Reading Michael Wood's In Search of the Dark Ages, I suddenly understood a little better the fear that seized men in England and how they must have wanted to run when they heard of the Danes and the blood eagle. It's said that many fled "across the water" to France.
We've written about Alfred before, but not about the blood eagle. According to the annals, and Wood’s reading of them, the Danes had come in their thousands in hundreds of ships in a kind of “blitzkrieg”, plundering and destroying, extorting and terrorizing the inhabitants of Britain into submission. A mute witness to the decline of civilisation all across the four kingdoms was the dramatic decline in the quality of the language and calligraphy of the manuscripts, as if horror had made the scribes’ hands shake.
The armed and mobile Danes penetrated further into Wessex, his brother died in 871, and Alfred became king. He now faced the blood eagle alone. Repeated defeats destroyed his forces. He was reduced to holding out against the Danes with a few men in a swamp.
“For the kings themselves a terrible fate was reserved,” writes Wood. “When in 867 the ancient kingdom of Northumbria ended in flames as York burned down, their king Aelle suffered the blood eagle. This was a Viking rite in which the victim was offered to Odin; the ribs and lungs were cut from the living man and spread like eagle’s wings.”
Alfred could have given up and fled overseas like Burgred of Mercia. If he had, “then not only England but the whole English-speaking world would not exist today”.
Instead he organized an underground resistance, and defeated the Danes. Then he forgave them and converted them so they understood the ground rules. He laid out fortified urban centres (in rectilinear street patterns still visible in Winchester, Cricklade, Wallingford, and Wareham) because he could not rest on his victory. He had to maintain it. He restored learning, and established common law.
My appreciation for him has intensified.
There is more about Alfred in the Liberty Timeline.