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Bishop Asser:
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 in which most sources from Alfred's reign are written.


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

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

In the same year the brother of Inwar and Halfdene with twenty-three boats sailed forthe from the country of Dyfed [the extreme south of Wales], where he had wintered and where he had slain many Christians, to Devon; and there, before the stronghold of Cynwit, he with twelve hundred others was miserably cut off in his wrong-doing by the king's followers, for many of the latter had shut themselves up there for safety. But when the pagans saw the stronghold unprepared and unguarded except for defenses built after our manner, they did not venture to storm it because from the nature of the ground the place was very secure on every side except on the eas, as I myself have seen; instead they began to besiege it, thinking that those men would quickly be forced to surrender because of hunger and thirst, for there was no water near. But it did not turn out as they expected. For the Christians, before they suffered any such straits, prompted by God to believe it much better to win either death or victory, at dawn made an unexpected sortie upon the pagans, and shortly slew most 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 a stronghold in a place called Athelney, and thence kept tirelessly making attacks upon the pagans with his Somersetshire retainers. And again in the seventh week after Easter he rode to Egbert's Stone, which is in the eastern part of the forest called Selwood--in Latin "Sylva Magna," in Welsh "Coit Maur"--and there met him there all the dwellers about the districts of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire, who had not through fear of the pagans gone beyond sea; and when they saw the king, after such great sufferings, almost as one risen from the dead, they were filled with unbounded joy, as it was right they should be; and they pitched camp there for one night. At dawn the next morning the king moved his camp thence and came to a place called Aeglea, and there encamped one night.

Moving his standards thence the next morning, he came to a place called Edington, and with a close shield-wall fought fiercely against the whole army of the pagans; his attack was long and spirited, and finally by divine aid he triumphed and overthrew the pagans with a very great slaughter. He pursued them, killing them as they fled up to the stronghold, where he seized all that he found outside--men, horses, and cattle--slaying the men at once; and before the gates of the pagan fortress he boldly encamped with his whole army. And when he had stayed there fourteen days and the pagans had known the horrors of famine, cold, fear, and at last of despair, they sought a peace by which the king was to take from them as many named hostages as he wished while he gave none to them--a kind of peace that they had never before concluded with any one. When the king heard their message he was moved to pity, and of his own accord received from them such designated hostages as he wished. In addition to this, after the hostages were taken, the pagans took oath that they would most speedily leave his kingdom, and also Guthrum, their king, promised to accept Christianity and to receive baptism at the hands of King Alfred. All these things he and his men fulfilled as they had promised. For after three weeks Guthrum, king of the pagans, with thirty selected men of his army, came to King Alfred at a place called Aller near Athelney. And Alfred received him as son by adoption, raising him from the sacred font of baptism; and his chrism-loosing on the eighth day was in the royal vill called Wedmore. After he was baptized he stayed with the king twelve nights, and to him and all the men with him the king generously gave many valuable gifts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the year of our Lord's incarnation the eight hundred and eight-second, and the thirty-fourth from King Alfred's birth, the said army pushed its boats up the 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 sea against pagan boats; and he took two of them, having killed all who were in them. And the commanders of two other boats, with all their fellows, were so thoroughly beaten and so badly wounded that they laid down their arms and on bended knees and with humble prayers surrendered.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation the eight hundred and eighty-third, and the thirty-fifth from King Alfred's birth, the said army pushed its boats up-stream along the river Scheldt to a convent of nuns known as Conde, and there 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-sixth from King Alfred's birth, the said army divided into two troops. One went to East Francia, and the other came to Kent in Britain and besieged the city which is called Rochester in Saxon, and which is located on the east bank of the Medway. Before its gate the pagans quickly built themselves a strong tower; but they were not able to take the city, because the citizens defended themselves vigorously until King Alfred came to its aid with a large army. And then the pagans, on the unexpected arrival of the king, left their tower and all the horses which they had brought with them from Francia, and also most of their captives, and fled in haste to their boats, while the Saxons seized the captives and the horses. And so the pagans were forced by extreme necessity to sail 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 boats of the pagans, ready for battle, met them; and a naval battle was begun which was bitterly contested on both sides, but which resulted in the killing of all the pagans and the seizure of all their boats and goods. However, while the victorious royal fleet was resting, the pagans who lived in the land of the East Angles gathered boats together from any place in which they could find them and met the king's fleet at the mouth of the same river, and in the battle which followed gained the victory.

In the same year also Carloman, king of the East Franks, while on a boar-hunt was so horribly bitten by a boar that he died. His brother was Lewis, who had died the year before and who was also king of the Franks; they were both sons of Lewis, king of the Franks. This was the Lewis who had died in the above-mentioned year in which the eclipse took place, and who was son of Charles, king of the Franks, whose daughter Judith was, with her father's consent, 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 land of the Old Saxons, in Saxon called "Eald Seaxum." Against them these same Saxons 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 voluntary consent of all, the kingdom of the East Franks and all the kingdoms which are between the Tyrrhenian Sea and that ocean gulf which lies between the Old Saxons and the Gauls, excepting the kingdom of Amorica. [Brittany] This Charles 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; and these two brothers were sons of Lewis, who was the son of Charles, the son of Pippin.

In the same year Pope Marinus of blessed memory went the way of all flesh. He it 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 tribute and 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 which our 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 Angles disgracefully 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, and the thirty-eighth of Alfred's life, the oft-mentioned army fleeing from this region went again into the land of the West Franks; they entered by the river called 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 river nar to the bridge in order to keep the citizens from crossing--for this city is located on a small island in the middle of the river. And they besieged the city that whole year, but through God's favor and the vigorous defense of the citizens they could not break the fortifications.

In the same year Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, after the burning of cities and the slaughter of peoples, honorably restored the city of London and made it habitable; 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 placed themselves under his rule.

Britannia's British History Department

Reproduced by kind permission of The Medieval Source Book