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From Alfred to Stephen Langton

Part 1: Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great was born in Wantage, Berkshire (Wanetinz-Domesday Book) without any expectation of becoming king, being the fifth son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex 839-856. His life was to have many echoes of King David in the Old Testament as people responded to his leadership in adversity and became his loyal followers. Three of his older brothers were king in Wessex before him Ethelbald 856-860, Ethelbert 860-866 and Ethelred 866-871. In his reign Alfred; defeated the Danish invaders, founded the English Navy, translated parts of the bible into English, translated other Latin works into English, transformed the military structure and strategy of England with community forts or boroughs, introduced education in English to the sons of nobles and the talented poor, captured London, issued laws including reissuing the laws of his predecessor King Ine of Wessex 688-726, established an equitable system of justice, transformed his court into a centre of learning, inaugurated the Anglo Saxon chronicle and produced a capable heir in his son Edward the Elder 901-924. He accomplished these things whilst suffering prolonged ill health.


A huge Danish army invaded the English kingdoms in 866, East Anglia desperately paid them to go away, so they turned north and the Kingdom of Northumbria fell the following year. In 870 East Anglia fell to the returning Danes, the king, Edmund being executed with arrows and in dying giving his name to Bury St Edmunds. Two English kingdoms had fallen there were just two to go. In 871 Ethelred King of Wessex died after a series of battles with the Danes along the line of the future M4. Alfred was the only choice of king and succeeded to the threatened kingdom. In 874 the Burhred the King of Mercia in the midlands the most powerful Anglo Saxon kingdom fled overseas after being king for 22 years. Mercia fell to the Danes and they installed a puppet ruler. Alfred was now the last man standing.

In 878 the Danes wintered at Chippenham and they then overran Wessex. Many people fled overseas, many submitted to Danish rule and Alfred fled to a swamp in the Somerset levels and hid there. The last man standing had fallen. England was now a small hillock in a Somerset swamp called Athelney, if you go there today it's difficult to find, blink and you miss it.


Unlike any of his predecessors or any of his successors until Henry VIII over 600 years later we can hear Alfred's own thoughts as he seems to reflect on this time. 'For in prosperity a man is often puffed up with pride, whereas tribulations chasen and humble him through suffering and sorrow. In the midst of prosperity the mind is elated, and in prosperity a man forgets himself; in hardship he is forced to reflect on himself, even though he be unwilling…very often a man is responsive to the lessons of adversity, even though he previously refused to respond to his instructor's morals and precepts.'

In an amazing come back from defeat, Alfred summoned the English to join up with him at an assembly point. At Pentecost 878 Alfred met up with the men of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire and inflicted a crushing defeat on the disbelieving Danes at Edington forcing them back from Chippenham to Cirencester. Guthrum the leader of the Danes agreed to convert to Christianity and was baptised. In 880 the raiders not fancying another tilt at Wessex retreated to East Anglia and settled there. In 886 Alfred took the old Mercian city of London to the joy of the English inhabitants and "all the English race turned to him, except what was in captivity to Danish men." Within fifty years Alfred's grandson Athelstan was the first undisputed king of all England ruling over both English and Danes.


Anglo Saxon kingship was unique in a number of respects. Firstly the king was chosen by the Witan, a sort of proto parliament of the leading men in the country. The king was then acclaimed by the people. This was kingship by consent and acclamation. Secondly there was the concept and reality of the law of the land. The king was not above the law he was the upholder of the law and ultimately at least in theory subject to the law. This was a very different way of thinking from other countries where the king in effect was the law. Alfred was a decidedly Christian king and his laws were a development of biblical laws and principles. As such he had no difficulty in being subject to law himself. Other ideas such as trial by twelve jurymen were peculiar to the English.


The Norman conquest of 1066 seemed to have put paid to the heritage of Alfred and law was replaced by tyranny, castles, unjust taxation, oppression and exploitation. However each Norman succession to the English throne was disputed by different members of William the Conqueror's family. The barons had the experience of being treated well by a claimant to the throne when he needed their support and arms only to be ill treated by the king once he was securely on the throne. The barons soon became advocates of English Law to keep tyrannical monarchs in check. Claimants to the throne quickly cottoned on to the fact that they needed to promise on oath to uphold the laws of England. If as the Normans claimed they were legitimate successors to the throne of Edward the Confessor they were also successors to the laws of England.

When William I died he was succeeded by his third son William II Rufus, a succession which was disputed by his older brother Robert Duke of Normandy. William Rufus was killed by an arrow during a hunt in the New Forest, Hampshire possibly on the orders of his younger brother Henry who certainly acted very quickly and in a very English way to secure the throne for himself against his older brother Robert who became Duke of Normandy.

Robert was eventually defeated and imprisoned by Henry. Henry's route to the throne is pure Anglo Saxon as the Anglo Saxon chronicle records:

1) "And after he (William Rufus) was buried those councillors who were near at hand chose his brother Henry."

2) "And straightway he…went to London and on the Sunday after that before the alter in Westminster, promised to God and all the people to put down all the injustices which were there in his brothers time and to hold the best laws which had stood in any king's day before him."

3) "And then soon after this the king took as his wife Maud daughter of king Malcolm of Scotland and the good Queen Margaret, King Edward's relative of the rightful royal family of England."


This was Anglo Saxon type kingship restored with kings committed to the upholding of the law rather than being absolute monarchs. In future whenever foreign princes came to the English throne with absolutist ideas there would be trouble as occurred with the Stuarts and the Hanoverians (George III) once they learned to speak English.

The first sign of future trouble was when Henry I died leaving only a single legitimate daughter Matilda who had already been queen to the Emperor Henry V of Germany. It was not unknown for a woman to reign as queen and Wessex had previously had a reigning Queen Sexburga 672-674 a name which for some reason has never really caught on. The crown was then disputed between Matilda and Henry's nephew Stephen 1135-1154 who had also taken the step of marrying into the old English royal family marrying Matilda's cousin Maud. Stephen had of course previously sworn to uphold Matilda as Henry's heiress but had broken his oath. The Empress Matilda having won the war and captured Stephen at the battle of Lincoln 1141 managed to lose the peace by taking a hard line on law and taxes with the inhabitants of the City of London who promptly shut their gates on her.

Insisting that she wouldn't be bound by the law and that she would not reduce taxes was not politically very astute. The civil war reignited between Stephen and Matilda and was eventually settled when it was agreed that Stephen would be king in his lifetime but would be succeeded by Matilda's son the future Henry II.

Henry learning from his mother's blunder became very knowledgeable about English law and intelligently incorporated it in his rule. His sons Richard and John who specialised in their different ways in bankrupting the country and bringing it to ruin failed to follow their father's good practice. The issue of how the king fitted with the law of the land would continue to run until it culminated with Stephen Langton producing the Magna Carta.