Post-classical history



And there came to his chrism-loosing

Lords of all lands afar,

And a line was drawn north-westerly

That set King Egbert’s empire free,

Giving all lands by the northern sea

To the sons of the northern star.

G. K. CHESTERTON, The Ballad of the White Horse (1911)1


The priest is too close – the kneeling warrior can see the pores of the man’s skin, the wiry hairs that project from his nostrils. The breath comes suddenly, short and sharp amid the low rhythmic babble of unfamiliar words, like the wheeze of a thrall who has spent too long tending the hearth-fire; it is hot and musty, the smell of old wine skins. The kneeling man flinches, a scarred hand flickering to the sword hilt that he knows – all too uncomfortably – is not at his hip. He turns sharply to the side, eyebrows raised. The young man to his right whispers back in the Norse tongue: ‘He is driving away evil, so that Christ can enter.’ The warrior tenses and narrows his eyes. ‘Bolverkr,’ he mutters under his breath, but the priest ignores him and carries on regardless. Salt is placed in the kneeler’s hand, and then, suddenly, the priest grasps his nostrils (to remind him, the translator whispers, to stay steadfast while he is still breathing).

The Latin is incessant, hypnotic. Occasionally the warrior nods, or grunts an assent when the translator prompts him, but for the most part he fixes his eyes on the serpent that sprouts from the top of the bishop’s staff, imagines it moving, coiling into life, the forked tongue lashing out, hissing … Perhaps, he thinks to himself, this priest is a seiðmaðr – a sorcerer. A brief shudder animates the bare flesh of his torso. ‘Argr,’ he mouths the word silently, glaring at the bishop with new hostility. But suddenly there is oil being painted on his skin – a cross joining his nipples and running down his breastbone, daubs on his shoulders – and then, before he has a chance to understand what is happening, he is on his feet and King Alfred is beside him, leading him towards a great stone basin, carved all around with spirals and rolling scrolls of foliage, brightly painted.2 Guthrum gazes into the water that fills it, uncomprehending. The bishop’s hand is on his head, pushing him towards the surface – a black mirror in which shards of candlelight dart. He can see his own features looking back, shadowy, his eyes hollowed into pits. Fear begins to twist his guts. He resists, looking to the king, who nods reassuringly.

And then his head is in the water, and all the sound of the chanting and the Latin babble is gone – just a hollow swirl in his ears, and darkness. He rises quickly, water running into his eyes, and he shakes his head like a dog springing from a pool, spray flying from his beard. But as he tries to regain his balance, he is pushed immediately back into the water. For a moment he wonders if he will drown. And then, once again, he is back, choking in the candle-smoke and the fug of incense. Guthrum barely registers the white robe that is hung upon him, or the oil that is tipped over his head; a white cloth is bound around his brow. A conversation is taking place in English between Alfred and the bishop. He doesn’t understand it all, but he picks out a name, a name repeated several times as they stare at him: Æthelstan.


After Edington, the Viking army was driven in flight to its encampment (probably at Chippenham). The Vikings were forced to make peace with Alfred, agreeing to vacate West Saxon territory – a promise cemented with hostages and ‘great oaths’. It may have been the totality of Alfred’s victory that meant that the negotiated peace was less conditional than similar agreements had been in the past. Asser specifically noted that while ‘the king should take as many chosen hostages as he wanted’ from the Viking army, he would ‘give none to them’ – the emphasis on Alfred’s ability to choose his hostages suggesting that the West Saxons were free to select high-ranking or otherwise valuable individuals from among the Viking ranks. This, apparently, was unprecedented: ‘never before, indeed, had they made peace with anyone on such terms’.3

Most dramatic of all the gestures made, however, was an agreement that Guthrum, the erstwhile invader of Wessex, would renounce his heathen beliefs and become a Christian. This was a radical proposition – the religious affiliation of a Viking leader in Britain had never before been on the negotiating table – and there must have been many at the time who doubted the intentions of the Viking leadership. Solemn oaths had been made before and broken, hostages sacrificed. So it may have occasioned some surprise when, three weeks later, Guthrum and twenty-nine other senior members of his army presented themselves to Alfred at Aller (3 miles east of Athelney) for baptism.

How deeply Guthrum understood the ritual and symbolism of the baptismal liturgy can never be known – the evocation above is imaginative, based on explanations of the rite written by Alcuin in a letter of the late eighth century – and it is possible that he was a far better-prepared catechumen than I have made him out to be.4 He had certainly been in contact with Christians – indeed, he probably had several in his army already. But it seems unlikely that the deeper religious symbolism would have meant much to him, and it is an open question how much English – let alone Latin – he would have understood.

The politics, however, would have been crystal clear. Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explain that Alfred stood as Guthrum’s godfather and ‘raised him’ in Asser’s words ‘from the holy font of baptism’. In the process, a new name was bestowed upon him, one of unimpeachable Anglo-Saxon probity: Æthelstan. This was an interesting choice for a number of reasons. There had been a King Æthelstan of East Anglia, in the first half of the ninth century, and this may be significant given the territory over which Guthrum would come to rule. But Æthelstan was also the name of Alfred’s own eldest brother – the first-born son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. Æthelwulf had been dynastically fortunate in that his first wife, Osburh, had been exceptionally prone to producing sons. It is an extraordinary fact that every single one of them – five in total – ruled as kings (and their only daughter, Æthelswith, had been queen to the luckless Burhred of Mercia): Æthelbald, king of Wessex (858–60); Æthelberht, king of Wessex (860–5) and Kent (855–66); Æthelred, king of Wessex and Kent (865–71); and, of course, Alfred himself (871–99). Æthelstan, the eldest, had been king of Kent, a junior role while his father reigned as king of Wessex, from 839 until some point in the early 850s when he died.

It had been customary since the reign of Ecgberht for kings of Kent to be members of the West Saxon royal house, sometimes unifying the crowns of Wessex and Kent in the person of a single individual, and sometimes delegating authority to a younger son or brother. By Alfred’s reign, this practice was beginning to fizzle out, royal power in Kent becoming part of the standard portfolio of the West Saxon king.5 In any case, Alfred had no sons (of an appropriate age) or little brothers to placate or promote by offering them inferior kingships (his nephew was altogether another matter, as we shall see). He would, however, have remained well aware of how useful it could be to have a grateful junior kinsman on the throne of a subordinate neighbouring kingdom.

Guthrum, clearly, was no blood relative to Alfred, but kinship could be established in other ways. By standing as Guthrum’s godfather, and bestowing on him his new, Christian, name, Alfred was establishing a claim to symbolic paternity. When Guthrum became Æthelstan he had also become Alfred’s ‘son’. A relationship had been created between the two men that mingled the loyalties of close kinship with the power dynamics of family hierarchy. Assuming, as seems most likely, that it was Alfred who chose the name ‘Æthelstan’, the choice may have been deliberately intended to cast the relationship between Alfred and Guthrum in the same light as that which had existed between Alfred’s father Æthelwulf and his eldest brother Æthelstan: the latter the nominal ruler of a subservient client kingdom, the former the hegemonic West Saxon king, in whose gift lay the thrones of lesser realms.

If the political theatre of Guthrum’s baptism were not enough to underscore Alfred’s intentions for the post-Edington power dynamic, Guthrum acknowledged Alfred’s superior lordship in other ways as well. Alfred had sealed the baptism celebrations by showering Guthrum and his men ‘with many excellent treasures’.6 According to well-established social etiquette, the receiver of gifts – particularly if he had little to offer of commensurate value – was placed in a subservient role. Guthrum, from a West Saxon perspective at any rate, became Alfred’s man the moment he took Alfred’s gifts.

What, we might ask, were Alfred and Guthrum hoping to achieve by all of this? Perhaps Alfred imagined that – at some stage – he would hold, as Guthrum–Æthelstan’s ‘father’ and overlord, a controlling interest in whatever territory the newly Christian Viking came to rule. If Alfred was thinking along these lines, it suggests that he had reason to expect this outcome. What had the West Saxon king promised to Guthrum? What was it that had brought him to baptism, had convinced him to accept such a one-sided peace deal, to honour the terms of it so faithfully?

In 879, the Viking army moved from Chippenham to Cirencester, where it remained for a year. During this time, a new army of Vikings arrived from overseas, sailing up the Thames with – according to Asser – the intention of linking up with Guthrum’s forces upstream. The newcomers made camp at Fulham and dug themselves in. It must have been a tense few months for Alfred and the West Saxons, poised between two Viking armies hovering on the Thames. But winter came, and winter went, and nobody moved. Guthrum, it seems, was mindful of his accord with Alfred and the benefits that his patronage might confer. Whatever the reasoning, it was enough to overcome any temptation to make common cause with these newcomers. In 880 the new Viking army left Fulham and crossed the Channel, wreaking a trail of havoc across France and the Low Countries. Guthrum’s forces, meanwhile, decamped from Cirencester and made their way to East Anglia.

When they arrived there, just as Halfdan and his people had earlier done in Northumbria, they ‘settled that land, and divided it up’.7 The next we hear of Guthrum–Æthelstan, he is introduced as a king. Perhaps it was this that Alfred had offered in 878, the prize that had lured the heathen Viking to the baptismal waters; perhaps Alfred, the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king left in Britain, had offered his backing and blessing for Guthrum to claim the East Anglian throne for himself.

We know very little about Guthrum’s East Anglian regime, the kingdom over which he ruled for a decade until his death in 890. But what does stand out is how swiftly he seems to have come to terms with the new realities and adapted to them. In the early 880s, new coins were being produced in East Anglia. Like most English coins of the period, they bore the name of the king on one side (the obverse) and, usually, the name of the mint and the moneyer on the other (the reverse). A great many of these coins bore the name of King Alfred, despite the evidence indicating that they had been struck outside Wessex.8 Wholesale imitation of the coins of other rulers is fairly commonplace among new regimes seeking to establish their own legitimacy, and so it is altogether unsurprising that Guthrum should have taken this approach in getting his own coinage up and running (his moneyers also copied some continental coin types). The coins do, however, give us an indication of how the world looked from the perspective of Guthrum’s subjects, and how the new king began to adapt to their expectations: it was Alfred’s name that was likely to reassure his subjects that the coinage was legitimate, and Alfred’s coinage that was recognized and respected as a means of economic exchange. Equally revealing is the fact that, when Guthrum’s name did appear on the East Anglian coinage, it appeared as (still copying the design of West Saxon coinage) ‘EÐELSTAN REX’ – ‘King Æthelstan’.

Money is power. Although it is (almost) always an abstracted and symbolic proxy for value, whether it is piles of banknotes or figures moving up and down on digital indices, we understand intuitively that money is bound up tightly with the expression of authority and status. Physical currency embodies and promotes its relationship to state power through the images with which it is encoded, and these convey a host of ideas about the stability of the state, the core symbols of national pride and identity, the strength of the economy, the values of the authority that produces it. Periodic controversy over the personnel selected to decorate modern banknotes demonstrates how important we still feel this to be.

The people of the Viking Age – and the Vikings in particular – often valued coins for their weight as bullion, rather than their face value. But the symbolic qualities of coinage were as readily understood then as they are now. The very power to cause a coinage to be made was a statement in itself – it indicated a willingness, and an ability, to intervene in the means of exchange between people and to regulate the flow of precious metal. It also signalled a desire to engage in behaviours which spoke of elevated political power: all of the coinage of the early medieval period was modelled, to some degree, on the coins produced by Rome, adopted and adapted by the great successor kingdoms that had followed the Empire’s demise in the west. Simply having a coinage minted under one’s own name was to stake a claim on the legendary and exalted status of Caesar. To mint coins was also to adopt one of the outward trappings of an elite club whose members could consider themselves the heirs of Rome – the Christian kings of western Europe. This was probably heady stuff for a Viking warlord like Guthrum.

In late 877 he had been one warlord among many, just another Viking chancer plying his bloody business among the surprisingly spongy kingdoms of Britain; by 879 he was the acknowledged king of an ancient realm, baptized by a king anointed by the pope. Of course, being a member of this club also demanded overt Christianity as a condition of membership, and by using his baptismal name (on a coinage also marked with crosses) Guthrum (as Æthelstan) was making sure this message was distributed as widely as possible. Coins were a particularly useful propaganda tool in this regard: nobody could forget who the king was, not when his name was stamped on every new silver penny.9

In any case, finding himself the ruler of a kingdom in which the majority of the population were Christian and Anglo-Saxon, Guthrum didn’t need to be a Viking Machiavelli to recognize that it would be politic to promote himself as both of these things: if he wanted to be accepted as a legitimate Christian East Anglian king, he would need to be a Christian East Anglian. The thoroughness with which new Viking rulers adopted the outward trappings of their adopted kingdom was manifested with the most spectacular irony during the decade after Guthrum’s death. In the mid- to late 890s, a new coin was designed and produced that bore the legend ‘SC EADMVND REX A’ (Sanctus Eadmund Rex Anglorum): ‘St Edmund, King of the [East] Angles’. Less than a generation after Ivar and Ubbe – the Viking leaders of the micel here – had deprived the last native king of East Anglia of his garrulous head, his memory was being celebrated and his cult promoted by the new Anglo-Viking regime.

This wasn’t a phenomenon confined to East Anglia. In all of the regions that had fallen under Viking dominance, efforts were under way to create models of authority and cultural compromise that were as indebted to the Anglo-Saxon past as they were to Viking novelty. This was a new world, broken and remade over twenty years of war. But what emerged was not a neatly bifurcated England, split between an Anglo-Saxon south and a Viking north. It was more complicated than that, its identities less clear cut, its politics more tangled, its trajectory uncertain.

This is the peace which King Alfred and King Guthrum and the councillors of all the English race [ealles Angelcynnes witan] and the people who are in East Anglia have all agreed on and confirmed with oaths, for themselves and for all their subjects, both for the living and for the unborn, who care to have God’s favour or ours,

1. First concerning our boundaries: up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, then up the Ouse to Watling Street.10

This is how the treaty of Alfred and Guthrum opens. It was made, not in the immediate aftermath of the battle of Edington, but probably at some point between 886 when Alfred took control of London and 890 when Guthrum died.11 Its first clause is often described as the earliest definition of the southern boundary of what came to be known as the ‘Danelaw’ – that part of Britain in which Danish laws and customs prevailed from the end of the ninth century. Traditional maps of Viking settlement use this glorified boundary clause to ink a border on to the map of Britain, plotting a great wobbly diagonal from London to somewhere near Wroxeter. The overall implication of such maps is clear enough, even while scholarship demurs: this was a frontier, and beyond it the English-speaking people of Britain had passed into the clutches of a foreign people, to choke under the Danish yoke until liberation came from the south.

But the ‘Danelaw’, at least in that sense, never existed; there was no great Viking realm stretching from the Thames to the Tyne. For one thing, the treaty of Alfred and Guthrum makes no mention of any such entity. Indeed, the term ‘Danelaw’ wasn’t recorded until the early eleventh century.12What the treaty seems primarily concerned with is defining the extent of Alfred’s – rather than Guthrum’s – practical authority. Firstly, it implicitly recognizes Alfred’s status as the de facto ruler of all those lands that Viking armies had failed to overrun permanently, while Guthrum (Æthelstan), notably described now as ‘king’, is associated only with the people of East Anglia, the kingdom to which he had taken his army in 880.

Most of the rest of Britain is abandoned to an undefined sphere of influence, the only clear characteristic of which seems to be that this influence did not belong to Alfred. This was nothing new: East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria (let alone anything further west or north) had never been part of Wessex and had only briefly (and intermittently) fallen under West Saxon influence. They were, however, all areas into which Viking armies had already intruded and assumed a degree of political control. On the other hand, most of the lands south of the treaty border were regions where West Saxon dominance had been acknowledged for decades.

Most, that is, but not all. Mercia, its native rulers broken and dispossessed, had received rough treatment throughout the 870s. Now, by the terms of the treaty drawn up by Alfred and Guthrum, it was carved up with impunity, divided along a diagonal axis, its south-western territories passing into the care of an expanded, ‘Greater’ Wessex. In practical charge of the Mercian rump at this time was a man named Æthelred. It seems that he had succeeded Ceolwulf as the ruler of (unoccupied) Mercia, but unlike his predecessor was rarely referred to as king. (The Welsh on his western border, whom he mercilessly harassed during the 880s, considered him to be such, but their opinion counted for little in Wessex.)

Instead, Æthelred was generally referred to as ‘ealdorman’ in West Saxon sources, or else was given the suitably vague title ‘lord of the Mercians’. By 883 he had acknowledged his subservience to Alfred, and in 886 was given delegated authority in London, a new West Saxon acquisition that had also once been subject to the Mercian kings (being granted authority over something which had historically been a possession was a particularly direct demonstration of dispossession and reduced status – a bit like a neighbour annexing part of your garden, and then giving you the job of looking after it). He was subsequently married to Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd (becoming, in an echo of the deal with Guthrum, Alfred’s ‘son’ as well as his political subordinate). Whatever ambitions Æthelred may once have had to revive the fortunes of an autonomous Mercia were being rapidly squished by West Saxon power and tied up in clever dynastic entanglements: absorbed by the Alfredian blob.

And so we should recognize that the treaty was never intended to delimit a Viking sphere of influence: not one inch of the land that formed the ‘Danelaw’ was Alfred’s to give, and none of it could have been taken away by him even if he had wanted to. It was, rather, a treaty that enlisted the aid of Alfred’s godson, Guthrum, in the formalization of West Saxon territorial claims that now included half of Mercia as well as all of the land south of the Thames: a land charter for a Greater Wessex. Alfred would spend the remainder of his reign crafting that nation into something new – an inclusive national identity, expressed most obviously in the formulation of an unprecedented royal style. No longer would Alfred be described, like his predecessors, only as rex Westsaxonum or rex Occidentalium Saxonum (‘king of the West Saxons’); instead, from the 880s onward, he would increasingly be known instead as rex Anglorum et Saxonum, or, as Asser has it, Ælfred Angul-Saxonum rex: ‘Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons’.

A sense of what Alfred was hoping to encapsulate is articulated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry detailing Alfred’s occupation of London in 886: ‘and to him turned all of the English that were not in thrall to Danish men’.13 Alfred, it is clear, now saw himself as king of all the ‘English’ – an idea also present in the first lines of the Alfred–Guthrum treaty with its invocation of ‘councillors of all the English race [ealles Angelcynnes witan]’. The Angelcynn – the ‘English-kin’ – was an elastic description that would allow him and his dynasty to promote a claim to natural lordship over everyone and anyone who was not considered ‘Danish’ in the former English-speaking kingdoms of Britain. Indeed, in its most grandiose expression, it went even further, encompassing ‘all the Christians of the island of Britain’.14 Clearly, its formulation was politically expedient, creating an artificial homogeneity among the people Alfred now claimed to govern, papering over the annexation of western Mercia and allowing remarkable leeway for future territorial aggrandizement. But it also created something as powerful as it was illusory, an idea that would refuse to go away: it created the idea of a single English people and, by extension, the idea of a natural and contiguous homeland that could be – should be – subject to the authority of a single king. Far from establishing a coherent ‘Danish’ realm in Britain, the Viking wars and the agreements of Alfred and Guthrum that followed had produced something far more enduring. Alfred and the Vikings had invented England.15

This, of course, was just a little England. In the 890s, it comprised only the rump of Mercia and the land south of the Thames. But, in this act of rebranding, Alfred had created a remarkably durable, and elastic, identity. This identity allowed Alfred’s descendants to promote the idea (and perhaps they even believed it themselves) that every act of aggression and territorial expansion directed northwards was a ‘liberation’ of the English rather than the imperial conquest it really was. The translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People into Old English around the same time can be seen as part of this project – a new emphasis placed by the West Saxon court on shared history, rather than regional differences. Of course, for this to work it was essential that ‘Englishness’ could be easily and straightforwardly differentiated from anything else. And it is in this context that we should see the creation of the ‘Dane’ as the catch-all category for ‘foreign johnny’, bandied about with great liberality and very little specificity in the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.16

Chesterton saw the battle of Edington as a contest for the soul of England, waged between the noble indigenous peoples of Britain and the dead-eyed Viking alien. This, clearly, is also how Alfred, Asser and the Anglo-Saxon chronicler wanted us to see it – a watershed for the creation of a unified English community. But this was almost certainly not how the battle was seen by the people who fought in it. Alfred’s army was led by the ealdormen of the West Saxon shires, but the origins of the personnel who fought for the king are entirely unknown. About Guthrum’s army there can be even less certainty, and it is likely that a part of it (perhaps even a large part of it) was comprised, not of people born overseas, but of Mercians, East Anglians and others of British birth. From a West Saxon perspective such people would still have been Vikings – ‘Danes’ as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle saw them – despite being just as ‘British’ as those they fought.

This, indeed, may have been the case from a relatively early date throughout Britain. Although we know that the micel here did receive outside reinforcements – the ‘great summer-fleet’ (micel sumorlida) that arrived during 870 from overseas and attached itself to the band fighting Alfred and Æthelred in Wessex is a case in point17 – it is not at all certain that these were adequate to compensate for the casualties incurred over long campaigns, or for the attrition caused by those Vikings who may have cut their losses and returned home to farm and family. It seems likely, therefore, that some ‘Vikings’ must have had more local origins,18 and it is not hard to imagine the mechanisms that might have enabled an itinerant army to attract willing recruits. In the first place, there would always have been lordless men, outlaws and exiles, runaway slaves and disinherited sons, all too eager to join a successful war-band and gain a share in the spoils of war. It was still a problem a century and a half later, when Archbishop Wulfstan of York lamented that ‘it happens that a slave escapes from his lord and leaves Christendom to become a Viking [wicing – a rare contemporary use of the word in Old English]’.19 If this was happening in the eleventh century, there is little reason to suppose that it was not happening in the ninth.20

It is also important to remember that warfare between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their neighbours had long been endemic. Although the nature of warfare may have changed, to a young Anglo-Saxon warrior with a lust for treasure and adventure, joining a Viking raiding army on a campaign in some other part of Britain would not have seemed too dissimilar to the expeditions mounted by men of his father’s or grandfather’s generation. Moreover, it is also likely that – in those regions where Viking warlords had established more formal political control – men who had always owed military service of some sort would have continued to feel that their allegiances were local rather than ethnic; such men were likely to have had few qualms about following a ‘foreign’ king in raids on their neighbours, perpetuating traditions of insular animosity dating back centuries. This tendency would have been magnified if new rulers promised plunder, advancement and security for farms and families – even more so, if they were bright enough to see the value in embracing an English name and the religion of their subjects.

But it was not only the English of the ‘Danelaw’ who could become Vikings in West Saxon eyes. The fifth and final clause of the treaty of Alfred and Guthrum makes it clear that the possibility of members of Alfred’s new Angelcynn skipping off to join the ‘Danes’ was viewed as a real problem: ‘And we agreed on the day when the oaths were sworn that no slaves or freemen might go over to the [Danish] army without permission, any more than any of theirs to us.’21 Indeed, the danger of Alfred’s subjects renouncing their West Saxon loyalties may lie behind Alfred’s treatment of the Wiltshire ealdorman Wulfhere, who was stripped of his lands for ‘leaving without permission’;22 it was not just those at the bottom of society who could be considered an Anglo-Saxon in the morning and a ‘Dane’ by the afternoon. And if further proof of the flimsiness of these ethnic labels were required, West Saxon dynastic politics would eventually deliver it – in spectacular fashion – on Alfred’s death.


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