Alfred the Great and the Most Important Battle in English History

The Battle of Edington (878), fought by Alfred the Great against his Viking adversaries has a strong claim to be the most important battle in England’s history.

May 16, 2024By Calvin Hartley, MPhil Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, BA History & Politics

battle of edington alfred the great


According to popular opinion, the Battle of Hastings stands atop the list of most formative battles in English history. Rightly so. Its influence over the course of the country’s future was profound — and the consequences, had the battle gone the other way would have been seismic. Yet Hastings should not stand alone. The Battle of Edington, fought in 878 by King Alfred the Great of Wessex against an invading Scandinavian army, was also a turning point upon which hinged the future of the entity we now identify as “England.” Today, Alfred’s victory feels somewhat inevitable. However, the relatively small-scale conflict that took place in an unknown Wessex field, could have been won by either side.


The Context of the Battle of Edington

Viking Invasion, from The Life and Miracles of St Edmund, 12th century, Source: The Morgan Library


In 878 the kingdom of the West Saxons stood alone. Twelve years earlier a “great heathen army” had arrived on the East Anglian coast from Scandinavia. Since 793 Britain had suffered from repeated sporadic viking raids along its coast. Since the 830s these armies had been growing and coming farther inland and in 866 an army that seems to have been larger than any seen before, sailed to England.


Its leadership appears to have been divided between numerous “kings,” including Halfdan, Bacseg, and possibly Ivar. What their intentions were upon arrival are not all clear. Yet in the years following 866 it would do what previous viking armies had never done before — conquering the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.


The kingdom of Deira with its capital at York was captured in 867. Mercia was raided in 868. In 869 East Anglia was conquered by the same army and its king, Edmund (later Saint Edmund), was killed. In 871 the army launched a great assault on Wessex. The kingdom proved less brittle than its neighbors, but after numerous engagements the West Saxons were forced to make peace with the enemy, very likely delivering a payment to the Vikings in return for a brief respite. This same year saw King Athelred die (potentially due to wounds sustained in battle), and his younger brother Alfred succeeded to the throne.

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In 873 the army drove the king of Mercia “across the sea” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, M. Swanton translation, 873) and gained effective control of the great kingdom of central England. In 875 the army split — one half went north to divide up and settle Northumbria, while the other half turned its sights onto the last remaining independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom.


viking invasions map
Progress of the Great Heathen Army, by Hel-Hama, 2012, Source: Wikiwand


By 876 it was clear that the threat posed by Viking armies to Anglo-Saxon power structures was existential. Wessex, though perhaps marginally more powerful than Mercia or Northumbria in the mid-9th century, was by no means immune to the fate of its neighbors. Should Alfred have been killed or driven away like his fellow kings, it seems certain that Wessex would have fallen. Perhaps aware of these perilously high stakes, Alfred tried on two occasions to make peace with the army that faced him, led according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by “three kings, Guthrum and Oscytel and Anund” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, M. Swanton translation, 875). Despite Alfred extracting oaths from them, sworn on sacred relics, the Viking army repeatedly broke the peace and attempted to join up with reinforcements arriving from the sea, reinforcements that were destroyed in a storm — a stroke of good luck for Alfred.


Alfred in the Marshes 

altheny alfred the great hideout
Map of Alfred’s hideout in the marshes at Althelney in Somerset, Source: JJ’s Wargames


The Viking army at last made its decisive strike against Wessex in the depth of winter in early 878. They attacked the royal estate at Chippenham, likely where Alfred’s court was based at the time, and quickly overran the kingdom. They “drove many of the people over the sea” while Alfred was forced to flee with a “little band” of followers into the marshes of Somerset (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, M. Swanton translation, 878). If there was one moment when the future of the Anglo-Saxons was most in doubt, when the coming into existence of an English nation seemed most improbable — it was now. The idea of “England” as we know it today rested entirely upon Alfred and his group of followers, strung out across the marshes of Somerset as they tried to survive and chip away at the occupying army.


That the Vikings were now in control of Wessex there can be little doubt. The primary sources are explicit in this regard. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated that the Scandinavians “occupied the land of the West Saxons and settled there.” It also claims that “the people submitted to them” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, D. Whitelock translation, 878). Asser, a prominent bishop and scholar in Alfred’s court who wrote a biography of his king not long after these events, stated that “very nearly all of the inhabitants of that region submitted to their authority” (Asser’s Life of Alfred, S. Keynes and M. Lapidge translation).


alfred the great burning thecakes
Alfred scolded for burning the cakes, from Pictures of English History, 1850, Source: Southwest Heritage


Thus it was that Alfred was left “with his small band of nobles and also with certain soldiers and thegns,” living “a restless life with great distress amid the woody and marshy places of Somerset” (Asser’s Life of Alfred, S. Keynes and M. Lapidge translation). It is from this period that legends concerning Alfred arise, including the story of his burning of the cakes of a common Somerset woman, who had asked him to look after them. There is also a legend that the king was visited by St Cuthbert, pre-Conquest England’s most revered saint, who gave the king encouragement in his darkest hour. These stories speak to the evocative nature of the situation. To imagine the king, who played such an important role in shaping the idea of England, and who would be remembered as the nation’s founding father in many ways, in such a humble state is a powerful reminder of the fickleness of fortune.


It seems that Alfred did his best to harass the occupying army through raiding, and our sources agree that he and his followers established a fort for themselves at Athelney. From here Alfred sought to concentrate his remaining forces and recruit any local inhabitants willing to remain loyal. It seems clear that he would only have one chance to regain his kingdom with his meager resources. In May he rode to an unidentified location known to us as “Egbert’s Stone,” from where he rallied all of his available forces to meet the vikings in a decisive battle. This battle would be fought for control of Wessex. But in hindsight it is clear that there was far more at stake.



anglo saxon soldier raises shield
Reenactor dressed as Anglo-Saxon Soldier, by Anthony McCallum, Source:


Frustratingly, we know next to nothing about the Battle of Edington itself. The location of the battle is unknown. The strength of the opposing armies is not clear. The course of the fighting is totally obscure. Nevertheless, what is clear is that Alfred and his forces were victorious. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Alfred “fought against the whole army, and put it to flight” (Anglo-Saxon Chroncle, M. Swanton translation, 878). Asser gives us the detail that Alfred’s forces fought with a shield-wall, and that he “destroyed the Vikings with great slaughter.” 


The aftermath of the fighting is somewhat more coherent. The West Saxon army pursued the Vikings to their fortification and besieged it. After 14 days the Vikings were forced to make peace with the West Saxons. They allowed Alfred to take hostages from the Viking army without giving up any hostages of his own — Asser states that the Vikings had “never (…) made peace with anyone on such terms,” suggesting that this was a peace very much dictated by the victorious party. The other terms of this peace also suggest that the Scandinavian army had been thoroughly defeated. They swore to leave Alfred’s kingdom immediately and promised that their king would receive baptism. The latter request was fulfilled three weeks later when the Viking leader Guthrum came to Alfred and was baptized by the king — becoming both a Christian and Alfred’s godson in the process.


The Aftermath

alfred the great samuel woodforde
Alfred the Great, by Samuel Woodforde, 18th century, Source:


To be able to grasp the importance of the Battle of Edington we must consider what Alfred was able to achieve after he had regained his kingdom in 878. His defensive military reforms helped to fend off further Viking invasions in the early 890s. His drive to restore literacy and learning in the West Saxon church and court helped to strengthen the administrative structure of his rule. His formation of a treaty with Guthrum in the middle of the 880s demarcated Guthrum’s kingdom of East Anglia from Alfred’s realm, and in so doing gave Alfred effective lordship over all the Anglo-Saxons not under Scandinavian rule. His occupation of the Mercian city of London cemented his position, and from the mid-880s Alfred began to sign his charters as Rex Angul-Saxonum — King of the Anglo-Saxons.


Alfred’s reforms provided a base on which his successors would build. His son (Edward the Elder) and grandson (Athelstan) after absorbing Mercia into the West Saxon realm would go on to conquer the Anglo-Scandinavian kingdoms and forge the realm of England with the borders we are familiar with today. Their ability to project the power of Wessex onto the entire island of Britain would have been impossible without the revival and consolidation of Alfred’s reign. The King of England can still trace his lineage back to Alfred the Great.


A Turning Point

england after edington
England in 878, after Edington, from The Atlas of European History, by E.W. Dow, 1910, Source: Wikimedia Commons


All of this brings us back to May 878, and the battle that rescued Alfred from oblivion and allowed him to regain his kingdom. The question that must be asked is this: What would have happened had Alfred lost the battle? Alternate history should be approached with great caution when it is approached at all. Yet one cannot avoid the point that Alfred could easily have lost this battle. Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia had fallen to the Scandinavians and Wessex could have too. Four of his contemporary kings had been dethroned — three of them had been killed, and another had been forced to flee the British Isles.


These Viking conquests were not temporary, nor were they fragile. The victorious army in Northumbria settled on the land and turned the city of York into a thriving center of international trade. Place name evidence, archeological findings, legal legacies, and evidence of pro-Scandinavian political sentiment in the Viking invasions of the 11th century all indicate that the Scandinavian conquerors became deeply embedded into the North-East of England. This indicates that were it not for the survival and subsequent conquests of Wessex, there seems every chance that the whole of the English lands could have become subject to long-lasting Scandinavian rule. After all, a few centuries earlier invaders from across the North Sea had invaded the British Isles and carved out Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the native power structures of the Britons.


viking helmets and shields
Viking helmets and shields, by Helgi Halldorsson, 2012, Source: Wikimedia Commons


It seems eminently possible that had Alfred the Great been defeated at his last stand at Edington, that the subsequent history of the British Isles would have looked profoundly different. The idea of “England” as we now understand it may never have come into being. Hastings decided who would rule England. Edington decided whether England would come into existence at all.


The absence of detailed information about the battle itself makes it difficult for Edington to carve out a prominent position in the collective historical imagination. Yet, in many ways, this lack of detail makes the battle deeply intriguing. It also speaks to the lure of early medieval history. What a provoking idea that that 1200 years ago, on an unknown field in the south-west of England, the fate of entire nations was decided by no more than a few thousand men in a battle mostly lost to history.

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By Calvin HartleyMPhil Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, BA History & PoliticsCalvin has a BA in History and Politics and an MPhil in Early Medieval History from Cambridge University. His particular interests are in Ancient Rome and Medieval Western Europe.