Anglo-Saxon England, Part III

After the death of Alfred The Great, his bloodline would produce a series of warrior kings that were destined to conquer the Danes and dominate the British isle. The dream of a unified Aengla Land would fall to his son Edward “The Elder.” Edward continued his father’s uncompromising resistance to the Danes, and he gained ground in Northumbria. But not all Saxons were as willing to submit to the vast expansion of West Saxony, especially the unique culture of Northumbria, where the spirit of resistance to southern dominance would take hold, a legacy that is still with us today.

Shortly after Edward The Elder assumed the throne in AD 874 rebellion ensued. In the heat of a quarrel, Edward’s cousin, Ethelwald fled to the Danelaw territory and he roused the resentment of the Danes against his cousin. The rebellion was quickly quashed and a treaty was signed in AD 886 on the basis of Alfred’s previous treaty with the Danes. Again, the Danes broke the treaty in AD 910 but, once again, Edward The Elder prevented their ambitions.

Edward strengthened his power over Mercia when his sister married the Earl Ethelred of Mercia, thus she became known as the “Lady of the Mercians.” However, Ethelred died the following year in AD 911 and his widow, Ethelfleda, succeeded him. Together, brother and sister (Edward and Ethelfleda) conquered the remaining kingdoms of Aengla Land, subduing the Danes and unifying the land.

Edward “The Elder” ended his reign in peace and he passed his vast new kingdom in AD 924 to a third remarkable sovereign, Athelstan. He only reigned for six years, but his time on the throne was certainly not uneventful -he is often considered by some to be the first true king of a unified England. His new power as King of England was quickly tested. All the northern forces mustered against him -Celtic, Danish, and Norwegian forces along with the leadership of Constantine, king of the Scots, and Olaf of Dublin, coupled with Viking reinforcements. The battle occurred and in AD 927 and it was fierce. Ultimately, Athelstan won the day, but the Scots, the Celts, and the Danes resented him for years to come. The conflict was documented in the epic war poem for the Battle of Brunanburh found within the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (at an unknown location). It was a decisive victory, leaving Athelstan king of the continent. Constantine retreated further north, and Olaf retreated Dublin.

Athelstan presents a book to St. Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria

Athelstan quickly modeled himself as a European monarch, marrying his three sisters to powerful continental families: one to the Carolingian king, Charles the Simple; one to the Capetian, Hugh the Great; and one to Otto the Saxon, a future Holy Roman Emperor. Athelstan was succeeded by his half-brother Edmund, a child of eighteen who was the son of Edward the Elder. The young king was quickly put to the test. He fought against a northern rebellion in the east Midlands. With the advent of each new West Saxon monarch came a rebellion from the north that was quickly put down.

For eighty years, five warrior kings Alfred, Edward, Athelstan, Edmund and Edred (also a son of Edward the Elder) fought and held off the invading Danes. However, this costly security also saw the birth of literacy and education throughout the realm. Both Latin and English were taught side by side, religion flourished as new churches were constructed, and the production of ornate golden books that were distributed widely (these books were greatly in demand across continental Europe). The Anglo-Saxons gave birth to English literature.

The illuminated manuscript of the Codex Aureus, filled with ornately decorated versions of the gospels, likely created in Canterbury in the mid-8th century

Following the assassination of Edmund in AD 932, came the short reign of the young and sickly king, Edred, who was promptly followed by his even younger teenage nephew, Eadwig, about whom legend recounts a story of him departing his own coronation ceremony with one, or perhaps two, young women for an evening of licentiousness. This was a foreboding sign of the decay of the House of Wessex. St. Dunstan, a Bishop at several abbeys including Gloucester, Worcester, London, and eventually Archbishop of Canterbury, caught the young king in the act and scolded him (legend holds the young king was in bed with his future wife and her mother). The act gained infamy throughout the noblemen. But Eadwig was a headstrong child and he furiously chased Dunstan, a trusted advisor to several English kings, straight out of England to Flanders. However, his exile would not be long. A revolt of noblemen, Mercians, and Northumbrians ended the reign of Eadwig, and instead instated Edgar “The Peaceful” in AD 959. As his moniker denotes, Edgar oversaw a largely peaceful era. Having won over the northerners, rebellion was quelled for the time being. He reinstated the authority of the Benedictines -the Bishop of Worcester, the Archbishop of York, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Edgar was crowned at Bath in the magnificent Christian abbey alongside the ruins of Roman Britain, under the ecclesiastical mastery of St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. He swore a threefold oath: to the church of God and the Christian people in true peace, to forbid rapacity and iniquity, and to pursue justice mercifully and equitably. He was anointed and crowned amidst a singing choir, and he was given the sacred ring, sword, crown, scepter, and rod. It was the first documented coronation ceremony that spawned many similar ceremonies in the future, including Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on June 2nd, 1953.

The end of Edgar’s reign came with the catastrophic decline of authority and the end of the warrior kings of West Saxony (Wessex). In years to come, his kingship would be fondly remembered. Shortly after Edgar’s death, a conflict ensued between Edward “The Martyr,” a tumultuous young boy when he became king whose reign quickly ended when he was stabbed to death by compatriots of his step-brother Aethelred (some believe it was actually Aethelred’s mother, Edward’s step-mother who committed the deed). Next came the ill-fated rule of Aethelred “The Unready” (whose moniker literally means the “ill-counseled”). Winston Churchill calls him “a child, a weakling, a vacillator, a faithless, feckless creature” (56). He came to power in a culture of disapproving nobles -many of whom praised the innocence of young Edward who was murdered. Aethelred was forced to declare Edward a martyr. He was a most unwise and unlucky ruler.

When the Danes began invading again, Aethelred believed he could simply pay them off with Danegold. On St. Brice’s Day AD 1002, after a second attack and a corresponding bribe, Aethelred suddenly became paranoid of further Danish rebellions. He had convinced himself that a conspiracy was afoot -an uprising of Danes in the lands of Wessex. For years, the English forces had gathered many Danish mercenaries who stood among the English ranks. With this in mind, Aethelred tragically and shamefully ordered the killing of all Danes living peaceably on his lands. In the tumult of killings, the sister of Sweyn, King of the Danes and wife of a Viking leader, was killed. Sweyn vowed vengeance on Aethelred and his house. In AD 1013, Sweyn invaded England and gained the submission of much of the island, forcing Aethelred to flee to Normandy where he had family connections. England was in chaos.

A map of the British Isles in the 10th century

Surprisingly, Sweyn suddenly died in AD 1014, and his son Cnut returned to Denmark. The nobles reluctantly asked Aethelred to return to the throne from Normandy, and the end of his reign was marred by ongoing attacks from Cnut and his alliance with Norway. Aethelred’s son Edmund II “Ironsides” took the throne following his father’s death in AD 1016. He had spend the previous several years in open rebellion of his father, rousing the hopes of the hinterland. Edmund was a more skilled military tactician than his father, but his efforts were too little too late by the time he claimed the throne. The Danes had already pillaged much of England under Cnut. Amidst the fighting, Edmund Ironsides was able to broker a peace agreement, but he suddenly died after having ruled less than 1 year in 1016.

England was left in a fragile state, it was ripe for the plucking by the Danes.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, “The Battle of Maldon” poem, and William of Malmesbury (the reputable 12th century English historian).

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