King Alfred's Viking
A Story of the First English Fleet
Charles W. Whistler.
The general details and course of events given in this story are, so far as regards the private life and doings of King Alfred, from his life as written by his chaplain, Asser. One or two further incidents of the Athelney period are from the later chroniclers--notably the sign given by St. Cuthberht--as are also the names of the herdsman and the nobles in hiding in the fen.
That Alfred put his first fleet into the charge of "certain Vikings" is well known, though the name of their chief is not given. These Vikings would certainly be Norse, either detached from the following of Rolf Ganger, who wintered in England in 875 A.D. the year before his descent on Normandy; or else independent rovers who, like Rolf, had been driven from Norway by the high-handed methods of Harald Fairhair. Indeed, the time when a Norse contingent was not present with the English forces, from this period till at least that of the battle of Brunanburh in 947 A.D. would probably be an exception.
There are, therefore, good historic grounds for the position given to the hero of the story as leader of the newly-formed fleet. The details of the burning of his supposed father's hall, and of the Orkney period, are from the Sagas.
Much controversy has raged over the sites of Ethandune and the landing place of Hubba at Kynwith Castle, owing probably to the duplication of names in the district where the last campaign took place. The story, therefore, follows the identifications given by the late Bishop Clifford in "The Transactions of the Somerset Archaeological Society" for 1875 and other years, as, both from topographic and strategic points of view, no other coherent identification seems possible.
The earthworks of the Danish position still remain on Edington hill, that looks out from the Polden range over all the country of Alfred's last refuge, and the bones of Hubba's men lie everywhere under the turf where they made their last stand under the old walls and earthworks of Combwich fort; and a lingering tradition yet records the extermination of a Danish force in the neighbourhood. Athelney needs but the cessation of today's drainage to revert in a very few years to what it was in Alfred's time--an island, alder covered, barely rising from fen and mere, and it needs but little imagination to reproduce what Alfred saw when, from the same point where one must needs be standing, he planned the final stroke that his people believed was inspired directly from above.
It would seem evident from Alfred's method with Guthrum that he realized that this king was but one among many leaders, and not directly responsible for the breaking of the solemn peace sworn at Exeter and Wareham. His position as King of East Anglia has gained him an ill reputation in the pages of the later chronicles; but neither Asser nor the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle--our best authorities--blames him as they, for his contemporaries knew him to be but a "host king," with no authority over newcomers or those who did not choose to own allegiance to him.
Save in a few cases, where the original spelling preserves a lost pronunciation, as in the first syllable of "Eadmund," the modern and familiar forms of the names have been used in preference to the constantly-varying forms given by the chroniclers. Bridgwater has no Saxon equivalent, the town being known only as "The Bridge" since the time when the Romans first fortified this one crossing place of the Parret; and the name of the castle before which Hubba fell varies from Cynuit through Kynwith to Kynwich, whose equivalent the Combwich of today is. Guthrum's name is given in many forms, from Gytro to Godramnus. Nor has it been thought worth while to retain the original spelling AElfred, the ae diphthong having been appropriated by us to an entirely new sound; while our own pronunciation of the name slightly broadened as yet in Wessex, is correct enough.
The exact relationship of St. Neot to Alfred, beyond that he was a close kinsman, is very doubtful. He has been identified with a brother, Athelstan of East Anglia, who is known to have retired to Glastonbury; but there is no more than conjecture, and I have been content with "cousinship."
C. W. Whistler
Chapter I. The Seeking of Sword Helmbiter.
Men call me "King Alfred's Viking," and I think that I may be proud of that name; for surely to be trusted by such a king is honour enough for any man, whether freeman or thrall, noble or churl. Maybe I had rather be called by that name than by that which was mine when I came to England, though it was a good title enough that men gave me, if it meant less than it seemed. For being the son of Vemund, king of Southmereland