The hand of Providence – isn’t that what history is all about? Even those with a distaste for history must defer once in a while to dates and events that have shaped what the world is today. Few people, however, are aware of the significance of the date of this day, May 6th, in the world as we know it.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, the island of England, once a Roman outpost, fell into turmoil, while wars raged throughout its small kingdoms, and the Danes, Scots, and Vikings invaded from the North. One by one, the small kingdoms of Essex, Sussex, Mercia, and Northumbria fell to pagan marauders. Christian buildings and symbols were destroyed, until finally, they came down to a small kingdom in the southwestern part of the island, called Wessex.
A young king named Alfred ruled over Wessex, and he struggled against these Norsemen, once even paying them to go away. But they returned.
During the winter of 877, he hid on an island off the coast, and when Spring arrived, he sent messengers to recruit men who wished to take up arms against the enemy. Overjoyed that their king was alive and well, an army of men came to pledge loyalty to Alfred. And it was on this day, May 6, in 878, at a place called Ethandun, King Alfred finally defeated Guthrum of the Heathen Army, thereby thwarting pagan rule of all of England, and establishing himself as King of the Anglo-Saxons, or King of England.
Alfred had the opportunity to kill Guthrum and his men. Instead, he had them all baptized as Christian and then spent a week teaching them Christian catechism before setting them free.
Alfred – the only true English king to ever be given the title “The Great” – set about to repair his beloved land. The destruction of monasteries across the decades had annihilated all education in the country. No one could read or write the Latin that was spoken. Alfred imported scholars who could translate biblical works and writings of the church fathers. He established schools for nobles and lesser men alike, and took a genuine interest in the welfare of his people. He set out to Christianize the country once again, rebuilding monasteries, reforming the legal system, and becoming a spiritual patron for the people.
By the time of his death in 899, England had taken on a different look, although war and plagues would continue to take their toll, and successive rulers would prove tyrannical, Alfred had established England as the most Christian nation in the West. His defeat of the heathens at Ethandun had been as important in Western history as Charles Martel’s defeat of the Muslims at the Battle of Tours. During the Age of Exploration, as Europe began to colonize, Christianity and Alfred’s civilized code were brought to England’s territories and colonies around the world, although not always as mercifully as Alfred had brought them to those he conquered.
So, where else does this great battle fit into world history?
A small port town in Wessex, called Plymouth, was set to be overtaken by the Vikings, had they succeeded; as Divine Providence would have it, they did not. And over 700 years after Alfred’s reign, a small group of Christians seeking freedom in the New World to worship as they saw fit set out from Plymouth, in a ship called the Mayflower. And they sailed into history. In Massachusetts, in 1620, they established New Plymouth, the second successful – and most famous – American colony. Today, Plymouth, England, still a port town in Devonshire, has the motto, “The name of Jehovah is the strongest tower.”
What different influence might England – and even America – have had if a Christian king named Alfred had not stood up against the pagan invaders of his nation? Fortunately, we don’t have to ask that question, but we can always ponder its answer and learn from its example.
Happy May 6th!