This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available on Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.
This is a peaceful spot and I always like coming here. I never cease to be amazed at how this modest location that was so important in the history of England is so under-visited.
King Alfred defeated the Vikings at the crucial Battle of Ethandun (more likely in my opinion to have been at Edington in Wiltshire than any other single location) in 878. The Vikings fled to their fortress, which seems more likely to have been at Chippenham, where they then surrendered.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that three weeks after the Vikings surrendered, the Viking leader Guthrum came, accompanied by thirty of his men, to be baptised into Christianity at a place near Athelney called Aller. Asser tells us that Alfred himself raised Guthrum from the baptismal font and that Guthrum became Alfred’s adopted son.
St Andrew’s church at Aller, like Athelney, is on raised ground in the Somerset Levels, suggesting that the church probably would also have been on an island in Alfred’s time. The oldest parts of the current church are 12th century, so the events of 878 must have taken place at a preceding structure. It has been claimed that a font in the church (the more bowl-shaped of the two fonts), recovered from the rectory pond in the nineteenth century, was the one used to baptise Guthrum. The church can be tricky to find. Coming from Langport direction, it is necessary to take a left turn onto the road called Church Path and then turn left where there is a wooden sign for the church. The church also has a small but beautiful King Alfred Window, which is a memorial to the two reigns of King Alfred and Queen Victoria.
It can be speculated as to why Aller, about fifty miles distant from Chippenham, was chosen as the location instead of somewhere closer to Chippenham. Perhaps Alfred did not trust Guthrum and this was deemed to be a safer location, or perhaps Aller was a more significant place then than it seems to us today. It might even be that Alfred knew Aller well if he came here to pray when he had his base at nearby Athelney. It seems likely to me that after obtaining the Viking surrender at (most likely) Chippenham, Alfred simply went back to the Somerset Levels where he may still have had a base, and Guthrum had to go there to “seal the deal”.
I think there is a major clue in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles where we are told that Guthrum came to Alfred at Aller after a period of three weeks. With this time-frame the distance between Chippenham and Aller becomes less of an issue – there was plenty of time to travel. It was a matter of Guthrum having to go to where Alfred was in order to take advantage of an amazingly beneficial deal on the table. In effect it was: “Confirm your permanent submission by becoming baptised and in return we won’t trouble you if you want to settle permanently in the east. Not only this, but you and your men will also receive large amounts of riches” (which were provided subsequently at Wedmore). There is a big difference between the first scenario of the Vikings having effectively seized East Anglia and the later post-878 scenario of the Vikings settling in East Anglia with the approval and blessing of the King of Wessex. In effect, the Viking presence in East Anglia had now become legitimate. East Anglia must have been unstable since 869 when its king (Edmund) had been murdered by the Vikings. Settling it with a converted Guthrum (now called Athelstan after his baptism) probably had benefits for Alfred.
Any hopes that Alfred might have had for peace in East Anglia do not seem to have been realised. In 896 Alfred sent ships to the mouth of the Stour in East Anglia (and therefore somewhere near Harwich) and there were two battles with Viking boats. Alfred’s forces won the first engagement, but the Vikings won the second engagement.
It is by no means certain in my mind that Guthrum was baptised in a church at Aller. In other words, he could have been baptised outside at Aller, because baptism outside in water may have still been taking place, especially for what was a hugely significant moment. If this was the case then there would have been water nearby (Aller is on the Levels). The font in the church that is claimed to be Saxon was re-discovered outside, although it is unknown whether this was used to baptise Guthrum, whether inside or outside of the church.
Aller is the location where Guthrum was baptised, but we must remind ourselves that in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles we are told that after the Vikings had attacked Chippenham in 878, King Alfred had retreated to morfæstenum, which is a plural. There was more than one stronghold in the marshes, and it is possible that Aller was one of them (and with possibly others on higher ground such as at Burrow Mump).
Aller is only a few miles north-west of Langport, which must have been a significant place in Alfred’s time as it is included in the Burghal Hidage (a list of defended locations), drawn up under his son, King Edward the Elder. Although there is nothing that I could find to specifically connect King Alfred with Langport, it seems likely that he would have been there at some point.
I made a short video at Aller:
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. To find out more about the book, click or tap the image below.