Author Topic: Fortress Wessex  (Read 1106 times)

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Offline Tim of Aclea

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Fortress Wessex
« on: June 24, 2014, 09:07:22 am »
Following his victory in 878 over the Vikings, Alfred set about a complete reorganisation of the defences of Wessex, creating ‘Fortress Wessex’.  Most notably he built a series of fortified burghs.  About thirty are listed in a document called the burghal hidage which gives the length of the defensive ramparts, the number of men needed to man the defences and the area of land in terms of hides needed to support them.  I have walked through two of them, Cricklade and Wallingford, when I did Thames Path and the Alfredian defences can still be seen.  Unlike the Norman castles, these burghs were designed to protect the whole population from the Viking attacks.  In addition, in order to link the burghs and to give warning of Viking attacks, Alfred constructed watchtowers and beacons.  To man those burghs and counter attack the Vikings he created a standing army, estimated at 25,000 strong; a size not too be exceeded until the time of Cromwell.  Half of the troops were to man the burghs and half were a field army.  He also set about creating a navy to fight the Vikings at sea.  The taxation cost of all this must have been crippling and could only have been raised because of the wealth of Wessex and a tax system far in advance of anywhere else west of Byzantinium.

I will post a map showing the location of the burghs but their were several in the South East, particularly along or near the coast, including Hastings, Lewes, Chichester, Porchester and Southampton as well as inland such as at Southwark, Eashing in Surrey, Winchester and Eorpeburnan, the location of which is not certain but somewhere on the Kent/Sussex border.  Alfred seems not to have fortified two areas, Cornwall in the west and Kent in the east.  It is thought that Alfred did not try and hold Cornwall because of the unreliability of the British population there and Kent because of the risk of the West Saxon army being cut off by Viking lands along the south coast or up the Thames.

In the 880s Alfred and the Danes signed an agreement dividing England into the Danelaw and England that was under Alfred’s rule.  In addition to Wessex this also included the western part of Mercia.  There was no longer a king in Mercia but it was ruled by an Ealderman called Aethelred who accepted Alfred as his king and was to marry Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed.  When Alfred took back London from the Vikings he handed it over to Aethelred as London had been a city under Mercian not West Saxon control.  Alfred also signed an alliance with the Welsh princes against the Viking so protecting his flank.

The result was when the Vikings attacked in the 890s they were blocked and driven out.  For example one Viking fleet sailed up the Thames and when blocked by the burgh at Southwark they sailed up the river Lea where they constructed a fort.  But Alfred came against then and constructed forts either side of the Vikings, starving them out until eventually the Vikings had to abandon their ships and escape cross country.  As a result of these measures the Vikings gave up attacking Wessex and looked for easier pickings in Frankia.

Fortress Wessex was then to provide the foundation for the reconquest of the rest of England from the Vikings in the 10th C by Alfred's son Edward, daughter Aethelflaed and grandson Athelstan.