Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Anglo-Saxons: the House of Wessex

Alfred and the Danes

The Anglo-Saxon walls of Winchester,
the capital of England under Alfred
Alfred of Wessex is the only English monarch to be called 'the Great'. His family have been described as the most gifted of all English royal families. He, his children and his grandson created England.

In the early winter of 870-1 the Danish 'great army’ turned south-west from East Anglia and occupied a fortified camp to the east of Reading as its forward base. King Æthelred of Wessex and his younger brother Alfred fought successfully against them at Ashdown, but they failed to swing the campaign. The Vikings defeated them twice and were reinforced by an army in the summer. In mid-April 871 Æthelred died and Alfred became king. Only a month after his accession he was defeated and had to sue for peace.

The Viking army was then forced to split in order to confront revolts in Northumbria and Mercia. One of the divisions was headed by Guthrum, who decided to carve out a kingdom for himself in Wessex. In 876-8 he attacked Wessex and cornered Alfred in the Somerset marshes. In 878 Alfred managed to get an army together and to defeat the Danes at Ethandun (probably Edington in Wiltshire).

This was a key battle for Wessex.  Guthrum was forced to make peace and he accepted baptism before retreating to East Anglia. After this, relations between the Vikings and the English took a new turn. A boundary was agreed between the lands under English and Viking control: the Danes were to rule the lands north and east of Watling Street, a region that came to be called the Danelaw, and Alfred was to rule the peoples and territories south and west of that line. The agreement thus recognised that he was overlord of southern Mercia and Kent as well as Wessex. In 886 he added London to his territories. 

Alfred protected his kingdom against further onslaughts. He put Wessex on a war footing  by reorganising the fyrd (army), by taxing the people and, above all, by establishing a dense network of thirty public fortifications, burhs, throughout southern England. These were much more than forts. They were a framework for urbanisation and entailed a reorganisation of the surrounding countryside. Winchester was made the capital of Wessex, and was laid out as a proper new town with a regular street pattern. London was re-established west of the Roman settlement at Aldwych ('old market place'). His burh at Southwark is still known as ‘Borough’.  All this was sufficiently effective to hold off a second large-scale Viking assault in 892-6. 

Coin of Alfred the Great
There is a case for seeing Alfred as the first king of England, though this has to be qualified. He was called ‘king of the Anglo-Saxons’, or as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it more accurately, ‘of the whole English people [ealles Angelcynnes] except that part which was under Danish rule’ (a third of the country). 

Alfred was seen in his own day, and even more in later centuries, as the model of a king.  Asser’s Life of Alfred presents a king who is pious and learned as well as a great warrior. He was unusually well educated. He sponsored translations of Latin Christian works into Anglo-Saxon, three of them being his own translations. The greatest cultural achievement of his reign is the commissioning of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a providential history of England written in Old English, which for a while survived the Norman Conquest. 

The dominance of Wessex
In the period after Alfred’s death his son Edward ‘the Elder’ and his daughter Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, began a fight-back against the Danes, taking East Anglia and Mercia. In 907 Chester was refounded. When the Danes attacked Mercia in 910 they were defeated. Between them Edward and Æthelflaed built the first stone-walled cities since Roman times. 

Edward’s son Æthelstan (r. 924-39) was crowned at Kingston on the borders of Wessex and Mercia in 925. This is the first English coronation (in spite of his claims, Offa had simply been King of
Athelstan presents a book to
St Dunstan
Mercia) and he is the first English monarch to be portrayed wearing a crown. In 927 he acquired Northumbria, making him the first Wessex ruler to have a border with the Scots.  He claimed in his documents to be ‘king of all Britain’ (931), ‘basileus of the English and all surrounding peoples’ (938).  

In 937 Æthelstan defeated a combined Danish, Scots and Norse-Gael army at Brunanburh, which has been described as the most important English battle before Hastings.  

As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it:

Never yet in this island before this by what books tell us and our ancient sages, was a greater slaughter of a host made by the edge of the sword, since the Angles and Saxons came hither from the east, invading Britain over the broad seas, and the proud assailants, warriors eager for glory, overcame the Britons and won a country. 

Under Æthelstan, the kingdom of England had been invented.

Edgar the Peaceful
Edgar was the great-grandson of Alfred the Great. He ruled over a united England and claimed the overlordship of Wales, Scotland, and the Western Isles. His reform of the currency ensured uniformity throughout the kingdom. Every year his fleet made a symbolic voyage round the whole island of Britain. 

His coronation in Bath by Archbishop Dunstan in 973 is the first coronation of which a full account survives, and the ordo, based on Samuel’s anointing of Saul and David, has been incorporated into all subsequent coronations. He was anointed ‘king of the English’ and acclaimed by the people while the choir sang ‘Zadok the Priest’, and then invested with the insignia of kingship: the ring, the sword, the crown, the sceptre, and the rod.  He then took an oath that he would protect the Church, maintain peace and dispense justice. 

Under Edgar, England was one of the best-administered and wealthiest states in Europe.  

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