It was the Spring in this year of Our Lord 877 and Alfred, the first King of all the english (angles, saxons and jutes) felt as though he had been fighting the danish pirates for most of his adult life. His naturally gaunt face was weatherbeaten from all the outdoors campaigning and his eyes were sunk deep into their sockets. Grey hairs were starting to fleck his beard. The pirates were beginning to break the kingdom up into their separate earldoms and Alfred was the only defence for all his people.
It was difficult to establish monthly dates with any certainty in those days but, the Holy See sent calenders to all the clergy of England marking the holy days and so everybody knew those particular days. On this year the fyrd would assemble on the holy day of Easter........at Glastonbury.
Taking half his huscarls (less than fifty men) Alfred arrived at Glastonbury in mid morning. By early afternoon there was still no sign of the host. Then there was a low calling from the woods to the south east so Alfred and his men rode over to see what was happening. There were just a few saxons hiding in the woods......and it was bad news.
The danes were rampant all across the realm. They'd just attacked Chippenham and the Queen had barely escaped. The english had had enough. No matter if they won a battle or lost it, fewer men would come home to their farms and their widows were starving in fields they couldn't till. Children were dying in ditches and the smell of death was all over the land.
There was this too. All the Country knew that on this day of Easter the King of all the english would be alone at Glastonbury. And if the english knew it then the danes did too. The King must ride for his life.
Pausing only to collect his Queen and their children while his huscarls gathered what family they had and servants that they felt they needed. Alfred and his band of less than eighty fighting men rode to Athelney. The Isle of Athelney sits deep within the bogs and marshes of Somerset. Even those people who lived close by would sometimes disappear into that swampy water and never be seen again. In there they would be relatively safe.
In their rough camp that night Alfred and his Queen, Ealhswith, discussed their future. Ethelweard at seven years old needed more practice with his sword but nine year old Edward was good with his bow and could fire in any battle from the sidelines. In the morning the young aethlings could be seen practising with their weapons and that cheered the people greatly. Here they had a King who would not run away.
During that Summer some of the huscarls and their servants fortified the camp with palisade and ditch. Alfred led the rest (some sixty men) on lightning raids across southern England. Riding hard and fighting on foot they would fall on small groups of danes. Sometimes attacking danish camps at dawn and other times falling on them when they were disadvantaged in another manner. There was no peace for danes while Alfred was capable of lifting a sword.
It was a wet Winter that year with cold grey skies and either drizzle or heavier rain falling almost every day. The marshes grew deeper and ever more dangerous. Although, it was only in the last week of January and the first three weeks of February that the ground grew hard as iron from a frost and men must stuff their boots and shirts with dried grass to keep the heat in.
One morning in the Spring of 878 Alfred set off with his bow to hunt. In hard times even the king needed to find some new born rabbit or deer to put in the pot for himself. Every man hunted his own food and shared when he could.
Early afternoon and Alfred was soaked to the skin. He hadn't even dared to unwrap his bowstrings from the little pieces of greased parchment he'd wrapped them in to protect them from the damp. Then through the trees he saw a small hut with wisps of smoke drifting from its roof. Somewhere warm and dry where Alfred could collect his thoughts and plan for the future
Inside there was one hausfrau, frightened at the sudden appearance of this warlike man with a knife at his belt and his unstrung bow. By then Alfred had the appearance of a bandit from the wasteland. She made some excuse that she needed to collect more firewood and asked Alfred to watch over the bread that was baking by the fire while she was away. Alfred sat back against the wall and considered his fate. This might be the lowest point of his life, alone and dependent on the charity of some woodsmans wife for warmth and food. His back was cold but steam rose from his clothes that were heated by the fire. His head nodded on his chest and he fell asleep.
When he woke the room was filled with smoke, the bread had burnt. He knocked the door open and kicked the smoking husks outside. Across the clearing was the hausfrau with her mann. In his hand he held his spear.
Alfred was defenceless, his knife was no use against a spear even one held by some woodsman. The hausfrau urged her mann to kill the stranger so that he might not return in the night to kill them in their beds. But still the woodsman hesitated. Why kill this stranger when he'd offered no threat?
And in that moment, in that sixty seconds......the entire future of the world was decided.
Without Alfred there would be no Christian Church in England to defend Rome in future years. No unbroken line of royal family in our island. No Queen Elizabeth to fight off the spanish armadas. No King George or American War of Independence. No Queen Victoria or British Empire spanning the world. All the future hummed and sang like a piano wire stretched almost to snapping point.
And in that moment some of the Kings huscarls rode up into the clearing.
There was good news. The english would fight again. They'd had enough of danish depredations and now they would all fight. There would even be contingents from the cornwelsh. The fyrd would gather and Alfred would lead the host against the danes as King of all the english.
The woodsman and his wife fell to their knees to beg for their lives, after all, they'd just threatened the life of the King. But Alfred left them in peace. After all, they hadn't broken any laws. He did warn the man though that if he ever appeared before Alfreds court and was found guilty of some offence he should expect a harsh judgement.
Now Alfred had the fyrds of three shires and at Ethandun he fell on the danes and caused much devastation. Many of their Earls were killed including Ivar the Boneless, that strange twisted albino with his long white hair and pink eyes that many blamed for the death of King Edmund of the east angles. Their strongest Earl, Guthrum, converted to Christianity with Alfred as his patron. And strangely enough he was a good Christian after that.
This wasn't the end of danish pirate raiding of course. That would continue all of Alfreds life and that of his children. But, the Great Army that had roamed unchecked across all of Europe had been destroyed. Draw a line diagonally across England from north west to south east. North of that was the danelaw and to the south english law. And by the time of Edward the Confessor they were all the same.
Alfred codified the english laws of King Ine and insisted that his representatives in courts were educated and observed his laws closely. He'd often scrutinise court documents late into the night to make sure that judgements were fair. In addition he established many religious centres, monasteries and so forth which, in addition to their religious use were also employed for the education of his nobles' children. In his spare time (grins) he also translated latin works which he considered particularly important into english himself.
Somewhere in the 890's (I can't remember the exact date) a large party of danes attempted again to come to England. This time they found a very different kingdom. Alfred had built a 'defence in depth' of fortified burghs all across the Country, none of them more than twenty miles from the next. He'd also raised a permanent standing army with a large cavalry contingent. No more waiting weeks for the fyrd to gather. Finally, there was now also an english navy whose ships were twice the size of the danish longships.
There would never again be an invasion of England.