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Alfred the Great: Viking Wars and Military Reforms

Gary Mc Dermott

Undergraduate Thesis, Trinity College Dublin, 2009

Introduction: In the ninth century the British Isles were subjected to several sustained assaults by the Vikings. They descended upon the island and destroyed the native kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia. They later settled in what became known as the Danelaw. Alfred not only had to deal with overseas invasions in two major campaigns but also the threat of the inhabitants of the Danelaw joining their brethren in constant raiding. The kingdom of Wessex alone survived this onslaught and went on to absorb its neighbours and later rose to become a unified kingdom of England.

The purpose of this piece is to examine Alfred the Greats Viking wars and to ascertain why his kingdom of Wessex survived the Viking onslaught in the ninth century. How he dealt with the Viking’s mobility and their battle hardened war bands, stemming the tide which flowed over England. It will attempt to identify what reforms or policies that were followed regarding the military. Furthermore it will evaluate these policies to see if they were successful and whether they can be credited as the reason for the survival of the Kingdom of Wessex.

It will rely heavily upon the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser’s life of Alfred and the Burghal Hidage as its primary sources. As the first two of these sources are likely to have been produced at Alfred‟s court and behest they naturally suffer from a certain amount of bias. The Chronicle is particularly detailed for Alfred‟s reign and it does exclude much relevant information regarding other kingdoms on the island showing where itssympathies lay. There appear to have been several scribes working on this document andtheir relative merits and drawbacks have been noted. It is of particular use regarding Alfred‟s milit ary reforms as the entries in the section 893 to 896 seem to be written insome detail by a single author. Given the level of detail this section may be taken asespecially reliable but it is still necessary to be cautious of partiality at all times.

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