Unifying the Kingdoms of Britain: The Kings of Wessex & The Birth of England, 871-1031.

Chaos in Christendom:

From the late ninth century until the mid-eleventh century in Europe, internal and external problems steadily weakened western Christendom. The Carolingian Empire had fragmented; no major military power existed in the West. The continued attacks of Muslims from the south, a new wave of attackers from central Asia, the Magyars (Hungarians) and the almost overwhelming movements of the Norsemen from Scandinavia, brought yet more fragmentation and chaos.

A contemporary chronicler lamented: Once we had a king, now we have kinglets! The end of the world seemed at hand. It was seriously expected by many as the end of the first millennium approached. For the Papacy, this was an era of despair; it no longer had Carolingian ‘protectors’ to come to its assistance. Popes became the captive partisans of one political faction or another, and the result was spiritual and moral decline. There was an almost total collapse of civil order and culture in Europe during the tenth century. Everywhere church property was either devastated and ransacked by foreign invaders, or fell into the hands of the catholic nobility. Noblemen treated bishoprics and monasteries as their private property to dispose of as they wished. The clergy steadily became indifferent to duty, and their ignorance and immorality increased.

‘Mind the Gap!’ – A Discontinuity of Evidence:

In archaeological terms, it is not easy to date many things In Britain precisely to the ninth century, which was clearly a time of discontinuity when much was lost and destroyed. A crisis can be inferred precisely because it is so difficult to bridge the gap between the ‘England’ predating the Viking raids, which had been a prosperous ‘country’ of towns, literature and liturgy, churches and palaces, kings and bishops, and the England of the ‘burghs’, the network of small fortified towns which existed after the early Danish occupations, built by Alfred and his descendants across the south of England and then extended northwards. In some cases, old Roman walls were used, as at Winchester, while other towns like Wallingford were laid out for the first time in rectangular patterns. The banks and ditches of a few can still be seen, as at Wareham in Dorset, where the whole circuit can still be walked. It was not only in England that townspeople retreated behind their walls: Hedeby got its ramparts at this time, and other towns, like Dorestad which was not fortified, seem to have disappeared. Southampton came to an end on its eighth-century site, and it was probably at this time that York and London, as walled cities, became once more the leading settlements of the land. Tenth-century towns became fortresses, where eighth-century towns had been largely undefended market places.

Following their peace terms with Alfred, the Vikings left Wessex and wintered in London where they also came to terms with the Mercians. The reinforcement army that had landed late in 871 was relatively fresh and its leaders, Guthrum, Oscytel and Anund, were determined to destroy Wessex. The year 872 seems to have been an uneventful one compared with the previous year of battles, but there can be no doubt that it must have been full of minor clashes and skirmishes. By this time both armies had acquired a healthy respect for each other. The Danes knew that, until the Saxons were finally conquered and crushed, their own gains could not be regarded as secure. The Saxons, or at least Alfred, realised that the Danes might come up the Thames via Reading, might drive up from Portsmouth and Southampton by Winchester, or might even swoop down from Northumbria through Mercia. Faced with this triple-pronged threat, he had to evolve a strategy that would defeat these ‘relentless heathen savages’. The Danes moved back up to Northumbria to suppress a rebellion against their puppet ruler Egbert before returning to the East Midlands to establish their winter quarters at Torksey.

Danish & Norwegian Raids & Conquests in the Ninth Century.

In 873 the Danes, basing themselves in Northumbria and establishing themselves in Lindsay, advanced into the centre of Mercia, defeating King Burgred in the following year. Since the arrival of their ‘Great Army’ in 865, the Danes had campaigned as a single unit and this concentration of force had been a vital factor in their success. The survivors of the original army were now in their ninth year of warfare and they decided to settle and support themselves in Northumbria. In doing so they established the northern Danelaw, centred on the Viking kingdom of York. In 874 they moved across to Repton in Derbyshire, conquered the Mercian kingdom, and installed a puppet king there. In the early 1980s, archaeologists investigated the standing structure of an interesting Saxon church. Outside its west end, they found a pit which they thought might be the end of a large ditch, curving round, with another ditch running through the graveyard. These ditches have been interpreted as a fort, a great bank and ditch semi-circle with the church as its central focus, perhaps used as a fortified gatehouse, a D-shaped area just above the old course of the River Trent. This fort might have been dug by the Vikings who wintered there in 879, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, taking over what had been the royal burial place of the Mercian kings, including Wystan, to whom the church is dedicated and who may have been buried in the crypt which still survives. The axe found in the churchyard seems not to have been dropped by an attacking Viking, trying to batter the door down, but rather to have been buried with someone according to Viking practice, but who was interred in the Christian churchyard.

In 1985, they found a boat-shaped pit that appeared to be a Viking dry dock or boat shed. Ship repair would have been a useful way for the Vikings to spend their time while holed up for the winter, and in those days the Trent would probably have been deeper and more navigable than now. They also found a stone chamber nearby, full of human skeletons, one of which was nine feet (2.7m) tall. It was divided into two compartments in one of which there were the remains of two hundred and fifty individuals, the large majority male, and associated with them were both coins and metalwork of the late ninth century, fitting the 874 date for Viking occupation. Dug through the mound were burials in which the bodies were not laid flat in the Danish manner, but crouched. It was initially thought that the bones might be the result of a defeat or massacre of the Mercian army and that after the bodies had been left elsewhere, perhaps on the battlefield, before being brought back for burial in this ancient Mercian burial place. But the mound and the crouched burials look far more like Vikings than Christian Saxons. Later examination of the bones shows that they had not suffered greatly from sword cuts. It seems more likely that we have a Viking chief (the giant) who was laid out with his followers, all of whom had died from a plague rather than in battle or from a violent massacre. Other Viking burials are surprisingly few and far between, especially in mainland Britain. In England only two other cemeteries than Repton have been found, one at nearby Ingleby and another group of burials under Kildale church in Yorkshire. Otherwise, all that we have are occasional scattered instances of burials with Viking objects. Since it was not normal practice for Saxons to bury grave goods with their dead, burials with Saxon objects in these centuries could be interpreted as being of Danish converts to Christianity in a period of transition in burial rites such as that prompted by the early English burials at Sutton Hoo. Perhaps, too, as the Vikings became Christians, they gradually ceased to have distinctive burials, even as early as 879, after their leader Guthrum had been baptised.

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Danish tombstone: A tombstone from St Paul’s Churchyard, London. The stone, originally painted in bright colours, is decorated in the extravagant 11th century Ringerike style of Scandinavian relief carving.

Vikings Return to Wessex – Raids & Counter-Raids, 875-79:

If Repton remained a central fortress for the Vikings during their first occupation, as late as 879, in 875 they had also been up in the north again, based on the Tyne and ranging far and wide and into Scotland. Meanwhile, however, Guthrum and two lesser chieftains moved to Cambridge, from where they determined to launch another attack on Wessex. For the time being the Danes seemed to have abandoned their efforts to split the kingdom in two by advancing from Reading. Doubtless, they knew that preparations had been made for them along the Ridgeway and other trackways. By this time Alfred had Wessex very well organised militarily and was an expert at lightning commando-style raids. It was the Danes’ own technique, but they themselves were particularly vulnerable to it. Alfred carried the war to them by sea. In 875 he engaged seven Danish ships, captured one, and put the rest to flight. He was not prepared to let his enemies settle down, but this phase of the war became a vicious deadlock with plenty of activity but no thrusting moves.

Suddenly the Danes broke the deadlock by advancing into Wessex from Cambridge late in 875 and next appeared at Wareham in Dorset. One large contingent marched to the coast, embarked and came round by sea: the ultimate effect was that a huge Danish force had outflanked the Wessex army and was now posing a threat from the rear. Many in this force were mounted, although they would not have contemplated fighting from horseback, horses being used mainly as personnel carriers. They had found it difficult to gain and keep the initiative during this campaign, partly because they had been surprised by the speed with which Alfred had countered their movements. Alfred seems to have moved almost as swiftly and he had the advantage that he was operating from interior lines. He swept down to Dorset and had the Danes boxed in before they realised what had happened. Instead of being able to forage and settle in, they had found themselves trapped, possibly because Alfred also had them blockaded by his navy off the Dorset coast. At all events, they decided to ask for terms. After a year of fighting, which appears to have ended as a draw, a peace on equal terms was ratified with treasure and hostages. The Danes even swore an oath on the ‘holy ring’, a most sacred Icelandic symbol, that they would promptly leave Wessex.

The Danish humiliation appeared to be complete as their grand strategy for enveloping southern and eastern England had trapped no one but themselves. Alfred trusted them, believing that they could not possibly break so important an oath. But, under the cover of darkness, they mounted their horses and slipped away to Exeter, evaded a shadowing force. Some re-embarked to meet expected reinforcements at sea, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that 120 ships were lost in a storm off Swanage. When he heard the news of the Danes’ treachery, Alfred cursed himself for trusting them but wasted no time in setting off in rapid pursuit. But the Danes had gained too much of a head start and were safely in the fortress at Exeter before he could intercept them. There they wintered in 876-77 and again asked for terms. Alfred knew, as did the Danes, that he could not afford to keep his army besieging them in Exeter where, despite their losses at sea, they still had enough ships to revictual. They would not, in any event, have to hold out for long. In the autumn of 876, the Danes knew that if Alfred did not break into Exeter immediately, his men of the ‘fyrd’ would have to withdraw to get in the harvest which was now due. If they did not, both his army and the people of his kingdom would starve, and their fighting fitness and qualities for the next campaigning season would also be seriously diminished. The Danes offered Alfred many more hostages of even higher rank so that he could not fail to accept their offer. This time they accepted the terms he offered in return and complied with them. Some went to Gloucester, with others eventually leaving Wessex for Mercia in August 877. It is unlikely that Alfred trusted them any more than he had done before the second truce, but he must have felt that for the time being he was in full control of his kingdom’s borders.

Alfred at Athelney & The Battle of Edington, 879:

Alfred the Great in a late thirteenth-century manuscript.

Throughout the years 871-78, Alfred had overcome great difficulties within his kingdom as well as in the war with the Danes. In 877, with the departure of the Vikings for a second time, Alfred believed that he had secured a firm and permanent truce. He disbanded his weary army and went into winter quarters. The Danes, however, broke all the rules of military engagement, and instead of laying up for the winter months, preparing their weapons, and feasting, they began a new campaign. On 6 January 878, under Guthrum, they made another surprise attack on Wessex. Alfred was spending Christmas and Epiphany at Chippenham, when they slipped up there quietly and set up a battle headquarters, launching a series of lightning raids far and wide on the astonished Saxons. Where they had come from, no one knew, but they were probably those among the invading army who had withdrawn to Gloucester or thereabouts. Surprise, speed and ruthlessness drove away all before them and unable to offer effective resistance and with his command already scattered across Wessex, Alfred soon found himself a homeless refugee. He went into hiding on the Isle of Athelney with a small band of loyal adherents, dispersing to different isolated farmhouses for safety and secrecy. Thus, the life of the King of Wessex was reduced to that of a fugitive in the woods and wetlands of Somerset. From his legendary hideout, he continued to organise resistance, but Wessex was soon overrun, its people forced to choose between flight overseas or submission to the Danes.

Alfred began the fight to reclaim his kingdom and ensure the survival of the English by launching guerilla raids from a fort built in the marshes. The Danes were not having matters all their own way, however, for it was reported to Alfred that an attempt by them to re-invade Devon by sea, with twenty-three ships, had been decisively defeated. The Saxons won this early and unexpected victory with the defeat at Countisbury Hill in Devon of a Viking army of twelve hundred landed by the fleet. Over eight hundred of the Vikings were killed by a force commanded by the Ealdorman Odda, and Guthrum’s hopes of a concerted attack up attack upon Alfred’s stronghold were dashed. Guthrum now lacked the necessary manpower to confine Alfred to the Somerset Levels and the King was able to raise the ‘fyrds’ from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. From his secure retreat, Alfred issued instructions for the mobilising of his army. It took weeks, during which time the Danes discovered his location and attempted an attack on him, but he had local guides and they did not, to find their way through the treacherous bogs and to avoid ambushes at places from which it was impossible to escape. Whether the tales of burnt cakes, disguise and espionage are true or simply legend, is immaterial. They certainly could have been. When he eventually moved out in May 878, he was joined by a host of men who had all been summoned to meet him at an exact time and place. In a carefully planned operation, the fyrds then set out to meet the Danes in open battle.

The Westbury White Horse was cut in the eighteenth century on the site of an earlier representation. It is generally accepted that the site of the Battle of Ethandun is to be found in the area of Edington in Wiltshire. Exactly where is more problematical. Two possible sites are the hill fort of Bratton Castle, whose slopes bear the Westbury white horse, and by Edington Hill, which lies approximately nine hundred yards (800m) south of the village.

In the second week of May 878, Alfred marched his new army to Iley Oak near Warminster en route for the Viking camp at Chippenham. Alfred found the Vikings at Edington about fifteen miles (24 kilometres) south of Chippenham. The place where he met them and fought his decisive battle has been a matter of some controversy. The name of the battle, ‘Ethandun’ has been taken to mean Heddington in Wiltshire, Ettingdon and Yattendon in Berkshire (which are highly unlikely), Edington in Somerset and Edington in Wiltshire. Both Philip Warner and David Smurthwaite agree on the latter. Here, Alfred, in Asser’s words, fought against ‘the whole army of the pagans’:

… fighting fiercely with a compact shield-wall against the entire Viking army, he persevered resolutely for a long time; at length he gained the victory through God’s will’.

But if opinions on the whereabouts of the battle site vary so much, no less do views of how the battle was fought even among those who prefer the Edington (Wilts) site. It has been inferred that the Danes, having heard that Alfred had broken out of Somerset, and somehow assembled an army, would have immediately set out to crush this possible danger before Alfred could rally too many forces and perhaps capture various strategic points. Their main headquarters were still at Chippenham and they would have headed southwest rapidly towards Somerset. Fourteen miles south of Chippenham they would then have turned towards Westbury. They would not, at this stage, have expected to be anywhere near the Saxon army. Doubtless, Alfred sent out some disinformation to the Danes and made sure they had no idea of the trap he was laying for them. Today, only some of the slopes of Edington Hill are covered with woods and bracken, but in 878 all of the slopes would have been covered. By May, the woods would have been leafy and opaque, providing a perfect ambush position. If matters went badly for the Saxons, because the Danes had too many troops, they could retreat up the hill and perhaps occupy the hillfort known as Bratton Castle or even go right back to Battlesbury Camp. But they were not there to fight a defensive battle. Their total aim was to catch the whole Danish force unawares. Their numbers were far greater than the Danes would have expected.

The Danes, who would have watched all the way, obligingly walked right into the trap. When their whole line of march was strung out along that dangerous piece of road, the Saxon attack hurled itself onto them with all the pent-up rage and hate of men who had been living on the run in the woods for months. The visitor to the battle site will have little difficulty in visualising the ambush, the Danes being tumbled down the slopes and then the bitter pursuit back to Chippenham. They were so shocked, cut up and demoralised by this sudden and overwhelming defeat that they lost heart. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler puts it succinctly and clearly:

And there fought against the whole army and put it to flight, and pursued it as far as the fortress, and stayed there a fortnight.

Some writers have suggested that the main fighting took place south of Combe Hill. This implies that the Saxons would have fought uphill on to Danish prepared positions. But, according to Warner, Alfred would never have risked such an attack, nor would the Danes have set up a defensive position on top of a barren ridge before setting out to deal with what they thought was merely an insurgent rabble fifty miles away. The Saxons pursued the Danes to Chippenham and blockaded the enemy camp. All the remaining Danish soldiers outside the fort they had built were killed, and all their horses and other animals were taken away. Alfred then set up camp in front of the fort’s gates, with his whole army. The remaining Danes surrendered after two weeks, suing for peace and offering Alfred hostages, but requiring none in return. It was, of course, a crushing blow to morale to have so great and victorious an army destroyed by an enemy they thought they had destroyed. When Alfred saw them coming out of the fort, the chronicler tells us ‘he was moved to pity’ and allowed them to leave his kingdom. Guthrum, the great Danish war leader, now decided he had been following false gods, and that they had betrayed him. How sincere he was, we cannot tell, but at the signing of the peace treaty at Wedmore, which this time was honoured, he promised to become a Christian and to let Alfred have him baptised. We are told that Alfred helped Guthrum up ‘from the holy font of baptism’. 

This was not, of course, the end of the Danish threat, for there were many different contingents throughout the kingdoms, but the main force had been defeated and from then onwards Alfred saw his strength and authority increase. Slowly, the tide of battle turned and though there was seemingly endless intermittent fighting, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been saved, and the first step towards converting the Danes from paganism had already been taken. At the end of 878, the Danish army left Wessex ‘for good’ and returned east to settle, so that East Anglia was added to the Viking settlements in Northumbria and Mercia to form what became known as ‘the Danelaw’. Alternatively, they returned to raiding on the Continent. With Wessex’s old rivals effectively eliminated, Alfred assumed leadership of all the Anglo-Saxons not already under Danish occupation and was able to restore all his kingdom’s defences. Ethandun was therefore a remarkable battle in many ways, not least because it completely reversed the fortunes of Alfred of Wessex. Within a few short weeks, he was restored from a fugitive to the most powerful ruler and Wessex from foreign domination to freedom. The victory also saved England from a total Danish conquest.

The English Kingdoms & the Danelaw – Defending Wessex:

Alfred forced the Danes into a truce in 880 by which the greater part of eastern and northern England was recognised as belonging to the Danelaw, with an agreed frontier along the Watling Street. Guthrum ruled from Hadleigh and kept a territory for himself which included most of Suffolk. Throughout the Danelaw, the two cultures merged, with the Danish contribution to English life being stronger in some areas than others. Despite being under occupation. throughout the whole county of Suffolk, there are only about fifty place names which derive from Old Norse, mainly in the north-east corner of the county, whereas Norfolk has four times this number, names such as Lowestoft. As Guthrum had become a Christian, even those who found themselves under new Danish landlords were able to practice their faith freely.

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Following the Battle of Edington, there was little more fighting on land, but in 884 there was the first major sea battle, fought in the Stour estuary on the Suffolk coast when Alfred’s new fleet pursued homeward a party of Danish raiders. He trapped them in the estuary and captured sixteen longships. He slaughtered their crews while Guthrum’s men looked on helplessly from the headland still known as Bloody Point. Back on dry land, the Saxon fyrd were required to fight at Rochester in 884, and at London in 886, by which Alfred secured control of the city, following a separate treaty. A glance at the map below shows us that he had also enlarged his own kingdom by adding a large part of Mercia. Alfred took steps to defend his kingdom by reorganising the Saxon army (the fyrd), strengthening his army of thegns, setting up boroughs (forts where soldiers lived permanently) and building a full fleet of ships. Wessex enjoyed relative peace until 892 when two more Viking armies arrived from Flanders. But this time, when one of these marched into Kent, it found its every movement dogged by Anglo-Saxon forces.

The defensive measures put in place by Alfred in the 880s now bore fruit and the Danes, faced with a war of attrition rather than of raid and counter-raid and challenged at sea by Alfred’s fleet, despaired of ever making real progress against Wessex. By 896 they were ready to give up the attempt and to settle in the Danelaw or return to the continent. Frustrated, the Danish army broke up that same year. In 918, when the final confrontation between the two kingdoms began, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex surrendered to Edward the Elder without a battle. Then, after a steady offensive by Alfred and Edward, the English territories were brought under one ruler for the first time, in 920. Now that East Anglia was part of a unified kingdom, it was no longer ruled over by East Anglian kings but by viceroys or earldormen, who collected taxes and raised the local militia, the fyrd, when the king needed it. The shires were divided into hundreds, each with its own court. Each hundred was composed of approximately a hundred carucates, or hides, defined as the amount of land which could be cultivated with one plough in the course of the year. It was approximately a hundred acres, enough to feed a family.

But Alfred’s work did not end there. He was determined to fight the ignorance of his people, an ignorance which he regarded as a worse enemy than the Danes. To train the future leaders of the nation, he set up schools for the sons of nobles and translated many books. He made good laws and forced the ealdormen, the chief nobles, to learn and observe them. He strengthened the Church by improving the services and by building monasteries. So he instituted a chronicle, unique in Europe, by causing the monks to write down the events of the time in what became the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. His great and varied achievements are summarised in these lines inscribed below his statue in Wantage:

Alfred found learning dead and restored it;

Education neglected and he revived it;

The laws powerless and he gave them force;

The Church debased and he raised it;

The land ravaged by a fearful enemy;

From which he delivered it.

Alfred’s attempts to revive learning can also be seen as part of his defence programme: by improving the quality of the clergy, God’s favour could be won for the kingdom. Having won the war, Alfred had set out to make sure that the peace he had made with the Danes would hold. The English living outside Wessex, for example in Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire would gradually be drawn into the Danish orbit, yet his survival against the Vikings depended on men and money from these counties and others. Somehow he had to maintain political and cultural control of territory which was not his. He did this by appealing to a shared sense of Englishness, conveyed by the language. Alfred quite consciously used the English language as a means of creating a sense of national identity.

Alfred with his friend, counsellor and biographer, Bishop Asser.
A pen and ink drawing by Arthur J Chandler, based on a picture in a school textbook.

Within the Danelaw, the people obeyed the laws of the Danes, who built boroughs – like Derby – to defend themselves from attack either from English attacks or raids from foreign tribes or kingdoms. These ‘burghs’, like those built by Alfred on the other side of Watling Street, became centres of trade, for they were places of safety and merchants were attracted to them. The Danish gentry governed the surrounding countryside from these towns. Historical and linguistic evidence points to the influx of Danish settlers in certain localities of Britain, mostly near the northeast coasts of England. Besides -by, other common suffixes were -wick, -thorpe, -thwaite, -toft, as in Lowestoft, meaning a plot of land, and -scale, meaning a temporary hut or shelter. Linguistic and place-name evidence also suggests that there was considerable Danish settlement both in the northeast and the east Midlands, almost exclusively in areas bordering the coast and on the river estuaries. In becoming increasingly Christian, both the ruling and the settler Danes left more of a distinctive permanent imprint upon the English landscape than on the language. 

Without Alfred the Great, the history of the English language might have been quite different. He set about restoring his kingdom to its former greatness. He began rebuilding the monasteries and the schools. It was his inspiration to use English, not Latin, as the medium for the education of his people. At the age of nearly forty, amidst what he called the various and manifold cares of his kingdom, he learnt Latin so that he could translate (or arrange the translation of) various key texts, notably Bede’s History of the English Church and People. Alfred described his English language campaign in a famous preface:

Therefore it seems better to me … that we should also translate certain books which are most necessary for all men to know, into the language that we can all understand, and also arrange it … so that all the youth of free men now among the English people … are able to to read English writing as well.

Alfred understood that he needed culture and history to remind them of their loyalties. The saviour of the English language, he was also the founder of English prose. After Alfred’s reign, the English and the Danes learnt to live alongside each other in peace for generations. Because both of their languages had some common Germanic roots, the language frontier broke down and a kind of pidginisation took place that gradually simplified the structure of Old English.

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Alfred’s Political Legacy – The Age of Unification:

The process of political development in the ninth and tenth centuries from the kingdom of the West Saxons to the kingdom of the English, coupled as it was with the repeated claims to a kingship ‘of the whole of Britain’, must qualify as one of the grandest themes in the history of the British Isles. In England, the process was driven from the outset by a determination on the part of successive rulers (and their advisers) to transform a concept of the unity of the English people from an aspiration to political reality. It is a tale that can be told in various ways, exposing a truth that it is still not fully understood: but while anglocentric accounts of the period make good reading for the English, they do not have so much appeal for Irish, Welsh or Scottish readers of British history. The view of the period from the ‘Celtic’ kingdoms of the time would also have been very different. The tenth century was indeed an age of unification, not only for the English but also for other peoples with agendas and aspirations of their own. The concept of English unity was first attested to in letters written by ‘Pope’ Gregory ‘the Great’ in connection with the mission of St Augustine in 597, but this was given much wider currency when adopted by Bede as an organising principle of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731. The Mercians had tried and failed to achieve Bede’s purpose, in the later eighth and ninth centuries, whereupon the Vikings had simplified matters by conquering the kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia, and by presenting themselves as the common enemy of all Anglo-Saxon peoples.

Only the West Saxons had stood firm and soon seized the initiative. Alfred the Great (871-99) saw clearly how Bede’s vision legitimised his political aspirations, and how advantage was to be gained from promoting a notion of ‘Englishness’ among all those whom he presumed to regard as ‘his people’. But this remained no more than a powerful narrative rather than an attainable political objective until long after his death. Wessex and Mercia remained separate kingdoms well into the tenth century and it was Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder (899-924) who forcibly extended West Saxon control over the Danes of eastern England and the Mercians. It was Alfred’s grandson, Aethelstan (924-39) who further extended Wessex’s control over those who lived in ‘the North’. The main difficulty with this ‘Greater England’ view of events is that it not only neglects developments in the non-English kingdoms of the British mainland but that it also overlooks the existence of a complex succession of polities transitional between ‘Wessex’ and ‘England’ and thereby obscures the factors that determined the movement from one stage in the process to the next.

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Guthrum’s Raids, Battles and the Consolidation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the late ninth century.

The kingdom of the West Saxons had already expanded eastwards in the central decades of the ninth century to absorb Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Essex; and in Alfred’s reign the process was taken a stage further when his kingdom was extended across the Thames into ‘English’ Mercia, thereby creating the distinctively ‘Alfredian’ polity known to his contemporaries as the ‘kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’. This new polity, with its centres at Gloucester and Winchester but the source of its prosperity was the Thames Valley including the newly-restored city of London, symbolised new cooperation of the Anglian and Saxon peoples. It arose not out of Bede’s vision of a unified ‘English’ people, but more directly from the complex political circumstances that drove the course of events in the late ninth century, and it would endure for nearly fifty years. The new polity is implicit already in Alfred’s treaty with Guthrum, the Danish king of East Anglia (c. 880); and it was Alfred’s rule over the Mercians, as much as his resistance to the Danes, that prompted a Welsh admirer to address him as ‘ruler of all the Christians of the island of Britain’. Alfred’s polity passed to his son, Edward the Elder, and provided the political context in which he and his sister, Aethelflaed conducted the spectacular campaign against the Danes who had settled or set up their strongholds in East Anglia and Eastern Mercia. By 918 the frontier of Edward’s extended kingdom stretched down from Chester across the Midlands to the Fens.

What had emerged by the early tenth century was a whole network of defensible towns or ‘burhs’ across the south of England, into the Midlands and extending northwards. In many cases, Roman city walls were rebuilt, as in York, Winchester and Canterbury, and new hill-top fortified towns were fashioned, simply known as ‘burhs’, by King Alfred and his successors, most archetypically at Shaftesbury (Dorset). Tenth-century towns were strongholds, whereas in the eighth century they had been undefended ports and market-places. The idea of fortifying towns may have begun in Mercia, however, with towns like Hereford and Tamworth pre-dating Alfred’s burhs. Elsewhere in Britain, settlers of Norwegian origin had colonised parts of northwest Britain, including Cumbria. Although Alfred the Great had prevented the Danes from conquering Wessex, the kingdom’s interests were still threatened while the Danelaw existed. For the West Saxon dynasty to be fully secure the land occupied by the Danes had to be brought under English lordship. The descendants of Alfred were able kings. His son, Edward the Elder (900-924) oversaw the expansion of Saxon rule over the territory south of the Humber, thereby reconquering most of the Danelaw; the frontier remained there on Edward’s death in 924, although by then the rulers of the Hiberno-Norse kingdom of York, and of the northern English beyond the Tees, submitted to Edward, together with the rulers of Strathclyde and of the Scots.

Aethelstan (924-940), completed the conquest so that his rule extended northwards to encompass the whole of Northumbria, thus providing substance to the title ‘King of England’. The death of Sihric, King of York, in 927 provided Aethelstan with an excuse to invade Northumbria and drive out the Scandinavian monarchy. He finally drove Guthrum from York in 927 and established direct rule over Northumbria, thereby effectively bringing a unified ‘kingdom of the English’ into existence. He then divided the Danelaw into shires governed by the Danish boroughs. In this way, the names of the North Midland counties were taken from their county ‘boroughs’ – for example, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire. In the same year, at Eamont Bridge in Cumbria, Aethelstan demanded the presence of Constantine, the King of Scots and the rulers of Northumbria to swear loyalty to him. He had already demanded the same oath from Hywel Dda of Dyfed. At the same time, he was content to allow Guthfrith to remain on the throne of Northumbria. This enabled Constantine to increase his influence in Northumbria, especially in its western former British kingdom of Cumbria. It was the unrest this caused which led to Aethelstan’s invasion of Scotland in 934. A northern chronicler commented in this connection that Aethelstan brought under his rule all the kings who were in this island, and the king’s agents began to present him as King of the English, elevated by the right hand of the Almighty to the throne of the whole of Britain, or as King of Albion. These appellations were in his charters and on the coins. Of course, other rulers and peoples in the British Isles were more likely to have been provoked by these grotesque expressions of such grandiose pretensions, rather than having been willing to acquiesce in them.

Brunanburh, 937 – The Great Battle for Northern Britain:

Following his Northumbrian campaign, the Welsh princes and Constantine of Scotland acknowledged Aethelstan’s suzerainty, seemingly under some duress. The settlement appears to have been challenged, however, in 934, for Aethelstan mounted a combined land and sea operation which penetrated Scotland as far as Caithness without meeting serious opposition. The Scots avoided any major battles, leaving Aethelstan free to pillage their land. Constantine had now been humiliated twice and he was intent on destroying or at least severely diminishing the growing power of the Saxons, and so allied himself with Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dyflin in Ireland, and the British, Scots and Scandinavian rulers of the North and Ireland who formed themselves into an armed coalition in 937. Olaf invaded England, sailing up the Humber (or, more logically, the Mersey, see below) with a fleet of 615 ships to rendezvous with further troops from the northwest. Their intention was to place Olaf (or ‘Anlaf’) on the Northumbrian throne where he would rule a buffer state between the Scottish kingdom and the Saxon ones. Forming a very large army (estimates have ranged between sixty and twenty thousand), the coalition forces proceeded to ravage the north of England. It took Aethelstan some time to muster an army large enough to cope with this threat but towards the end of 937, he met the ‘invaders’ at Brunanburh, where he held back the forces from Wales and Scotland, who had united with the Northmen of Ireland, Northumbria, Orkney and the Hebrides and the men of Strath Clota (Strathclyde) against him. His joint Mercian and West Saxon army attacked at dawn in two divisions, Mercians against Scandinavians, Saxons against Scots. After a ferocious mélée, the invaders broke and in the words of the Chronicle,

The whole day long the West Saxons with mounted companies kept in pursuit of the hostile peoples, grievously they cut down the fugitives from behind with their whetted swords.

The Battle of Brunanburh, Chronicle for 937. Manuscript poem. The three short extracts from the poem, taken from the Parker Chronicle.

Here is the transcript of the poem, as written down in Old English:

937. Here athelstan king, of -earls lord, of men ring-giver & his brother also. edmund prince. life long honour. won in battle. of swords with edges. by burnanburh.

there lay man many-a. by spears killed. man northern. over shield shot. also scots too. weary of battle sated. west saxon forth. throughout day. troops in companies. on trail pursued. loathed people. hacked from army fugitives. from behind harshly. with swords millstone sharp.

not happened slaughter more. in this island. ever yet. of-folk felled. before this. of-sword with-edges. as to-us say books. ancient scholars. since from-east hither. angles & saxons. up came. over broad seas. britain sought. proud war smiths. welshmmen overcame. earls for-honour eager. country conquered.

Word-for-word translation from OE.

The modern English translation of this third extract is rendered as never before in our islands was there such slaughter. For years afterwards, it was simply known as ‘the great battle’ and it was certainly one of the greatest battles ever fought on British soil. Casualties were heavy and included five kings, seven earls and a son of the Scottish king. In England, the victory was seen as a national triumph and it was a further step along the path to national unity. Michael Livingston, who is surely the greatest expert on the battle, notes in his book, The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook:

the men who fought and died on that field forged a political map of the future that remains with us today, arguably making the the Battle of Brunanburh one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England, but of the whole of the British Isles. … in one day, on one field, the fate of a nation was determined.

Perhaps this should be amended to refer to the fates of all four future nations of the British Isles, which were all in the process of formation at this time, albeit in very different ways. Certainly, the fate of England was most determined by this event, in as far as the four remaining kingdoms of the English needed to repel the invading Danes and Northmen. Alfred’s son Edward and his daughter Aethelfled had reconquered East Anglia and Mercia, but Northumbria remained under the rule of the Norsemen. Scotland lay to its north, Aetelstan’s Saxon kingdom to the south, and both had an interest in its fate. Aethelstan wanted to fulfil his grandfather’s vision for a United English kingdom. Constantine feared and resented the growing power of the Saxons, which could only grow more powerful if Northumbria became part of a greater English state. The attempt to make Northumbria a buffer-state between the Kings of the Scots and the Kings of Wessex failed at Burnanburh and Northumbria was incorporated into the Saxon kingdoms so that the Kings of Wessex became the Kings of England. In his ‘Historical Note’ to the last of his recent novels on the period, Bernard Cornwell expresses the outcome of the battle both succinctly and with the historical novelist’s turn of phrase:

It is fair to say that before the battle there was no England. As dusk fell on that bloody field, there was.

Given its significance, therefore, it is perhaps curious that the battle has been so forgotten for so long. For centuries, no one even knew where it had been fought. Many claims were put forward, ranging from southern Scotland to County Durham or Yorkshire, and ingenious theories were advanced, mostly depending on place names and clues drawn from the ancient chronicles, but no satisfactory location for the battle was found. It seems improbable that the battle was fought at a site in Scotland, particularly if we accept that Olaf landed on the Humber or the Mersey. The other sites suggested in England have included one between Derby and Rotherham, as well as Bromborough on the Wirral side of the Mersey. In the twelfth century, a monk called John of Worcester wrote a history in which he said that Anlaf (Olaf) and Constantine brought a strong fleet from Ireland into the Humber, but it seems rather fanciful to suggest that he would sail this fleet halfway around the British coast, either clockwise or anti-clockwise, risking storms and shipwrecks, to reach the Humber, when the crossing from Dublin to the Wirral is so direct and short. What was lacking in the argument, however, was any archaeological evidence to support the West coast siting, but in the last few years evidence found by Wirral Archaeology has come to light in the form of artefacts and grave-pits that would place the battle firmly on the Wirral.

The map from Bernard Cornwell’s ‘War Lord’ showing locations in Northumbria mentioned in the historical novel, based on the accounts of the Battle.

The various accounts of the battle, most written years or centuries after the event, do not furnish us with many details of the course of the fighting. Some sources claim that Aethelstan reacted late to the challenge of battle, which poses the question as to why Constantine and Anlaf did not push further inland once they had concentrated their forces on the Wirral. The use of a pre-arranged battle site by the allies provides a good explanation for this. The Battle of Brunanburh was the founding event of the English nation, though the Norse did not abandon their ambitions. Aethelstan died in 940, just three years after his great victory, while Anlaf returned to England and successfully took over Northumbria’s throne before capturing a swathe of northern Mercia. Aethelstan’s successor, Edmund finally drove him out, re-establishing the Kingdom of England. The story of the making of England is not well known. School history tends to ‘skim’ and ‘skip’ swiftly over the Anglo-Saxon period, pausing only to mention Alfred before beginning a more detailed account of 1066 ‘and all that’. Yet William the Conqueror, himself the grandson of a Norse raider, captured a state of England that did not exist before Aethelstan’s victory at Brunanburh made the unification of the four kingdoms a possibility.

Coin of King Edmund (939-46)

Edgar the Peaceful – King of All England, 973:

After Aethelstan ravaged Scotland in 934 and routed the confederates of Britons, Scots and Norse-Irish at Brunanburgh three years later, the Dublin Norse were able to re-establish their links with York, and it was another twenty years before the Northumbrians accepted that their interests would be best served, and protected, by submission to the southern English king. Thus, it took a full century after the first Danish invasion, until 973, to fully reintegrate the whole country, when Alfred’s great-grandson, Edgar, was crowned King of all England in Bath, at his second coronation, and received the submission of even the Welsh and Scottish kings. This was followed by a carefully staged ceremony at Chester in which Edgar ‘coxed’ a boat of eight British kings along the River Dee:

{King Edgar’s} eight underkings, that is: Kenneth, king of the Scots; Malcolm, king of the Cumbrians; Maccus, king of many islands, and five others … swore that they would be faithful to him and be his allies by land and sea. On a certain day he went on board a boat with them, and with them at the oars, he took the helm and steered it skilfully on the River Dee.

Florence of Worcester (early twelfth century, referring to 973)

Edgar the Peaceful (959-975) was thus acknowledged as King of England by all the rulers of Britain. There was a tendency in the tenth century towards the consolidation or centralisation of political power in all parts of the British Isles, represented by the emergence of rulers with the ability to match their pretensions with actions. In retrospect, this tendency might be regarded as a form of progress, although there is no reason to suppose that it was seen in this way by contemporaries. Yet while there was no high kingship of Britain in the tenth century, despite the extravagant claims of Aethelstan, Edgar and others, few would deny that considerable progress was made during the period towards the establishment of a unified and well-regulated kingdom of England. The shire system, which had originated in Wessex, now extended throughout the land; a uniform coinage was in circulation, and kings, through their agents, were resolute in maintaining law and order. Significantly, there was no thought expressed of dividing the Kingdom when Edgar died in 975 and the succession was disputed, and it was only under the severest kind of external threat, that the English eventually succumbed to Danish conquest in the early eleventh century.

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Ethelred, from the Chronicle of Abingdon.

Ethelred the Unready & the Battle of Maldon, 991:

During the reign of Ethelred the Unready (978-1016; his nick-name implied that he was ill-advised rather personally lazy and unprepared), the Danes (now united under a king called Sweyn Forkbeard) renewed their attacks upon England. These began with fresh Viking raids in 981, which probed against centres of prosperity and population and yielded rich spoils in the form of Saxon treasure and slaves. Although the numbers of ships and raiders involved had been relatively few their attacks had been wide-ranging. Cheshire, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset had been particularly hard hit; Southampton, London, and the monastery at Padstow had been sacked. These successful ventures must have encouraged the massive expedition of 991 when ninety-three boat-loads of them anchored first off the Kent coast and then off Suffolk, where they landed an army which burnt Ipswich to the ground before marching to Maldon in Essex, where they met the English forces in what has been described as the most momentous battle of the Anglo-Saxon period. The entry for 991 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides a bare outline of events surrounding the battle. Olaf, King of Norway, joined them. We are told that Olaf’s ships arrived at Folkestone…

… and ravaged round about it, and then from there went to Sandwich, and so from there to Ipswich, and overran it all. and so to Maldon. And Ealdorman Brihtnoth came against him there with his army and fought against him; and they killed the eoldorman there and had control of the field.

Manuscript A

It seems probable that by this stage of the expedition the number of Viking ships would have been reduced by their dispersal on ventures around the coasts, or by the return of ships loaded with loot to Scandinavia. The Chronicle suggests that Brihtnoth fought specifically against Olaf’s forces so that the Viking army engaged at Maldon is likely to have been far fewer in number than the total that would be available from the disembarkation of ninety-three ships. Brihtnoth was a military leader of some experience who had held office since 956 and had evidently dealt with Viking raids before, including the defeat of an earlier one at Maldon in 988. Much of our evidence about what happened in 991 comes from two contemporary sources, The Life of St Oswald and The Battle of Maldon, an incomplete epic poem dealing with the clash, which is widely regarded as one of the finest battle poems of any period in British history. Although the beginning and end of the poem are missing, it supplies an evocative account of the battle itself and of Brihtnoth’s leadership.

The Vikings had established themselves on an island separated from the Essex mainland by a tidal river. The river could be crossed by a causeway, but only at low tide, and although Brihtnoth deployed his army on opposing shore, the Vikings were unable to engage the Saxons because it was still high water. As the armies waited for the water level to fall, the Vikings attempted to negotiate peace terms, a messenger shouting their offer across the water:

Bold seamen have sent me to you, and bade me say, that it is for you to send treasure quickly in return for peace, and it will be better for you all that you buy off an attack with tribute rather than that men so fierce as we should give you battle.

The Maldon poem also gives Brihtnoth’s defiant answer:

Not so easily shall you win tribute; peace must be made with point and edge, with grim battle-play, before we give tribute.

Brihtnoth’s army consisted of his hearth-troop of warriors and the local militia and he had taken great care to supervise their initial deployment, suspecting that the loyalty and steadfastness of some of his force might not be all that he could wish:

he rode and gave counsel and taught his warriors how they should stand and keep their ground, bade them hold their shields aright, firm firm with their hands and and fear not art all. When he had meetly arrayed his host, he alighted among the people where it pleased him best, where he knew his bodyguard to be most loyal.

As the tide began to recede, the Danes prepared to cross to the mainland, but Brihtnoth ordered three warriors, Wulfestan, Aelfhere and Maccus to hold the western end of the causeway. Brihthnoth was presumably seeking to inflict casualties on the Danes with minimum loss to his own force and also to demonstrate that to his levies that the enemy was not invincible. The defence offered by the three warriors was so successful that the Danes abandoned their attempts to force a passage and instead they asked that they be allowed to cross the causeway unhindered and Brihtnoth agreed. Although the poem criticises the East Anglian Ealdorman for this decision, it is difficult to see how he had any alternative. Having at last run the raiders to earth, he could not now refuse battle, for the Danes would then simply return to their ships and sail away to menace another part of the coast. The Saxons, therefore, fell back and allowed the advancing Danes room to deploy and Brihtnoth ordered his men ‘to form the war-hedge with their shields, and hold their ranks stoutly against the foe’. Well aware of the military deficiencies of his levies, Brihtnoth had no plans for executing an elaborate manoeuvre and he based his tactics on the ability of his men to absorb a frontal assault by the Danes. The battle opened with a discharge of spears and arrows followed by the savage, initial shock as the armies met:

They let the spears, hard as files, fly from their hands. well-ground javelins. Bows were busy, point pierced shield, fierce was the rush of battle, warriors fell on either hand, men lay dead.

The Saxon line stood firm and the Vikings must have fallen back to regroup. At this point a Danish warrior ‘strong in battle’ advanced towards Brihtnoth who, perhaps interpreting this movement as a specific challenge, stepped forward to meet him. It seems rash for a commander to hazard himself in this way but there may have been compelling reasons for accepting the challenge. Both armies were watching to see how the Saxon leader responded and Brihtnoth may have considered that the maintenance of his army’s morale required that he accept. His hearth-troop would, in any case, be close at hand should the Danes attempt any subterfuge. From the first moments, the combat went against Brihtnoth. He was twice wounded by spear thrusts, though not seriously enough to prevent him from killing two of his attackers before a Dane succeeded in disabling his sword arm. Sinking to the ground, Brihtnoth continued to urge his men forward but the Danes closed in and cut him down along with two warriors, Aelfnoth and Wulfmaer, who had rushed to their earl’s defence. With Brihtnoth’s death, a large part of the Saxon army fled and only a small band of his retainers continued the fight, determined to die alongside their lord. The warrior Aelfwine rallied the survivors of the hearth-troop:

Remember the words that we uttered many a time over the mead, when on the bench, heroes in hall, we made we made our boast about hard strife. Now it may be proved which of us is bold! … Thegns shall have no cause to reproach me among my people that I was ready to forsake this action, and seek my home, now that my lord lies low…

Their victory at Maldon inspired the Danes to attempt another permanent occupation of England, and the Saxons, disheartened by their defeat, made the first of those payments of tribute that came to be known as ‘Danegeld’. Olaf Tryggvasson, the victor of Maldon, returned to England in 994 allied with Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark. Their expedition comprised ninety-four ships and its objective this time was London. The citizens, however, defended their homes so effectively that the astonished Vikings were to abandon their planned invasion and revert to their customary practice of ravaging the south and east coasts. Edgar’s successor Ethelred, ‘the Unready’, regarded by many contemporaries and historians as a weak and foolish ruler, was quite incapable of resisting them. He bargained with his enemies and paid them ten thousand pounds to stay away, in part at the suggestion of Archbishop Sigeric, which only encouraged them to return.

To halt these destructive forays a Danegeld of sixteen thousand pounds was paid, for which Ethelred received the added bonus of Olaf’s baptism, which he himself sponsored, and Olaf promised never again to return to England in hostility. But no such promise was made by Sweyn Forkbeard or his son, Canute. The raiding that began in 997 was followed by twenty years of warfare, relieved only by fragile truces secured through the payment of Danegeld or by the resistance from London offered by Ulfcytel, Ealdorman of East Anglia. Ethelred raised the necessary money to pay Danegeld from his subjects by a tax that was so heavy that it ruined the freemen. The ealdormen grew disloyal and the English, having no great leaders to relate to, lost courage. On St Brice’s Day, 1002, Ethelred treacherously massacred the Danes. Sweyn returned In 1004, bent on revenge. East Anglia was therefore once more under Danish domination, mercilessly harried by Forkbeard. Confronted by the East Anglian ‘fyrd’, however, they were again forced to withdraw after a bloody battle. By 1012 the Danegeld debt had mushroomed to forty-eight thousand pounds.

The Final War of Invasion & the Battle of Ashingdon:

In 1013, the Danes returned for what would be a final war of invasion. Their king, Sweyn Forkbeard, who died the following year, sent Thorkell the Tall in command of a highly disciplined army. They landed at Ipswich and marched across Suffolk to meet Earl Ulfytel’s force near Thetford. Both sides suffered heavy losses in the battle, but during the following months, the countryside was completely devastated. Even the invaders were unable to find food. Demoralised and ill-led, the Anglo-Saxon armies rapidly succumbed to the new invaders, whose raiding was now a royal enterprise, directed by Sweyn and his son Canute. Sweyn briefly ruled England after Ethelred was driven into exile and although London chose Edmund ‘Ironside’ as his successor many of the noblemen of Wessex swore fealty to Canute, Forkbeard’s successor as King of Denmark. Edmund’s first campaign was therefore directed at restoring the kingdom’s allegiance to its old dynasty. After laying siege to London, Canute followed Edmund westwards and indecisive battles were fought at Penselwood in Dorset and Sherston in Wiltshire. Turning to the offensive, Edmund relieved London, parried a Danish raid into Mercia and drove Canute into Sheppey. With this change in England’s fortunes, some of Canute’s English supporters, including Ealdorman Eadric of Mercia, changed their allegiance to Edmund.

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The Battlefield at Assandun (Ashingdon), 18 October 1016.

Embarking on another raid, Canute sailed from Sheppey and anchored in the River Crouch near Burnham in Essex. Edmund moved to prevent the Danes, now loaded down with booty, from returning to their ships, and in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he pursued them and overtook them from in Essex at the hill which is called Ashingdon, and they stoutly joined battle there (Manuscript C). Edmund had mustered a large army there with contingents from Wessex, East Anglia and Mercia, and although his ill-trained levies could not match the Danes man for man, his superiority in numbers offered the chance of a decisive victory. As Edmund’s army made camp at Ashingdon Hill on the evening of 17 October 1016, the enemy was in full view just over a mile and a half away. Canute had little choice but to fight. To avoid battle and escape by land he would have to abandon both the spoils of his latest raid and his fleet. With an undefeated enemy so close at hand it would be foolhardy to attempt embarkation when his army would be hard put to defend itself. Instead, he assembled his force on a hill at Canewdon which stood between Edmund and the Danish fleet, where a low ridge connected the hills from which the armies faced each other. At the Danish end of the ridge, a slight rise of about a thousand yards in front of Canewdon offered Canute the opportunity to advance without losing the advantage of higher ground.

Edmund probably deployed his army in three divisions: the Wessex contingent under his own command, the Mercians under Eadric, and the East Angles under Ufcytel. Eadric, now in favour once again, was probably stationed on the right flank, with Edmund in the centre and Ufcytel on the left. Edmund began the battle by charging down the hill at ‘Ashingdown’ towards the Danes. The English left, due to the nature of the ground, advanced far more quickly than the right and a rapidly increasing gap opened between the flanks. As Edmund and Ufcytel clashed with the Danish line at least a third of the English strength remained uncommitted for Eadric had halted his division well to the rear. The Danish left, finding no troops to their front, turned inwards to envelop the unprotected English, who nevertheless continued the unequal struggle until late in the afternoon when Edmund was eventually able to escape with the survivors of his army. Thus, the English were defeated and Ulfcytel, the majority of Edmund’s troops and a large proportion of the English nobility were killed. Edmund retreated to Deerhurst on the Severn where shortly after the battle he and Canute met to agree on the partition of England (see the graphic below). The kingdom was divided between the two men, but when Edmund died in November, Canute took over the Kingdom of Wessex, and with it control of the whole Kingdom of England, which he annexed to his Scandinavian empire, though he agreed to rule England as a Christian king.

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A duel at Deerhurst between Edmund Ironside and Cnut the Great is depicted in the manuscript Historia Major by Matthew Paris, circa 1200-1259.

Canute, therefore, took over a well-formed and fully operational kingdom of England in 1017 and made it the centre of his so-called ‘North Sea Empire’ by extending his rule first over Denmark itself (following the death of his elder brother in 1018), then over Norway (after the expulsion of Olaf Haraldsson in 1028) and latterly, it seems, into parts of Sweden. For the next twenty-five years, England was no longer at the edge of the world, as shown on the map above composed by a priest working in the household of Sigeric of Canterbury around the turn of the millennium, but part of Canute’s empire. His English kingdom was dominated by two earls, Godwin of Wessex and Leofric of Mercia, the first representing the ‘new nobles’ of the Anglo-Danish régime and the other representing the entrenched political interests north of the Thames. The Anglo-Saxon map of the world, though originally composed in a short period of relative peace for England after the retaking of York in 954, sat at the edge of a period of violent confrontation and forced engagement with the rest of Europe.

Canute’s ‘North Sea’ Christian Empire & The Viking Legacy in the British Isles:

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To begin with, Canute rewarded his Scandinavian supporters with earldoms but came increasingly to rely on the Saxon noblemen at Court, especially Earl Godwin. On the right is a picture from a decorated manuscript, showing Canute and Queen Aelfgifu (Emma), receiving symbols of their power from Christ, and presenting a cross to the New Minster at Winchester. The double portrait acknowledges their importance to each other. England’s most important Christian shrine was at Beodricsworth, or Bury St Edmunds. The remains of the saintly king had been moved to the Abbey there in 902, making it a major centre of pilgrimage. Canute recognised its importance to his English subjects and so contributed liberally to the construction of a new church and founded a new community of Benedictine monks to guard the shrine. Canute (1016-35) was the ruler of a large northern empire. Soon after his conquest of England, he forced Norway to submit to him with an English army, but he always regarded England as the most important part of his empire. He maintained the Anglo-Saxon laws and gave power to Saxon thegns as well as Danish earls.

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He also became a devoted servant of the Church in Denmark and Norway and made a pilgrimage to Rome, during which he gained many privileges for the English Church. Both England and Scandinavia increased their trade. Many Danish merchants settled in London, which once more became an important centre of trade, as in early Saxon times. Because it was necessary for Canute to leave England for long periods, he divided the kingdom into four ‘earldoms’ based on the old kingdoms of East Anglia, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria. Unfortunately, however, this revived old jealousies and rivalries. These divisions weakened the country and made it easy prey to enemies once Canute’s strong hand was withdrawn. It was during the troubled times of the Danish invasions that feudal society developed in England, as it had done in Europe when the Northmen attacked Charlemagne’s empire. Freemen gave up their land to the powerful thegns in return for protection; the thegns restored the land but demanded labour services in exchange.

Viking settlement in Ireland had been limited to fortified coastal settlements and in 902 they were temporarily expelled from Dublin by the Irish. Many of the refugees settled in northwest England, with further impacts on the Norse communities on the Isle of Man and the western Hebrides. But they returned to Ireland in 914, and from their bases at Limerick, Waterford, Wexford and Dublin, sought for some time thereafter to reassert their political and commercial power on both sides of the Irish Sea. The Irish had plans of their own. The native rulers of Munster were soon in the ascendancy, eclipsing the power of the Southern Uí Néill; and in the person of Brian Boru (976-1014), they found someone whom they would come to regard as their saviour. But his hegemony collapsed after his death in battle against the Leinster-Viking coalition at Clontarf (1014).

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The Age of Unification, 10th-11th centuries. The Kingdom of Wessex was extended northwards and westwards to become ‘the Kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’ by King Alfred the Great, and his successors in the tenth century extended their rule over the Danes and Northumbrians. By about 900 the Scots had assimilated the Picts and by the 11th century, they had annexed the British kingdom of Strathclyde and also gained Lothian from England. Pictured in the top left-hand corner is the ruined St Magnus’ Church, Egilsay on Orkney, one of several churches built by Norse Settlers on Orkney. Before their conversion to Christianity in the early eleventh century, they had been the last pagans in the British Isles.

The Viking impact had its slightest impact on Wales where although the coast had its fair share of raids, mostly from Irish-based Vikings, especially in the tenth century, there were few settlements and these had no discernable political influence. The Welsh rulers seem to have acknowledged English overlordship almost as a matter of routine. In 918 Hywel Dda and his brother Clydog, rulers of the southern Welsh, Idwal of Gwynedd, ruler of ‘all the race of the Welsh’ had sought Edward the Elder as their overlord. Hywel Dda, styled ‘King of the west Welsh’, and Owain, king of the people of Gwent, were among those who submitted to Aethelstan in 927; and thereafter Hywel (died 950), Idwal (died 942) and Morgan ab Owain (died 974) were regular visitors to King Aethelstan’s court. The true feelings of the Welsh towards the English may, however, be more accurately reflected in the mid-tenth-century poem Armes Prydein Vawr (‘The Great Prophecy of Britain’), which foretold the day when the Welsh would free themselves from their ‘English oppressors’; and they never gave up hope. But, for the time being, it proved difficult for any ‘high king’ to establish any sort of lasting authority over the others.

In ‘mainland’ Scotland, by about 900 the Scots had assimilated the Picts and by the eleventh century, they had annexed the British kingdom of Strathclyde and also won Lothian from England. Kenneth II (971-95) and Malcolm II (1005-34) were more successful than Constantine had been in holding their own against the English. Lothian (between the Tweed and the Forth) was ceded by Edgar to Kenneth in 973, doubtless for good political reasons and Malcolm took rather more forceful possession of the region following his victory over the English at the battle of Carham in 1018. Not long afterwards, the kingdom of Strathclyde was absorbed more fully than before into the Kingdom of the Scots. The position further north is less clear. The rulers of Moray, and the earls of Orkney, retained some degree of independence but had little prospect of any lasting success against the kings of the Scots. In most parts of the British Isles, the Scandinavian settlers soon began to assimilate with the native populations through intermarriage and conversion to Christianity. Relatively few Viking burials and even fewer settlements have been identified, perhaps because the settlers quickly adopted the material culture and burial customs of the natives and so became archaeologically invisible, although waterlogged sites in Dublin and York have provided spectacular evidence of everyday life in Viking towns.

Scandinavian influence on place names is in fact the best guide to the areas of Viking settlement. In England, as shown on the map above, the process of assimilation was made easier, since the languages spoken by the Danes were similar enough to be mutually intelligible with a little effort. Though it was the Danes who finished up speaking English, English vocabulary was greatly enriched by loan words from Danish and Old Norse. One bilingual inscription, in Norse and Gaelic, is also known. Godred Crovan of Islay won control of the island at the battle of Skyhill in 1079 and made it the centre of a Norse kingdom that included all of the Hebrides. The kingdom survived under Norwegian sovereignty until 1266 when it was ceded to Scotland. By that time, the population had become Gaelic-speaking again, but Norse institutions such as the ‘assembly’ survived.

Viking Settlement on the Isle of Man.

The process of assimilation and coexistence between native and Viking can be clearly identified on the Isle of Man. Its strategic position in the middle of the Irish Sea made the Isle of Man attractive for Viking settlement. The evidence of pagan burials, containing weapons and sometimes ships and human sacrifices, indicates that substantial Viking settlement began in the later ninth century. The native Christian Gaelic-speaking population was not wiped out, but the distribution of typical Scandinavian place-name suffixes, like -by (‘village’) and -stathir (‘fields in meadowland’), shows that the settlers took the better, lower-lying land for themselves. The many silver hoards discovered suggest that the island prospered by its proximity to Dublin’s important Viking trading centre. After they adopted Christianity in the tenth century, the settlers erected a series of finely carved stone memorial crosses that incorporated Irish, northern English and Scandinavian runes, but several commemorate people with Celtic names, a sign of intermarriage between the two populations. Today, the Manx parliament continues to meet annually in the open air to announce legislation at ‘Tynwald’, the traditional assembly place of the Norse kingdom, as it has done for nine hundred years.

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The Anglo-Saxon Map of the World, c. AD 1000. The British Isles sit at the bottom left-hand edge of the map; it is the product more of monastic fancy than cartographical precision, yet its well-drawn outlines suggest it was partly based on a Roman original, but was drawn by someone who incorporated up-to-date information of the coastlines of Britain, Ireland and northern Europe.

By the later tenth century, England was a single political unit. From the time when Alfred burnt the cakes in despairing refuge in Athelney, it took him and his descendants a century to conquer and unite England. In 973, Alfred’s grandson Edgar was crowned in Bath and received the submission of even the Welsh and Scottish kings. We know this from written sources, but these are also consistent with the archaeological evidence. The burhs constructed under the House of Wessex look like parts of a logical system of defence for the whole country, including those in the ‘Danelaw’. The same coinage was used throughout the country and it was a good, standard quality, regularly recalled and reminted at mints existing in many places, especially in most of the burhs. There was better quality pottery, wheel-thrown and hard-fired, distributed from several sites in England over much of the eastern part of the country. Many more churches were built and there was a renewal of art associated with the Church. The country might have become politically unified simply as the result of a strong dynasty which, on the whole, the House of Wessex, from Egbert to Edgar, was. Also, if Offa had had equally vigorous offspring and descendants, Mercia might have swallowed up the whole of England rather earlier than Wessex actually did. The trend in fortifying towns may have begun first in Mercia but was copied in the Alfredian burhs. The coinage had also already been organised in the time of Offa. Taken alone, the English evidence seems to demonstrate the strength of the West Saxon dynasty in the ninth and tenth centuries, and of its achievement in uniting several small kingdoms into one centralised state. Put in the context of what was happening throughout the rest of northern Europe, the ‘Viking threat’ becomes much clearer.

Aerial view of the Viking fort at Trelleborg in Denmark, with the foundations of large bow-sided houses shown laid out in regular blocks.

There are signs of fortified towns in Scandinavia itself, signs that raiding or ‘viking’ was not confined to foreign countries. The arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia marked through the evidence of Christian burials and churches could of course be the result of foreign contacts and peaceful missions, like those which had already converted other Germanic peoples. The Vikings who settled in England, partly due to the prestige and civilised example of Alfred the Great and his successors, soon accepted Christianity, except in Orkney, where the old pagan ways held out until the mid-eleventh century, to the time of Earl Thorfinn and his successor St Magnus who, by his life and death, gave a new meaning to the Christianity of the northern islands before his martyrdom in 1117. The development of larger political units, especially in the formation of Denmark, and then Canute’s Scandinavian empire, was a parallel process to that taking place within the British Isles, and it may even have been as much a cause as a result of the Viking raids. The lack of direct evidence for widespread Danish settlement reflects the fact that there was not very much, although the weight of both historical and linguistic material does point to a noticeable influx in some areas.

Before the arrival of the Danes, Old English, like most European languages at that time, was a strongly inflected language. Common words like “king” or “stone” relied on word-endings to convey a meaning for which we now use prepositions like “to”, “with”, and “from”. In Old English, the “king” is se cyning, “to the king” is thaem cyninge. In Old English, they said they said one stan (stone), two stanas (stones). The simplification of English by the Danes helped to eliminate these word-endings so that today we simply use the same plurals for most native English words as in stone(s) and king(s). Apart from the obvious placename evidence mentioned above, the impact of Old Norse on the English language is hard to evaluate with much accuracy, precisely because the two languages were so similar. Nine hundred words, including such ‘high frequency’ words as get, hit, leg, low, root, skin, same, want and wrong, are certainly of Scandinavian origin and typically plain-syllabled. Words beginning with /sk/ like sky are Norse. There are probably hundreds more we cannot account for exactly, and in the old territory of the Danelaw in the North East and East Midlands of England there are thousands of Old Norse borrowings, words like beck (stream), laithe (barn) and garth (yard) survive in regional dialects. In many cases, these borrowings stood alongside their English equivalents. The Norse skirt originally meant the same as the English shirt. You can ‘rear’ (OE) or ‘raise’ (ON) a child. Other near-synonyms include ‘wish/want’, ‘craft/skill’, ‘hide/skin’. Thanks to the Danes, English was given another dimension, more light and shade, greater variety.

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Contemporary portrait from liber vitae, 1031

The pinnacle of the Vikings’ achievement, and of Danish integration into the British Isles and among the kingdoms, reached its high-tide mark in 1031, by when Canute (‘Cnut’), in addition to sitting on the Danish and English thrones, had conquered Norway and ruled over most of Scandinavia. Cnut went to Scotland with an army, and with the Navy in the Irish Sea, to receive, without bloodshed, the submission of three Scottish kings: Malcolm II, the future King Maelbeth and Lehmarc, king of Galloway and the Isle of Man, who also held lands across the North Channel. Nevertheless, it appears that Malcolm II adhered to little of Cnut’s power and that Danish influence over Scotland died out by the time of Cnut’s death. From then on the story of the Vikings in the West is one of rapid decline and their re-emergence as ‘Normans’ bent on conquest.

Post-Script Note – The Fall & Rise of the House of Wessex:

Edward the Exile, from a pedigree of Edmund Ironside in a 13th-century manuscript

Edward the Exile (1016 – 19 April 1057), also called Edward Ætheling, was the son of King Edmund Ironside and of Ealdgyth. He spent most of his life in exile in the Kingdom of Hungary following the defeat of his father by Cnut the Great. After the Danish conquest of England in 1016, Canute had Edward, said to be only a few months old, and his brother Edmund, sent to the Swedish court of Olof Skötkonung (who was either Canute’s half-brother or his stepbrother), supposedly with instructions to have the children murdered. However, Olof was an old ally of Æthelred the Unready, the princes’ grandfather; therefore, he instead secretly sent the Æthelings to the Hungarian royal court of King Stephen I, fearing they were unsafe in the north, where Cnut’s power was great. The boys found a peaceful home at the Hungarian royal court with King Stephen and Queen Gisela, until 1028. When they were about 12 years old, Cnut sent assassins to carry out his original orders to murder the boys. King Stephen sent the princes to Gardorika, the royal court of Kievan ‘Rus’, where they could be protected and educated by Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Kyiv. In the 1030’s they were joined by another exiled prince, Andrew of Hungary.

By 1043 Edward was elevated “to a position of sole responsibility where England’s crown or dynastic alliances were concerned.” Prince Andrew returned to Hungary in 1046 to retake the throne; Edward and Edmund are likely to have accompanied him and fought with his army. On hearing that Edward was alive, Edward the Confessor recalled him to England in 1056 and made him his heir. The Exile finally arrived in England in 1057 with his wife and three children, but died within a few days, on 19 April, without meeting the King. He was buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral. His eldest daughter, Margaret, born in Hungary, c. 1046, married King Malcolm III (‘Canmore’) of Scotland and was later canonised as Saint Margaret of Scotland (d. 16 November 1093). His son, Edgar Ætheling (c. 1051 – c. 1126) was elected and proclaimed King of England after the Battle of Hastings but submitted to William the Conqueror upon, or soon after the latter’s arrival at Westminster. Edward’s grandchild, Edith of Scotland, also called Matilda, married King Henry I of England, thus continuing the Wessex line into the post-Conquest monarchy of the English Plantagenets.

(Source: Wikipedia) 


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