Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Guthrum: Characters in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Series

Guthrum (died c. 890), christened Æthelstan, was king of the Danish Vikings in the Danelaw. He is mainly known for his conflict with Alfred the Great.

Guthrum, founder of the Danelaw The Five Boroughs and the English Midlands in the early 10th century.[1]

Although how Guthrum consolidated his rule as king over the other Danish chieftains of the Danelaw (Danish ruled territory of England) is unknown, what is known is that by 874 he was able to wage a war against Wessex and its King, Alfred. By 876, Guthrum had been able to acquire various parts of the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria and then turn his attention to acquiring Wessex, where his first confrontation with Alfred took place on the south coast. Guthrum sailed his army around Poole Harbour and linked up with another Viking army that was invading the area between the Frome and Trent rivers which was ruled by Alfred.[2] According to the historian Asser, Guthrum’s initial battle with Alfred resulted in a victory, as he was able to capture “the castellum” as well as the ancient square earthworks known as the “Wareham” where a convent of nuns existed. Alfred was able to broker a peace settlement, but by 877 this peace was broken as Guthrum led his army raiding further into Wessex, thus forcing Alfred to confront him in a series of skirmishes that Guthrum continued to win. At Exeter, which Guthrum had also captured, Alfred made a peace treaty with the result that Guthurm left Wessex to winter in Gloucester.

Surprise Attack

Coin of Guthurm (Athelstan II), Viking king of East Anglia, 880.

On Epiphany, 6 January 878, Guthrum made a surprise night-time attack on Alfred and his court at Chippenham, Wiltshire. It being a Christian feast day the Saxons were presumably taken by surprise - indeed it is possible that Wulfhere, Ealdorman of Wiltshire, allowed the attack either through neglligence or intent, for on Alfred's return to power later in 878 Wulfhere was stripped of his role as Ealdorman (Earl).
Alfred fled the attack with a few retainers and took shelter in the marshes of Somerset, staying in the small village of Athelney. Over the next few months he built up his force and waged a guerrilla war against Guthrum from his fastness in the Fens. After a few months Alfred called his loyal men to Egbert's Stone, and from there they travelled to Edington to battle the invaders.

Defeat by Alfred
Guthrum may have succeeded in conquering all of Wessex if he had not suffered a defeat at the hands of Alfred at the Battle of Edington in 878. At the Battle of Edington, Guthrum’s entire army was routed by Alfred's and fled to their encampment where they were besieged by Alfred's fyrd for two weeks. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Guthrum’s army was able to negotiate a peace treaty known as the Treaty of Wedmore.[3] The Anglo Saxon Chronicle recorded the event:
“Then the raiding army granted him (Alfred) hostages and great oaths that they would leave his kingdom and also promised him that their king (Guthrum) would receive baptism; and they fulfilled it. And three weeks later the king Guthrum came to him, one of thirty of the most honourable men who were in the raiding army, at Aller - and that is near Athelney - and the king received him at baptism; and his chrism losing was at Wedmore.” [3] However, he planned a surprise attack but was defeated.

Conversion to Christianity and peace
Under the Treaty of Wedmore the borders dividing the lands of Alfred and Guthrum were established,[4] and perhaps more importantly, Guthrum converted to Christianity and took on the Christian name Æthelstan with Alfred as his godfather. Guthrum's conversion to Christianity served as an oath or legal binding to the treaty, making its significance more political than religious.
Politically, of course, Guthrum’s conversion to Christianity did nothing to loosen the Danish hold on the lands that Guthrum had already acquired via conquest.[5] Instead it not only garnered Guthrum recognition among Christian communities he ruled, but also legitimized his own authority and claims. By adopting the Christian name of Æthelstan, which was also the name of Alfred’s eldest brother, Guthrum’s conversion "reassured" his newly acquired subjects that they would continue to be ruled by a Christian king rather than a heathen chieftain.[5]
Guthrum upheld his end of the treaty and left the boundary that separated the Danelaw from English England unmolested. Guthrum, although failing to conquer Wessex, turned towards the lands to the east that the treaty had allotted under his control free of interference by Alfred. Guthrum withdrew his army from the western borders facing Alfred's territory and moved eastward before eventually settling in the Kingdom of Guthrum in East Anglia in 879. He lived out the remainder of his life there until his death in 890. According to the Annals of St. Neots (ed. D. Dumville and M. Lapidge, Cambridge 1984), a Bury St Edmunds compilation, Guthrum was buried at Headleage, usually identified as Hadleigh, Suffolk.

Popular culture
Guthrum appears in a several works of fiction, including:
Bernard Cornwell's series of historical novels, The Saxon Stories: The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, The Lords of the North and Sword Song.
G. K. Chesterton's poem The Ballad of the White Horse. C. Walter Hodges' juvenile historical novels The Namesake and The Marsh King.

1. Falkus & Gillingham and Hill
2. Collingwood, M. A. and Powell, F. Y. "Scandinavian Britain" New York. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: 1908 p. 94.
3. Anglo Saxon Chronicle Trans. by M. J. Swanton (New York, Routledge: 1996).
4. Davis, R. H. C. From Alfred the Great to Stephen (London, The Manbledon Press: 1991) p. 48. 5. Loyn, H. R. The Vikings in Britain (New York, St. Martin’s Press: 1977) p. 59.

The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum is an agreement between Alfred of Wessex and Guthrum, the Viking ruler of East Anglia. Its date is uncertain, but must have been between 878 and 890. The treaty is one of the few existing documents of Alfred's reign; it survives in Old English in Corpus Christi College Cambridge Manuscript 383, and in a Latin compilation known as Quadripartitus. The original was probably in Old English. All translations below come from Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents 500-1042.


Statue of King Alfred at Wantage.

A prologue begins the document, outlining that it is a treaty between "King Alfred and King Guthrum and the councillors ("witan") of all the English race and all the people which is in East Anglia".
The first point is the most famous. First concerning our boundaries: up on the Thames, and then up on the Lea, and along the Lea unto its source, then straight to Bedford, then up on the Ouse to Watling Street. This has been taken by many later writers as the boundary of the Danelaw. However, the treaty does not describe it as such, and it appears to be primarily a political boundary, perhaps created in the wake of Alfred's taking of London.
The second article raises wergeld values to a considerably higher rate than would normally be expected. This is next, if a man is slain, all of us, Englishman and Dane at the same amount, at eight half-marks of refined gold, except the ceorl who occupies rented land, and their [the Dane's] freedmen; these also are estimated at the same amount, both at 200 shillings. In the treaty, as noted by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, a ceorl living on his own land was essentially treated as a noble. They argue that this discouraged killings, as it placed the price of compensation as too high. This presents two problems, according to Paul Kershaw: first, it assumes premeditation. Second, by placing too high a value of compensation, the treaty might actually discourage peaceful dispute settlement. Kershaw argues instead that this was merely a simplification of social structures over the border: Anglo-Saxon and 'Danelaw' social structures did not necessarily correlate, and so a carte-blanche simplification may have been the only way forward.
The third section sets out regulations on the number of oaths a plaintiff and defendant are required to produce in a case of manslaughter.
The fourth stipulates that a man must know his warrantor when purchasing slaves, horses or oxen.
The fifth sets out how the English and Danes could interact. And we all agreed on the day when the oaths were sworn, that no slaves nor freemen might go without permission into the army of the Danes, any more than any of theirs to us. But if it happens that from necessity any one of them wishes to have traffic with us, or we with them, for cattle or goods, it is to be permitted on condition that hostages shall be given as a pledge of peace and as evidence so that one may know no fraud is intended.

English Historical Documents c.500-1042, D. Whitelock, (Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1955)
Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, (Penguin, 1983)
Paul Kershaw, 'The Alfred-Guthrum Treaty' in Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries. ed. D.M. Hadley & J.D. Richards, (Brepols, 2000) Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, vol. 1, (Blackwell, 1999) Medieval Sourcebook: Alfred and Guthrum's Peace

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