Source Problems in English History

Date: 878-886

Alfred and the Danes


IT is important to understand at the outset that this first source study centers in the most critical period of a movement which affected not England only, but the whole of Europe. The invasions and settlements from the Scandinavian north spread "from Iceland to Constantinople, from Russia to Spain." These tremendous outpourings, which were progressing dung the ninth century in a veritable geometrical ratio, were the last in that vast series of "wanderings of the peoples" which had brought the Roman Empire to an end and created a new Europe. In the earlier movements the northern peninsulas had had no share. Britain had been invaded and settled in the fifth and sixth centuries by the Anglo-Saxons at the same time that the continental portions of the Empire were overrun by less distant Teutonic tribes; but the extreme north remained then and for long afterward strangely inactive. Now in the ninth century the flood which had long held back broke with the greater fury. Enough time had passed for the earlier invaders to assimilate many good things which they found in the southern civilization and to make their contribution of virile and clean blood. They were already Christian in more than name. Such loss of classic civilization as was inevitable had been suffered. But all had not been lost; and now the blackest centuries of the dark ages, the sixth and seventh, lay behind. Europe was getting well started upon the slow but hopeful journey toward the light of modern times. Was this new inundation to bring on a second and more hopeless dark age?

Beyond the fundamental cause of a rapidly increasing population in lands not fitted to sustain it, several causes more immediate to the ninth century help to account for the viking raids. The first has to do with the northern extensions of Charlemagne’s empire, especially his generation-long struggle with Saxony, ending finally in complete conquest. This struggle not seldom involved directly or indirectly the people of Denmark and even of Scandinavia, who were led to fear advancing Christendom as their greatest foe. When they went forth to conquer they were eager to strike at Christian states wherever found, and they did not distinguish nicely between those inside and outside the Frankish empire. Of course the love of plunder and adventure played a commanding part once the wealth of the southern lands and the weakness of their governments were known. At first there were desultory raids dirtied against the places where the resistance was least, and with little or no concerted action among the petty bands under their viking leaders. As the years passed and the invaders multiplied and became more familiar with the invaded regions, the lure of the south extended beyond that of mere portable plunder. For these invaders came from among a people of settled life, engaged in agriculture and grazing, and the south seemed a pleasant place to live in as well as to plunder. Real estate had rather more enduring charms than chattels. This natural change coincided roughly with new conditions at home, especially in Denmark, but soon to some extent in Norway also. There was a growing unity and central power under the first real kings in these countries. Piracy, suppressed at home, spread abroad, and many defeated petty chiefs, who scorned to live in subjection, sought a new career in the south. Moreover, the movements were no longer monopolized by people who were pirates by nature and choice, but by the more stable, land-seeking element. Desultory plundering raids were gradually superseded by larger and better concerted movements with permanent colonization as a prominent object. But they never became a national migration under one great leader. The political units established in the conquered lands were always small, like the primitive settlements of the Anglo-Saxons who had passed through somewhat analogous stages—settlements that were the resultants of the different and often hostile aims of many petty chiefs. But confederations and combinations of formidable size might hold together for a short time when there was a particular point to gain or obstacle to overcome. Such were the "armies," involving hundreds of boats and thousands of men, met by Alfred and the brother, Ethelred, who ruled just before him.

The viking raids became serious in England late in Egbert’s reign, about the year 834. From that time there was but slight cessation until the crisis was passed in Alfred’s reign, and as a result of his great leadership. The English invasions were very closely bound up with those on the Continent and in Ireland, the same bands seeking either side of the North Sea, the English, or St. George’s, Channel, according as the resistance on the one side or the other was more effective. A respite in one country always marked more serious trouble in another. About 855 in England the invading forces became much more numerous and their attacks better organized. This date approximately marks the change, just noted, from the earlier to the later phase of the invasions. When Alfred, twenty-two years of age, came to the throne in 871, northern and large sections of central England were under Danish control and Wessex was hard beset, fighting for her life. Alfred’s year of succession was his "year of battles." Despite his wonderful efforts and his many partial or complete successes, the situation did not clear. During 875 and 876, both the entire Continent and Ireland were freer from Scandinavian invasions than they had been for very many years. This constituted a sinister prospect for England, and the crisis of the reign was near. The little country of Wessex was the objective of most of the important viking forces then operating in Europe. This fact and the fact that the situation was dominated by a real hero give compelling interest to the story that has come down to us in these brief and often obscure old chronicles. If England had been completely conquered, the Northmen would have gained vastly in prestige and would have possessed an effective base of operations against western Europe. Alfred did his work in England, but there needs no stretching of the facts to show its European significance. When he came to the throne the Northmen seemed to have the conquest of one great Christian nation well within their grasp, and others were sorely threatened. In the years following, the critical conflict was waged with this first great opponent that the vikings had encountered since their more wide-spread and purposeful efforts to colonize and conquer the south. Before his reign ended the tide had turned and the chances were much more than even that the hopeful beginnings of medieval civilization would be preserved. Probably at not many times in history has more depended upon a single great spirit than in certain dark weeks and months of this ninth-century English reign.


1. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

"This is the oldest historical work written in arty Germanic language, and is the basis of most of our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history from the year 732 onward."1 For perhaps two centuries before Alfred, one or more brief local annals, written in Latin, appear to have been kept in quite strictly contemporaneous fashion. Under some unknown influence these became expanded and developed about 855, shortly before the death of Alfred’s father. Again there was a striking development late in Alfred’s reign (893), and clearly under his influence. The record for 893–897 is particularly full and intelligent. It seems very probable that Alfred was the first to conceive the idea of a national chronicle written in the vernacular; and writers inspired and directed by him appear to have used what previously existing material they could obtain for writing up and making the new chronicle complete down to their time. Bede’s great history was the main source to 732. From then to the middle of the ninth century they used the meager but more contemporaneous Latin annals. But even for the period of Alfred’s public career the Chronicle is far from satisfactory. Three years (892, 899, 900) have no record at all. "Eight have merely brief entries of a line or two regarding the movements of the Danish army, or here; and of these eight entries the last three have nothing to do with England, being concerned with the doings of the here on the Continent. Two other very brief entries deal with the sending of couriers to Rome, and with certain obits."1 After Alfred, the Chronicle ceased to be a unit, records being kept more or less independently at about five different religious houses. Hence it is correct to speak of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles. But the national idea remained, and Alfred’s historical impulse showed extraordinary vitality. It had not spent itself at the Conquest, and this first and great English history did not end until the middle of the twelfth century.

2. Asser’s Life of King Alfred.

It is now generally believed that this work was written by a contemporary of Alfred and probably by the man under whose name it has passed. Asser, bishop of St. David’s and later bishop of Sherborne, appears to have spent several years about the middle of the reign at Alfred’s court. Judging from his own account, he was aiding the king in his studies and in his literary undertakings. The Latin "Life" which he has left us follows a most unusual plan. Its foundation is a series of annals covering the years 851–887; and in these annals are inserted at various places sections of personal comment and anecdote relative to Alfred. These latter seem to be entirely original with Asser, while the annalistic portions dearly bear a close relation to the corresponding entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Plummer remarks that the biographical sections were inserted in a way "so inconsequent and inartistic, that one is sometimes almost inclined to think that the compiler, while keeping his annals (as he could hardly help doing) in chronological order, cut up his biographical matter into strips, put the strips in a hat, and then took them out in any order which chance might dictate." Yet the same style, language, and oddities of thought appear in both parts and force the conclusion that there was a single author. The passage here used is, it will be seen, from the annals Asser probably wrote while Alfred was still alive. Why his work stopped so suddenly at 887 is not known.

3. Ethelwerd’s Chronicle.

Ethelwerd, who claimed that he was the great-great-grandson of Alfred’s brother Ethelred, wrote late in the tenth century and brought his chronicle down to 973. He dedicated his work to a kinswoman, Matilda, who, he states, was descended in the same number of generations from Alfred. It has been shown that this was Matilda of Swabia, granddaughter of the Emperor Otto I. and his first wife Edith, daughter of Edward the Elder of England. Ethelwerd was probably the ealdorman of that name who witnessed a number of charters between 976 and 998, and who is otherwise heard of in that period. His very pompons and obscure Latin history is yet worthy of study because it is clear that he used an earlier version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle than any extant. This version lacked some things found in the later manuscripts, but clearly contained points of importance which they lack. These would have been lost but for Ethelwerd’s work. But sometimes he did more than follow his copy of the Chronicle; and in view of his time, his position, and his connections with the House of Wessex, it seems likely that he had access to such written and traditional material as to make his additions worthy of notice. It was most remarkable for any hut a churchman to undertake to write a chronicle. Undoubtedly his lack of a clerical training accounts largely for his very bad Latin.

4. Alfred and Guthrum’s Peace.

There is no reasonable doubt that this is the authentic text of an undated treaty drawn up between Alfred and the Danes. It was written in Anglo-Saxon. Sufficiently interesting and instructive in itself, the treaty has an added importance because of the great dearth of official documents of all sorts from Alfred’s time. After using chronicles and being constantly on the alert for errors growing out of bias, carelessness, or ignorance, it is pleasant to use even a small bit of evidence with which no care of that sort has to be taken.


1. Make a list of the important differences in style and subject-matter between the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser.

2. Prove, if possible, by a careful comparison whether Asser copied from the Chronicle or whether the Chronicle was copied from Asser.

3. Is any hint to be found of Asser’s nationality?

4. What are the obvious faults of Ethelwerd’s method of writing history?

5. What bits of information are to be gathered from Ethelword not obtainable from the other sources?

6. How does the class of source material to which Alfred and Guthrum’s Peace belongs differ from chronicles? Why must chronicle material be used with greater caution?

7. On an outline map of England indicate the places mentioned here in Alfred’s campaigns which ham been located with a fair degree of certainty; also draw the boundary between Alfred’s dominions and the Danelaw described in Alfred and Guthrum’s Peace.

8. What specific point of time in the period here shown would you pick out as marking the crisis or turning-point in the struggle?

9. How do you account for the slight entries in the chronicles for some of these years?

10. What seems to have been the typical viking method of making an incursion into a country?

11. By studying it in connection with the other sources, assign a ate to Alfred and Guthrum’s Peace. Find out whether or not the date you have chosen is the one which has usually been assigned to it.

12. What are the objects of the last four articles of Alfred and Guthrum’s Peace, and what kind of relations between English and Danes do they seem to expect? Are English and Danes placed on a strict equality? What three well-known early judicial practices are illustrated in this document?

13. What indications are there of relations, political or of other kinds, existing between Wessex and the Continent?

14. Draw up a statement of the continental invasions of the Northmen based on the accounts here given.

The following suggestions for further study involve some supplementary reading:

1. By use of Plummer’s Life and Times of Alfred and Stevenson’s Asser’s Life of King Alfred, trace the history of the old legend of Alfred in the cowherd’s hut and the burning of the cakes. Show first what is known of the origin of the story; secondly, when and how it became incorporated in Asser’s text; and thirdly, how modern scholarship has dealt with it.

2. In some detailed history of the period, look up the legend of the Raven Flag mentioned in the Chronicle as lost by the Danes in 878.

3. Why was it that the final conquest of England by the Danes in the eleventh century did not threaten English or continental civilization to the same extent that these ninth-century invading did?

1 Gross, Sources and Literature, p. 177.

1 Plummer, Alfred, p. 12.

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Chicago: Source Problems in English History in Source Problems in English History, ed. Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915), 1–11. Original Sources, accessed September 23, 2023,

MLA: . Source Problems in English History, in Source Problems in English History, edited by Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915, pp. 1–11. Original Sources. 23 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Source Problems in English History. cited in 1915, Source Problems in English History, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.1–11. Original Sources, retrieved 23 September 2023, from