King Alfred was 50 when he died in 899. He was therefore 22 when he fought and allegedly put the Danes to flight at Ashdown, and was 29 when, in 878, he made a peace treaty with Guthrum. But what can we deduce of the age of Guthrum – say when he led his ‘army’ to attack Alfred at Chippenham at Christmas 877?
We know he died in 890, nine years before Alfred. This is recorded in the Chronicle.
A study of 330 skeletal remains from the Viking period showed the average male height to be 172.6 cm and female height to have been 158.1cm. 75% of the females were over 35. (Women in the Viking Age, p13, Judith Jesch 1991 Boydell Press.)
In The Cambridge History of Scandinavia, Volume 1, 2003, Knut Helle, the average life expectancy of males at the age of 20 was for another 19.2 years and 21.3 years for women.
Excavations made at Repton in Derbyshire, where the Danes made a winter camp in 873/4 have unearthed a male, buried with his sword and therefore of some high standing in the army, of 35-40 and 1.82m height. Nearby, another armed male of 17 -20 years was buried. Elsewhere, but within the rampart, a woman’s body was found in a Scandinavian burial and with her were found five silver pennies and a gold ring. Just outside the rampart a mass grave of 249 bodies have been found, surrounding a high status person. Of this number 80% were males in the age range 15 – 45 of a ‘massively robust’ non-local kind. The females were more slight – probably Angles. (Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle (1992). Repton and the Vikings. Antiquity, 66, pp 36-51)
It therefore seems likely that Guthrum was little older than Alfred in 878 when he was baptised Alfred’s ‘godson’, and this may have been no more than a liturgically convenient expression. However, if he was of the same age as Alfred, in 866, he would have been only a 17 year old soldier in the ‘great heathen army’ that arrived in East Anglia, and 22 at Ashdown, if, indeed, he were ever there. Both these possibilities are credible.
It is interesting to speculate on the nature of military command here, for, as opposed to the hierarchical society that existed in Wessex, how would an expeditionary army. operating far from its homeland, with no tradition of written orders, choose its leaders? The experience of offensive soldiering even in today’s wars is marked by the sudden loss of comrades and the rapid turnover of commanders as they are killed or injured (see Acts of War by Richard Holmes, 1984 Cassel). In the Danish army of 878, sickness and disease must have been at least an equal hazard to injury. Surely, leadership would be allocated strictly on the proven abilities of an individual, and for this to be effective, the individual must have been of a sufficient age and experience to have acquired that reputation. My guess, based upon an attrition rate of, say, five battles per commander, is that Guthrum was indeed with the ‘great army’ of 866 and that he fought and fled from Ashdown. Thereafter, I suspect he was clever enough to distance himself from the act of fighting, and that his men understood this – because of his a therefore think he was slightly older than Alfred.