The idea for a potted history started out with just Alfred the Great, but quickly morphed into all the Anglo-Saxons, I am afraid to say. As usual, comments and feedback are welcome via the Contact Me page.
The Roman Empire crumbled around the beginning of the 5th century CE, due partly to political infighting among family dynasties. The resultant void led to an influx of Germanic and Central Asian tribes into Western Europe. In England, this heralded the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes around 450. There are very few written documents to describe events over the next two hundred years, and what there is tends to be questioned by scholars.
In general, there was a period of unrest as the newcomers came to dominate the east and south of Briton, gradually pushing the indigenous population northward and westwards. From the late 6th century individual tribes coalesced to form seven discrete kingdoms, now known as the Heptarchy, which promptly vied with each other for supremacy. Conflict between them was a constant theme.
Around the beginning of the 9th century, as Mercia’s power was beginning to wane and Wessex looked as if it was going to assume its mantle, along came the Vikings, mainly the Danish variety, who decided that there were rich pickings to be had in England and Western Europe.
Their raids were just that; sufficient pillaging to fill their coffers and then off back home. That modus operandi continued for sixty years or so, after which they began to overwinter in the various countries, as conquest seemed to become the name of the game rather than simple raiding. In England, the Great Heathen Army, as it was known, arrived in Northumbria with 5,000 men in 865.
By the end of 870, they had overcome all the main kingdoms except for Wessex. Entering Wessex in 871, the Vikings gradually proceeded to gain the upper hand until Alfred the Great’s significant victory at Edington in 878 managed to turn the tables.
Alfred was subsequently able to build on that triumph, putting in place the necessary military reforms and defences to be prepared for any future invasions. He styled himself “king of the Anglo Saxons”, which roughly meant everywhere south of a line drawn from the Mersey to London. He was also able to improve government and, importantly, to commission a revival in learning and culture. We know all this because Asser, who Alfred tasked with writing his biography in the 890s, has told us so. Apologies if some of my innate cynicism is showing very slightly.
Alfred’s children, Edward the Elder and Æthelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians, consolidated the strength that he had brought to his kingdom. However, it was his grandson Æthelstan who was to be known as the first king of England after his northern conquests and his victory over a joint Celtic / Viking alliance at the significant battle of Brunanburh in 937.
The period from Alfred to Æthelstan arguably marked the high point in Anglo-Saxon history. Succeeding monarchs made little impact, with Æthelred the Unready representing the nadir. Ruling from 878 through to 1014, he had to deal with the resurgent Vikings who had hit on a form of protection racket: you raid and pillage until the opposition pays you (Danegeld) to leave them in peace .. which you do for a while before repeating the process.
Æthelred compounded the problem when Gunhilde, the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, was killed. This eventually led to a full-scale invasion, resulting in Viking rulers of England from 1016 to 1042, most notably Cnut (Canute) the Great.
Edward the Confessor was the final king to come from the House of Wessex. He was briefly succeeded by Harold Godwinson in 1066. Unfortunately for Harold, there were two others who thought that they had claims to the throne: Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, and William II, Duke of Normandy. As many schoolchildren know, Harold defeated Hardrada, but lost to William at Hastings in 1066.
Although this signalled the start of the Norman dynasty, the population continued to consist principally of Anglo-Saxons, Britons (or should we call them Celts?), along with Viking settlers in the north. They gave William the Conqueror a rough time for quite a long period with consistent uprisings.
Well, I have mentioned conflict, conflict and a bit more conflict. But what about the economy? Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of available information on the subject. There must have been a relatively thriving economy to generate the wealth which attracted all those Viking raiders. It was principally the thegns (minor noblemen) and their retainers who did the fighting. So, perhaps the freemen and serfs were able to get on with the business of producing food and other goods in our agrarian economy.
It seems likely that the main improvements in techniques relating to animal husbandry and cultivation were imported from Europe. By the late Saxon period there were various references to England being the wealthiest country in Western Europe, with the sale of high-quality wool to our European neighbours being a major contributing factor. It was certainly an attraction to the Normans.
Before we get started, let me briefly mention some of the primary written sources which historians use. In chronological order ..
Gildas (c.500-570) was a monk who wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). It is described variously as a sermon, or even a rant, on the history of Britain after the Roman departure, along with an excoriation of the failings of the British kings and clergy which led to the arrival of the Saxons.
The Venerable Bede (673–735) was also a monk, based in a monastery at Jarrow, who penned the Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples. He is undoubtedly the best source for events up his death in 735. However, his writings do betray a certain Northern and Christian bias.
Nennius (770-810), a Welsh monk, is thought by some to have been the author of Historia Brittonum, a work that described many speculative events, including the legend of King Arthur. Various revisions of the text were produced after his death, up as far as the 11th century.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals, covering British history from the time of the Romans. The original manuscript, written in Old English, was probably produced in Wessex in the early 890s during the reign of Alfred the Great. Although it is biased in parts, it is the single most important document on the Anglo-Saxons. Copies were made and distributed at the time. Each copy then took on its own life, being separately updated, up as far as 1154 in one instance. There are currently nine versions or fragments thereof.
Asser, yet another Welsh monk, was invited to join King Alfred’s court where he was subsequently tasked with writing the Life of King Alfred, probably using Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor around the beginning of the 9th century, as a model. Once again, it can hardly be called unbiased, although what biography is!
Links to translations of the above works can be found in the Bibliography and Further Reading section.
Other important documents include the Law Code of King Æthelberht of Kent, on which all subsequent versions of law code were based, and the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum c.880. Surviving copies of both were made in the 12th century.
The End of the Roman Occupation
The Angles, Saxons and Jutes
The Heptarchy (Seven Kingdoms)
The Arrival of Christianity
An Introduction to the Vikings
The Rise of the House of Wessex
An Introduction to Alfred the Great
Alfred’s Government and Revival of Learning
The Return of the Vikings
Edward the Elder (899-924)
Edmund I (939-946) through to Edmund Ironside (1016)
Edward the Confessor
The Arrival of the Normans
Odds and Sods
The End of the Roman Occupation
Let us start by briefly describing the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. Ignoring the initial sorties of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54BCE, the Romans began their occupation of Britain in 43CE after the Emperor Claudius had ordered its invasion.
However, by the late 4th century the Roman Empire was verging on collapse from a mixture of internecine power struggles among the various family dynasties, along with attempted power grabs by others (known as “usurpers”) who tried to exploit any political void. In addition, it had to contend with the threats posed by those Germanic and other tribes, such as the Huns, who were intent on moving into Roman territory. This is known as the Migration Period (very roughly 300 to 700CE), or more colourfully as the Barbarian Invasion.
In 383CE, Magnus Maximus, a Roman general who had been assigned to Britain, made his personal move for imperial power. He left for Gaul with his troops, and succeeded in becoming sub-emperor under Theodosius I, ruling both Gaul and Britain. There was no noticeable Roman presence in north and west Britain after this date. Unsurprisingly, this shortage of troops encouraged the Saxons, Picts and Scotti to make incursive raids.
Magnus Maximus was executed in 388CE after a failed attempt to go one step further and take the emperor’s purple. Although Stilicho, a high-ranking general, subsequently ordered campaigns against the Picts and Scotti in the late 390s, he was under pressure in Northern Europe from the encroaching Visigoths and Ostrogoths.
In 406CE, the Vandals, Suebi and Alans crossed the Rhine and began widespread devastation. The remaining Romans who were present in Britain, fearing that these tribes might cross the Channel, dispensed with imperial authority, deciding to fend for themselves. One of their number, a general called Constantine, eventually took command, and set off with troops for Gaul. Unfortunately, he also had pretensions to grab the title of Western Emperor, but he lost control in 409CE.
Britain, now without any troops for protection and suffering several Saxon raids, exiled Constantine’s magistrates. A cry for help to the Emperor Honorius in 410CE was met with a flat rejection (known as the Rescript of Honorius) which effectively told them that they were on their own, as he did not have the necessary military forces to deploy. This was true, as he had his own troubles, being stuck in Ravenna at the time and unable to prevent the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome in the same year. 410CE is usually given as the end of the Roman occupation of Britain.
I will drop the CE notation at this point. All dates from this point are CE (the common or current era), or AD in “old money”.
The Angles, Saxons and Jutes
It is thought that these various Germanic tribes began their mass immigration around the 450s. It was claimed by both Gildas and Bede that Vortigern, variously known as a warlord, or even as King of the Britons, employed two Saxon brothers, Hengist and Horsa, to deal with the incursions of the Picts and Scotti. However, they betrayed him and took control of the land, inviting the Germanic tribes to move in. However, Vortigern’s existence is doubted by some scholars, as information about him is somewhat obscure.
The Angle and Jute tribes principally hailed from the Jutland peninsula, the current mainland area of Denmark and part of Northern Germany. Migrating Angles initially settled in East Anglia and the East Midlands, gradually extending their reach to include the east coast to the north, while the Jutes settled in Kent.
The Saxon picture is slightly more complicated. This North German tribe was a foederatus, that is bound to Rome by a treaty. As such, it was expected to provide the Romans with a contingent of fighting men, when required. Saxon foederati formed part of the Roman army in Britain. So, some of them were already here when the occupation ended. They were joined by migrating Saxons, settling in the south east initially, apart from Kent.
What happened to the indigenous Britons? There are various views that range from: they were slaughtered; they co-existed with the incomers; to they were driven westwards. We are probably talking about a mixture of all three, with an emphasis on the violence. There was certainly significant conflict.
It was claimed that the Britons won a great victory at Mount Badon somewhere around 500CE which briefly stemmed the tide. According to Gildas, Ambrosius Aurelianus, another warlord, led the Britons into this battle. It is unclear, given the limited sources, whether it actually took place. Mount Badon may (or may not) be near Swindon. Among the various legends of the Britons, King Arthur was present at the battle according to at least one source, while Ambrosius Aurelianus was variously described as being Arthur’s uncle, and even as Merlin.
Intermarriage certainly took place, but the Britons are generally shown in the west and north on maps, indicating that they had been driven away by the Angles and the Saxons.
The Heptarchy (The Seven Kingdoms)
The individual groups of migrant settlers eventually coalesced to form seven discrete kingdoms. They were: East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Wessex, Essex, Kent and Sussex. They are collectively known as the Heptarchy, although this term did not actually come into use until the 12th century. It is used to describe the kingdoms until their unification into the kingdom of England in the early 10th century.
The unofficial title of “the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom” altered over time, several of them having a place in the sun at one time or another. Similarly, the position of an individual kingdom’s borders tended to ebb and flow from year to year, and from battle to battle. In addition, a successful king might periodically assume the overlordship (Bretwalda was the Saxon term) of another kingdom in the wake of victory on the battlefield or through political supremacy.
In the early 7th century Kent and East Anglia were the leading kingdoms. Æthelberht of Kent was initially the most prominent ruler, although after his death that position, certainly south of the Humber, was taken by Raedwald of East Anglia.
North of the Humber, Æthelfrith was the king of Deira (an area from the River Tees to the Humber) and Bernicia (an area from the River Tees up to the Firth of Forth) no later than 604; the entire region subsequently being known as Northumbria. He was defeated and killed in battle by Raedwald in 616, who promptly installed Æthelfrith’s rival Edwin as king, the latter accepting Raedwald as his overlord. After Raedwald’s death, Edwin extended his dominion westwards, from the River Mersey northwards, as well as taking Anglesey and the Isle of Man, which all helped to make him the most powerful king from 627 until he was eventually defeated and killed at the Battle of Hatfield in 633 by Penda (of Mercia) and Cadwallon (of Gwynedd).
The kingdom of Mercia existed from 527 to 918. It was centred on the English Midlands, with Tamworth and Repton becoming important places. The first king may have been Creoda around 585. Penda, who ruled from c.626 to 655, became the most powerful Anglo-Saxon ruler after he defeated Oswald, Edwin’s son, at the Battle of Maserfield in 642. He laid a strong foundation for Mercia’s subsequent supremacy which started with Æthelbald in the early 8th century, and reached its zenith with Offa (of dyke fame – was it a fortification or a border?) who became the most successful Mercian king. He ruled from 757 to 796 over territory which came to include southern England and East Anglia. A family tree of Mercian rulers can be viewed here.
Those Saxons who had begun to occupy Wessex subsequently became known as the West Saxons. Their first king was Cerdic who ruled from 519 to 534. It is claimed that all subsequent rulers of the House of Wessex were descended in some way from him. In 577, Cealin expanded into Cirencester, Bath and Gloucester.
The Arrival of Christianity
Although Constantine the Great (306-337) had converted to Christianity early in his reign, it was during the regime of Theodosius I that it officially became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380. Presumably, some of the Romano-Britons may have practiced the faith after this time. However, once the Roman occupation had come to an end, Britain reverted to a totally pagan land.
Christianity arrived in Anglo-Saxon times from two directions. Ireland had been converted by Patrick in the 5th century. Columba was sent over in the following century to convert Britain, establishing a monastery at Iona in 563, which was used as a base for subsequent expansion. As part of that process, Aidan set up a see at Lindisfarne (635-651) to convert Northumbria.
Meanwhile, Pope Gregory I had sent Augustine in 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Æthelberht of Kent gave him land, which he used to set up a see at Canterbury. Æthelberht became the first ruler to be baptised in 601. However, it was not until the middle of the 7th century that East Anglian, Mercian and Wessex rulers were baptised, followed by Sussex in 681. It is difficult to understand the scope of Christian conversion at the time. Was it partly just a pragmatic decision by the rulers concerned? And, was it mainly limited to the king and his immediate circle?
The Roman-led conversion spread northwards into Northumbria where it inevitably clashed with the incumbent Ionian-based clergy. This led to the noted Synod of Whitby in 664 where the main debate centred around the calculation of the date of Easter. King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled in favour of the Roman method, although it must be said that there were some political reasons behind this decision.
An equally important event in the history of the English Church around this time was the work of Theodore of Tarsus. He was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 668, and quickly instituted a systematic review of the nascent English Church. He eventually summoned the Synod of Hertford in 673 where he laid out a whole series of reforms, only one of which related to the proper calculation of Easter.
An Introduction to the Vikings
It appears that the term Viking, to describe Norse peoples from modern-day Denmark, Sweden and Norway, only entered the English language around the 18th century. They principally consisted of rural communities with almost no towns who made a meagre living off the land, relying to a large degree on coastal fishing. The development of the longship, coupled with sailing and navigational skills, were key elements in their success during the Viking Age (793-1066).
The Rus, later called Varangians, came from modern day Sweden. They mainly went east (towards Russia and Ukraine) and south where they traded and raided along the river routes between the Baltic and the Black Sea.
The Norwegians generally headed westwards, partly looking for farm land, as there was very little in West Norway. They journeyed to: Shetland, Orkney, the Faroes, the western isles of Scotland, down the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man, north west England, Ireland (mainly the eastern side) and Brittany. They also ventured to Iceland and Greenland, even reaching Newfoundland where they briefly settled.
Meanwhile, the Danes tended to invade England, mainly along its east and south coasts, and Western Europe. One permanent settlement in Upper Normandy was on land which was granted to them by the Franks. Rollo, their leader at the time in the early 10th century, is generally known as the first Duke of Normandy.
Initially, Viking raids in England were small-scale, and they would tend to return home when they had sufficient plunder. They favoured monasteries and towns, looking for gold and silver. Lindisfarne, on the North Sea coast, is generally recognised as the first English target in 793. The monastery at Iona was also pillaged on several occasions (804-806). Some of its surviving monks went back to Ireland, setting up the abbey of Kells in County Meath which is famous for the magnificently illuminated Gospel Book of Kells. Work on the book may possibly have started in Iona.
The Viking modus operandi was typically to employ surprise raids, and then to make a base which they could defend. They preferred not to indulge in pitched battles, if they could avoid it.
Around the middle of the 9th century the Vikings began to overwinter rather than return home, an indication that they had now become intent on conquest. For example, they set up longphorts (fortified ports) in Ireland, notably Dublin.
The Rise of the House of Wessex
Mercia’s supremacy had gradually begun to wane after Offa’s reign, a fact that was underlined when King Egbert of Wessex gained a significant victory over them at Ellandun in 825. This resulted in Wessex gaining the south east, while East Anglia got its independence back.
Relations between Wessex and Mercia improved in the 830s when they began to recognise that the Vikings were their joint enemy. Intermarriage helped to cement their relationship when Burgred, King of Mercia, married Æthelswith, the daughter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. As part of the agreement between the two parties, Mercia retained London, and the River Thames acted as the border between the two kingdoms. Wessex now consisted of two parts: the west (Wessex and Cornwall); and the east (Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex) which was ruled by Æthelbald, the son of Æthelwulf, as a sub-king. By 848 King Æthelwulf also gained control over the mid-Thames Valley, an area which Wessex and Mercia had squabbled over for a hundred years.
As it turned out, Æthelwulf suffered no major problems with the Vikings during his reign. There were just a couple of incidents: he was defeated at Carhampton in Somerset (843), but triumphed at Aclea in Surrey (851).
Æthelwulf, somewhat strangely, left his kingdom to visit Rome in 855. On his return journey he negotiated an alliance with Charles the Bald, king of West Francia, which included marriage to the French ruler’s twelve-year old daughter Judith, as his first wife Osburh had died sometime in the early 850s. In his absence, his son Æthelbald effectively staged a coup, and Æthelwulf was forced to accept the rule of East Wessex while the son took West Wessex.
Æthelwulf died in 858, and Æthelbald married Judith, granting East Wessex to his brother Æthelberht. However, his reign was short-lived, as he died in 860 and Æthelberht became the ruler of both West and East Wessex until he also passed away in 866, and was succeeded in turn by his brother Æthelred.
An Introduction to Alfred the Great
According to Asser, his eventual biographer, Alfred, the youngest of six children, was born in 849. Possibly because he was the youngest male, and therefore unlikely to succeed to the throne, his father sent him on a visit to Rome in 853 where he was received by Pope Leo IV. Alfred paid a second visit to Rome in 855, accompanied by his father on this occasion.
In the mid-860s the Great Heathen Army, as this Viking force was known, led by Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless, invaded England with five thousand combatants. They conquered Northumbria in 866, including the capital York, followed by East Anglia and then Nottingham.
Mercia, fearful of this large Viking force, sought help from Wessex, resulting in a marriage alliance in 868 when Alfred and Ealhswith, the daughter of the Mercian nobleman Æthelred Mucel, wed. Their union ultimately produced five children. She eventually died in 902. Sometime around the beginning of the marriage, Alfred began to have a health problem that was to remain with him periodically for the rest of his life. Piles and abdominal pains have been mentioned. However, it is now thought that he may have been suffering from Crohn’s disease.
King Æthelred of Wessex and his brother Alfred fought alongside the Mercians, but they failed to keep the Vikings out of Mercian territory. And indeed, the Great Heathen Army then continued onward into Wessex at the end of 870. A number of battles / skirmishes took place in the early months of the following year with varying results.
- The Vikings won at Reading in January and took the town
- The Saxons triumphed over a raiding party at Engelfield
- The Saxons failed in an attempt to retake Reading
- A Saxon victory at Ashdown where one Viking king and five earls were killed
- 2 weeks later the Vikings won at Basing
- In March the Vikings won at Meretun, and the Saxons lost many important men. King Æthelred died shortly afterwards, possibly from wounds sustained in the battle. Meanwhile, Viking reinforcements arrived along the Thames, led by Guthrum
- A victory for the Vikings at Reading
- Another Viking victory at Wilton (Wilts).
Wilton was Alfred’s first battle as king. Lacking sufficient forces, he was obliged to sue for peace, paying cash to buy the Vikings off. They promptly retired to London and subsequently turned their attentions to Northumbria and Mercia, establishing a base at Torksey (on the Trent), and subsequently taking Repton, violating a treaty in the process. Burgred, the king of Mercia, then fled to Rome and Ceowulf II became the Vikings’ client king.
Unsurprisingly, the Vikings returned to Wessex when Guthrum took Wareham in Dorset in 875. Once more, Alfred sued for peace, offering money and an exchange of hostages. Guthrum used the period of talks to his advantage, killing the hostages and leaving for Exeter. However, a fleet of Viking reinforcements which could bolster his forces was wrecked off Swanage, and Guthrum was himself forced to seek peace. On this occasion he actually gave up the hostages and retired to Gloucester where he set up a base.
Guthrum returned once more, taking the royal estate at Chippenham in a surprise night attack in January 878, and then ravaging the surrounding countryside in Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire, although his forces were limited to holding the area around Chippenham.
Lacking forces once again, this time Alfred was compelled to flee from Chippenham and hide in the Somerset Levels, waiting for an opportunity to regroup. He established a base on the Isle of Athelney after Easter when he probably had no more than 100 or so followers, which allowed some limited guerrilla activity to take place. The probably apocryphal tale of him being chastised by a peasant woman, for allowing her bread cakes to be burnt while he was sheltering with her, dates from this period.
Eventually, Alfred rode to Egbert’s Stone near Selwood in early May where he met up with “all the people of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire west of Southampton Water”, otherwise known as raising the fyrds of the three shires (a fyrd being an army of freemen mobilised to defend a shire). From there, they marched to Iley Oak (Eastleigh Wood), near Warminster. The crucial Battle of Edington followed where Alfred gained a significant victory over Guthrum’s troops, and from where he quickly moved on to besiege Chippenham.
Guthrum was forced to sue for peace, giving up hostages and agreeing to become a Christian along with thirty of his nobles. Alfred is shown as a magnanimous victor, acting as his sponsor at the baptism (thus becoming his godfather), and showering gifts on him afterwards. Guthrum retired first to Cirencester, and then to East Anglia in 880. In a subsequent treaty between Alfred and Guthrum, possibly dating from 880, they agreed to split Mercia, where Alfred got west Mercia and Guthrum east Mercia. See the map on the right. Little more is heard of Guthrum who died in 890.
Alfred’s Government and Revival of Learning
The 880s was a relatively peaceful decade. While there were occasional Viking raids, they tended to be local and minor in nature. This gave Alfred the time to demonstrate his talent for effective government, as well as war, and to kick-start a revival in both learning and culture.
Alfred re-established English control of London in 886, the Vikings having occupied it since 871. The Saxon settlement had originally been just to the west of the Roman walled city (around the area of the Strand). As a defensive measure, the Roman walls were now repaired and the focus of settlement moved back within them.
It was probably in the wake of these events in London that Alfred formed an alliance with Mercia by marrying his daughter Æthelflaed to Æthelred, the leading Mercian ealdorman, to whom he entrusted the governance of Mercia. Around the same time, Alfred assumed the title of King of the Anglo-Saxons.
Alfred punished those who had consorted with the Vikings, and he proceeded to fill his court with many non-West Saxons, putting aside 1/6th of his revenue to reward these “foreigners”. He also dispatched various legations to Rome, bearing the alms of the West Saxons and himself. This may possibly be the origin of Peter’s Pence, an annual tax of one penny on every householder with land of a certain value which was paid to the see of Rome.
Necessary military reforms were commissioned in preparation for any future invasions. Alfred introduced the concept of a standing army: half in service and half at home, rotating periodically. Those who were at home were tasked with guarding their own land and their neighbours. Thegns (minor noblemen) also had to supply horses and 60 days of food. The emphasis on mounted troops was considered necessary to be able to quickly pursue an elusive enemy. Alfred also introduced a small fleet of ships which patrolled the rivers and estuaries.
Thirty burhs were created, with many being designed to be permanent urban settlements and centres of trade and administration, not just fortresses. Where practical, the defences of Roman settlements were restored and Iron Age hill forts were reused. The idea was that no burh should be more than one day’s march from another. As an example, there were burhs along the Thames at Southwark, Sashes (Cookham), Wallingford, Oxford and Cricklade. Fortresses were garrisoned. In theory, it would require 27,000 men to man all thirty burhs, roughly equivalent to 6% of the population.
Away from military considerations, Alfred commissioned a revival of learning and culture, possibly influenced by Charlemagne’s Carolingian Renaissance in the late 8th and 9th century. Clerical scholars were recruited from Mercia, Wales and elsewhere. Noted intellectuals who joined the court included Asser, his future biographer, and Grimbald, a Benedictine monk from the abbey of Saint Bertin, near Saint-Omer. Works were translated from Latin into the vernacular, and there was an attempt to require literacy among those who held offices of authority.
Alfred, who was not literate until he was twelve, mastered the written word around 887 (both Latin and the Vernacular). It is said that he translated the Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory I, the Boethius, the Soliloquies of Augustine of Hippo and the first 50 psalms. Perhaps, it really means that he worked in a team with his scholars to produce these translations.
With respect to law and order, the Legal Code of Alfred the Great, otherwise known as the Doom Book (doom being laws or judgements), was a code of laws which were compiled c.893. It included the previous Saxon law codes of Æthelberht of Kent, Ine of Wessex and Offa of Mercia, as well the law handed down by God to Moses (known as Mosaic Law) and the Christian code of ethics which Jesus Christ passed on to his disciples.
The highest lay official in the kingdom was an ealdorman; there were eleven or so in Wessex and two in Kent. Alfred placed them on an equal footing with bishops. They could act as emissaries, and as the king’s chief military deputies. They had overall responsibility for: law and order, the levying of soldiers, finding labour for maintenance and policing merchants and trade in towns. However, it was the reeves who were in control on a practical day-to-day basis.
At a local level, lords (landowners) were responsible for the good behaviour of their dependants.
The Church was not yet strong in a political sense. Although Alfred was pious, he was a pragmatist, regarding the Church’s lands as being at his disposal in order to defend it and the realm.
The Return of the Vikings
The Vikings returned in force in 892, leaving Francia because of crop failures. Two fleets, consisting of approximately 330 ships and a couple of thousand men, arrived in Kent. The conversion of Hastein, one of their leaders, to Christianity did not have the same effect as it had done with Guthrum, and in the spring of 893 parts of Hampshire and Berkshire were pillaged. However, the Vikings were beaten by the army of Prince Edward, Alfred’s son, at Farnham. What followed over the next three years was a series of pursuits by Edward’s forces, as they strove to prevent the Vikings from settling in secure bases from which they could launch profitable raids.
- They were pursued to Thorney
- The Saxons attacked another base in Benfleet, killing / driving off many Vikings who promptly set up a further base at Shoebury.
- The Vikings traversed the Thames, ending up in Buttington near Welshpool. Edward’s large forces tracked them down. After a siege there was a battle which Edward won, but many Vikings survived and escaped
- The Vikings tried Chester, but once again Edward pursued and drove them out
- On to Wales where the Vikings gained sufficient booty, and they returned to another base, this time on Mersea Island, near Colchester
- In the winter of 894, they left Mersea and went to Hertford via the Thames and the River Lea. However, they were starved out and then went overland to Bridgnorth in Shropshire.
By the summer of 896 what remained of the Viking army finally dispersed: the well-off went to live in Northumbria or East Anglia; while the others went back across the Channel, looking for further raiding opportunities along the Seine.
Meanwhile, Alfred’s persistence had worn down a joint Northumbrian / East Anglian Viking force in Devon.
Edward the Elder (899-924)
Alfred died in 899. It was 16th century writers who gave him the epithet “the Great”, a tag which stuck. He was succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder, who was initially challenged by Æthelwold, the son of Alfred’s elder brother, King Æthelred.
Æthelwold briefly seized the royal estates at Wimborne and Christchurch, but ultimately left for Northumbria which recognised him as king. He subsequently came south to Essex with a fleet in 901 where he persuaded the East Anglian Vikings to invade Mercia and North Wessex with him in the following year. After a series of lootings, the Battle of Holme took place in which Edward was defeated, but there were heavy losses on the Viking side, including Æthelwold himself.
Various skirmishes with Northumbrian Vikings subsequently took place. After a raid on Mercia, these Vikings suffered a heavy defeat at Tettenhall in 910. Afterwards, they did not come south of Humber, and so Edward and Æthelred of Mercia, his brother-in-law, mopped up the southern Danelaw.
Edward gradually increased the number of burhs during the second half of his reign, creating new ones at Hertford, Witham, Buckingham, Nottingham and Thelwell, among others.
Finally, Edward imposed client rule on Mercia in 919 after the death of his sister Æthelflaed, who we are just about to meet. In 920 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that most rulers in Britain regarded Edward as their lord.
Æthelflaed (911 – 918)
Alfred’s daughter had married Æthelred (Lord of the Mercians). The event is first mentioned in 887 but it may have happened before that time. Æthelred accepted Alfred’s overlordship. Along with Edward the Elder, he had played a major role in fighting off the Vikings in the 890s.
It seems likely that Æthelflaed ruled alongside her husband in the 900s when it is thought that his health had started to decline. He died in 911, and she took over, becoming the first female Anglo-Saxon ruler, an event which is described as one of the most unique in early medieval history. She was known as the Lady of the Mercians.
Edward the Elder and his sister Æthelflaed extended Alfred’s network of burhs with Æthelflaed being responsible for those at Wednesbury, Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Warwick, Chirbury and Runcorn.
She was a warrior queen, and in 917 she captured Derby from the Vikings, while Leicester surrendered without a fight in the following year. Both places were part of the Five Boroughs, the main towns of Danish Mercia, effectively the East Midlands. The other towns were Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford. The Vikings in York promptly offered her their loyalty after these successes, but she died in 918 before she could take advantage of their offer.
Æthelstan was the son of Edward the Elder. Part of his education probably took place at the Mercian court of Æthelred and his aunt, Æthelflaed. He was pious, did not marry and had no children.
He encountered some resistance initially in Wessex, and was not crowned until September 925. In fact, Winchester continued to be troublesome to him for several years.
However, in 927 he journeyed north, conquering York, and was recognised as the king of the English. In addition, the Welsh accepted him as their overlord, and indeed the Welsh kings attended his court from 928 to 935.
It is important to note that it was now fifty years since the defeat of the residual Great Heathen Army by Alfred, i.e. two generations ago. Many Vikings had settled down, inter-married, had children, et cetera. They, and their offspring, were no longer warfaring people.
There was peace for seven years until Æthelstan invaded Scotland in 934 and forced King Constantine II to submit to him. This ultimately led to a Celtic / Viking (from both Northumbria and Dublin) alliance to challenge his supremacy. They invaded England in 937, but were defeated by Æthelstan at Brunanburh where there were heavy casualties on both sides. This is viewed as one of the most important battles in English history. Many historians use its significance to claim that Æthelstan was now the first king of England. Nobody knows the location of Brunanburh. There have been many claims, with the current favourites being Bromborough on the Wirral and Barnsdale Bar, near Doncaster.
Away from the battlefield, Æthelstan was an effective statesman, similar to his grandfather, Alfred. His extant laws show that he was particularly intent on coming down hard on those who were guilty of theft, usually of cattle, with the death sentence for anybody over the age of twelve who stole items of more than eight pence in value.
Charters from the period were now being produced centrally by a skilled set of clerks, and they were often signed “Æthelstan A”. The royal council, called the Witan, met in various places. Some historians have called them “national assemblies” while others considered them to have been the beginning (unwittingly) of the English Parliament.
Looking further afield, Æthelstan developed close relations with European rulers, managing to marry four of his half-sisters to various rulers in Western Europe, making him probably the most cosmopolitan of Anglo-Saxon rulers.
Finally, and unsurprisingly given that he was a pious man, he was responsible for the building of many churches.
Edmund I (939-946) through to Edmund Ironside (1016)
The most celebrated period in Anglo-Saxon history had lasted from Alfred’s victory at Edington in 878 through to Æthelstan’s death in 939.
The Vikings now took the opportunity to retake York, which was to remain under their control until 954. This signalled the start of further troubles with the Norse men. Olaf Guthfrithson conquered Northumbria and invaded the Midlands.
Edmund I, the son of Edward the Elder, managed to regain these places in 943 and 944, also conquering Strathclyde which he ceded to the Scottish King, Malcolm I. Eadred (946-955), the brother of Edmund I, encountered further trouble in Northumbria until 954 when it was brought back under English control.
Eadwig (955-959), the teenage son of Edmund I, had a short tempestuous reign which was noted for feuds with both his nobles and his churchmen, including Dunstan (who was subsequently canonised). This discord led to the kingdom being split in 957, with Eadwig retaining the area south of the Thames, while his brother Edgar took the area to the north. Edgar became the sole king of England when Eadwig died in 959, possibly in suspicious circumstances. Edgar was known as the Peaceful during his reign from 959 up to 975, denoting a trouble-free reign. He recalled Dunstan who had previously fled the country after the row with Eadwig.
Edgar was succeeded by his elder son Edward the Martyr although his natural choice had been Æthelred the Unready, Edward’s half-brother. The leadership was contested, and civil war almost broke out. Edward was murdered in 978 by person or persons unknown, leaving Æthelred the Unready to take the throne, albeit he was only twelve years old. Note that Unready meant poorly advised in Saxon times.
The Danes became Æthelred’s main problem when, after an absence of twenty-five years, their raids began again in the 980s. He was forced to pay them tribute, known as Danegeld, after he was defeated at the Battle of Maldon (991). The amount was ten thousand pounds of silver. The Vikings quickly spotted the opportunity for what amounted to a protection racket. The raids continued and the price went up, reaching twenty-four thousand pounds in 1002.
Æthelred’s eventual response was to order the St. Brice’s Day massacre of Danish settlers in 1002 in an attempt to assert his authority. It is unclear just how many people were killed, although it is likely that border towns such as Oxford were places of slaughter. Æthelred retrospectively tried to justify his action by claiming that these Danes were intent on killing him.
Whatever his reason (or excuse), it totally backfired because Gunhilde, the sister of the Viking King Sweyn Forkbeard, perished in the massacre, leading to her brother stepping up the raids and initiating a blood feud with Æthelred.
The general population was undoubtedly suffering during this period under the violence and the financial impositions, and it is somewhat puzzling to understand why there were no moves to oust Æthelred.
Sweyn finally mounted a fully-fledged invasion in 1013, leading to Æthelred fleeing to Normandy, although he was able to return after Sweyn’s death in the following year.
Edmund Ironside, Æthelred’s son, succeeded to the throne in 1016. He was totally different from his father, a man of proven military abilities. However, Wessex, his power base, now lay in ruins while various nobles were swearing oaths to Cnut, Sweyn’s son. Despite this fact, Edmund came out reasonably well from a series of skirmishes with Cnut’s forces, but in October he lost the Battle of Assandun. He agreed to split the kingdom whereby he only retained Wessex. Edmund died soon afterwards, at the end of November, and Cnut became king of England, exiling Edmund’s family at the same time.
Cnut (or Canute) the Great ruled from 1016 to 1035. He did not overtly oppress the English people, becoming a “wise and godly ruler”, although the English still had to pay Danegeld of seventy-two thousand pounds in 1018 to pay off his army. However, he subsequently defended England from Viking attacks, and is described by one historian as the most effective Anglo-Saxon ruler.
Later in his reign, he extended his power by becoming king of Norway around 1027 and subsequently of part of Sweden, while Scotland was forced to accept his overlordship.
Cnut’s son, Harold Harefoot, acted as regent when his father died because his brother Harthacnut, who had become King of Denmark and was due to succeed in England, was waylaid, dealing with a rebellion in Norway. Harold eventually had himself crowned king in 937 despite attempts to overthrow him by Harthacnut’s allies. However, he died in 1040, leaving the throne to Harthacnut, who unlike his father was a violent oppressor, although he too soon perished in 1042.
Edward the Confessor (1042-1066)
Edward the Confessor, the son of Æthelred the Unready, followed Harthacnut, his half-brother, being the only obvious claimant to the throne. He is usually considered to be the last king of the house of Wessex. He had no children. Historians disagree on Edward: some saying that he was pious, unworldly and ineffective (he was responsible for the foundation of Westminster Abbey); while others consider him to have been a resourceful and at times ruthless king.
Arguably the most historically relevant event of his reign was the rise of the House of Godwin. Godwin had been appointed Earl of Wessex by Cnut back in 1020, and Edward subsequently conferred earldoms on two of his sons, Sweyn and Harold. Harold Godwinson was Earl of East Anglia, also becoming Earl of Wessex on his father’s death in 1053, and of Hereford in 1058. He effectively became the most powerful man in England, more so than the king.
The Arrival of the Normans
When Edward died in 1066, the Witan convened and appointed Harold Godwinson as king. This upset two people who both considered that they had claims to the throne: Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, and William II, Duke of Normandy. Harold began his reign by patrolling the south coast in expectation of an invasion by William. However, unkind weather stopped either pretender from setting foot in England.
When it did abate, it was Harald Hardrada, who had succeeded Cnut in Norway, that arrived first, defeating Northumbrian and Mercian earls at the Battle of Fulford, just outside York. However, he was caught out and defeated shortly afterwards after a surprise attack by Harold Godwinson’s army at Stamford Bridge in September.
Meanwhile, William, Duke of Normandy, had now arrived on the south coast with his forces. He claimed that Harold, who had been shipwrecked off Normandy in 1064, had promised the throne to him on Edward’s death. Harold and his army sped south, picking up reinforcements on the way, and met William at Hastings in October where he was killed by the famous arrow in the eye, and his army defeated.
And so, we reach the beginning of the Norman dynasty in England. It was not an easy transition, as William had to deal with Anglo-Saxon uprisings for quite some time. They caused him to commission the building of various substantial castles. As part of the process of putting down these rebellions, he carried out the infamous “harrying of the north”, using scorched earth tactics, particularly in the countryside between York and the River Tyne. The Domesday Book shows that 75% of the local population either died or did not return to the area. One Anglo-Saxon rebel whose name lived on in fiction was Hereward the Wake, whose base was on the Isle of Ely.
Odds and Sods
Notes on Anglo-Saxon Law and Order
It is appropriate to mention Danelaw in the first instance. Parts of the country that were under Viking control, typically the northern and eastern areas, were subject to the laws of the Danes which took precedence over Anglo-Saxon law. The term Danelaw is first recorded in the early 11th century when it was called Dena lage.
The Ango-Saxon legal code, in its various guises, was based on Germanic Law, and as such was relatively free of the influence of Roman law until the Normans arrived. There were two opposing principles on which the law was based: folkright and privilege.
“Folkright was the aggregate of rules, whether formulated or not, that could be appealed to as an expression of the juridical consciousness of the people at large, or of the communities of which it is composed”. Folkright was tribal in origin, and obviously varied from place to place. However, it could be overridden or modified by a special grant or enactment, the basis for such privilege being royal power. Royal grants of privilege eventually became the starting point for the feudal system which arrived with the Normans.
Crime prevention started in the local community with the tithing (ten thing). A tithing corresponded to an area of ten hides, a hide being thirty acres. In theory, ten hides equated to ten families. Frankpledge was a term which was used to indicate that each member of a tithing was responsible for the actions of all the others.
The next level up was the hundred, equivalent to ten tithings or a hundred hides. The term first appeared in the laws of Edmund I. Freemen periodically assembled for a hundred-moot to arrange common action and to administer justice. Later, twelve of them (typically) acted as judges with the reeve acting as a superior magistrate. Hundreds subsequently became sub-divisions of a shire.
A shire was the overall responsibility of an ealdorman (major nobleman), although day to day business was handled by the shire-reeve or sheriff.
Wergild fines replaced blood feuds for settling killings and other physical injuries. There was a sliding scale of fines which were payable to the victim or his family. For example, the death of a noble was worth more than that of a freeman, which was in turn was worth more than that of a peasant.
In trials, the character of the accused was generally considered to be more important than the evidence (unless it was incontrovertible).
Finally, the Preservation of Peace principle was an important feature of Anglo-Saxon law. Peace was thought of as the rule of an authority within a specific region. Because the ultimate authority was the king, there was a gradual evolution of stringent rules and regulations against violating the king’s peace.
Notes on Coinage
There was in effect a non-monetary economy after the Romans left. The first Anglo-Saxon coins were produced by Æadbald of Kent around 625, originally called scillingas (shillings). They were gold coins which gradually became paler, eventually being replaced by silver coins, known as sceattas, around 675. Offa of Mercia introduced the broad (thinner) penny around 750-760.
Minting was mainly done in the south east. From the 9th century, monarchs began to exercise greater power over coin production. In the 860s Mercia and Wessex formed a monetary alliance so that a common design could circulate in both kingdoms. The Vikings had not really used coins, and their first coins imitated Alfred’s.
From late Æthelstan until Edgar, coinage was of a regional character. However, Edgar’s reform c. 973 saw a standard coin which was produced at around fifty mints around the country, increasing by a further twenty during the reign of Æthelred the Unready. This system remained in place until the reign of Henry II in the 12th century.
Coins were “demonetised” every five or six years, that is they were taken out of circulation and new coins were issued in their place.
Notes on Agriculture
Animal husbandry and arable farming were obviously essential for people to feed themselves in an agrarian economy.
Celtic fields, as they were known, dated back to the Bronze Age and were small and oblong. Two, perhaps three of them, might fit onto a football pitch. The two-field crop rotation system which had been used in Roman times was still being employed. This meant growing crops one year and leaving the field fallow in the second year.
Some changes, principally started in Europe, were afoot from the 8th and 9th centuries onward. On the technology front, there were stronger ploughs which allowed heavier soils to be turned over, and an increasing use of watermills to grind corn. Meanwhile, the small Celtic fields were gradually being replaced by much larger ones which could be 100 acres or more in size (called the Open Field system), although this mainly happened in agriculturally productive areas. In the manorial system, these large fields would be divided up into long narrow strips, called selions, which were shared by the peasants who worked them. In addition, the three-field crop rotation system gradually gained in popularity: cereals in year one; legumes in year 2; and lying fallow in year 3.
Staple crops during the Saxon period included: wheat and rye (autumn-sown), barley and oats (spring-sown), beans, flax, hemp and woad. In the kitchen garden, the leek was particularly popular, possibly because it was one of the few winter crops that could be grown. Indeed, for a time a gardener was known as leek-ward.
There were no real changes from the Roman period with respect to the types of fruit that were cultivated.
There are claims that England was the richest country in Western Europe by the late Saxon period despite the fairly constant turmoil, not to mention the need to pay Danegeld. It may simply be that, as it was the thegns (minor noblemen) who did the fighting, the economy continued, relatively unscathed, because the real workers were still able to do their jobs. It is said that the sale of high-quality wool to the Low Countries was a significant factor in the creation of this wealth.
The relative status of individuals followed this pattern:
- A major nobleman was known as an ealdorman, subsequently renamed an earl by the Vikings
- A minor nobleman was known as a thegn. He would fight for his ruler when required, along with his retainers
- A freeman was a person who had land
- A serf had no land.
Note on Succession
There were no clear-cut rules on precisely how succession to the kingship was to work in the Anglo-Saxon period. A king might express an opinion on who should succeed him in his will. However, it was the responsibility of the Witan (the king’s council) to decide on the new king, ideally taking the old king’s wishes into account. In general, it appears that the rules of primogeniture were followed, that is the eldest son succeeded. However, this was not always the case. For example, a young boy may be overlooked or other political considerations may come into play.
Æthel forms a prefix to many Anglo-Saxon names. It meant noble.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Abels, R., Alfred the Great, War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, Routledge, 1998
Wall, M. The Anglo-Saxon Age: The Birth of England, Kindle book
Wood, M., Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England, Book Club Associates, 1987
Translations of Primary Sources
I mentioned various primary sources that historians use. There are translations of these works that are freely available on the Internet. Here are links to a selection of them.
Other Hopefully Useful Links
History of the Anglo-Saxons – Wikipedia
Who were the Anglo-Saxons – British Library
Anglo-Saxon Law – Britannica
Anglo-Saxon England – Britannica
Angle People – Britannica
Jute People – Britannica
Saxon People – Britannica
Sources for early Anglo-Saxon England – The History of England
Vikings – Wikipedia
Brief History of the Vikings – historyextra
Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England
Norman Conquest of England – Wikipedia
Vortigern – ancient.eu
Ambrosius Aurelianus – Wikipedia
Ethelberht of Kent – Wikipedia
Augustine of Canterbury – Wikipedia
Raedwald of East Anglia – Wikipedia
Edwin of Northumbria – Wikipedia
Penda of Mercia – Wikipedia
Theodore of Tarsus – Wikipedia
Offa of Mercia – Wikipedia
Alfred the Great – Wikipedia
Battle of Edington – Wikipedia
Guthrum – Wikipedia
Ethelflaed Lady of the Mercians – Wikipedia
Athelstan – Wikipedia
Battle of Brunanburh
Cnut the Great – Wikipedia
Edward the Confessor – Wikipedia
Harold Godwinson – Wikipedia
William the Conqueror
Law and Order – Folkright
Law and Order – Privilege
History of the English Penny – Wikipedia
Crime and Punishment (pdf) – Hodder Education
Witenagemot – Wikipedia
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Version 0.1 – 6th May, 2020 – first draft
Version 0.2 – 9th May, 2020 – abstract added plus various minor changes
Version 0.3 – 11th May, 2020 – minor changes and correction of typos
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