An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

April 16, 2013

Lavelle: Alfred's Wars

Ryan Lavelle, Alfred’s Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age. Woodbridge and Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2010.

Reviewed by Tracey-Anne Cooper (

Ryan Lavelle’s splendid treatment of the significance and consequences of warfare and its organization for the late Anglo-Saxon state exceeds in scope the somewhat limited expectations set up by the title. This is not a book only concerned with warfare in King Alfred’s time, but about the consequences of that king’s policies from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, as they were shaped by, and responded to, Viking assaults, settlement, renewed assaults and then conquests, as well as warfare with neighboring Celtic and British polities. Lavelle’s book will surely become a go-to-guide for those seeking to represent “authentic” medieval warfare of the period in all its facets, as well as those who want to authoritatively critique such depictions. For those whose modern perceptions of the importance of King Alfred are limited to disjointed recollections of someone who fought Vikings and burned cakes, the book also provides a comprehensive reintroduction to the life and legacy of the only English king to be called “the Great.”

Lavelle eschews chronological organization (although there is a helpful timeline provided in an appendix) and instead approaches his subject thematically making extensive and accessible use of a wide-range of sources, including chronicles, poetry, law, wills, official records, sculpture and manuscript illuminations. He begins with a discussion of Æthelweard, Ealdorman of the Western Provinces (d.998), which allows the reader to understand and appreciate his choice of method. For Æthelweard, who had front-line responsibility for the defense of the south-western peninsula in the “Second Viking Age,” also wrote a Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in which he related the events of the “First Viking Age.” Lavelle’s work then proceeds to discuss the cultural significance of warfare, the nature of England’s opponents in warfare, the organization and equipment that was used in land and maritime battles, campaigns and strategies, fortifications, battles, and peacemaking and peace agreements after the battles.

The first chapter discusses the mentalities of warfare in Later Anglo-Saxon England, and concludes that ideas commonly connected to an earlier period – warfare as a means of achieving political goals, supplying social cohesion, defining masculinity and being the raison d’etre for males of a certain rank – had not altogether been superseded by Christian notions in preference of peace. as the Norman elite, as pre-conquest sculptures prove, including one from Neston, Cheshire, which appears to depict jousting.

Chapter Four discusses maritime organization and equipment, which was equally subject to Victorian misinterpretations, leading to enduring ideas of the establishment of an English proto-Navy under Alfred. Fleets were created defensively in the reigns of Alfred, Edgar and Æthelred, and used offensively by Æthelstan; so English shipbuilding was not inconsequential, and Lavelle demonstrates developments in ship technology and provision, as well as their social impact as conspicuous displays of the wealth by the super-magnates. The provision of vessels, as well as crews and the often overlooked coast guards, provided some stability in times of great threats. Chapter Five demonstrates that both Vikings and Anglo-Saxons were capable of launching well ordered and strategic military campaigns. In an era when successful warfare gave prestige, strategy was obviously an important part of warfare, but almost as important Lavelle argues was the posturing of invading leaders. Chapter Six tackles another form of posturing: fortification. Fortified places worked just as much as places that would be avoided by invaders, as they did as locales where invaders were resisted. Larger towns were, of course, attacked by Vikings, but these towns could successfully turn back an invasion campaign. Alfred’s West Saxon system of defenses seems to have been neglected in the tenth century, and the success of individual units may have been due to the efforts of bishops in urban defense. Chapter Seven discusses battles, which were quite rare, and although actual fighting techniques and tactics can be difficult to discern in the sources, Lavelle ably demonstrates that there was a greater flexibility than has hitherto been acknowledged, including a range of weapons, and use of horses and ships. As battles often determine the outcome of larger historical events, Lavelle stresses their greater cultural significance, not just for participants but for the wider populace affected by those outcomes and for succeeding generations. Chapter Nine discusses the ritual activities of peace, agreement, negotiation and declaration of fidelity. When war ended with the clear overlordship, Lavelle again highlights the posturing and prestige of the victor, which came to develop and exploit imperial overtones.

Lavelle’s book is, as promised in the “sources and interpretations” part of his title, studded throughout with large extracts from primary and secondary sources, as well as substantial quantitative and pictorial evidence. The balance of evidence and interpretation is unusual in a scholarly work of this standard; it includes, for example, reprints of whole articles and substantial parts of books by leading researchers. This is a uniquely refreshing approach which provides a methodology and publication framework that ably counters public and student reliance on historical information accumulated on unmonitored wikis, garishly dumbed-down for television, or written in best-selling books authored by journalists. Over and above its fascinating subject, this book lays open an integrated lesson in the nature and application of evidence and the development of the historiography and issues under debate, as well as explaining how the author’s new insights and interpretations have been formed. Moreover, it does all this without patronizing, cajoling, or befuddling its reader and without eviscerating historians with differing points of view. While there is a wealth of information in Alfred’s Wars that will keep the enthusiast dipping back into this book, the experience of reading it cover to cover is akin to taking an excellently-crafted master class in the subject. The idea of Alfred did much to shape English national identity, and he was particularly celebrated in the Victorian period and around his millennial celebration in 1901. He was still a popular enough figure in 1969 to inspire an epic eponymous movie starring David Hemmings as a reluctant and studious hero, with a trailer that began “Ten centuries ago, in an age of anarchy, tyranny and repression, a youth became king, and the fate of England rested with a twenty-two-year-old boy…” These perceptions of Alfred have passed, and more recent scholarly reassessments of him are still working their way down into popular perception. Alfred is sure to re-emerge again as an English hero in one media format or another: his story is just too good to become (or remain) obscure. An authoritative and generally accessible book such as Alfred’s Wars will contribute to a balanced public reappraisal, and, hopefully, to much better representations of the complexities of medieval warfare.

Tracey-Anne Cooper 
St. John’s University.