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Medieval Sourcebook:
Asser's Life of King Alfred


Although similar to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its annalistic approach, Asser personalized his "Life of King Alfred" so that the man, and not just the Christian king who vanquished the paganistic heathen, was presented. Asser's "Life" differs also in its use of Latin, not the vernacular that most sources from Alfred's reign are written in.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation the eight hundred and seventy-eighth, andthe thirtieth from King Alfred's birth, the oft-mentioned army left Exeter andcame to Chippenham, a royal vill located in the north of Wiltshire on theeastern bank of the river called Avon in Welsh, and there wintered. Andthrough force of arms and want, as well as through fear, they drove many of thepeople there to go beyond sea, and brough most of the inhabitants of thedistrict under their rule.

At the same time the said King Alfred, with a few of his nobles and someknights and men of his household, was in great distress leading an unquiet lifein the woods and marshes of Somerset. For he had no means of support exceptwhat he took in frequent raids by stealth or openly from the pagans, or indeedfrom Christians who had submitted to pagan rule.

In the same year the brother of Inwar and Halfdene with twenty-three boatssailed forthe from the country of Dyfed [the extreme south of Wales], where hehad wintered and where he had slain many Christians, to Devon; and there,before the stronghold of Cynwit, he with twelve hundred others was miserablycut off in his wrong-doing by the king's followers, for many of the latter hadshut themselves up there for safety. But when the pagans saw the strongholdunprepared and unguarded except for defenses built after our manner, they didnot venture to storm it because from the nature of the ground the place wasvery secure on every side except on the eas, as I myself have seen; insteadthey began to besiege it, thinking that those men would quickly be forced tosurrender because of hunger and thirst, for there was no water near. But itdid not turn out as they expected. For the Christians, before they sufferedany such straits, prompted by God to believe it much better to win either deathor victory, at dawn made an unexpected sortie upon the pagans, and shortly slewmost of them, together with their king, only a few escaping to the boats.

In the same year after Easter, King Alfred, with a few to help him, made astronghold in a place called Athelney, and thence kept tirelessly makingattacks upon the pagans with his Somersetshire retainers. And again in theseventh week after Easter he rode to Egbert's Stone, which is in the easternpart of the forest called Selwood--in Latin "Sylva Magna," in Welsh "CoitMaur"--and there met him there all the dwellers about the districts ofSomerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire, who had not through fear of the pagans gonebeyond sea; and when they saw the king, after such great sufferings, almost asone risen from the dead, they were filled with unbounded joy, as it was rightthey should be; and they pitched camp there for one night. At dawn the nextmorning the king moved his camp thence and came to a place called Aeglea, andthere encamped one night.

Moving his standards thence the next morning, he came to a place calledEdington, and with a close shield-wall fought fiercely against the whole armyof the pagans; his attack was long and spirited, and finally by divine aid hetriumphed and overthrew the pagans with a very great slaughter. He pursuedthem, killing them as they fled up to the stronghold, where he seized all thathe found outside--men, horses, and cattle--slaying the men at once; and beforethe gates of the pagan fortress he boldly encamped with his whole army. Andwhen he had stayed there fourteen days and the pagans had known the horrors offamine, cold, fear, and at last of despair, they sought a peace by which theking was to take from them as many named hostages as he wished while he gavenone to them--a kind of peace that they had never before concluded with anyone. When the king heard their message he was moved to pity, and of his ownaccord received from them such designated hostages as he wished. In additionto this, after the hostages were taken, the pagans took oath that they wouldmost speedily leave his kingdom, and also Guthrum, their king, promised toaccept Christianity and to receive baptism at the hands of King Alfred. Allthese things he and his men fulfilled as they had promised. For after threeweeks Guthrum, king of the pagans, with thirty selected men of his army, cameto King Alfred at a place called Aller near Athelney. And Alfred received himas son by adoption, raising him from the sacred font of baptism; and hischrism-loosing on the eighth day was in the royal vill called Wedmore. Afterhe was baptized he stayed with the king twelve nights, and to him and all themen with him the king generously gave many valuable gifts.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation the eight hundred and seventy-ninth, andthe thirty-first from King Alfred's birth, the said army of pagans leftChippenham according to promise and went to Cirencester (in Welsh "Cairceri"),located in the southern part of the district of the Hwicce, and there spent ayear.

In the same year a great army of pagans from foreign parts sailed up the ThamesRiver and joined the larger army, but wintered at a place called Fulham by theThames.

In the same year an eclipse of the sun occurred between nones and vespers, butnearer to nones.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation the eight hundred and eightieth, and ofKing Alfred's life the thirty-second, the oft-mentioned army of pagans leftCirencester and went to the East Angles; and, dividing the district, they beganto settle there.

In the same year the army of pagans which had wintered at Fulham left theisland of Britain, crossed the sea, and came to East Francia. It remained fora year at a place called Ghent.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation the eight hundred and eighty-first, andthe thirty-third from King Alfred's birth, the said army penetrated fartherinto Francia. Against it the Franks fought, and when the battle was over thepagans had gotten horses and became a mounted force.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation the eight hundred and eight-second, andthe thirty-fourth from King Alfred's birth, the said army pushed its boats upthe river Meuse much farther into Francia and spent a year there.

And in the same year Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, fought a battle at seaagainst pagan boats; and he took two of them, having killed all who were inthem. And the commanders of two other boats, with all their fellows, were sothoroughly beaten and so badly wounded that they laid down their arms and onbended knees and with humble prayers surrendered.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation the eight hundred and eighty-third, andthe thirty-fifth from King Alfred's birth, the said army pushed its boatsup-stream along the river Scheldt to a convent of nuns known as Conde, andthere remained one year.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation the eight hundred and eighty-fourth,[Asser inserted the events of 885 into the slot for 884] and the thirty-sixthfrom King Alfred's birth, the said army divided into two troops. One went toEast Francia, and the other came to Kent in Britain and besieged the city whichis called Rochester in Saxon, and which is located on the east bank of theMedway. Before its gate the pagans quickly built themselves a strong tower;but they were not able to take the city, because the citizens defendedthemselves vigorously until King Alfred came to its aid with a large army. Andthen the pagans, on the unexpected arrival of the king, left their tower andall the horses which they had brought with them from Francia, and also most oftheir captives, and fled in haste to their boats, while the Saxons seized thecaptives and the horses. And so the pagans were forced by extreme necessity tosail again into Francia that same summer.

In the same year Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, transferred his fleet,filled with warriors, from Kent to the East Angles for the sake of plunder. And when they had come to the mouth of the river Stour, suddenly thirteen boatsof the pagans, ready for battle, met them; and a naval battle was begun whichwas bitterly contested on both sides, but which resulted in the killing of allthe pagans and the seizure of all their boats and goods. However, while thevictorious royal fleet was resting, the pagans who lived in the land of theEast Angles gathered boats together from any place in which they could findthem and met the king's fleet at the mouth of the same river, and in the battlewhich followed gained the victory.

In the same year also Carloman, king of the East Franks, while on a boar-huntwas so horribly bitten by a boar that he died. His brother was Lewis, who haddied the year before and who was also king of the Franks; they were both sonsof Lewis, king of the Franks. This was the Lewis who had died in theabove-mentioned year in which the eclipse took place, and who was son ofCharles, king of the Franks, whose daughter Judith was, with her father'sconsent, taken as queen by Ethelwulf, king of the West Saxons.

Moreover, in the same year a great army of pagans came from Germany to the landof the Old Saxons, in Saxon called "Eald Seaxum." Against them these sameSaxons and the Frisians joined forces and fought bravely twice in that year. By divine mercy the Christians won both these battles.

Also in this year Charles, king of the Germans, acquired, with the voluntaryconsent of all, the kingdom of the East Franks and all the kingdoms which arebetween the Tyrrhenian Sea and that ocean gulf which lies between the OldSaxons and the Gauls, excepting the kingdom of Amorica. [Brittany] ThisCharles was the son of King Lewis, and Lewis was the brother of that Charles,king of the Franks, who was father of Judith, the above-mentioned queen; andthese two brothers were sons of Lewis, who was the son of Charles, the son ofPippin.

In the same year Pope Marinus of blessed memory went the way of all flesh. Heit was who for love and at the petition of Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons,graciously released the colony of the Saxons residing in Rome from all tributeand toll. Indeed, he took the occasion to send many gifts to the said king;among which was no small portion of that most holy and revered cross on whichour Lord Jesus Christ hung for the salvation of all men.

And also in this year the army of pagans which was living among the East Anglesdisgracefully broke the peace which it had entered into with King Alfred....

In the year of our Lord's incarnation the eight hundred and eighty-sixth, andthe thirty-eighth of Alfred's life, the oft-mentioned army fleeing from thisregion went again into the land of the West Franks; they entered by the rivercalled Seine and pushed far up-stream in their boats even to the city of Paris,and there wintered. And they laid out their camp on both sdes of the rivernar to the bridge in order to keep the citizens from crossing--for this cityis located on a small island in the middle of the river. And they besieged thecity that whole year, but through God's favor and the vigorous defense of thecitizens they could not break the fortifications.

In the same year Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, after the burning of citiesand the slaughter of peoples, honorably restored the city of London and made ithabitable; and he intrusted its defense to Ethelred, ealdorman of the Mercians. And all the Angles and Saxons who had before been widely scattered or who were[not] in captivity with the pagans voluntarily turned to the king and placedthemselves under his rule.

 

note

translated in Albert Beebe White and Wallce Notestein, eds., Source Problems in English History (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1915).

Other works referred to in preparartion:

Elton, Geoffrey, The English (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992).

Maitland, F. W., The Constitutional History of England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965).

Smith, Lacey Baldwin and Jean Reeder Smith, eds., The Past Speaks: Sources and Problems in English History, vol. 1 (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1993).


Text prepared by Seth Seyfried of the University of Utah.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

(c)Paul Halsall Feb 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu