Baptism of King Guthrum, by James William Edmund Doyle (1822–1892)

This image was created by the artist James William Edmund Doyle (1822–1892) and engraved for mass-production by Edmund Evans (1826–1905). It was one of many illustrations worked on by this pair in 1864 for the text, A Chronicle of England, B.C. 55-A.D. 1485. This particular image depicts the end of one of the most dramatic periods in the life of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 871-899)—the man portrayed standing with book in hand, dressed in the red cloak with a gold crown on his head. Kneeling before Alfred is King Guthrum (or Guthorm), a Viking warlord who led an invasion against Wessex in 878. Although Guthrum’s campaign was very successful in the beginning, resulting in Alfred being pushed into hiding, the king of Wessex soon counterattacked and completely turned the tables on the invaders. Alfred defeated Guthrum’s army in the Battle of Edington and followed up that success by besieging the survivors of the battle in Chippenham. Asser, a contemporary of King Alfred and a member of his court, wrote of the defeat of Guthrum and the more peaceful events that came after:

“He destroyed the Vikings with great slaughter, and pursued those who fled as far as the stronghold, hacking them down; he seized everything which he found outside the stronghold—men (whom he killed immediately), horses and cattle—and boldly made camp in front of the gates of the Viking stronghold with all his army. When he had been there fourteen days the Vikings, thoroughly terrified by hunger, cold and fear, and in the end by despair, sought peace…the Vikings swore in addition that they would leave his kingdom immediately, and Guthrum, their king, promised to accept Christianity and to receive baptism at King Alfred’s hand” (Asser, Life of King Alfred, chapter 56).

Such is the scene depicted above in the illustration by James William Edmund Doyle. It shows Guthrum accepting baptism after his defeat by King Alfred. After the baptism, Guthrum assumed the Anglo-Saxon name, Æthelstan, and set himself up as king of East Anglia, where he reigned until his death in 890.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

 

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