Alfred the Great: his world and his legend

King Alfred–who you might know as Alfred the Great–could reasonably have expected not to become a king. He was the fourth, or possibly the fifth, son–it’s all a little hazy when you’re looking back that far–of King Aethelwulf of Wessex. But King Alfred he became, although we could also call him Aelfred, or if you want to go completely Dark Ages about it, Aelfraed.

Anglo-Saxon spellings make my teeth ache.

In addition to all those sons, there was a daughter in there somewhere, but she was married off to another Anglo-Saxon king in a political marriage and history doesn’t pay much attention to her. Did you ever wonder why so many women develop a sharp edge? It’s not because of her particularly, but she’s not a bad example of what happens.

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, stolen from something I posted last year. This year’s are out, though.

Back to our point, though: Aelfred was the king of Wessex from 871 to 899 and nobody at the time called him the Great. King was plenty, thanks.

What kind of place did he grow up in and rule? To start with, Anglo-Saxon England was split into an assortment of kingdomlets. Don’t try to count them because the numbers keep changing, especially once the Vikings invaded. They swallowed one, then another. 

Pretty much anything you read about the period talks not just about the Anglo-Saxon kings but also about sub-kings. The sub-kings don’t actually come into our tale, but they’re worth a mention because it’s interesting to know that power was divided up in ways we’re not used to. A king had to move carefully, balancing out the sub-kings’ strength, interests, loyalties, tempers, competence, and possibly incompetence.

Now let’s set them aside and talk about Aelf’s family background, and you should feel free to make fun of the names here because (a) I will and (b) nobody speaks Anglo-Saxon English anymore, so you won’t be stomping on any sensitive toes. 

Aethelwulf (that’s Aelfred’s dad, in case you’ve lost track of him already) fought the Vikings and had a bunch of kids. Then his wife died and he married a twelve-year-old, Judith. Unlike the sub-kings, she’ll come back into the story.

AethelW went on pilgrimage, taking youngest son Aelfred, who’d have been four or five, with him and leaving older son Aethelbald in charge of the kingdom. When he came back a year later, AethelB said, “Sorry, Dad, but I’ve kind of gotten to like being king. Now butt out.”

Instead of starting a civil war, AethelW divided the kingdom with AethelB. Then he died, as people will. Son Aethelberht, not to be confused with Aethelbald–let’s call him AethelB2–took AethelW’s throne. Then AethelB1 married AethelW’s widow, who in our times still wouldn’t have been old enough to buy herself a beer. 

Yes, it was all very weird back then. 

Before anyone had time to say, “It seems perfectly sensible to us,” AethelB1 died and AethelB2 glued the two kingdoms back together. Then he died and brother Aethelred followed him onto the throne. 

This sounds like the fairy tale about the billy goats gruff and the troll under the bridge, doesn’t it? Except instead of the youngest brother coming first, the oldest ones did.

I’m happy to report that neither AethelR or AethelB2 married poor ol’ Judith. She went home and later married someone unrelated to either her first husband or this tale. I hope she was old enough to order a beer by then, but I wouldn’t put any money on it.

And we still haven’t gotten to Aelfred.

You may have noticed that Aelfred is missing a syllable that all his brothers got: He’s plain old Ael-Something while they’re Aethel-Somethings. It’s like that when you’re the youngest kid. By the time you get yourself born, your parents are tired. They don’t have the energy to hand out extra syllables. And in a lot of families, money’s tight. In this one, they didn’t seem to be, but they were running short on thrones. If Aethelred hadn’t died, Aelfred would’ve had to sit on a stool or a bench, just like everyone else.

By the time Aelfred got himself a throne, with a wooden back and arms and everything else that signaled his importance, the Vikings had taken over most of England. The Anglo-Saxons called the Vikings the Great Heathen Army, because (a) they weren’t Christian and (b) it’s a lot scarier to be slaughtered by someone of a different religion than by someone of your own religion.

Aelf’s first task was to fight the Vikings, and we’ll skip the list of battles. We don’t have space for enough detail to make them interesting, and without detail you wouldn’t remember them anyway, would you? 

Okay, maybe you would. I wouldn’t.

What matters is that Aelf lost, and by 878 he’d been pushed back to a corner of the Somerset Levels, where he and a small band of fighters hid in the marshes, working to gather reinforcements. Eventually he had enough warriors to go on the offensive, defeat the Vikings, and as part of the peace settlement demand that Guthrum, the Viking king, become a Christian. Religion doesn’t seem to have been about deeply held beliefs but about–well, it strikes me as being more like joining a football team and agreeing to follow its rules. 

The Vikings eventually all converted to Christianity. Did that bring peace between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings? Hell no. It just meant Christians were fighting Christians instead of non-Christians. It meant everyone who died was killed by a co-religionist. You can see how that was a great improvement.

The peace between Aelf (for Wessex) and Guthrum (for the Danelaw, which is what they called Viking England) held for a while, but it wasn’t a stable peace, and Aelf built up his military, fortifying towns, building up a navy to face up to Danish ships, and generally preparing for the time they’d be at war again.

Danish, by the way, was another way to say “Viking.” 

Aelf’s theory was that the Viking invasion of England was a result of Anglo-Saxon England’s moral failings, so he set out to remedy them, in part by focusing heavily on education. One step was to demand that anyone in government had to be literate. Another was to set up a court school for–okay, the article I’m working from here  says “noble-born children.” I haven’t found anything that says the wording only meant boys, but I haven’t found anything that says it didn’t. Women were freer under the Anglo-Saxons than they would be later, under the Normans, but that’s a relative freedom, not an absolute one. 

The school also welcomed “intellectually promising boys of lesser birth.” 

It was under Aelf’s rule that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was begun. This was a year-by-year account of events, and it continued to be written for some time after the Norman invasion in 1066. It’s one of our few sources of knowledge about the period and a remarkable piece of work.

Aelf also wrote an ambitious law code, which was a mix of new and pre-existing law, threaded through with bits out of the Bible. In it, he wrote, “Doom [meaning judge; it’s pronounced dome] very evenly! Do not doom one doom to the rich; another to the poor! Nor doom one doom to your friend; another to your foe!”

We can learn from this that he was even-handed and just and placed a high value on exclamation marks. Assuming, of course, that they weren’t added by the translator, because however antiquated that sounds, it’s not Anglo-Saxon English.

Aelf was either wise or canny enough to appoint a biographer, which is one reason he’s come down to us as perfect in all ways. Aelf’s biographer wasn’t independent; he worked for Aelf. That can’t help but color a writer’s work. So Aelf was pious, brave, learned, truthful, a man who ate not five but six helpings of fruits and vegetables every day. Even kale, which wasn’t in the supermarkets yet. Supermarkets weren’t even in the supermarkets yet.

And I say that without diminishing what his stature. He seems to have been a far-sighted guy, but let’s not get suckered into the propaganda.

In spite of all his wonderfulness, Aelf was never made a saint, and this meant he disappeared from sight for a while. When the Normans took over England, they played up their connections to the Anglo-Saxon kings, but they leaned toward the ones the Church had made saints of, ignoring the ones who were merely saintly. That meant they ignored Aelf.

Much later, when England broke away from the Catholic Church, finding a saintly-but-unsainted king who just happened to have had a good biographer came as a gift to a country struggling to redefine itself. And there Aelfred was, unsullied by Catholic approval. They dug him out, turned him from Aelf (or Alf, by then) into Alfred the Great, and used his writings and translations to prove that the Anglo-Saxon church had been pure before the Normans came along and made it Roman Catholic. As Barbara Yorke puts it, “With a bit of selective editing, [the Anglo-Saxon church] came to bear an uncanny resemblance to Elizabethan Anglicanism.” 

The Tudors weren’t the only folks to do some selective editing. In later centuries, Aelf was rewritten in an assortment of ways no one would have predicted. The Victorians held him up as an example to kids–the perfect, and probably deadly dull, person they should all model themselves on. (Go hole up in a swamp and eat kale, children, until you’re strong enough to defeat the Vikings.) He was also dragged into racist arguments to demonstrate how great the Anglo-Saxons were and how inferior everyone else was. 

How did Alfred feel about all this? He was past caring–or at least past letting us know his feelings and opinions. I mention it to remind us all that historians aren’t impartial reporters of history. Some start with the story they want to tell then choose their facts to fit it. Others play fair, but even they shape the story. 

And I do the same thing. If you don’t shape the story, you don’t have one, you have a scrambled mess of facts.

Besides, I’m not a historian, I just play one on the internet.

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My thanks to the Tiny Potager’s oldest kids for suggesting both this topic and next week’s.

Hereward the Wake fights the big bad Normans

We’ll get to Hereward toward in the end. We need some background first, so let’s start at a key point in English history: 1066, host year for the Battle of Hastings. It cost less than London’s 2012 Olympics and had a more significant impact, even once you allow for the Olympics’ legacy of gentrification.

What happened? The Normans–descendants of the Vikings who’d settled in Normandy, which shared a name with them, however reluctantly–invaded and defeated the English king, and along with him all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. 

Anglo-Saxon England (which for our purposes, however illogically, includes the heavily Scandinavian parts of England; I want us to remember that they’re there) now had a new proto-king (he hadn’t been crowned yet), William, who hung around Hastings for a while, picking bits of eggshell off the beach where King Humpty had shattered while waiting for the English nobility to come bow before him.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: A red hot poker. Not an actual one, you understand. A flower called that.

So far, so familiar to anyone who read a history textbook as a kid–or at least one that covered British history. The ones in my school never got around to 1066. It all happened so long ago and on the other side of a big damn ocean. They figured they could skip it and devote more space to–.

Um.

I’ve forgotten what they gave the space to. Something memorable. But never mind. What I want to talk about is what happened next, which wasn’t the Domesday (pronounced Doomsday) Book–that inch by inch and cow by sheep record of everything William was now the king of–but a series of rebellions. Which you’re  not likely to hear about unless you get interested enough to do some reading on your own.

I’m working here largely from David Horspool’s The English Rebel, which opens with English resistance to the Norman conquest, and also from a small but unwieldy stack of other books on English and British history. That means we’ll go linkless today. It’s the blogger equivalent of dreaming you’re on the bus naked: No harm’s done but it is disturbing.

What Horspool argues is that the rebellions shaped the conquest. It’s an interesting way to think about it. The rebels didn’t manage to get rid of William, but that doesn’t mean they had no impact. Even if it wasn’t the impact they wanted.

The first rebellion came together before William got to the capital. Its plan was to put Edgar the Aetheling on the throne, edging William out. Planting yourself on the throne and going through the ceremonies of being crowned were nothing more than symbolism, but that didn’t make they any less powerful. People believed in them.

Edgar the Aeth was the nephew of Edward the Confessor (that’s the king whose death set this mess in motion). He hadn’t been considered as a successor because of his age. He was born in 1051 or thereabouts, making him fifteenish in 1066. Or in John O’Farrell’s version (An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge), he was thirteen. You noticed the “thereabouts” when I gave the year he was born, right?

Either way, he was young. On the other hand, it was strongly in his favor that he was still alive. And not a Norman.

The rebels gathered in London and waited for William. They included the archbishops and York and Canterbury; a couple of earls named Morcar and Edwin, and if that sounds like a BBC sitcom, it isn’t; “the citizens of London”; and a crowd of warriors so large that London couldn’t accommodate them.

Or so said a contemporary source, the Gesta Guillelmi. Detail and fussbudgetty stuff like accurate numbers weren’t the strong points of of medieval writers. Take it for what it’s worth. 

William encircled London and sat there till the rebels gave up and swore their loyalty to him. End of the first rebellion.

Two months after the Battle of Hastings, William was in firm enough control to have himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, and he just happened to surround it with his men. In a break with tradition, the crowd inside was asked, in English and French, if they acknowledged his right to be king. Everyone shouted their approval (it wouldn’t have been wise not to), and the shouting convinced the men outside that a rebellion had broken out. They did the only reasonable thing they could think of and set fire to the surrounding buildings. 

Who wouldn’t?

The fire spread and pretty much everyone fled the ceremony except for the terrified handful of people who had to finish consecrating and crowning. William stayed–no ceremony, no kingship–but was said to be shaking badly. A contemporary chronicle cites the event as the reason the English never again trusted the Normans.

Let’s assume from this that William and his men had reason to be on edge. As they spread their rule across their new country, they built castles, which worked as pegs to hold down the tarp they’d spread over the land. When Will went back to Normandy in 1067, he took the primary former rebels with him to make sure they didn’t get up to anything while he was gone. 

Will’s initial strategy was to rule the north of England–which he hadn’t conquered yet–through English appointees, but they tried raising taxes for him and that set off rebellions. In Northumbria alone, two of Will’s English proxies were killed and one changed sides. 

End of strategy. 

In his first five years, rebellions broke out in Dover, Essex, Hereford, Nottingham, York, Peterborough, and Essex, and most of them had the Aetheling (it means prince) as their focus, although a few focused on Danish royals or Eustace of Boulogne. 

No, I never heard of him either. 

Interestingly enough, Will didn’t have the Aetheling killed. He seems to have been far more forgiving of rebels from the nobility than from the everybody-else class. Take the Edwin of Edwin and Morcar. After his first rebellion, he was given “authority over his brother and almost a third of England.” But he was also promised a marriage to Will’s daughter and it didn’t materialize, which led him and Morcar to rebel again.

Horspool argues that a lot of the rebellions were a result of private discontents rather than what he calls patriotic ones, by which (I think, and I could easily be wrong here) he means more widespread discontents that might have united the rebels. He figures that the lack of unity cost the rebels their fight. O’Farrell, on the other hand, argues that England was still a fragmented place, with divided loyalties, which would have made a united resistance impossible.

That leads me to say that I have no idea what Morcar’s motives might have been and that I don’t know if his involvement in the next rebellion was a case of a couple of earls rallying people to rise up or a couple of earls riding on an uprising they did nothing to create. When Ed and Morcar gave up, though, Will accepted back into the fold again.

Having given up on sending English proxies into the north, he sent a Norman into Northumbria. On his first night in Durham, he and his retinue (somewhere between 500 and 900 men, according to contemporary sources, but I’d treat the numbers with caution) were killed. Then the rebels besieged the castle at York and killed Norman who’d been put in charge of it, along with many of his men. 

This was the turning point. 

“Swift was the king’s coming; he fell on the besiegers and spared no man,” according to the English monk Orderic Vitalis. 

At this point, the Danish king sent his sons, with a fleet made up of Danes, English, Poles, Frisians, Saxons (the kind from Saxony, not the English kind), and Lithuanians. They worked their way up the eastern coastline, eventually joining forces with some of the rebel groups, but after some initial success they retreated when William showed up in person. 

Horspool attributes that to a fear of facing down an annointed king. Annointing was the ceremony in which the church gave its oil-based blessing to a king, and people took it seriously. A king wasn’t just a pawn who’d gotten to the far side of the board and said, “King me.” He was church-approved and -tested. That’s where he got his divine right.

On the other hand, kings had been overthrown before and had slaughtered each other cheerily. Why that should have been an issue now I don’t know.

I can’t help wondering if the rebels were simply refusing to meet William on his ground, but that’s speculation. Don’t take it too seriously. It’s not like I have some hidden stash of information about this. 

Whatever the reason, they retreated, and when Will couldn’t find any Danes to fight in York, he lost it and “utterly laid waste and ravaged the shire,” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He burned crops, killed livestock, destroyed villages and farms, and broke farm implements. Basically, he destroyed everything people needed to farm the land. Some sources reported that starvation drove people to cannibalism or to sell themselves into slavery just so they could eat. There was death on a massive scale. It was ten years before the north even began to recover.

It’s known as the harrying of the north.

And William again pardoned some of the leading rebels. You know–the ones with titles. 

That brings us to 1071, when Edwin and Morcar, the earls who never got a BBC sitcom named after them, joined a minor Anglo-Saxon noble (or gentleman in some versions), Hereward, in one of the last rebellions against Will. 

At roughly this same time, Will was reading through a printout of senior clergymen, crossing out the Anglo-Saxon names and penciling in Norman ones. It didn’t matter that printouts hadn’t been invented yet, or pencils: Will couldn’t read. You could hand him a piece of blank vellum and he’d get just as much out of it.

The point is that he sent a Norman to replace the Anglo-Saxon abbot of Peterborough, and we can safely guess that the new abbot came expecting trouble, because he brought 160 of his closest friends with him, and all of them were armed. Presumably he brought a prayer or two, but maybe I’m falling for a stereotype there.

Before he got there, though, Hereward joined forces with the Danes to sack Peterborough Abbey (probably–contemporary sources are hazy, remember). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says the rebels claimed they were doing out of loyalty to the minster, to deny it to the Normans.

Hereward used the fens–boggy, nearly impenetrable marshland–as his base and fought a guerrilla war. Then William paid off the Danes and they dropped out of the story, leaving Hereward on his own. He fought for over a year. 

Will eventually bribed some monks to betray (according to O’Farrell’s version of the tale) the route through the fens to Hereward’s stronghold, leaving us with one defeat and conflicting versions of what happened to Edwin and Morcar, although all the versions end with one betrayed and killed by his men and the other imprisoned for the rest of this life. 

Hereward disappeared, as any good legend should. Get slaughtered and you can become a saint. Disappear and you get a shot at legendhood.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says next to nothing about Hereward’s rebellion and doesn’t mention him by name at all. We could argue about how significant the rebellion was or wasn’t, but let’s not. We weren’t there. We can agree (see how neatly I slip you the opinion you’re supposed to take?) that it took on importance as legend–the bold Anglo-Saxon holdouts, using the land itself as a weapon against the invaders.

Hereward became known as the Wake only later, in one version because a family of that name wanted to claim him as an ancestor and in another version because it means the watchful

Hereward wasn’t, in Horspool’s telling, William’s most powerful opponent, but his legend is the one that took hold, and it cycles through English literature from the twelfth century on. He wrestles bears. He sacks abbeys. (Okay, one abbey, and hey, we all have our faults.) He disappears instead of dying. He doesn’t have a happy ending, but he has a habit of embodying whatever qualities the country wants to believe in at the moment.

Horspool’s interpretation of all those rebellions is that they broke any trust Will might have put put in the existing English aristocracy, leaving him no choice but to replace them with Normans. He doesn’t explain–or ask, if the information that’s available doesn’t allow for an answer–what drove this cycle of rebellion, so I’ll raise the question. When you get a pattern like this, selfish motives and bad temper don’t cut it as an explanation. Something was going on that didn’t allow everyone to settle down, plow the land, gather the rents, and do whatever it was people had been doing  before William landed. Because most people, given the chance to stay home and do what they’re used to, will do that.

Horspool considers it a legend that pre-Norman England was a land of freedom, but that belief fueled many a rebellion in the coming centuries. The shorthand for it is “the Norman yoke,” and if he’s not impressed with it as fact, he does pay tribute to its power as legend. 

The other historians in my small stack of books are more convinced. Women were freer, they say. Local courts were made up of small landowners, creating a grass-roots kind of justice. You didn’t end up bringing a dispute with the local lord to that same local lord, hoping for justice, as people would have had to under the Normans if they’d been silly enough to try.

On the Horspool side of the scales, however, the Anglo-Saxons did have slavery, and tenant farmers don’t sound, at least as I read it, like they were entirely free. Compared to the feudalism the Normans imposed, though, it might have looked like heaven, and not just to those who were higher up the social ladder. 

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My thanks to John Russell for suggesting Hereward as a topic. Sorry I went on so long. I couldn’t find a place to split it in two.