In This Chapter
● Revealing the marauders from the Norse lands
● Discovering how England’s Anglo-Saxon rulers decided whether to fight
● Understanding the career of the greatest Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred
● Checking out how later kings tried to keep England unified
Before the late-ninth century, England was made up of a group of small kingdoms that were constantly vying to be top dog. On one or two occasions, a ruler was so successful in adding to his territories that he claimed kingship of all England. But in the last three decades of the ninth century, one kingdom above all became dominant: Wessex.
The success of Wessex was due above all to King Alfred, a gifted leader who not only dealt with persistent Norse invaders but also presided over a flowering of culture. More than any previous king, Alfred earned himself the right to call himself king of England. And his enthusiasm for learning and writing meant that he nurtured English literature, encouraging writers to help create England’s identity as a nation through their words.
One later ruler, Aethelstan, claimed to be even more powerful than Alfred, giving himself the title King of All Britain. He wanted to be famous and respected all over Europe. But most of the later Saxon kings did not live up to Alfred’s high standards. As the tenth century went on, Norse raiders and invaders launched more attacks. These attacks became increasingly serious until, by the beginning of the 11th century, it looked as if England would soon have a Danish king on the throne.
When the Wessex king Aethelred died in A.D. 871 (see Chapter 3), he left his younger brother Alfred to take on the job of ruling his kingdom. Alfred was well placed to take on the kingship. He was quite young - probably in his early to mid 20s, though historians don’t know his precise birth date - healthy, and intelligent. And he had a special political strength, too. He had married a princess, Ealhswith, who was the granddaughter of a king of Mercia. A marriage tie between the royal families of Wessex and Mercia would help bring the two kingdoms together.
Alfred was an exceptional character. He had already proved himself in the way that every Anglo-Saxon could understand - he was a brave, decisive war leader. The new king also quickly got a reputation for being fair and for listening to advice when necessary. He needed these qualities, because he faced a big challenge as soon as his reign began. This challenge can be summed up in one word: Vikings.
The people now called Vikings were the invaders from Denmark and Scandinavia who attacked England’s shores between the eighth and 11th centuries in search of either plunder to steal or land to settle. Some of these attackers came in small bands and plundered in a fairly disorganised way, but occasionally, the Vikings banded together in a large army and made concerted attacks on Britain and its rulers.
Alfred’s first and most urgent job was to deal with the constant attacks from the Scandinavian invaders who, at the end of his brother Aethelred’s reign, were making a sustained attempt to take over England.
Alfred had already been fighting the invaders as a commander under his brother, Aethelred. He had proved himself as a brave and decisive warrior, and he may have been expected to fight the Vikings straightaway. But Alfred knew that his army was exhausted. It made more sense to make peace and buy some time.
Raid or trade?
Alfred negotiated a peace treaty with the invaders, who marched off to their lands in northern England. Under their leader, Halfdan, they created a northern capital at Jorvik (modern York). Here the restless Danes settled down and became traders rather than the raiders they used to be.
The Vikings also dug in at a group of towns around the east Midlands - Lincoln, Stamford, Derby, Nottingham, and Leicester - so that they could keep a tight grip on a large chunk of what had been the Saxon Midland kingdom of Mercia.
With their long history of warfare and territorial gain, the Vikings were unlikely to stay in the north. They began assembling a large fleet, roping in some of their relatives, a group who had settled in France. Soon 120 ships were heading straight toward England carrying maybe 10,000 men armed to the teeth.
For once, the English had a bit of luck with the weather. A storm blew up and pushed the invasion fleet off course. The Vikings were in disarray, and now they were forced to negotiate a treaty with Alfred. The resulting agreement, the Treaty of Exeter, allowed the invaders to cross Wessex and march northwards to friendly territory in Mercia, provided that they didn’t attack Wessex on the way.
It was now January 878. Because the Danes had agreed to this truce and winter was not a good time for campaigning, Alfred told his military leaders to go back to their homes and spend the time with their families. Winter wasn’t the time for warfare. But the Vikings didn’t keep their word. At Chippenham in Wiltshire, they broke the treaty and made a shock attack on Alfred.
It was nearly the end for the English king. He had to run. Quickly. Taking with him just a small group of supporters, Alfred beat it to the Somerset Levels, the lonely wetland area around Glastonbury, in those days a region of islands and lagoons only known well by the locals. It was a good place to go if you didn’t want people to find you, and Alfred went into hiding on one of the islands in the marshlands, the Isle of Athelney.
The one thing that almost everyone knows about Alfred is that ‘he burned the cakes’. In fact, the story of Alfred and the cakes is probably a myth, but it’s supposed to have happened when the king was in hiding on the Isle of Athelney. Alfred was taking refuge in the home of one of his cowherds, but the cowherd’s wife didn’t know who he was. One day, when the woman was baking cakes, she had to go to fetch water from the spring and asked Alfred to keep an eye on the oven. But the king, daydreaming about getting back his power, let the cakes burn. When the cowherd’s wife returned, she lost her temper with Alfred and was mortified when her husband told her who Alfred really was. But Alfred forgave the woman, telling her she had been right, and he should have been minding the cakes. This story is a good example of a myth that has been repeatedly retold because it establishes Alfred’s character as gentle and forgiving. To be a successful king, though, he must have had a ruthless side, too.
With the king in hiding, it looked for a while as if the glory of Wessex had come to an end. A Saxon leader counted for very little if he couldn’t behave like a warrior - he was expected to enjoy getting on to the battlefield, knocking the stuffing out of his enemies, and then spending a happy evening carousing with his men in his hall. But Alfred was a thoughtful character who knew very well that being a man of action meant next to nothing if you did not know how to time your actions. He knew that he maybe able to turn things around if he waited and struck at the right time.
The only answer - fight!
When spring came, English fortunes began to change. Oda, Ealdorman of Devon, met the Viking leader Ubba (sole survivor of three brothers who began the serious Viking attempt at conquest in 865) on the battlefield and beat him. When Alfred heard the news, he realised that it was time for him to get ready to fight again.
Oda, and a whole bunch of other bigwigs in Anglo-Saxon England, held the rank of ealdorman. This Old English word means literally ‘senior man’ and was used by the Anglo-Saxons to refer to the most important noblemen in the country. In Alfred’s time, an ealdorman was responsible for a single shire or county of Wessex. Later, kings used the term to refer to magnates who held power over an entire region - almost a subkingdom - such as Mercia or Northumbria.
Alfred gathered his army together and attacked the Viking horde at Edington in Wiltshire. He beat the invaders on the battlefield and then, when the Danish survivors retreated behind their defences, he surrounded them and laid siege. Alfred waited for 14 days before his enemies gave in.
Alfred made it clear that he meant business and wanted to send the Vikings back to their homes in the north and east by setting the following terms:
● The Vikings gave hostages to Alfred.
● Their leader, Guthrum, became a Christian and took a new baptismal name, Aethelstan.
● Aethelstan and his men retreated immediately to Mercia.
● In 880, Aethelstan was allowed to become king of East Anglia.
● An invading army based near London was ordered to leave England.
Alfred in Control
With the Danes out of the way, Alfred set about tightening his control over his kingdom and extending his influence across a wider area. He achieved this goal in various ways. As well as further military conquests, he also changed how his kingdom was run.
Alfred put in place a raft of measures, both military and administrative, that made it easier both to fight and to rule. His new ideas included:
● Changing the way men were called to fight. From now on, only half of the fyrd - the fighting force that the king could call on - would be made to fight at any one time. This change kept the other half in reserve and fresh, ready to relieve the first half.
● Setting up a network of fortified towns, called burhs. These burhs were evenly spaced around southern England and were all protected by earth ramparts. They provided strongholds to protect the surrounding countryside from future invasions. Later, they became homes to markets and centres of coin-minting.
● Building a navy. Alfred brought ship-builders over the sea from Frisia, and craftsmen built a fleet to fight the Vikings, who had previously enjoyed supremacy on the sea.
These measures show Alfred as Mr Efficiency. It must have taken planning, and a degree of ruthlessness, to set up all the burhs across southern England, let alone build up the navy from scratch and reorganise the fyrd.
The reforms put in place by Alfred seriously strengthened his rule. But Alfred’s ambition didn’t stop there. He had his eye on a prize in southeastern England: London. London and the lands to the north of the River Thames weren’t traditional Wessex territory. Before the great army of Vikings arrived, they had been Mercian. Now the Danes were occupying the area. Alfred wanted them out.
Alfred didn’t necessarily want to rule London and the territory on the north bank of the Thames directly, but he wanted to exercise his power there. So in 886, the king and his army laid siege to London and captured the city. Straight away, Alfred called for Aethelred of Mercia. Aethelred could be king of the territories conquered by Alfred - provided that the Mercian recognised him as overlord.
This system was attractive to both sides. Alfred wielded the real power, but Aethelred could still call himself king and rule his people. Interestingly, a number of Welsh princes also offered themselves to Alfred, recognizing his lordship in return for protection.
So by the end of the 880s, Alfred was overall ruler of a large part of England and much of southern Wales, too. He was more powerful than any of his predecessors in Wessex, and he had earned the title by which he now liked to be known - King of the Anglo-Saxons. In later years, he earned a nickname, too. Alfred is the only English king to be widely known as ‘the Great’.
Learning and Law-Giving
Alfred’s conquests and military achievements are well known, but the king had another side. He learned to read and write when he was a teenager, giving him a deep love of learning. He even told his biographer, Asser, that he wished he had been taught his letters when he was a young child. And when he grew to adulthood, his love of learning was certainly strengthened. As may be expected of such a dynamic character, Alfred put his interest in scholarship to active use when he became king. He encouraged the foundation of monasteries - the places where writing and learning flourished in the days before schools or universities.
Not only that, but Alfred was an accomplished writer himself and liked his top servants to be literate, too. The king’s love of literacy was very unusual in this period. In the ninth century, monks and priests were usually the only people who can read or write. Kings were expected to be men of action who would not have time for book-learning. They employed scribes - men who had been educated in the monasteries - to take care of the business of drawing up treaties and charters.
The literary king
Alfred not only encouraged the monks in the English monasteries to do literary work; he was an able writer himself - with a difference. In the ninth century, the language of scholarship in Europe was Latin. The monks used a Latin translation of the Bible, sang their services in Latin, and wrote their religious books in Latin.
Few people outside the church understood Latin, and Alfred saw that it was also important to have books in English. So he commissioned a series of translations of some of the most important Latin books and, amazingly, given that he was already busy running his kingdom, Alfred actually translated some of these works himself. He was one of the few British monarchs to be a writer and the only one to produce work of lasting importance.
It’s not always certain which of the translations of Alfred’s reign were done by the king himself. But people who study Anglo-Saxon literature say that the ones that are definitely Alfred’s work show a distinctive, lively way of writing Old English that stands out as something special. Here’s a list of the main texts that the king translated:
● The Cura Pastoralis (Pastoral Care), a manual for the clergy written by Pope Gregory I.
● The Historia Adversus Paganos (History Against the Pagans: a history and geography of the world), written by the Spanish priest Orosius.
● The Soliloquia (Soliloquies) of the great theologian of the Roman period, St Augustine.
● The De Consolatione Philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy) written by the Roman writer Boethius.
These texts were serious, heavy tomes, but Alfred knew that they would also be useful in their English versions. He wrote a preface to his translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, in which he lamented how learning had decayed in England and said that he was determined that this situation should change. Alfred sent a copy of the translation to every bishop in England.
Alfred was not above adding extra bits to his translations, to improve on the originals. He did this with his version of Orosius’s History Against the Pagans. This book was full of geographical information, but since it was originally written in the early fifth century, explorers had discovered quite a lot about the world. So Alfred inserted accounts by Scandinavian explorers about regions such as the Baltic, to bring the book up to date.
History and law
It wasn’t just Alfred who was busy at his desk. As well as doing his own translations, the king commissioned scholars to make others. One important work that was translated in Alfred’s reign was the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by the monk Bede (673-735). This key historical work covers the history of Britain, with a special emphasis on church history, from the Roman invasion up to 731.
As well as translations like Bede’s History, Alfred’s scribes also produced new works of their own. The most important was another work of history, the compilation called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Laying down the law
The other big literary work of Alfred’s reign was the writing of the king’s law code. Because the king’s realm was made up of areas that had previously been separate kingdoms, it was immensely important for Alfred to have a unified set of laws to which everyone can refer.
Drawing up a universal set of laws could have been fraught with problems. People from one part of the kingdom might easily have objected if they were made to obey a set of harsher laws imposed by another of the former kingdoms. And yet it must have been tempting to Alfred to just write the laws of Wessex and force everyone in his kingdom to obey them.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The most famous work produced by the circle of scholars encouraged by King Alfred was a new book, a history of events in England from the start of the Christian period onward. This work, which continued after Alfred's death, is now known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and it has become the main source of knowledge about the entire Anglo-Saxon period.
Monks had been making notes about past events before Alfred's reign. But most of these notes were brief jottings made in Latin. Alfred was probably the person who asked the monks to start making a more detailed record and to write it down in English. The Chronicle certainly gives a lengthy account of Alfred's own reign, especially his last wars against the Danes.
After Alfred's death, the monks continued with the Chronicle, writing down details of events in England until 1154. These records have survived in seven different handwritten versions, precious manuscripts that are a unique window on the world of the Anglo-Saxons.
But Alfred didn’t just keep to the laws of Wessex. He took the opportunity to take a good, hard look at all the English laws and tried to pick the ones he thought worked best. In his preface to his laws, Alfred explained that he took the advice of his councillors when he was choosing which measures to include - and that he took advice again, getting the approval of the councillors, once the whole list had been written out.
By taking advice and saying that he’d done so, Alfred was ensuring that the laws would meet with widespread approval. He also hoped that later generations would obey them because, like all conscientious kings, Alfred was interested in his legacy. He didn’t want everything he’d achieved to fall apart as soon as he died.
A royal life
One of the scholars at Alfred’s court was a Welsh monk called Asser. Asser came from St David’s in southwest Wales, spent up to six months each year at the king’s court, and was eventually appointed Bishop of Sherborne. Historians know about Asser today because he wrote a biography of Alfred, which is the first full-scale, detailed account of the life of an English king.
Asser’s Life of Alfred is not like today’s scandal-filled royal exposes. It’s written in Latin, for a start, which is ironic given the king’s love of the English language. It’s also very respectful. Asser clearly admired Alfred and painted a portrait of him as a model king and a good man. So can historians actually believe the bishop’s dutiful account of Alfred as a model king? It’s probably a bit too favourable to Alfred - it doesn’t say anything about the king’s hard, ruthless streak. And some historians have suggested that it isn’t a genuine life at all but a medieval forgery. But the balance of opinion accepts Asser’s Life as a genuine, if biased, biography.
The bishop put down his quill pen in 893. Alfred died six years later in 899, having insisted that his heir should be his son Edward, not one of his nephews who had an eye on the throne.
In this period, it wasn’t automatic that the king’s eldest son got the crown. Other brothers or cousins could inherit instead. So a wise king made a clear announcement about the identity of his royal heir.
After the death of King Alfred, the two big issues of his reign - keeping the Danish invaders at bay and running England as a united kingdom - came back to haunt the kings who followed him. Although Alfred had laid strong foundations for a united English realm, keeping the nation together as he had done required strength of character, intelligence - and a certain amount of good luck. Some of the rulers of the tenth century managed to keep the country together; others were less successful. On balance, they failed, leaving England vulnerable to Danish domination by the early-11th century.
Marriages and marauders: Edward
The first king to rule after Alfred was his son, Edward, who was probably around 29 years old when he came to the throne in 899. Alfred wanted his son to succeed him and had probably prepared Edward well for the throne. One document describes him as a king before his father’s death, which probably indicates that Edward held some sort of subkingship - an ideal way in which the young man could learn the ropes of ruling before taking on the big task of governing the whole country.
Take your partners
Edward married three times, but no one knows for sure why he swapped partners so often. The records are silent about the fate of the first wife, Ecgwynn, but it’s certain that the second, Aelfflaed, left the court for a nunnery. What was going on? Here’s a brief low-down on Edward’s wives:
● Wife No. 1: Ecgwynn: Edward’s first partner was Ecgwynn. Historians don’t know much about her background, but Edward was married to her before he became king, and she produced one son, Aethelstan.
● Wife No. 2: Aelfflaed: Edward married her at around the time he became king. She was the daughter of Aethelhelm, Ealdorman of Wiltshire, and it may be that the reason for the marriage was to give Edward his father-in-law’s support as king of Wessex. Aelfflaed bore eight of Edward’s children.
● Wife No. 3: Eadgifu: Edward ditched Aelfflaed toward the end of his reign. She went to live in the nunnery at Wilton, and Edward married Eadgifu, daughter of another Ealdorman, this time from Kent. Eadgifu was the mother of two sons and two daughters.
So while the reason for Edward’s first wife-swap was probably political, the second is a bit of a mystery. Some historians think it may have been a religious decision. Toward the end of Edward’s reign, the church brought in a number of religious reforms, including new restrictions on who could marry whom. It may be that Edward and his second queen were distantly related, and such was the importance of the opinion of the church that they thought it unwise to stay together. This theory would tie in with Aelfflaed’s decision to spend her last years in a nunnery.
King Alfred died in 899, but Edward was not formally inaugurated as king until June of the following year. This large gap probably had something to do with the fact that Edward had a rival for the throne. The rival was Aethelwold, who was a son of Aethelred, the man who had been king before Alfred and Alfred’s brother. Aethelwold meant trouble for Edward - and for several of those around him.
Aethelwold made his move soon after Alfred’s death. His first step sounds rather odd. He broke into a nunnery, carried off one of the nuns, and married her. Historians don’t know who this nun was, but she was probably somebody well-connected - nuns were often women from the upper classes and frequently members of the royal family. It’s a good bet that Aethelwold’s victim was Alfred’s daughter, Aethelgifu, who had taken the veil. Probably he thought that if he married the old king’s daughter, he’d have an even better claim to the throne.
Aethelwold grabbed the mystery nun and set himself up in the Dorset town of Wimborne, letting it be known that he was making a bid for the crown. Edward arrived with an army, captured Wimborne, and rescued the nun. But Aethelwold escaped. It was first blood to Edward, but the trouble wasn’t over.
The usurper returned in 902. This time Aethelwold had the backing of the most formidable ally - England’s old enemy, the Danes, in the person of the Danish ruler of East Anglia, a man called Eohric. Edward made a decisive move. The Danes had no right to go rampaging over his kingdom, and he pursued them back to East Anglia. The two sides fought at Holme, and Edward scored a decisive victory. Both Aethelwold and Eohric lost their lives.
Expanding royal power
After the Battle of Holme, Edward was fairly safe on the throne, but he still wasn’t finished with the Vikings. There were Danish rulers around the edges of his kingdom in East Anglia and the eastern part of Mercia, as well as farther north in Northumbria, and sometimes they threatened Edward’s rule. The king dealt with them at various stages:
● Edward defeated an attempted invasion of the English-ruled part of Mercia in 910.
● Between 911 and 916, Edward got back most of eastern Mercia and East Anglia by a combination of purchase and conquest.
● In 917, Edward was formally accepted as king in East Anglia.
● In 920, a clutch of northern rulers, including the kings of Northumbria and the Scots, formally recognised Edward.
● After his takeover of eastern Mercia, Edward followed the methods of his father, setting up burhs and establishing shires to foster security and aid government.
Edward had to work hard to achieve the sort of domination won by his father, but when he died, he had a large sphere of influence across England and into Scotland. But his serial marriages and profusion of sons meant that when he died in 924, the future of the crown was uncertain.
Crowning glories: Aethelstan
Aethelstan was lucky. He was the eldest son of King Edward, who died in 924, and his first wife. But Edward, who had married three times, had several sons and one of them looked a more likely ruler than Aethelstan: Aethelweard, Edward’s eldest son by his second wife, who had been chosen to succeed his father as ruler of Wessex. Aethelstan, on the other hand, was the favoured candidate of the Mercians. England looked set for a bitter civil war.
But sometimes fate steps in and changes things decisively, which is what happened in 924. Aethelweard died a couple of weeks after Edward, leaving the way clear for Aethelstan. Now Mercia and Wessex, the two main parts of southern England, could rally behind the new king.
King of all Britain
Aethelstan picked up where his father and grandfather, Edward and Alfred, had left off, claiming to be overall ruler of a large chunk of Britain. As with these previous rulers, he received the submission of various northern rulers, including kings from Scotland. Even many of the Welsh accepted him as overlord.
Aethelstan seized the opportunities given him when rulers from various parts of Britain offered him their submission. Aethelstan and his advisers were quick to take advantage of these acts of homage by giving the king grandiose titles, such as the impressive-sounding Rex totius Britanniae (king of all Britain) and King of Albion. These titles weren’t necessarily very meaningful, but they did mean that the king was seen as a seriously big cheese. Aethelstan was known and recognised everywhere - even on the European mainland.
A challenge from the North
When Aethelstan had been on the throne for ten years, a crisis developed in the north. A local northern ruler, Ealdred of Bamburgh, died, and Constantine, king of the Scots, tried to muscle in on his territory. Aethelstan led a large army northwards and tracked down Constantine, who was holed up at Dunottar, near Aberdeen. The English king laid siege to Dunottar and forced Constantine to give himself up.
Constantine must have been miffed by this defeat and seriously worried by Aethelstan’s expansionist ambitions in the north. So three years later, in 937, the Scotsman planned his revenge. He gathered together a group of allies, including the Norseman Olaf Guthfrithsson, who was king of Dublin and also Constantine’s son-in-law, and moved south toward Mercia.
Aethelstan and his army moved northwards to meet the invaders. They confronted each other at a place called Brunanburh. Historians don’t know exactly where Brunanburh was, but it must have been somewhere in the East Midlands. When the two sides engaged in battle, it was a vicious and bloody fight. Both sides suffered heavy losses, but Aethelstan was the victor.
Aethelstan ruled for two more years before dying in 939. He had never married, so his crown passed to his half-brother Edmund, son of King Edward and his third wife, Eadgifu.
King and victim: Edmund
Like most of the Saxon kings, Edmund, who came to the throne in 939, had to face invasion attempts from the old Danish enemy. He had only a short, seven-year reign and much of that time was taken up with losing and regaining territory from the Danes. But Edmund also had time to start a movement that would bear very different, more peaceful, fruit after his death - he began a revival of monasticism and learning in England.
A barret Olafs
Edmund had hardly settled on his throne when the Norse leader Olaf Guthfrithsson, who had made trouble for his half-brother Aethelstan, started war-mongering in northern England. A lot of to-ing and fro-ing occurred between England and the Danes. To cut a long story short:
● In 940, Olaf Guthfrithsson invaded Mercia.
● Olaf and Edmund came to an agreement whereby Olaf took control of the north and east of England - all the territory to the north of the old Roman road, Watling Street.
● In 941, Olaf died. He was succeeded by Olaf Sihtricsson, but the second Olaf could not hold on to his lands when a power struggled erupted amongst the Danes.
● Edmund seized the moment and muscled in on Mercia and East Anglia when the Danes were distracted by their own internal squabble.
● In 944, Edmund seized control of Northumbria, too.
So it was the classic tussle between Saxon and Dane, with the Saxon king winning in the end. Things were looking up for Edmund.
The other side of Edmund’s career was his encouragement of England’s monasteries. Since the Danes had started raiding England, the monasteries had had a hard time. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle includes a number of mentions of monasteries being destroyed and plundered by the non-Christian invaders. In fact, things may not have been quite as bad as the chroniclers say. The people who wrote the Chronicle were monks themselves, and they may have exaggerated the damage. But however bad things were, the monasteries had certainly suffered since Alfred’s time. King Edmund felt that the time was ripe for a monastic revival.
Edmund’s main move toward reviving the monasteries was to promote the appointment of an intelligent and energetic churchman called Dunstan as abbot of Glastonbury, one of England’s most important abbeys, in 940. Dunstan was one of the king’s key advisers, one of the churchmen who regularly attended the royal court to give the king the benefit of their learning and experience.
Dunstan was both a churchman and a royal adviser. This dual role seems strange in today’s secular society, but in Anglo-Saxon England, it was quite normal. Churchmen became advisers because they were educated - they had to be able to read and write so that they could understand the Bible and pass on this understanding. Few other people in this period could read and write, so men like Dunstan often had double careers. Their education made them good royal advisers and ambassadors, while they could often put their political contacts to work when it came to gathering support and funding for the church.
With Dunstan at the helm, Glastonbury Abbey flourished. Dunstan had a number of associates who would also become leaders of important English monasteries, but any move toward a general monastic reform depended for its success on royal support and political stability. In other words, no one would want to join a monastery if they thought there was a good chance that it would be sacked by invading Danes in a year or two’s time.
So all the hopes for the monasteries were dashed when Edmund met an early death in 946. Somehow the king got involved with a fight. One of his servants was being assaulted, and Edmund did the worthy thing and went to defend his man. In the struggle, the king was murdered, and the promise he had showed in both the political and religious spheres was cut short with the stroke of a knife.
After Edmund was murdered, England was ruled by a succession of kings, most of whom did not reign for very long. These short reigns were unfortunate, in a way, because they meant instability and uncertainty for everyone from the royal family down. Here’s a short summary of the next four Saxon kings:
● Eadred (946-55): Edmund’s brother Eadred spent much of his reign trying to dominate the Northumbrians and remove their Norse rulers.
He died, after a long illness, without any children.
● Eadwig All-Fair (955-9): Eadwig, Edmund’s son, was famous for his lax morals and for splitting up his kingdom so that his brother Edgar ruled in Mercia and Northumbria. When Abbot Dunstan of Glastonbury criticised his morals, the churchman found himself thrown out of the country.
● Edgar (957-975): When Eadwig died, his brother Edgar took over the whole kingdom. He enjoyed a longer reign than his two predecessors and seems to have been able to protect his kingdom from outside attacks. He brought Dunstan back from exile and encouraged the monastic revival.
● Edward (975-8): Edward’s short reign was ended when he was murdered, probably by supporters of his rival, his brother Aethelred, for the throne.
By the time Edward met his death, England was in dire need of stability, of a long-reigning monarch who could pull his kingdom together. It got what it needed with the next ruler, Aethelred.
Eadric Streona was Ealdorman of Mercia when he became Aethelred's chief advisor in 1007. It is probably Eadric who earned the king his later nickname, the Unready, or ill-advised, because Eadric was something of a dead loss as an adviser. His second name, Streona, means acquisitor. In other words he was Eadric the Grabber - he was probably helping himself to money from the royal taxes.
But his greed wasn't the worst thing about him. He was also Eadric the Traitor. In 1015, with Aethelred's star falling, Eadric decided to forsake the king's cause and back his son, Edmund. But his support for Edmund didn't last long. Later the same year, he changed his allegiance to the Danish leader, Cnut, and his treachery helped give Cnut the upper hand.
The unready king: Aethelred
Aethelred, who came to the throne in 978, was the younger brother of the previous king, Edward, and son of King Edgar. The new king was only 12 years old and had to rely on experienced advisers, who included his mother, Aelfthryth, and a senior churchman, Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester.
Ever since the 12th century, Aethelred has been known as ‘the Unready’.
The nickname comes from the Old English word unraed, which means badly advised. It points to the fact that by the end of his long reign, Aethelred had lost most of his kingdom to the Danes. But it is difficult to be sure, more than a thousand years after his death, whether the king’s loss of his lands was actually due to poor advice.
Trouble from the North
The new Viking raids on Britain began in the 980s. They were mostly attacks from Norse warriors who had left Scandinavia because of trouble at home. To begin with, the attackers arrived in fairly small bands, but the bands got larger and more aggressive in the 990s.
Aethelred decided to persuade the attackers to leave by buying them off. To begin with, it worked. The Norse peoples had a highly developed sense of justice, and many of those who received payments, which came to be known as Danegeld, sailed back home and did not return. But some were less scrupulous and started to regard England as a cash-cow to be milked at every opportunity. Through the 990s, the attacks increased.
In 1002, Aethelred changed policy and launched a violent attack on the Danes, an assault that came to be known as the massacre of St Brice’s Day. The people Aethelred attacked were those who had already settled in
England and who, for the most part, were people of peace. So, in effect, the English committed an act of racial war on innocent people. Worse still, one of the victims was the sister of Svein Fork-Beard, King of Denmark. And Svein was a formidable warrior who could not let the outrage go unpunished.
The Danes invade
Svein invaded England in 1003, and a long and bitter war began. It seems to have been a particularly dirty war, with commanders changing sides more than once. In part, this disloyalty was due to Aethelred, who had a good idea but then spoiled it by having a bad one.
● The king’s good idea: It was blindingly obvious that the Norsemen were Europe’s most accomplished sailors. They dominated the seas around Britain, which gave them a huge advantage because they could launch attacks anywhere on the English coast. So a few years into the war, Aethelred decided to build an English fleet to stop the Vikings in their tracks. A special tax was levied to pay for it, and boat-building was soon underway.
● The king’s bad idea: But Aethelred decided to man his ships with Vikings! On the face of it, the idea had a certain logic: they were the best seamen, after all. But he chose as their leader a character called Thorkel the Tall who had not long ago been implicated in the murder of the archbishop of Canterbury. No wonder people were soon changing sides.
The war was a disaster for Aelthelred. By 1013, he had to flee from England and ended up in exile in Normandy. Meanwhile, things were looking grim for his cause in England, when his adviser Eadric Streona changed sides.
As a result of Aethelred’s absence and Eadric’s treachery, Svein took control of the kingdom of England, but he lived only another year, so his son, Cnut, took over. When Aethelred himself died in 1016, his son Edmund, known as Edmund Ironside, fought Cnut for the crown, and Cnut was the victor in the battle. Edmund then did the sensible thing and made a bargain with Cnut - the two men agreed to split the country between them. But the bargain didn’t last. In November 1016, Edmund died. The rest of his family, unwilling to start the dispute all over again, fled the country, and Cnut was ruler of England.