The night that saved England

If King Alfred hadn’t escaped the midwinter raid, the country as we know it might never have existed

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

Thanks to the centenary of the first world war, counter-factuals are much in vogue. How different might history have been had Archduke Franz-Ferdinand never been assassinated, had Britain kept out of the conflict, had the Allies been defeated? Questions such as these are more than just a parlour game. They serve to cast the shadow of contingency over events that otherwise can seem all too predetermined. Deep and strong though the tides of history are, there have indeed been moments in the past when their flood-surge might have been diverted along profoundly different courses — moments when the fate of nations did truly hang in the balance.

The protagonists of one such episode are currently starring in the British Museum’s latest spectacular. The Vikings have always been box-office, and the new show is charged with an intimidating sense of their charisma, their ambition, their Game Of Thrones-style violence. Gold blazes, axes glint, and a dragon-ship, the longest ever found, dominates the exhibition space. No one can visit the show and not come away with a better appreciation of just how terrifying it would have been to see a fleet of Wicingas gliding up towards the beachfront.

For all the justified emphasis in the exhibition on the achievements of Iron Age Scandinavian culture, no one should doubt what the Vikings, when they first crossed the North Sea, meant for Britain. In the 9th century, the English came closer to having their civilisation snuffed out than they ever did during the two world wars. Set as they were on an island rich in treasure and dotted with wealthy monasteries, it was only to be expected that they should have found themselves the prey of sea-borne pirates. Fiery dragons in the sky had heralded the first arrival of Vikings on British soil: fitting omens of the devastation that was to come. With no unitary state existing in southern Britain at the time, only a patchwork of fractious kingdoms, the Vikings had found it a simple matter to graduate from raiding to conquest. Realm after realm was plundered, dismembered, and brought crashing down. By 878, only one was left standing: the kingdom of Wessex. ‘In mid-winter after Twelfth Night’, when a Viking war-band descended unforeseen upon the Wiltshire fortress of Chippenham, its survival was hanging perilously by a thread.

The town itself may not have been the only target of the attack. Chippenham was a royal residence, and the Vikings were almost certainly hoping to ambush Alfred, the king of Wessex. In the event, he was able to give his assailants the slip and flee to West Somerset — which, then as now, was largely under water. Athelney, ‘the island of the princes’, was a fastness so mired around by swamps and lagoons as to be impregnable; and it was from there, after four months’ hiding, that Alfred emerged to redeem his people. The invaders were defeated and scoured from Wessex; towns, ringed about with fortifications and endowed with market places for the generation of taxes, were planted across the kingdom; his subjects steeled for continued struggle.

The harvest of these labours, reaped by his heirs over the succeeding decades, was to prove a spectacular one. Vikings beyond the borders of Wessex were systematically subdued; the shattered fragments of other English kingdoms absorbed; even the Cornish brought to submit. In 937, in a bloody and titanic battle fought at an unknown place called Brunanburh, an assemblage of foes drawn from across the British Isles was met and heroically routed. The victor, Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, proclaimed himself ‘King of all Britain’. The title turned out to have been overoptimistic; but a second — ‘King of the English’ — did not. The achievement of Alfred and his heirs was to prove as enduring as it was momentous. Out of the fire and slaughter of defeat, a united kingdom of England had been forged.

To imagine a Twelfth Night raid on Chippenham in which Alfred did not manage to escape is, then, to imagine a very different world. Even before his flight to Athelney, many of the West Saxons were submitting to the invaders, with leading men, in the words of one charter, ‘deserting king and country’. It is hard to see how an independent Wessex could possibly have survived Alfred’s death. Puppets would doubtless have been found to preside over the rubble; but the last English kingdom would, in effect, have been destroyed. What kind of future a Viking-dominated England would then have faced is hard to say for sure — except that it would have been chaotic, and not English as today we understand the word.

The epithet of ‘Great’, which was first applied to Alfred in the 13th century, and enjoyed an imperially hued heyday in the Victorian period, is one that today can sometimes make historians squirm. Even those who confess to being ‘resistant to the idea of Alfred’s “greatness”’, though, seem to succumb to it in the end. A counter-factual which has him captured and brutally dispatched by the Vikings on Twelfth Night has this value: it reminds us just how much is owed to his personal achievements. There was nothing inevitable about the emergence of a united England. Without Alfred and his remarkable dynasty, the kingdom that helped give the world the United States, the Industrial Revolution and the most widely-spoken language of all time would never have come into existence. Not just British but global history would have been incalculably different.

So be sure, this March, to make a double date with the British Museum. Do visit the Vikings exhibition; but do also go to the dazzling and expensively refurbished Anglo-Saxon gallery. It opens at the end of the month: a reminder of our prodigious debt to the king who escaped the Vikings, fought them off, and helped to forge a nation.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Tom Holland’s books include In the Shadow of the Sword, Persian Fire, Rubicon and Millennium.

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Show comments
  • The PrangWizard of England

    It is time for the birth of a new England, we must have a true English parliament, an independent England, along with the reform of our cultural institutions. Our institutions should reflect our identity back to us in their names as well as content. Where are the Galleries and Museums of England? Whichever way the Scots vote in their referendum they will continue be encouraged to become more separate; the English cannot be ignored any longer. The British Museum must be renamed. Why is our identity so often subsumed under Britishness? It is time we fought back.

    • annewareham

      No! I went to live over the border in Wales – you mustn’t disenfranchise me!

      • IndependentEngland

        You chose to move. Return to a England if you don’t like it!

    • Shorne

      Why do I seem to hear the strains of the Horst Wessel Lied all of a sudden?

      • Gary Walker

        ..because decades of having a media soaked in political correctness, mean you hear it every time you read the word “England”?

        • Shorne

          Some definitions;
          “A reactionary – a person who holds political viewpoints that favour a return to a previous state in a society.”
          “Reactionary – opposing political or social progress or reform”
          “A reactionary is a somnambulist walking backwards”
          Franklin D. Roosevelt

          • IndependentEngland

            So Alex Salmond is a reactionary is he?

          • Shorne


      • Gregory Mason

        Because you’re a bigot.

        • bravo22c

          Or an idiot…

      • IndependentEngland

        What do you hear in reaction to Scottish Welsh or Irish nationalists? Or are you one of those people who thinks it is ok to be a nationalist so long as you are not an English nationalist?

        • Shorne

          I don’t understand what ‘hear in reaction’ means.

          “Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception.”
          George Orwell

    • Andrew Constantine

      I agree with every word of your post. Some of us are fighting back already – check out the EPP!

  • Cobbett

    Gave birth to the United States? Surely that’s something to mourn.

  • tjamesjones

    Look, I’m a big fan of Alfred, and it’s a truism that if the Vikings had defeated him, things would have been different. But on the other hand, how close are we to Alfred’s time and people really. Here’s what is written on the Alfred Jewel, “AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN”.

    Apparently that’s “Alfred ordered me to be made”, but I can’t say that it strikes me as easier to read than say German.

    • ‘Alfred had me made’ is the more tradtional and, I think, elegant translation.

      • Kitty MLB

        Evening Swanky,
        Yes the traditional is far more elegant and less harsh.
        I love the fact that he used those words as a marker to teach
        people to read English after taking the trouble translating all those Latin books
        Also the fact that unlike many during his time
        he appreciated scholarship and did not live life for battles.
        I believe he was a very sensitive and insightful chap that was way ahead of his time and not suited to the word ‘ ordered ‘
        the gentleman above used.

        • Interesting observations, Kitty, and I think you are correct. Alfred would certainly be a fascinating figure to meet, at his court, if we had a tardis to travel in.

          • Kitty MLB

            Yes, it would be excellent to have a tardis
            and pop back in time to meet such an interesting
            figure. Might even get a list together
            Of other people to see, and obviously
            language would not be a issue 🙂

    • bravo22c

      As close as shit, you swine, bide awhile in my abode on the long acre beside the town…

      All anglo-saxon words

      • tjamesjones

        Yes that’s why I said German rather than say Chinese, ie Schwein, Acker etc.

  • IndependentEngland

    England is still united. It is the Scottish Welsh and N.Irish who are not.

  • Daidragon

    England died with the Norman conquest.

    • Andrew Constantine

      The total Norman/French invasion force was fewer than 20,000. Those that remained after the invasion were assimilated into the English over time.

      After all, William took by conquest the most advanced nation state in Europe and it was obvious sense to rule through existing institutions. For example, William maintained some of the former English kings’ officials in office who were still to issue ‘writs’ using Anglo-Saxon precedents and wording.

      • christianguthier

        If you do genetic testings you’ll find that though the masters may have changed from time to time, the population didn’t do much changing.

  • Andrew Constantine

    May I ask Tom Holland if he would welcome the setting up of new society promoting the study of Alfred the Great along the lines of the Richard III Society?

  • Mack

    President Roosevelt was no friend of England, of France, or anyone else. His bigotry wrecked the English plan, at least thirty years old, in transforming the Empire into sovereign states. How much international suffering in Africa and Asia might have been avoided? American pressure to grant immediate independence to dependent states not prepared for it led straight to terrible civil wars in Africa and in Indo-China.

  • Andrew Constantine

    To discover the level of interest in the formation of an academically respectable society devoted to Alfred the Great and his times, I have set up a facebook page called ‘Formation of a King Alfred the Great Historical Society’.

    We just need a core of keen supporters and we can then discuss setting up a Society – probably having registered charity status, and asking advice from some well-run historical societies.

    If you are potentially interested, please support this intiatiatve

  • Water Dude

    If we can make use of more knowledge than we actually know, we can overcome our natural ignorance and create useful things that apply others’ knowledge toward the situations we face.

  • muarijun

    Hello, please i’m seeking information about the picture at the begining of this text. The picture of some warriors attacking a ship, and you can see a women with a sword and shield between the attackers. ¿Title? ¿Painter? ¿subjetc? ¿museum? Thank you very much