Easter in Athelney – King Alfred and the Great Viking Army

As Alfred (r. 871 – 899) led the remnants of his gathered followers into the Somerset fens in 878, it was unlikely that the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ was foremost among his concerns. The Viking force under the leadership of Guthrum had stealthily entered the Kingdom of Wessex during the winter and, surprising a likely de-militarised region (winter being outside the usual campaigning season), began to conquer the kingdom, forcing the inhabitants into hiding. Alfred, seeking protection among the swamps and forests of Somerset, is reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as having decided upon the Island of Athelney as the ideal place to establish a stronghold and begin his reconquest of Wessex. So it was that on Easter 878 (March 23) he arrived at his new abode with a small force of fighting men.  Alfred, ever the devout king, undoubtedly ensured a mass was duly celebrated, marking the feast (Easter was of course, as now, the most important feast on the church calendar). However, as Alfred raised his praises to the unconquered Christ in the morass of his exile, it was surely the matter of the Viking settlers that weighed most heavily upon his mind.

A cynical reader will probably note the parallel redemptions tales. On Easter day Alfred rose from the ignominy of certain defeat and death to reconquer his kingdom, just as Christ had done a millennium before, defeating the certainty of death and taking his place in the Kingdom of Heaven. This of course raises a question as to whether Easter day 878 was genuinely the day upon which Alfred turned the fortunes of Wessex and began his own journey of redemption. Our main sources for this event are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser’s Life of Alfred. Both are products of the Alfredian Renaissance – Alfred’s program of education and vernacular learning. They are both also products of Alfredian propaganda – while many of Alfred’s chosen literary endeavours were translations of established religious texts and commentaries, here his scribes were being enjoined to produce history.

As historical documents, neither the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle nor Asser’s Life of Alfred can be taken at face-value. In the case of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the compendium of historical events leading to Alfred’s own reign must be viewed to a degree as a history of the house of Wessex. Entries up to 899 have a strong focus on the actions and lives of Alfred’s ancestors, with events elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon England being cursory to the primary narrative. In its turn, Asser’s biography of his master – despite its value as a unique narrative account of an Anglo-Saxon life – is panegyric that verges upon hagiography. It is upon the authority of this document that the title ‘the Great’ has been bestowed, and Alfred’s reputation has been established, but it does require careful reading – in effect, Alfred had commissioned the fabrication of his own legend. But you know your propaganda is good when it is still working 1,100 years after your death, and Alfred retains popular prestige as the greatest of Anglo-Saxon kings.

On the matter of Alfred’s establishment of a base of operations at Athelney at Easter 878, the documents provide near-identical accounts. Asser tells us that:

In the same year, after Easter, King Alfred, with a few men, made a fortress at a place called Athelney, and from it with the thegns of Somerset he struck out relentlessly and tirelessly against the Vikings.

                                         Asser’s Life of King Alfred, 55.

The Chronicle account clearly either draws from the same source as Asser, or is textually interrelated with Asser’s narrative:

And afterwards, at Easter, King Alfred with a small force made a stronghold at Athelney, and he and the section of the people of the Somerset which was nearest to it proceeded to fight from that stronghold against the enemy.

                 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C-text, 878

Both entries were near-contemporaneous and very likely drew upon eye-witness accounts of events (it is also quite likely that one of said eye-witnesses was Alfred himself). Though evidence from the dating of the texts indicates that Asser drew on the Chronicle account for his narrative, he was writing within fifteen years of events and it seems probable that his account was corroborated by the king, who had commissioned the work. This may explain why Easter is provided as the specific date for the establishment of the fortress in Athelney. The specificity of an exact day is a level of detail more likely to come from someone who had a personal memory of events, while Easter, as a memorable feast within the religious calendar, would temporally contextualise a memory of the past for a witness.

Nonetheless, the provision of a specific day upon which an event is occurred is unusual for both texts; they usually narrate events of a given year without further temporal detail. How definitive is the designation of Easter day though? Asser indicates that Alfred went to Athelney ‘after Easter,’ while the Chronicle states ‘at Easter,’ but neither states ‘on Easter Sunday,’ or ‘on the feast of Easter.’ The Old English support the translators’ interpretations of the texts, and perhaps the best way to reconcile the two accounts is to say that Alfred established his stronghold at Athelney ‘around Easter.’ The establishment of a military base would not have occurred in a single day, and the recollections of those who were present do not necessarily need to be tied to the day of Easter beyond the fact that events began to unfold in the Easter period.

It was fortuitous to the narrative that Alfred’s plans began to take effect around this time and, by mentioning Easter, his scribes undoubtedly meant for their account of Alfred’s return from exile to allude to Christ’s own return from death. Yet I do not doubt the veracity of Alfred’s Easter in Athelney. The run of events that follow Alfred’s establishment of a command post on Athelney supports a reading of a genuine transitional period that started around 23 March 878, with Asser and the Chronicle providing a detailed timeline.

From his base in Athelney, Alfred had immediately begun to harry the Vikings and, having broken from his isolation, within seven weeks of Easter was able to draw together an army from Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. This army travelled over two nights before meeting the Viking army at Edington and putting them to flight. Over the next two weeks, Alfred besieged the Vikings in the fortress where they had sought refuge, at the end of which the Vikings capitulated. With the terms of peace organised, the Viking leaders came to Alfred for baptism three weeks later, and Guthrum spent the subsequent twelve days as a guest of the court. Alfred was ascendant: the resurrection of the Kingdom of Wessex had begun.

Easter 878 represents both the best and worst of Alfred’s kingship. Whether Alfred was on the run to Athelney on March 23; whether he was in the process of establishing his base at Athelney; or even if he had already setup his headquarters to mastermind the return to power, he remained an exiled king, caught off guard by an intelligent enemy, reduced to hiding in the swamps of Somerset. It is likely that that Easter 878 was one of the less salubrious Easter celebrations of his life. Yet he was not idle in his exile, and within three months he would burst forth from those swamps and breath life back into the Anglo-Saxon resistance.

-Matt Firth

References:

  1. Feature image: King Alfred, BL Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 2r.
  2. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (eds and trans), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred, London: Penguin, 1983.
  3. Charles Plummer (ed.), Two of the Saxons Chronicles Parallel. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892.
  4. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

King Eadwig, St Dunstan, and the Ménage à Trois – Propaganda in the Anglo-Saxon Court

Shrouded in Rumour – The Lost Childhood of King Æthelstan

See our bibliography on Chronicle Editions (primary sources).

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