jarl). After learning of their whereabouts, Æthelwulf raised his forces and tracked the raiders to a place called Englefield. A skirmish ensued between the jarls and the ealdorman, in which the Anglo-Saxons were victorious. After the fight, the surviving raiders fled back to the Great Army and Ealdorman Æthelwulf marched his forces to join with King Æthelred.
Four days after the skirmish at Englefield, the army of King Æthelred arrived at Reading, and, of course, Alfred accompanied the king. While the previous fight had been a skirmish between two warbands, the conflict brewing at Reading would be a showdown between two large armies. Not long after the forces of Wessex arrived near Reading, the Great Army of Vikings attacked. Both sides were said to have fought well, but the Vikings gained momentum and drove the Anglo-Saxons from the battlefield. Ealdorman Æthelwulf, the hero of Englefield, died during the course of the battle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle painted the battle as inconclusive, whereas Alfred’s biographer, Asser, more openly admitted that the Battle of Reading was an Anglo-Saxon defeat. The experience of defeat was another useful lesson for Alfred—he would lose many battles and much land in his harrowing struggle for survival.
Acting as a good role model for his brother, King Æthelred did not lose hope after the loss at Reading. Instead, he rallied his forces and, only four days later, struck the Great Heathen Army once more, this time at Ashdown. Both armies apparently divided in half for the battle. King Æthelred and half of his army faced off against two Viking kings, Halfdan and Bagsecg. On the other side of the battlefield, Alfred and the rest of the Wessex army faced a force led by jarls. The armies were said to have clashed at Ashdown for an entire day, only ending when the Vikings began to break after several of their leaders were slain, including King Bagsecg and five jarls.
Riding the wave of momentum, King Æthelred and Alfred pursued the Great Heathen Army to Basing and launched another attack. Only fourteen nights had passed since the previous battle. Despite their eagerness, the forces of Wessex would learn once more that it was costly to underestimate the Vikings—the Great Heathen Army won the day at Basing and forced King Æthelred to withdraw. The defeat at Basing must have been more costly than the previous loss at Reading, for Æthelred waited a reported two months after Basing before he launched another major attack. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the last battle fought by King Æthelred against the Vikings occurred at Meretun. Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle classified Meretun as a battle, the biographer, Asser, did not mention the name, likely relegating whatever happened there to one of the many small skirmishes and raids of 871. Whatever the scale of the fight, Meretun did not turn out well for Wessex and the Vikings claimed the victory.
By April of 871, Wessex was in a precarious position. King Æthelred had not been able to regain the momentum in his war against the Vikings after suffering his defeats at Basing and Meretun. To make things more complicated, Wessex learned that more Viking reinforcements had arrived to replenish any losses sustained by the Great Army. In addition to all of this troubling news, King Æthelred suddenly fell deathly ill, either because of a disease or possibly due to a wound received during one of his battles. He never recovered from whatever ailment afflicted him—he died sometime after Easter (April 15), leaving his brother, Alfred, to inherit a war against the Great Heathen Army that Wessex was currently losing.
One month into the reign of King Alfred, the forces of Wessex were raised and the new king led his warriors against the Great Heathen Army at Wilton, near the Wylye River. It was the first time Alfred commanded an army into battle as the sole ruler of his kingdom. Alfred had the smaller force, but apparently caught the Vikings off guard, or used some other stratagem to initially sway the battle in his favor. After battling for most of the day, the Vikings appeared to break ranks and withdraw. Yet, as soon as the men of Wessex began to sigh with relief, the Great Heathen Army surged back onto the battlefield and forced the Anglo-Saxons to retreat. In his first battle as the king of Wessex, Alfred the Great suffered a defeat.
After his loss at Wilton, Alfred the Great pursued no further known major confrontations for the remainder of 871. Instead, Alfred embarked on a campaign of guerrilla tactics, raids and possibly targeted assassinations, as four more jarls reportedly died by the end of the year. In the end, it was a very bloody year—Alfred’s biographer, Asser, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which was also begun in Alfred’s reign) came to different conclusions on how many “great battles” were fought in 871. The former claimed there were eight battles and the latter calculated a total of nine. Both agreed, however, that the smaller raids and skirmishes carried out by Alfred and his ealdormen were too many to count. The raids and guerilla tactics apparently wore out the Great Heathen Army, for they made peace with Alfred before the end of 871, and did not to return for four or five years. Of course, once the Great Heathen Army returned under Guthrum, Alfred the Great would face a much more harrowing time than his inaugural year in 871. Nevertheless, as was his way, Alfred would overcome his many challenges to leave the Kingdom of Wessex in a much stronger state than it was on the day he inherited it from his brother.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of the Battle of Ashdown by Richard Doyle (died 1883), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources translated, introduced and denoted by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.