Only one English kingdom now held out against the wickings, and that was Wessex. Its comparatively successful resistance may be set down, in some slight degree, to the energy of a single man, Ælfred, though it was doubtless far more largely due to the relatively strong organisation of the West Saxon state. In judging of Ælfred, we must lay aside the false notions derived from the application of words expressing late ideas to an early and undeveloped stage of civilised society. To call him a great general or a great statesman is to use utterly misleading terms. Generalship and statesmanship, as we understand them, did not yet exist, and to speak of them in the ninth century in England is to be guilty of a common, but none the more excusable, anachronism. Ælfred was a sturdy and hearty fighter, and a good king of a semi-barbaric people. As a lad, he had visited Rome; and he retained throughout life a strong sense of his own and his people's barbarism, and a genuine desire to civilise himself and his subjects, so far as his limited lights could carry him. He succeeded to a kingdom overrun from end to end by piratical hordes: and he did his best to restore peace and to promote order. But his character was merely that of a practical, common-sense, fighting West Saxon, brought up in the camp of his father and brothers, and doing his rough work in life with the honest straightforwardness of a simple, hard-headed, religious, but only half-educated barbaric soldier.
The successful East Anglian wickings, under their chief Guthrum, turned at once to ravage Wessex. They "harried the West Saxons' land, and settled there, and drove many of the folk over sea." For awhile it seemed as if Wessex too was to fall into their hands. Ælfred himself, with a little band, "withdrew to the woods and moor-fastnesses." He took refuge in the Somerset marshes, and there occupied a little island of dry land in the midst of the fens, by name Athelney. Here he threw up a rude earthwork, from which he made raids against the Danes, with a petty levy of the nearest Somerset men. But the mass of the West Saxons were not disposed to give in so easily. The long border warfare with Devon and Cornwall had probably kept up their organisation in a better state than that of the anarchic North. The men of Somerset and Wilts, with those Hampshire men who had not fled to the Continent, gathered at a sacred stone on the borders of Selwood Forest, and there Ælfred met them with his little band. They attacked the host, which they put to flight, and then besieged it in its fortified camp. To escape the siege, Guthrum consented to leave Wessex, and to accept Christianity. He was baptised at once, with thirty of his principal chiefs, after the rough-and-ready fashion of the fighting king, near Athelney. The treaty entered into with Guthrum restored to Ælfred all Wessex, with the south-western part of Mercia, from London to Bedford, and thence along the line of Watling Street to Chester. Thus for a time the Saxons recovered their autonomy, and the great Scandinavian horde retired to East Anglia. Æthelred, Ælfred's son-in-law, was appointed under-king of recovered Mercia. Henceforward, Teutonic Britain remains for awhile divided into Wessex and the Denalagu—that is to say, the district governed by Danish law.
Though peace was thus made with Guthrum, new bodies of wickings came pouring southward from Scandinavia. One of these sailed up the Thames to Fulham, but after spending some time there, they went over to the Frankish coast, where their depredations were long and severe. Throughout all Ælfred's reign, with only two intervals of peace, the wickings kept up a constant series of attacks on the coast, and frequently penetrated inland. From time to time, the great horde under Hæsten poured across the country, cutting the corn and driving away the cattle, and retreating into East Anglia, or Northumbria, or the peninsula of the Wirrall, whenever they were seriously worsted. "Thanks be to God," says the Chronicle pathetically "the host had not wholly broken up all the English kin;" but the misery of England must have been intense. Ælfred, however, introduced two military changes of great importance. He set on foot something like a regular army, with a settled commissariat, dividing his forces into two bodies, so that one-half was constantly at home tilling the soil while the other half was in the field; and he built large ships on a new plan, which he manned with Frisians, as well as with English, and which largely aided in keeping the coast fairly free from Danish invasion during the two intervals of peace.
Throughout the whole of the ninth century, however, and the early part of the tenth, the whole history of England is the history of a perpetual pillage. No man who sowed could tell whether he might reap or not. The Englishman lived in constant fear of life and goods; he was liable at any moment to be called out against the enemy. Whatever little civilisation had ever existed in the country died out almost altogether. The Latin language was forgotten even by the priests. War had turned everybody into fighters; commerce was impossible when the towns were sacked year after year by the pirates. But in the rare intervals of peace, Ælfred did his best to civilise his people. The amount of work with which he is credited is truly astonishing. He translated into English with his own hand "The History of the World," by Orosius; Bæda's "Ecclesiastical History;" Boethius's "De Consolatione," and Gregory's "Regula Pastoralis." At his court, too, if not under his own direction, the English Chronicle was first begun, and many of the sentences quoted from that great document in this work are probably due to Ælfred himself. His devotion to the church was shown by the regular communication which he kept up with Rome, and by the gifts which he sent from his impoverished kingdom, not only to the shrine of St. Peter but even to that of St. Thomas in India. No doubt his vigorous personality counted for much in the struggle with the Danes; but his death in 901 left the West Saxons as ready as ever to contend against the northern enemy.
One result of the Danish invasion of Wessex must not be passed over. The common danger seems to have firmly welded together Welshman and Saxon into a single nationality. The most faithful part of Ælfred's dominions were the West Welsh shires of Somerset and Devon, with the half Celtic folk of Dorset and Wilts. The result is seen in the change which comes over the relations between the two races. In Ine's laws the distinction between Welshmen and Englishmen is strongly marked; the price of blood for the servile population is far less than that of their lords: in Ælfred's laws the distinction has died out. Compared to the heathen Dane, West Saxons and West Welsh were equally Englishmen. From that day to this, the Celtic peasantry of the West Country have utterly forgotten their Welsh kinship, save in wholly Cymric Cornwall alone. The Devon and Somerset men have for centuries been as English in tongue and feeling as the people of Kent or Sussex.