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Part 4: The Anglo Saxon Period (con't) by Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.

Though much of Alfred's collection of laws came from earlier codes, there were some that were not derived from any known source and may thus be considered original. Showing the religious nature of one who had once depended upon the loyalty of his men for survival, the laws include provisions protecting the weaker members of society against oppression, limiting the ancient custom of the blood-feud and emphasizing the duty of a man to his lord.

It is now time to turn back to the Danish (Viking or Norsemen) invasion of England, and the part Alfred was to play in his country's defense and eventual survival. The West Saxon Annals (utilized as part of the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" that Alfred began around 890), tell us that the Vikings (also known as Norsemen or Danes) came as hostile raiders to the shores of Britain. Their invasions were thus different from those of the earlier Saxons who had originally come to defend the British people and then to settle. Though they did settle eventually in their newly conquered lands, the Vikings were more intent on looting and pillaging; their armies marched inland destroying and burning until half of England had been taken, and it seemed as if there was noone strong enough to stop them. However, just as an earlier British leader, perhaps the one known in legend as Arthur had stopped the Saxon advance into the Western regions at Mount Badon in 496, so a later leader stopped the advance of the Norsemen at Edington in 878. This time, our main source is more reliable; the leader was Alfred of Wessex.

Much of what we know about King Alfred, the only English monarch in all history to have received the appellation "the Great," comes from Life of Alfred by his Bishop Asser. It is a work of incomparable worth in its account of English history. During the reign of Elizabeth I, it was also decided that the Annals of St. Neots were also the work of Asser, and thus an authoritative source was given to many legends concerning the English king that appeared in the Annals. The strength of his Wessex Kingdom made it the ideal center for the resistance of Alfred to the Danish plans of conquest.

Before Alfred, the Danes had been relatively unopposed. They came in a huge fleet to London in 851 to destroy the army of Mercia and capture Canterbury, only to receive their first check at the hands of Aethelstan of Wessex. But this time, instead of sailing home with their booty, the Danish seamen and soldiers stayed the winter on the Isle of Thanet on the Thames where the men of Hengist had come ashore centuries earlier. Like their Saxon predecessors, the Danes showed that they had come to stay.

It was not too long before the Danes had become firmly entrenched seemingly everywhere they chose in England (many of the invaders came from Norway and Sweden as well as Denmark). They had begun their deprivations with the devastation of Lindisfarne in 793, and the next hundred years saw army after army crossing the North Sea, first to find treasure, and then to take over good, productive farm lands upon which to raise their families. Outside Wessex, their ships were able to penetrate far inland; they sailed with impunity up the Dee, Humber, Ribble, Tyne, Medway and Thames, and founded their communities wherever the rivers met the sea.

In the West, Aethelwulf succeeded Egbert continuing his father's role as protector of the English people. He was succeeded by Aethelred, who continued to hold his lands against the ever-increasing host of the Danes, now firmly in control of Northumbria, including York. In 867, the Danes also made incursions into Mercia and had conquered all of East Anglia. Of all the English kingdoms, Wessex now stood almost alone. Armies under Aethelred and the young Alfred fought the Danes to a standstill, neither side claiming complete victory, but the borders of Wessex remained secure.

Alfred was born in 849. He became King of Wessex in 871 the year the Danes defeated a large English force at Reading. The invaders had already shown their strength by splitting their forces in two: one remaining in the North under Halfdene, where they settled down as farmers and the lords of large estates; and the other moving southwards under King Guthrum, anxious to add Wessex to his territories. Before Alfred, the results of battles against the Danes often depended upon chance; there was no standing army in England and response to threats without meant the calling up of the "fyrd" or the local levies. The Danes marched westward without opposition. Not strong enough to offer total resistance, Alfred was forced to pay tribute to buy off the Danish army until he could build up his supporters. Taking refuge on the Isle of Athelney, he conducted a campaign of guerilla warfare against the foreign occupiers of his kingdom; it wasn't long before the men of Wessex were ready to reassert themselves.

The turning point took place in 878. From the Chronicle, we learn of the decisive event that took place at Edington (Ethandune), when Alfred "fought with the whole force of the Danes and put them to flight, and rode after them to their fortifications and besieged them a fortnight. Then the Danes gave him hostages as security, and swore great oaths that they would leave his kingdom; and they promised him that their king should receive baptism. And they carried out their promises..." Wessex had been saved.

Alfred's successes were partly due to his building up the West Saxon navy into a fleet that could not only meet the Danes on equal terms, but defeat them in battle. According to the Chronicle of 896, when the enemy attacked the south coast of Wessex "with the warships which they had built many years before," Alfred "bade build long ships against the Danish warships: they were nearly twice as long as the others: some had sixty oars, some more: they were both swifter and steadier and higher than the others. They were built neither on the Frisian pattern nor on the Danish, but as it seemed to the king that they might be most serviceable." The Chronicle also records one of his victories in 882, though he was later defeated by a large Danish force of the mouth of the River Stour. Alfred also fortified the key English towns.

East Anglia and Southern Mercia remained in Danish hands. In 896, however, Alfred occupied London, giving the first indication that the lands which had lately passed under Danish control might be reclaimed. His success made him the obvious leader of all those who, in any part of the country, wished for a reversal of the disasters, and it was immediately followed by a general recognition of his lordship. In the words of the Chronicle, "all the English people submitted to Alfred except those who were under the power of the Danes." Furthermore, the city of London, on the southeastern edge of Mercia became a national symbol of English defiance. Its capture made Alfred truly the first king of England.

Alfred's greatness lay not so much in his defeat of the Danes but in his other major accomplishments, of which historians write glowingly and are generally listed as four: his uniform code of laws for the good order of the kingdom; his restoration of the monastic life of the Church, which had been severely disrupted by the arrival of the Norsemen; his enthusiastic patronage of the arts and learning; and the respect that he gained on the Continent of Europe for himself and his kingdom.

Alfred's strenuous efforts to rebuild the fabric of the Church also met with great success, as recorded by his biographer, Welsh monk Asser. He filled Church positions with men of intelligence and learning; he increased the number of monasteries and made personal efforts to restore learning to the English nation that are recorded in his own words in a prose preface to the new edition of Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care, which he translated into English. King, warrior, law-giver and scholar, Alfred was also responsible (with other learned men) for the translation of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, Orosius' History of the Ancient World, as well as De Consolatione Philosophiae of Boethius. Outside Wessex, however, most of England remained under Dane Law, ruled by Scandinavian kings.

Had Alfred been defeated, all of England would have passed under the rule of the Danish kings; the future identity of the English people as a separate island nation would have been very much in question. As it was, however, the occupation of London by the King of Wessex marked a new stage in the advancement of the English people towards political unity, the acceptance of his overlordship expressed a feeling that he stood for interests common to the whole English race.

The treaty with King Guthrum that followed Alfred's capture of London delineated a frontier between England and Danes, a frontier that even today is reflected in a North-South divide. The phrase "except those who were under the power of the Danes" is very significant, however, for it includes all of England outside Wessex and much of Mercia. Much of the task of winning back these lands passed to Alfred's son Edward the Elder, who became King of Wessex in 899. Before the end of his reign, every Danish colony south of the River Humber had become annexed to Wessex.

The Chronicle reports that the Scottish King and people, all the people of Wales, all the people in Mercia and all those who dwelt in Northumbria submitted to him "whether English, or Danish, or Northmen, or others, the king of the Strathclyde Welsh, and all the Strathclyde Welsh." They all recognized Edward's authority and agreed to respect his territories and to attack his enemies. The creation of this simple bond between Edward and the rulers of every established state in the Island of Britain thus gave to the West Saxon monarchy a new range and dignity which greatly strengthened its claim to sovereignty in England.

During Edward's reign, there were advances made in the administration of law, some of these in the king's favor. For example, some of his measures strengthened royal authority; the Kings' Writ, dating back to the time of Ine, was enforced to punish attacks on the king's dignity and privilege. Wherever the king had enjoined or prohibited a certain course by express orders, failure to obey made the offender liable to pay the heavy fines proscribed. Use of the Writ was responsible for an unparalleled growth of the King's official responsibility for the enforcement of law and order.

Under Edward, the Crown was no longer seen as a remote providence, under which the moots (law courts) worked in independence, but as an institution which had come to intervene, to watch over the workings of the law, and to punish those who rebeled. Edward further ordered that the hundred courts were to meet every four weeks under a king's reeve for the administration of customary law.

Even during the long and protracted Danish Wars, and maybe because of them, trade in England prospered. The foundation of many new boroughs offered traders bases for their operations that were much more secure than the countryside. Towns allowed merchants the means to establish the validity of their transactions by the testimony of responsible persons of their own sort. On their part, rulers were anxious to keep trade restricted to a limited number of recognized centers. One of Edward's laws prohibited trade outside a port, and ordered that all transactions be attested to by the portreeve or by other trusty men.

The significance of the above is clear. By the end of Edward's reign, it is probable that every place of trade which was more than a purely local market was surrounded by at least rudimentary fortifications. The normal "port" of the king's time was also a borough, and the urgency with which Edward commanded traders to resort to it explained its military importance. A derelict "port" was a weak point in the national defenses and the era saw a rapid rise in boroughs that combined military and commercial factors.

Edward the Elder died in 924, to be succeeded by his son Aethelstan, recognized as King in Wessex and probably in Mercia independently of his election in Wessex. He took the important and strategic city of York from the Danes, and thus, under conditions which no one could have foreseen, a king supreme in southern England came to rule in York. He soon extended his influence further, and the western and northern kings of Britain and the Welsh princes came to regard him as their lord. Though Alfred and Edward the Elder had been forced to watch the continental scene from the outside, Aethelstan won prestige and influence in contemporary Europe that resulted from his position as heir to the one western kingdom which had emerged in greater strength from the Danish wars.

At the Battle of Brunanburgh in 937, the site of which has never been satisfactorily determined, Aethelstan won a great victory for his English army over a combined force of Danes, Scots and Irish. At his death, however, new threats faced the new King Edmund. Danish control of the five great boroughs of Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby and Stamford -- all in the Midlands -- created an effective barrier between Northumbria and Wessex. Edmund acted. Taking an army north, he retook the five boroughs for the English and drove out two Danish kings from Northumbria. In the truly Viking city of York, however, Eric Bloodaxe had set himself up as an independent king. Wessex remained the stronghold of the English during the next twenty years of increasing Viking attacks, but when King Edgar was slain by supporters of his brother Ethelred, disaster came to the whole country.

Once again, the Danish fleets and armies seemed unstoppable. They were found in northeastern England, northwestern England, Wales, Devon and Cornwall. Ethelred could only achieve peace by buying off the Danes, a move that backfired for it only led to more raids, more slaughter and more Danish settlement. Following the example of Alfred, Ethelred then managed to get the Danish leader Anlaf baptized at Andover, but only at the enormous cost of the complete depletion of the treasury of England. Anlaf could only laugh at his good fortune. Ethelred's weakness in dealing with the Danish leaders have earned him the title of "the unready," (rede-less) the one who lacked good counsel.

In a sea battle in 1000 AD, Anlaf, now known as Olaf, King of Norway, was defeated by the Danish King Sweyn who continued his rivals raids on England, and who in turn, was offered huge sums by Ethelred. But the Danes refused to stop their raids. Giving command of a great army to his son Cnut, Sweyn marched on and conquered Winchester and Oxford and forced Ethelred to flee to France, only returning to England upon the death of Sweyn in the year 1003. More fighting continued under Edmund, who succeeded his father Ethelred by appointment of the citizens of London, anxious to be led by one who was called Edmund Ironside on account of his great strength. Edmund won many important victories, but the strength of the Danes forced him to make peace with Cnut, and at Alney, it was agreed that Edmund should be King of Wessex and Cnut of Mercia. Upon Edmund's death, that same year, Cnut became king of all England. Formally taking the reins of power in 1017, he married Ethelred's widow that same year.

Meanwhile, there had been important developments in the administration of English law that would have profound effects upon the future legal system. Changing social conditions led to Aethelstan issuing many new laws. He had to deal in legislation with lords who "maintained" their men in defiance of right and justice. Under Edgar, who became King in Wessex in 954, a semblance of order was restored, and England was made secure at least temporarily. It is recorded that eight kings in Britain came to him on a single day to acknowledge his supremacy. He was the first English King to recognize in legislation that the Danish east of England was no longer a conquered province, but an integral part of the English realm.

Legal customs from the Scandinavian North were practiced throughout the eastern counties of England; villages were combined into local divisions for the administration of justice. These divisions were known as wapentakes. The word first appeared when Edgar refered in general terms to the buying and selling of goods in a borough or a wapentake. There seems to have been no essential difference of function between the courts of the wapentake and those of the more familiar hundred. Under Ethelred, the wapentake court appeared as the fundamental unit in the organization of justice throughout the territory of the five boroughs. The authority of a ruler universally regarded as king of England was placed over the local courts.

The most interesting feature of the organization was the aristocratic jury of presentment which initiated the prosecution of suspected persons in the court of the wapentake. In what is known as the Wantage Code of Ethelred, one passage states that the twelve leading thegns in each wapentake were to go out from the court and swear that they would neither accuse the innocent nor protect the guilty. Thus the sworn jury, hitherto unknown to English law, came into being in a most important document in English legal history. The fate of the suspect, however, was still settled by ordeal, not by the judgment of the thegns who presented them.

The strength of the Crown, with the king becoming arbiter of the law continued during the reign of Cnut, the first Viking leader to be admitted into the civilized fraternity of Christian Kings, and one who was determined to rule as the chosen king of the English people as well as King of Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden. It is generally agreed that he turned the part of conquering Viking ruler into one of the best kings ever enjoyed by the English people. Ruler of a united land, he kept the peace, enforced the laws, became a generous patron of the Church and raised the prestige of England to unprecedented levels on the Continent of Europe. Upon his death, he had become part of the national heritage of England, his favorite realm.

Cnut and his successors became heirs to the English laws and traditions of Wessex. At a great assembly in Oxford in 1018, he agreed to follow the laws of Edgar; his Danish compatriots were to adopt the laws of their English neighbors, be content as subjects of a Danish king in an English country. Cnut ruled England as it had long been ruled: he consulted his bishops and his subjects. He even traveled to Rome in 1027 to attend the coronation of the new Holy Roman Emperor but also to consult with the Pope on behalf of all his people, Englishmen and Danes. He made atonement for the atrocities of the past wrought by Danish invaders by visiting the site of the battle with Edmund Ironside at Ashingdon and dedicating a church to the fallen. His eighteen-year rule was indeed a golden one for England, even though it was part of a Scandinavian empire. Cnut died in 1035 and was buried in the traditional resting place of the Saxon Kings, at Winchester.

Chaos and confusion were quick to return to England after Cnut's death, and the ground was prepared for the coming of the Normans, a new set of invaders no less ruthless than those who had come before. Cnut had precipitated problems by leaving his youngest, bastard son Harold, unprovided for. He had intended to give Denmark and England to Hardacnut and Norway to Swein. In 1035, Hardacnut could not come to England from Denmark without leaving Magnus of Norway a free hand in Scandinavia.

. A meeting of the Witan (King's council) met to decide the successor to Cnut. One faction, including the men of London chose Harold Harefoot, but others, led by the powerful Godwin of Wessex chose Hardacnut, whose mother, Emma was to reside at Winchester holding Wessex in her son's name. Emma was a sister to the Duke of Normandy; before marrying Cnut, she had been the wife of Ethelred. When Ethelred's younger son Alfred came to Winchester, Godwin's fears of losing his control of Wessex, had him captured and blinded. The unfortunate Alfred lived out his life as a monk at Ely, unable to claim the throne of Wessex.

Hardacnut arrived in England in 1040 on the death of Harold; he brought a large army with him. He was welcomed in Wessex, where Godwin rained supreme as his representative. Prince Edward, Alfred's older brother, sought protection at Winchester, and when Harthacnut died suddenly, after reigning for only one year, Edward, son of Ethelred, was acclaimed as king. Thus English kings came to rule in England once again. The uniting of the houses of Wessex and Mercia through marriage had produced an English ruler after a quarter of a century of Danish rule. The two peoples had blended to become a single nation.

Although the two hundred years of Danish invasions and settlement had an enormous effect on Britain, bringing over from the continent as many people as had the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the effects on the language and customs of the English were not as catastrophic as the earlier invasions had been on the native British. The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic race; their homelands had been in northern Europe, many of them coming, if not from Denmark itself, then from lands bordering that little country. They shared many common traditions and customs with the people of Scandinavia, and they spoke a related language.

There are over 1040 place names in England of Scandinavian origin, most occurring in the north and east, the area of settlement known as the Danelaw. The evidence shows extensive peaceable settlement by farmers who intermarried their English cousins, adopted many of their customs and entered into the everyday life of the community. Though the Danes and Norwegians who came to England preserved many of their own customs, they readily adapted to the ways of the English whose language they could understand without too much difficulty. There are more than 600 place names that end with the Scandinavian -by, (farm or town); some three hundred contain the Scandinavian word thorp (village), and the same number with thwaite (an isolated piece of land). Thousands of words of Scandinavian origin remain in the everyday speech of people in the north and east of England.

In administrative matters, too, there were great similarities between Saxon and Scandinavian. First, both were military societies. The Saxon chief's immediate followers and bodyguards were the heorth-werode, the hearth-troop, who followed him in war, resided at his hall and were bound by ties of personal friendship and traditional loyalty. The Scandinavians had a similar system that employed the hus-carles or house-troop (the Danish word carl being close to the Saxon ceorl, a free man). The two people shared the tradition of government by consultation and the reinforcement of loyalty by close collaboration between the leader and his followers. It has been pointed out that though the separate identity and language of at least part of the Britons lives on in Wales, the identity of the Scandinavians is totally lost among the English: the merging of the two people was total.

Under the Saxon kings, the man who held great power under the crown was the alderman, who assisted the king. The Danish leaders were the jarls, who became the English earls, mostly replacing the aldermen. In addition, the old Saxon system of taxation had been inefficient to say the least. The pressure of the Danish invasions, and the need to buy off the invaders in gold and silver meant that the kings' subjects now had to be taxed in terms of real money, rather than the material goods supplied formerly to the King's household. Under Ethelstan, and certainly under Cnut, we had the beginning of the civil service. Clerks and secretaries were employed by both rulers to strengthen and communicate authority and raise and collect taxes efficiently.

There was another very important feature of the Scandinavian settlement which cannot be overlooked. The Saxon people had not maintained contact with their orginal homelands; in England they had become an island race. The Scandinavians, however, kept their contacts with their kinsman on the continent. Under Cnut, England was part of a Scandinavian empire; its people began to extend their outlook and become less insular. The process was hastened by the coming of another host of Norsemen: the Norman Conquest was about to begin.

Resource Information

Part 5: Medieval Britain

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