Alfred the Great;

King's Revenge.

By Bruce Corbett


 

Copyright  ©  2012,  by Bruce Corbett.

 

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic or mechanical, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 


Dedication

 

To Beverly Wilfrid Corbett,

a gentleman and a great father.

He taught me what selfless love is.

Thank you for everything.

 


 

Forward

This is the eighth book in the Ambrose historical adventure series. The previous novel covered a time when England came very close to becoming a Danish kingdom. In this novel, Alfred's long-term plans are finally coming to fruition. His plan to build fortified towns and a navy is underway. The end of this war will see Wessex spread to the north of the Thames, and control much of Mercia. His sea thanes, his garrison troops, and his summer and winter army are all part of a master plan to give Wessex a fighting chance against the savage Viking invaders.

The titles of the books have changed, since the main character in the last two books is Alfred the Great, though Ambrose, Polonius and Phillip will continue to play a major part in the war against the pagan Danes.

***

Some years before this story begins, in 876 A.D., King Guthrum of the Danes invades the Anglo-Saxon country of Wessex. Trapped at the town of Wareham by Alfred the Great and his West Saxon army, the Viking agrees to a truce, but, instead, slips out and retreats to Exeter. After a Viking fleet is destroyed in a storm, Guthrum is forced to sue for peace and retreats to East Anglia, a country that he and his ravaging Vikings have already conquered.

Just before Christmas 877, Alfred, whose army was disbanded for the winter, is caught by surprise by a second invasion of Guthrum's army. The Saxon king is forced into hiding in the forest of Selwood. Eventually he finds his way to Athelney, an island surrounded by marshes. From there, he organizes a secret gathering of his fighting men. Meantime, to the west, one of his ealdormen, Odda, destroys a second Viking army newly arrived from Wales and led by Ubbi Ragnarsson.

A single major defeat could mean the end of Saxon Wessex. All of the Angle, Saxon and Jute kingdoms north of the Thames are reeling or have already fallen under the Viking onslaught. Alfred's army manages to gather in May, however, and they meet the Vikings at Edington. Alfred is victorious and the Vikings flee to Chippenham. After a two week siege, Guthrum agrees to be baptized and signs a peace treaty with Alfred. Wessex is saved. This story is told in Alfred the Great; Viking Invasion.

In 885, Wessex is threatened by a new enemy. Another Viking army, fresh from France, lands in Kent and besieges the town of Rochester. This is where Alfred the Great; King's Revenge, begins. Guthrum and his powerful army are bound by treaty to stay out of the fight, but his men are ever hungry for more land and adventure. The territory north of the Thames River belongs to Guthrum. If the Viking king joins his forces with the Danes from France, Wessex may finally be overwhelmed. Alfred arrives with his army before the city falls, and the combined Saxon forces rout the Vikings, who flee precipitously, even leaving behind their entire horse herd.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles say very little about what actually happened between this attack and the eventual peace treaty between Alfred and Guthrum, although they report Alfred attacking a Viking fleet in the mouth of the Stour River. Alfred's fleet wins, but is subsequently defeated by an avenging fleet sent by Guthrum. Why was Alfred's fleet sent so far north; into Guthrum's home waters? How exactly did Alfred take London, and why? Did Guthrum attempt to defend it? The details I use in this story are fictitious.

Although regaining a strong base on the north bank of the Thames seems a good strategic move for Alfred, it was counter to the treaty he had signed with Guthrum. I have to assume that Guthrum must have been involved in some way in the hostilities at Rochester. Statements in Asser's biography of Alfred bear this out. Asser states that the king takes the city of London "after . . . burning cities and the slaying of the people." I mention Bishop Asser, but at the time of this story he was actually a newly arrived monk at Alfred's court. He was not made a bishop until the 890's.

I have made the assumption that Guthrum came south to defend London and the north bank of the Thames. How Alfred took the city, and the battle that ensued, is strictly a figment of my imagination. The terms of the subsequent treaty, however, are accurate. (See Appendix III)

This was a critical time for Wessex and all England. The Danish tide had rolled over all but the one southern Anglo-Saxon kingdom. If Wessex had fallen, English history might have been very different. I hope that you enjoy the story. Words in italics generally have special meaning and the details may be found in Appendix I.

 

The author,

Bruce Corbett




Table of Contents

Foreword

Cast of Characters

Chapter 1:  Vikings Land at Rochester.

Chapter 2:  Ambrose Talks with Gretchen About Going North.

Chapter 3:  Pigeons.

Chapter 4:  Ambrose Rides North to Guthrum.

Chapter 5:  The Ferryman Returns.

Chapter 6:  The Emissaries Leave London.

Chapter 7:  Ambrose Meets Guthrum.

Chapter 8:  Assassins in the Night.

Chapter 9:  The Saxon Priest.

Chapter 10: Alfred Rides.

Chapter 11: Alfred Wants to Hunt Down the Attackers.

Chapter 12: Guthrum's Men on the South Bank.

Chapter 13: Ambrose Returns To His Brother's Side.

Chapter 14: Alfred's Attack on the Viking Fleet at the River Stour.

Chapter 15: A Thane Loses His Land.

Chapter 16: Alfred Prepares For The Attack.

Chapter 17: Alfred Takes London.

Chapter 18:  Guthrum Arrives and Fights.

Chapter 19:  Alfred and Guthrum Discuss Peace.

Appendix I:  Glossary of terms

Appendix II:  The History of Wessex, of Russia, and of Ambrose and his Friends in the Ninth Century AD.

Appendix III: Treaty between King Guthrum and King Alfred the Great.

Appendix IV: Genealogy

Appendix V:  Map of Alfred's England.

Appendix VI:  About the Author and Other Books.

 



PART ONE

 

"In the year of our Lord's incarnation 884, which was the thirty-sixth of king Alfred's life, the aforesaid army (Viking army in France) divided into two parts; one body of them went into East France, and the other coming to Britain entered Kent, where they besieged a city called in Saxon Rochester, and situated on the eastern bank of the river Medway."

 

.............Asser's Life of King Alfred.




Chapter 1

Vikings Land at Rochester.

Polonius entered the room and approached the table that Ambrose and Alfred were sitting at. The king smiled. "So there you are, Polonius. I was wondering where you were hiding today. Your turn is next, Scholar. Just as soon as I finish this game with my big brother here, I will show you how well a king can play this new-fangled game you call chess.' He watched as Ambrose took his castle and grinned wolfishly. 'You see - even now Ambrose foolishly sacrifices his horse for my fortress . . . Scholar, what is the matter? You look pale and you are out of breath."

"Majesty, a messenger has just arrived. The Vikings we have had watched in Francia Occidental have finally moved."

"And?"

"Their army has split into two."

"You have my attention. Where are the two pieces going?"

"One is pushing upriver into Francia Orientalis."

"That is a concern for our friend Charles the Fat and his Franks, may God help them. And the other?"

"They have landed on this side of the channel."

"You said there was a good chance they would try Britain after they finished stripping the Frankish coastal provinces bare. Whose kingdom must face their onslaught this time? All that is left for them to devour is the lands of the Scots and Picts, or the Welsh. Perhaps we will be lucky enough to see them tear at Guthrum or Guthred. That would be divine justice."

"There is also us, Sire. They have landed in Kent."

"By the beard of sweet Jesus! I had hoped we were done with the devil's spawn. We already have bloody Guthrum in East Anglia and this Guthred strutting about in Northumbria, not to mention your friend Sitric ruling in Dublin! Will the bastards never stop coming?' The king took a deep breath. 'Okay, Polonius, how many and where?"

"The messenger reports that some fifteen ships headed up the Medway River and then beached near Rochester."

"And what have the Vikings done since they landed?"

"They immediately marched on Rochester."

"And?"

"And they have besieged it."

"Rochester . . . It was not yet on our list of burhs to fortify, Polonius, nor have we yet assigned it a garrison. Still, with its old Roman walls properly reinforced, it would be a bitch to take back from the heathen Vikings."

"There is one bit of good news, Sire. The ships were spotted approaching the Medway River and Ealdorman Raedan, your old comrade-in-arms, sent in both supplies and some of his men to reinforce the town before it was forced to close its gates."

Alfred looked up suddenly. "You mean that the tun has not fallen?"

"It was still holding out when the messenger started his ride to here."

"Well, by the bones of all the saints, may God bless Kentish stubbornness! How long can they hold out for?"

"Unknown, Sire. The old Roman walls are pretty substantial, but they are not in great shape. Raedan and the remainder of his sworn band are skulking in the forest and doing their best to harass any Viking raiding parties, but the messenger reports that his ealdorman's forces are very limited. Many of Raedan's best men are inside the city, and the local people are panicked. They are too busy fleeing with their families to answer his call to arms."

"That can only mean that the Vikings are up to their old tricks, spreading out in all directions and terrorizing the population."

"Exactly, Sire. Raedan is not capable of standing up to the Viking army without serious reinforcements."

"He can best defend his people by constant and ruthless attacks on each and every raiding party that sets out from the main Viking encampment. You and Ambrose taught me that, Scholar."

"Sire?"

"That the Vikings only respect strength. You told me once that, to a Viking, Christian charity is nothing more than a weakness to be exploited.'

"We also hid on the island of Athelney when Guthrum caught us with our breeks around our ankles, Sire."

Alfred looked up sharply a second time. "We attacked, and we won, Polonius! You have a short memory."

"We fought and won in the spring only after you had managed to secretly gather a strong force of your best warriors, Sire. Raedan is only doing what we did. He is attacking when he can, and then slipping away into the forests before he and his men are butchered. The Vikings apparently brought horses from Francia, and, of course, they are stealing more as fast as they can find them. It makes the Viking army frighteningly mobile. Remember, too, Sire, we have had relative peace for some eight years. Probably over half of Raedan's army has never experienced a real battle. He is leading inexperienced warriors against battle-hardened veterans who managed to hold off several Frankish armies for years."

"So what are you telling me, Polonius?"

"Raedan's only real hope against fifteen shiploads of warriors, Sire, is the West Saxon fyrd."

The king looked at the chess board and sighed again. 'Well, that Rochester is holding out is good news, and I am relieved that Raedan is still alive and organizing resistance of any sort. Where is the messenger?"

"He literally fell off his horse when he arrived. I sent him to the kitchens for some food. He had ridden without pause for more than a night. Shall I send for him?"

"No. Let the man rest. I have the information I need to make some decisions . . . Ambrose, your inevitable capitulation tonight will have to wait. I have another job for you. Brother, please be so good as to call up my scribes and any of the priests who are capable of writing a sentence. Don't forget that new monk from Wales . . . Asser. He has a nice script. Tell them to bring parchment, quills, and ink. My kingdom is at war, and I want the war arrows to be sent from Cornwall to Kent - this very night.

Polonius, get me my maps of southern Angleland. Phillip, pray spread the word to my Personal Guard. I want them fully provisioned and ready to ride in less than two nights. Send riders to recall any thanes who are within a night's ride.

***

Ambrose looked over Alfred's shoulder at the large map stretched out on the king's table. "Polonius' Frisian spies had warned us, brother, that, there were almost two thousand Vikings ready to leave Francia's coastal region."

Alfred nodded. "The question is, how many Vikings can you cram on to fifteen ships? Are other enemy ships cruising our coast, and, perhaps most important, what is bloody Guthrum up to?"

"You are worried that Guthrum might bring his Vikings across the Thames, Brother?"

The king drew his seax. The long dagger traced a route on the map. "Ambrose, look here . . . Here is our road to Rochester. From Winchester we will follow the old Roman road south as far as Portchester, but then we move north and east until we hit the Thames.

The king stared at the map indicating the ancient Roman roads snaking across his domain. Suddenly he stabbed at the spot of ink that represented the island's ancient capital. "And here, brother-of-mine, is God-cursed London. Worse, from there to Rochester, our road is perilously close to the river and Guthrum's territory.

"Then you think that Guthrum will come south, Alfred?"

"He signed a treaty of everlasting peace at Wedmore, Ambrose. Let us hope that my Viking godson plans to keep his word. London itself is a ruin, particularly after Guthrum seized it as part of his Mercian conquest several years ago. Its small Viking garrison is no threat to us, but the old city itself is still the centre of the entire island's road system. Mounted men can move quickly on the old Roman roads. If Guthrum sends sufficient men down from the north, they will be posed like a dagger just above my line of march.

If he crosses the Thames in strength, he could easily cut off our supply line and probably even make us turn back from Rochester. We cannot let him rampage through our heartland while we sit in Kent.'

Ambrose pointed at the map. "We could try strongly reinforcing Southwark, brother. From there we can literally watch London."

"For what purpose?"

"Then once Guthrum crosses the Thames, he would have a choice. He could bypass Southwark, leaving us in a position to cut off his supply line, or he could stop and try and take it, giving us time to return, and probably preventing him from doing much damage to our heartland."

Alfred suddenly turned and faced Polonius. 'Scholar, you have been heavily involved in surveying our tuns. I know that Southwark is one of the ones we designated as a defensive burh, but what shape is it currently in?"

Polonius sighed. "Not good, Sire. There is a small fort there, probably constructed originally to defend the ferry site after the Roman bridge collapsed. The fort was built long ago, however, and it was built of wood. The dry moat is largely filled in and what palisades there are, are rotten. With a garrison and a little work, it might be able to hold off a small band of marauders, but it could not possibly hold out for long against the likes of Guthrum's army."

"By the robe of our Saviour! That's just the way I remember it. I had hoped that there had been some recent changes for the better."

Polonius spoke. "To be fair to the local ealdorman, Sire, it was just recently designated as one of our defensive burhs. He is a good man. He just hasn't had time to do much yet."

"Write the orders, Scholar. As of today, I expect Southwark to be his main priority. Ambrose is right. If it is strong enough, it would cause considerable trouble for Guthrum. No, wait. Order the ealdorman to report personally to me. I will impart to him myself just how critical Southwark is to the defence of Wessex. And now, Scholar, to my original question - just what numbers of fyrdmen can we call up?"

Polonius spoke from memory. "You have a couple of hundred drengs in your Personal Guard and slightly less than seven thousand duguos on the rolls who hold land in your name, Sire. Your thanes and shire ealdormen, in turn, may bring an equal number of fighting men in their own ranks. Most of this latter, however, are neither well armed nor trained in large-formation battle. They could never hold unaided against a Viking shield-wall. The Viking skjaldborg would simply cut through the retainers like a hot knife through butter. Only your veteran fyrdmen with battle experience could stand and battle it out man to man with any hope of victory . . . Do you want to call up both your summer and winter fyrd, Sire?"

"It is tempting, Polonius, but if I call up the winter fyrd now, we will have no force once the fyrdmens' service time is up. When they go home, the kingdom will again be left unprotected for the winter. I don't ever wish to be caught again with no army. It was only with God's grace that we survived Guthrum's last winter attack. No, I fear that we will have to make due with only the summer fyrd."

"From that number I just gave you, Sire, you must deduct the men assigned to garrison the new burhs and man your fleet. At four men for every five and a half yards, the new garrisons tie up a vast number of men, and the more ships you build, the less mounted fyrdmen you have at your beck and call."

"But as you yourself told me, Scholar, the fyrdmen will only march willingly if they know that their wives and children were safe back home. It takes walls and garrisons to provide that protection, Polonius."

"Yes, Sire . . . a lot of men. And then there is the matter of Bookland."

"We must support Holy Mother Church in any way we can, Polonius. It is our God-given duty."

"I did not say that to support Mother Church is a bad thing, Sire. I merely wished to point out that your very generous grants of Bookland to the church leaves you with less land available to assign to a fighting thane, nor does the land ever revert to your control when the fyrdman dies or is killed. The Bookland the church currently holds costs you the equivalent of several thousand fyrdmen."

Alfred held his stomach and grimaced. "How many can I call up, Polonius?"

"Sire, you do not look good. Do you want a draught of my elixir?"

"Soon, Scholar, soon. First the numbers."

"If you wish to move east without any long delays, you could field a mounted force of somewhere between one and two thousand sworn men."

"Plus what fighting men meet us on the march, Polonius. I don't think I can count on many fyrdmen from Kent. They are already fully engaged, fleeing with their families or dead . . . And my sworn men might bring as many more of their own armed followers."

"Though not all will be armoured or mounted, Sire."

The king rubbed his stomach. "Well, at least our plan for two armies will pay dividends. We will call together enough fyrdmen for a summer campaign, but, come the winter equinox, for the first time ever I will not be defenceless when my summer fyrd goes home for the winter . . . Let it be so, Scholar. That, along with any churls we can round up in Kent, should be more than enough to crush fifteen boatloads of the Viking bastards."

"Unless Guthrum comes south, Sire."

"Aye, that is the rub. Unless my Viking godson decides to come south with his whole God-cursed army."

Ambrose spoke. "We need to know, brother. If he comes south when we are in Kent, he could - make it difficult for us. It is obvious that Southwark will not be defensible for some time."

King Alfred nodded. "Polonius, put the scribes to work! Send word to all the defensive burhs across the country. I want all burhs fully provisioned and all garrisons at full strength. Further, in the North, I want the people to start moving to the centres . . . You were right, Scholar."

"About what, Sire?"

"You told me of the need for secure havens for my people years ago. I have to admit it - you were right. My fyrdmen are afraid to leave their home shires unless they know that their families are safe, particularly with the ruthlessness and mobility of these God-cursed Vikings. The burhs and their garrisons have solved my greatest problem, whatever the cost in fighting men to my army. At least the ones I have don't keep trying to go home on me. I only wish I had a few more years to get the whole system properly organized. Many of the burhs we have selected so far are only half completed, and we still have to select more. When I am through, Scholar, I intend that no man in Wessex will be more than twenty miles from a burh and protection."

"Even as they are, Sire, they give the people security. The Viking presence will also give the people an incentive to hurry the repairs."

Alfred smiled. "Yes, I guess there is always that. There is nothing like a little fear to spur construction along."

Ambrose spoke. "Alfred, I have been thinking - we really do need to know what Guthrum is up to. We can handle one front, but we could be crushed if Guthrum took this opportunity to come south while we are in Kent."

Alfred stared at his brother. "Just what do you propose, brother-of-mine?"

"How about if we sent an important emissary north?"

"I assume you mean to Guthrum and not that upstart, Guthred of Northumbria."

"Guthred is busy trying to swallow Strathclyde and going up against Giric and Eochaid of Alba. Polonius tells me that the Scots and Picts are pushing right back. I don't think the Vikings of Northumbria are going to be a problem right now."

"Ambrose, do you really think Guthrum will just tell us his plans?"

"He is a direct man. He just might, and, in any case, we are within our treaty rights to ask him to send men to support us."

Alfred laughed. "You are an optimist, Ambrose! What are the odds of Guthrum sending his fighting men to fight their own cousins?"

"I suspect - very little. We just might, however, talk him into neutrality. Equally important, we can take the opportunity to see for ourselves just what exactly is happening in East Anglia."

"Brother, do you really wish to play the spy again? It almost got you killed last time."

"This time, Alfred, I go as the official emissary for Wessex. Even the Vikings accept the sacred status of an emissary. It is unlikely that any Dane would dare interfere with me."

"And you would take Phillip and Polonius with you?"

"Only if Matilda and Kuralla agree. Long ago, Polonius made a promise to Kuralla to never leave her side again. I just hope that she has forgiven me for the last five or six times I took her husband away from her and into danger."

Polonius looked surprised. "I will explain the situation, Master, and she will agree. She tells me that she fears for your life if I am not at your side."

Alfred smiled. "As do I, Scholar. Phillip?"

"Matilda has borne eight children, Sire, six living and two dead. I do not think she is eager for a ninth. She will agree just to get rid of me for a while."

Alfred turned back to his brother. "And Gretchen?"

Ambrose grinned. "I am not so foolish as to not ask permission, but she will agree. She knows that I have pledged my life to the defence of Wessex.' He shrugged. 'Sometimes even princes have to risk their lives for what they think is important."

"Well, the three of you have my blessings to go in an official capacity, but I leave your wives for you to deal with. Even a king should not stand between a husband and his wife.' Alfred sighed. 'God knows, we need as much information as we can get our hands on."


 


Chapter 2

Ambrose Talks with Gretchen About Going North.

Ambrose blew out the lone candle and slipped into his bed. A soft shape moved close against him. Gretchen murmured. "Mmm. Could there be a strange man in my bed?"

Hands groped Ambrose's naked body. "No. No, I think I know this one . . . I thought that you would never get here, husband-of-mine. Were you beating your brother at chess again?"

"I was, but we had to call off the game. Alfred called an emergency council meeting tonight. There is big trouble."

"Husband, I heard a courier ride in two turns of the hourglass back, and several leave at a gallop not more than two 'glass marks ago, but I decided to wait for you to come and tell me what is happening."

"A good thing, my sweet. If you had come as you are dressed now, you would very definitely have distracted more than your husband!"

"How do you know what I am wearing, light-of-my-life? It is very dark in here."

"I can feel your soft twin protrusions poking my chest, and if I reach down here . . . I can find your love-button . . . Ouch!"

"You have strayed from the topic at hand, oh lord and master. You must wait for any further treats or explorations until you have finished explaining just what is going on."

"It is you who was attacking me with your heavenly globes, love-of-my-life!"

Gretchen rolled on to her back. "Then I will take my heavenly globes out of your reach until you finish telling me what has happened. Why were so many riders galloping into the night?"

Ambrose sat up in the darkness. "That is because we are at war, my love."

Gretchen gasped and Ambrose could sense her sitting up. "Oh, no! What has happened, husband?"

"Part of that Viking army we saw in Francia years ago took to their ships and invaded Kent."

"Did not Polonius warn us they might move to Britain some time ago?"

"Yes, he did. They have stripped the coastal provinces bare. There is little gold or silver left in the country with which to pay Danegeld. The Vikings who stayed behind have moved inland in search of more plunder, but Charles the Fat and his magnates keep putting together armies almost as fast as the Vikings can crush them. Even with the casualty ratio exceeding ten to one, the Franks must eventually win through sheer attrition. Sadly, Polonius' assessment of the situation in Francia was quite accurate."

"So what happens now?"

"The couriers you heard are the first of many messengers carrying the war arrows from one end of the empire to the other. The entire summer fyrd has been called to arms."

"What exactly are the Vikings doing in Kent?"

"You mean aside from raping and pillaging?"

"I know what they do to the people, husband! One group visited Mercia, and their Norse cousins enslaved me. If you will remember, we met because my father came to court to borrow the money from your brother to pay the Vikings their cursed Danegeld."

"I am sorry my love. I did not mean to be flippant. The answer is - they are besieging Rochester as we speak."

"Then they haven't managed to seize a stronghold?"

"Not yet, although they apparently built a rough fort near Rochester."

"Then that means that Alfred must move at once!"

"You are right, my love. If Alfred can arrive before Rochester falls, the Vikings will be in a very precarious position."

"Then the fyrd marches as soon as it is assembled?"

"Most of it, yes. Three extraordinarily handsome advisors have been given a special assignment."

Ambrose felt a small hand seize his. "And do Kuralla, Matilda and I know these handsome advisors?"

"Intimately, my love."

"And what are these extraordinarily handsome advisors supposed to do?"

"Take the sacred white shield of an emissary and ride north."

"Not to York, surely? Guthred is no friend of yours and Sitric is far away in Ireland. Guthred's commanders hate you for what you did to Halfdan and Ubbi. The Saxon and the Angle scops still recite ballads about how you fooled the Viking commanders."

"I won't be going that far, my love. Alfred needs to know what Guthrum is about to do. If he comes south when the army is in Kent, Wessex will be in very big trouble."

"Then you are going to Guthrum as official emissary from Alfred."

"Exactly, my Love, but only if my wife agrees."

"You actually told Alfred that?"

"Word for word."

Gretchen giggled. "And what did he say?"

"He said that even a king should not come between a husband and wife."

"I am the wife of a warrior, husband. You will go where Alfred needs you. That is your sworn duty. Go and do your duty - with all my love!"

Suddenly, Gretchen was in Ambrose's arms. She squeezed him tight.

"What is all this about, wife-of-mine?"

"In the morning, you belong to the king and will do your duty. Tonight - you're mine!"


 

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