The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum - Sociolinguistic Background and Linguistic Analysis

Seminar Paper, 2008

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Alfred and Guthrum

1. Sociolinguistic Background
1.1 The Treaty
1.2 Viking Threat
1.3 Wessex in Danger
1.4 The Turning Point
1.5 Consequences of the Treaty

2. Linguistic Analysis
2.1 Grammar and Translation
2.2 Etymologies
2.3 Pronunciation
2.4 Spelling
2.5 Content of the Text


Original Text:

Sociolinguistic Background:



EOW: Englisc Onstigende Wordbōc. 26 January 2008 <>.

Alfred and Guthrum

ϸis is Ϸæt friϷ, Ϸæt Ælfred cyninc and GyϷrum cyning and ealles Angelcynnes witan and eal seo Ϸeod, Ϸe on Eastænglum beoϷ, ealle gecweden habbaϷ and mid aϷum gefeostnod for hy sylfe and for heora gingran, ge for geborene ge for ungeborene, Ϸe Godes miltse recce oϷϷe ure.

1. Ærest ymb ure landgemæra: up on Temese and Ϸonne up on Ligan and andlang Ligan oϷ hire æwylm, Ϸonne on gerihte to Bedanforda, Ϸonne up on Usan oϷ Wætlingastræt. (Weimann 202-05)

1. Sociolinguistic Background

1.1 The Treaty

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a compromise is defined as „an agreement reached by each side making concessions”. (Oxford English Dictionary) The ´Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum´ may be considered as such a compromise since it reflects a decisive turning point after approximately 100 years of violent raids and brutal battles.

When this important legal text was written and signed by the English ruler of Wessex King Alfred and the Viking ruler of East Anglia King Guthrum is uncertain. Considering the historical events, one can date the treaty between the battle of Edington in 878 and Guthrum’s death in 890 though. Most historians believe that it was concluded shortly “after Alfred’s occupation of London in 886”. (Smyth 92)

This significant agreement is one of the few surviving Old English or more specifically West Saxon documents and includes very interesting details about the society, culture as well as politics in 9th century England.

1.2 Viking Threat

In 793 one of the very first Viking raids took place at the monastery of Lindisfarne (Northumbria) which was situated on the east coast of the British Isles.

A series of aggressive attacks followed during the following years:

Though the raiding bands at this time were small, probably numbering in the dozens or hundreds rather than thousands, the devastation that marked their passage was considerable. Monasteries and towns were their favourite prey, since the plunder to be had there was especially plentiful. But settlements and estates in the countryside also suffered from their attention. (Abels 105)

In search of adventure and plunder, the ´Danish´ war bands also frequently attacked other regions like the Hebrides, Russia, Francia, Iceland and the Orkney Islands besides England.

In some respects their way of life seems to resemble the lifestyle of the seventeenth century pirates marauding in the Caribbean. Probably driven out of their Scandinavian home by hunger and impoverishment which could have been caused by population growth, pagan polygamy and their traditional inheritance customs, they joined mobile Viking fleets.

Here, they eventually got the chance to experience the “ties of fellowship and lordship, becoming in essence a member of a seaborne household of warriors.” (Abels 111)

By the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in 865 the intention of the Vikings changed dramatically: occasional raids evolved into conquest and permanent residence. No one exactly knows who the members of this army were and whether they directly came from Scandinavia or had stayed in other regions before. Possibly, the Great Heathen Army consisted of several fleets forming a huge military unit.

With brute force and within only a few years, the ´Norse´ army conquered the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia. Neither negotiating peace treaties with the invaders nor providing food, horses and money or exchanging hostages and oaths could prevent the Vikings from conquering.

1.3 Wessex in Danger

Finally, the strongest of the English kingdoms Wessex also seemed to be highly attractive for the Viking conquerors. In 870 and 871, four brutal battles in which King Æthelred, his younger brother Alfred and the West Saxon army fought against the Great Heathen Army quickly followed each other at Englefield, Reading, Ashdown and Basing. The outcome alternated between victory and defeat:

Morale and discipline, rather than technology or even tactics, determined the outcome […] The viking and the West Saxon forces were, very likely, nearly evenly matched in terms of numbers and equipment, so a sudden counter-attack […] could well prove decisive. (Abels 127)

In the spring of 871 the two armies met again at a battleground in Meretun. Though fighting eagerly and bitterly, the West Saxons were defeated by the ´Norse´ army, which had probably been supported by a ´freshly´ arrived fleet under the command of the Viking leader Guthrum. Soon after the battle at Meretun, King Æthelred died and his brother Alfred succeeded to the throne and could call himself King of Wessex.

Shortly after his coronation, the strong Vikings defeated his army at Wilton and Alfred felt himself compelled to make peace with them and paid them for leaving Wessex.

The peace only lasted five years though. In 876, the Vikings started their second invasion of Wessex and built up a base at Wareham. Once more, Alfred tried to achieve peace by “combining a payment of money with an exchange of hostages and the swearing of oaths.” (Abels 148) But not even the involvement of the ´holy ring´, a pagan arm-ring used for worshipping the Scandinavian god Thor, could prevent the `Danish´ from breaking the treaty.

Moreover, they killed all the hostages and went to place called Exeter. King Alfred and his forces followed and challenged them there. Miraculously, a Viking fleet, sailing along the Channel to join their compatriots, was wrecked by a storm. Of course, the military situation changed dramatically and the West Saxons were now able to defeat their enemy. The `Danes´, which were lead by Guthrum at this time, left Wessex and went to Mercia. In spite of this setback or maybe because of it “Guthrum judged Wessex to be prize ripe for the taking.” (Abels 151)

1.4 The Turning Point

At the beginning of the year 878, Guthrum surprisingly ravaged and conquered the heartland of western Wessex. The landowners did not have a lot of choices: they either accepted Guthrum as their lord or fled or died. Being unable to defend Wessex, Alfred sought refuge in a marsh in Somerset. There, the West Saxon king established a base in Athelney in order to build up an army and plan an attack on the `Danes´. His immediate task was to “call upon the military resources […] and meld them into a single force.” (Abels 160) In May, Alfred and his followers finally met at a place called ´Egbert’s Stone´ and from there they approached Guthrum’s camp. At Edington in Wiltshire, they challenged the Viking army and fought fiercely against them. Pursued by the West Saxons, Guthrum and his men fled to their camp at Chippenham. After a 14 day siege, the Viking leader had to surrender to Alfred and accept his stringent conditions which did not only include providing hostages and leaving Wessex but also the conversion to Christianity of Guthrum himself.

Together with some of his followers, Guthrum was finally baptized by Alfred himself and renamed Æthelstan. One does not know for sure how seriously Guthrum took his conversion but, after all, he fulfilled his promise and withdrew his army from Alfred’s kingdom. This time, Alfred’s peace seemed to be made to stick:

The spiritual parenthood established by Alfred over Guthrum at Aller must inevitably have implied some level of cultural and political superiority, and Guthrum, as the spiritual son of Alfred, was in turn acknowledging the future on-going superiority of a king whose religion he was compelled to adopt. (Smyth 83)

Many historians also assume that there was a `Treaty of Wedmore´ drawn up immediately after the battle of Edington in 878. This document is supposed to have contained all the details about Alfred’s and Guthrum’s diplomatic agreement but it does not exist anymore.

In spite of this peace treaty, there was still trouble with the ´Danes´ in 884 and 885 since “Alfred sent a naval force from Kent which attacked viking ships […].” (Smyth 93) This conflict may have led to the famous ´Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum´.

1.5 Consequences of the Treaty

First and foremost, this treaty was a compromise finally achieved by King Alfred and King Æthelstan after a long period of brutal battles and gruesome fights between the English and the Vikings. It formed the basis for a relatively “stable political situation” (Abels 170) and the integration of the ´Norse´ people into the political community and Christian culture of 9th century England.

In the first paragraph, the geographical boundaries of the Danelaw were fixed; within the borders of the Danelaw, the ´Danish´ could act self-determined. But there was also some interaction: especially the fifth paragraph “attempts to minimize opportunities for conflict by regulating movement and commerce between the two kingdoms.” (Abels 165)

When talking about judicial processes and the punishment of criminals, the treaty reflects the social as well as political equality of the English and ´Danish´ living in Britain.

Despite the fact that the ´Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum´ was of great importance for both peoples, it could not preclude occasional conflicts and attacks by marauding foreign Vikings.

Especially after Guthrum´s death in 890, these conflicts became more frequent and violent till the ´Danes´ were finally driven out of England in the middle of the 10th century.

Still, the Scandinavian settlement left considerable traces in the English language and culture like the use of many originally Norse words, e.g. the third person plural pronouns. Even today, the Scandinavian influence becomes particularly visible in former East Anglia and Northumbria because geographical names often contain typical Old Norse elements like ´-by´, ´-thorp´ and ´gate´.


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The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum - Sociolinguistic Background and Linguistic Analysis
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Anglistik)
Seminar: Diachronic Linguistics: Old English
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Treaty, Alfred, Guthrum, Sociolinguistic, Background, Linguistic, Analysis, Seminar, Diachronic, Linguistics, English
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Maria Melanie Meyer (Author), 2008, The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum - Sociolinguistic Background and Linguistic Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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