Ælfred’s Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age 
by Max Adams.
Head of Zeus, 509 pp., £9.99, May 2018, 978 1 78408 031 0
Show More
Show More

The two words​ of Max Adams’s title are in a way antithetical. Alfred is the only English king to be referred to regularly as ‘the Great’, and once upon a time the reason was well known to everyone.* It was because, early in the year 878, hiding out incognito in a peasant’s hut in the Somerset Levels, he ‘burned the cakes’. Some 12 years before, Anglo-Saxon England had been invaded by a Viking army, and in quick succession the Vikings conquered three of the four major English kingdoms: Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia or ‘the March’, the last of which covered most of the English Midlands from the Humber to the Thames. They killed the kings of the first two and Burgred, King of Mercia, fled ignominiously to Rome. Only Wessex was left as a functioning kingdom, and its king was Alfred, the youngest of five sons and the only adult male survivor of his dynasty. Kill him, and it would be game over for Anglo-Saxon England.

The Vikings accordingly made a snap raid aimed at Alfred just after Christmas 877. They caught him off guard and the men of Wessex disorganised. He got away, but had to go into hiding, which is the reason he found himself, according to the legend, in the peasant’s hut brooding on the affairs of his kingdom – brooding so much he neglected the menial task given to him and burned the cakes. He showed proper humility, however, by enduring the tongue-lashing of his hostess without revealing his royalty. His reward from heaven was to be allowed to rally the levies of the south-western counties at Ecgberht’s Stone (which Adams locates at Penselwood in Somerset), before beating the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in May 878 and imposing on them a treaty and a boundary, which – for once, and for a while – they respected. This started the long process of resistance, reconquest, English unification and English overlordship that would lead to his grandson Athelstan calling himself, on coins he had specially minted, rex totius britanniae, ‘King of All Britain’.

If it hadn’t been for Alfred, then, we’d all be speaking Danish. Such is the legend, and (burned cakes apart) much of it appears to be true. Nevertheless this is, as Adams says several times, a ‘pervasive English nationalist narrative’, and, one might add, a classic example of Whig history. The main point of his book is to insist that ‘Britain’ in Alfred’s time was far more complicated than the triumphalist Alfredian narrative allows. But even academic historians find it difficult to express quite how diverse Britain was in the ninth century. One might begin by considering the languages spoken. Over much of England, the language was Anglo-Saxon, or Old English. In Alfred’s time the related Germanic language of Old Norse was well established in the northern and western isles of Scotland, and soon Danish and Norwegian settlers would import it into much of eastern and north-western England. This contact between languages, some say, created a kind of creole, a Mischsprache, which – rather than classic West Saxon – was the real ancestor of modern English.

The situation with the Celtic languages was even more complex. Philologists divide them into ‘P-Celtic’ and ‘Q-Celtic’. In the former, the words for ‘four’ and ‘five’ look like Welsh – pedwar, pump – and in the latter they look like Irish: cathair, cúig. (Old Italic languages show the same division: Latin is Q-Italic, with quattuor and quinque.) In ninth-century Britain, Cornish and Welsh were P-Celtic languages, and so was the language of the people whose heroes in Welsh poetic tradition were the gwyr y gogledd, the ‘men of the North’: that is, the inhabitants of south-west Scotland, whose kingdom of Strathclyde reached intermittently down into Cumbria. Their language (now virtually unknown) is sometimes called Cumbric. The Scottish kingdom of Dál Riata, by contrast, was founded by incomers from Ireland who spoke the Q-Celtic language of Irish Gaelic, which would eventually differentiate itself from its parent language.

And then there were the Picts, who inhabited most of Scotland. Adams says firmly that theirs too was a Q-Celtic language, but although the issue has long been disputed, the great Celtic philologist Kenneth Jackson was quite sure – on the evidence of names like Pittenweem and Pitlochry – that it was P-Celtic, though he thought it was more like Gaulish than Welsh or Cornish or Cumbric. The point is important historically, because it indicates that there was a significant linguistic barrier between Gaels and Picts. There may have been a cultural one as well: the Picts were allegedly matriarchal. In any case, the Picts seem also to have had another language, which survives only in names and incomprehensible inscriptions, and is related to nothing on Earth. It resembles Basque only in its uniqueness. Possibly both go back to the very first settlers in northern Europe, the hunters of the Ice Age.

So Britain was a linguistic patchwork, and there were further divisions. The Anglo-Saxons had long been split into warring kingdoms, as were the Welsh principalities. Norwegian and Danish Vikings spoke more or less the same language, but they still fought furiously against each other in their home countries, in Ireland and on occasion in Britain as well. Politics was a dogfight, and even intermarriage and assimilation brought their own problems. If there was one group that nobody liked, it was the mixed-race Gall-Goidil, or ‘foreign Irish’, whom the Irish despised as apostates from Christianity and the Norse regarded as upstarts. There were also more English apostates and renegades than the unification narrative cares to take in. Ganger-Hrolf (Rollo in the TV series Vikings and ancestor of William the Conqueror) settled Normandy with his followers in the tenth century, and it has always been assumed that those followers were, like him, Scandinavian Vikings. Analysis of modern Normandy place names, though, reveals that many of them were Anglo-Saxon: Englishmen had turned ‘from Christendom to Viking’, as Archbishop Wulfstan of York lamented.

Adams must have wondered how he was going to make a narrative out of all this. His solution is to split the story into three sections, each with its own timeline and preface (or forespæc, as he puts it). The first sets up the background for the Battle of Edington. The second covers the rest of Alfred’s reign and takes us on into the reign of his son Edward. The third covers the reign of Alfred’s grandson Athelstan the Victorious, and his successors Kings Edmund and Eadred. The suitably dramatic terminal event is the killing of the Norwegian Eirik Bloodaxe, briefly king of York, at Stainmore in the Pennines in 954. This (if only for a while) left Alfred’s descendants without serious opposition and England more or less united.

The point about diversity and complexity during what one might call the Viking century (865-954) has certainly been made. Did it feel so complicated to people at the time? Not necessarily. Adams includes two ‘Viking travel maps’. They are like Tube maps, ‘abstractions of a vastly complex reality’, there to show you how to orient yourself within the travel networks of the medieval world, its cities and islands, roads and rivers and portages. That, presumably, was what was in the head of a Viking commander: not the sort of map we would use, but practical and manageable.

Adams is also interested in the personality and politics of the great king himself. Alfred remains shrouded in mysteries – which is odd, given that we know more about him than about almost any other early medieval figure. It is said that to know a man you should read his books, and Alfred is credited with translating or directing the translation of several that survive, notably Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Orosius’s History against the Pagans. Alfred certainly wrote, or more likely dictated, a famous preface to the translation of Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, and it gives a good sense of the king’s decisive if somewhat devious personality. The strongly pro-Alfred Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was also set up under his auspices, and to begin with, perhaps, under his eye. For all that, one mystery about him is whether he was functionally literate at all. Bishop Asser’s Life of King Alfred, one of the great biographies of the Middle Ages, tells slightly contradictory stories: the king as a child memorising poems rather than reading them; the king as an adult ordering all his aldermen to learn to read, or if too old to manage it, to find a proxy instead. And what was the strange ailment from which he suffered? Adams tentatively suggests Crohn’s disease.

The first mystery is why Alfred was born not in Wessex, as one might expect, but in Wantage in Berkshire, which had long been part of Mercia. It’s a fact that makes one wonder whether Adams’s stern rejection of the unification narrative underestimates the subtlety of early medieval kings. Did Alfred inherit from his father some game plan with regard to Mercia? Was there some domestic reason for Alfred’s mother to be there? It is worth noting that alderman Ethelwulf, ruler of Berkshire, who was of firmly Mercian descent, was later a loyal and enthusiastic collaborator with Alfred and his brother against the Vikings, as the then king of Mercia was not. Alfred’s son Edward made a point of having his son Athelstan brought up in Mercia, probably to make the contacts and the friendships that would enable the eventual West Saxon takeover and the uniting of the two kingdoms. Did Alfred’s father hope to set up Berkshire as a sub-kingdom for his fifth son, the only one not given a name with the Ethel- prefix common in West Saxon royalty? Possibly he thought his son could then pick off Mercian Middlesex and London (as Alfred in the end did)?

That, after all, was what Alfred’s ancestors had been doing for centuries. From their heartland around Winchester the kings of Wessex had steadily extended their dominions south of the Thames, county by county, taking over the once independent kingdoms of Kent and Sussex and the disputed borderland of Surrey to the east, as well as Cornwall to the west. It would be no great surprise if, even before the Viking invasions, Mercian Berkshire to the north had been next on the Wessex merger list, with a Wessex prince born in the county as a conciliatory factor – just as, three centuries later, Edward I invested his Carnarvon-born son with the title of Prince of Wales to help enlist the Welsh on his side after his takeover of the country.

Once Alfred had beaten off the Vikings at Edington, the big issue was who was going to take over Mercia. After 865 the Vikings had seized control of East Anglia and (most of) Northumbria by killing their kings and removing any focus of resistance. (One note of correction here for Adams, but a revealing one: he says that with the killing of King Edmund the East Anglians had ‘lost their last legitimate dynast’. Not so: Edmund had a brother, Edwold, who might normally have been expected to claim the throne, but he got almost as far away from East Anglia as he could, becoming a hermit in West Dorset, and eventually the patron saint of the village of Cerne Abbas, where the chalk giant is. This actually makes Adams’s main point even stronger: there wasn’t much enthusiasm for being an Anglo-Saxon king constantly targeted by Vikings, as King Burgred’s flight to Rome also showed.) As for Mercia, the Vikings had secure control of the northern half of it, from their bases in Lincoln, Stamford, Leicester, Derby and Nottingham. This area would become enduringly part of the Danelaw. The southern half of Mercia, a swathe of counties from London to Stafford, would easily have doubled Alfred’s resources in land and manpower – if he could overcome a long history of war and rivalry between Wessex and Mercia, and a strong sense of Mercian independence. This raises two more Alfredian mysteries. The first is: what did he think he was?

The Venerable Bede had written long before that the immigrants of the fifth century had been Angles, Saxons and Jutes, ‘three of the strongest tribes of Germania’. Saxons from Germany and Jutes from Jutland were numerous enough, but the Angles – squeezed between them in ‘the Angle’ between Flensborg fjord and the river Schlei – had been historically insignificant. Nevertheless they seem in some way to have established a hegemony over the mixed invaders of post-Roman Britain. Mercia, Northumbria and of course East Anglia are all regarded as Anglian kingdoms. Alfred, by contrast, was king of the West Saxons, and his mother was a Hampshire Jute, but just the same he always called his language ‘englisc’. In the treaty drawn up to fix boundaries with the Vikings, Alfred moreover presents himself as supported by the councillors of ‘all Angelcynn’, which definitely includes Anglians and Saxons and Jutes. He appears to be claiming, like an early Bismarck, first, that everyone who speaks englisc is part of ‘the English race’; second, that he is the only surviving king in Angelcynn; and third, therefore, that – Saxon or not – he must be the king of all Angelcynn, starting with Anglian Mercia. That became the West Saxon imperial project, extended by Alfred’s descendants to the whole of England, from the Channel to the Tweed. Maybe the first move was Alfred’s father arranging a birth in a disputed county for a fifth son with few prospects: if so, it was a very long shot indeed, but it paid off.

There was still a lot to do in the aftermath of Edington, and the next Alfredian mystery is: who was ‘alderman Ethelred’, who appears out of nowhere, and without explanation, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the entry for 885? Aldermen usually controlled a county, but Ethelred clearly controlled a dozen, in fact the whole of non-Viking English Mercia. Historians admit that we have no idea of his origins or background. The compilers of the Chronicle must have known: after all, Ethelred married Alfred’s daughter Ethelflæd, who would become ‘the Lady of the Mercians’ and co-operate closely with her brother Edward in the reconquest of the north. But even before that, alderman Ethelred was hand in glove with Alfred. The silence about him is deeply suspicious. Alex Woolf, of St Andrews, has made the startling suggestion that perhaps he was the rightful king of Mercia, son of the runaway King Burgred and his wife, Alfred’s sister Ethelswith. His name combines elements from those of his putative parents; and this parentage would make him not only Alfred’s son-in-law, but also his sister’s son, while Ethelred’s wife, Ethelflæd, would have been his first cousin. (Despite church disapproval, cousin marriage remained endemic in the West Saxon dynasty, as in 19th-century England: it prevented disputes and kept estates in family hands.)

The reason the Chronicle says nothing about his birth then becomes obvious. It was first compiled under Alfredian direction, and if there was one thing Alfred didn’t want, it was any mention of a legitimate Mercian royal challenger. As for the reason Ethelred may have voluntarily accepted a subordinate role, rather than pressing his own claim to kingship, in the first place he was paid off with London, once Alfred had conquered it; he may also have hoped for a brilliant future for his sons (but he didn’t have any); and as Burgred and Edwold had shown, being an English king was no longer an attractive prospect. The risk of an independent Mercia may also be the reason Ethelred’s one daughter, Alfwynn, was hustled off to a convent after her mother’s death. West Saxon practice might well have been to marry her off to her Mercian-educated first cousin Athelstan, but perhaps inbreeding was already beginning to show effects; and the real risk, surely, was that she might marry some royal Mercian cousin and so create a new set of rival claimants. Ever since the events following Alfred’s death, when his son Edward and his excluded nephew Ethelwold squared off against each other, the latter calling in the Vikings, the West Saxon dynasty had been very careful about its cousins.

This​ is a unification narrative of sorts, but the process did not resemble the inevitable and unstoppable creep of Whig history, like ink spreading across blotting-paper. Adams’s image for Britain is a Newton’s cradle: a contraption of dangling steel balls, any one of which, if swung, will hit another and set off a whole chain of actions and reactions. All over Britain, the Vikings were setting off such reactions. It could be argued that in the 870s they created England and Scotland. In England they wiped out dynasties and left the West Saxons with a (relatively) clear field. In the north the vital event was the taking of Dumbarton Rock in 870, stronghold of the Britons of Strathclyde. The Vikings went on to harry the Picts and break them, too, as a power; and the winner, Alfred’s Scottish counterpart, was Kenneth MacAlpin of Gaelic Dál Riata – which is the reason Gaelic survives, and Cumbric and Pictish do not.

At several points Adams very usefully drops from the macro-narratives to detailed examples of what all of this meant to people at ground level, using the evidence of coins and charters and, especially, archaeology – much of which exposes the written chronicles and histories as propaganda. Once King Burgred of Mercia had fled, for instance, the Vikings installed a puppet king called Ceolwulf, predictably dismissed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as just ‘a foolish [dysig] king’s thegn’. The Chronicle’s line was to present Ethelwulf as the true ruler of English Mercia, as long as he kept to his sub-royal status. Stray archaeological finds, however, show that Alfred issued a joint coinage with Ceolwulf: he was not so ‘dizzy’ that he was not, at one point, worth conciliating. Similarly, Athelstan’s claim to be ‘King of All Britain’ is found only on coins issued by southern mints. His coins from Northumbrian, East Anglian and Mercian mints reduce or omit the claim. Coins can create problems too. One of the really startling mysteries to do with Alfred is the sudden improvement in the silver content of Wessex coinage, up from a derisory 15 to 20 per cent to 90 per cent. Adams notes, approvingly if vaguely, that this shows Alfred undertaking ‘economic reforms’. But economics then was not a matter of printing money: you had to have the actual silver, tons of it, and no one knows where Alfred got it from. The obvious source was the Muslim world, but what would they want to buy from impoverished northern Europe? The obvious answer (certainly it’s what the Vikings sold) is slaves, but no one much likes the thought of that.

Meanwhile, all over Britain, different places tell different stories. Adams gives considerable space to Portmahomack, on the Tarbat peninsula in Easter Ross: a small Pictish monastery, prosperous until it was burned down, its cross smashed, at least one monk buried with a split skull, around the year 800. This happened just before or just after the Viking raid on Portland, far to the south, and the famous raid on Lindisfarne, geographically between the two, which is often taken to be the start of the Viking Age. Very different was the history of Goltho, an estate in Lincolnshire: a Roman farmstead, then abandoned for four hundred years, peacefully reoccupied around 800, with a large hall added fifty years later – and then, in the turbulent 870s, heavily fortified. Lincolnshire is the heart of the Danelaw (Danish-controlled Mercia and Northumbria), and Goltho is surrounded by places with Danish names, but there have been no material finds indicating Scandinavian connections: ‘Goltho seems resolutely native.’ English lords could coexist with retired Vikings turned settlers, but they kept their guard up. Such snapshots are interestingly unpredictable, and Adams gives dozens of them, picking out coin hoards everywhere from Rome to the Isle of Skye, forgotten micro-polities in places like Archenfield on the Welsh border and Flegg north of Great Yarmouth, significant objects like the silk stole and maniple found in St Cuthbert’s coffin (a gift from Alfred’s daughter-in-law, though not to St Cuthbert).

There’s no doubt that a theme Adams would like to promote – in common with all modern, liberal historians – is the benefit of ‘lively cultural interaction’, the ‘hybridisation’ of cultures and peoples. Sceptics might say that ‘cultural interaction’ often means ‘dogfight’. On the Celtic-Norse Isle of Man, for instance, the excavations at Ballateare revealed the sad skeleton of a woman, cut down from behind and dumped on top of (not sharing) the grave-mound of a warrior wearing an Irish brooch, with a Norwegian sword and an Anglo-Saxon scabbard. Multicultural, but not pleasingly so.

More convincingly, Adams suggests that at the root of the whole Viking phenomenon, which caused turmoil across Britain and Europe, was something we know well from modern times: the urge to destabilise one’s neighbours and one’s enemies. A cheap kind of war, but only in the short term. Frankish attempts to weaken Denmark by fomenting civil war may have led only to utter anarchy in the north and to the formation of private-enterprise pirate fleets, with no government to restrain them. In the Newton’s cradle of British politics, similarly, every winner created a loser, and vice versa, the winners becoming ever more organised, more militarised, the conflicts growing in scale. But – a great virtue of his book – in following the archaeologists and the geographers, the reconstructors and the genealogists, Adams never forgets to ask what it all looked like to the people on the ground.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences