The Tudors: Elizabeth I (1558-1603)

Popularly she was known as “The Virgin Queen” and “Good Queen Bess.” Edmund Spenser honored her as “Gloriana” in his 1590 masterpiece, The Faerie Queene. Will Durant called her “The Great Queen” in his monumental The Story of Civilization. In the eyes of history, Elizabeth represents the apex as well as the conclusion of the Tudor dynasty. She became a celebrated god-like figure as well as the embodiment of an emerging empire. Indeed, the entire epoch was named in her honor -the Elizabethan Age- a fabled golden age of England.

Latter day historians have looked back with deceptive nostalgia on the Elizabethan era for its extraordinary cultural heights -the flourishing of English literature in the works of William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe. It was also the age of exploration under Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, and the burgeoning scientific Enlightenment under Francis Bacon, and most importantly, English cultural euphoria blossomed following the dramatic victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. Yet the Elizabethan Age was also a time of great uncertainty. She reigned for 45 tumultuous years. The continuing brutality between Protestants and Catholics had spread all over Europe and it violently turned countries against themselves while also yielding extreme authoritarian sects, like the Puritans in England. And with the memory of the Wars of the Roses fresh in the minds of Englishmen, the security of the crown’s succession was a vitally important question as Elizabeth’s reign drew to a close. The “Virgin Queen” refused to marry and produce an heir despite the growing chorus of advice to do so, and she remained silent on the question of successorship. Would her life and death lead to a new English civil war?

Elizabeth’s Childhood
Elizabeth Tudor was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. She was only three years old when her mother Anne Boleyn was executed amidst charges of treason and unfaithfulness.

Elizabeth was raised and tutored in the household of Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr. Following the death of Henry VIII, Catherine Parr remarried for her fourth and final time to a baron named Thomas Seymour. Elizabeth spent her formative years in their household and at Hatfield House under the tutelage of her governess Katherine “Kat” Ashley. By all accounts Elizabeth was a studious pupil. She knew six languages, and translated some of the works of Cicero, Boethius, and Tacitus into English. She was an able musician, she loved hunting, and despite being schooled in the new Protestant doctrine, she privately remained skeptical unlike either her half-brother, Edward VI (a staunch Protestant) or her half-sister, Mary (an uncompromising Catholic). Elizabeth developed a moderate outward theological disposition, and by keeping the passionate religious dogmas of her day at a distance, she gradually molded her character into a pragmatic and capable leader.

At the age of 35 Catherine Parr conceived a surprise pregnancy. During this time, her husband Thomas Seymour took an unsolicited romantic interest in 14-year old Elizabeth. Apparently, he would occasionally enter her room in the mornings and evenings, sometimes scantily clad, and he would tickle her and touch her inappropriately. Occasionally, Catherine would participate. When things apparently went too far, Catherine sent Elizabeth away never to see her again. Catherine Parr died in childbirth a few months later, and after her death, Thomas Seymour tried to pursue a marriage proposal with Elizabeth but he was caught up in legal troubles. He was tried and executed for treason shortly thereafter. The details of the relationship between Elizabeth and Seymour are a bit hazy. When interrogated about Thomas Seymour, Elizabeth remained tight-lipped but the whole experience surely tempered her perspective on men for the rest of her life.

A portrait of teenage Elizabeth shortly before her father’s birthday

During the reign of her half-brother, Edward VI, Elizabeth kept a mostly low profile amidst the radical religious restructuring of the country. When Edward died, Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary I, claimed the throne and swung the pendulum back toward Catholicism. Elizabeth, a nominal Protestant, was suspected by the Queen of taking part in Wyatt’s Rebellion against the crown. Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower of London and she would have almost certainly been executed if any evidence against her was found. Thankfully none ever was found. Elizabeth was allowed to live, much to the chagrin of Queen Mary who secretly despised her Protestant half-sister for the rest of her short life.

The Great Queen
Elizabeth Tudor became Queen of England upon the death of her pitiful half-sister, Mary. The jewels of the crown were sent to Elizabeth shortly before Mary’s death, a symbol from the dying Queen that Henry VIII’s plan for the succession was to be upheld. Upon the death of Mary, the church bells of England rang throughout the land while Elizabeth rode through the streets en route to Westminster. She was showered with adulations from the commoners as well as the nobles alike. Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England at the age of 25, the coronation ceremony was presided over by the sitting Catholic Archbishop at Westminster Abbey on November 17, 1558.

In her early reign, the burden of the crown lay heavy on Elizabeth. She had inherited the collapsing scenery of her sister’s regime: both religious and diplomatic challenges were left unsettled. In response, Elizabeth gathered around her some of the most able-minded Protestants of the day: Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and father of Francis Bacon; Roger Ascham, a foremost classical scholar who was also one of Elizabeth’s childhood tutors. However above them all was Sir William Cecil, a strategic, detail-oriented son of a Tudor courtier. He had survived the courts of both Edward VI and Mary, and he became a trusted advisor to Elizabeth for the rest of his life. It was his habit to issue lengthy treatises on particular issues, weighing the arguments on both sides, before ultimately favoring a middle path. His moderate voice was characteristic of Elizabeth’s court, however like her father before her, Elizabeth’s court also embraced the finer things. She donned exuberant garb, like Henry VIII, and her attendant ladies were required to dress in more plain black clothes to highlight Elizabeth’s superiority by contrast (the Queen’s vanity was extraordinary). She was cautious and distrusting, yet she was also an imperious and headstrong young Queen. She was a complicated person: both parsimonious and prideful, cunning and vain, manipulative and sensitive. She rarely summoned Parliament because she did not suffer their criticism or delays in a tolerable manner.

Elizabeth’s coronation (c. 1600)

Elizabeth’s first crisis was the ongoing religious factionalism in the nation. She convened Parliament in January 1559 to address the growing concerns. Unlike her two predecessors, she pursued a policy of via media (“middle way”) regarding religious extremism. Sir William Cecil brilliantly maneuvered compromise between the divided Catholics and Protestants. Ultimately, the price of the Queen’s Supremacy over the Church and in Parliament was the compulsory acceptance of Cranmer’s Protestant Book of Common Prayer. The new Act of Supremacy became law in May 1559. Per David Starkey: “The result was a Church that was Protestant in doctrine, Catholic in appearance and which would, Elizabeth hoped, satisfy all but a handful of extremists on both sides” (315). Elizabeth later issued her famous 39 Articles in 1571, which attempted to blend Protestantism and Catholicism, and like her father before her, Elizabeth commissioned a new Bible be created (however, the question of English Biblical authority was to fall to Elizabeth’s predecessor King James I, who commissioned the massive undertaking of the King James Bible).

One of the more radical religious sects that arose out of this period was Puritanism. They were a strong breed of fervent Calvinists of the Genevan variety. Above all, they were skeptics of the Anglican doctrine. Around 1564 they became known as ‘Puritans’ as a pejorative because they wanted to purify England of any theology not found in the New Testament. They were proponents of a strict theocratic despotism. Of the Puritans Winston Churchill writes: “It is at this point that the party known as the Puritans who were to play so great a role in the next hundred years, first enter English history. Democratic in theory and organization, intolerant in practice of all who differed from their views, the Puritans challenged the Queen’s authority in Church and State, and although she sought for freedom of conscience and could maintain with sincerity that she ‘made no windows into men’s souls’, she dared not let them organise cells in the body religious or the body politic” (263).

Not only was England divided within, but also it faced threats from abroad. England was a political cripple bandied about between Spain and France, the Pope was betting Elizabeth would be willing mend the relationship with the Church to ease the infighting and threats from foreign Catholic powers in Europe. Everywhere men of England feared a return to the Wars of the Roses and it instilled a stark political and religious divide among opinions between those who believed the reforms had gone far enough, and those who pushed for ever greater reforms. The distinctions of the day were made clear: Cavalier and Puritan, Churchman and Dissenter, Tory and Whig. However, Elizabeth disappointed the Church by turning away from the rule of Rome -she reclaimed the ecclesiastical role of the sovereign like her father, Henry VIII. Elizabeth professed not to convict any man, but she also said there could not be two religions in the country. Thus, under the guise of national unity all churches in England were openly converted to Protestantism. All people were forced to swear that salvation came through faith alone (i.e. the Lutheran justification) rather than by good works, and the Calvinist interpretation of the Eucharist was enforced as a spiritual metaphor rather than the physical embodiment of Christ. Anglicanism officially became the law of the land. Much of the country remained privately Catholic until and unless further punitive laws were leveled against Catholics. Pope Pius V issued a Papal Bull excommunicating Elizabeth, as well as support for a plot of several united Catholic countries to invade England. Persecution of Catholics followed in England. Many hundred of Catholics were burned at the stake, hanged, drawn and quartered, or otherwise tortured. Yet England still avoided a grotesque slaughter like the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France against the Huguenots in August 1572.

While Fortune favors the bold, Fate humbles the proud. Three years into her reign, Elizabeth contracted smallpox -a disease which few people survived in the 16th century. The prospect of the Queen’s death caused great anxiety among her advisors because there was no clear successor to the throne. It meant there would almost certainly be a constitutional crisis and a civil war or else invasion from abroad. For many days Elizabeth clung to her threadbare life, with her advisors on edge, however she miraculously survived the disease and fully regained her faculties. The only legacy was that smallpox left her skin horribly scarred and disfigured, with half of her hair was absent her head. For the rest of her life she would don lavish wigs and starch cosmetics to hide her physical decay. Around this time, Elizabeth’s youthful beauty had begun to fade. In addition to her skin and hair, Elizabeth’s teeth were severely rotten. She was a lifelong lover of sweets -an expensive commodity for only the wealthiest Englishmen- and her habit cost her most of her teeth while the remaining teeth appeared yellow (apparently, Elizabeth distrusted dentistry). In later years, certain foreign ambassadors had a difficult time understanding Elizabeth when she spoke as her words emanating from her toothless mouth were garbled.

Nevertheless, despite her physical ailments she is rumored to have carried on several affairs. Her lifelong love was for a childhood friend and nobleman named Robert Dudley earl of Leicester. He was already married to an ailing wife but that did not stop Elizabeth. One morning, Mrs. Dudley was found dead under suspicious circumstances -her neck was broken after falling down a flight of stairs. After the woman’s death, Elizabeth seriously considered marriage with Robert Dudley but she was prevented from doing so by the more conservative voices on her council, particularly Sir William Cecil. Robert Dudley eventually remarried another woman and Elizabeth openly expressed disgust and distaste with his new wife for many years to come. She also entertained marriage proposals from foreign dignitaries, such as Philip II of Spain, Eric XIV of Sweden, the Archduke Charles of Austria, and the Duke of Anjou along with his brother. She is rumored to have had infatuations with various other noblemen: Robert Devereux the earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh. However, Elizabeth never seriously pursued any of these opportunities and she remained unmarried all her life.

The ambiguous status of Elizabeth’s marital pursuits led to her second great crisis which loomed over the rest of her life. This was the question of successorship. With an unmarried queen, England had no direct inheritor to the throne. Her court grew impatient. The stability of England lay in the succession of the crown but Elizabeth modeled herself on being wedded to no man but rather to her whole realm. She even wore an inauguration ring to symbolize her marriage to England. Elizabeth’s great power and controversy lay in her silence regarding a successor. If she chose a successor, Elizabeth privately feared a rebellion or an assassination attempt by the parties of opposition. Would Elizabeth marry an Englishman like Robert Dudley? Marrying an Englishman would inevitably earn the ire of half her court. Or instead would she marry a foreigner? Elizabeth had witnessed the dangers of a foreign king when her half-sister Mary was betrothed to Philip II of Spain, a union which spawned widespread hatred and condemnation. Despite Parliament’s pleas for Elizabeth to marry and produce a child, an angry Elizabeth remained silent and obstinate.

Meanwhile there was Mary Queen of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots
“Mary Stuart” was the daughter of the house of Stuart, James V of Scotland. Mary was a mere six days old when she became Queen of the Scots following the death of James V. She was a descendent of the Tudor family: Henry VII’s daughter, Margaret Tudor (sister to Henry VIII), married King James IV of Scotland. They gave birth to James V of Scotland who married Mary of Guise -the parents of Mary Queen of Scots.

Portrait of a young Mary Queen of Scots by François Clouet circa 1558-1560

Mary spent much of her childhood in France where she married the Dauphin of France, Francis. She was Queen consort of France for one year from 1559-1560 until he died. Then she returned to Scotland and several years later she married for love to her half-cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley –“a weak, conceited youth who had both Tudor and Stuart blood in his veins” according to Winston Churchill (264). Together they had a son, James (the future king of England), but their marriage was a disaster and it spurred old feudal factions in Scotland. Darnley was a hot-headed, violent man. Mary’s enemies used Darnley to disrupt her court -at one point he intruded and threatened the pregnant Queen. At the same time, Mary’s favorite guests from France were highly unpopular, and one man, Mary’s secretary and musician named David Riccio, was seized and stabbed to death in Mary’s presence. Darnley had become convinced Riccio had an inappropriate relationship with his wife. Mary’s enemies nimbly used Lord Darnley against her.

In an act of desperation Mary apparently conspired to murder her husband. In February 1567, Darnley’s residence was destroyed by a mysterious explosion, and he was found murdered in his garden (the murderous image is mirrored in the death of Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s Hamlet). James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was generally believed to have orchestrated Darnley’s death, but he was acquitted of the charge in April 1567, and the following month Bothwell married Mary Queen of Scots -many suspected that Mary had, in fact, wed her husband’s murderer and thus she was either complicit in or at least acquiescent to the murder. The marriage to Bothwell caused Mary’s Protestant subjects to rise up against her. Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle and in July 1567 she was forced to abdicate her crown which passed to her one-year-old son (James VI of Scotland). After an unsuccessful attempt to regain her throne, she fled southward begging for protection from her cousin once removed: Queen Elizabeth I of England. However Mary’s arrival in England was a disaster from the beginning. Her Catholic presence in England quickly became a threat to the Protestant crown. Numerous conspiracies arose against Elizabeth. In the eyes of the Pope, Mary was the rightful successor to the crown of England and Papist enemies abroad used Mary’s protection in England as an opportunity to subvert the rule of Protestantism. Catholic Spain leaked spies (i.e. Jesuits) into the country to rouse the Catholic North against the Protestant South. Tensions with Spain grew as England’s textile trade with the Netherlands expanded, and Elizabeth reluctantly supported the Netherlands in their dispute with Spain. The Queen’s court grew paranoid of growing Spanish threats. Throughout Elizabeth’s reign she employed a covert string of spies across the country -her court carried out an elaborate string of espionage activities stretching across the isle under the Queen’s “Spymaster,” Sir Francis Walsingham. Foreign threats abounded, from Spanish Catholic “Papists” to Mary Queen of Scots.

Privately, Elizabeth was sympathetic to Mary Queen of Scots. They were of the same blood and Elizabeth was averse to meddling in international affairs. Perhaps in some ways Elizabeth admired Mary. The tall, charismatic, and at times erratic Mary Queen of Scots was everything Elizabeth was not. In fact, the two queens never actually met. They exchanged letters while Mary was exiled in various English castles, and their letters offer a unique glimpse into two distinct styles of governance. They were unquestionably rivals. On the one hand, Elizabeth was a shrewd and cynical tactician who remained unmarried and childless, while Mary was a reckless and gregarious romantic who was thrice married and had secured her succession with the birth of a son. In some ways, each woman’s strength was the other’s deprivation. At any rate, the temporary stability of England lay in Elizabeth’s balanced governance, but the future of England belonged to Mary’s progeny.

After eighteen and a half years in captivity in England, Elizabeth finally and reluctantly ordered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots but only after a dangerous plot known as the Babington Plot was discovered. The Babington Plot was a Spanish attempt to invade England via Anthony Babington, assassinate Elizabeth, and instate Mary as the rightful head of England. Upon the discovery of Mary’s covert correspondence inside a beer barrel cork, she was found guilty of treason in 1586. Although calmly denying any involvement, Mary was beheaded the following year at Fotheringhay Castle in a solemn but brutal ceremony. She wore crimson brown, the traditional color of martyrdom in the Catholic Church, and she donned a wooden crucifix believed to be part of the true cross of Jesus. She lay her head down on the block and stretched out her hands muttering her last words in Latin “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”). Her beheading was particularly barbaric. It took the executioner several blows to Mary’s neck before her head was eventually hacked off. The executioner then picked up her severed head and held it before the crow declaring “God save the Queen” but the bloodied head accidentally slipped out of his hand and down to the floor revealing that Mary wore a wig. Mary’s true hair was short and grey. Her lifeless head rolled off the scaffold and onto the floor while blood spilled all over the room. It was a gruesome scene.

During her lifetime, Mary had married for love which produced a son (the future King James I) and she also married for lust which ended disastrously. In the end, she lost her queenship, her son, and her life while Queen Elizabeth endured.

The Defeat of the Spanish Armada
The zenith of Elizabeth’s reign came in 1588. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots coupled with Elizabeth’s support for the Netherlands against Spain led to open conflict with the Spanish Empire. Additionally, England began exploring the coasts of the New World, where the plundering Spaniards had looted the Aztec and Incan Empires (in present-day Mexico and Peru). Spain felt it held a monopoly on the Americas but England sent the privateer, Sir Francis Drake, to raid the Canary Islands and the coasts of ‘New Spain.’ His voyage was a success and he managed to outrun the Spanish ships as he escaped to ‘Alta California’ and landed at Drake’s Bay (which he claimed for England as “Nova Albion”) located in present-day Northern California. Sir Francis Drake is also famous for accidentally circumnavigating the world. He became infamous in Spain as the “Master Thief of the unknown world.” His raids on Spanish ships along the west coast of South America played a significant part in the advent of war between England and Spain, as did his infamous raid on the Spanish galleons off the coast of Cadiz in 1587. Meanwhile, on the Atlantic seaboard Sir Walter Raleigh founded England’s first attempted settlement in the New World -the Roanoke Colony whose surrounding lands were named “Virginia” in honor of the ‘Virgin Queen’ (however the land where the colony once existed is located in present-day North Carolina). The colony quickly failed and Sir Francis Drake rescued some of the starving colonists on his return to England. Those that remained were never seen again. Several theories exist as to the fate of this colony. At any rate, it was not until the reign of James I that the first permanent English settlement was founded at Jamestown in 1607 in the modern state of Virginia.

With all this in mind, Spain was ready for a naval conflict with England. The Spanish Armada was prepared by May 1588. It consisted of 130 ships, 2,500 hundred guns, and 30,000 men. The goal of Hapsburg Spain was to invade England and overthrow Elizabeth. However, in some ways the battle was over before it even started. Faster English warships attacked Spanish galleons while en route to England and while docked off the coast of Europe, near lands governed by the Duke of Parma. The conflict sent the Spanish Armada in chase and they were soon met with inclement weather. The Armada was forced to retreat but prevailing winds pushed them northward around the difficult horn of Scotland before returning home to Spain. Many ships were wrecked along the craggy coastline amidst stormy weather. Per Winston Churchill: “There were no boastings; they recorded their dissatisfactions. But to the English people as a whole the defeat of the Armada came as a miracle… England emerged from the Armada year as a first-class Power. She had resisted the weight of the mightiest empire that had been seen since Roman times. Her people awoke to a consciousness of their greatness, and the last years of Elizabeth’s reign saw a welling up of national energy and enthusiasm focusing upon the person of the Queen” (272-273).

The “Armada Portrait” of Elizabeth showing her hand on the globe, symbolizing the new English empire.

Despite the fact that the Armada was largely defeated by unprofitable weather, the demise of the Spanish Armada while crossing the Channel led to an outpouring of English patriotism and euphoria. Elizabeth was celebrated in the burgeoning theatrical scene by the likes of Edmund Spenser, and in the works of Shakespeare which starkly turned away from theological premonitions in celebration of English royal history and classical mythology. Elizabeth became the figure-head for a new English renaissance. Sir Water Raleigh described Elizabeth as follows: “riding like Alexander, hunting like Diana, walking like Venus.” The celebratory attitude led to the founding of the East India Company via a charter granted by Elizabeth to an ambitious group of London merchants and financiers in the year 1600. Their initial goal was to challenge the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly on the far east trade. Eventually, the joint stock company was to become one of the largest corporations in the history of the world.

Elizabeth had ushered in the heights of the Tudor dynasty, but within a generation the Stuart succession would ebb the tide and weaken the international prestige of England. Regarding the achievements of Elizabeth, Will Durant writes: “By whatever means her subtle weakness could devise, she preserved her country from foreign domination, maintained peace with some brief intervals for thirty years, and left England richer than ever before in matter and mind.”

The Death of Elizabeth
After surviving considerable danger throughout her lifetime and numerous health scares, nearing the age of 70, Elizabeth’s health finally gave out at Richmond Palace in 1603. At the end she fell into a deep depression -she lay upon cushions on the floor, unable to sleep, unwilling to eat, refusing to speak. She and her councilors named as her successor James VI of Scotland (the son of Mary Queen of Scots, the future James I of England). The reign of the Good Queen Bess had reached its sunset.

Regarding the death of Elizabeth, Winston Churchill writes: “In the early hours of March 24, 1603, Queen Elizabeth died. Thus ended the Tudor dynasty. For over a hundred years, with a handful of bodyguards, the Tudors had maintained their sovereignty, kept the peace, baffled the diplomacy and onslaughts of Europe, and guided the country through changes which might well have wrecked it… The Crown was now to pass to an alien Scottish line, hostile in political instincts to the class which administered England. The good understanding with Parliament which the Tudors had nourished came to a fretful close” (277).

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Will Durant’s chapter on the “Great Queen” in The Story of Civilization, Peter Ackroyd’s Tudors: The History of England From Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, Sir John Hayward’s Annals of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth (1630), and William Campden’s Chronicles.

The Norman Kings (1066-1154)

After the death of William The Conqueror his kingdom was divided between his sons: Robert was given Dukedom of Normandy, William II was given the Kingship of England, and Henry was awarded riches. This uneasy arrangement was all but certain to cause tension.

William II was the second surviving son of William The Conqueror. He was called William “Rufus” or William “The Red” because of his ruddy complexion (long red-blond hair, piercing eyes, and a stammer). In general, history has not been kind to William Rufus. Unlike his devout father, William II was openly hostile to the Church, flaunting sacred customs, and he was almost assuredly a homosexual (he had many ‘special male friends’). He never married. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle characterizes William Rufus as an effeminate dandy dressed in outrageous garb, openly disparaging of Church customs, and yet he was still a ruthless tactician toward his enemies, particularly when fighting his brother Robert of Normandy and expanding the reach of his kingdom. English historian A.L. Poole, the author of From Domesday to Magna Carta (1951), called William Rufus ‘probably the worst king that has occupied the throne from a moral standpoint.’

Matthew of Paris’s depiction of William Rufus from the 12th century

William Rufus was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey in September 1087. Shortly after his coronation his brother Robert Duke of Normandy crossed the English Channel with his army and attacked England. Robert roused the nobles of England who stood in opposition to William’s blatant disregard for religious tradition, but William ultimately won the battle and peace was restored between the two brothers. The great barons owned properties on both sides of the Channel (in Normandy as well as in England) and they stood to benefit from infighting between William and Duke Robert. Despite William’s victory over Robert, baronial revolts were frequent. William finally solidified his leadership only when Robert angrily departed on the First Crusade to fight the Saracens and essentially loaned Normandy to England in his absence.

William further inflamed the passions of the faithful when he struggled to assert himself over the English clerical leadership. At first he maintained a mutually tolerable relationship with Archbishop of Canterbury Lanfranc, but when the gentle Archbishop died in 1089, William delayed a new appointment for several years until eventually appointing the saintly Anselm, the Abbot of Bec in Normandy, as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Tensions quickly grew between the two leaders as William committed open blasphemy against the Church, and so Anselm, a fierce critic of William Rufus, was eventually forced into exile in France and he remained there until William’s death.

William Rufus’s untimely death is a fascinating tale. Like most men of the time, William was an avid hunter. One day while out in his private forest, the aptly named ‘New Forest,’ William was accidentally struck dead by an ill-fired arrow by Walter Tirel, a nobleman (one of the earliest accounts of his death comes down to us from the writings of William of Malmesbury in 1125). The loose arrow killed the king immediately, and in a panic, the group dispersed and left the body of William Rufus lying cold and alone in the forest. His corpse was not discovered until the following day by a group of peasants who carried the king’s body all the way to Winchester for burial. Conspiracy theories have abounded throughout the ages: was William Rufus murdered? Was there a plot to kill the uncouth king? The most obvious benefactor of the king’s death was William’s younger brother, Henry, who was also a member of the fateful hunting party. However, there have been other elaborate theories involving the King of France who was opposed to William’s expansionist efforts beyond Normandy. Other conspiracies involve secret dealings with the devil and witchcraft, likely stemming from William’s irreligious nature. To many of the country noblemen William’s death was a deliverance from an immoral king. Winston Churchill describes William’s death as follows: “…he was mysteriously shot through the head [or chest] by an arrow while hunting the New Forest, leaving a memory of shameless extractions and infamous morals, but also a submissive realm to his successor” (76).

An illustration of the death of William Rufus

Within three days, William’s younger brother Prince Henry had marshaled his supporters, secured the treasury, and was crowned king at Westminster Abbey. Thus Henry I began his reign in August 1100. He was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, and he was sometimes called “beaclerc” (or “good clerk”) because of a lifelong love of learning, or “clerkship.” Orderic Vitalis wrote in his 12th century Ecclesiastical History that Henry “was well instructed in both natural philosophy and knowledge of doctrine.”

Henry I successfully repaired the crown’s relationship with the Church after it had been so disparaged during the reign of his elder brother. For example, he recalled Anselm Archbishop of Canterbury from exile and reinstated long-standing customs. Henry’s court also condemned the decadence of William II’s era by ordering new dress codes -all the men of the court were promptly ordered to cut their long hair short. He cast William’s unpopular adviser, Ranulf Flambard, to the Tower of London, and Henry elevated the country’s financial and judicial concerns into the capable hands of his trusted adviser, Roger Bishop of Salisbury. At this point sophisticated bureaucracy begins to appear in England (the word coming from the French writing desk or “bureau”).

Matthew Paris’s 13th century depiction of Henry I

Shortly after his accession to the crown, Henry’s brother Robert, newly returned from the First Crusade, attempted to lay claim to the English crown but the two settled peaceably with Henry renouncing his claim to Normandy. However, as time went by Henry made calculated moves and alliances with the Barons surrounding Normandy, eventually ending in several invasions which led to Robert’s defeat in the early 12th century. He was imprisoned until his death in 1134. Thus, Henry was successful in reuniting his father’s realms. The Chronicler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle honored Henry with the title “Lion of Justice” as the people often called him in his day, because he successfully reunited the lands of England, Normandy, and Maine (a province of France).

Henry was a strong but opportunistic monarch, yet medieval historians have disparaged him for being a licentious king. He sired more bastards than any other English monarch (over twenty illegitimate children from six different mistresses). Certain historians like William of Malmesbury tried in vain to mask his character flaws by suggesting the good king merely desired more children.

Henry married Edith in 1100 (who went by Matilda to sound more ‘Norman’). She was the daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and St. Margaret (sister of Edgar the Aetheling), thus she was the last link to the Anglo-Saxon bloodline to ever sit on the throne of England. Henry’s marriage was a calculated effort to connect his rulership with the House of Wessex -the praiseworthy lineage of Alfred the Great. Matilda bore Henry two children who survived past infancy: a son named William and a daughter also named Matilda. Tragically, Henry’s only male heir, William, died in a shipwreck in the English Channel while en route to England from Normandy. The incident has come to be known as the sinking of the White Ship (1120), and it caused a crisis over the succession of the crown. In response, Henry announced that his daughter Matilda (“Maud”) would succeed him, rather than his nephew Stephen (the Count of Blois) or any number of Henry’s illegitimate heirs (the principle of succession by the closest blood relative had not yet been established). The crisis of succession was a fateful occurrence that would lead to a prolonged 20 year civil war throughout the land.

Early 14th century depiction of Henry I and the sinking of the White Ship

Henry I’s daughter Matilda, or “Maud” as the English called her, was betrothed to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany. Thus she is often remembered as the “Empress Matilda.” It was a childless marriage and it did not last long. She became a widowed Empress at the age of 22 in 1122 when Henry V died, and she was later married to Geoffrey the Count of Anjou. This second marriage was a loveless partnership. Nevertheless, empress Matilda was indeed an impressive woman. She was a fierce, cynical, and proud politician who thrived in her role as monarch. It was said that she had the “nature of a man in the frame of a woman” but her successes are best remembered in her offspring. Matilda or “Maud” gave birth to one of the greatest kings of England: the future Henry II (or “Henry Plantagenet” the son of Geoffrey of Anjou). The Plantagenets became the future rulers of England for 400 years.

Stephen, on the other hand, was the son of Adela of Normandy (daughter of William The Conqueror and sister of Henry I). Upon the death of his father Stephen-Henry in 1102, Stephen inherited the Countship of Blois in central France. He was known as a well-liked, easy-going man among the baronial elite.

At any rate, Henry I spent his greying elder years securing promises of submission to Matilda’s succession in an effort to prevent a future civil war. At one point, he summoned all the barons to receive their sworn allegiances to Matilda. Up until this point, Henry had maintained thirty years of relative peace and security across the English isle. While abroad in 1135 he fell ill and died unexpectedly, perhaps due to complications from eating excessive lampreys (fish).

Immediately following the death of Henry I, the stability of the monarchy fell into disarray. The chaotic era became known to latter day historians as “The Anarchy” (when Christ and his saints all slept, per Peter Ackroyd). Matilda was away in Anjou with her husband when the elder King Henry died, and immediately Stephen (Henry’s nephew and Count of Blois, grandson of William The Conqueror) charged toward London from Normandy and claimed the crown. He had previously sworn allegiance to Matilda, but he knew well that many of the magnates had no wish to be governed by a woman. Stephen’s rulership brought deep divisions among the barons (including fierce opposition from Henry’s bastard son Robert of Gloucester who was a loyalist of Matilda) and the decisive choice to crown Stephen was made by the Church regarding Stephen. Meanwhile, King David of Scotland (Matilda’s uncle) invaded England from the north and took Northumbria, but the Archbishop of York mustered his forces and fought a ferocious battle against the invaders called the Battle of the Standard. It became the prelude to civil war.

In 1139, Matilda freed herself from entanglements in France and returned to England to claim the throne. Many of the barons, dismayed by Stephen’s weaknesses (Stephen, as it turned out, made a better soldier than a king), joined forces with Matilda along with the Church and in 1141 a general rebellion broke out against Stephen. He was imprisoned at the Battle of Lincoln, a battle which saw Stephen overwhelmed while trying to storm the castle at Lincoln. Stephen’s own brother, Henry the Bishop of Winchester, joined Matilda’s side. During this period, the barons took advantage of the lack of leadership by claiming any and all riches for themselves according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. They stole themselves away into vast castles throughout the countryside to bide their time while country tore itself apart. However, thanks to the quick work of Stephen’s wife (who was also named Matilda) Stephen was released from prison and he narrowly escaped recapture.

Throughout this conflict mistakes were made on both sides. It was a war between cousins, a chess match of castles won or lost. Despite not having a coronation ceremony, Matilda was the de facto ruler of England for several months in 1141, however London rose up in open rebellion and forced Matilda out of the city. She was accustomed to ruling imperiously and the city was loyal to Stephen. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicler describes Matilda as haughty and intolerable -an arrogant and cold ruler. The entire region fell into a chaotic civil war for six more years, and with the death of Robert of Gloucester (Henry I’s bastard son and the one true loyalist of Matilda) all eyes fell on Matilda’s young son, Prince Henry to bring law and order back to the land. Eventually, Matilda left England and returned to Normandy where her son’s powerful kingdom was on the rise, but she never stopped advocating for Henry’s accession to the throne in England. In November 1153 it was the Church that brought the two sides together with the signing of the Treaty of Winchester, a treaty which forced Stephen to recognize Prince Henry as his heir. Within a year Stephen would be dead (perhaps due to an intestinal infection, though some suspect poison) and Henry of Anjou (son of Matilda) was set to become king.

Timeline of the Norman Monarchs:

  • William The Conqueror (December 25, 1066 – September 9, 1087)

    • Spouse: Matilda, daughter of the Count of Flanders
    • Bastard son of Robert Duke of Normandy (hence the moniker “William The Bastard”)
    • Duke of Normandy from the Viking bloodline. He conquered all of England following his decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings (October 14, 1066)
  • William II, William “Rufus” (September 26, 1087 – August 2, 1100)

    • Spouse: Unmarried
    • The second son of William The Conqueror, William Rufus was known as an unpleasant man who openly flaunted the sacred customs of the Church. He was likely a homosexual, never married, and was an unpopular ruler.
    • William Rufus was killed in a mysterious hunting accident in the New Forest.
  • Henry I “Henry Beauclerc” (August 5, 1100 – December 1, 1135)

    • Spouses: Edith (went by the name Matilda to sound more Norman) daughter of Edgar the Aetheling; Adela, daughter of the Count of Louvain.
    • Henry I was present at the hunting party where his brother was killed. He wasted no time in mourning and was crowned King of England three days later at Westminster Abbey.
    • Henry I repaired relationships with the Church and united his lands abroad, but he was a licentious man siring over 20 bastard children.
    • Henry’s only legitimate son William died in the tragic White Ship sinking. This caused a crisis of succession which eventually led to a prolonged civil war.
  • “The Anarchy” (1135-1153)

    • A 20 year civil war between Henry’s nephew Stephen Count of Blois, and Henry’s legitimate daughter and appointed heir Matilda (“Maud”). The period ended when Matilda’s son Henry (soon to be Henry II of the Plantagenet house) became king.
    • Stephen initially claimed the throne in 1135 despite prior promises to support Matilda. He was briefly captured and imprisoned in the mayhem and Matilda became Queen in 1141.
    • The two sides settled, thanks to the intervention of the Church, with the signing of the Treaty of Winchester in 1153 which acknowledged Henry as heir to the throne.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Matthew Paris’s chronicles, the writings of A.L. Poole, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Anglo-Saxon England, Part IV

Taking a step back for a moment, we return to the Viking pirates, the fearless thieves of the icy north who surprised much of Western Europe when their long-boats suddenly appeared out of the fog of the Dark Ages, sacking coastal towns, raiding churches, slaughtering and conquering thousands. At the time, the early Christian kingdoms of Western Europe were under two chief assaults: one from Arabic conquerors who invaded Spain and nearly claimed France (if not for Charles Martel “The Hammer” who was the grandfather of Charlemagne). And the other assault was from the Vikings. In England Alfred the Great had beaten back the invading Viking raiders from their near total conquest of the British isles. But who were these seafaring pirates from the north? Why did they leave their northern kingdoms in search of new lands?

The Vikings came westward of their own accord, under no pressure from the steppes of Asia unlike other westward migrating tribes. They quickly made their mark upon the world, rowing across great seas to Iceland, North America, European Russia, and even Constantinople, as well as Normandy. They laid siege upon the civilized world, including Paris, and they pillaged commercial hubs, even settling new cities such as the founding of Dublin.

The Viking soul was encapsulated in their long-ship, fiercely clad in dragon-headed shallow boats, capable of carrying ferocious and greedy pirates up the low lying rivers and streams of England. Their prize of choice was the gold of the church that lay strewn about Christendom largely in undefended coastal churches, abbeys, and monasteries. Their raids on coastal England were made infamous in the eighth century when they sacked Lindisfarne and plundered the church’s riches, killing many of the monks and selling the rest as slaves in the European markets. Eginhard, Charlemagne’s historian and biographer, writes that Viking raids on France were near constant. The 9th and 10th centuries was a terrifying epoch: the age of the Vikings.

By the time Cnut (“Canute”), Prince of Denmark, rose to power following the death of his father Sweyn Forkbeard in AD 1014, the Vikings already owned vast lands across the world. Cnut’s father, Sweyn, was the son of Harold Bluetooth who founded Denmark as a Christian kingdom. At the time, the Vikings possessed a vast seafaring empire that extended from northern Europe to North America, but Sweyn’s crowning achievement was the British isle. Following the second major Viking invasion of England, Cnut made his primary home and capital in England. He preferred the Anglo-Saxon way of life and he hoped to model his kingship upon Edgar and his enviable years of peace. For more than a century, the Vikings had now transformed themselves from pirates into settlers of England.

A medieval re-imaging of Cnut fighting Edmund Ironsides

With the decline and fall of the house of Wessex, coupled with the death of his father, Cnut initially returned home to Denmark, apparently lacking the will to claim England as his own. Before he departed English shores, however, Cnut returned the bodies of his captives, each one horribly mutilated -a dark event that foreshadowed things to come. Cnut returned the following year to England and he battled with Edmund “Ironsides” until a peace was achieved, dividing the two kingdoms north and south, but Edmund’s death shortly thereafter left open the question of the English crown.

Within this power vacuum, Cnut took the throne of England in AD 1016 and thus he became the most powerful monarch in Western Europe, second only to the Holy Roman Emperor. His empire extended from England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden through the important trade routes of the North Sea, the English Channel, and also the Baltic Sea. He quickly put to death Edmund’s brother Eadwig. Edmund’s children were hidden away in eastern Europe (Hungary) while Aethelred’s remaining children sought refuge at the court of Normandy. Cnut’s power was complete, but it was not a cultural revolution. Cnut allowed many existing nobles to live undisturbed and he supported the monasteries to continue as centers of learning. Like all great rulers, Cnut instituted a new code of laws for his kingdom, but the new code was largely based on existing English customs and Christian traditions. It was crafted with the help and support of Wulfstan, Archbishop of York.

A 14th century illustration of Cnut “The Great”

However, England was not to be left untouched for long. Across the Channel the vigorous and rigidly organized Normans were expanding their influence. The kingdom of Normandy was founded as a Viking settlement in the early 10th century and it rapidly grew into a feudal kingdom. The order of Normandy was predicated upon a class of aristocratic nobles who each held land in exchange for military service, and, in turn, these nobles extended sublets on their lands to inferior ranks. The Norman Dukes claimed ultimate control over their courts and property, as well as over the affairs of the churches and monasteries in their region. Between 1028-1035, Robert the Duke of Normandy turned his attention to a serious invasion of England, but his death temporarily suspended the project.

Meanwhile, Cnut had married the sister of Robert, Duke of Normandy, in a unique moment that united two rival kingdoms (Robert’s sister was also previously the wife of Aethelred “The Unready”). Her name was Emma -the bride of two kings of England- who also gave birth to two sons who became future kings of England. Cnut died in 1035 and with him went his imperial ambitions of a Viking England. Cnut was conferred the honorable burial rites of an Anglo-Saxon King -he was buried at Winchester Cathedral in the capital of West Saxony (“Wessex”). He had three sons, all of whom were both “boorish” and “ignorant” according to Winston Churchill. His two sons Harold “Harefoot” (born from his “temporary wife” Aelgifu) and Harthacnut (born from his legitimate wife Emma of Normandy) fought over the crown from the northern and the southern kingdoms. Both respective mothers also played an active role in the dispute between the two brothers. Per the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Harathcnut “never did anything worthy of a king while he reigned.”

At the same time, Alfred “the innocent prince” and Edward, both sons of Aethelred and Emma, were still exiled in Normandy. In 1036 Alfred hastened home under the auspices of visiting his again-widowed mother. Meanwhile, a powerful Wessex earl named Godwin, was gaining support among the Danish faction to claim the crown. He shrewdly took Alfred under his wing, promising him protection, and then sprang a trap on the young prince -Godwin’s men suddenly slaughtered Alfred’s attendants (some were sold for money, while others were beheaded, mutilated, and scalped). Godwin’s men then tied Alfred naked to a horse and blinded him. The poor young prince was henceforth relegated to a lowly life. He lived out the remainder of his short life in the monastery at Ely.

Godwin had thus solidified his power and left vacant the throne of England, but in times of great anarchy, as the situation in 11th century England clearly indicated, the people demanded a sense of stability, and no image was more stable than the sixth generation from the bloodline of Alfred the Great. Knowing this truism, Godwin strongly encouraged (some might say threatened) Aethelred and Emma’s other son, Edward, to return to England and become king. His only obligation was to meet Godwin’s demands, the first of which was preventing any Norman influence at his court. And so it was, in 1042 that Edward “The Confessor,” as he was later dubbed for his supposed piety, the great-great-great-grandson of Alfred the Great took the throne and ruled under the firm control of Godwin and his family.

According to tradition, Edward The Confessor was a “kindly, weak, chubby, albino” per Winston Churchill. He was raised at the court of the Normans, and was forced to wed the daughter of Godwin, though it was merely a political marriage. During his reign, Edward gradually allowed certain Norman customs to filter into the courts and the churches of England, at least as much as the Earl Godwin would allow. Meanwhile, Godwin had been supplanting the landed gentry with his own family ties in an effort to secure his power. This drew the ire of the Norman presence and in 1051 a crisis struck. The Norman faction successfully banished Godwin from England. Godwin fled with his son Harold (“Godwinson”) to Flanders where they raised an army and returned to England, demanding the succession of the throne. Edward was obliged to give it to them at the sword’s edge. Godwin died only seven months later, and for the next thirteen years Harold essentially served as the ruler of England, though Edward The Confessor still retained the title of king. Harold ruled freely despite opposition from his brother Tostig, the Anglo-Danish earls and the many Normans still living on the island who supported the court of Edward the Confessor.

Harold meeting Edward The Confessor as featured in the Bayeux Tapestry, a vast embroidery depicting events leading up to the Norman conquest of England

As time passed, Edward The Confessor’s many frailties were forgiven by the people because of his devout virtues (hence the moniker “The Confessor”). He lived out his last days much like a monk (Winston Churchill draws comparisons between Edward the Confessor and the latter Henry VI). However, all the vitality from the reign of Alfred The Great was now vanished from his royal house. All that remained of the fierce King Alfred was a sickly boy and his sister, alongside an aging sovereign. England was growing weak. The earls ruled their lands with complete impunity, the royal bureaucracy was a mess, coastal defenses were gradually neglected, but the church continued to grow in eminence.

In the middle of the 11th century Edward The Confessor began constructing a Romanesque abbey. It was built on the site near where a Benedictine monks once had a monastic church. The impressive abbey became known as Westminster Abbey. It was completed shortly before Edward’s death and he was buried in the Abbey one week after he died. His successor Harold was likely crowned in the Abbey, however the first known monarch to be crowned at Westminster Abbey was William The Conqueror.

Contemporary historians have instructed us that Edward The Confessor was effeminate and weak, but the legend of his piety, carefully crafted by the church, paints the picture of a quietly virtuous Christian king; and somewhere in the middle of these two portraits we receive the story of an aging monarch on his deathbed, whispering the prophecy of a coming apocalypse for England. Thus, in January of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon kingship ended, the flame of Alfred The Great was extinguished upon the death of Edward The Confessor. In the years to come, Edward would be enshrined at Westminster as a center for pilgrimage (the shrine was constructed many years after his death) and even a cult arose in his name. The name “Edward The Confessor” would recall fond memories for both the Saxons, as well as the Normans, during times of duress, and as time went by, Edward became “Saint” Edward The Confessor, the patron saint of England until the English appropriated St. George during the Hundred Years War -a figure that Winston Churchill finds far more suitable to the island’s “needs, mood, and character” than Edward the Confessor.

“The figure of Edward the Confessor comes down to us faint, misty, frail. The medieval legend, carefully fostered by the Church, whose devoted servant he was, surpassed the man. The lights of Saxon England were going out, and in the gathering darkness a gentle, grey-beard prophet foretold the end. When on his death-bed Edward spoke of a time of evil that was coming upon the land his inspired muttering struck terror into the hearers… Thus on January 5, 1066, ended the line of the Saxon kings” (Winton Churchill 62-63).

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Alfred the Great (871-899)

I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works

-Author’s note in Alfred’s translation of Boethius’s On The Consolation of Philosophy

Alfred (or “Aelfred) is the only king of England ever to be given the epithet “The Great.” He earned his moniker as a result of a fervent defense of the homeland against the invading Danes (or Vikings and Norsemen, “North Men” from Scandinavia), as well as his support for literacy, education, the arts, and architecture. Alfred is popularly the most celebrated of the Anglo-Saxon kings, and with good reason.

Alfred was the fifth and youngest son of King Aethelwulf of the House of Wessex, and he was clearly the favorite child. Bright, learned, well-traveled, and curious, Alfred lived a charmed life. He was known to have a keen mind from a young age -entirely memorizing books of poetry. In AD 855 he traveled to Rome with his father on a pilgrimage. They visited the court of Charles the Bald, of the Frankish King, and Alfred gained an appreciation for Charles’s grandfather, Charlemagne.

Alfred’s father, Aethelwulf died shortly after their return to Wessex in AD 858 and Alfred’s three older brothers each assumed the throne in succession (a fourth brother died before their father Aethelwulf’s death).

In the mid 9th century the Danes began to raid England. They were lured from their homes in present-day Denmark and Norway by the promise of riches strewn about the English isle in defenseless castles and monasteries. For many kingdoms, there was little time to prepare, however the kingdom of Wessex found a measure of success against the Danes. Alfred quickly learned the art of war alongside his brother Aethelred. The Danes began by raiding the coasts, including an infamous raid on Lindisfarne island, the seat of Christian culture in Northumbria. There they stole riches and torched buildings (“Viking” is a word that comes down to us meaning something akin to “pirate”). The monks of Lindisfarne carried away the bones of St. Cuthbert and St. Aidan, the Celtic patron saint of Northumbria and the founder of the monastery at Lindisfarne. However some of these same Vikings later returned to Northumbria from the cold shores of Denmark and Norway after finding the English soil and climate more hospitable. What began as wanton acts of piracy gradually became a process of invasion and settlement. Their newly acquired lands became known as Danelaw.

In 865-866 a “Great Army” arrived in East Anglia and overwhelmed the region. From there, they ventured north to York and took the city, thus conquering Northumbria. When an attempt to re-gain the city by King Aella had failed, he was captured and, according to legend, Aella was mercilessly tortured and executed in the hideously gruesome procedure known as the “blood eagle.” From the mid-860s onward, the Danes were dominant under the leadership of Ivar “The Boneless.” After conquering all surrounding kingdoms, the Danes eventually turned their gaze southwest to Wessex.

Meanwhile Alfred had married a Mercian noblewoman, Ealhswith in AD 867. Asser, Alfred’s medieval biographer, notes that Alfred suffered from some sort of affliction, perhaps what we might call a psycho-somatic illness. Asser writes that Alfred’s illness was particularly acute on the day of his wedding.

AD 871 became known as the ‘Year of Battles’ as the Danes and Wessex squared off. After the death of his elder brother Aethelred, Alfred assumed the throne in his early twenties. He came to power with a kingdom in chaos and under threat. Following an immediate string of disappointing losses to the Danes, young Alfred was forced to negotiate a peace for five years, but his battle with the Danes would continue for years to come. He paid them off with the “Danegold” and they “swore upon the holy ring” not to invade Wessex again -a foreboding act of treachery. The Danes retreated north divided their forces and the new Viking leader Guthrum led his forces back southward into Wessex territory. In this milieu Alfred became a skilled military leader, defending his burhs (or as we now know them as “burroughs”). He used a variety of tactics to starve out and terrorize the invading Danes, and he also built up the Wessex naval forces, hence Alfred is known as the father of the British navy (one of the earliest American naval vessels was also called the U.S.S. Alfred).

However, Alfred continued to suffer crushing losses as well as a surprise attack that put him on the run on the Twelfth Night Christmas holiday. Thus during the Christmas of AD 878, Alfred went incognito tailing Guthrum through Wessex while the Danes ventured deep into his kingdom. Alfred was forced to travel undercover ‘into the wilderness’ through the marshes as he fell back to Athelney. There is an old popular legend in which Alfred, dressed as a commoner, was taken in by a swineherd and while sitting pensively he was scolded by the lady of the house whose bread-cakes had started to burn.

Alfred was also a man of the people. In order to build up defenses against the Danes, he strengthened relationships with the surrounding shires (or what we today might call counties). Historically, Wessex was divided into five shires: Somerset, Devonshire, Wilshit, Dorset, and Hampshire. Each shire was governed with open-air juries led by ealdermen -a relic of the early Anglo-Saxon era.

From the egalitarian, ealderman-led communities of rural Wessex, Alfred was able to regather his forces and launch a final, all-out campaign against Guthrum and the Danes. The two armies met likely on a hill above Edington in AD 878 (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests they fought over a legendary ‘Stone of Egbert’) where a savage and bloody battle was fought for the soul of Wessex. Guthrum knew all that stood in the way of a Viking conquest of England was Alfred and his army, and the men of Wessex knew this was their last chance to fight for an independent kingdom. Hundreds of years later, mutilated bodies buried in the dirt were uncovered, revealing what must have been a harrowing day. The Battle of Edington, as it has come to be known, was the turning point in Alfred’s reign as king. After a score of latter victories, Alfred successfully muted the advance of the Norsemen, pushing them back to eastern England and redefining the borders.

The battle was an extraordinary success for Wessex. It unified Alfred’s leadership over his nobles, put the Danes on the run, and as part of Guthrum’s surrender, the Danes were forced to convert to Christianity. It was baptism by the sword. Alfred had succeeded where his predecessors had stalled. However despite the new peace agreement, Alfred was prepped for war. he built up his extensive fortifications throughout the burhs of Wessex, which successfully held off the Danes for years to come.

Woodforde, Samuel; King Alfred ‘The Great’ (846/849-899); National Trust, Stourhead;

Alfred is known widely for his enlightened disposition -his advocacy for reading, writing, and learning. Despite latter day interpolations, and Asser’s enthusiastic but less-than-truthful picture of the king, Alfred only learned to read in early adulthood. However, he was a profound reformer and an advocate of an english renaissance in literacy education -perhaps drawing inspiration from Charlemagne before him. He built a new court school, in the manner of Charlemagne. He translated several Latin texts into Old English, including Pope Gregory the Great’s On Pastoral Care (a manual for clergy which he eagerly distributed to his bishops), Boethius’s On The Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine’s writings, and other Biblical texts, like the Latin Psalters. Alfred was also the patron of the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Alfred was great legal reformer, issuing a legal code (the Doom Book, or “book of laws”). At the outset of his laws, Alfred highlights several ancestral kings he bases his new Christian laws upon -Ine, Offa, and even Aethelbert. While his elder brother, Aethelred, was an inwardly pious leader, the flame of the intellect and the liberal arts took hold of Alfred’s mind. They were distinct in their approach to kingship.

After the defeat of the Danes at Edington, each of the fortified burhs grew into a rapidly urbanized marketplaces and communities under the direction of the king, and thus trade in Wessex flourished. The crown jewel of the burhs was London, formerly Londinium under the Romans, and Lundenwic under the rule of Offa, and Mercia, before it feel into the hands of the Vikings, but Alfred’s reclamation of the port city was a re-founding of sorts for this future capital.

Of Alfred’s general demeanor, Asser writes:

Now, he was greatly loved, more than all his brothers, by his father and mother—indeed, by everybody—with a universal and profound love, and he was always brought up in the royal court and nowhere else…[He] was seen to be more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour…[and] in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.

— Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge translation of Asser’s Life of Alfred 1983, pp. 74–75

Alfred died on October 26, 899 at the age of either 50 or 51. He had five sons, including Edward “The Elder” who succeeded Alfred as king of Wessex. Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, would later unify the kingdoms under one single banner -he is sometimes considered the first king of England.

Finally, there is a controversy regarding Albert’s final resting place. He was buried at Hyde Abbey, a medieval Benedictine monastery in Winchester, the capital of Wessex (Alfred’s body was moved to the newly re-consecrated abbey during the reign of his son Edward “The Elder”). However, hundreds of years later King Henry VIII made the fateful decision to destroy many Catholic churches, monasteries, and abbeys throughout the land as part of his personal conflict with Catholicism. Hyde Abbey was unfortunately one of those churches that was destroyed. For over 250 years, the final resting place of Alfred and his son Edward was forgotten. Eventually, in the late 18th century, the county acquired the land where Hyde Abbey once stood with the hopes of constructing a prison. The future convicts were put to work digging the foundation of the new prison edifice. As the prisoners dug deeper, they likely destroyed the interred bones of Alfred, the greatest king of Anglo-Saxon England (there were reports among the prisoners of discovering gold and all manner of treasure beneath the surface).

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great. Asser was a monk of St. David’s.