1902 Encyclopedia > England > [English History] Anglo-Saxon England: Viking Challenge and Rise of Wessex (9th Century).

(Part 19)


Part 19: Anglo-Saxon England: Viking Challenge and Rise of Wessex (9th Century).

But the main history of England during these reigns, and indeed for a long time after, gathers round the successive Danish invasions Christian England was now attacked by the heathen Danes, as Christian Britain had been attacked by the heathen English. But the results in the two cases were widely different. The Danes were not a people altogether foreign to the English ; they were of kindred race, and spoke a kindred tongue. Had their in roads begun when the settlements of the Angels, Saxons, and Jutes were still new, they might have passed for a fourth branch of the same stock, come to share the spoil with their kinsfolk. As it was their nearness in blood and speech made them disposed to accept a new religion at the hands of the English, and in the end to merge their own national being in that of the English, in a way in which the English themselves had been in no way disposed to do towards the wholly foreign races among whom they settled. The Danish invasions of England were part of a general movement which about this time began to carry the adventurous people of Scandinavia into all parts of Europe. Of the three great kingdoms into which they settled down about this time, Sweden had little to do with Western Europe ; the advance of that power was to the east. But the people of Norway and Denmark ravaged everywhere, and settled in many places, along the coasts of Germany, Gaul, and the British islands. The Northmen founded powerful states, which have an occasional connexion with English history, in Ireland, Orkney, and the Western Islands ; but the Scandinavian settlements in England itself were almost wholly Danish in the stricter sense.1 Their invasion fall naturally into three periods. There is first a time of mere plunder ; secondly, a time of local settlement, when Danish dynasties are set up in certain parts of England ; lastly, when England, Denmark, and other European powers had grown into something more of definite shape and order, we find an attempt, and for a while a successful attempt, to place a king of all Denmark on the throne of a kingdom of all England. Of these periods it is the first two only with which we are concerned at this stage, and these two have their exact parallels in the two stages of English invasion in Britain. The first recorded inroad of the Danes in any part of English is placed in Northumberland in 789 ; but it was not till the latter years of the reign of Ecgberht that their incursions became formidable, at least in southern England. They plundered both in Kent and in Wessex, and they leagued themselves with the West-Welsh to meet a common defeat at the hands of the Bretwalda.

The actual settlements did not begin till the reign of Aethelred. In 870 the Danes, after ravaging various parts of Northumberland and Mercia, and setting up a puppet king in Bernicia, occupied East-Anglia, whose king, the famous local saint Eadmund, died a martyr. Then came their first great invasion of Wessex, and the battles of the last days of Aethelred and the first days of Aelfred. Then (874-888) Northumberland and Mercia came altogether into the power of the Danes. For a moment they overran Wessex itself, and the realm of Aelfred was confined to the isle of Athelney. But the spirit of the great king never failed, and that of his people rose again. The Danes were driven from Wessex, and the peace of Wedmore settled the relations between the West-Saxon king and the Danes of East-Anglia. A line drawn from north-west to south-east divided Mercia into two parts. The south western fell to the West-Saxon, the north-eastern to the Dane. The Danish king Guthrum embrached Christianity, and became a precarious and dangerous vassal of the West-Saxon overlord. His actual kingdom lay in East-Anglia ; the chief power in Danish Mercia lay in the confederacy of the five boroughs, Lincoln, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, and Stamford, In all these the Danish settlers seem to have formed a partrician order, holding the English inhabitants in bondage. Deira, with York for its capital, formed a Danish kingdom. In Bernicia English princes still reigned under Danish overlordship. In a large part both of Northumbeland and Mercia the land was divided among Danish owners, and not a few places received new Danish names. It might have seemed that the Danish conquest of more than half England was only less thorough than the English conquest of Britain itself.

But in truth the Danish occupation of northern and eastern did but make ready the way for the more thorough incorporation of those lands with the West-Saxon kingdom. Ecgberht had established his supremacy over the English powers in those lands. But it was the supremacy of an external master. The Danish settlements gave the West-Saxon kings a wholly new character. Unless we reckon the tributary kingship of Bernicia, all the ancient English kingdoms, with their royal houses, swept away wherever the Danes established their power. The West-Saxon kings remained the only champions of Christian faith and English nationality. They were now Kings of the English, and they alone Mark also that, by the treaty between Aelfred and Guthrum, while the West-Saxon king lost as an overlord, he gained as an immediate sovereign. The actual West-Saxon dominion, as distinguished from mere West-Saxon supremacy, again reached far beyond the Thames. English Mercia was ruled under Aelfred by an ealdorman of the old royal stock, the husband of his daughter the renowned Aethelflaed. The Lord and Lady of the Mercians held a place intermediate between that of an under-taking and an ordinary ealdorman. At the other end of Wessex, Kent and Sussex were completely incorporated, and ceased to be even distinct apanages. The West-Saxon supremacy was more fully established in Wales, and at last, in 893, even the Danes of the north acknowledged it. Aelfred had thus, in name at least, won back the overlordship of Ecgberht, combined with an enlarged immediate kingdom. As that immediate kingdom took in by far the greater part of Saxon England, and little or nothing that was not Saxon, he England, and little or nothing that was not Saxon, he sometimes bears, neither the narrower style of King of the West-Saxons nor the wider style of King of the English, but the title, almost peculiar and specially appropriate to himself, of King of the Saxons. His overlordship over the heathen Danes was doubtless far less firmly established than Ecgberht’s overlordship had been over their Christian predecessors. But now, in the eyes of the Christian inhabitants of Northumberland and Mercia, the West-Saxon king was no longer a stranger and a conqueror. He had become the champion of their race and faith against their heathen masters. In that character Aelfred himself hardly appeared. The last years of his reign were chiefly taken up in defending Wessex and English Mercia against new Danish invasions from without. But his Christian and English championship is the distinct characteristic of the kings who follow him, of his son Eadward the Unconquered (901-925), of his grandsons Aethelstan (925-940), Eadmund (940-946), and Eadred (946-955). Under them Wessex grew into England, and the overlordship grew into the empire of Britain. Eadward waged the war in partnership with his sister the Lady of the Mercians, who ruled alone after the death of her husband, and whose territory was on her death fully incorporated with Wessex. The son and the daughter of Aelfred gradually advanced their frontier, winning battles, fortifying towns, till Eadward, King of the English, held all England south of the Humber as his immediate realm. His overlordship was more fully admitted by the Welsh and the Northumbrians, and it was acknowledged for the first time by the Scots and the Strathclyde Welsh, who in 924 chose the English king as father and lord. Under Aethelstan Northumberland was incorporated, and the immediate realm of the one king of the English reached to the Forth. Still both he and his two successors had the fight against endless revolts and rival kings in Northumberland. The Danish land was won and lost and back over and over again, till at last under Eadred Northumberland was finally incorporated, and ruled, sometimes by a single earl, sometimes by two, of the king’s appointment. The kingdom of England was now formed.

The first half of the tenth century thus gave the West-Saxon kings a position in Britain such as no English kings of any kingdom had held before them. Dominant in their own island, claiming and, whenever they could, exercising a supremacy over the other princes of the island, their position in the island world of Britain was analogous to the position of the Western emperors in continental Europe. It was in fact an imperial position. As such it was marked by the assumption of the imperial titles, monarcha, imperator, basileus. Augustus, and even Caesar. These titles were meant at once to assert the imperial supremacy of the English kings within their own world, and to deny any supremacy over Britain on the part of either of the lords of the continental world. When we remember that some both of the Teutonic and Celtic princes of Britain had been the men of Charles the Great, the denial of all supremacy in the Caesars of the mainland was not needless. Indeed that denial was formally made over and over again at various times down tot he reign of Henry VIII.

On the other hand, we see during these reigns the beginning of the process which fixed the modern frontier of England to the north. The Picts and the Scots of Britain now formed what, as regarded their southern neighbours, was a single great kingdom north of Forth and Clyde. In the great fight of Brunaburh in 936 the Scots joined the Danes against Aethelstan, and shared in their defeat. After that time the relations of the Spanish kings to the English overlord seem for a long while to have been friendly. During this period the Scottish power began to make its way south of the two great firths. In 945 Eadmund conquered Cumberland. It might not be easy to say exactly what territory is meant by that name ; but it was clearly the whole or a part of the ancient Strathclyde. It most likely took in Carlisle and its district, which had not been under the direct English rule since the days of Ecgfrith. This territory Eadmund bestowed on Malcolm king of Scots, distinctly as a territorial fief. This is perhaps the earliest case of a grant of that kind in our history. It is something different from the commendation of either Scots or Britons to Eadward in 924. The northern kingdom of the Britons now became the ordinary apanage of the heirs of the Scottish crown. The Scottish royal house, if not the actual Scottish kingdom, thus obtained a great establishment south of the firth of Clyde, and soon afterwards the Scottish kings themselves made their way south of the Forth. In the reign of Eadred, Edinburgh, the border fortress of Northumberland to the north, became a Scottish possession. It is not clear on what terms this acquisition was made, or whether it was made in war or in peace. It is at least as likely, under the circumstances of the time, that it was a peaceful grant. But in any case it was the beginning of the process which brought the lands between Forth and Tweed into the possession of the Scottish kings, and which thereby turned them into English kings of a northern England, which was for a while more English than the southern England itself.
This is period of war and conquest was also a period of legislation and intellectual advancement. In Aelfred we have the noblest name in all English history, the name of him who united more and more varied virtues than any other recorded ruler. The captain of his people, he was also their lawgiver and their teacher. His laws, the first that can be called a code, laws drawn up by himself and then submitted by him to the approval of his Witan, mark as we have seen, when they are compared with those of Ine, a time when the distinction of Englishman and Briton had passed away from the West-Saxon kingdom. They are remarkable also for the great mass of scriptural and other religious matter which is brought in whole into their text. The laws of Eadward, of Aethelstan, and of Eadmund follow, and among them we have the text of the treaty between Aelfred and Guthrum, the earliest diplomatic instrument in our language. In all these laws we may trace the growth of the various new ideas which have been already spoken of as having gradually made their way into the older Teutonic system. The king grows greater and greater. Already a sacred, and fast becoming an imperial personages, he is something widely different from the old kings who rule only over Wight or half of Kent. The increase of his dignity, the increase of the extent of his dominion, raise him at every step above the mass of his people And as the kingdom grows, the right of the ordinary freeman to a place in the general assembly of the nation becomes more and more shadowy. That assembly shrinks more and more into an assembly of bishops, ealdormen, and king’s thegns, made ever and anon more splendid by the appearance of vassal princess and kings. As the king grows in greatness, his immediate followers grow also. The old nobility of the earls is finally supplanted by the new nobility of the thegns. The results of this change is the general depression of the churls as a class, while it becomes easier for this or that churl to raise himself to thegn’s rank. On the other hand, the lowest class of all begins to have its lot lightened. The spirit of Christianity, if it does not yet venture to preach the emancipation of the slave, brings in provisions which lessen the rigour of the ancient law. And we now find the first of a series of well meant, though for the most part vain, attempts at least to hinder the slave from being sold out of his native land. Commerce and discovery are fostered. Thegn’s rank is held out as a reward to the successful trader by sea. Intercourse with foreign countries becomes close and closer. No foreign wife shares the throne of the basileus of Britain ; but the sisters of glorious Aethelstan are given in marriage to the greatest princes of Western Europe. It was a great age for England, an age of great men and great events. The line of our hero kings, of Eadward the Unconquered, of Aethelstan the Glorious, and of Edmund the Doer-of-great-deeds, is only less famous than it should be, because even their names must yield to the unequalled glory of their grandfather. Towards the end of the period we see, for the first time in English history, the person of a great minister, the wise counsellor of wise kings. Our first recorded statesman who was not a king is, as might be looked for in that age, a churchman, the great Dunstan, the guide of England through may strirring years of war and peace. The Church had made the English a nation ; a great churchman was now foremost in making England a kingdom. A kingdom she now became, not yet indivisible, but still one. But one and strong and glorious as England stood in the central years of the tenth century, her unity and strength and glory were bought in no small degree by the loss of the ancient freedom of her people.

It literature this was a time which saw nothing short of the beginning of English prose. For a long time, as we have seen, the special home of learning and culture in England was in the north. Wessex had her scholars too, King Ine’s kinsman Ealdhelm at their head ; but the land of Baeda took the lead. In the confusions of the latter years of the eighth century the light of Northumbrian learning seems to have died out ; yet even at the time of Aelfred’s accession the great king places the greatest lack of learning south of the Thames. In the interval of peace between the wars at the beginning and the wars at the end of his reign, Aelfred largely devoted himself to wipe out this stain. He was himself the first English prose writer on a great scale ; but his writings, in accordance with the modest and practical bent of his mind, were no displays of original genius, but translators, or rather paraphrases, of such Latin works, both on divine and on secular subjects, as he thought were fitted for the improvement of his people. But above anything that Aelfred wrote himself stands the really literary work of his reign, the beginning of the English Chronicle as it now stands. The fragmentary chronicles of earlier times were put together ; the history of Baeda and the records of other lands were pressed into the service ; the work became contemporary in the minute and brilliant narrative of Aelfred’s own reign. From his day it goes on, sometimes full, sometimes meagre, sometimes a dry record of names and dates, sometimes rising to the highest flight of the prose picture or of the heroic lay, but in one shape or another never failing us, till the pen dropped from the hand of the monk of Peterborough who recorded the coming of Henry of Anjou. We, and we alone among the nations of Western Europe, can read our own story from the beginning in our own tongue in which we were born. But it must be borne in mind that, as we go on, we shall find that the English Chronicle is not one chronicle but many. The record which began at the beginning of Aelfred was in the eleventh century continued in various monasteries, and the later parts of the several copies must be looked on, not as copies of a single work with some places where they differ, but as separate works which have some matter in common. The tale is told in different ways, with much difference of local feeling and even of political creed. The different chronicles stop at different periods. That of Peterborough, as we have hinted, stops suddenly in 1154.

England under Aelfred was a land where foreign merit was welcome, as under Charles the Great English had been welcome in other lands. The foreign merit was welcome, as under Charles the Great English merit had been welcome in other lands. The Briton Asser, the Old-Saxon John, the Frankish Grimbald, received at the West Saxon court the same reception whoch Ealhwine had met with at the hands of the mighty Frank. Learning now prospered ; the monasteries were schools ; but the native tongue flourished also. Of the wars of Eadward and Aethelflaed the Chronicle gives me us a full military narrative; in the following reigns the prose entries are meagre, but we get in their stead the glorious lay of Brunanburh and the shorter song of the deliverance of the Five Boroughs. Towards the end of our present period, Dunstan, the great statesman, began to appear as an ecclesiastical reformer. His name is connected with the movement of the last half of the tenth century for enforcing a stricter discipline on the monasteries and for substituting monks for secular priest in many cathedral and other churches. The English clergy, even those who formed collegiate bodies, were fond of the separate, and not uncommonly married, life of the secular priest. This supposed laxity now gave way in several episcopal churches to the strict Benedictine rule. Hence came the usage, almost but not quite peculiar to England, by which the bishop had, as his diocesan council and the ministers of his own special church, a body of men who had professedly renounced all the affairs of this world. That Dunstan shared in this movement there is no doubt. But it would be hard to show from real history that he was foremost in the movement; and it is far more certain that no merely ecclesiastical was the foremost object in Dunstan’s policy. The unity and the greatness of England were the first objects of the statesman whom Glastonbury gave to England.


FOOTNOTE (p. 283)
1 That there were in northern England, as distinguished from Danes, appears from the record of the commendation of 924 in the Winchester Chronicle. The name Northmen, at an earlier time, meant the Scandinavian nations generally ; it is now specially used to mean the men of Norway. The Danes settled on the eastern coast of Northumberland and East-Anglia ; the Northmen would seem to have made their way into western Yorkshire by way of Cumberland.

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