However, luck was about to change for King Alfred when he led his troops to the battlefield at Edington, in southern England in 878. The very existence of England lay in the balance... 

The Northmen Cometh 

The early history of the Viking expanse into the British Isles has been told, chronicled, retold, and argued about for more than a millennium by far wiser and more learned academics and historians than the author. 

Little did those monks on the island of Lindisfarne know, when they sighted a ship on the horizon in 793, that they would be swept up in an event that defined an epoch: the Vikings had arrived. 

Though Viking raids did occur in the British Isles before 793, the raid on Lindisfarne is traditionally seen as the beginning of Britain's Viking Age. 

This era would last until the Norman Conquest of England in the late 11th century. For almost three centuries, people from Viking societies sailed across the North Sea to raid, trade, and settle throughout the British Isles. 

An invasion by Viking warriors in the 860s marked a new phase in the Viking story as the Great Heathen Army marched up and down Anglo-Saxon England, smiting all before them. 

By the time Alfred was crowned "King of the West Saxons" in 871, only his kingdom, Wessex, stood against the encroaching Viking threat. 

Alfred the Great, during his early reign, reorganized his kingdom and military, creating fortified towns called burhs that played a key role in protecting Wessex from the Viking forces of Guthrum. Photo: Tony Baggett / Shutterstock

Bureaucratic brilliance 

It was around the time of Alfred's coronation that a Viking force, led by Guthrum (a nephew of the great Danish Viking king Horik II), had been ransacking and running amok in Wessex. 

Despite its nominal independence, Wessex had been overrun by Viking hordes. 

Although Alfred met the Viking force head-on at Ashdown in 871 and achieved victory, it was seen as merely a temporary setback for the Vikings due to their strategic and military might. 

Much has been made of Alfred the Great's impressive administrative and organizational brilliance in reorganizing not only his kingdom but also his military. 

He is credited, according to R.H.C. Davis in his 1971 article in the journal History, with the establishment of fortified villages and towns, known as burhs, that played a crucial role in halting the Viking military onslaught. 

These fortifications were placed at strategic locations, possibly near rivers or major villages, which would bog down any advancing Viking armies across his kingdom. 

While the Vikings deserve many plaudits, sustained siege warfare – though not unknown to them – was not one of their strengths. 

He is also credited with reforms in law, governance, and education that helped strengthen the unity and stability of his kingdom despite the constant Viking threat.

Despite all this bureaucratic brilliance, however, Alfred knew that for the first years of his reign, he needed to bide his time and grow in strength before he could go on the offensive. 

Thus, he mostly paid off the Vikings with the famous Danegeld, including Guthrum and his cohort. 

The map of England and Wales from the period of the Treaty of Chippenham (878) illustrates the territorial boundaries established between Alfred the Great and Guthrum. Source: Hel-hama (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Christmas and the eve of battle 

Regardless of the treasure Alfred coughed up to try and rid Wessex of this Viking threat, Guthrum and his cohort still journeyed around the Anglo-Saxon kingdom unmolested until 877. 

Finally, Alfred secured, in late fall, what he thought was a stable peace whereby Guthrum would vacate his lands. 

They left Wessex, leaving Alfred to spend Christmas in Chippenham, seemingly safe, snug, and sound. 

Yet despite signing a treaty with Alfred, Guthrum attacked the town on the "twelfth night of Christmas," forcing Alfred to flee for his life in a snow blizzard. 

Alfred was on the run, and this last betrayal probably forced his hand. With peaceful and diplomatic means ruined, the only option left was to fight. 

With the Viking force occupying Chippenham, Alfred knew that he lacked the forces or tactics to conduct siege warfare. 

Instead, he called a levy for warriors from the surrounding area, including from what are now the counties of Hampshire, Somerset, and Wiltshire, at a place called Egbert's Stone. 

Here, somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 warriors gathered, ready to finally rid Wessex of the Viking threat. It is believed that Guthrum had a force of about 4,000 warriors. 

The battle that is shrouded in mystery 

Frustratingly, historians and Viking writers know little about the battle that took place between April 6 and 12 in 878. Tradition states that it took place at a location called Ethandun, now believed to be Edington in Wiltshire. 

However, according to E.A. Rawlence, in his 1921 article in Antiquaries Journal, more than seven other locations have been proposed as the possible site of the battle across southwest England. 

Like its location, we also know little about the battle itself, except that part of Alfred's force formed a shield wall against the Vikings. 

This tactic proved devastating, as the Wessex forces decisively defeated Guthrum and his men. The Vikings retreated to Chippenham, and many were slaughtered en route.

Alfred then surrounded the town and laid siege. He starved the Vikings into submission, and after two weeks, Guthrum and his force sued for peace. 

Built in 1772, King Alfred's Tower marks one of the believed sites of Egbert's Stone, where Alfred gathered his warriors before the decisive battle against Guthrum. Photo: Kevin Standage / Shutterstock

The fallout and legacy 

The Battle of Edington was a high point in Alfred the Great's military career. This was the first time in almost a century that Viking forces had been soundly defeated by the Anglo-Saxons. 

Not only did it give Anglo-Saxon England belief in itself, but it also allowed Alfred to establish a treaty that ensured the safety of Wessex, and thus Anglo-Saxon England, as an independent kingdom. 

The "Treaty of Wedmore" saw Guthrum not only leave Wessex for good but also convert to Christianity, with Alfred as his sponsor and godfather. 

The boundaries between Wessex and Viking-dominated England were also drawn. Though Viking forces did occasionally threaten Alfred, his military and organizational skills ensured that these intrusions were quickly dealt with rather than becoming existential threats. 

The Battle of Edington marked the start of Alfred's containment of the Viking threat, ensuring the survival of an Anglo-Saxon England that would slowly begin to reclaim territory. 

This decades-long process culminated with the fall of the last Viking enclave on Anglo-Saxon soil, Jorvik, in 954. 

Had Alfred failed at Edington, the history of England, and thus the world, would have looked very different

For more information on how recent archaeological discoveries have helped shape contemporary attitudes towards Alfred the Great, visit The Guardian here.

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