|Statue of King Alfred in Wantage Market Place.|
I first became interested in Alfred’s story when I lived and taught in Wantage, his place of birth, for six years in the 1970s. The story of his long fight against the invading Danes had intrigued me even before I moved to the town, and in Wantage I learnt so much more about him. Unfortunately, it was to be many more years before I could actually set to and write about this ‘Great’ king.
Compared to other ‘greats’ like Constantine and Charlemagne, whose exploits covered huge areas and involved enormous decisions, Alfred’s story is significant only when we consider the poverty of his resources and lack of means , as well as his own personal battle against a lifelong, debilitating illness, which many historians believe to have been Crohn’s disease. In the face of such adversity, his story is one of triumph of character – and for that, he will never be forgotten. Alfred saved his kingdom, Wessex (then all the land south of the River Thames), and left his son, Edward, to bring Mercia (the Midlands) under his control. Alfred’s grandson, Aethelstan, despite constant challenges, further extended control as far as the Scottish borders.
Many stories about Alfred refer to him as ‘the wise king’, ‘England’s darling’ or ‘Truthteller’. But one chronicler in the Abingdon Chronicle evidently didn’t like Alfred one bit and called him ‘a Judas … piling bad deeds on top of each other.’ The reason he gives is that Alfred ‘violently alienated estates from the monastery’. In the 11th century, William of Malmesbury continues this by saying that Alfred ‘took their (i.e. the monasteries’) land and revenues for his own use.
By the mid ninth century, Danish raids on Anglo-Saxon kingdoms have escalated. Several bands even dare to overwinter on the coastal islands, particularly those at the mouth of the Thames, where the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia border each other.
The kings of these lands must put past enmity- aside and take the first steps towards unity; steps they see as vital in the face of this newfound threat to their lands . . .
Alfred of Wessex and Eadwulf of Mercia are the sons of kings, whose futures have been determined since birth. But the turbulent events in their childhood years change the natural progression of things – and shape the characters of the men they will become.
Their roads to manhood follow vastly different routes, but both learn crucial lessons along the way: lessons that will serve them well in future years.
Discovering that the enemy is not always a stranger is a harsh lesson indeed; the realisation that a trusted kinsman can turn traitor is the harshest lesson of all.
The story takes us from the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex to the Norse lands stretching north from Denmark to the Arctic Circle and east to the Baltic Sea. We glimpse the Court of Charles the Bald of West Francia and journey to the holy city of Rome.
And through it all, the two boys move ever closer to their destinies.
Now back in his homeland, Eadwulf sets out on his determined quest for revenge, whilst Alfred’s leadership skills develop at the courts of his successive brothers. Before long, those skills will be put to the test . . .
The Danish invasion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in 865 is merciless and relentless. Every year more Norse ships come to join their comrades in a quest to plunder for wealth and gain domination over the people.
The Wessex king is now Aethelred, Alfred’s last surviving brother, and Alfred becomes his trusted second-in-command. Whilst the Danes take kingdom after kingdom, the brothers wait with baited breath for them to set their sights on Wessex.
By 869 their worst fear is realised.
In the meantime, Eadwulf pursues the objects of his revenge.
In Wessex, King Aethelred is now dead, leaving his twenty-one-year-old-brother, Alfred, to succeed to the throne. Though his succession was agreed by the witan, Alfred must now prove himself worthy of the kingship, or lose it. But Wessex is in turmoil, besieged by Viking Danes intent on subjugating the kingdom – and knowing that the new king is young and inexperienced. Alfred must use all his wiles if he is to outthink and outmanoeuvre Guthrum, the Dane who nearly becomes his nemesis.
Alfred’s victories and defeats take him on a journey of learning, during which he gains experience and strength. We share his highs and his lows and how he rises from the depths of despair to save his beloved kingdom from total conquest.
And at his side at his greatest time of need, is his new ally and friend, Eadwulf of Mercia.