TOWARDS TWILIGHT

Athelney

year of Alfred's accession (871) Wessex armies fought nine separate engagements against the Danes.

All in all, none of these were conclusive. The Danes remained a threat, but at least Wessex had shown some resistance, giving the attackers some pause. However, this was little comfort to the rest of England - the Danes simply turned their efforts to easier pickings - in Mercia and Northumbria. For the first time now, the Danes showed evidence of intending to stay for good.

In 876, the Danes (under Guthrum) renewed their attacks on Wessex. Again, there were no conclusive victories on either side. Again, the Danes withdrew (and took it out on Wessex's neighbours).

It was a surprise, winter attack on the Wessex stronghold of Chippenham - in 878 - which changed the game dramatically.

Chippenham was an important royal estate (i.e., Alfred's own property), and Guthrum's attack not only took an important stronghold, but a horde of supplies along with it.

It was traditional for armies to disband during the winter, to allow the troops to go home and tend to their lands, so Guthrum was now in a position to ride out from Chippenham across the whole of Wessex, grabbing any goods he wanted and testing the loyalty of Alfred's people. Not a few of them decided that the Danes had more of a future than Alfred.

By Easter of that year, Alfred was reduced to his immediate entourage, and these few retreated to the marshes of Somerset, West of Glastonbury. He set up a rough fort at Athelney, protected from attack by the intricate waterways and marshlands. This was part of the royal estate of Cheddar, so Alfred knew his way around. There he contemplated his future.

It was here, in Athelney, that the story of Alfred and the Cakes originated.

Alfred, reduced to penury, took refuge in the home of a poor peasant family. The wife of the house resolved that her guest should make himself useful, and ordered him to keep an eye on some cakes she was baking.

But Alfred, deep in thought about the situation he and his realm found themselves in, let the cakes burn. The returning wife berated him for failing in his duty - not realising that she was talking to the future saviour of the English people.

Today, Athelney lies just off the A361, South-West of Glastonbury.

If Alfred had given up and fled the country (as other Saxon kings had done), "England" would have ended before it had begun. There was no other centre of Anglo-Saxon power; without Alfred, this would be Daneland.

But, history tells us that Alfred gathered what forces he could - including local Somerset men, and began what we would now call a "guerilla" war against the Danes.

A major factor in Alfred's survival was the failure of the second arm of a Danish pincer movement which attacked the North Devon coast. The local ealdorman, Odda, inflicted enough damage on this force to make it impossible for them to play any further part in the campaign (even though they won the battle).

Somehow, Alfred kept in touch with loyal elements in the heart of Wessex. This is, in itself, remarkable; at the time, a "king" without land, without wealth, without honours to bestow, was no king at all. There was no concept of patriotism in the Anglo-Saxon world. Yet Alfred managed to maintain the loyalty of important men, with nothing to offer them but hope.

England and the Danes England and the Danes Edington Edington
© David Craig Send me a message