Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Wessex Conquers England

Steve Muhlberger

How Alfred's dynasty conquered England

After the death of his sister Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, in 918, her brother Edward (the Elder), king of Wessex,  moved into Mercia in 919, removed Aethelflaed's daughter from her position as de facto queen, and Mercia was absorbed into his own kingdom. He was not crowned king of Mercia.

Nor was this all. As lord of Southumbria, he dominated all of Britain. In the year 920, Edward met with Constantine, the King of Scots, Ragnald the King of York, the King of Strathclyde, and Ealdred of Bamburgh, the English ruler of northern Northumbria, and all of these rulers acknowledged Edward's overlordship. The Welsh princes had already sworn their allegiance. It was an impressive climax to a career of successful expansionism.

The year 920 is perhaps as good a date as any to stop talking about the Kingdom of Wessex and begin to speak of the Kingdom of England. Tenth century descendants of Edward the Elder called themselves kings or emperors of England or even of all Britain. Their claim to overlordship of all England was generally secure.

But the job of bringing all the English under royal control was not finished in 920. Direct control of Northumbria eluded Edward. There was still a king in York, and he was a powerful man. And the existence of that separate kingdom left England open for further Scandinavian intervention.  There were a number of different claimants for the throne of Dublin and the kingship of York, so there was always the danger that one of them would get together a Viking fleet and try to take York.

The politics of the north were further unsettled by the ambitions of other rulers. Until the Danes took York in 866, Northumbria had dominated the area from the Humber to the Firth of Forth. After that date, Northumbria was split between York and smaller English rulers further north, and so the Britons of Strathclyde and particularly the Kings of the Scots were ambitious to move in. The Kings of the Scots were up and coming figures in this period. Since about 850, they had been Kings of the Picts as well, and so they enjoyed, at least in theory, a monopoly of royal power in most of modern-day Scotland.

When Edward's son Athelstan became king in 925, incorporating Northumbria into his kingdom was the obvious challenge. He immediately started working on York. By the summer of 927, Athelstan had taken York, razed its walls to discourage further resistance, and gained the submission of all the remaining northern rulers. Seven years later, Athelstan tried a more ambitious project. In 934 he conducted a great invasion of Scotland, both by land and by sea. Permanent conquest was not the goal. Athelstan wanted loot to reward his followers and to fill his treasury, and wished to impress the King of Scots and the rest of the north with his power.

He did impress them, but so much so that he terrified his enemies into striking back. In 937, the King of of Scots and the King of Strathclyde joined with the King of Dublin, a man named Olaf Guthfrithson, to attack Athelstan. Athelstan survived the challenge. At a great battle at an now-unknown location called Brunanburh, Athelstan beat his combined enemies in a victory that the English saw at the time and for decades to come as a turning point. The solidity of the new English kingdom had been confirmed.

I should say, the solidity of the kingdom under a strong and capable king.

Athelstan died only two years after his great victory, and Olaf Guthfrithson, waiting in Dublin for some break in his favor, moved immediately to seize York. He succeeded in doing so, and wrung from Edmund, Athelstan's successor, recognition of his rule not only over York, but over the Five Boroughs as well. The personal element in 10th century politics is emphasized by the fate of this kingdom. Within two years Olaf was dead and his kingdom was soon retaken by Edmund.

Edmund strikingly reasserted English power in the north by destroying the kingdom of Strathclyde. Rather than trying to hold it himself, he turned it over to the Scots, buying friendship and what he hoped were stable boundaries. This is the beginning of the abandonment of the farthest parts of old Northumbria to the Scots, a process of accommodation that would take centuries to complete. The English kings, with their power based in the far south, were admitting that there were limits to what they could hold on to in the north.
After about 945, the new Kingdom of England had almost thirty years of peace.  The kings had an opportunity to consolidate their power -- a process most notable for the creation of governmental units that would last, in some cases, for over a thousand years.

Ruling the new kingdom

When we talk about the unification of England by the dynasty of Wessex, we have to look both at the institutions they built, which had a lasting significance, and also at the personal, dynastic element.

Let's look at institutions first.

England can be viewed in this connection as a number of different communities, each of which the king had an interest in controlling and regulating. The most important type of community was the shire.

Shires were led by men called ealdormen, who were the king's deputies with a particular responsibility for leading the fyrd of the shire to war.  When Wessex conquered the rest of England, a new organization was imposed on Mercia and East Anglia -- but not on the north. The new organization featured the building of royal strongholds, or burhs, and the definition of districts around them. As in Wessex itself, the free men of the burghal districts were required to garrison and maintain the burh, and to fight under the king's deputy for their district, and act as centers of trade and taxation.

The districts marked out by the Wessex dynasty evolved quickly into permanent subdivisions of the kingdom, shires. The new shires had their own ealdormen, and they had regular shire courts, meetings of the local nobles to decide issues of local importance, especially disputes over land. A shire court was a fairly aristocratic assembly. Not every free man could knock off work and travel to the burh, nor was everyone interested. Those who showed up were wealthy local leaders, the people who were influential in the area. The shire court was therefore an important assembly.

Shires of this sort did not exist north of the Humber River. The kings, whose power was based in the far south, had much less control up there. Northumbria was given instead to an earl -- a word derived from the Scandinavian word jarl -- who was practically a minor king. The king of England counterbalanced this marcher lord's great power by keeping a monopoly on episcopal appointments. The archbishop of York, and to a certain extent the bishop of Durham were important men in the kingdom, and effectively his deputies in the north.

The shires in south and central England were subdivided, in most cases into units called hundreds. In the areas of Danish settlement hundreds were called wapentakes instead. Theoretically hundreds were areas of 100 hides in extent, or with a tax assessment of 100 hides, but in reality they varied in size.

Hundreds and wapentakes were the basic unit of local government. Some hundreds were pre-existing communities, others seem to have been created in the 10th century when the shires were. Most of what we know about hundreds concerns judicial functions. All members -- all free men -- were required to meet every four weeks to do justice, which mainly meant controlling cattle theft.

If a theft was reported to the hundred man -- the headman of the district -- he organized the members to pursue the thief. Anyone caught stealing cattle was tried by customary law and had to pay a fine if convicted. Despite the Old West atmosphere, they didn't string up rustlers. Trials were either by ordeal, or through oath-helping. Under the latter system, a person proved his innocence by assembling a given number of responsible people who would back his claim under oath.

In the Danish areas, the same kind of local policing was done in a slightly different way. In each wapentake, twelve leading thegns (noblemen or gentry) were sworn to accuse and arrest thieves. They brought accused lawbreakers before the wapentake court, where a judgement was pronounced by the same twelve men, by a unanimous decision if possible, or by a majority of at least eight to four if necessary. This is the first trace of the English jury and also the first example of the principle of majority rule. Both seem to derive not from Anglo-Saxon roots, but from Scandinavian ones.

Hundreds and wapentakes had other functions as well. One 10th century ordinance required hundreds to have a designated body of twelve official witnesses. When local people wanted to buy and sell, they were to have two or three of these men present in case there was doubt later. Hundreds also had military and taxation functions. Groups of three hundreds were organized into shipsokes, districts that were each responsible for providing a ship and sixty men to man it for the royal navy.

I have completely ignored the role of the church in government, but otherwise I have now given you a sketch of 10th c. local and regional government. It was pretty basic, but reasonably logical. The country was organized into local communities that owed service to the king and were made responsible for maintaining law and order. The communities were run by assemblies of the responsible members. It all sounds very democratic, straightforward, and well-organized.

But this was a very aristocratic and family-oriented society, and I must conclude by reminding you of the fact. Tenth century England was a society where some people were slaves and had no rights. Women had more control over property than they would after the Norman Conquest, but they were not part of the political structure. Even among the free, feud law declared that some were worth 1200 shillings and others only 200. The feud law that settled many disputes, despite the attempts of kings to restrict it, meant that one had to rely on one's lord or family or allies to a very great extent -- personal connections meant a lot.

The neat theoretical structure I sketched before was many times adjusted in practice to account for regional differences and local political realities. The king systematized as much as he could, but he also had to bind the existing chieftains and communities to him with personal ties. There was no concept of citizenship he could rely on, there was not even one of a single English kingdom.

At least the idea would bear no political weight. As an example of the adjustment of theory to reality, let's look at the office of the ealdorman. Consistency would demand that there be one for every shire. In fact, larger areas, including several shires, were handed over to ealdormen who were practically subkings. The kings created such powerful subordinates not because they were tenderhearted towards local sensibilities. Rather, they knew that to govern a very diverse realm they had to win over and control the local big men. This was best done by putting the strongest men in charge and then holding them accountable. The king kept them loyal to him not through bureaucracy, but by travelling around his kingdom and meeting them face to face, and calling them all to court three times a year..

England is often cited as the great exception of 10th century Europe. Many European kingdoms were falling apart, disintegrating into a myriad of principalities and dukedoms. England, by contrast was developing centralized institutions, and beginning on the long road to the nation-state. This is all true, but I want to impress on you that the line between English success and continental failure was a thin one. English unity depended on the continuous effective use of royal power. The kings were executing a balancing act. The binding together of England into a single country was a long and sometimes precarious enterprise.

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

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.