King Alfred of Wessex has been credited with forming the first English navy in the 9th century. But, as Chris Bishop, author of the Shadow of the Raven series, writes, this isn’t the case.
While Alfred is often regarded as being the ‘father’ of the English navy, he was not its ‘founder’. The English Navy was initially established by Henry VIII in 1546 but Alfred is often credited with having had the vision to equip ships to protect his Kingdom of Wessex, predominantly to stop attacks by Viking (or, more particularly, ‘Danish’) raiders. Even then, he was not the first to do so.
In the aftermath of the attack on the Northumbrian monastery at Lindisfarne in 793, seaborne raids (and later full-blown invasions) became a major concern for many parts of the British Isles. Given that the coastal settlements would have included men who derived their living from the sea, it’s not surprising that someone came up with the idea of sailing out to meet the Vikings before they came ashore but, if so, it wasn’t Alfred.
I say this because in 851 we have a reference to King Athelstan of Kent defeating a Danish armada off the coast of Sandwich in Kent. This had nothing to do with Alfred, who was born c849 and would thus have been only a few years old at the time!
That said, Alfred did play a significant role in the struggle against the Vikings, not only winning several battles (including one very decisive victory at Edington in 878) but also in fortifying approximately 30 key settlements throughout Wessex by making them into burhs (Saxon forts) intended to withstand Viking attacks and sited so as to be close enough to support each other.
He also took things a step further and in 896 is credited with designing and building a small fleet of ‘double-sized’ ships, each powered by as many as 60 oars. These were intended to be faster and more stable than other ships at that time and also to sit higher in the water to give them a tactical advantage. It is this which may have given rise to the notion of him being the father of the navy.
It’s reported that his new ships were ‘tested’ quite early on when a fleet of six Viking ships raided the coast between the Isle of Wight and Devon.
Alfred reportedly sent nine of his new vessels to intercept them and they trapped the enemy in an estuary where three of the Viking ships were afloat and the rest were beached with their crews ashore (presumably raiding?). They took two Viking ships and killed the crews but the Saxon ships then got stranded on the tide and, whilst thus constrained, the shallower longships were able to ‘float off’ first and thereby escape.
The Saxons’ success in this encounter hardly rates as a vindication for Alfred’s design if indeed it was the size and draught of his new ships which proved something of an impediment – (although we’re told that most of the Viking ships which escaped were later caught and dealt with).
Also, it would seem they were attacking a relatively small Viking contingent and one wonders how they would have been deployed against a significantly larger fleet such as the one which apparently comprised of several hundred vessels which had attacked north Devon and also Exeter a few years earlier.
Nonetheless, there must have been other successes in 896 as it’s recorded that the Vikings lost 20 ships and crews on the south coast that year – though it’s not clear whether this includes ships lost to storms, a not infrequent occurrence.
Alfred was also not without some prior experience of sea battles. For example, in 875 he is said to have taken a squadron to sea and attacked seven Danish ships, capturing one and putting the rest to flight. Then, in 882, he reportedly attacked four Danish ships destroying two of them and forcing the others to surrender.
It seems he was less successful in 885 when he sent a fleet from Kent to East Anglia. Although they defeated 16 Viking ships in the mouth of the river Stour, whilst on their way home they were intercepted and beaten by a large Danish fleet.
We tend to think of Viking ships as being the infamous longships but, in reality, there were many different types of vessel, each designed for a specific purpose. This included not only warfare and raiding but also transportation and trading – and presumably some of them were adapted to serve more than one function when required. It’s also likely that quite a few were community owned whilst others formed part of much larger fleets.
Whilst there are references to battles at sea in this era off the coast of both Britain and mainland Europe, most of these focus on the number of ships involved and the outcome, with very little about the tactics employed or how these battles were actually fought.
Some accounts suggest that the ships were sometimes roped together to form a floating ‘platform’ from which the men fought in much the same way as they would on land – with a shield wall supported by arrows and with numerous projectiles such as spears being thrown. This was apparently followed by boarding and then hand to hand fighting with axe, spear and sword and so on.
Whether this form of battle was used by both the Vikings and the Saxons isn’t clear, and it may be that a variety of other tactics were employed, some perhaps amounting to little more than a show of strength or a pursuit to see off the attackers.
Either way, in order not to be constrained by wind strength and direction, whilst actually engaged in a battle it’s likely that the sails would have been furled, leaving the ships to rely on the oars for propulsion and manoeuvrability. An obvious objective might therefore have been to kill the oarsmen and thereby render the ship at least temporarily immobile.
It’s doubtful whether they would have rammed each other for fear of damaging their own vessel but I have read suggestions that they might have tried to ‘shear off’ the oars by sailing close alongside the enemy. I’m not sure how practical that would have been without damaging their own oars and, in any event, by sailing so close they would have been vulnerable to boarding.
Similarly, I doubt that fire played a significant part in most sea battles as, with the sails furled, it would have been relatively easy to extinguish with all that water around and any change in wind direction could mean that a burning vessel drifted back towards your own fleet. Besides, taking a ship intact would have made a very valuable prize and not one you would destroy unless you had to.
Logically, these battles would have been fought in the quieter coastal waters or river estuaries and were probably not always as epic as might be envisaged. The Vikings often relied on the tactics of shock and surprise so, once they’d been sighted, they might well have preferred to sail away to try their luck elsewhere, particularly as it seems they didn’t much relish fighting at sea. After all, a damaged ship could make it difficult to sail home or, at the very least, necessitate repairs
Having said all this, attacking the raiders as they approached the shores of Wessex does make a certain amount of sense, particularly if the raiders were weary from having been at sea for any length of time – life on board a longship must have been pretty spartan, with limited rations and the men often sleeping in the open.
It would also have been tiring work if they were required to take their turn at the oars when needed – assuming they didn’t have slaves on board to do that for them.
So, was Alfred really the father of the English navy? I tend to think that the accolade may be stretching things a bit. However, to give credit where it’s due, in designing and building specialist ships he could be said to have paved the way for the existence of an organised coastal defence system. To that extent, he laid the framework for the future, albeit it was subsequently extended and built upon by others.
He’s written more about this period in two other Historia features: Horses in battle at the time of Alfred the Great and Twisting the Tale: should historical fiction stick to the facts?
If you enjoyed this feature, you may also like:
The power of alliance in the Viking Age by Matthew Harffy, about how Ecgberht of Wessex dealt with the Danes and made Wessex powerful
A life of war in Anglo-Saxon Britain by Edoardo Albert
Rival kings and the fall of Mercia by MJ Porter
In Search of Mercia by Annie Whitehead, author of Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom
Bebbanburg 2020: the lessons I learned from a seventh-century siege by Matthew Harffy
The Battle of Brunanburh by Hilary Green
Anglo-Saxon women with power and influence by Annie Whitehead
Oswald: Exile, King, Saint by Matthew Harffy
Review: Warrior by Edoardo Albert with Paul Gething by Matthew Harffy
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War by Edoardo Albert
- King Alfred, detail from the Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, before 1308: The British Library, Royal MS 14 B VI
- Map of Viking raids, 792–6: adapted from map by S Bollmann, Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
- Detail of folio 9v of Miscellany on the Life of St. Edmund, 1130: Morgan Library via Wikimedia (public domain)
- King Alfred’s Longships Defeat the Danes, 877 by Colin Unwin Gill, 1925–27: ©Parliamentary Art Collection, accession no WOA 2600 via Art UK
- Viking ships by Jos van Wunnik: Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
- Viking longboat Hugin, Ramsgate, by Peter Lelliott: Geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0)