Lesson 1 – King Alfred to Federation


Our system of government is a product of our history. A lot of things will make a lot more sense once we understand that history so we need to quickly go over the main points. The history of modern Australia does not begin with Indigenous Australia, or ANZAC Cove, or Federation. It begins with the Romans leaving Britain and the subsequent history of invasion and colonisation of that island. We begin our journey therefore in the British Isles, or as the Romans called them, Britannica. This part of the lesson is sourced from Cambridge Ancient histories.

Everyone Invades the Celts

After the Romans withdrew their troops from Britannica (the areas now known as England and Wales) in around 400 A.D, the original inhabitants, the Celts, and the Roman/Celtic families who remained had no organized army to defend them.

On the North Sea shores of continental Europe a series of bad harvests and pressure from tribes in the east sparked emigration to Britannica of Geats, Angles, Kents and Jutes from what is now Denmark and northern Germany. When these peoples set off to cross the North Sea the whole family sailed together with tools, weapons and farming stock all travelling in the same boat. It is from this that we get the word “fellowship” since they were travelling together in the same ship.

Things were also pretty tough in what is now Sweden. Many young Swedes from an area known as “Russlagen” sailed across to the opening of the large river systems and followed them as far as the Black Sea and the Bosphorous conquering and settling as they went. In the process they gave Russia its name deriving from Russlagen. The Norwegians or Norse went as far the United States but failed to make permanent settlements there. They did however begin to make permanent settlements in the north of what is now England and the Islands off the coast of what is now Scotland.

The Saxons were a Germanic people living on the Jutland peninsular in what is now northern Germany. They were first invited across to Britain by a local Chief as mercenaries to help him in a local squabble. On finding a green and pleasant land they quickly invited their relatives and pretty soon a Saxon invasion began. The Saxons were effective colonists and the Celts were driven to the margins where the Saxons called them the “Welsh” which was a derogatory term indicating a group from which you would source slaves. This is the origin of Wales. Christianity still resided with the Celts but was pushed firmly to the margins. The early Celtic Christians had no knowledge of, or interest in, a Roman Vicar but simply worshipped Christ. Their priests married, were often self-supporting but also often lived in community with other Christian families called a Clas. There was no central legal or religious authority at this time and personal freedom and preference in matters of faith was the norm. The Saxons at that time were pagan.

In the interim the Italian church had adopted the policy of having a single vicar or pope. In 596 A.D Pope Gregory the first sent a missionary called Augustin to convert the Angles. This mission was largely unsuccessful as Augustin had expected to find only Pagans, not established Christian communities. However, over time Celtic Christianity was absorbed into the more structured and hierarchical Roman Church, although some remained independent on the margins.

In the ninth century Celtic, Nordic and some Saxon kingdoms were generally religiously tolerant where lands were settled and a definite ruler was in charge. Our idea of multiculturalism and tolerance probably dates to this time as do some of our legal and political traditions. For example:

  • Equality before the law was something practised in Nordic societies, at least among non-slaves. For the Celts, the idea that we are all created by God provided a moral basis for equality. It is likely that the Celtic Christians and the Norse Pagans found a common value since neither society was highly stratified.
  • Women were not regarded as property and had inheritance rights within Nordic society.
  • The Nordic practice of electing 12 reputable men to hear and decide on disputes in a Moot is the origin of our jury system. It was adopted by the Saxons and continues with us today.
  • The Nordic peoples appointed a leader or King from a council of wealthy land owners/prominent men in the community. There was no hereditary kingship. Kings were ‘hands off’ in their rulership and were primarily military leaders who relied for their position on support from community leaders. Kings were expected to physically lead from the front.
  • There was also a tradition known as a ‘wapentake’ which was a meeting of all arms- bearing freemen to discuss and rule upon matters of interest to the general community. This was a primitive form of democracy that owes nothing to Athenian democracy or the Greeks. The Nordic practice is the origin of our Parliament and our notions of constitutional monarchy.

Britain at this time was a patchwork quilt of different tribes, languages, kingdoms, and faiths with ever changing boundaries and frequent armed raids from foreigners along the coasts.

Alfred Defeats the Danes

The Saxons had more regard for the religion and culture of continental Europe than they had for the conquered Celts or the pagan Danes and this led them to choose Roman Catholicism over the older religions.

In the year 870 AD Alfred became king of the Anglo-Saxons at a time of violent turmoil. Most of what we now call England had been overrun by Danish settlers who had invaded from the East. The Danes worshipped the ancient Norse gods of Odin, Thor et al who were gods of war. Odin’s symbol was the raven, a scavenging bird that followed armies into battle so it could eat the flesh of the fallen. Their heaven was Valhalla – hall of warriors, or the field of Freyja. According to their belief system, a Viking could only be assured that the Valkyries would carry their soul to Valhalla or the field of Freyja if they died in battle. This, and the desire for wealth and lands, led the Danes and other Norsemen on an extended rampage for most of the ninth century in which the normal procedure was to loot Christian monasteries and churches and burn them down, capture slaves and kill any who resisted. However in time they settled permanently and established a kingdom in East Anglia known as Danelaw under the rule of their king Guthrum. By 870 the Danes had pushed the Anglo-Saxons into the South and West corner of the Island. Alfred was now king of the last resisting overtly Christian kingdom and both he and his people were facing annihilation. That said; there were other Christian tribes on the Celtic fringes of the Island that had not been reached by the Danes.

For the next eight years Alfred fought the Danes and mostly lost, but the decisive battle took place in May 878. On the one side the Saxons gathered under their banner of the Christian cross. On the other side the Danes under their banner of the Raven. By the end of the day the banner of the Raven had fallen, the Saxons were triumphant and the Danes were forced to surrender. As part of the terms of surrender Guthrum and his Chiefs converted to Roman Catholicism; receiving rights of baptism, and Alfred adopted Guthrum as his godson. This may seem strange but meant in effect that Guthrum became obliged to seek the peace of the two kingdoms and protect those Christians under his rule. A treaty formalising the two territories was completed two years later.

King Alfred sought to copy the hierarchy and organisational structure of the Roman Catholic Church in his kingdom. This was anti-democratic but it did bring stability and it would link his kingdom to powerful allies on the continent effectively bringing it under the protection of the Pope. Having a highly organised faith would be a force for social unity. In short, it helped him to build a strong unified kingdom at a time when weak disunited kingdoms tended to get wiped off the map. His Danish rival Guthrum may well have beaten the Saxons if he had been able to unite his chiefs more effectively. Alfred’s victory probably retarded the development of democratic traditions in England and paved the way for England to become a Roman Catholic country rather than a Nordic pagan one.

Normans Defeat Everyone

Roughly two centuries later in 1066 England would be again conquered, this time by the Normans. The Saxon King, Harold was killed at the battle of Hastings and William was victorious. The Normans were originally a Nordic people who had settled in the north of France, but there was nothing democratic about them. The Normans were Roman Catholic and practised a form of absolute feudalism.

Under the feudal system the King was an absolute dictator and kingship was hereditary. A rigid social hierarchy was imposed in which your value as a human was dependent upon where you were pegged in the hierarchy. In simple terms, peasant women were at the bottom with cattle, followed by peasant men, then local Lords, then Knights, then Barons who owned the castles and most of the land and wealth, then the King. In the church there was the same hierarchy with women at the bottom, then laity, the priests, then Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinals and the Pope. Monastic organisations had their own place and internal hierarchies.

In England freedom and equality were buried but never wholly died. England experienced a concerted attempt at religious reformation under Wycliffe in the mid to late 1300’s followed by the world’s first armed socialist revolution in 1381. This is known today as the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’. Indeed the history of England and the rest of Britain from 1066 to modern times has been about the struggle to regain and expand those freedoms that were lost to the Norman invasion and to the Saxon embrace of Roman (continental) Catholicism. It has been a 900 year project and it is still in progress.

Meanwhile England, once united under the Normans, went on to conquer the Celtic bits of the island to create Britain, and then went and conquered much of the rest of the planet.

End of Lesson 1


  1. What name did the Romans give to what is now England and Wales?
  2. Who were the inhabitants when Rome pulled out?
  3. Why did different tribes from Northern Europe want to live in Britannica?
  4. Which tribe finally became the leader
  5. What was the name of the king of this tribe?
  6. What religion did he choose
  7. Name 2 freedoms that the Norse pagan religion allowed that were lost under the new religion.
  8. Name 2 Nordic practices that are still part of our political system today.
  9. Why is 1066 such an important date?
  10. What is the connection between feudalism and the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381?


Sources and References

Statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_the_Great

See also: Cambridge Ancient Histories

In Alfred’s time there was no such thing as “England” or “Britain”. What is now the UK was divided into several kingdoms. The largest was the Saxon kingdom of Mercia but most of this had fallen to the Danes and only the West Saxon kingdom of Wessex remained. See the map below.

A map of Britain in 878, when Alfred was King of Wessex, showing the Anglo-Saxon and Danish territories. At one point, all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms bar Alfred’s Wessex, the most powerful, had fallen to the Danes

Picture source: http://forums.canadiancontent.net/history/121459-museum-remains-inside-box-thought.html

For additional maps see here: http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=show&page=Maps


In April 871, Alfred came to the throne of Wessex and the burden of its defence ….the Danes defeated the Saxon army in his absence at an unnamed spot, and then again in his presence at Wilton in May. The defeat at Wilton smashed any remaining hope that Alfred could drive the invaders from his kingdom. He was forced instead to make peace with them, according to sources that do not tell what the terms of the peace were. Bishop Asser claimed that the ‘pagans’ agreed to vacate the realm and made good their promise.

Indeed, the Viking army did withdraw from Reading in the autumn of 871 to take up winter quarters in Mercian London. Although not mentioned by Asser or by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred probably also paid the Vikings cash to leave, much as the Mercians were to do in the following year. Hoards dating to the Viking occupation of London in 871/2 have been excavated at Croydon, Gravesend, and Waterloo Bridge. These finds hint at the cost involved in making peace with the Vikings. For the next five years, the Danes occupied other parts of England.

In 876 under their new leader, Guthrum, the Danes slipped past the Saxon army and attacked and occupied Wareham in Dorset. Alfred blockaded them but was unable to take Wareham by assault. Accordingly, he negotiated a peace which involved an exchange of hostages and oaths, which the Danes swore on a “holy ring” associated with the worship of Thor. The Danes, however, broke their word and, after killing all the hostages, slipped away under cover of night to Exeter in Devon.

Alfred blockaded the Viking ships in Devon, and with a relief fleet having been scattered by a storm, the Danes were forced to submit. The Danes withdrew to Mercia. In January 878, the Danes made a sudden attack on Chippenham, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been staying over Christmas, “and most of the people they killed, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way by wood and swamp, and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe”. From his fort at Athelney, an island in the marshes near North Petherton, Alfred was able to mount an effective resistance movement, rallying the local militias from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire.

Alfred the Great is scolded by his subject, a herder’s wife, for not turning the breads but readily eating them when they are baked in her cottage.

A popular legend, originating from 12th century chronicles, tells how when he first fled to the Somerset Levels, Alfred was given shelter by a peasant woman who, unaware of his identity, left him to watch some cakes she had left cooking on the fire. Preoccupied with the problems of his kingdom, Alfred accidentally let the cakes burn, and was roundly scolded by the woman upon her return.

870 was the low-water mark in the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. With all the other kingdoms having fallen to the Vikings, Wessex alone was still resisting.

Counter-attack and victory

King Alfred’s Tower (1772) on the supposed site of Egbert’s Stone, the mustering place before the Battle of Edington.

In the seventh week after Easter (4–10 May 878), around Whitsuntide, Alfred rode to ‘Egbert’s Stone‘ east of Selwood, where he was met by “all the people of Somerset and of Wiltshire and of that part of Hampshire which is on this side of the sea (that is, west of Southampton Water), and they rejoiced to see him”. Alfred’s emergence from his marshland stronghold was part of a carefully planned offensive that entailed raising the fyrds of three shires. This meant not only that the king had retained the loyalty of ealdormen, royal reeves and king’s Thegns (who were charged with levying and leading these forces), but that they had maintained their positions of authority in these localities well enough to answer his summons to war. Alfred’s actions also suggest a system of scouts and messengers.

Alfred won a decisive victory in the ensuing Battle of Edington which may have been fought near Westbury, Wiltshire.

The Saxon Chronicle records: “Fighting ferociously, forming a dense shield-wall against the whole army of the Pagans, and striving long and bravely…at last he [Alfred] gained the victory. He overthrew the Pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress [i.e., Chippenham].”

He then pursued the Danes to their stronghold at Chippenham and starved them into submission. One of the terms of the surrender was that Guthrum convert to Christianity. Three weeks later the Danish king and 29 of his chief men were baptised at Alfred’s court at Aller, near Athelney, with Alfred receiving Guthrum as his spiritual son.

The “unbinding of the chrism” took place with great ceremony eight days later at the royal estate at Wedmore in Somerset, after which Guthrum fulfilled his promise to leave Wessex. The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, preserved in Old English in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (Manuscript 383), and in a Latin compilation known as Quadripartitus, was negotiated later, perhaps in 879 or 880, when King Ceolwulf II of Mercia was deposed.

That treaty divided up the kingdom of Mercia. By its terms the boundary between Alfred’s and Guthrum’s kingdoms was to run up the River Thames, to the River Lea; follow the Lea to its source (near Luton); from there extend in a straight line to Bedford; and from Bedford follow the River Ouse to Watling Street.

In other words, Alfred succeeded to Ceolwulf’s kingdom, consisting of western Mercia; and Guthrum incorporated the eastern part of Mercia into an enlarged kingdom of East Anglia (henceforward known as the Danelaw). By terms of the treaty, moreover, Alfred was to have control over the Mercian city of London and its mints—at least for the time being.[19] The disposition of Essex, held by West Saxon kings since the days of Egbert, is unclear from the treaty, though, given Alfred’s political and military superiority, it would have been surprising if he had conceded any disputed territory to his new godson.

A coin of Alfred, king of Wessex, London, 880 (based upon a Roman model).

With the signing of the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, an event most commonly held to have taken place around 880 when Guthrum’s people began settling East Anglia, Guthrum was neutralised as a threat. In conjunction with this agreement a Danish army left the island and sailed to Ghent.

After the signing of the treaty with Guthrum, Alfred was spared any large-scale conflicts for some time. Despite this relative peace, the king was still forced to deal with a number of Danish raids and incursions.

Further Viking attacks repelled (890s)

After another lull, in the autumn of 892 or 893, the Danes attacked again. Finding their position in mainland Europe precarious, they crossed to England in 330 ships in two divisions. They entrenched themselves, the larger body at Appledore, Kent, and the lesser, under Hastein, at Milton, also in Kent. The invaders brought their wives and children with them, indicating a meaningful attempt at conquest and colonisation. Alfred, in 893 or 894, took up a position from which he could observe both forces.

While he was in talks with Hastein, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck northwestwards. They were overtaken by Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, and were defeated in a general engagement at Farnham in Surrey. They took refuge on an island at Thorney, on Hertfordshire’s River Colne, where they were blockaded and were ultimately forced to submit. The force fell back on Essex and, after suffering another defeat at Benfleet, coalesced with Hastein’s force at Shoebury.

Alfred had been on his way to relieve his son at Thorney when he heard that the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes were besieging Exeter and an unnamed stronghold on the North Devon shore. Alfred at once hurried westward and raised the Siege of Exeter. The fate of the other place is not recorded. Meanwhile, the force under Hastein set out to march up the Thames Valley, possibly with the idea of assisting their friends in the west. But they were met by a large force under the three great ealdormen of Mercia, Wiltshire and Somerset, and forced to head off to the northwest, being finally overtaken and blockaded at Buttington. Some identify this with Buttington Tump at the mouth of the River Wye, others with Buttington near Welshpool. An attempt to break through the English lines was defeated. Those who escaped retreated to Shoebury. Then, after collecting reinforcements, they made a sudden dash across England and occupied the ruined Roman walls of Chester. The English did not attempt a winter blockade, but contented themselves with destroying all the supplies in the district. Early in 894 (or 895), want of food obliged the Danes to retire once more to Essex. At the end of this year and early in 895 (or 896), the Danes drew their ships up the River Thames and River Lea and fortified themselves twenty miles (32 km) north of London. A direct attack on the Danish lines failed but, later in the year, Alfred saw a means of obstructing the river so as to prevent the egress of the Danish ships. The Danes realised that they were outmaneuvered. They struck off north-westwards and wintered at Cwatbridge near Bridgnorth. The next year, 896 (or 897), they gave up the struggle.

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