Thanks to the centenary of the first world war, counter-factuals are much in vogue. How different might history have been had Archduke Franz-Ferdinand never been assassinated, had Britain kept out of the conflict, had the Allies been defeated? Questions such as these are more than just a parlour game. They serve to cast the shadow of contingency over events that otherwise can seem all too predetermined. Deep and strong though the tides of history are, there have indeed been moments in the past when their flood-surge might have been diverted along profoundly different courses — moments when the fate of nations did truly hang in the balance.
The protagonists of one such episode are currently starring in the British Museum’s latest spectacular. The Vikings have always been box-office, and the new show is charged with an intimidating sense of their charisma, their ambition, their Game Of Thrones-style violence. Gold blazes, axes glint, and a dragon-ship, the longest ever found, dominates the exhibition space. No one can visit the show and not come away with a better appreciation of just how terrifying it would have been to see a fleet of Wicingas gliding up towards the beachfront.
For all the justified emphasis in the exhibition on the achievements of Iron Age Scandinavian culture, no one should doubt what the Vikings, when they first crossed the North Sea, meant for Britain. In the 9th century, the English came closer to having their civilisation snuffed out than they ever did during the two world wars. Set as they were on an island rich in treasure and dotted with wealthy monasteries, it was only to be expected that they should have found themselves the prey of sea-borne pirates. Fiery dragons in the sky had heralded the first arrival of Vikings on British soil: fitting omens of the devastation that was to come. With no unitary state existing in southern Britain at the time, only a patchwork of fractious kingdoms, the Vikings had found it a simple matter to graduate from raiding to conquest. Realm after realm was plundered, dismembered, and brought crashing down. By 878, only one was left standing: the kingdom of Wessex. ‘In mid-winter after Twelfth Night’, when a Viking war-band descended unforeseen upon the Wiltshire fortress of Chippenham, its survival was hanging perilously by a thread.
The town itself may not have been the only target of the attack. Chippenham was a royal residence, and the Vikings were almost certainly hoping to ambush Alfred, the king of Wessex. In the event, he was able to give his assailants the slip and flee to West Somerset — which, then as now, was largely under water. Athelney, ‘the island of the princes’, was a fastness so mired around by swamps and lagoons as to be impregnable; and it was from there, after four months’ hiding, that Alfred emerged to redeem his people. The invaders were defeated and scoured from Wessex; towns, ringed about with fortifications and endowed with market places for the generation of taxes, were planted across the kingdom; his subjects steeled for continued struggle.
The harvest of these labours, reaped by his heirs over the succeeding decades, was to prove a spectacular one. Vikings beyond the borders of Wessex were systematically subdued; the shattered fragments of other English kingdoms absorbed; even the Cornish brought to submit. In 937, in a bloody and titanic battle fought at an unknown place called Brunanburh, an assemblage of foes drawn from across the British Isles was met and heroically routed. The victor, Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, proclaimed himself ‘King of all Britain’. The title turned out to have been overoptimistic; but a second — ‘King of the English’ — did not. The achievement of Alfred and his heirs was to prove as enduring as it was momentous. Out of the fire and slaughter of defeat, a united kingdom of England had been forged.
To imagine a Twelfth Night raid on Chippenham in which Alfred did not manage to escape is, then, to imagine a very different world. Even before his flight to Athelney, many of the West Saxons were submitting to the invaders, with leading men, in the words of one charter, ‘deserting king and country’. It is hard to see how an independent Wessex could possibly have survived Alfred’s death. Puppets would doubtless have been found to preside over the rubble; but the last English kingdom would, in effect, have been destroyed. What kind of future a Viking-dominated England would then have faced is hard to say for sure — except that it would have been chaotic, and not English as today we understand the word.
The epithet of ‘Great’, which was first applied to Alfred in the 13th century, and enjoyed an imperially hued heyday in the Victorian period, is one that today can sometimes make historians squirm. Even those who confess to being ‘resistant to the idea of Alfred’s “greatness”’, though, seem to succumb to it in the end. A counter-factual which has him captured and brutally dispatched by the Vikings on Twelfth Night has this value: it reminds us just how much is owed to his personal achievements. There was nothing inevitable about the emergence of a united England. Without Alfred and his remarkable dynasty, the kingdom that helped give the world the United States, the Industrial Revolution and the most widely-spoken language of all time would never have come into existence. Not just British but global history would have been incalculably different.
So be sure, this March, to make a double date with the British Museum. Do visit the Vikings exhibition; but do also go to the dazzling and expensively refurbished Anglo-Saxon gallery. It opens at the end of the month: a reminder of our prodigious debt to the king who escaped the Vikings, fought them off, and helped to forge a nation.
Tom Holland’s books include In the Shadow of the Sword, Persian Fire, Rubicon and Millennium.