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Guthrum the Old

 

Guthrum the Old

For other people named Guthrum, see Guthrum (disambiguation).

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

Although it's unknown how Guthrum consolidated his rule as king over the other Danish chieftains of the Danelaw (Danish ruled territory of England), 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.[1] 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 Guthrum left Wessex to winter in Gloucester.

Surprise attack

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, the Ealdorman of Wiltshire, allowed the attack either through negligence or intent, for on Alfred's return to power later in 878 Wulfhere was stripped of his role as Ealdorman.

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 Ethandun to fight the invaders.

Defeat by Alfred

Guthrum's hopes of conquering all of Wessex came to an end with his defeat at the hands of Alfred at the Battle of Edington in 878. At 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.[2] 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 loosing was at Wedmore.” [2]

Conversion to Christianity and peace

Under the Treaty of Wedmore the borders dividing the lands of Alfred and Guthrum were established,[3] 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.[4] 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.[4]

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:

References

English royalty
Preceded by
Aethelred
King of East Anglia
879– 890
Succeeded by
Eohric
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