King Alfred was far from successful in his early battles against the Danes. Shortly after succeeding his brother Æthelred as ruler of Wessex in AD 871, he was forced to make a fragile peace by paying the invaders to leave the kingdom, only to suffer further incursions over the next few years.


But by AD 878 and the battle of Edington, Alfred was sufficiently powerful to be able to force the Danes, led by the future king of East Anglia, Guthrum, into a modest retreat across the border into neighbouring Mercia. In the process, Alfred regained the stronghold of Chippenham, and a subsequent programme of fortress building managed to keep future Danish aggression at bay. These were tactics that would come to influence later Saxon leaders, including his children Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd, ‘Lady of the Mercians’.

Whether a different Wessex king could have achieved this success is up for scrutiny. Ryan Lavelle – professor of early medieval history at the University of Winchester and the author of Alfred’s Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age (Boydell, 2010) – suggests that “perhaps Alfred had more drive than other rulers at this point in his life, but we don’t know if another ruler in the same position would have done better.”

“Perhaps he had skills as a negotiator. The peace in AD 871 was bought with money, and knowing when to purchase peace and how it could be negotiated was an important thing. Any ruler could buy peace if they had the wealth, but I suppose the thing here might be that Alfred knew it was a good time to do so in AD 871 and to regroup.”

In context: the aftermath of Edington

Seven years into his rule as king of Wessex, during which he suffered frequent Viking incursions, Alfred’s troops met the forces of the Danish leader Guthrum at the battle of Edington. His victory was highly significant, not least because Wessex was the only Saxon kingdom that hadn’t succumbed to Viking control.

Furthermore, not only did it mark the beginning of Wessex’s heavy fortification, protecting Alfred’s subjects from future invasions, but it also fostered peaceful relations due to Alfred’s insistence that Guthrum’s Christian baptism be a key clause of the post-battle Treaty of Wedmore. Overall Scandinavian control of each and every Saxon kingdom had been averted.

That regrouping, during which time Alfred probably recruited more warriors, laid the foundations of the victory at Edington. Were he not so organised, Guthrum’s westward expansion may have met little resistance. Had the Danes taken control of all of Wessex, would there have been much opposition from the West Saxons or other Anglo-Saxons? Might they have organised to repel these interlopers?

“Some sort of national uprising would have been unlikely,” explains Professor Lavelle. “The English after 1066 didn’t manage this when there had been decades of nominally national rule, so I don’t think we can expect groups of people who weren’t bound in any political fashion to have managed it in the circumstances of Alfred having been hammered at the battle of Edington.”

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Religious coexistence?

By the same token, a unified ‘Daneland’, whereby the regions under Danish control forged a federation or even a single state, was unlikely. “Although the Viking ‘Great Army’ is given a sense of unity by the West Saxons’ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was a diverse bunch with different leaders and different interests, so the possibility exists that the ‘heptarchy’ of pre-Viking England could have continued for much longer, with a patchwork of territories.”

“Different Viking leaders might have disposed of the puppet leaders they’d installed, but I don’t think they would have done it with the greater aim of creating some kind of ‘Daneland’. However, this possibility would have been in the minds of the West Saxons and the Mercians in AD 878.”

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Even if a post-Edington control of Wessex by the Danes was unlikely to lead to the unification of various kingdoms, Viking culture would nonetheless have come to bear on the West Saxons. One clear cultural difference concerns religion, with the Scandinavians’ paganism seemingly at odds with the Christianity of the natives. Certainly the outlawing of the latter belief would have profoundly altered the course of English history.

But Professor Lavelle sees less conflict here than might be imagined. “Vikings very quickly adopted Christianity in the places in which they settled. It suited Danish rulers to cooperate with existing networks of Christian authority, and while some of the Vikings may have been explicit in their hostility to Christianity, the variety of gods worshipped by Scandinavian pagans at this time would have meant that there was room for Christ among those gods. Also, I suspect that the networks of trade on which many Vikings relied would have meant that absolute hostility to Christianity was off the cards.”

Other Viking cultural influences might have included how life subsequently looked. For instance, Professor Lavelle imagines “the building of Viking great halls in the downlands of the English countryside”. Indeed, with Alfred’s programme of fortress construction only taking effect post-Edington, “perhaps the shape of English towns would have looked different as a result”.

That said, the core purpose of human interaction and society would have survived, even between Dane and Saxon. “The needs of towns as places for people to gather, to exchange news, to trade and sometimes to worship would have been the same, and to be part of a network linked to the sea was also important during the early medieval period. We can surely expect the Vikings to have shared the same interests.”

Ryan Lavelle is the historical advisor for 878 AD, a visitor attraction in Winchester inspired by the story of King Alfred’s victory at Edington


This article was first published in the December 2022 edition of BBC History Revealed