Topic 1:Military Changes (Part B)

Having already looked at the changes to the Anglo-Saxon military system caused by the Danish invasion of England in … AD, we now move on to investigate the defensive measures taken by Alfred to defend his kingdom against further attacks. As with his reforms to the army, these changes were implemented in a highly organised and well planned manner, with each aspect of this new “Fortress Wessex” serving its own unique purpose, whilst also reinforcing the other aspects of Alfred’s reforms.

Primary Aim of Defences

As would have been  clear to Alfred, there were several factors which had played into the hands of the Danes in their invasion; Their ease and speed of mobility and access to vulnerable points in the England lands, their devastating use of the waterways to strike unexpectedly[1] (examples of which include their attack on York in 867 AD using the Humber[2] and their attack on Winchester in 860 AD[3], not to mention countless examples on the continent), and their superiority in both offensive and defensive battles, as shown by many entries to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing the Danes’ victories against the Saxons, Mercians and Northumbrians. 

Due to these factors, the main aims for the defensive reforms were two-fold. Firstly, the mobility that the Danes had enjoyed in their first invasion had to be countered. This was to be achieved through a system of defences build on the waterways of Alfred’s kingdom, as well as the creation of a powerful navy to quickly assist these defences and, if needed, to meet the Danish ships in open water prior to them reaching the forts[4].

Secondly, should the Danish attack over land, or manage to breach the waterway defences, an effective system of forts would need to be established to halt their advance until reinforcements could be raised to counter-attack. These were to be in the form of fortified burhs, or settlements, located in close proximity to other settlements of this type to allow quick reinforcing in time of siege[5].

These measures also had some additional benefits, which whilst possibly not Alfred’s primary goal, would have surely helped him in his struggle. Primarily, the fact that most major burhs were now defensible and were constantly manned by a garrison meant that the men of the fyrd would now be much more content with leaving their homes to fight; a huge benefit considering Alfred’s earlier difficulties in besieging the Danes’ encampments.  In addition to this the adopting of a more defensive stance, through both military and political measures (see Note 1 on the Danegeld), allowed Alfred’s men to replenish themselves after what would have undoubtedly been an extremely straining physical and emotional period.

Where did Alfred look for effective examples?

It is unlikely that Alfred would have been starting from scratch in the planning of these defensive measures; there must surely have been examples to which he would have looked for inspiration in his own defences.  His close ties with the continent, particularly the Vatican and the Carolingian Kingdom of his step-mother’s family are prime candidates for this inspiration.

Whilst Alfred’s two visits to Rome in his youth would have likely had a lasting impression on him, his ties to the CarolingianKingdom would have had a more technical influence on the design and layout of the English fortified burhs. The Carolingians already had some experience of countering the Danes and the defences implemented by Charles the Bald would have been a logical point for Alfred to draw inspiration from.

Passages in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also show that Alfred paid particularly close attention to events happening on the continent. The large number of entries prior to Ethandune show that he was paying particular attention to the Danish movements, although it is highly likely that he would have also been paying close attention to any changes in the Carolingian’s defensive fortifications 

What measures were implemented?

As mentioned above, a key goal of Alfred’s defensive reforms was the denial of access to the lands of Wessex to a foreign invader. This was achieved through several means.


Figure 1-Location of fortified defences implemented by Alfred[6].

River forts

It had become obvious the Danes’ free reign of the Thames waterway was an issue which would need urgent attention if a second war were to take place. Charles the Bald had already implemented a system of river forts along the Seine[7] and Alfred implemented a similar system along the Thames. These forts were primarily designed to restrict access up the Thames and their positions in Figure 1 reflect this defensive purpose.

Fortified burhs

As can also be seen from Figure 1, a large number of forts located away from major waterways were also implemented by Alfred. These fortified settlements, or burhs, were again designed to restrict access and deny mobility to the Danes. A comparison to the location of major roads, or herepaths,(figure 2) in Anglo-Saxon England also show that many of these were located along these routes, further highlighting their purpose.

The unique feature of these burhs was that, unlike the later Norman Castles, the burhs were living, breathing towns with a high level of defensive organisation. Not only did this allow the English to use them as stores for supplies and refuge for villagers when a threat was present, but also allowed them to garrison these burhs with men of the local fyrd. Along with the division of the fyrd mentioned in Military Changes (Part A), this had the effect of increasing the contentment of the fyrds to stay in the field for longer periods of time since their homes, families and crops would be well defended.

Another important feature of these burhs, and somewhere that Alfred’s highly organised and forwards looking planning showed, is that these burhs were located at no more than a day’s march from each other.  This allowed rapid reinforcement if a burh was under siege. The full extent of this feature will be examined below.

A final point on the burhs is that whilst some were repaired Roman fortifications, Alfred had no problem with ordering the construction of new fortifications where needed. These were planned in an organised fashion, in keeping with Alfred’s personality, and this can be seen in the burghal hidage, whereby Alfred gives detailed instructions as to the construction and manning of these burhs. The exact specifics of this document are not essential for the purpose of this post, but that the construction and manning of the burhs was carried out in an extremely methodical and organised manner shows that massive importance which Alfred placed on these defences.


Figure 2-Herepaths of Anglo-Saxon England[8]


“The same year King Athelstan and Alderman Elchere fought in their ships, and slew a large army at Sandwich in Kent…”[9]

That the West Saxons already had a navy prior to the Danish invasion of Wessex is no mystery. However, this was a navy which was not prepared for an invasion of the scale witnessed during the invasion and settlement of England by the Danes. The failing of his navy would have been made apparent to Alfred as the Danes freely enjoyed access to the Thames, as well as to many miles of undefended coastline.

Whilst Alfred’s attempts to remedy this problem by creating a larger navy which was better adapted to deal with the Danish ships (his ships had sometimes twice as many oars as their Danish counterparts and were built “as he himself thought that they might be most servicable”.[10]

Although this new navy was a step towards defending the coastline it would have been obvious that Alfred would never be able to produce and man enough ships to keep watch over his entire coastline, especially with his future plans for a united England. For this reason a system of beacons were constructed at many points along the English coast with the intention of being an early warning system to the navy, and in turn, the fyrds.[11]

How effective were these measures?

Fortified Burhs

As already mentioned whilst covering the planning and design of the burhs, all burhs were located approximately a days march (25 miles). This distance was indeed very intentional, which had the effect of causing a massive disruption to the Danes’ previous behaviour of besieging and taking key settlements with very little sign or warning of their intentions.

The events described in the entry for 894 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle convey quite well the effectiveness of the burhs. That the Danes had great difficulty in capturing any towns or supplies during their second invasion is a direct consequence of these burhs.

River Forts

The fact that the second Danish Invasion was mostly landbourne, with less use of the waterways, is perhaps an indication of the success of the river forts. As their purpose was essentially the same as the land burhs it can be assumed that they had a relatively similar level of success during any encounters with the Danes.


Afred’s new navy was met with mixed success in the wake of its creation. Generally Alfred’s navy chose to avoid confronting large fleets, focusing on attacking/counter-attacking smaller Danish fleets of less than 10 ships. Since our sources (Asser) do not specify how many ships Alfred bought to these encounters if is hard to gain an accurate idea of how effective these naval measures were (although we do have an account of the larger English ships becoming stranded on a river bank after encountering, and winning against, a group of Danish ships).

However, the overall success of the second Danish War is likely due to each measure implemented by Alfred, so this does reflect well on the new navy.



The Danegeld was a payment of gold, food or sometimes horses made to the Danes to secure peace. Many of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms paid this tribute, Wessex among them.

In relation to the Alfredian Wars, Alfred implemented this as an additional way of securing peace within his borders until his defences could be fully constructed. Whilst likely a drain on his resources, the benefits of extra time, plus the respite given to his troops due to this peace would have been invaluable.

A more detailed description of this idea can be read in Alfred Warrior King (John Peddie) and the Anglo-Saxons at War 800-1066 (Paul Hill)

[1] The extent of the Danes control of the Thames is shown in Alfred Warrior King, John Peddie, p150-150

[2]Entry for the year 867 AD in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

[3] Entry for the year 860 AD in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

[4] Alfred Warrior King, John Peddie, p 159

[5] The Anglo-Saxons at War 800-1066, Paul Hill, p90-91 (Map 1)

[6] D. Hill, An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 1981), p. 86.

[8] D. Hill, An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 1981), p. 116.

[9] Entry for the year 851 AD in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

[10] Entry for the year 897 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Whilst this is almost 20 years after Alfred’s initial naval reforms it is likely that they same design was implemented at the start of the reforms.

[11] D. Hill and S. Sharp, „An Anglo-Saxon Beacon System‟ in Names, places and people: an onomastic miscellany in memory of John McNeal Dodgson eds. A. Rumble and A. D. Mills (Stamford, 1997) 157-165; Hill, Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England, p. 92.


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