The Sicilian Expedition: Alcibiades and Nicias in Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War (Books VI-VII)

Thucydides claims the Peloponnesian War is the greatest event or movement in human history, and the most important part of this great war takes place in Books VI-VII: The ill-fated Sicilian Expedition.

The Sicilian Expedition represents the turning point in the war. Thucydides begins to explain the expedition by offering a history of the origins of Sicily and its people. He continues by discussing the current zeitgeist in Athens. A rising and powerful love of Athens or a fervent patriotism arises among the Athenians. The old, middle-aged, and young citizens all see an easy occupation of Sicily that will yield great riches and power (i.e. the old and young, rich and poor are all united in support of the expedition as is necessary for an empire), while the skeptics are forced into silence for fear of being unpatriotic.

Thucydides offers two contrasting views on the Sicilian proposition: Nicias, the sober-minded Athenian general (or strategos) who is fervently opposed to interventionism. Nicias was the voice for moderation in Athens. Nicias had negotiated the aptly-named Peace of Nicias previously in 421 BC which paused the ongoing conflict between Athens and Sparta until the Athenian Sicilian Expedition 421 BC.

In contrast to Nicias’s moderation, Thucydides also shows us Alcibiades, the demagogic follower of Socrates and bombastic son of the old Athenian aristocracy, who successfully takes up the mantel of Pericles. Alcibiades rouses the passions of the Athenian public by claiming an either/or situation with regard to Sicily. The choice is between conquering or being conquered, though the idea that Athens is facing imminent conquest is absurd. Alcibiades is a proponent of aggressive expansionism and, in the end, he wins the day and leads the expedition to Sicily. Consider the way Thucydides describes the general mood of the Athenians regarding the invasion of Sicily:

“Everyone fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund to pay for the future. With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that did not like it feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet” (6.24).

According to Thucydides, there is a kind of erotic love for conquest that grips the people of Athens, and the ‘tyranny of the majority’ as Madison would have called it, takes hold. However, this eroticism takes different forms depending upon age and station: the older men thought their army was so powerful it could not possibly be defeated, those in the prime of their lives were longing for adventure (new things, ‘foreign sights and spectacles’), and the common people and soldiery were hungry for riches and security. In war, each group sees their own deprivation as an opportunity: strength, adventure, and riches, respectively.

At any rate, as happens with the superstitions of crowds, on the eve of the Sicilian Expedition all the stone statues of Hermes, the “Hermae,” are mutilated throughout the city of Athens. And rumors surface about drunken parties in private homes where the Mysteries of profaned (for reference see Socrates in Plato’s Symposium). Immediately, Alcibiades is blamed and it bears a foreboding sign for the expedition, while the enemies of Alcibiades hope to elevate the rule of the People, rather than leaders like Pericles and Alcibiades. These leaders win the moment and Alcibiades is brought to trial but he flees in exile to Sparta -his allegiances now in question, Alcibiades defects to the enemy. Meanwhile, the Sicilian Expedition ends in disaster as the Athenian invasion fails to claim ground, and all the retreating Athenians are slaughtered in Syracuse.

Later, Thucydides makes note of the foremost cause of ruin for the Athenian army:

“Indeed the first and foremost cause of the ruin of the Athenian army was the capture of Plemmyrium [a harbor port near Syracuse where the Athenians retreated], even the entrance of the harbor being now no longer safe for carrying in provisions, as the Syracusan vessels were stationed there to prevent it, and nothing could be brought in without fighting; besides the general impression of dismay and discouragement produced upon the army” (7.24).

In response, Athens votes to send a massive force of reinforcements led by the general Demosthenes, not be confused with the great Athenian orator and speechwriter, but the Athenian armies become separated, decimated, enslaved, starved, and both Demosthenes and Nicias are executed. A few Athenian prisoners escape to deliver the dismal news back home in Athens.

Timeline of Events in the Peloponnesian War:

  • 6th-5th Centuries BC: The Peloponnesian League is created and led by Sparta over the surrounding Peloponnesus: Corinth, Elis, Tegea, and others. Also the Delian League was created under the leadership of Athens.

  • 435 BC: The city of Epidamnus, a colony of Corcyra located right at the entrance to the Ionic Gulf, undergoes an internal revolt and requests help from Corcyra which is denied so they request help from soft rival to Corcyra, Corinth. It causes a proxy war between Corinth and Corcyra, with Corcyra winning back its colony. In response Corinth begins building up a vast navy.

  • 433 BC: Both Corinth and Corcyra call upon Athens, a fellow member of the Delian League, for aid. After both making their cases, Athens votes with an eye toward war with the Peloponnesus by siding with Corcyra. However, when both sides do battle, Corinth wins the day so they send reinforcements and the escalation calls upon the Peloponnesian League to break the standing peace treaty.

  • 432 BC: Athens fortifies its new ally Corcyra against Corinthian forces at Potidaea, as well. The Siege of Potidaea brings an end to Sparta’s inaction, with many denouncing Athens. Athens sent a fleet to Potidaea after Sparta and allies encouraged a revolt on the island in response to Athenian support for Corcyra against Corinth. Sparta declares Athens to be the aggressor and declares war on Athens.

    The powerful orator Pericles rises in Athens who is vehemently opposed to any conciliation with Sparta, in contrast to Archidamus King of Sparta, who urges caution, tact, and discipline. Sparta peddles a rumor that Athens is cursed by the goddess (thus subtly implicating Pericles as accursed). Athens, under Pericles, rejects offers to allow the Hellenes to remain free.

  • 431 BC: War begins. Thebes attacks and defeats Plataea, with Athenian help for Plataea arriving too late. Sparta invades Attica. Athens sends a fleet to attack the Pelopponesus and draw troops off their country farms. Pericles delivers his famous “Funeral Oration Speech” in Winter 431 BC.

  • 430 BC: Again Sparta invades Athens and shortly thereafter a great plague falls upon the land “a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered.” It began perhaps in Egypt or Ethiopia and infected Athens through the Piraeus. A rumor spreads that Sparta poisons the water of Athens. The plague brings lawlessness and mass death.

    Pericles “The First Citizen” of Athens delivers a more tempered speech in Summer defending himself and wishing the Athenians had heeded all of his advice and not capitulated in any way to Sparta.

    Athens conquers Potidaea. Sparta attacks Plataea.

  • 428 BC: Sparta invades Athens again, Lesbos revolts from Athens. Mytilene turns to Sparta for help but Athens votes to spare Mytilene against the advice of Cleon a zealot and war hawk.

  • 425 BC: The Athenians outmaneuver the Spartans at Pylos under the generalship of Demosthenes (not be confused with the great Athenian orator).

  • 422 BC: War hawks Cleon (Athens) and Brasidas (Sparta) battle to the death at the Athenian colony of Amphipolis.

  • 421 BC: After the deaths of Cleon and Brasidas, the moderate Athenian leader Nicias is able to negotiate a peace – the Peace of Nicias which lasted six years.

  • 415 BC: The ill-fated Sicilian Expedition is undertaken initially by Alcibiades who takes up the expansionist agenda from Pericles and Cleon, but the expedition ends in 413 BC in spectacular failure. Both leaders Nicias and Demosthenes are executed in the surrender at Syracuse.

  • 413 BC: In order to escape punishment in Athens, Alcibiades defects to Sparta and advises them on how to attack Athens. From here, Athens was beset by revolts, both internal and external by allies, as well as a troubling alliance between Persia and Sparta.

  • 407 BC: Alcibiades returns to Athens only to be exiled once again over questions of his loyalty.

  • 404 BC: Athens finally surrenders to Spartan general Lysander who defeated the Athenian navy and claimed the Dardanelles, a chief source of Athenian grain. Amidst death and starvation Athens surrenders. Sparta welcomes Athens into its network of allies but destroys Athens’s wall, navy, and riches.


For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

The Norman Kings (1066-1154)

After the death of William The Conqueror his kingdom was divided between his sons: Robert was given Dukedom of Normandy, William II was given the Kingship of England, and Henry was awarded riches. This uneasy arrangement was all but certain to cause tension.

William II was the second surviving son of William The Conqueror. He was called William “Rufus” or William “The Red” because of his ruddy complexion (long red-blond hair, piercing eyes, and a stammer). In general, history has not been kind to William Rufus. Unlike his devout father, William II was openly hostile to the Church, flaunting sacred customs, and he was almost assuredly a homosexual (he had many ‘special male friends’). He never married. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle characterizes William Rufus as an effeminate dandy dressed in outrageous garb, openly disparaging of Church customs, and yet he was still a ruthless tactician toward his enemies, particularly when fighting his brother Robert of Normandy and expanding the reach of his kingdom. English historian A.L. Poole, the author of From Domesday to Magna Carta (1951), called William Rufus ‘probably the worst king that has occupied the throne from a moral standpoint.’

Matthew of Paris’s depiction of William Rufus from the 12th century

William Rufus was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey in September 1087. Shortly after his coronation his brother Robert Duke of Normandy crossed the English Channel with his army and attacked England. Robert roused the nobles of England who stood in opposition to William’s blatant disregard for religious tradition, but William ultimately won the battle and peace was restored between the two brothers. The great barons owned properties on both sides of the Channel (in Normandy as well as in England) and they stood to benefit from infighting between William and Duke Robert. Despite William’s victory over Robert, baronial revolts were frequent. William finally solidified his leadership only when Robert angrily departed on the First Crusade to fight the Saracens and essentially loaned Normandy to England in his absence.

William further inflamed the passions of the faithful when he struggled to assert himself over the English clerical leadership. At first he maintained a mutually tolerable relationship with Archbishop of Canterbury Lanfranc, but when the gentle Archbishop died in 1089, William delayed a new appointment for several years until eventually appointing the saintly Anselm, the Abbot of Bec in Normandy, as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Tensions quickly grew between the two leaders as William committed open blasphemy against the Church, and so Anselm, a fierce critic of William Rufus, was eventually forced into exile in France and he remained there until William’s death.

William Rufus’s untimely death is a fascinating tale. Like most men of the time, William was an avid hunter. One day while out in his private forest, the aptly named ‘New Forest,’ William was accidentally struck dead by an ill-fired arrow by Walter Tirel, a nobleman (one of the earliest accounts of his death comes down to us from the writings of William of Malmesbury in 1125). The loose arrow killed the king immediately, and in a panic, the group dispersed and left the body of William Rufus lying cold and alone in the forest. His corpse was not discovered until the following day by a group of peasants who carried the king’s body all the way to Winchester for burial. Conspiracy theories have abounded throughout the ages: was William Rufus murdered? Was there a plot to kill the uncouth king? The most obvious benefactor of the king’s death was William’s younger brother, Henry, who was also a member of the fateful hunting party. However, there have been other elaborate theories involving the King of France who was opposed to William’s expansionist efforts beyond Normandy. Other conspiracies involve secret dealings with the devil and witchcraft, likely stemming from William’s irreligious nature. To many of the country noblemen William’s death was a deliverance from an immoral king. Winston Churchill describes William’s death as follows: “…he was mysteriously shot through the head [or chest] by an arrow while hunting the New Forest, leaving a memory of shameless extractions and infamous morals, but also a submissive realm to his successor” (76).

An illustration of the death of William Rufus

Within three days, William’s younger brother Prince Henry had marshaled his supporters, secured the treasury, and was crowned king at Westminster Abbey. Thus Henry I began his reign in August 1100. He was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, and he was sometimes called “beaclerc” (or “good clerk”) because of a lifelong love of learning, or “clerkship.” Orderic Vitalis wrote in his 12th century Ecclesiastical History that Henry “was well instructed in both natural philosophy and knowledge of doctrine.”

Henry I successfully repaired the crown’s relationship with the Church after it had been so disparaged during the reign of his elder brother. For example, he recalled Anselm Archbishop of Canterbury from exile and reinstated long-standing customs. Henry’s court also condemned the decadence of William II’s era by ordering new dress codes -all the men of the court were promptly ordered to cut their long hair short. He cast William’s unpopular adviser, Ranulf Flambard, to the Tower of London, and Henry elevated the country’s financial and judicial concerns into the capable hands of his trusted adviser, Roger Bishop of Salisbury. At this point sophisticated bureaucracy begins to appear in England (the word coming from the French writing desk or “bureau”).

Matthew Paris’s 13th century depiction of Henry I

Shortly after his accession to the crown, Henry’s brother Robert, newly returned from the First Crusade, attempted to lay claim to the English crown but the two settled peaceably with Henry renouncing his claim to Normandy. However, as time went by Henry made calculated moves and alliances with the Barons surrounding Normandy, eventually ending in several invasions which led to Robert’s defeat in the early 12th century. He was imprisoned until his death in 1134. Thus, Henry was successful in reuniting his father’s realms. The Chronicler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle honored Henry with the title “Lion of Justice” as the people often called him in his day, because he successfully reunited the lands of England, Normandy, and Maine (a province of France).

Henry was a strong but opportunistic monarch, yet medieval historians have disparaged him for being a licentious king. He sired more bastards than any other English monarch (over twenty illegitimate children from six different mistresses). Certain historians like William of Malmesbury tried in vain to mask his character flaws by suggesting the good king merely desired more children.

Henry married Edith in 1100 (who went by Matilda to sound more ‘Norman’). She was the daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and St. Margaret (sister of Edgar the Aetheling), thus she was the last link to the Anglo-Saxon bloodline to ever sit on the throne of England. Henry’s marriage was a calculated effort to connect his rulership with the House of Wessex -the praiseworthy lineage of Alfred the Great. Matilda bore Henry two children who survived past infancy: a son named William and a daughter also named Matilda. Tragically, Henry’s only male heir, William, died in a shipwreck in the English Channel while en route to England from Normandy. The incident has come to be known as the sinking of the White Ship (1120), and it caused a crisis over the succession of the crown. In response, Henry announced that his daughter Matilda (“Maud”) would succeed him, rather than his nephew Stephen (the Count of Blois) or any number of Henry’s illegitimate heirs (the principle of succession by the closest blood relative had not yet been established). The crisis of succession was a fateful occurrence that would lead to a prolonged 20 year civil war throughout the land.

Early 14th century depiction of Henry I and the sinking of the White Ship

Henry I’s daughter Matilda, or “Maud” as the English called her, was betrothed to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany. Thus she is often remembered as the “Empress Matilda.” It was a childless marriage and it did not last long. She became a widowed Empress at the age of 22 in 1122 when Henry V died, and she was later married to Geoffrey the Count of Anjou. This second marriage was a loveless partnership. Nevertheless, empress Matilda was indeed an impressive woman. She was a fierce, cynical, and proud politician who thrived in her role as monarch. It was said that she had the “nature of a man in the frame of a woman” but her successes are best remembered in her offspring. Matilda or “Maud” gave birth to one of the greatest kings of England: the future Henry II (or “Henry Plantagenet” the son of Geoffrey of Anjou). The Plantagenets became the future rulers of England for 400 years.

Stephen, on the other hand, was the son of Adela of Normandy (daughter of William The Conqueror and sister of Henry I). Upon the death of his father Stephen-Henry in 1102, Stephen inherited the Countship of Blois in central France. He was known as a well-liked, easy-going man among the baronial elite.

At any rate, Henry I spent his greying elder years securing promises of submission to Matilda’s succession in an effort to prevent a future civil war. At one point, he summoned all the barons to receive their sworn allegiances to Matilda. Up until this point, Henry had maintained thirty years of relative peace and security across the English isle. While abroad in 1135 he fell ill and died unexpectedly, perhaps due to complications from eating excessive lampreys (fish).

Immediately following the death of Henry I, the stability of the monarchy fell into disarray. The chaotic era became known to latter day historians as “The Anarchy” (when Christ and his saints all slept, per Peter Ackroyd). Matilda was away in Anjou with her husband when the elder King Henry died, and immediately Stephen (Henry’s nephew and Count of Blois, grandson of William The Conqueror) charged toward London from Normandy and claimed the crown. He had previously sworn allegiance to Matilda, but he knew well that many of the magnates had no wish to be governed by a woman. Stephen’s rulership brought deep divisions among the barons (including fierce opposition from Henry’s bastard son Robert of Gloucester who was a loyalist of Matilda) and the decisive choice to crown Stephen was made by the Church regarding Stephen. Meanwhile, King David of Scotland (Matilda’s uncle) invaded England from the north and took Northumbria, but the Archbishop of York mustered his forces and fought a ferocious battle against the invaders called the Battle of the Standard. It became the prelude to civil war.

In 1139, Matilda freed herself from entanglements in France and returned to England to claim the throne. Many of the barons, dismayed by Stephen’s weaknesses (Stephen, as it turned out, made a better soldier than a king), joined forces with Matilda along with the Church and in 1141 a general rebellion broke out against Stephen. He was imprisoned at the Battle of Lincoln, a battle which saw Stephen overwhelmed while trying to storm the castle at Lincoln. Stephen’s own brother, Henry the Bishop of Winchester, joined Matilda’s side. During this period, the barons took advantage of the lack of leadership by claiming any and all riches for themselves according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. They stole themselves away into vast castles throughout the countryside to bide their time while country tore itself apart. However, thanks to the quick work of Stephen’s wife (who was also named Matilda) Stephen was released from prison and he narrowly escaped recapture.

Throughout this conflict mistakes were made on both sides. It was a war between cousins, a chess match of castles won or lost. Despite not having a coronation ceremony, Matilda was the de facto ruler of England for several months in 1141, however London rose up in open rebellion and forced Matilda out of the city. She was accustomed to ruling imperiously and the city was loyal to Stephen. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicler describes Matilda as haughty and intolerable -an arrogant and cold ruler. The entire region fell into a chaotic civil war for six more years, and with the death of Robert of Gloucester (Henry I’s bastard son and the one true loyalist of Matilda) all eyes fell on Matilda’s young son, Prince Henry to bring law and order back to the land. Eventually, Matilda left England and returned to Normandy where her son’s powerful kingdom was on the rise, but she never stopped advocating for Henry’s accession to the throne in England. In November 1153 it was the Church that brought the two sides together with the signing of the Treaty of Winchester, a treaty which forced Stephen to recognize Prince Henry as his heir. Within a year Stephen would be dead (perhaps due to an intestinal infection, though some suspect poison) and Henry of Anjou (son of Matilda) was set to become king.

Timeline of the Norman Monarchs:

  • William The Conqueror (December 25, 1066 – September 9, 1087)

    • Spouse: Matilda, daughter of the Count of Flanders
    • Bastard son of Robert Duke of Normandy (hence the moniker “William The Bastard”)
    • Duke of Normandy from the Viking bloodline. He conquered all of England following his decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings (October 14, 1066)
  • William II, William “Rufus” (September 26, 1087 – August 2, 1100)

    • Spouse: Unmarried
    • The second son of William The Conqueror, William Rufus was known as an unpleasant man who openly flaunted the sacred customs of the Church. He was likely a homosexual, never married, and was an unpopular ruler.
    • William Rufus was killed in a mysterious hunting accident in the New Forest.
  • Henry I “Henry Beauclerc” (August 5, 1100 – December 1, 1135)

    • Spouses: Edith (went by the name Matilda to sound more Norman) daughter of Edgar the Aetheling; Adela, daughter of the Count of Louvain.
    • Henry I was present at the hunting party where his brother was killed. He wasted no time in mourning and was crowned King of England three days later at Westminster Abbey.
    • Henry I repaired relationships with the Church and united his lands abroad, but he was a licentious man siring over 20 bastard children.
    • Henry’s only legitimate son William died in the tragic White Ship sinking. This caused a crisis of succession which eventually led to a prolonged civil war.
  • “The Anarchy” (1135-1153)

    • A 20 year civil war between Henry’s nephew Stephen Count of Blois, and Henry’s legitimate daughter and appointed heir Matilda (“Maud”). The period ended when Matilda’s son Henry (soon to be Henry II of the Plantagenet house) became king.
    • Stephen initially claimed the throne in 1135 despite prior promises to support Matilda. He was briefly captured and imprisoned in the mayhem and Matilda became Queen in 1141.
    • The two sides settled, thanks to the intervention of the Church, with the signing of the Treaty of Winchester in 1153 which acknowledged Henry as heir to the throne.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Matthew Paris’s chronicles, the writings of A.L. Poole, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Anglo-Saxon England, Part IV

Taking a step back for a moment, we return to the Viking pirates, the fearless thieves of the icy north who surprised much of Western Europe when their long-boats suddenly appeared out of the fog of the Dark Ages, sacking coastal towns, raiding churches, slaughtering and conquering thousands. At the time, the early Christian kingdoms of Western Europe were under two chief assaults: one from Arabic conquerors who invaded Spain and nearly claimed France (if not for Charles Martel “The Hammer” who was the grandfather of Charlemagne). And the other assault was from the Vikings. In England Alfred the Great had beaten back the invading Viking raiders from their near total conquest of the British isles. But who were these seafaring pirates from the north? Why did they leave their northern kingdoms in search of new lands?

The Vikings came westward of their own accord, under no pressure from the steppes of Asia unlike other westward migrating tribes. They quickly made their mark upon the world, rowing across great seas to Iceland, North America, European Russia, and even Constantinople, as well as Normandy. They laid siege upon the civilized world, including Paris, and they pillaged commercial hubs, even settling new cities such as the founding of Dublin.

The Viking soul was encapsulated in their long-ship, fiercely clad in dragon-headed shallow boats, capable of carrying ferocious and greedy pirates up the low lying rivers and streams of England. Their prize of choice was the gold of the church that lay strewn about Christendom largely in undefended coastal churches, abbeys, and monasteries. Their raids on coastal England were made infamous in the eighth century when they sacked Lindisfarne and plundered the church’s riches, killing many of the monks and selling the rest as slaves in the European markets. Eginhard, Charlemagne’s historian and biographer, writes that Viking raids on France were near constant. The 9th and 10th centuries was a terrifying epoch: the age of the Vikings.


By the time Cnut (“Canute”), Prince of Denmark, rose to power following the death of his father Sweyn Forkbeard in AD 1014, the Vikings already owned vast lands across the world. Cnut’s father, Sweyn, was the son of Harold Bluetooth who founded Denmark as a Christian kingdom. At the time, the Vikings possessed a vast seafaring empire that extended from northern Europe to North America, but Sweyn’s crowning achievement was the British isle. Following the second major Viking invasion of England, Cnut made his primary home and capital in England. He preferred the Anglo-Saxon way of life and he hoped to model his kingship upon Edgar and his enviable years of peace. For more than a century, the Vikings had now transformed themselves from pirates into settlers of England.

A medieval re-imaging of Cnut fighting Edmund Ironsides

With the decline and fall of the house of Wessex, coupled with the death of his father, Cnut initially returned home to Denmark, apparently lacking the will to claim England as his own. Before he departed English shores, however, Cnut returned the bodies of his captives, each one horribly mutilated -a dark event that foreshadowed things to come. Cnut returned the following year to England and he battled with Edmund “Ironsides” until a peace was achieved, dividing the two kingdoms north and south, but Edmund’s death shortly thereafter left open the question of the English crown.

Within this power vacuum, Cnut took the throne of England in AD 1016 and thus he became the most powerful monarch in Western Europe, second only to the Holy Roman Emperor. His empire extended from England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden through the important trade routes of the North Sea, the English Channel, and also the Baltic Sea. He quickly put to death Edmund’s brother Eadwig. Edmund’s children were hidden away in eastern Europe (Hungary) while Aethelred’s remaining children sought refuge at the court of Normandy. Cnut’s power was complete, but it was not a cultural revolution. Cnut allowed many existing nobles to live undisturbed and he supported the monasteries to continue as centers of learning. Like all great rulers, Cnut instituted a new code of laws for his kingdom, but the new code was largely based on existing English customs and Christian traditions. It was crafted with the help and support of Wulfstan, Archbishop of York.

A 14th century illustration of Cnut “The Great”

However, England was not to be left untouched for long. Across the Channel the vigorous and rigidly organized Normans were expanding their influence. The kingdom of Normandy was founded as a Viking settlement in the early 10th century and it rapidly grew into a feudal kingdom. The order of Normandy was predicated upon a class of aristocratic nobles who each held land in exchange for military service, and, in turn, these nobles extended sublets on their lands to inferior ranks. The Norman Dukes claimed ultimate control over their courts and property, as well as over the affairs of the churches and monasteries in their region. Between 1028-1035, Robert the Duke of Normandy turned his attention to a serious invasion of England, but his death temporarily suspended the project.

Meanwhile, Cnut had married the sister of Robert, Duke of Normandy, in a unique moment that united two rival kingdoms (Robert’s sister was also previously the wife of Aethelred “The Unready”). Her name was Emma -the bride of two kings of England- who also gave birth to two sons who became future kings of England. Cnut died in 1035 and with him went his imperial ambitions of a Viking England. Cnut was conferred the honorable burial rites of an Anglo-Saxon King -he was buried at Winchester Cathedral in the capital of West Saxony (“Wessex”). He had three sons, all of whom were both “boorish” and “ignorant” according to Winston Churchill. His two sons Harold “Harefoot” (born from his “temporary wife” Aelgifu) and Harthacnut (born from his legitimate wife Emma of Normandy) fought over the crown from the northern and the southern kingdoms. Both respective mothers also played an active role in the dispute between the two brothers. Per the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Harathcnut “never did anything worthy of a king while he reigned.”

At the same time, Alfred “the innocent prince” and Edward, both sons of Aethelred and Emma, were still exiled in Normandy. In 1036 Alfred hastened home under the auspices of visiting his again-widowed mother. Meanwhile, a powerful Wessex earl named Godwin, was gaining support among the Danish faction to claim the crown. He shrewdly took Alfred under his wing, promising him protection, and then sprang a trap on the young prince -Godwin’s men suddenly slaughtered Alfred’s attendants (some were sold for money, while others were beheaded, mutilated, and scalped). Godwin’s men then tied Alfred naked to a horse and blinded him. The poor young prince was henceforth relegated to a lowly life. He lived out the remainder of his short life in the monastery at Ely.

Godwin had thus solidified his power and left vacant the throne of England, but in times of great anarchy, as the situation in 11th century England clearly indicated, the people demanded a sense of stability, and no image was more stable than the sixth generation from the bloodline of Alfred the Great. Knowing this truism, Godwin strongly encouraged (some might say threatened) Aethelred and Emma’s other son, Edward, to return to England and become king. His only obligation was to meet Godwin’s demands, the first of which was preventing any Norman influence at his court. And so it was, in 1042 that Edward “The Confessor,” as he was later dubbed for his supposed piety, the great-great-great-grandson of Alfred the Great took the throne and ruled under the firm control of Godwin and his family.

According to tradition, Edward The Confessor was a “kindly, weak, chubby, albino” per Winston Churchill. He was raised at the court of the Normans, and was forced to wed the daughter of Godwin, though it was merely a political marriage. During his reign, Edward gradually allowed certain Norman customs to filter into the courts and the churches of England, at least as much as the Earl Godwin would allow. Meanwhile, Godwin had been supplanting the landed gentry with his own family ties in an effort to secure his power. This drew the ire of the Norman presence and in 1051 a crisis struck. The Norman faction successfully banished Godwin from England. Godwin fled with his son Harold (“Godwinson”) to Flanders where they raised an army and returned to England, demanding the succession of the throne. Edward was obliged to give it to them at the sword’s edge. Godwin died only seven months later, and for the next thirteen years Harold essentially served as the ruler of England, though Edward The Confessor still retained the title of king. Harold ruled freely despite opposition from his brother Tostig, the Anglo-Danish earls and the many Normans still living on the island who supported the court of Edward the Confessor.

Harold meeting Edward The Confessor as featured in the Bayeux Tapestry, a vast embroidery depicting events leading up to the Norman conquest of England

As time passed, Edward The Confessor’s many frailties were forgiven by the people because of his devout virtues (hence the moniker “The Confessor”). He lived out his last days much like a monk (Winston Churchill draws comparisons between Edward the Confessor and the latter Henry VI). However, all the vitality from the reign of Alfred The Great was now vanished from his royal house. All that remained of the fierce King Alfred was a sickly boy and his sister, alongside an aging sovereign. England was growing weak. The earls ruled their lands with complete impunity, the royal bureaucracy was a mess, coastal defenses were gradually neglected, but the church continued to grow in eminence.

In the middle of the 11th century Edward The Confessor began constructing a Romanesque abbey. It was built on the site near where a Benedictine monks once had a monastic church. The impressive abbey became known as Westminster Abbey. It was completed shortly before Edward’s death and he was buried in the Abbey one week after he died. His successor Harold was likely crowned in the Abbey, however the first known monarch to be crowned at Westminster Abbey was William The Conqueror.

Contemporary historians have instructed us that Edward The Confessor was effeminate and weak, but the legend of his piety, carefully crafted by the church, paints the picture of a quietly virtuous Christian king; and somewhere in the middle of these two portraits we receive the story of an aging monarch on his deathbed, whispering the prophecy of a coming apocalypse for England. Thus, in January of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon kingship ended, the flame of Alfred The Great was extinguished upon the death of Edward The Confessor. In the years to come, Edward would be enshrined at Westminster as a center for pilgrimage (the shrine was constructed many years after his death) and even a cult arose in his name. The name “Edward The Confessor” would recall fond memories for both the Saxons, as well as the Normans, during times of duress, and as time went by, Edward became “Saint” Edward The Confessor, the patron saint of England until the English appropriated St. George during the Hundred Years War -a figure that Winston Churchill finds far more suitable to the island’s “needs, mood, and character” than Edward the Confessor.

“The figure of Edward the Confessor comes down to us faint, misty, frail. The medieval legend, carefully fostered by the Church, whose devoted servant he was, surpassed the man. The lights of Saxon England were going out, and in the gathering darkness a gentle, grey-beard prophet foretold the end. When on his death-bed Edward spoke of a time of evil that was coming upon the land his inspired muttering struck terror into the hearers… Thus on January 5, 1066, ended the line of the Saxon kings” (Winton Churchill 62-63).


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

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).

Alfred the Great (871-899)

I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works

-Author’s note in Alfred’s translation of Boethius’s On The Consolation of Philosophy

Alfred (or “Aelfred) is the only king of England ever to be given the epithet “The Great.” He earned his moniker as a result of a fervent defense of the homeland against the invading Danes (or Vikings and Norsemen, “North Men” from Scandinavia), as well as his support for literacy, education, the arts, and architecture. Alfred is popularly the most celebrated of the Anglo-Saxon kings, and with good reason.

Alfred was the fifth and youngest son of King Aethelwulf of the House of Wessex, and he was clearly the favorite child. Bright, learned, well-traveled, and curious, Alfred lived a charmed life. He was known to have a keen mind from a young age -entirely memorizing books of poetry. In AD 855 he traveled to Rome with his father on a pilgrimage. They visited the court of Charles the Bald, of the Frankish King, and Alfred gained an appreciation for Charles’s grandfather, Charlemagne.

Alfred’s father, Aethelwulf died shortly after their return to Wessex in AD 858 and Alfred’s three older brothers each assumed the throne in succession (a fourth brother died before their father Aethelwulf’s death).

In the mid 9th century the Danes began to raid England. They were lured from their homes in present-day Denmark and Norway by the promise of riches strewn about the English isle in defenseless castles and monasteries. For many kingdoms, there was little time to prepare, however the kingdom of Wessex found a measure of success against the Danes. Alfred quickly learned the art of war alongside his brother Aethelred. The Danes began by raiding the coasts, including an infamous raid on Lindisfarne island, the seat of Christian culture in Northumbria. There they stole riches and torched buildings (“Viking” is a word that comes down to us meaning something akin to “pirate”). The monks of Lindisfarne carried away the bones of St. Cuthbert and St. Aidan, the Celtic patron saint of Northumbria and the founder of the monastery at Lindisfarne. However some of these same Vikings later returned to Northumbria from the cold shores of Denmark and Norway after finding the English soil and climate more hospitable. What began as wanton acts of piracy gradually became a process of invasion and settlement. Their newly acquired lands became known as Danelaw.

In 865-866 a “Great Army” arrived in East Anglia and overwhelmed the region. From there, they ventured north to York and took the city, thus conquering Northumbria. When an attempt to re-gain the city by King Aella had failed, he was captured and, according to legend, Aella was mercilessly tortured and executed in the hideously gruesome procedure known as the “blood eagle.” From the mid-860s onward, the Danes were dominant under the leadership of Ivar “The Boneless.” After conquering all surrounding kingdoms, the Danes eventually turned their gaze southwest to Wessex.


Meanwhile Alfred had married a Mercian noblewoman, Ealhswith in AD 867. Asser, Alfred’s medieval biographer, notes that Alfred suffered from some sort of affliction, perhaps what we might call a psycho-somatic illness. Asser writes that Alfred’s illness was particularly acute on the day of his wedding.

AD 871 became known as the ‘Year of Battles’ as the Danes and Wessex squared off. After the death of his elder brother Aethelred, Alfred assumed the throne in his early twenties. He came to power with a kingdom in chaos and under threat. Following an immediate string of disappointing losses to the Danes, young Alfred was forced to negotiate a peace for five years, but his battle with the Danes would continue for years to come. He paid them off with the “Danegold” and they “swore upon the holy ring” not to invade Wessex again -a foreboding act of treachery. The Danes retreated north divided their forces and the new Viking leader Guthrum led his forces back southward into Wessex territory. In this milieu Alfred became a skilled military leader, defending his burhs (or as we now know them as “burroughs”). He used a variety of tactics to starve out and terrorize the invading Danes, and he also built up the Wessex naval forces, hence Alfred is known as the father of the British navy (one of the earliest American naval vessels was also called the U.S.S. Alfred).

However, Alfred continued to suffer crushing losses as well as a surprise attack that put him on the run on the Twelfth Night Christmas holiday. Thus during the Christmas of AD 878, Alfred went incognito tailing Guthrum through Wessex while the Danes ventured deep into his kingdom. Alfred was forced to travel undercover ‘into the wilderness’ through the marshes as he fell back to Athelney. There is an old popular legend in which Alfred, dressed as a commoner, was taken in by a swineherd and while sitting pensively he was scolded by the lady of the house whose bread-cakes had started to burn.

Alfred was also a man of the people. In order to build up defenses against the Danes, he strengthened relationships with the surrounding shires (or what we today might call counties). Historically, Wessex was divided into five shires: Somerset, Devonshire, Wilshit, Dorset, and Hampshire. Each shire was governed with open-air juries led by ealdermen -a relic of the early Anglo-Saxon era.

From the egalitarian, ealderman-led communities of rural Wessex, Alfred was able to regather his forces and launch a final, all-out campaign against Guthrum and the Danes. The two armies met likely on a hill above Edington in AD 878 (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests they fought over a legendary ‘Stone of Egbert’) where a savage and bloody battle was fought for the soul of Wessex. Guthrum knew all that stood in the way of a Viking conquest of England was Alfred and his army, and the men of Wessex knew this was their last chance to fight for an independent kingdom. Hundreds of years later, mutilated bodies buried in the dirt were uncovered, revealing what must have been a harrowing day. The Battle of Edington, as it has come to be known, was the turning point in Alfred’s reign as king. After a score of latter victories, Alfred successfully muted the advance of the Norsemen, pushing them back to eastern England and redefining the borders.

The battle was an extraordinary success for Wessex. It unified Alfred’s leadership over his nobles, put the Danes on the run, and as part of Guthrum’s surrender, the Danes were forced to convert to Christianity. It was baptism by the sword. Alfred had succeeded where his predecessors had stalled. However despite the new peace agreement, Alfred was prepped for war. he built up his extensive fortifications throughout the burhs of Wessex, which successfully held off the Danes for years to come.

Woodforde, Samuel; King Alfred ‘The Great’ (846/849-899); National Trust, Stourhead; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/king-alfred-the-great-846849899-101256

Alfred is known widely for his enlightened disposition -his advocacy for reading, writing, and learning. Despite latter day interpolations, and Asser’s enthusiastic but less-than-truthful picture of the king, Alfred only learned to read in early adulthood. However, he was a profound reformer and an advocate of an english renaissance in literacy education -perhaps drawing inspiration from Charlemagne before him. He built a new court school, in the manner of Charlemagne. He translated several Latin texts into Old English, including Pope Gregory the Great’s On Pastoral Care (a manual for clergy which he eagerly distributed to his bishops), Boethius’s On The Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine’s writings, and other Biblical texts, like the Latin Psalters. Alfred was also the patron of the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Alfred was great legal reformer, issuing a legal code (the Doom Book, or “book of laws”). At the outset of his laws, Alfred highlights several ancestral kings he bases his new Christian laws upon -Ine, Offa, and even Aethelbert. While his elder brother, Aethelred, was an inwardly pious leader, the flame of the intellect and the liberal arts took hold of Alfred’s mind. They were distinct in their approach to kingship.

After the defeat of the Danes at Edington, each of the fortified burhs grew into a rapidly urbanized marketplaces and communities under the direction of the king, and thus trade in Wessex flourished. The crown jewel of the burhs was London, formerly Londinium under the Romans, and Lundenwic under the rule of Offa, and Mercia, before it feel into the hands of the Vikings, but Alfred’s reclamation of the port city was a re-founding of sorts for this future capital.

Of Alfred’s general demeanor, Asser writes:

Now, he was greatly loved, more than all his brothers, by his father and mother—indeed, by everybody—with a universal and profound love, and he was always brought up in the royal court and nowhere else…[He] was seen to be more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour…[and] in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.

— Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge translation of Asser’s Life of Alfred 1983, pp. 74–75

Alfred died on October 26, 899 at the age of either 50 or 51. He had five sons, including Edward “The Elder” who succeeded Alfred as king of Wessex. Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, would later unify the kingdoms under one single banner -he is sometimes considered the first king of England.

Finally, there is a controversy regarding Albert’s final resting place. He was buried at Hyde Abbey, a medieval Benedictine monastery in Winchester, the capital of Wessex (Alfred’s body was moved to the newly re-consecrated abbey during the reign of his son Edward “The Elder”). However, hundreds of years later King Henry VIII made the fateful decision to destroy many Catholic churches, monasteries, and abbeys throughout the land as part of his personal conflict with Catholicism. Hyde Abbey was unfortunately one of those churches that was destroyed. For over 250 years, the final resting place of Alfred and his son Edward was forgotten. Eventually, in the late 18th century, the county acquired the land where Hyde Abbey once stood with the hopes of constructing a prison. The future convicts were put to work digging the foundation of the new prison edifice. As the prisoners dug deeper, they likely destroyed the interred bones of Alfred, the greatest king of Anglo-Saxon England (there were reports among the prisoners of discovering gold and all manner of treasure beneath the surface).


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great. Asser was a monk of St. David’s.

Anglo-Saxon England, Part II

With the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons a panoply of changes took effect across Britain. Old English replaced Latin as the lingua franca, the island of Britannia was renamed Aengla Land after the Angles, and perhaps most significantly, there was a political shift. The Saxons brought with them the idea of kingship by consent. That is, the Saxons selected ‘kings’ from amongst themselves, and the kings ruled with limited authority. It was not yet a monarchy familiar to modern minds but it was rulership by the consent of the governed and it was entirely foreign to a culture that carried the fresh memory of the decadent Roman Empire. The legacy of self-government from the Anglo-Saxons is still with us today.

This Anglo-Saxon epoch was captured wonderfully in the epic folk-poem, Beowulf. The hero, Beowulf, is an elected leader who becomes king, ruling for ‘fifty winters.’ Upon his death, a great pyre is built and valuables are buried in an Anglo-Saxon rites ceremony. Anthropologists of Anglo-Saxon culture were delighted when in 1939 the ceremonial practices described in Beowulf were triumphantly confirmed at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk where vast riches, likely once the possessions of a great king, were unearthed along with an entirely buried Dark Age Anglo-Saxon ship. Perhaps this king was Redwald of East Anglia. His iron helmet indicates royalty and the vast riches unearthed matched time period -including Merovingian coins dating to AD 625 (the most successful Anglo-Saxon kings built alliances with the powerful Frankish kingdom in contemporary France).

A partially reconstructed helmet found at Sutton Hoo. It was buried in AD 625 and is believed to have belonged to King Redwald of East Anglia.

Over time, Anglo-Saxon England was divided into seven chief kingdoms, sometimes referred to as the “heptarchy.” The regional names have continued to this day, like Northumbria (“north of the Humber River”), Essex (“East Saxony”), Wessex (“West Saxony”), and Sussex (“South Saxony”). Each king jockeyed for power to rule over the others as bretwalda (“Britan-Ruler”). Names like Redwald of East Anglia (mentioned above) and Offa of Mercia loom large over this period (he called himself Rex Anglorum, “King of the English”). Some consider Redwald to be the occupant of the massive ship excavated at Sutton Hoo. During his lifetime, Offa led some remarkable advances in Roman-styled coinage throughout his kingdom, and across the Channel his rule coincided with Pepin the Short’s Carolingian Revolution of the Frankish kingdom (Pepin usurped the throne in AD 751, 49 years later his son Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas morning AD 800).

With the rise of the Frankish kingdom and the decline of Offa’s family, the kingdom of Wessex arose as the dominant power in Anglo-Saxon England. In AD 827 Egbert, a former exile at Charlemagne’s court during the Offa years, returned to England and claimed the throne of Wessex. He dominated many of the surrounding kingdoms, calling himself the new Rex Anglorum. He was followed by his son Aethelwulf in AD 839, a devoutly pious man and father of five sons, including Alfred the Great (Aethelwulf took young Alfred on a trip to Rome to see the Pope -a trip that would have remarkably lasting consequences). Each of Aethelwulf’s sons then ruled in turn: Aethelbald (Aethelwulf’s second son) took the throne of Wessex in AD 858. He was in some sort of conflict with his father while Aethelwulf traveled with Alfred abroad and after his father’s death, Aethelbald later married his stepmother, causing condemnation from the church. At the time, the church in Rome had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the British Isle.

All across the isle was a religious schism. The ashes of Rome had left a Christian heritage, while the Anglo-Saxons had remained largely pagan, with many leaders claiming to descend from Woden, himself. In the 5th century, a Roman Briton St. Patrick was living somewhere on the British Isles. He was captured and enslaved by a band of marauding Irish pirates. He was forced into servitude, tending animals in Ireland but he escaped after six years only to return to the Emerald Isle and spread the faith across Ireland and Scotland, with the help of his follower, St. Columba who founded the important Abbey at Iona (a small island off the coast of western Scotland). Thus, the form of Christianity that took hold among the Celts was monastic, ascetic, and characterized by vast abbeys and monasteries, as well as sacred and ornately decorated books, like the famous Book of Kells (9th century). In parts of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales Christianity grew entirely apart from mainland papal authority. One unique example of the unusual character of early British Christianity is the cult of St. Alban, in honor of the martyrdom of Alban at the Romano-British city of Verumalium, today known as St. Albans.

However, this unique Christian heritage was not always entirely popular with mainstream Roman Christianity. For example, a well-educated, ascetic monk living somewhere on the British Isles named Pelagius (354-418) taught a controversial doctrine that was highly antithetical to the apostolic and Augustinian tradition, namely that humans were not fallen as a result of “original sin” and instead could achieve goodness and grace through their own free will (i.e. without divine intervention). This “Pelagian Heresy” -as it came to be known- needed to be stamped out by the church (Pope Innocent I condemned Pelagius at Augustine’s behest).

In an effort to spread the ‘true faith’ Pope Gregory “The Great” sent a cohort of bishops led by a man named Augustine (not to be confused with St. Augustine of Hippo.) Today he is known as “Augustine of Canterbury” because his cohort reluctantly landed at Kent after expressing their wish not to continue with the mission -the British isle seemed far too dangerous a place, so the group initially landed at Gaul requesting permission to abandon the mission from the Pope, but their request was denied. With no other options, they set sail across the Channel to Kent.

The Southeastern region of Kent had recently been conquered by the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex and King Aethelbald’s brother was put in charge. When Augustine and his group landed, they were met by the pagan King Aethelbert (brother of Aethelbald) who had married the Christian princess Bertha of the Franks. A pagan king and a Christian queen. Bertha brought to Kent her Frankish, Christian bishop, Luidhard, and King Aethelbert gave Bertha a little church originally from the Romano-British era called St. Martin’s to worship (she named it after Martin of Tours, the patron saint of the Merovingian family). This church is now the oldest still active church in England today. It was located just outside the capital city of Kent at Canterbury. On the ruins of this ancient church, Augustine founded the British Christian tradition (he later died before completing the construction of his prized cathedral at Canterbury which was first founded in AD 597 and then entirely rebuilt between 1070-1077 by the Normans). Initially skeptical of the newcomers, Aethelbert had Augustine confined to the island of Thanet. He consulted his advisors about the ‘magical powers’ of this new preacher, but the allure of a strengthened relationship with the Franks was too promising a prospect, thus Aethelbert allowed Augustine entry and free-reign to preach the gospel in Kent. Augustine first arrived in Canterbury clad in robes, singing the litany in Latin, while also carrying a large icon of Jesus -a scene which must have seemed magical to the Anglo-Saxons. Augustine’s preaching caught hold among the populace and he baptized thousands, including King Aethelbert, himself, who eventually converted to Christianity -much to Queen Bertha’s delight. After his conversion, Aethelbert issued a new series of laws much like the Byzantine Justinian Code.

In the coming years, the authority of the church in England was established in a series of letters between Pope Gregory and St. Augustine of Canterbury. The Pope was to be the supreme authority, but England would be self-governing for all internal matters by two archbishops -one in the north in York and the other in the south in Canterbury. This dual leadership was novel but would cause future political strife -Augustine declared himself the superior authority as the first archbishop of Canterbury. Augustine died in AD 605, and Aethelbert died nearly a decade later. Both were buried at the splendid abbey at Canterbury which was later named in the honor of “St. Augustine” (not to be confused with Canterbury Cathedral where Chaucer’s famous pilgrims ventured). In the end, church and state both found their final resting place alongside one another in the cemetery at St. Augustine’s: Augustine and his followers were buried on one side of the church, and Aethelbert, Bertha, and their successors on the other.

In the north, in AD 664, the King of Northrumbria issued a proclamation regarding the church. He made the heavy decision to side with Catholic Rome, rather than the Celtic monks. However, tensions would remain in place between north and south, Celtic and Catholic for years to come.

After the death of Aethelbert, the throne of the House of Wessex passed to Aethelred, the fourth son of Aethelwulf. His reign oversaw the violent arrival of the Vikings and their takeover of the surrounding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Northumbria, and Mercia. However, Wessex had the advantage over the Vikings with minimal rivers with which the Danes could use to sail inland and pillage the many English commercial ports (including an occupation of London). Through the year AD 871, Aethelred, ever the pious Christian, waged a divinely ordained war alongside his younger brother against the invaders, including an impressive victory at Ashdown, but Aethelred caught a sickness late in the year AD 871 and he died after ruling for six years. Following Aethelred’s reign came the most consequential Anglo-Saxon king who would ever take the throne: Alfred “The Great,” the fifth son of Aethelwulf. Alfred assumed the kingship of Wessex while still in his early twenties.


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and the writings of Gildas, the Venerable Bede, and Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great.