Between 871 and 878, Wessex came close to extinction, as the Great Heathen Army, the Great Summer Army, and Guthrum the Dane came to conquer.
In 870 the Great Heathen Army turns its attention to Wessex. The first campaign of 871 sees 9 battles fought, and Alfred the Great succeeded his brother Athelred to the throne of Wessex. Although Wessex wins the battle of Ashdown, it has little overall impact, and Alfred is defeated at Basing, Wilton, and Maredun. In the end, Alfred paid the Vikings to go away, and the they had been made to fight so hard that they agree.
But the Vikings were back in 878. This time led by Guthrum, with Halfdan returning to Northumbria to concentrate on building the viking kingdom. By cleverly breaking winter quarters at Gloucester, Guthrum's surprise attack reduced Alfred to something very close to complete defeat. With his closest thegns in the marsh at Athelney, the legend of Alfred was born; his small band led raids to throw the vikings off balance, and spread the word of a new army to fight back in the spring. At Countisbury Hill in Devon, some of Alfred's Earldormen won a victory against a viking raid from Ireland.
In his famous fightback, then, Alfred called together the fyrds of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire and defeated the Vikings in a decisive battle at a place called Ethandun. Asser described the battle:
Fighting ferociously, forming a dense shield-wall against the whole army of the Pagans, and striving long and bravely...at last he gained the victory. He overthrew the Pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress."
The Treaty of Wedmore 878
The Treaty between King Alfred and Guthrum, 878-890
This is the peace that King Alfred and King Guthrum, and the witan of all the English nation, and all the people that are in East Anglia, have all ordained and with oaths confirmed, for themselves and for their descendants, as well forborn as for unborn, who reck of God's mercy or of ours.
- Concerning our land boundaries: Up on the Thames, and then up on the Lea, and along the Lea unto its source, then straight to Bedford, then up on the Ouse unto Watling Street.
- Then is this: If a man be slain, we estimate all equally dear, English and Danish, at 8 half marks of pure gold; except the ceorl who resides on rented land and their freedmen; they also are equally dear, either atcc. shillings.
- And if a king's thegn be accused of manslaying, if he dare clear himself on oath, let him do that with 12 king's thegns. If any one accuse that man who s of less degree than the king's thegn, let him clear himself with xi of his equals and with one king's thegn. And so in every suit which may be more than 4 mancuses (120 silver pennies). And if he dare not, let him pay for it threefold, as it may be valued.
- And that every man know his warrantor in acquiring slaves and horses and oxen.
- And we all ordained on that day that the oaths were sworn, that neither bond nor free might go to the host without leave, no more than any of them to us. But if it happen that from necessity any of them will have traffic with us or we with them, with cattle and with goods, that is to be allowed in this wise: that hostages be given in pledge of peace, and as evidence whereby it may be known that the party has a clean back.