Post-classical history



‘I will offer thee another course of law, that we go on the holm here at the Thing, and let him have the property who has the victory.’ That was also the law which Egil spake, and a custom of old, that every man had the right to challenge another to holmgang, whether he would defend himself or pursue his foe.

SNORRI STURLUSON(?), Egil’s Saga (thirteenth century)1

Guthrum–Æthelstan died in 890 and was remembered with something approaching fondness in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.2 Although Viking raids on Wessex had continued throughout the 880s, and tensions had occasionally flared around the East Anglian borders, there had been no serious trouble for Alfred to contend with.3 This all changed after Guthrum’s death, and Alfred spent several years of the final decade of his own life, alongside his adult son Edward, engaged in conflict with new waves of Viking raiders, the most dangerous of whom were a group led by a warlord called Hæsten, who arrived – fresh from harassing the Frankish kingdoms – in 892 and gathered fighters from East Anglia and Northumbria. Once again, Alfred’s kingdom was in grave danger, with Viking armies roaming from Essex to the Severn, and from the Sussex coast to Chester.4 But ultimately the Alfred of the 890s was too experienced a warlord to suffer again the indignities of 878. By 896, the worst of this fresh wave of violence was over, partly thanks to the king’s programme of fortress building and military reforms. Hæsten’s army dispersed – some to East Anglia and Northumbria, others back across the Channel – and the Anglo-Saxon chronicler, sounding more than ever like Marvin the Paranoid Android, was able to celebrate the news that ‘The raiding-horde, thank God, had not totally and utterly crushed the English.’ (The chronicler added, however, as though concerned that this sounded a trifle too upbeat, that ‘they were greatly more crushed in those three years with pestilence amongst cattle and men’.)5

Alfred died in 899. In the course of his lifetime he had seen Britain irrevocably transformed, and he ended his days as the king of a realm defined in ways that his predecessors could never have imagined. His obituary in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described him as ‘king over all the English race except that part which was under Danish control’,6 a neat summation of the shift which had occurred during his reign – a delimitation of authority which was primarily ethnic rather than territorial. And yet the degree to which those ethnic constructs remained mutable and contestable was dramatically exposed on the king’s death.

Alfred was, as we might expect, succeeded by his son Edward, known to posterity as ‘the Elder’.7 Not everyone, however, was happy to see Edward ascend to the throne. Alfred’s nephew, Æthelwold, did rather poorly out of Alfred’s will, and was evidently disgruntled by the manner in which he had been passed over.8 The younger (and probably the only surviving) son of Alfred’s elder brother, King Æthelred (the man who had prayed so vigorously at the battle of Ashdown in 871), Æthelwold had a decent claim to the West Saxon throne. Instead he had been left with three estates in Surrey, far from the centre of West Saxon power – much less than what even Alfred’s obscure kinsman Osferth was to receive.9 In any case, whatever the rights and wrongs of his grievance, his actions articulated the strength of it without room for ambiguity. With Alfred’s body barely cold, he seized the royal manor at Twynham (now Christchurch, Dorset) and then rode to Wimborne (also Dorset), to the burial place of his father King Æthelred, where – alive to the threat that Edward posed – he ‘barricaded all the gates against him, and said that he would live there or die there’.10

Edward, for his part, took an army to Badbury Rings, the massive Neolithic hill-fort that dominates the landscape of east Dorset. As political theatre these were striking choices. Whereas Æthelwold had laid claim to his father’s resting place, no doubt in an attempt to send a message that emphasized his dynastic claims, Edward’s choice of Badbury Rings drew on older and deeper wells of political legitimacy. Whether or not the Anglo-Saxons identified this place (as later generations would) with Mount Badon – the location of the legendary victory of the Britons over the Saxons in the sixth century11 – the massive earthworks would have spoken in primal terms of power that welled up from another age, the vast earthen ramparts the work of supernatural builders and the mighty kings of old. Not only that, but Badbury was also the hundred meeting place of the district in which it stood: by using it as his fortress, Edward was raising his standard not merely on his dynastic claims, but on an ancient and embedded sense of community, territory and antiquity.

Whether it was this or more pragmatic concerns that eroded Æthelwold’s resolve, it swiftly transpired that his nerve was less robust than his rhetoric. Taking with him a nun he had extracted from the convent at Wimborne (whether or not she was a willing accomplice, we shall never know), Æthelwold ‘rode away under cover of night and sought out the raiding army in Northumbria’,12 where ‘they received him as king and submitted to him’.13 The Annals of St Neots, a later chronicle based (probably) on a lost manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, puts this extraordinary moment in even more surprising terms. There Æthelwold, son of Æthelred, son of Æthelwulf, son of Ecgberht, scion of the house of Wessex, is described as rex paganorum and rex danorum: ‘King of the Pagans; King of the Danes’.14

Æthelwold has been described as one of the ‘“Nearly Men” of early medieval Europe’.15 During the five years that followed his nocturnal flight from Wessex in 899, the ætheling’s flame flared brightly, a brief consuming fire. In that flickering red light we can see the dreams of deeds undone, of destiny unfulfilled – a Viking England united by a man thrice begotten of West Saxon kings, trampling the wreckage of his father’s realm at the head of a great Anglo-Viking horde. It would not come to pass; Æthelwold’s flame would be extinguished in the leeching damp of the East Anglian Fens.

In 902, Æthelwold brought a fleet to Essex and caused the submission of the East Saxon kingdom. Quite where he had come from, whom he had convinced of his regal standing and why they had acquiesced so readily is unknown, but it may be that he managed to convince a substantial faction in the ‘Danelaw’ that his claim to the West Saxon throne – and the divided loyalties of its aristocracy – meant that the conquest of Wessex was once again a realistic prospect. The submission of Essex would have been a blow to King Edward: Essex had long formed a buffer zone between West Saxon and East Anglian control. Later in 902, Æthelwold made his move, bringing an army out of East Anglia and advancing into English Mercia, raiding and burning as he went, before crossing the Thames at Cricklade in Wiltshire and plundering the region around Braydon. This was a raid, not an attempt at conquest, and Æthelwold swiftly led his army (laden down ‘with all that they could grab’),16 back to East Anglia. But the fact that he had penetrated so far into Wessex unopposed had sent an unmistakable message to his cousin Edward. The reciprocal raid came immediately. Edward raised an army and chased Æthelwold into East Anglia, ravaging territory from the Devil’s Dyke (Cambridgeshire) to the River Wissey and the Fens (Norfolk). Edward, however, like Æthelwold, seems to have had little appetite for battle and ordered a retreat. For reasons that remain obscure, however, the men of Kent disobeyed their king and remained in East Anglia.

A measure of Edward’s mounting panic (or, perhaps, of his determination to explain what may have been a monumental blunder) is conveyed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s insistence that he dispatched no fewer than seven messengers in his desperation to recall the Kentish contingent. It was to no avail. Æthelwold’s armies surrounded the Kentish force at a place called ‘the Holm’ and a savage battle was fought. The most evocative description was provided by the West Saxon ealdorman Æthelweard, who wrote a chronicle in Latin at some point towards the end of the tenth century:

They clashed shields, brandished swords, and in either hand the spear was much shaken. And there fell Ealdorman Sigewulf, and Sigehelm, and a part of the Kentish gentry nearly all-inclusive; and Haruc, king of the barbarians, was there let down to the lower world. Two princes of the English, soft of beard, then left the air they breathed ever before, and entered a strange region below the waves of Acheron, and so did much of the nobility on either side. In the end the barbarians were victors, and held the field with exultation.17

It was clearly a disaster for the men of Kent, although quite how exultant the barbarians can really have been, considering the apparently ghastly death toll and the demise of their king, is open to question. The ‘Haruc’ mentioned by Æthelweard was Eohric, king (it is generally assumed) of East Anglia. Perhaps more significant, however, was the detail supplied by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its rather more sober (and contemporary) account of the battle: Æthelwold was killed in the fighting.18

The Fens – with their vast skies and level horizons, their dykes and waterways, bogs and meres – are an unfriendly environment to those unfamiliar with them: disorientating and alien. At their wildest they can feel like a remnant of a forgotten world, when mammoth and aurochs wandered the wide plains of Doggerland, the lost land that once connected East Anglia with continental Europe – our own Stone Age Atlantis, drowned beneath the North Sea. The Fens are an unending sea of sedges and peat beds – a paradise, as the Somerset Levels once were, for insects and wading birds, amphibians and water mammals. Like the Levels, the Fens were mostly drained long ago and only 1 per cent of the original wetlands, at places like Lakenheath (Suffolk) and Wicken Fen (Cambridgeshire), still survive.19 This is enough, however, for us to imagine how the region appeared to those who fought and died here a thousand years ago. It would have been an appalling place for a battle, particularly for those who did not know the lie of the land; when lines broke, desperate men would have lost the security of dry land, flummoxed by the blankness of the Fens, floundering into the mire, choking their lives out in the sucking peat bogs.

The name of the place where the battle was supposedly fought – ‘the Holme’ – is Old Norse in origin, from holmr (‘small islet’, or ‘area of dry land set in wetland’). In the midst of the Fens, the meaning is obvious: any raised area of dry land can feel like an island rising from the reed beds. Although holmr is a relatively common topographical term in England (with around fifty examples around the country), most of these apply to small, isolated places, and there is no other battlefield of the early Middle Ages in England that is identified with this place-name element.20 The term, however, had a particular significance in Old Norse literature, where it referred to the idealized location of a type of quasi-judicial knockabout known as the hólmgang (lit. ‘island-going’), a form of arbitration-by-combat, a settling of differences through formalized and circumscribed violence.

Several accounts describe duels and hólmgang fought in Britain. Flóamanna saga, for example, tells the tale of the Icelander Thorgils who fought a hólmgang in Caithness on behalf of Olaf, the local jarl. The most elaborate description of the hólmgang ritual is contained in Kormáks saga, a thirteenth-century account of the life of the Hiberno-Icelandic skald Kormákr Ögmundarson. The saga describes a weird and highly ritualized event, revealing how it was the ‘the law of the hólmgang’ that a hide should be spread on the ground, ‘with loops at its corners. Into these should be driven certain pins with heads to them, called tjosnur. He who made it ready should go to the pins in such a manner that he could see sky between his legs, holding the lobes of his ears and speaking the forewords used in the rite called “The Sacrifice of the tjosnur”.’ Once this was done, ‘Three squares should be marked round the hide, each one foot broad. At the outermost corners of the squares should be four poles, called hazels; when this is done, it is a hazelled field.’

Only after these bewildering preparations had been accomplished could the combat commence:

Each man should have three shields, and when they were cut up he must get upon the hide if he had given way from it before, and guard himself with his weapons alone thereafter. He who had been challenged should strike the first stroke. If one was wounded so that blood fell upon the hide, he should fight no longer. If either set one foot outside the hazel poles ‘he went on his heel’, they said; but he ‘ran’ if both feet were outside. His own man was to hold the shield before each of the fighters. The one who was wounded should pay three marks of silver to be set free.21

In reality there is nothing contemporary to suggest that this sort of ritual duel was actually a Viking Age practice, or – if it was – that it was as formal as accounts like the one in Kormáks saga describe.

Nevertheless, a number of similar accounts in other sagas, as well as a definition in the Hednalagen (‘the heathen law’), a fragment of Swedish law written down c. 1200 which specifies the conditions under which the hólmgang should occur, present a compelling picture.22 It is possible that, in the militarized and Viking-inflected culture of tenth-century East Anglia, battle could be seen as hólmgang on an epic scale – particularly if that battle was considered to be arbitrating a dispute between kinsmen. In this light, the battle of the Holme may have acquired its name as a result of the importation not only of the Old Norse lexicon, but of Old Norse cultural practices as well. And while it was almost certainly not seen in ritualistic terms by those unfortunate enough to fight there, it is entirely likely that it was remembered in those terms afterwards.

It would certainly be no surprise to find that Scandinavian legal concepts were beginning to drift into British syntax and toponymy: everywhere the Vikings had settled in Britain, they were bringing their systems of law and administration with them.

In the wider Viking world, the places set aside for ritual combat seem often to have been located in areas designated for legal or administrative assembly of other kinds. For example, hólmgang that took place after deliberations at the Icelandic ‘parliament’ – the Althing – were fought on an island (ON holmr) in the Axewater, the river that cuts through Thingvellir (ON Þingvöllr, ‘the assembly plain’), gushing over the rim of the great tectonic rift and surging into white thunder at Öxarárfoss (‘Axe-water-fall’).23

William Morris, visiting Iceland in 1871, recorded his impressions of his arrival at this extraordinary place. The spontaneity of his language reflects the immediacy of the emotional response:

As we ride along (over the lava now) we come opposite to a flat-topped hill some way down the lava stream, and just below it opens a huge black chasm, that runs straight away south toward the lake, a great double-walled dyke, but with its walls tumbled and ruined a good deal in places: the hill is Hrafnabjörg (Raven Burg), and the chasm Hrafnagjá (Raven Rift). But as we turn west we can see, a long way off across the grey plain, a straight black line running from the foot of the Armannsfell right into the lake, which we can see again hence, and some way up from the lake a white line cuts the black one across. The black and the white line are the Almannagjá (Great Rift) and the Öxará (Axe Water) tumbling over it. Once again that thin thread of insight and imagination, which comes so seldom to us, and is such joy when it comes, did not fail me at this first sight of the greatest marvel and most storied place of Iceland.24

Thingvellir is rightly famous; it sits amid an alien world, a landscape unlike any other on earth. Like many parts of Iceland, it feels as though it sits at the beginning and ending of time – a place rent and moulded by the primeval forces that stand behind the world, where the ‘sun turns black, land sinks into sea; the bright stars scatter from the sky. Flame flickers up against the world-tree; fire flies high against heaven itself.’25 As has been long remarked, it is easy to see how the crushing waterfalls and grinding glaciers, hot geysers and livid lava flows, and the spectral green corona of the aurora borealis, could have shaped the elemental tenor of the myths that were first given literary form in this unforgiving outpost of the northern world.

The primordial nature of this environment is part of what makes Thingvellir seem such a suitable cradle for the earliest European experiment in representative republican government.26 One of the most evocative images of the place remains a painting by the English antiquarian W. G. Collingwood, at once a highly observant portrait of the tortured lithics of the primeval geology – the ‘curdled lava flows’ (to borrow a Morrisian expression) – and an unusually convincing (for its time) reconstruction of the bustle of an Althing in session. Morris, like Collingwood and many more of his Victorian peers, was fascinated by the aspects of representative and communal government that such assemblies embodied. For Morris, the ‘doom-rings’ and ‘thing-steads’ of the sagas seem to have helped him to bridge the intellectual chasm that lay between his romantic old-northernism and the metropolitan socialism by which he was so energized in later life.27


A thing in progress, Halfdan Egedius, 1899 (Wikimedia Commons)

Things (ON þing) had been a ubiquitous element of the legal, political and administrative culture of Scandinavia long before the settlement of Iceland in the mid-ninth century, and not all things were great national gatherings like those at Thingvellir. From what we can tell, mostly from later medieval sources, most were regional or local comings-together of heads of families, wealthy farmers, warlords and aristocrats, sometimes under the auspices of a king or jarl. Laws were made and disseminated at these gatherings, and arbitration was entered into when disputes arose. Criminal matters were also heard and judgements handed down in accordance with the settled laws of the jurisdiction in which the thing was held. These laws – with some exceptions – were not written down. This does not mean that they were vague or flimsy or made up on the hoof; quite the opposite. The laws were traditional and cumulative and, like modern legal practice, freighted with precedent and spiced with occasional innovation: maintaining the laws was integral to the life of a community and rich with ancestral tradition and ancient lore. The burden of keeping this knowledge intact rested primarily on the ars memoriae, as practised by a single individual – the lǫgsǫgumaðr, the ‘law-speaker’.28

There are a number of place-names in Britain that incorporate the Old Norse þing element, most commonly in combination with völlr ‘plain’ (that is, ‘the assembly plain’ – the same origin as Thingvellir): Tinwald in Dumfries, Dingwall in Ross and Cromarty, Tinwhil on Skye, Tiongal on Lewis (now unlocatable), Tingwall in Orkney, Tingwall in Shetland, Tynwald on the Isle of Man, Thingwall in Lancashire and Thingwall in the Wirral. There are also Thingoe (Suffolk), Thinghou (Lincolnshire) and Thynghowe in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire (all from ON þing haugr, ‘assembly mound’).29

Some of these sites remained in use for centuries. Thynghowe in Sherwood Forest was discovered by amateur historians Stuart C. Reddish and Lynda Mallett who, in 2005–6, came into possession of a document dating to 1816 that described the perambulation of the bounds of the Lordship of Warsop. The local people involved in this expedition gathered at a mound known as Hanger Hill to drink beer and eat cheese and have what sounds like a jolly good time; they did so, apparently, ‘according to ancient custom’. Further research revealed that the name Hanger Hill had replaced the old name – Thynghowe – in the seventeenth century. Subsequent exploration of the site revealed parish boundary markers tumbled and choked by undergrowth – ancient standing stones and a Viking meeting place lost to memory, swallowed by the forest for a thousand years.

At Tingwall in Shetland, assemblies were held on an island (a holm, in the Old Norse-derived dialect of the islands) in the loch that drives inland from the west. It is an extraordinary place, the hills rising gently on all sides around the water, a sublime natural amphitheatre that cups the setting sun. An account written by a visitor called John Brand, dating to 1701, describes how ‘three or four great Stones are to be seen, upon which the Judge, Clerk and other Officers of the Court did sit’. The rest of the assembly gathered on the grassy banks ‘at some distance from the Holm on the side of the Loch’. When their cases were to be heard, individuals were called to the island and each crossed the water by a stone causeway ‘who when heard, returned the same way he came’.30 The earliest records of its use date to around 1300, but it is likely that the place was an assembly site from the earliest days of Scandinavian settlement on Shetland.

Tynwald, on the Isle of Man, is the one place in Britain where the Viking past continues to shape the performance – if not the content – of modern law-making. Every year, on 5 July, a representative of the British crown attends a ceremony at Tynwald Hill – the enormous stepped mound, 80 feet in diameter at the base, heavily modified and landscaped over the centuries, that still plays an important role in the tiny devolved government’s legislative rituals. There he ascends to declaim the previous year’s enacted legislation in English and Manx Gaelic (but not, alas, in Old Norse).31


Þorgnýr the law-speaker holds forth; Christian Krohg, 1899 (Wikimedia Commons)

It may be that not all of the thing sites in Britain were new meeting places established by Vikings in the ninth century; some may have been old local and regional meeting places that came to be known by names and terms introduced by Scandinavian settlers. The same is likely true of the terminology that came to be applied to territorial units in parts of the ‘Danelaw’; whereas Anglo-Saxon territories were divided into parcels of land called ‘hundreds’, by the time of the Domesday Book (1086), these territorial units were known in large areas of north and west Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire as ‘wapentakes’, from the Old Norse vápnatak (‘weapon-taking’). The term indicates how weapon-bearing had a direct link to political participation in Viking society. To attend a ‘weapon-taking’, one obviously had to have weapons to take; the costlier and more elaborate these were, the better to show off one’s wealth and status in a highly public forum.

A sense of what weapon-taking was all about can be found in a handful of sources (most of which, in what becomes a tedious refrain for both author and reader, date to long after the Viking Age itself, and are therefore of questionable reliability). The following vignette from Óláfs saga Helga, for example, gives an impression of how the intimidating atmosphere of a weapon-bearing assembly could be used to influence authority. Here the venerable Þorgnýr the law-speaker tells the Swedish king how things stand:

‘Should you be unwilling to accept what we demand, then we shall mount an attack against you and kill you and not put up with hostility and lawlessness from you. This is what our forefathers before us have done. They threw five kings into a bog at Múlaþing who had become completely full of arrogance like you with us. Say now straight away which choice you wish to take.’

Then the people immediately made a clashing of weapons and a great din.

The king of the Svear to whom this intemperate diatribe was addressed, evidently not fancying his chances, swiftly agreed to ‘let the farmers have their way […] in everything they wanted’.32

Such a scene, however improbable we may find the limpness of the Swedish king’s authority, evokes in ways otherwise inaccessible how political assembly in a highly militarized society might have felt; it is no wonder that rules of ritual combat should have developed in connection with such events – the potential for violence must have ever simmered at the surface. But, in their essence, such assemblies acted as a means by which royal and aristocratic authority could achieve public legitimacy, a spear-shaking mandate from the warrior class.

After the death of Æthelwold at the battle of the Holme, the early reign of Edward the Elder proved relatively uneventful, although it was clear that tensions between Wessex and the ‘Danish’ north and east continued to run high; in 906 it was apparently felt necessary to confirm a peace between King Edward and the East Anglians and Northumbrians – with eastern Mercia remaining a contested region. (Indeed, it is utterly unclear who exactly was in effective control of this part of eastern Mercia during the four decades between 870 and 910. Coins minted in the name of an ‘Earl Sitric’ (‘SITRIC COMES’) at Shelford (‘SCELFOR’) in Cambridgeshire suggest that effective authority did not necessarily emanate from kings alone, as in fact continued to be the case in Norway. And, as we shall see, when the towns of the ‘Danelaw’ made peace, they tended to do so one by one, often with named jarls offering their submission along with the local communities in which they presumably had some standing.)

The peace of 906 – like so many before – did not hold, although this time it was Edward’s kingdom that was the aggressor. In 909, men from Wessex and Mercia ‘raided the northern horde very greatly, both men and every kind of property, and killed many of those Danish men, and were inside there [Northumbria] for five weeks’.33 It is not surprising that the Northumbrians sought retaliation the following year, though the Anglo-Saxon chronicler seems unduly put out by their refusal to see sense, remarking with a slightly indignant tone that ‘the-horde in Northumbria broke the peace, and scorned every peace which King Edward and his councillors offered them’.34 They would have been better advised to take Edward up on his offer.

The campaign started well enough for the Northumbrians. They seem to have wrongfooted King Edward, who had assembled a fleet of a hundred ships, perhaps imagining a waterborne assault in the south; when the Northumbrians started marauding across Mercia, Edward was stuck on a boat off the Kentish coast. But it is clear that, by this stage, the military and defensive innovations that had been implemented by Alfred and continued by Edward were in good working order. It was possible, in a way in which in the past it seems not to have been, for Edward to command (presumably from some distance away) the armies of Wessex and Mercia to rouse themselves swiftly and move against the invaders.35 Even so, it was nearly too late; the raiding army had already had plenty of time to plunder western Mercia, with doubtless unpleasant consequences for its inhabitants. This, however, may ultimately have been their undoing, for, as they headed back home, ‘rejoicing in rich spoil’ as the chronicler Æthelweard put it, they became bogged down:

crossing to the east side of the river Severn over a pons to give the Latin spelling, which is called Bridgnorth [Cuatbricge] by the common people. Suddenly squadrons of both Mercians and West Saxons, having formed battle-order, moved against the opposing force. They joined battle without protracted delay on the field of Wednesfield [Vuodnesfelda, ‘Woden’s Field’];36 the English enjoyed the blessing of victory; the army of the Danes fled, overcome by armed force. These events are recounted as done on the fifth day of the month of August. There fell three of their kings in that same ‘storm’ [turbine] (or ‘battle’ [certamine] would be the right thing to say), that is to say Healfdene and Eywysl, and Inwær also hastened to the hall of the infernal one [ad aulam properauit inferni], and so did senior chiefs of theirs, both jarls and other noblemen.37

The three ‘kings’ whom Æthelweard delights in dispatching to Old Nick are better known by the Anglicized names Halfdan, Eowils and Ingvar; none of them is known from other sources, and no coins (that we know of) were minted in their names. If they truly were somehow joint kings of Northumbria, they have left a remarkably light historical footprint; it may well be that they were simply warlords of a lesser degree (the English sources seem often to exaggerate the quantity of royal blood that was spilled on the edges of Saxon swords). But it is also possible that they were related to the dynasty known in Irish sources as the Uí Ímair – the descendants of Ivar – a Viking clan that had made it big in Ireland and whose founder was the same Ivar the Boneless who, with his brothers, had wreaked such havoc among the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England.38 (Whether or not this is so, it is almost certainly the case that – as we shall see – an influx of Vikings from the Irish Sea had begun to make their presence felt in Northumbria at the beginning of the tenth century, refugees from their expulsion from Dublin in 902.39)

Whatever the political realities within Northumbria, the battle of Wednesfield (more commonly known as the battle of Tettenhall) marked a watershed.40 From that moment on, the armies of the ‘Danelaw’ would never again threaten the peace of southern Britain. Instead, in little over fifteen years, the kings of Wessex would establish themselves as the masters of all England; in time they would be counted the overlords of much of the rest of Britain as well. The details of the campaigns which Edward and his sister Æthelflæd waged against those parts of England that lay beyond the boundary their father had drawn with Guthrum–Æthelstan are known primarily from the accounts provided in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, including the regional addendum known as the Mercian Register.41 The bald sequence of events these sources present is stark and authoritarian, a drumbeat of inexorable military dominance and fortress building. To string it all together with connective tissue and verbiage would be prolix. I present it here, therefore, in outline – a summary of the history as reported – with the caveat that, as ever, this was how the West Saxons wanted us to remember it: the glorious, inevitable march towards English unity and nationhood – the red ink spilled, a slow pink stain spreading across the map.

In 910, Æthelflæd, the daughter of King Alfred, sister of King Edward and wife of Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, had a fortress built at Bremesbyrig (unidentified, probably in Gloucestershire). In the following year, her husband Æthelred died. Although Æthelflæd assumed most of his authority in Mercia, Edward claimed lordship in Oxford (Oxfordshire) and London. In 912, King Edward constructed two forts at Hertford (Hertfordshire), and one at Witham (Essex), ‘and a large portion of the folk who were earlier in the power of Danish men submitted to him’.42 In 914, armies from Hereford (Herefordshire) and Gloucester (Gloucestershire) defeated a Viking raiding army from Brittany. King Edward ordered defences to be set along the south bank of the River Severn, which stymied Viking raids at Porlock and Watchet (Somerset). The king also constructed twin fortifications at Buckingham (Buckinghamshire), and Jarl Thurcytel and the chief men of Bedford (Bedfordshire) and Northampton (Northamptonshire) pledged their loyalty to the king. In 915, Edward occupied Bedford and constructed a fortress there, while his sister Æthelflæd built strongholds at Chirbury (Shropshire), Weardbyrig (possibly Warbury, Cheshire) and Runcorn (Cheshire). The following year, in 916, the king constructed a stronghold at Maldon (Essex) and ‘facilitated’ the emigration of Jarl Thurcytel to the continent.

Everyone seems to have been busy in 917. Edward ordered the construction of strongholds at Towcester (Northamptonshire) and Wigingamere (unidentified, possibly Newport, Essex).43 Viking raids from Northampton, Leicester (Leicestershire) ‘and north of there’ tried, but failed, to break down the stronghold at Towcester. At the same time, a Viking army from East Anglia built its own fortress at Tempsford (Bedfordshire) and then marched on Bedford, only to be routed by the Bedford militia. Another Viking army from East Anglia besieged Wigingamere, but was unable to capture it and retreated. King Edward’s army was, once again, more successful, destroying the Viking fort at Tempsford, killing their king (whoever this may have been), as well as Jarl Toglos and his son, Jarl Manna. Another army raised by Edward from Sussex, Essex and Kent then captured Colchester (Essex), slaughtering the defenders. In response, a Viking army attempted to capture Maldon, but was repelled by the defenders who – with reinforcements – destroyed and routed the erstwhile besiegers.

Presumably demoralized by the way things were going, Jarl Thurferth and his followers, ‘together with all the raiding-army which belonged to Northampton, as far north as the Welland’, submitted to the authority of King Edward.44 Taking advantage of this success, Edward restored the defences of Huntingdon (Cambridgeshire), and the local people submitted to his authority. There was more submitting to come: after King Edward had restored the defences at Colchester, the people of Essex and East Anglia swore loyalty to him, and the Viking army at Cambridge (Cambridgeshire) voluntarily adopted King Edward ‘as their lord and protector’.45 To round the year off, Æthelflæd captured Derby (Derbyshire).

In 918 King Edward built a stronghold on the south side of the river at Stamford (Lincolnshire), and the people inhabiting the stronghold on the north bank submitted to the king. Æthelflæd gained the submission of Leicester, but died later that year. Edward did not hesitate to secure his authority over the whole of Mercia, and ‘all the race of the Welsh, sought him as their lord’.46 The king next captured Nottingham (Nottinghamshire) and reinforced its defences, and ‘all the people that were settled in the land of Mercia, both Danish and English, turned to him’.47 In 919 the king ordered a fortress to be built at Thelwall (Cheshire), and in 920 caused fortifications to be built at Nottingham and Bakewell (Derbyshire). This was apparently the final straw: ‘And then the king of Scots and all the nation of Scots chose him as father and lord; and [so did] Ragnald and Eadwulf’s sons and all those who live in Northumbria, both English and Danish and Norwegians and others; and also the king of the Strathclyde Britons and all the Strathclyde Britons.’ For the rest of Britain, enough had finally proved to be enough.

By 920, Edward, king of Wessex, had become – or wished to be perceived as – not only king of all the English south of the Humber, but the overlord of almost everyone who lived beyond it to the north. This went beyond even the claims of Edward’s great-grandfather Ecgberht, who had asserted his overlordship of Northumbria in 828. (Perhaps it was an attempt to make good on Alfred’s absurd claim to rule over ‘all the Christians of the island of Britain’.48) However, while there is no doubt that Edward had achieved for his kingdom and his dynasty an unprecedented degree of imperium within Britain, quite how realistic the claims of 920 really were remains uncertain; after all, the world to the north of the Mercian border had changed out of all recognition since Ecgberht’s time.


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