Editor’s Note: This is the sixth chapter of Alfred the Great, by Jacob Abbot (published 1872)
VI. Alfred’s Accession to the Throne
At the battle in which Alfred’s brother, Ethelred, whom Alfred succeeded on the throne, was killed, as is briefly mentioned at the close of chapter fourth, Alfred himself, then a brave and energetic young man, fought by his side. The party of Danes whom they were contending against in this fatal fight was the same one that came out in the expedition organized by the sons of Lothbroc, and whose exploits in destroying monasteries and convents were described in the last chapter. Soon after the events there narrated, this formidable body of marauders moved westward, toward that part of the kingdom where the dominions more particularly pertaining to the family of Alfred lay.
There was in those days a certain stronghold or castle on the River Thames, about forty miles west from London, which was not far from the confines of Ethelred’s dominions. The large and populous town of Reading now stands upon the spot. It is at the confluence of the River Thames with the Kennet, a small branch of the Thames, which here flows into it from the south. The spot, having the waters of the rivers for a defense upon two sides of it, was easily fortified. A castle had been built there, and, as usual in such cases, a town had sprung up about the walls.
The Danes advanced to this stronghold and took possession of it, and they made it for some time their head-quarters. It was at once the center from which they carried on their enterprises in all directions about the island, and the refuge to which they could always retreat when defeated and pursued. In the possession of such a fastness, they, of course, became more formidable than ever. King Ethelred determined to dislodge them. He raised, accordingly, as large a force as his kingdom would furnish, and, taking his brother Alfred as his second in command, he advanced toward Reading in a very resolute and determined manner.
He first encountered a large body of the Danes who were out on a marauding excursion. This party consisted only of a small detachment, the main body of the army of the Danes having been left at Reading to strengthen and complete the fortifications. They were digging a trench from river to river, so as completely to insulate the castle, and make it entirely inaccessible on either side except by boats or a bridge. With the earth thrown out of the trench they were making an embankment on the inner side, so that an enemy, after crossing the ditch, would have a steep ascent to climb, defended too, as of course it would be in such an emergency, by long lines of desperate men upon the top, hurling at the assailants showers of javelins and arrows.
While, therefore, a considerable portion of the Danes were at work within and around their castle, to make it as nearly as possible impregnable as a plane of defense, the detachment above referred to had gone forth for plunder, under the command of some of the bolder and more adventurous spirits in the horde. This party Ethelred overtook. A furious battle was fought. The Danes were defeated, and driven off the ground. They fled toward Reading. Ethelred and Alfred pursued them. The various parties of Danes that were outside of the fortifications, employed in completing the outworks, or encamped in the neighborhood, were surprised and slaughtered; or, at least, vast numbers of them were killed, and the rest retreated within the works—all maddened at their defeat, and burning with desire for revenge.
The Saxons were not strong enough to dispossess them of their fastness. On the contrary, in a few days, the Danes, having matured their plans, made a desperate sally against the Saxons, and, after a very determined and obstinate conflict, they gained the victory, and drove the Saxons off the ground. Some of the leading Saxon chieftains were killed, and the whole country was thrown into great alarm at the danger which was impending, that the Danes would soon gain the complete and undisputed possession of the whole land.
The Saxons, however, were not yet prepared to give up the struggle. They rallied their forces, gathered hew recruits, reorganized their ranks, and made preparations for another struggle. The Danes, too, feeling fresh strength and energy in consequence of their successes, formed themselves in battle array, and, leaving their strong-hold, they marched out into the open country in pursuit of their foe. The two armies gradually approached each other, and prepared for battle. Everything portended a terrible conflict, which was to be, in fact, the great final struggle.
The place where the armies met was called in those times Æscesdune, which means Ashdown. It was, in fact, a hill-side covered with ash trees. The name has become shortened and softened in the course of the ten centuries which have intervened since this celebrated battle, into Aston; if, indeed, as is generally supposed, the Aston of the present day is the locality of the ancient battle.
The armies came into the vicinity of each other toward the close of the day. They were both eager for the contest, or, at least, they pretended to be so, but they waited until the morning. The Danes divided their forces into two bodies. Two kings commanded one division, and certain chieftains, called earls, directed the other. King Ethelred undertook to meet this order of battle by a corresponding distribution of his own troops, and he gave, accordingly, to Alfred the command of one division, while he himself was to lead the other. All things being thus arranged, the hum and bustle of the two great encampments subsided at last, at a late hour, as the men sought repose under their rude tents, in preparation for the fatigues and exposures of the coming day. Some slept; others watched restlessly, and talked together, sleepless under the influence of that strange excitement, half exhilaration and half fear, which prevails in a camp on the eve of a battle. The camp fires burned brightly all the night, and the sentinels kept vigilant watch, expecting every moment some sudden alarm.
The night passed quietly away. Ethelred and Alfred both arose early. Alfred went out to arouse and muster the men in his division of the encampment, and to prepare for battle. Ethelred, on the other hand, sent for his priest, and, assembling the officers in immediate attendance upon him, commenced divine service in his tent—the service of the mass, according to the forms and usages which, even in that early day, were prescribed by the Catholic Church. Alfred was thus bent on immediate and energetic action, while Ethelred thought that the hour for putting forth the exertion of human strength did not come until time had been allowed for completing, in the most deliberate and solemn manner, the work of imploring the protection of Heaven.
Ethelred seems by his conduct on this occasion to have inherited from his father, even more than Alfred, the spirit of religious devotion, at least so far as the strict and faithful observance of religious forms was concerned. There was, it is true, a particular reason in this case why the forms of divine service should be faithfully observed, and that is, that the war was considered in a great measure, a religious war. The Danes were pagans. The Saxons were Christians. In making their attacks upon the dominions of Ethelred, the ruthless invaders were animated by a special hatred of the name of Christ, and they evinced a special hostility toward every edifice, or institution, or observance which bore the Christian name. The Saxons, therefore, in resisting them, felt that they were not only fighting for their own possessions and for their own lives, but that they were defending the kingdom of God; and that he, looking down from his throne in the heavens, regarded them as the champions of his cause and, consequently, that he would either protect them in the struggle, or, if they fell, that he would receive them to mansions of special glory and happiness in heaven, as martyrs who had shed their blood in his service and for his glory.
Taking this view of the subject, Ethelred, instead of going out to battle at the early dawn, collected his officers into his tent, and formed them into a religious congregation. Alfred, on the other hand, full of impetuosity and ardor, was arousing his men, animating them by his words of encouragement and by the influence of his example, and making, as energetically as possible, all the preparations necessary for the approaching conflict.
In fact, Alfred, though his brother was king, and he himself only a lieutenant general under him, had been accustomed to take the lead in all the military operations of the army, on account of the superior energy, resolution, and tact which he evinced, even in this early period of his life. His brothers, though they retained the scepter, as it fell successively into their hands, relied mainly on his wisdom and courage in all their efforts to defend it, and Ethelred may have been somewhat more at his ease, in listening to the priest’s prayers in his tent, from knowing that the arrangements for marshaling and directing a large part of the force were in such good hands.
The two encampments of Alfred and Ethelred seem to have been at some little distance from each other. Alfred was impatient at Ethelred’s delay. He asked the reason for it. They told him that Ethelred was attending mass, and that he had said he should on no account leave his tent until the service was concluded. Alfred, in the, meantime, took possession of a gentle elevation of land, which now would give him an advantage in the conflict. A single thorn-tree, growing there alone, marked the spot. The Danes advanced to attack him, expecting that, as he was not sustained by Ethelred’s division of the army, he would be easily overpowered and driven from his post.
Alfred himself felt an extreme and feverish anxiety at Ethelred’s delay. He fought, however, with the greatest determination and bravery. The thorn-tree continued to be the center of the conflict for a long time, and, as the morning advanced, it became more and more doubtful how it would end. At last, Ethelred, having finished his devotional services, came forth from his camp at the head of his division, and advanced vigorously to his faltering brother’s aid. This soon decided the contest. The Danes were overpowered and put to flight. They fled at first in all directions, wherever each separate band saw the readiest prospect of escape from the immediate vengeance of their pursuers. They soon, however, all began with one accord to seek the roads which would conduct them to their stronghold at Reading. They were madly pursued, and massacred as they fled, by Alfred’s and Ethelred’s army. Vast numbers fell. The remnant secured their retreat, shut themselves up within their walls, and began to devote their eager and earnest attention to the work of repairing and making good their defenses.
This victory changed for the time being the whole face of affairs, and led, in various ways, to very important consequences, the most important of which was, as we shall presently see, that it was the means indirectly of bringing Alfred soon to the throne. As to the cause of the victory, or, rather, the manner in which it was accomplished, the writers of the times give very different accounts, according as their respective characters incline them to commend, in man, a feeling of quiet trust and confidence in God when placed in circumstances of difficulty or danger, or a vigorous and resolute exertion of his own powers. Alfred looked for deliverance to the determined assaults and heavy blows which he could bring to bear upon his pagan enemies with weapons of steel around the thorn-tree in the field. Ethelred trusted to his hope of obtaining, by his prayers in his tent, the effectual protection of Heaven; and they who have written the story differ, as they who read it will, on the question to whose instrumentality the victory is to be ascribed. One says that Alfred gained it by his sword. Another, that Alfred exerted his strength and his valor in vain, and was saved from defeat and destruction only by the intervention of Ethelred, bringing with him the blessing of Heaven.
In fact, the various narratives of these ancient events, which are found at the present day in the old chronicles that record them, differ always very essentially, not only in respect to matters of opinion, and to the point of view in which they are to be regarded, but also in respect to questions of fact. Even the place where this battle was fought, notwithstanding what we have said about the derivation of Aston from Æscesdune, is not absolutely certain. There is in the same vicinity another town, called Ashbury, which claims the honor. One reason for supposing that this last is the true locality is that there are the ruins of an ancient monument here, which, tradition says, was a monument built to commemorate the death of a Danish chieftain slain here by Alfred. There is also in the neighborhood another very singular monument, called The White Horse, which also has the reputation of having been fashioned to commemorate Alfred’s victories. The White Horse is a rude representation of a horse, formed by cutting away the turf from the steep slope of a hill, so as to expose a portion of the white surface of the chalky rock below of such a form that, the figure is called a horse, though they who see it seem to think it might as well have been called a dog. The name, however, of The White Horse has come down with it from ancient times, and the hill on which it is cut is known as The White Horse Hill. Some ingenious antiquarians think they find evidence that this gigantic profile was made to commemorate the victory obtained by Alfred and Ethelred over the Danes at the ancient Æscesdune.
However this may be, and whatever view we may take of the comparative influence of Alfred’s energetic action and Ethelred’s religious faith in the defeat of the Danes at this great battle, it is certain that the results of it were very momentous to all concerned. Ethelred received a wound, either in this battle or in some of the smaller contests and collisions which followed it, under the effects of which he pined and lingered for some months, and then died. Alfred, by his decision and courage on the day of the battle, and by the ardor and resolution with which he pressed all the subsequent operations during the period of Ethelred’s decline, made himself still more conspicuous in the eyes of his countrymen than he had ever been before. In looking forward to Ethelred’s approaching death, the people, accordingly, began to turn their eyes to Alfred as his successor. There were children of some of his older brothers living at that time, and they, according to all received principles of hereditary right, would naturally succeed to the throne; but the nation seems to have thought that the crisis was too serious, and the dangers which threatened their country were too imminent, to justify putting any child upon the throne. The accession of one of those children would have been the signal for a terrible and protracted struggle among powerful relatives and friends for the regency during the minority of the youthful sovereign, and this, while the Danes remained in their strong-hold at Reading, in daily expectation of new re-enforcements from beyond the sea, would have plunged the country in hopeless ruin. They turned their eyes toward Alfred, therefore, as the sovereign to whom they were to bow so soon as Ethelred should cease to breathe.
In the meantime, the Danes, far from being subdued by the adverse turn of fortune which had befallen them, strengthened themselves in their fortress, made desperate sallies from their intrenchments, attacked their foes on every possible occasion, and kept the country in continual alarm. They at length so far recruited their strength, and intimidated and discouraged their foes, whose king and nominal leader, Ethelred, was now less able than ever to resist them, as to take the field again. They fought more pitched battles; and, though the Saxon chroniclers who narrate these events are very reluctant to admit that the Saxons were really vanquished in these struggles, they allow that the Danes kept the ground which they successively took post upon, and the discouraged and disheartened inhabitants of the country were forced to retire.
In the meantime, too, new parties of Danes were continually arriving on the coast, and spreading themselves in marauding and plundering excursions over the country. The Danes at Reading were re-enforced by these bands, which made the conflict between them and Ethelred’s forces more unequal still. Alfred did his utmost to resist the tide of ill fortune, with the limited and doubtful authority which he held; but all was in vain. Ethelred, worn down, probably, with the anxiety and depression which the situation of his kingdom brought upon him, lingered for a time, and then died, and Alfred was by general consent called to the throne. This was in the year 871.
It was a matter of moment to find a safe and secure place of deposit for the body of Ethelred, who, as a Christian slain in contending with pagans, was to be considered a martyr. His memory was honored as that of one who had sacrificed his life in defense of the Christian faith. They knew very well that even his lifeless remains would not be safe from the vengeance of his foes unless they were placed effectually beyond the reach of these desperate marauders. There was, far to the south, in Dorsetshire, on the southern coast of England, a monastery, at Wimborne, a very sacred spot, worthy to be selected as a place of royal sepulture. The spot has continued sacred to the present day; and it has now upon the site, as is supposed, of the ancient monastery, a grand cathedral church or minster, full of monuments of former days, and impressing all beholders with its solemn architectural grandeur. Here they conveyed the body of Ethelred and interred it. It was a place of sacred seclusion, where there reigned a solemn stillness and awe, which no Christian hostility would ever have dared to disturb. The sacrilegious paganism of the Danes, however, would have respected it but little, if they had ever found access to it; but they did not. The body of Ethelred remained undisturbed; and, many centuries afterward, some travelers who visited the spot recorded the fact that there was a monument there with this inscription:
“IN HOC LOCO QUIESCIT CORPUS ETHELREDI REGIS WEST SAXONUM, MARTYRIS, QUI ANNO DOMINI DCCCLXXI., XXIII. APRILIS, PER MANUS DANORUM PAGANORUM, OCCUBUIT.”
Such is the commonly received opinion of the death of Ethelred. And yet some of the critical historians of modern times, who find cause to doubt or disbelieve a very large portion of what is stated in ancient records, attempt to prove that Ethelred was not killed by the Danes at all, but that he died of the plague, which terrible disease was at that time prevailing in that part of England. At all events, he died, and Alfred, his brother, was called to reign in his stead.