Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Friday, October 27, 2006

Dead King Watch: Alfred the Great

It has been a while since I updated Dead King Watch, and so how better to relaunch the thing by remembering the 1107th anniversary of the death yesterday of King Alfred the Great, who apparently died on 26 October 899. He styled himself 'King of the Anglo-Saxons', though because of his defence of his Kingdom of Wessex (in the South of England) against the Vikings he is known as 'Alfred the Great'. It is telling that no other English monarch has been deemed worthy enough to have been called 'the Great', though does Alfred really deserve the accolade?

Alfred was born in Oxfordshire in about 849, a son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex - who has quite a cool name and who made his name conquering Kent. Alfred was sent to Rome age 5 apparently, where he met the Pope of the day, along with other tribal leaders. Yet his father was soon to die and Alfred's elder brothers ruled. When about 18, Alfred began to fight alongside his brother against the invading Danes - who had been invading since about the 790s - and Alfred made his name in a series of intensive battles in Wessex around 870. However, the Vikings by now had seized York, established their own Kingdom in southern Northumberland, and defeated two other Kingdoms (East Anglia and Mercia) leaving only Wessex as the last surviving Anglo-Saxon Kingdom. In 871, his brother King Ethelred died - possibly from wounds recieved in battle - and Alfred became King of Wessex over Ethelred's young sons. For most of the 870s, Alfred fought a kind of guerilla war against the Viking invaders - famously staying undercover in a peasant woman's hut and letting her cakes burn, though whether there is any evidence for this legendary story is debatable. By the end of the decade, he had turned the tide in defeating the Vikings, achieving his greatest victory in May 878, at the battle of Edington.

According to his contemporary biographer Bishop Asser, 'Alfred attacked the whole pagan army fighting ferociously in dense order, and by divine will eventually won the victory, made great slaughter among them, and pursued them to their fortress (Chippenham) ... After fourteen days the pagans were brought to the extreme depths of despair by hunger, cold and fear, and they sought peace'. Good old divine will, eh?

Alfred then set about negotiating for peace while improving Wessex's defences - building a series of fort like garrison 'boroughs' around his base in Winchester and even developing some sort of navy. His rule now extended to West Mercia and Kent - the rest of the country was under 'Danelaw'. Despite several other attempted invasions, by the 1890s the Danes gave up trying to conquer Wessex. Alfred therefore seems to have had more time to translate and write, and so probably died quite happy.



At 1:06 pm, Blogger Philip said...

by the 1890s the Danes gave up trying to conquer Wessex

So you're saying Queen Victoria deserves to be called "the Great" instead?

I may be wrong, but I think Alfred got the title for his contributions to English culture (the translations he made, or at least patronised) as well as his military achievements.

At 10:57 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Philip - I take your point about culture, but I think we should appreciate the difference between a King defending territory from those trying to conquer it - like Alfred - and those Kings and Queens who tried to expand their territorial rule through armed conquest (like Victoria and most of them to be honest).

However, I have not given much thought to how Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution relates to the medieval world, so I am open to those who think differently on this question of discussing whether a King like Alfred is 'objectively' progressive or not.

At 8:17 pm, Anonymous Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.


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