Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

England after Alfred

Steve Muhlberger
The Viking impact

Despite the big impact the Vikings had on England, and the number who settled there, we know very little about Viking individuals from the 8th and 9th centuries.

I can't invent personalities to put more color into that history, something should be said about their impact.

The Danes, and to a lesser extent the Norwegians, came to England in great enough numbers to change the political and cultural map permanently, and even to affect the English language.

For the northern church, the invasions were a disaster.

Two bishoprics, that of Lindisfarne and York, managed to maintain some kind of institutional continuity, and were restored, but the other three simply disappeared. Bishoprics were the solidest institutions of any medieval country. Well before the Vikings came, they were an essential part of English society, and more stable than any kingdom.   The imposition of a rapacious pagan ruling class, however, wrecked these pillars of the church. The same applies to monasteries -- they almost all disappeared in the area of settlement.

Does this mean that a lot of Vikings settled in England? Not necessarily. A destructive warrior aristocracy that did nothing more but seize land and subjugate those who worked it could have accomplished the same thing. Other evidence has to be used.

There are legal differences between northeastern England and the rest, which much later led that area to be called the Danelaw. Again, this is not a foolproof indicator. A new ruling class could have imposed new customs, and Danish customs could have been adopted by Englishmen for their own reasons between 900 and the period when the Danelaw is first documented. Legal customs do move around if people find them useful.

The linguistic evidence is the best. First there is the matter of placenames. In the Danelaw, if I can use that inexact term, there are a lot of Danish town names, which end with the suffix "by." Whitby is an example of that type of name. There are other names where a Scandinavian personal name, such as "Grim," has been attached to the English suffix "ton," to give a hybrid English-Danish hybrid, Grimston, a kind of name that would be found neither in the rest of England or in Denmark. Finally, along the northwest coast of England, in Cumbria and Westmoreland, there are Scandinavian names that show a strong Norwegian influence. These Norwegian Vikings were connected with the Norwegians who dominated the Irish coast, the Isle of Man, and western and northern Scotland.

Scholars disagree on how to interpret the distribution of names, but the the most likely reconstruction is that a considerable number of Danes settled in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, and that in these areas they were a reasonable proportion of the population. In East Anglia, there may have been a lot of settlers, too, but East Anglia had a higher English population, and so the newcomers were probably a smaller percentage of the total.

It looks like Vikings settled both in the best land and on land that was bad and probably never before settled. This suggests that the newcomers were not just aristocrats taking over an existing society, but also there were peasant soldiers looking for new, perhaps rather modest, homes.

The linguistic evidence also shows that there was nowhere that English disappeared. The basic names of the countryside, the names of fields, are English almost everywhere. Invaders and natives lived side by side. They must have talked a great deal, too. It is interesting that the modern words "they," "them," and "their" are not originally Anglo-Saxon, but Danish. This is a good symbol of the interaction of the two groups, and of the impact of the Danes on England.

How did the native English and the invaders get along? We can take it for granted that the English did not enjoy been robbed, not to mention being enslaved and murdered. But the invasion did not provoke a detectable national resentment, either. We know for a fact that some English aristocratic families survived with their property and social position substantially intact.

Even the church felt justified in striking up a modus vivendi with the pagans. The bishopric of Lindisfarne, known to contemporaries as the church of St. Cuthbert after its famous early bishop, was the earliest English victim of the Vikings, in 795. Nevertheless, St. Cuthbert's people made a quick accommodation with pagan conquerors after the fall of Northumbria about 70 years later.

One reason for this, it appears, was that the last English kings in the north had been robbing St. Cuthbert's community, and had forfeited the loyalty of the clergy. When the Vikings seized Northumbria, the monks hit the road, taking the relics of the saint and other precious things with them. After a few years, however, St. Cuthbert appeared to the community in a vision and told them to make their peace with the Danes, who would endow the church with a large tract of land. That land, known in the Middle Ages as St. Cuthbert's Land, survives today in the modern county of Durham. The story shows that quite quickly both pagan Vikings and Christian clergy realized that they would have to live together, and started working on a friendly relationship.

The accomodation was helped by the fact that the Danes soon began to convert to Christianity, first perhaps as a matter of convenience, but then quite sincerely. There are some interesting stone crosses in the north carved with scenes from both Christian and pagan stories, which shows that paganism was not immediately forgotten. But it disappeared as an active force quite quickly.

Two more topics should be touched on before I take up my next subject. First, the economic impact of the Vikings. Viking conquest had the result of tying England very closely to the Scandinavian economic area. The robbery and the taking of slaves that followed the appearance of the Great Army created a class of freebooters with money burning holes in their pockets. Piracy and trade always go close together, because most pirates eventually end up selling much of their gains so they can buy exactly what they want. Slavery almost always accompanies piracy and conquest. So there were a lot of goods crossing the North Sea in both directions.

Once the trade routes opened up they tended to stay open. York benefited substantially from this development, and it became the main emporium of central Britain. In the last fifteen or twenty years York has been archaeologically investigated, and the Danish, pre-Norman town has been revealed as a populous, prosperous place. It had close to 10,000 people -- a very big city for western Europe at the time -- and in area, it was about as big as York would ever be before modern times.  The archaeological director of the York site has said that between 866 and 1066, York had "a pre-eminence and international importance it has never since equalled."

York is just the best example of how England almost became part of Scandinavia after 865.

The political map of England, c. A.D. 900

There was no single Viking state set up in England by the invaders. The conquests were parcelled out among a number of small kings.

The most powerful was the Danish king of York, who ruled most but not all of Northumbria -- the far north was left to English aristocrats who had no king of their own. The Achilles heel of the king of York was the fact that he had a rival. There was a Norse dynasty based in Dublin that thought it really should own York, and this was a constant worry.

Farther south, there was a Danish kingdom of East Anglia, Guthrum's kingdom. We know very little about it.

Between the Kingdom of York and the Kingdom of East Anglia was the Danish section of Mercia, which is called the Five Boroughs. These were the towns of Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, and Stamford, and the districts attached to each one. From what the chroniclers say, the boroughs were the settlements of five separate small armies. We hear nothing of their kings, and if they acknowledged the overlordship of a king elsewhere, they acted as independent little states.

The picture is rounded off by the two unconquered English states, southwestern Mercia led by the ealdorman Aethelred and his wife Aethelflaed, and Wessex, ruled by Alfred's oldest son Edward. Edward is usually called Edward the Elder to distinguish him from the later, post- Norman Conquest Edwards.

The Expansion of Wessex

Wessex expanded significantly in the time of King Alfred's children. Aethelflaed, Alfred's daughter and the wife of the Mercian ealdorman, turned out to be as important as Edward.

Almost as important, too, was their cousin Aethelwold, because he nearly upset the whole applecart. Aethelwold was the son of Alfred's brother and predecessor Aethelred.  Aethelwold had been excluded from politics. Now that his uncle Alfred was dead, Aethelwold tried a coup d'etat to push his cousin Edward aside. He seized a royal manor, thus defying the new king.

Edward promptly called up his levies and surrounded the hall where Aethelwold and the men who had sworn allegiance to him. Aethelwold refused to come out, saying he would live or die there in true heroic fashion. Then, in a scene out of satire instead of epic poetry, he sneaked out in the middle of the night and made his escape. Even in the heroic age, some people thought that discretion was the better part of valor.

Aethelwold  ran off to Northumbria, presumably to the kingdom of York, and began to look for Viking allies. Indeed, over the next few years Aethelwold acted just the way we expect Vikings to act, raiding parts of Wessex  and Mercia, until he was killed in 903.

The rebellion illustrated how important unity within the ruling class was for these English kingdoms. Aethelwold seems to have had little support within Wessex, but he still inflicted damage. If any sizeable number of West Saxon nobles had defected to him, the kingdom might have lost its independence. There were still Vikings around interested in the profits of warfare, and fleets and armies could be raised on spec by anyone who was a good enough promoter.

A few years later (909), Edward the Elder felt strong enough to begin raiding the Danish states on his border. In 909 he made a great raid into Danish territory and carried off a great deal of booty. After he killed the king of Yor in 910, Edward felt safe in beginning to seize territory. The first piece he took from his ally, Mercia. The ealdorman Aethelred died in 910, and Edward took control of Oxford and London, formerly Mercian areas. He left his sister in charge of the rest -- she was called Lady of the Mercians and was effectively the uncrowned queen.

For the next eight years, Edward and Aethelflaed slowly gobbled up the small Danish states of southern England. They had no overall ruler, and don't seem to have worked well together. The children of Alfred, however, had good tactics: they build strong burhs on their boundaries, then used these forts to harass their neighbors. They took small bites of territory, and when they got them, they built new burhs to secure them.

In 918, for a moment, brother and sister dominated all of England except the far north. They were nearly equal in power and in territory. But then Aethelflead died, and things changed dramatically. The King of Dublin, one Ragnald, took York and made himself king there. Edward himself played the evil uncle. Aethelflaed had left her kingdom to her only child, a daughter named Aelfwyn. At the end of 919, Edward marched into Mercia and deposed her. Mercia then disappeared forever.

With the victories of Edward the Elder, we are very close to the foundation of a united Kingdom of England under the dynasty of Wessex. They had gone so far so fast because of the legacy of Alfred. It is clear that Edward and Aethelflaed had not let Alfred's military organization go to waste. They had turned it into a weapon of aggression, one that worked very well against the small, disorganized Danish states. We can imagine these states as being full of fat graying Vikings and their sons, playboy Anglo-Danes, all of them easy meat for the tough West Saxons. I'm not sure that image is fair, but on the organizational level it is close to the mark.

Alfred had learned in a hard school how to make royal authority a reality -- a military reality, a naval reality, an administrative reality. His methods, when pursued with the thoroughness that was one of his chief traits, were a good foundation for a strong kingdom. In the time of his equally thorough children, we see the first story of the new structure going up.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.