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Alfred, Guthrum and Christianity

Alfred, Guthrum and Christianity: The Peace of Wedmore

Following King Alfred’s successful at Battle of Edington in 878, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles contain the entry:
“7 þa salde se here him foregislas 7 micle aþas þæt hie of his rice uuoldon 7 him eac geheton þæt hiera kyning fulwihte onfon wolde” (sub anno 878)
“and then the raiding-army granted him prime hostages and great oaths that they would leave his kingdom, and also promised him that their king would receive baptism”
(“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles”, (trans) Swanton, M., Phoenix, 2000, p. 76) The Peace of Wedmore was followed by a division of the country which resulted in the establishment of the Danelaw.

The insistence that Guthrum accepted baptism was a tremendous act of political acumen on behalf of King Alfred.
One of Alfred’s prime concerns must have been the continued well-being of the Christian people who were within those areas of England that became part of the Danelaw. By insisting that their ruler became Christian, Alfred could at least ensure that the practice of Christianity would continue within these areas.
However, Alfred’s reasons were more complicated than that and in order to understand this we have to look more closely at the act of baptism during the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Baptism of Guthrum

The baptismal rites undergone by Guthrum would have involved not only water, but an anointing with oil. A linen chrismal fillet (O.E. crism) was bound over the anointed place and remained in place for a week.

During this time, Guthrum, together Alfred, his sponsor in baptism, would attend church each day.

At the end of this time, there was a major church service the ‘crismlising’, or removal of the chrismal. This was followed by a period of feasting, drinking and entertainment, and the giving of costly gifts.

Guthrum, together with many of his noble followers were entertained for twelve nights at Wedmore by King Alfred. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says:

his crismlising wæs æt Wedmor, ⁊ he wæs .xii. niht mid þam cyninge
(his ‘crismlising’ was at Wedmore and he was 12 nights with the king)

Guthrum’s baptism meant that Alfred, as his baptismal sponsor, now stood as his spiritual father. Furthermore, although Guthrum was of royal blood, he was now welcomed into the exclusive band of Christian kings – rulers accepted not only by their people, but by God.

Guthrum had ceased to be a pagan enemy, he and his followers had been accepted as equals by the king and his courtiers.