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Alfred the Great did not create the Royal Navy, study finds

There has been a common belief that King Alfred the Great established the Royal Navy during his reign. However, this is not true – his predecessors were creating naval fleets at least 20 years before he came to throne.

Historians have often admired Alfred, King of Wessex and then King of the Anglo-Saxons for his victories against the Vikings and the rise of England in the late ninth century – he after all was given the nickname ‘The Great’. Their praise includes attributing to him the creation of a Royal Navy to fight against Viking raiders.

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However, research by Matthew Firth and Erin Sebo of Flinders University reveals that the creation of this naval force belongs actually took place in the mid-ninth century, and that the first recorded English naval victory occurred 20 years before Alfred was crowned King of Wessex in 871. Their article, “Kingship and Maritime Power in 10th-Century England,” has been published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

“The nationalistic rhetoric that as grown up around the Royal Navy and its central role in British Empire identity since at least the 18th century has given rise to some questionable ‘facts’ around its origins,” says Firth. “The idea that Alfred founded the navy is widespread — and the claim has been uncritically reproduced by such reputable authorities as the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Encyclopædia Britannica and BBC’s history webpage.”

Firth and Sebo embarked on studies to identify how important naval power was to early medieval kings, and began finding evidence to question Alfred the Great’s status as the founder of the Royal Navy. Using a combination of tenth-century historical texts and the growing archaeological evidence for medieval ship design, the new research shows that Alfred was not the first English monarch to coordinate a fleet to defend the country against Viking attack.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports an engagement in 851 involving an ealdorman Elchere and King Æthelstan of Kent (839-c.853), who reputedly defeated a Viking force near Sandwich — the first recorded instance of a victory for an English fleet. It implies that a tradition of defensive naval action existed from at least the reign of Alfred’s father, Æthelwulf of Wessex (839-858). The first recorded naval engagement of Alfred’s reign is an attack on a fleet of seven ships in 875; the second being a skirmish with a flotilla of only four vessels in 882.

There is also evidence that the legend bestowed on Alfred the Great as a naval visionary has greatly elevated his capabilities and successes at sea. “Alfred’s ship designs, as described in the records, were impractical and failed as a maritime force in its first naval battle against more experienced Viking sailors,” Firth adds.

Maritime power was important to good kingship, but there is little evidence of continuity between the ad hoc fleets of the 10th-century and the emergence of a Royal Navy. “Suggestions of vast patrol fleets maintained by his successors are both logistically and technologically impossible,” says Firth.

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The new research also sheds fresh light on the famous burial ships of medieval England and Scandinavia — a topical archaeological issue because of new discoveries in Iceland and Norway in the past 18 months. Similarities in burial configuration and in ship design across these regions demonstrate ongoing cultural contact, resulting in comparable technological innovations in warship design between England and Scandinavia, and common cultural attitudes to the importance and prestige of sea-power.

The article “Kingship and Maritime Power in 10th-Century England,” is published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Click here to access it from the Wiley Online Library.

Top Image: Alfred the Great depicted in British Library MS Royal MS 14 B VI

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