For an English king peace would not last long. There was always another war.
Alfred the Great was King of Wessex from 871 to 899. Alfred was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. His father died when he was young and three of Alfred’s brothers reigned in turn.
Alfred had spent his entire reign defending his homeland and his faith against the hordes of Norse barbarians from across the sea. For nearly a century, they had been arriving in fleets of longships, raiding England’s coastline and laying siege to its villages and towns, their incursions growing more daring—and more bloody—with each passing year. When Alfred was still but a boy, Danish invaders had established permanent footholds across England, seizing all of East Anglia and Mercia, two of the largest kingdoms in the land. Danish power spread so far and wide after that, and so quickly, that within three short years only Wessex remained unbroken. The last free, sovereign kingdom in all England. Alfred’s kingdom.
He was not King then, nor did he have any wish to be, but he would soon have the crown thrust upon him. The Norse wasted no time in attacking Wessex. Alfred’s King and elder brother was for a short time successful in repelling the invaders. But after that, defeat followed defeat, and when the King met his death shortly after his army was routed at Reading, his crown passed to Alfred, his sole heir. And so it was that by his twenty-first year, Alfred had become England’s only remaining Anglo-Saxon king, and in all likelihood its last.
For a short while, Alfred had considered surrender, and with good reason: the Norsemen were notorious for their brutality and lack of mercy. Other English kings, those who had not fled, or who had refused to yield, had been tortured to death when their walls inevitably fell. The Danish king at the head of the invading force, a godless thug named Guthrum, was driving deeper into the heart of Alfred’s beloved Wessex, sacking every town and village before him. Alfred’s army was forced to retreat as far west as Somerset, where the seclusion of its tidal marshes afforded him time to regroup. Summoning men from the neighboring counties, he set them to building a fortress from which they could rally and stage attacks. Tired of running and hiding, Alfred finally began to take the fight to the enemy.
He defeated the Norse in battle at Ethandun, driving them all the way back to their stronghold and laying siege to it until he starved the heathens into surrender. It was a decisive victory, but the Norse were still too many and too widespread to be driven utterly from the land. Tired of bloody battles and dead men in numbers more than he could count, Alfred offered armistice to his hated enemy, Guthrum: if the Norse agreed to lay down their arms, they would be granted their own lands in the east. The English territory they already occupied would be formally recognized as the Danelaw, a kingdom in which Guthrum and his people could—and would be expected to—live in peace.
And so it was agreed. And so Wessex was saved.