My E-mail to Ms Tan about Alfred the Great

Dear Mei:

When I think of Alfred I remember as a boy hearing the cry of the snipe in the old withy beds.

This is where Alfred hid out at a low point in his career.

Alfred had a patchy performance in his first years as king.

England was being raided by people from Scandinavia called Vikings. They were ravaging the country, pillaging monasteries, using hit and run tactics, coming far up rivers in flat-bottomed boats, striking ruthlessly, getting out fast.

They were brutal. The country was in a bad way. His people were losing confidence in him.

The Vikings engineered a coup in Wessex, his kingdom, and Alfred had to run for it and flee into the wetlands of Somerset, a wild and inaccessible place in those days.

There is a story that while a fugitive in disguise, he asked for shelter in a peasant cottage. The peasant’s wife asked him to watch her bread while it baked in an oven, but he was so preoccupied he let it burn. When the woman scolded him, he dropped his cloak and she recognised him.

I interpret this as somehow telling us that while he was underground he got to know more about his people and his responsibilities for them, also that he found that these ordinary people would back him.

He set up his camp at a place called Athelney, where we stopped that afternoon.

From now on he moved very decisively.

Alfred found enough support to assemble a force of nearly 4000 men and moved them in secret close to Guthrum’s base. That move was very well executed.

Guthrum had set his men high on a great escarpment on Wiltshire plain called Bratton Camp.

Alfred knew the terrain and came at the Vikings along a flanking ridge.

The Vikings were quite easily defeated.

Then he took Guthrum and his most important followers into Somerset and had them baptised into the Christian religion at a place called Aller. He kept them with him for many weeks, feasting and celebrating their conversion.

But Alfred accepted that a part of England would now have to be controlled by the Vikings. This part became known as Danelaw.

We do not hear of Guthrum raiding outside the Danelaw after that.

Alfred had made it clear that any raiders caught in his territory would be severely punished. Some time later, when two pirates were caught near Weymouth, he ordered them to be hanged and turned his back on their pleading.

With great energy and resolution, Alfred reformed his country. He reshuffled his witan or council, removing the older men who had become timid, perhaps even disloyal.

He fortified his towns, created a small force of ships to counter Viking attacks, and arranged for his people to spend a part of the time serving in a militia, ready to move against a threat at any time.

He showed great persistence and energy. He travelled incessantly to make sure his orders were obeyed.

Other Viking leaders raided his country after that, of course, but he was ready for them.

One of them was called Hesten. When Hesten’s wife and children fell into Alfred’s hands he returned them, did not even keep them as hostages. That was smart. It showed he was playing a different game.

I think he foresaw that London might become a great trading centre. He moved its inhabitants back into the Roman ruins, repaired the Roman walls and divided the area into plots.

In a further move, he set up schools to teach his ealdormen or nobles to read and write so that he could communicate his wishes and policies and have them understood.

He also brought in a group of clever, educated men to run the schools. They translated key religious work works into English and created a written record called the Chronicle. For the first time the English had a history.

You could say that this was the birth of a nation. You see why they call him Alfred the Great?

He died at the age of 50. The Chronicle has little to say about that. Strange. Perhaps he was just exhausted.

And they probably had no idea of his importance.