Alfred was the youngest son of Ethelwulf who was king of the western part of England. He was a Christian who could read and write (which was not that common at the time). Chosen by his people to be king he took on the Vikings at their own game, building a fleet of ships and in 875 confronting them at sea. His victory was sealed (so he thought) when he defeated the Vikings in battle. The Vikings made their own heathen vow at a great ceremony. They promised they would cease hostilities against the English. Sheep and cattle were slaughtered and a holy bracelet dipped in the blood for each Danish chief to swear on.

The Vikings left but, soon thereafter, broke their oath and returned with an army so powerful, that Alfred was forsaken by almost all his followers and forced to hide in the marshes of Somerset. This was a desperate time in his life.

Legend has it that, while he sheltered in a cowherd’s house, the cowherd’s busy wife, not knowing who he was, asked him to watch her cakes baking in the oven. Alfred, with other matters on his mind, faced her considerable wrath when he allowed her cakes to burn!

Alfred set about building a hidden camp in the Somerset marshes and whispers among his people brought more and more supporters through secret reed paths to what would become a fort.

The Vikings, lulled into complacency, allowed local minstrels or singers to entertain them at their camp, not knowing that one of them was King Alfred. Dressed as a minstrel with a harp, he stayed in the Viking camp for several days finding out all he needed to know about their strengths and weaknesses. Returning to his secret camp, Alfred assembled his forces and attacked some very surprised Vikings.

The power of the Vikings was crushed and their leader submitted to Alfred and even became a Christian himself.

It was now time for peace so, instead of exacting the expected revenge on his enemies, King Alfred included them in an administration that rebuilt monasteries and schools, translated Latin books into English, passed some sensible laws and, remarkably, introduced the jury system we use today. (A person accused of a serious crime could only be punished if 12 jurors agreed on his guilt)

He invented a type of candle clock for himself, which allowed eight hours for work, eight for study and eight for sleep. Working tirelessly, he built great ships and encouraged trade and manufacturing. In many ways he saved his country and is known as Alfred the Great. He died in 901 CE.

For the next 150 years Saxons and Vikings would share the crown of England. Meanwhile, across the channel in France the Vikings who ravaged the coasts of Europe had also settled in the part of France nearest England. Their Viking energy went into farming, horse rearing and fighting the dukes of France. They married French girls, became Christians and changed their language to French. To the French they were North-men or Normans and their land was Normandy.

There were family connections between the Anglo Saxons of England and Normandy and a contest for the English crown developed between Harold who ruled England and William, Duke of Normandy.