British History Series Examines Alfred the Great

long-time ruler who fought off vikings detailed in series

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Alfred the Great saved England from being overrun by Vikings. He also set off a religious and cultural renaissance in England. His rule faced many setbacks in his first decade as king.

Dr. Jennifer Paxton on Wondrium set
Dr. Jennifer Paxton presents the Wondrium series England: From the Fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest. Photo by Wondrium

In the mid-9th century CE, the Viking army barraged the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms with a series of attacks. Beginning in 865, King Æthelred and his younger brother Alfred experienced victories and defeats against the Vikings. When Æthelred died in 871, leaving the throne to Alfred, the younger brother’s reign ushered in a new era for England—though it wasn’t without its setbacks.

In her video series England: From the Fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest, Dr. Jennifer Paxton, Director of the University Honors Program and Clinical Associate Professor of History at The Catholic University of America, details Alfred’s efforts to quell the Viking invasion.

Rocky Beginnings

“The 860s were a perilous time for all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, as the Great Heathen Army roamed pretty much at will, bringing Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia to their knees,” Dr. Paxton said. “In 868, Alfred fought on behalf of his brother to support Mercia’s effort to repel the Army, but Mercia capitulated.”

Around this time, Alfred strengthened the alliance with Mercia by marrying a woman named Ealhswith, the daughter of Æthelred Mucel, a Mercian nobleman. Alfred and Ealhswith had five children together. The Vikings arrived in Wessex in late 870, and both Alfred and his brother fought them throughout early 871, winning an important battle before King Æthelred died around Easter.

“Shortly after becoming king, Alfred suffered a major defeat and had to make peace with the Vikings,” Dr. Paxton said. “Under the terms of the agreement, which are not recorded, the Vikings withdrew from Wessex and occupied London; we can usually infer that they were paid to go away, as per usual.”

Supporting evidence, around this time period, included the Wessex coins that Vikings in London were found to have in their pockets.

The Vikings stayed out of Wessex for five years, but attacked again in 876. In January 878, a surprise attack caused Alfred to flee to Athelney for four months before he returned to reclaim the throne, then defeating the Vikings and forcing their leader to convert to Christianity.

Shedding Light on the Anglo-Saxons

Who were the Anglo-Saxons? Historical accounts describe the arrival of Germanic migrants as a violent time. The migrants supposedly conquered England, with the Celtic British people and culture forcibly pushed aside. However, current evidence is increasingly showing that Germanic migrants were settlers and farmers mostly invited to England through official channels, peacefully marrying into the local population and creating a fusion culture of the Anglo-Saxons.

Dr. Paxton said that they had contacts with churches on the main continent of Europe, including in France and the Low Countries, which made up modern-day Luxemburg, The Netherlands, and Belgium. These figures helped reform the Anglo-Saxon church’s liturgy and monastic customs as part of the Anglo-Saxon world joining the mainstream.

“I wrote about this in my dissertation because some of these archbishops and bishops were the founders of the monasteries that I work on,” she said. “So, this is material that was right in my wheelhouse, and it was really fun distilling it for a wider audience.”

England: From the Fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily