The end of the 9th century saw the resurgence of a Viking threat to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. But this was more than Viking raiding: it was a threat from inside the royal house of Wessex that — had it succeeded — could have led to the establishment of an Anglo-Scandinavian kingdom in the south of England.
The history of Viking Age England is a turbulent one; of that there can be little doubt. But the popular picture is of a war with only two sides — the Christian Anglo-Saxons defending England against the pagan Viking raiders. There was more to the period than this. Individual characters may fade into the shadows of a 'Dark Age' with few surviving historical records, but many dubious, self-interested, disinherited and downright renegade parties made political capital in the confusion of the Viking Age. A tantalisingly brief set of entries in a contemporary history, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, leads us into a tale of family and dynastic insecurity and intrigue around one such character: Æthelwold, noble ætheling of Wessex, who became known as 'King of the Pagans'.
On 26 October AD 899, an era had ended. King Alfred, saviour of the kingdom of the West Saxons, was dead. It had been a reign that had seen Alfred mature from the callowness of youth to emerge as a great military leader, a great king and protector of his kingdom against the marauding northmen for a generation. However, England was not one unified kingdom at this time. In the mid-9th century, Anglo-Saxon England had consisted of a number of small kingdoms, often vying against each other for political leadership. But because of the ravages of the 'Great Viking Army' amongst the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, only Wessex in the south of England survived. In the power vacuum that remained, there were times of great opportunity, and great danger.
The king was dead. Long live the new king. But who would this be? On the surface, the succession seems clear enough. Alfred's eldest son and designated heir, Edward, came to the throne of Wessex. Edward may fall into some historical obscurity between his father, King Alfred the Great, and King Athelstan, the victor of the battle of Brunanburh (possibly Bromborough, north Cheshire) in 937, but King Edward the Elder holds his place in history because he managed to remain on the throne and defeat his cousin, the ætheling Æthelwold.
Despite the best efforts of King Edward's monastic historians to remove him from the historical record, Æthelwold has staunchly retained a reputation as the rebel leader of an insurrection in the heartland of the kingdom of Wessex. As the historian Professor James Campbell has remarked, is it only a matter of historical chance that Æthelwold, 'king of the Pagans', did not become Æthelwold, king of Wessex and England? History, of course, is often written by the victors.
Then the ætheling Æthelwold, son of [King Edward's] uncle, rode to the manor at Wimborne and at Christchurch [both now in Dorset] against the will of the king and his councillors. Then the king and his army rode until he encamped at Badbury, near Wimborne, and Æthelwold remained inside the manor with the men who had given him their allegiance; he had barricaded all the gates against them, and declared that he would live there or die there. Then, meanwhile, he stole away by night and came to the army in Northumbria. And the king ordered them [his men] to pursue him, but they were unable to overtake him. Then the woman was arrested whom he had abducted without the king's consent, and against the bishops' orders, for she had been consecrated a nun.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for the years 899-900, adapted from a translation by Dorothy Whitelock (London, 1961)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry is intriguing. Æthelwold's actions may seem to us to have been peculiar (at first glance hardly the stuff of epic military history), he was, in fact, pursuing a very well-founded strategy that in its audacity was the equal of the Viking raids of the previous generation.
However, in considering this, we must go back briefly to that previous generation. Æthelwold's father was King Æthelred I of Wessex (866-71); Æthelred I was Alfred's elder brother and so succeeded to the throne first. In 871 Æthelred died, probably of ill-health as there is no reliable record of his death in battle against the Vikings. We should not simply see his death as an ignominious one, however; sickness, diarrhoea and infection from poorly treated wounds caused the great majority of deaths in medieval armies. In those days, when the kingdom of Wessex was under Viking threat, it was logical for Alfred the brother, not the young son Æthelwold, to succeed to the throne. Direct succession from father to son was not fixed at this time, any reasonably healthy male of the royal kin could be eligible for the throne and Alfred had agreed with his elder brother to take on the burden of kingship before the latter's death in 871. By 899 Æthelwold perhaps felt aggrieved at being passed over. He certainly had a suitable claim. After all, he was the eldest surviving son of an elder son, and few Anglo-Saxon kings succeeded to the throne without a little rivalry.
It seems unlikely that Æthelwold would have been content to become a subordinate of King Edward the Elder; the royal estates given to him seem to have been few, even something of an insult, despite a fraternal agreement made between Alfred and Æthelred. A copy of King Alfred's will has survived the centuries, and in it Æthelwold was only bequeathed three estates, in the shires of Sussex and Surrey, outside the West Saxon 'heartland', whereas other members of the royal family were to receive many more lands. To the Anglo-Saxons, land meant power: and so seizing Wimborne Minster in Dorset was a shrewdly political act as Wimborne was the burial place of Æthelwold's father, King Æthelred I.
As Professor Alfred Smyth has usefully suggested in a recent biography of King Alfred, Wimborne probably had connections with Æthelwold's line of the royal family. It is also likely that the nun he then abducted from Wimborne was a member of another branch of the royal family whom he intended to marry (and, in later medieval accounts, did marry) in order to assert his legitimacy and power. In the Middle Ages, marriage to an important family group was a means of gaining political prestige — and, despite strong disapproval from the Church, marrying one's own distant relation could draw the family group together and strengthen it.
Equally important, Wimborne Minster was an estate belonging to the king, and it was at these sites that harvests were gathered in autumn for the coming winter. Attacking enemy lands has been a characteristic of warfare, but Viking warfare added another deadly dimension to this. As Alfred had found with near-catastrophic consequences while resting in Chippenham (Wiltshire) at Christmas 877, one of the characteristics of Viking attacks was their ability to attack in late autumn, or even in the dead of winter, where they might steal the newly harvested supplies of the enemy. The crops that the royal officials had carefully gathered from the surrounding lands could have quite literally gone to feed the rebellion. If Æthelwold had known of the imminent death of the old king Alfred (who suffered from a number of chronic diseases during his lifetime and was approaching fifty — a venerable age — in 899), then it is likely that he had sufficient time to make plans. Events then may have moved at speed as Æthelwold raced to take possession of the Dorset royal estates.
The order of the Chronicle's entry means that Æthelwold's arrival at Christchurch is placed after the seizure of Wimborne. However, it seems more likely that he arrived at Christchurch first, as subsequent events are recorded as having taken place in Wimborne. Christchurch (known as Twynham at the time) was a defended burh at a strategic site, the mouth of the River Stour, which leads north-west to Wimborne. It may have been possible that Æthelwold arrived first at Christchurch and went upriver to Wimborne — either by shallow-draught boat or overland — as Wimborne seems to have been the objective of the campaign.
Wimborne was at a key point in the kingdom of Wessex, close to important Roman roads that led westward to Dorchester and north to the Anglo-Saxon hillfort of Old Sarum near modern-day Salisbury. It was also close to the River Stour and at a crossing point of the River Allen. Æthelwold must have judged that by holding this important site he could control the interior of the western half of the kingdom. Even if he did not intend to take over the whole of Wessex, he may have planned to force a division of the kingdom, as had happened in former generations, so that he could be recognised as a king of part of Wessex.
Edward Defends His Kingdom
However, King Edward, Alfred's son and designated successor, had other ideas. Edward's counter-strategy reveals to us that he wished to deny the rebel any chance of taking over the western half of his kingdom. Edward moved his forces to Badbury Rings, a large and imposing Iron Age hillfort some five miles along the old Roman road to the west of Wimborne. A substantial defensive earthwork, Badbury may have been attacked in the 1st-century Roman conquest of Britain and it has also been suggested that this was 'Mount Badon', the site of the 6th-century Arthurian battle against the Saxons. Even if Badbury may not have been the semi-legendary 'Mount Badon', the West Saxons could hardly have been unaware of the significance of the name — Baddan-byrig, Badon Hill. Perhaps Edward saw himself as a latter-day 'King Arthur', saviour of the island of Britain against new invaders?
It may be an interesting possibility, but to the king, who had proved his military prowess while fighting for his father in the 890s, practical considerations were surely rather more important. Standing on higher ground, Edward physically dominated the area, and cut off any hopes of westward advance that Æthelwold may have harboured. This was a strategy that Edward was later to use to great effect during his 'Reconquest' of the Danelaw a few years later.
However, there was to be no battle here. Edward's strategy had proved successful: Æthelwold 'stole away in the night', a phrase which must have conjured images of Viking underhandedness for the West Saxon audience of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Though Edward ordered a pursuit, Æthelwold escaped, probably overland, to the Vikings of Northumbria. But Edward the Elder could draw breath. His kingdom had been saved — for the moment.
Why had Æthelwold lost this first round? His strategy had been well founded enough. He seems to have acted quickly. The record of his seizure of Wimborne is the first passage in the Chronicle after King Alfred's death and the accession to the throne by Edward, so there is a probability that Æthelwold launched his bid in late 899 (or at least, as the chronology of the Chronicle is confusing here, in early 900). There is no record of Edward's acclamation or coronation as king — an essential Christian ceremony — until June 900; King Edward's first experience as a new king was evidently this baptism of fire. But, fortunately for Edward the Elder, Æthelwold's forces may not have been large enough to mount this campaign and hold both Wimborne and Badbury at the same time, leaving the latter open to King Edward's forces. Æthelwold's escape also suggests that he was unable to withstand a protracted siege.
Æthelwold was relying on the support of 'the men who had given allegiance to him'. One document provides us with a glimpse of the political climate of this period. It records that the ealdorman of the shire of Wiltshire had to forfeit his lands because he had deserted King Alfred 'without permission', presumably in 878, during the time of the conquest by the 'Great Viking Army'. Reading between the lines, this Wiltshire ealdorman had probably thought that the Vikings had taken over the West Saxon kingdom and were there to stay, so he can hardly be criticised by us for his actions; not everyone was unquestionably loyal to the king. Æthelwold may have planned to take advantage of the possible 'desertion' of the men of Dorset, men who may have once held particular loyalty to his father — after all, in the confused days following the death of King Alfred, people in the western shires may not have known who was now the new king. Men's loyalties were bought dearly, but there seems to have been a deep-rooted sense of pragmatism regarding lordship: if a man calling himself 'King Æthelwold', son of King Æthelred, arrived in Wimborne (the very place where Æthelred had been buried), bearing signs of authority, then why should this authority have been questioned? Who would say that this was not the king?
To some degree, Æthelwold had a measure of success here because he had made a stand and a challenge. Warfare in the early Middle Ages was often about posturing as much as great battles. That most famous poem recorded a century after the events described here, The Battle of Maldon, contains a long preamble in which the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons chide each other for cowardice and display a great amount of machismo and aggression. The Battle of Maldon is famous precisely because both sides did not break off the stand-off at this point. The great majority of early medieval campaigns simply did not result in a set-piece battle. Also, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that during one of the most important Viking campaigns in Wessex, in 1006, a Viking force reached Cuckhamsley Knob, a barrow now on the border between Oxfordshire and Berkshire, 'And waited there for what had been proudly threatened, for it had been said that if they went to Cuckhamsley, they would never get [back] to the sea.' Boasts were as much a part of early medieval politics as big battles. In such a manner, Æthelwold had offered a challenge, and a claim, to the kingdom of Wessex.
An Uneasy Truce
The sparse entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle give the impression that all was quiet between Wessex and the Danelaw for the next year. In Wessex, the last of King Alfred's old guard passed away and the wheels of King Edward's government ground forward, but the peace must have been an uneasy one. Up in Northumbria, the ætheling was cementing his power. Some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refer to Æthelwold as having become a leader amongst the Vikings of Northumbria.
Æthelwold does not seem to have been idle in exile. While his first campaign had optimistically relied on the support of West Saxon nobles, for this second campaign, he recruited and made alliance with men from the Danelaw and northern regions, Viking adventurers and mercenaries. Perhaps these followers included many who had become disillusioned with the development of comparative peace between Viking and Anglo-Saxon traders, and not only Vikings, amongst the renegade's company was Byrhtsige son of Byrhtnoth, a dispossessed descendant of the Mercian royal family. Professor Smyth has remarked that a later medieval East Anglian source, the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, records that a certain 'Adalbrigt' came from the south to the Viking kingdom of York in this period, and became 'king', even going as far as to defend the kingdom against an invader from the north, a certain King Knut (or Canute). If the name 'Adalbrigt' really is a confused rendition of 'Æthelwold', his career in Northumbria would have been a fantastic one, the stuff of legend perhaps, but not all is completely implausible. Though coins minted in York show that there was a King Knut there c. AD 900 we might take the suggestion of a struggle for power between Dane and West Saxon at York with a pinch of salt. Concepts of 'kingship' here were different to what was later to be the case in the English royal family, and often Viking chieftains were recorded as 'kings' by Christian chroniclers.
After all, if a pagan Viking was in charge of a body of men, this was what they would have been seen as. Viking armies were recorded as led by 'kings' and 'sea-kings' who are more likely to have been chieftains and localised leaders, though relatively autonomous in their power, nonetheless. So, in many ways, the renegade West Saxon noble Æthelwold had become a king. In the 12th-century Annals of Saint Neots he was to be bitterly remembered as 'King of the Pagans', and 'King of the Danes'.
Attack from the East
In 901 the uneasy truce was broken when Æthelwold arrived by sea in Essex 'with all the ships he could muster and which had given him allegiance'. By referring to 'ships', the Chronicler meant ships and their crews. And there was only one type of military force that was referred to in this way: Vikings.
Though we cannot be sure exactly what happened in Essex, it seems that the region submitted to Æthelwold. It may be significant that the West Saxon court's own version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is silent about Essex's submission, while other, later, manuscripts of the Chronicle are more candid. Essex, the former kingdom of the East Saxons, was a frontier territory between the West Saxon kingdom and the Danelaw, and though it was probably not under the direct control of the West Saxon king, Æthelwold's actions could still have come as a major blow. In the late autumn of 902, Æthelwold began another insurrection, this time in East Anglia. The Vikings in East Anglia may have been tempted to break the peace by the political prospects of a victory for Æthelwold, or simply by promises of loot.
'They harried across the whole of Mercia', the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records. At Cricklade (Wiltshire), they crossed the River Thames, a key crossing point on the frontier of the kingdom of Wessex. Æthelwold may have intended to burn the burh here, but his forces do not seem to have succeeded. King Edward's defences, a legacy from his father, held firm. So there was nothing else for Æthelwold to do but attack the area around it, land belonging to the king. They 'carried off all that they could seize both in and round about Braydon [Wiltshire] and turned then homeward. Æthelwold may have intended another 'hit and run' strategy, but this time the forces with him were large and unwieldy and so did not return quickly to East Anglia.
King Edward Retaliates
Again, if Æthelwold had acted with audacity, Edward's reaction to it was rapid and was delivered in an unexpected direction. The West Saxon king may have been fully expected to mobilise his forces for the defence of Wessex, but with his people safe within or within reach of the fortified burhs of the kingdom, he gathered forces and hit the enemy's home territory, ravaging East Anglia as far north as the fens.
This gamble paid off, as the invading Vikings returned to defend their home territory. Edward may have wanted to force a battle, but he was at a disadvantage: he had gone too far into enemy territory and so gave the order to retreat. All the shire forces, but one, obeyed. Though the Chronicle records that Edward sent seven messengers to recall them, the Kentish fyrd remained where they were. Was this obstinacy, the fog of war in unfamiliar territory, or did Edward deliberately leave the men of Kent to their fate?
Though we might wonder if King Edward had anything to gain by allowing men who were effectively his auxiliaries to do the fighting, and dying, for him, such 'conspiracy theories' should really be ruled out. As Kent had suffered in Viking attacks during the early 890s, the men of Kent were likely to have had a few old scores to settle. With the approach of Æthelwold and his Viking allies, battle was joined at the 'Holme' on 13 December. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's roll of dead was substantial: it includes two ealdormen, a king's thegn, an abbot, and, as the Chronicler recorded, 'many besides them, though I have named the most distinguished'. The battle of the Holme was a major confrontation: the Kentish forces were clearly substantial and able to put up a good fight. The course of the battle is not recorded, and the exact location of the 'Holme' remains unknown, although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that 'a great slaughter was made on both sides . . . more of the Danes were killed, though they remained in possession of the battlefield'. The list of the Anglo-Scandinavian forces who died in the battle of the Holme is significant: not only did it include the East Anglian Viking leader, but also Æthelwold, the West Saxon rebel, whom the Danes 'had chosen as their king'.
Unfortunately for him, Æthelwold's posthumous victory did not lead to eternal fame, though his death in battle was politically significant. A battle may have been lost by the West Saxons — or rather by the men of Kent fighting for King Edward — but the main threat, Æthelwold, 'King of the Pagans', had been removed. A strategic peace of sorts was established two or three years later at Tiddingford near Leighton Buzzard in what is now Bedfordshire, though a war was yet to be won. The pages of history belonged to Edward the Elder and his descendants, not to Æthelwold. In the following years, Edward took the initiative and in alliance with his sister Æthelflæd, 'Lady of the Mercians', wrested the Danelaw from the control of Vikings. Though this campaign is sometimes known as the 'Reconquest' of the Danelaw, in reality it was nothing of the sort. It was the result of the ambitions of West Saxon kings to control the rest of the island. The midlands and the north were taken over by West Saxons, using siege strategies developed in Edward's siege of Wimborne from Badbury Rings. This was to result in the creation of a 'Kingdom of the English', and King Athelstan, son of Edward the Elder, was to style himself as 'King of all Britain'.
With the successes of the tenth century, the rebellion of Æthelwold could be seen as just a bad memory, a Viking raid like all too many others. But it is worth considering the possibility that had there not been such later successes and expansion by King Edward and his sons, such underlying tensions might have reared their heads yet again. The legacy of King Alfred the Great was perhaps not as solid as it was often made out to have been. For a time, the son of a king had struck at the heart of a kingdom and brought that very kingdom itself into question.
by Ryan Lavelle
About the Author
Ryan Lavelle is researching Anglo-Saxon history for a PhD thesis at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, England. He holds a Masters degree in Medieval Studies from the University of York and has contributed to a number of academic books and journals.
Abels, R. P., Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England (Berkeley and London, 1988)
Abels, R. P., Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (London and New York, 1998)
Griffith, P., The Viking Art of War (London and Mechanicsburg, PA, 1995)
Harrison, M., Warrior 5: Anglo-Saxon Thegn, 449–1066 AD (London, 1993)
Higham, N. J. (ed.), Edward the Elder (London and New York, forthcoming)
Keynes, S. D. and Lapidge, M., Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (Harmondsworth and New York, 1983)
Peddie, J., Alfred: Warrior King (Stroud and New York, 1999)
Smyth, A. P., King Alfred the Great (Oxford and New York, 1995)
Stafford, P., Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the 10th and 11th Centuries (London and New York, 1989)
Swanton, M. J. (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London, 1996)
Yorke, B. A. E., Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (London and New York, 1995)
Translated sources for the reign of King Alfred can be found in a handy paperback book, edited, with very useful commentaries, by Keynes and Lapidge. The most easily available translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is that edited by Swanton, though others can be found. The works listed here by Abels, Griffith, Harrison and Peddie are useful for their military views on the period. Parts of Smyth’s recent (and huge) biography are worth reading, but there are reservations as he has stirred up a lot of controversy through his claims that a major source for Alfred’s reign, Bishop Asser’s Life of King Alfred, is a forgery. Numerous other works give political interpretations of the development of the kingdoms of Wessex and England; papers from a conference about King Edward the Elder are soon to be published and discuss in detail rarely examined aspects of his reign.