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Footprint of Alfred the Great page 2


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Every pious pilgrim who would make a journey to the places that are most intimately connected with the great king should set forth from Wantage, in Berkshire, where Alfred was born in the year 849. In the time of Alfred Wantage was called Waneting; while the name of Berkshire was Berrocscire-being derived from the Berroc wood, where box trees, or bushes, flourished. There is, naturally, nothing in the modern town of Wantage that was standing when the baby prince was born; but the place remains a peaceful, old-world country town amid the Berkshire Downs, with a population of less than four thousand souls. Moreover, the memory of the greatest of its sons is preserved by an imposing statue of the king, the work of Count Gleichen, which stands in the market place; for, with a battle-axe in his right hand and with a charter in his left hand, Alfred seems to be keeping everlasting watch and ward over his birthplace-prepared to defend the rights and the liberties which he was ever ready to bestow.

There is much that might be said about the topography of the long and arduous campaigns against the Vikings which Alfred undertook during three eventful periods of his reign; but here it must suffice to give a brief account of those momentous events, indicating only the places which have been identified as the result of patient research.

The four outstanding engagements which took place in "the year of battles"-that is to say, the year 871, in which Alfred became king-were fought at Ęscesdune, Basing, Merton, and Wilton; and it may be added that, although nine great fights are said to have taken place, only two others are specifically mentioned by the chroniclers. In most of these encounters, despite the superb devotion to duty and the great courage that were displayed by the West Saxons, the Vikings appear to have been victorious; and yet, although the Northmen "held the place of carnage," in the words of the chroniclers, they were unable to consolidate their successes.

One notable exception to the general rule must be recorded; for at Ęscesdune, where the second battle in the campaign of 871 was fought, King Ethelred and Alfred, who then held the title of "Secundarius" in the kingdom, won a decisive victory and completely routed the invaders. The exact site of this battle has been the subject of an endless debate; but it is safe to say that it was fought on the range of the White Horse Downs, in the Ashdown district-and, probably, the actual conflict took place near Ashton, or Ashampstead. The battle of Basing was fought near the modern town of Basing-stoke; while the Merton engagement, in which King Ethelred was mortally wounded, most probably took place at Merton, in Surrey. Wilton is in Wiltshire; and it was there, towards the end of the year 871, that King Alfred fought the first battle in which he engaged after his accession to the throne.

This campaign, despite the Viking successes, secured a comparatively long period of peace; for the West Saxon king, who devoted the respite to the introduction of far-reaching reforms, was not again called into the field until the year 876. Once more the country was then overrun by invaders; and this campaign, which began with the siege of Wareham, in Dorsetshire, where the Vikings had fortified their position, after having swung to Exeter and to Chippenham, ended at Ethandune, in May 878, when Alfred, having emerged from his retreat at Athelney, overwhelmed Guthrum and his Danish warriors.

Wareham, Chippenham, and Exeter can be identified without reservation, and although it is not easy to ascertain the site of the momentous battle of Ethandune, it may be accepted as an established fact that the desperate conflict took place at Edington, near Westbury, in Wiltshire. Possibly the White Horse that is cut in the turf on the side of the downs at Westbury may have been drawn to commemorate the battle; for, undoubtedly, the great victory which led to the Treaty of Wedmore, whereby the boundary of the Danelaw, or Danelagh, was definitely established, was worthy of a permanent memorial.

The frontier between the kingdom of the West Saxons and the Danelaw, which was established by the Treaty of Wedmore, followed the course of the river Thames from its mouth to the spot at which it is joined by the river Lea; and from there it followed the course of the river Lea to its source, whence, having diverged to Bedford, it followed the old Roman road known as Watling Street as far as Chester. Beyond Chester the line of demarcation cannot be traced with certainty; but it probably followed the course of the river Dee to the shores of the Irish Sea.

With only one slight lapse Guthrum faithfully abided by the terms of the Treaty of Wedmore during the remainder of his life; for even when fresh hosts of Vikings arrived under the redoubtable Hasting, in the year 892, he honourably remained neutral. Moreover, the partition of the country was not the only direct result of the Battle of Ethan-dune; for Guthrum, having declared his willingness to embrace Christianity-having seen, as he said, that it was the religion of a God who was mightier in battle than the gods of his forefathers-came to Aller, near Athelney, accompanied by many of his chief warriors, and was baptised at Wedmore, on the Polden Hills, in July, 878, with King Alfred acting in the capacity of his godfather.

This decisive victory secured peace for about fourteen years; and by the time that the great "summer lead" under Hasting arrived, in the year 892, King Alfred had completed many of the great labours which are associated with his name. He reorganized the army; for it was by establishing a national militia, called the fyrd, in which only half of the male population served at any one time-except when the entire forces were levied to meet some great emergency-that he reduced the burden of military service to a minimum. He introduced and encouraged an improved system of agriculture. He embarked upon his literary labours; and by his example he attracted scholars from abroad, and it was under his auspices that the great "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" was begun. He drew up a code of laws, which he based upon the ancient "dooms" of the people; and he sternly reformed the system under which justice and government were administered. But by far the most important of his many achievements, as the subsequent history of England has shown, was his work as the founder of the British navy; for by building English ships, which were manned by English sailors, he was able to dispense with the hired vessels, with their foreign crews, upon which his predecessors had relied for the defence of the country.

Alfred was the first king of England who ever commanded his own ships in action, and the prowess of his truly national fleet was a sure shield against invasion; for his mighty vessels, which were built in accordance with his own design, were so much more formidable than their opponents that the navy of England became invincible.

One other place must be specially mentioned in connexion with the campaign which took place against the Northmen during the last decade of the ninth century. This is Widbury Camp, in Hertfordshire, where the Vikings occupied such a strongly-fortified position that they were able to withstand the attacks of the Londoners, and to defy all those who attempted to dislodge them until King Alfred appeared upon the scene. The campaign, which lasted for about three years, had been very arduous, and terribly exhausting to the king, whose health was worse than ever; for Hasting and his band of marauders had overrun the whole of the country between Watling Street and the river Thames, penetrating as far westward as the river Severn. Widbury Camp was situated on a stretch of high ground above the left bank of the river Lea, at about twenty miles from London; but its site, which has been given as Bishop's Stortford, Ware, Waltham Abbey, and Hertford, remained a matter of dispute until what appears to be its true position at Widbury was identified by Eliot Howard, the Essex archaeologist.

Still holding the position, which they regarded as impregnable, the Vikings watched without concern the building of two towers, one upon each bank of the river Lea; but before long they had cause for alarm, for they observed that the level of the water was falling, and that their ships were lying aground on the muddy bed of the river. Terrified by this tragedy, the Northmen left their camp, even abandoning their stranded ships, and fled in disorder, hotly pursued by the West Saxons; and thus was the country once more delivered by Alfred from the inroads of the marauders, for it was he who ordered and supervised the diversion of the course of the river, owing to which the Viking ships were left stranded as the booty of the Londoners.

Only passing references can be made to the religious houses which Alfred founded at Athelney and at Shaftesbury to commemorate his escape from Chippenham and his victory over the Danes at Ethandune, in the year 878 Athelney Abbey, which stood where Athelney Farmhouse has been built, was richly endowed by its founder; but its chief historical interest is due to the fact that, in all probability, its monks once possessed the ęstel of which the famous Alfred Jewel was the handle. The island, which is a tract of low-lying land, rising but very little above the level of the far-reaching fens that then surrounded it, is one of the sacred shrines of English history; for it was from there that Alfred sent forth an anonymous summons, bidding the men of Wiltshire and Hampshire to rally at Egbert's Stone, by Selwood Forest, in "the seventh week after Easter" - probably about May 6, 878, and when they mustered at the appointed place, at Ecgbrithes Stan-which was probably near Brixton, in Wiltshire--they found Alfred awaiting them. The golden dragon, the banner of the West Saxons, was once more unfurled; and the hated oppressors-having been defeated at Ethandune, or Edington, near Westbury- were driven out of the kingdom.

Shaftesbury Abbey was founded by Alfred as a convent for nuns; and it was his second daughter, Elgiva, whom the king nominated as its first abbess.

Last, but most important of all, Winchester, the capital of the West Saxons, and for centuries the capital of England, is the true goal of every pious pilgrim who would follow in the footprints of King Alfred .

It is there, at the end of the ancient High Street, that a magnificent statue was erected in 1901 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the great king's death.

In one of the niches of the beautiful City Cross, which was built in the reign of King Henry the Sixth, there is another statue of King Alfred ; but it is not of any special historical importance, having been added only in the year 1865, when the Cross was restored by Sir Gilbert Scott, and it is completely overshadowed by the grandly simple millenary statue, designed by Sir Hamo Thornycroft.

On the front of the perpendicular pedestal below the figure of the king is the word Alfred-which is the nearest approach that can be made in modern spelling to the Saxon name, meaning, " rede of the elves," or "counsel of the elves "; while the pedestal bears the following inscription:

TO THE FOUNDER OF THE KINGDOM
AND THE NATION
D. OCTOBER, DCCCCI
WINCHESTER AND THE ENGLISH NAME
SEPTEMBER, MDCCCCI

It is worthy of note that on this official memorial the king is described simply as "Alfred" - without any reference to the title "great," by which he is commonly known; and, historically, this is correct, for there does not seem to be any authority for the use of the cognomen "great" before the seventeenth century. But, indeed, it is immaterial whether the well-deserved title be used or be omitted; for Alfred, the man, was great enough to be distinguished for ever from all the other bearers of the name.

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Pictures for Footprint of Alfred the Great page 2

Wedmore Old Cross
Wedmore Old Cross >>>>
Jewels of Kind Alfred: a triumph of the Saxon Goldsmith
Jewels of Kind Alfred: a triumph of the Saxon Goldsmith >>>>
King Alfred and the British Navy
King Alfred and the British Navy >>>>
King Alfreds Mont, Athelney: the Kings statue at Wantage
King Alfreds Mont, Athelney: the Kings statue at Wantage >>>>
Shaftesbury Terrace; and Wedmore Church Somerset
Shaftesbury Terrace; and Wedmore Church Somerset >>>>
Statue of King Alfred at his Capital and Home
Statue of King Alfred at his Capital and Home >>>>
West Dean, near Seaford: the reputed meeting place with Asser
West Dean, near Seaford: the reputed meeting place with Asser >>>>
Alfriston, in the Cuckmere valley, an ancient Saxon centre
Alfriston, in the Cuckmere valley, an ancient Saxon centre >>>>

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