Alternate History

Ethelred the Pious

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Ethelred the Pious

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One morning in Berkshire...

The sounds of the camp could be heard from a good way off: men rousing each other and calling for weapons; hissing steam from hastily doused campfires; horses showing by their whinnying that they could well read the nervous mood of their riders. The Saxon army was preparing for battle, but with an uneasiness quite uncharacteristic of a band of warriors that had met and resisted the Heathen from one end of the kingdom to the other. In much quieter tones the men might be heard talking about the reason for their unease: the Danes were coming that day, but no one had seen the King.

Through the camp strode a very young man, in his dress and bearing every inch the King's brother. Already suited up in mail, the prince watched the far-off ridge impatiently. When he saw the approaching horses, he ran past the edge of the camp to meet them.

"What word from the King?"

"Prince Alfred, the King remains at prayers in his tent."

"In his tent? The Danes are here - I can see them! Did you tell him that?"

"My lord, he refused to see us."

Alfred looked out at the ridge, then back at his camp. The Danes could already be heard chanting a heathen war cry.

A lieutenant who had followed the prince spoke up. "Prince Alfred, shall we make shield walls?"

Alfred stayed silent several moments, then answered. "I will go to see my brother. If the Danes attack, form walls. Otherwise wait for me here."

"But Alfred, if they attack us here they have us at a disadvantage."

"I will return quickly! Give me that horse."

The little party rode into the King's camp. Alfred dismounted outside his brother's tent. Ignoring the bodyguards,he raised the flap and shouted.


The King knelt at the foot of a priest at the far end of the tent. Interrupted mid-incantation, the priest's face showed a mix of confusion and surprise. But the King looked over his shoulder and gave his brother a look of pure irritation.

"Alfred! What are you doing here? How dare you disturb us during the Sacrament?"

"Ethelred - brother - my lord..." Though beside himself with impatience, Alfred took a moment to catch his breath. "The Danes have been moving into position all morning. They seized the high downs while we stood watching. We cannot let them also seize the initiative. If we wait any longer we will have to withdraw. We'll lose the whole shire."

"Why in God's name do you think I am here? Do you really expect to hold the field without God's blessing? Get back to the men and keep them in order until I arrive."

Alfred walked forward, youth and adrenaline making him ignore his own impertinence. "But the men also see that the battle must soon be joined. And they need their king to lead them. Already the Danes are firing arrows to provoke us."

Ethelred now stood, his own impatience rising to the level of his brother's. "God's grace must come first," he declared. "When I meet the heathens in combat, I shall face them with a clean conscience. Now you are disturbing us. Either get yourself to the men, or else join me in confession. I daresay you could stand to be shriven as well as I, Alfred."

* * *

"At last Alfred, seeing the heathen had come quickly on to the field and were ready for battle... could bear the attacks of the enemy no longer, and he had to choose between withdrawing altogether or beginning battle without waiting for his brother." -- Hodgkin, quoted in Churchill, 105

The Battle of Ashdown

In real life, Alfred made the fateful decision to lead the troops of Wessex into battle himself, even though he was only 21 and little tested in war, and his brother the king remained at his devotions. Alfred's bold action halted the Viking advance and gave Wessex time to regroup. Alfred spent the rest of his life fighting the Danes and is remembered as a hero of the English people. And Ashdown in 871 was where his extraordinary career began.

But what if Alfred had listened to timid common sense? Suppose he had not made the rash decision to lead an army without its king, having never fought a battle in his life. In Churchill's words, "If the West Saxons had been beaten all England would have sunk into heathen anarchy. Since they were victorious the hope still burned for a civilized Christian existence in this Island... Alfred had made the Saxons feel confidence in themselves again. They could hold their own in open fight. The story of this conflict at Ashdown was for generations a treasured memory of the Saxon writers."

In this timeline, Alfred waited for his pious elder brother. While he waited, the Danes moved the entirety of their army to a more advantageous position. When Ethelred emerged to take command of his men, the attack was already underway. The Saxons were routed, and the main body of the fyrd scattered. It did not take long for the Danes to drive Ethelred's forces out of Wessex entirely.

Ethelred the Pious-- remembered as the last Saxon king of England-- scored a few more victories over the next few months and years, but could not stop the inevitable Danish advance. He died valiantly in 873 at the Battle of Headcorn in Kent, regarded as the last stand of the Saxon kingdoms.

Alfred went underground, leading small bands of insurrectionists for a number of years, until he too was captured and executed by Britain's new Viking rulers in 881.

Ripple effect


The Englebrog is the flag of England today.

The Danes and Norwegians flooded England over the following years, cultivating a new Scandinavian country in the Anglo-Saxon soil. They brought their worship of Odin and Thor, their independent, landowning peasant class, and their Norse languages. A new national language emerged, Englesk.

Over the years, the impact of a pagan England made itself felt as Norway, Iceland, and the rest of Scandinavia only sluggishly adopted the Christian faith. The Anglo-Norse continued their plundering lifestyle for a very long time, establishing new Viking states in France, Spain, and, later, Vinland. The raids throttled most of the Christian states of Spain and altered the evolution of the Frankish kingdoms of western and central Europe. Nearly all of Spain fell to the Muslims, and the Western Roman Empire, when it was restored, was centered in Provence and Italy rather than Germany.

In Vinland, a great cultural exchange ensued between the Norse and the peoples of northeastern America. The introduction of European livestock and shipbuilding transformed the Mississippian civilizations of medieval North America, while American squash, beans, and corn spread in Europe and the Mediterranean. By 1400 or so, the Indians of the northeast were quite Scandinavian, and the Scandinavians of the region quite Indian.

This timeline is and remains a work in progress. My goal is to have it flow from the single POD; all other changes are a result of butterflies in a way that I hope to make both plausible and entertaining. If you are curious about it, don't hesitate to ask.

Skol! --Ben.

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