Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 12:01 pm
Christmas in the year 877 did not turn out as Alfred planned. One minute he was celebrating, the next his hall was overrun by screaming, violent, bloody-weaponed, pagan warriors. He escaped with his life and a small band of followers, ending up in hiding in the swamps around Athelney, in Somerset. Today, Athelney is a nondescript kind of place, with nothing except an uninspiring memorial to show for the part it played in England’s history – and indeed in England’s salvation.
By the 9th century, the land we call England consisted of four independent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the midlands, East Anglia in the east and Wessex in the south. Since the late 8th century, all kingdoms had been subject to violent coastal attacks from Vikings – a generic term for Scandinavian pirates who, in Britain’s case, mainly originated from what we now know as Denmark and Norway. Gradually, what had begun as seemingly haphazard raids for plunder became more regular. Some Vikings took to wintering in Britain. In 865, the Danes landed what contemporaries called the Great Army in East Anglia and, the following year, struck north. In 867, they burned York, where they are said to have performed the terrifying, gruesome, ‘blood eagle’ on the Northumbrian king, Aelle. The blood eagle was a ritual execution – though some dispute whether the Vikings practised it – in which the living victim, face down, has his ribs and lungs cut away and spread out, like eagle’s wings. The Danes installed a puppet king in Northumbria and, in 869, turned their attentions to East Anglia. Here, according to tradition, the King, Edmund, was scourged (whipped), shot full of arrows and beheaded after refusing to renounce Christ. Mercia was next to fall; in 874, its king, Burgred fled to Rome and another compliant Anglo-Saxon ruler was installed in his place, to keep the Mercians obedient. Only Wessex, ruled by its young king, Alfred, remained.
Alfred knew the Danes. He and his brother had fought them – even beaten them at Ashdown, on the Berkshire downs in 871 – after which Alfred bought them off and Wessex was left in peace for five years. But in 876 a Danish army returned and made straight for Wareham, where it is thought its leaders hoped to link up with another war-band sailing up the Channel. This didn’t happen, possibly because the Danish fleet was broken up in a storm off Swanage. With the Saxons threatening them, the Danes gave hostages and pledged to leave Wessex; but they evaded Alfred’s army and slipped away to the old Roman city of Exeter. They were evidently not strong enough to give open battle, because hostages were once again given and, in the summer of 877, the Danes marched out of Exeter. Part of their army headed back into eastern Mercia, where they settled – probably in the territory that became known as the Five Boroughs, around Stamford and the shires of Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby and Leicester. With the fighting season considered to be over, the remaining Danish force, under their leader Guthrum, appeared to snuggle down for the winter in Gloucester. Alfred decided to spend at least part of the Christmas Feast just 30 miles away from them, at the royal estate of Chippenham, in Wiltshire.
But Guthrum had a cunning plan. He waited until after Twelfth Night to go onto the offensive, riding his battle-hardened veterans across the wintery landscape to Chippenham, and striking the Saxons when they were least expecting. Surprise must have been total; perhaps the outer defences at Chippenham were infiltrated by stealth; perhaps someone was negligent; perhaps some of the defenders were drunk; almost certainly, most were ill-prepared and had little opportunity to gather weapons and mount a meaningful resistance. The Danes’ timing, attacking on a known feast day, must have been intentional; perhaps they had also hoped to capture the king and perform the blood eagle on him. In any event, their assault succeeded in winning plunder, especially stocks of much-needed provisions, as well as securing a base from which to ‘ride over’ Wessex, terrifying its people into submission. Some West Saxons, maybe even including men of position, did indeed submit; some fled overseas. Alfred, as we said, fell back to the southwest, accompanied by a small group of loyal followers, to Athelney.
Athelney means something like ‘island of the princes’ (æthelings) – it sounds as though it may have been a royal estate and Alfred was possibly familiar with it from his youth. Athelney Hill, the Isle of Athelney, is a natural island in the low-lying Somerset levels. In Alfred’s time, it was surrounded by reeds, woods and scrub, a landscape that changed rapidly from dry land or marsh, to a series of lakes and waterways, depending on the weather. Even today, this part of West Somerset is prone to devastating flooding. Back then, reliable navigation through the soggy paths and flooded channels was impossible without local knowledge, and people depended upon punts, or crude rafts, to reach their destinations safely.
So, almost impenetrable and abundant with wildlife, Athelney was an ideal place from which to regroup, and launch hit-and-run attacks on the enemy – which Alfred did. Somewhere on the island, it is thought on the western side, and possibly on the site of an older Iron Age fort, the fugitives constructed their stronghold. It would have been a very modest timber and wattle affair, just large enough for perhaps a couple of hundred very close supporters, family and troops, and probably enclosed by a palisade and ditch. Somehow, we don’t know how, from his humble base in Athelney Alfred managed to pull together a force powerful enough to meet, and defeat, Guthrum in open battle. He obviously had, or created, a very effective clandestine network, capable of identifying supporters of resistance in other parts of Wessex that were under Danish control, such as Wiltshire and Hampshire, and then liaising with them. One piece of helpful news was that another Viking army, sailing from Wales and commanded by Guthrum’s ally, Ubba, possibly part of an attempted pincer movement against Alfred, was met by the men of Devon under Ealdorman Odda at Cynwit – probably Countisbury Hill near Lynton and Lynmouth. There, Ubba was killed and his force so badly mauled as to neutralise it.
By May, Alfred was ready. Messages went out to rendezvous forces at the enigmatic Egbert’s Stone, deep inside Wessex. The detail of what happened next belongs to another story, but the upshot was a great battle, the Battle of Edington (Ethandune), where Guthrum’s Danes were resoundingly beaten. The resulting deal struck with Guthrum included his conversion to Christianity (he was baptised in the church at Aller, near Athelney), the ejection of him and his men from Wessex (they settled in East Anglia) and Alfred’s formal recognition of the Danes’ presence in northern and eastern England, for practical purposes partitioning the land into separate areas of English and Danish law. The effect of all this on language, customs, place names – and the history of the future state of England, was profound. You can trace the area of Danelaw today by place names – towns and villages ending in “-by”, “-thwaite” or “-thorpe”, for example, were once Danish (or Norse). Alfred ruled for another twenty years and went on to earn the epithet ‘Great’ – the only English king to do so. Ultimately, as we know, and with more pain along the way – because there were many more battles to follow – the Anglo-Danes came together; but that too is another story.
The fact is though, that the story could have been such a very different one. If Alfred had given up, like the king of Mercia, if he hadn’t consolidated his position and planned his counter-attack at Athelney, and if he hadn’t ultimately succeeded, then, very simply, the English-speaking world would not exist.
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We can’t really mention Athelney without also mentioning a couple of the legends associated with Alfred when he was living as a hunted man in the marshes. One of these is that he personally set out to spy on Guthrum, infiltrating his camp posing as a minstrel, to assess the strength of the Danish forces. But by far the most endearing (and enduring) is the story of how Alfred burnt the cakes. There are different versions of the tale, but it goes something like this:
One day, Alfred was taking shelter in a herdsman’s hut. He sat by the fire, cleaning his weapons and thinking how he was going to beat the Danes. The herdsman’s wife was baking loaves – ‘cakes’ – and asked Alfred to keep an eye on them while she popped out for a minute. When she came back, she saw the cakes were burning and yelled at the King, not knowing who he was:
“Ca’sn thee mind the ke-aks, man, an doosen zee ‘em burn? I’m boun thee’s eat ‘em vast enough az zoon az ‘tiz the turn!”
The above is a translation into a Somerset dialect from a later version of Bishop Asser’s Life of Alfred, originally written in Latin in 893. In fact, the story is a 16th century addition made by Bishop Parker, who had found it in the 12th century Annals of St Neots, which were based on a 10th or 11th century Life of St Neot – and before that, who knows? In some versions, the herdsman’s wife beats the king. It has also been claimed that the story was stolen from a Norse saga extolling the virtues of a legendary Danish Viking who gloried in the name Ragnar Hairybreeks, who was allegedly so busy ogling his future wife that he allowed some loaves she was baking to burn. Be that as it may, the tale of Alfred and the cakes is part of Britain’s mythology, like the tale of Bruce and the spider. It sits well with how we sometimes like to see ourselves: backs against the wall; noble, but human, essentially humble and decent; strength in adversity; against all odds, ultimately victorious; finest hour – and so on.
Athelney is part of that same modest, deep-down bursting with pride, narrative. Could this be why you won’t find it mentioned in too many guidebooks? Or is it simply because there’s nothing much to see? You know I wouldn’t want you to make a special trip, under false anticipation, as it were.
No, the only reference to Alfred and the events of 878 at Athelney is Alfred’s monument, an ugly obelisk erected in 1801. Of course, I went there, parking up in a small lay-by on Cuts Road, west of Athelney Bridge over the River Tone. There wasn’t a soul about; the only sign of life (kind of) was actually a dead rat lying on the tarmac opposite. You may read that the monument isn’t generally accessible to the public but, when it comes to tracking down heritage, A Bit About Britain is made of sterner stuff. Besides, there’s a sign pointing to it and, despite wrestling briefly with a slightly dodgy gate from which an upside-down sign warned of 24-hour security, I pressed on up the gentle slope past Athelney Farm.
Once upon a time, there would have been quite a lot to see here. After his success against Guthrum, Alfred founded a monastery at Althelney. In the 12th century, William of Malmesbury described its church as having a unique structure, being centrally planned with four apses (semi-circular bits at the end of churches – so this suggests a cruciform shape with an apse at each end). There are further references to the monastery in later years and it is believed to have remained in use until its dissolution in 1539. The buildings are recorded as being derelict by the late 17th century, some of the stone being used to construct the farm. Now there is no visible evidence of Anglo-Saxon occupation at Athelney – abbey or fort – except beneath the soil. There is mention of remains, human and masonry, probably later medieval, being found; and a geophysical survey in 1993 confirmed the location of the medieval church and also detected the presence of other ancillary buildings. When the obelisk was restored in 1985, two medieval floor layers were uncovered, one of them tiled.
KING ALFRED THE GREAT IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 879 HAVING BEEN DEFEATED BY THE DANES FLED FOR REFUGE TO THE FOREST OF ATHELNEY WHERE HE LAY CONCEALED FROM HIS ENEMIES FOR THE SPACE OF A WHOLE YEAR. HE SOON AFTER REGAINED POSSESSION OF HIS THRONE. IN GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE OF THE PROTECTION HE HAD PROVIDED UNDER THE FAVOUR OF HEAVEN, ERECTED A MONASTERY ON THIS SPOT & ENDOWED IT WITH ALL THE LANDS CONTAINED WITHIN THE ISLE OF ATHELNEY, TO PERPETUATE THE MEMORIAL OF SO REMARKABLE AN INCIDENT. IN THE LIFE OF THAT INDUSTRIOUS PRINCE THIS EDIFICE WAS FOUNDED BY JOHN SLADE ESQ. OF MANSEL, THE PROPRIETOR OF ATHELNEY FARM & LORD OF THE MANOR OF NORTH PETHERTON. A.D. 1801.
Which brings us to something else woven into the tapestry of Athelney: the very special Alfred Jewel. Thought to be an aestel, or pointer, used to follow the text in a gospel book, this beautiful piece of gold and enamel craftsmanship was found in a field in North Petherton, just a few miles from Althelney, in 1693. In lettering around the jewel are the words AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN – ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’. No one has ever doubted that the sponsor of the piece was Alfred. My fantasy is that he gave it to a trusted companion hiding with him in the marsh, and that the owner lost it when trying to get a message out to a supporter. It is unlikely, but a nice idea. Whoever lost it, I wonder if they told the king? The Alfred Jewel has been held by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford since 1718 and, since childhood, I have always wanted to see it, this piece of Anglo-Saxon bling so bound up with the birth of our nation. I recently had the opportunity to do so – hence the blurred photo (I was probably shaking with emotion).
This part of Somerset is packed with fascinating pieces of Britain’s heritage jigsaw, but it is worth mentioning one more thing before we wrap this piece up; Burrow Mump. Burrow Mump is another hill, little over a mile to the northwest of Athelney. It has a ruined church on it and its own story to tell, but is sometimes known as King Alfred’s Fort. There is no evidence that Alfred used it as such, but it was once owned by Athelney Abbey and commands such spectacular views over the levels that it would be strange if he hadn’t used it as a lookout.