Rebuilding Wessex 4: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

As a boy, Alfred loved reading and books.

All Early Medieval kings were acutely conscious of their image. Glory was the best advertising for a king: it deterred enemies and attracted followers.

Alfred was no less aware of that than his fellow kings, so he commissioned the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This tale of years, with its bald statements of battles and deaths, is a crucial historical document. Without it, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, it would be impossible to write the history of England between the Romans leaving and the Normans arriving.

Despite the importance of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it must still be viewed carefully. The history of the time before Alfred’s reign was patched together from a variety of sources, notably Bede and a variety of existing chronicles detailing the histories of Mercian, Kentish, South Saxon and West Saxon kingdoms.

After the compilation of the first version of the Chronicle, copies were dispatched through the land which then formed the basis for ongoing chronicling. There are eight extant manuscripts, each different, and the disentangling of sources, influences and histories is an ongoing scholarly pursuit.

Although there is little comment in the Alfredian portion of the Chronicle, the choice and, in particular, the omissions were part of the image Alfred and his circle wanted to project of a West Saxon king as the culmination of Anglo-Saxon history and the bulwark against pagan invaders. Still, where it has been possible to check the Chronicle independently it has proved a reliable historical guide, so the previous notion that it is pure Alfredian propaganda has been quietly put to one side. It would be better regarded as an honest record, but one informed and formed by its point of view and time of composition.

Rebuilding Wessex 3: The Burhs

Alfred was the most scholarly of the Anglo-Saxon warrior kings.

Alfred’s reform of his army was only half the solution to the problem of enabling Wessex to withstand future Viking attacks. Even with a mounted army, the Viking mastery of amphibious operations meant they could still achieve first strike along the long coastline of Wessex, or along its navigable rivers. To protect against the sudden threat of the dragonships appearing on the horizon, Alfred had to improve the defences of his kingdom, and make them accessible to his people. To that end, he set about the most sustained programme of building since the Romans conquered Britain seven centuries earlier.

Alfred built fortresses, burhs (from which comes ‘borough’), right across his kingdom, each of them carefully placed in a strategic location. These were not simply defences, but rather fortified towns, able to function economically and independently, yet able to combine with each other to form a defensive screen across Wessex. The thirty burhs were placed so that no one and no where in Wessex was more than twenty miles – or a day’s march – away from a refuge.

The burhs defended harbours, rivers, Roman roads and the old trackways of Britain. Where Roman or Iron Age forts already existed, Alfred was perfectly happy to reuse and renovate what was on the ground. But where there was nothing he built from scratch. Although we don’t know for certain, it seems likely that Alfred made use of his new standing army in the construction of the burhs. As any commander knows, keeping bored men occupied and out of mischief is difficult. Digging ditches and raising palisades ensured that the army had work to do when it wasn’t fighting. Most of the new burhs were built near Alfred’s existing royal residences. These were already strongholds, but with essentially a fortified town near a royal estate, each helped to defend and support the other.

A burh was not just a fortress but a planned town. The people living in the town provided much of the manpower to defend the burh, and ensured that it would be defended and guarded. In some cases, such as at Winchester, Alfred was simply expanding what was already there but in others he created a town on a green-field site. For the burh to remain effective as a defensive bastion, it had to be a viable economic unit, and land was allocated to each for its supply and provision.

But the building of protected settlements with concentrations of population had the result of kickstarting towns, and their attendant trade and wealth creation, into existence. Although there’s very little left of Alfred’s original burhs, the street plan of somewhere like Wallingford, with its regular grid, probably dates from its foundation. If so, it shows just how ambitious Alfred’s building programme was, for Wallingford covered one hundred acres (forty hectares): the king had created, from scratch, the second biggest town in his kingdom.

In order to support each burh, Alfred created a system of administration that ensured sufficient land and resources were allocated to each burh for its maintenance and its defence. Now Wessex was ready. Let the Vikings come, if they dared.

Rebuilding Wessex 2: The Army

Alfred the Great turned his army into a mobile, horse-mounted reserve.

Alfred believed the Vikings had been allowed to ravage his kingdom because his people had given up their commitment to truth and learning. Having set about rebuilding education in Wessex, and having learned to read and write Latin himself, Alfred moved on to the second stage of his plan to protect the kingdom against further Viking incursions.

The Viking’s key strategic advantages were mobility and surprise. When faced with an organised defensive force, a Viking raiding party preferred discretion over valour. Despite their reputation for berserk fury, most Vikings were in it for the money. Given the choice, they would seek refuge behind fortifications or take to their boats than risk everything in a full-scale battle. But the time taken to assemble the fyrd, the free men of a district, meant that any half competent Viking commander could raid and depart before anything could be done to stop him. Even the Great Army that Alfred had defeated, which was set upon conquest rather than raiding, used the same tactics, picking the time and place to strike, often waiting for when its enemies were occupied with harvest or festivals.

Alfred dug deep into the problem he faced, working down to first principles. He saw that, to counter the mobility of a Viking army, he required forces that could be assembled quickly and moved fast: he needed a mounted, standing army. This was a radical change from Anglo-Saxon practice. What’s more, it would be far more costly to the magnates required to provide the mounted troops. But by 893, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes in passing the results of the changes the king had inaugurated, Alfred had persuaded, cajoled, suborned and wheedled his nobility into line. Half the kingdom’s warriors were kept on duty, with the other half held in reserve.

We know this force was mounted because, in its description of the actions and campaigns of the 890s, the Chronicle repeatedly refers to Alfred’s forces riding after the Viking army. The horses were not the great war beasts of the high medieval period but smaller animals, not that much larger than ponies, but ideal for transporting the relatively lightly armoured warrior of the time.

By retaining half the warriors in reserve, that is, still living in their landholdings, Alfred also ensured the maintenance of the king’s peace. For these warriors fulfilled the function of a police force as well as an army, deterring bands of brigands from raiding the small farming communities and religious establishments that dotted the land. Having men in place on the ground also meant that those on service were less likely to go running back to their homes to look after hearth and family. But this mobile strike force was only half the solution. Alfred still needed to find a way to protect the ordinary folk of his kingdom, the ones whom the Vikings would seize and sell at the slave markets of Dublin.

Rebuilding Wessex 1: Education

The Alfred Jewel, front and back.

The Vikings would be back. While Alfred had defeated Guthrum in 878 he knew that the Vikings would return. But next time, he would make sure that Wessex was ready for them.

Alfred tackled the matter with the systematic intelligence that was characteristic of him. First came the question of ‘why’? Why had God allowed pagan men to ravage the Christian kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons? For Alfred did not believe in a universe of chance. Things happened for a reason, and he applied to recent events the same self-analysis that the Jews applied to their own history in the Bible. Alfred saw the English as a new Chosen people, set apart by God for his purposes. But while the Jews came to understand their own history in terms of their falling away from the ancestral covenant they had made with God, Alfred came to a different conclusion with respect to his own people. It wasn’t so much that they had failed morally (although the temptation to vice was ever present and often consummated), but rather that they had failed by abandoning their previous commitment to learning and education. Whereas in the seventh and eighth centuries, Anglo-Saxon scholars such as Bede and Alcuin had been among the most learned men in the world, by Alfred’s reign learning had fallen off so precipitously that the scribes for Canterbury Cathedral, the mother church of the whole country, were unable to produce texts in intelligible Latin. It was this failure to nurture their patrimony of learning, Alfred believed, that had caused God to remove his protection from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

So, having established the cause, Alfred set out to remedy it, and he started with himself. He had only learned to read and write English when he was 12. This was better than for many other people but it was still a source of embarrassment to Alfred. What was more, he could not read or write Latin, the language of scholarship. So, somewhere in his mid-30s, Alfred started to learn Latin. But Alfred wanted not just to be able to read Latin. His aim was to achieve a high-enough standard in the language that he would be able to translate key Latin books into English. For Alfred had decided to embark upon a programme of education for his people and himself. To do that he recruited to his court the most able clerics he could find, from Britain and abroad, men such as Asser, a Welshman, Plegemund, a Mercian, John from Saxony and Grimbald from France. Alfred’s court was becoming an international institution.

Recognising that most of his people had neither the time nor the opportunity to learn Latin, Alfred and his court scholars set about translating the books ‘most necessary for all men to know’ into English. These included the Dialogues and Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and the first fifty Psalms. These works are full of spiritual, moral and practical wisdom, from the Consolation’s advice on how to deal with turns of fortune that leave you destitute – something Alfred himself was all too familiar with – to sound precepts for how a bishop should do his job in Pastoral Care.

Alfred sent a copy of Pastoral Care to every bishopric in the country and, being Alfred, was shrewd enough to guess that Gregory’s pastoral advice might best be gold-plated with an earthly gift, so included with each book a beautiful and valuable text pointer. One of those pointers, the Alfred Jewel, pictured above, has survived to today and is on display at the Ashmolean Museum.

To ensure that the knowledge in these books reached beyond the episcopacy, Alfred established a court school to teach not only his own children but also the children of the nobility and even many among the common born. To recover from the ravages of the Vikings, Alfred fostered a thorough going cultural renewal. That Alfred, while burdened with all the duties of a king, should still find time in his day to translate Latin texts into English for the good of his people marks him out as truly exceptional among monarchs. There have been many great warrior kings. There have even been a few scholar kings. But Alfred is pretty well unique in being both.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Wessex

The last kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons became the first kingdom of England

Of the three major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex, Wessex was the last to achieve prominence. Nevertheless, it was the kings of Wessex who eventually became the kings of a unified England. However, there was little to suggest their eventual status in the founding of Wessex.

As with the other kingdoms, the king lists go back to a founder, Cerdic, from whom the ruling dynasty drew its legitimacy, but there is little to prove that the kings who came after Cerdic, the Cerdicings, were actually related to their supposed forebear. According to the account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cerdic landed on the Hampshire coast with five boatloads of men in AD 495, establishing a kingdom on the south coast and gradually expanding inland and to the west. However, Cerdic is a Celtic name, not a Germanic one, so some scholars have speculated that the early rulers of Wessex were of Anglo/British stock.

Wessex expanded westward, at the expense of the Britonnic kingdoms, while its northern expansion was checked by the increasing power of the Mercians: the River Thames marked the effective boundary between the two kingdoms. During the eighth century, when Mercian supremacy was at its height, Wessex retained its independence to a greater degree than most other kingdoms, while its kings continued to push westwards, subjugating the Britonnic kingdom of Dumnonia (Devon) by early in the ninth century.

In 851, a Viking army landed in Wessex but was decisively defeated at the Battle of Aclea. So when the Vikings returned in 865, the Great Heathen Army avoided the kingdom of the West Saxons. It was only when the other three major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been subdued that the Great Army turned its attention to Wessex, the last kingdom.

Sitting uncomfortably on the throne of Wessex was a young man named Æthelred, who proved far more ready than his infamous descendant, with his younger brother, Alfred, as his chief commander. At the Battle of Ashdown in 871, Æthelred and Alfred inflicted the first significant defeat on the Great Army and the Northmen withdrew.

But Æthelred did not long survive the victory, which left his young brother, Alfred, the last king of the Anglo-Saxons. There were no other viable claimants. Remove Alfred, and the last kingdom would fall. Which was precisely what the Danes attempted, launching a mid-winter raid into Wessex that caught Alfred completely by surprise.

Fleeing into the marshes of the Somerset Levels with a handful of men, Alfred left the Vikings in control of the last kingdom. But Alfred returned. He defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington in one of the most crucial battles in English history. With some breathing space, Alfred set about remaking his kingdom. His first aim was to make it secure against future Viking raids and then to reconquer the country. Alfred achieved his first aim but he had to leave the reconquest to his children.

Under the remarkable leadership of Alfred’s son and daughter, Edward and Æthelflæd, who became the effective ruler of Mercia, the Danelaw was reconquered and it was Æthelstan, Alfred’s grandson, who united England under his leadership. The king of the West Saxons was now the king of England. It was an extraordinary achievement by an extraordinary family.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Northumbria

The realm of heroes and saints

The clue is in the name. Northumbria was the Anglo-Saxon kingdom north of the Humber. At its peak it was the largest and most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Through being home to Bede for all his long life, it is the best recorded kingdom up to the eighth century.

Northumbria demonstrates how smaller kingdoms consolidated into larger polities, for it came about through the forced union of Bernicia, with its royal stronghold at Bamburgh, and Deira, centred on the old Roman city of York.

According to the surviving king lists, Bernicia was founded in 547 by Ida – hence the kings of Bernicia were called the Idings – when he captured Bamburgh. For half a century, the Idings fought desperately to retain their precarious hold on the coast, until an alliance of Brittonic kings drove them from Bamburgh on to Lindisfarne. On the point of extinction, the Idings were saved when one of the besieging kings took the opportunity to assassinate his rival. The siege dissolved into recrimination, the Idings escaped and re-established themselves on Bamburgh and, soon, the neighbouring Brittonic kingdoms would rue this lost opportunity.

Around 593, Æthelfrith took the throne and he proved to be one of the most successful warrior kings of the time, dealing a number of devastating defeats to the Britons and forcibly amalgamating the kingdom of Deira to Bernicia to create Northumbria. Under his leadership, Northumbria became the most powerful kingdom in Britain and, though Æthelfrith was killed in battle in 616, Edwin, the man who succeeded Æthelfrith, consolidated the kingdom’s power and expanded its territory.

Edwin also became the first northern Anglo-Saxon king to convert to Christianity, but before he could cement the new religion’s place in his kingdom, Edwin too was killed in battle. After a chaotic interregnum, Æthelfrith’s son, Oswald, returned from exile to claim the throne. A devout Christian, Oswald brought monks from Iona to preach the new religion. The monks founded the monastery on Lindisfarne.

Northumbrian power continued to expand under Oswald’s brother and successor, Oswiu, and also during the reign of Oswiu’s son, Ecgfrith. But, in 685, the Northumbrians suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Picts. Ecgfrith was killed and much of the Northumbrian army destroyed. The battle stopped further northward expansion by the Northumbrians: the eventual birth of Scotland can be traced back to this Pictish victory.

While Northumbria declined militarily after the Battle of Nechtansmere, the eighth century saw a cultural flowering that produced, among many wonders, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Viking invasion of the ninth century divided Northumbria again, with a Viking kingdom established at York but an English earldom retaining Bamburgh and Bernicia, cut off from the rest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until the unification of the country by Æthelstan the Glorious in the tenth century.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Mercia

The Mercians took their place in the heart of the country and fought to keep it.

For nearly three hundred years, Mercia was the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. When Ecgfrith, king of the Northumbrians, was killed in 685, Mercia filled the power vacuum, coming to dominate all the land south of the Humber, with only the kingdom of Wessex holding out against Mercian hegemony.

But of the three major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms – Northumbria, Wessex and Mercia – the history of Mercia is by far the worse attested, with most of what we know of its history coming from the pens of its enemies. Most notable among these is Bede, a proud Northumbrian, who despite the otherwise broad sweep of his History treats the Mercians pretty well only as antagonists.

The name Mercia derives from Mierce, an Old English word meaning the ‘marches’ or ‘border people’ and that is what it was when first settled: the border kingdom between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the south and east and the Britonnic kingdoms of the west and north. These people settled in the Midlands, following the river valleys into the heart of the country.

The king lists of the Mercians traced their lineage back to Icel, an Anglian prince who settled in Britain, giving the ruling family the name Iclingas. However, the first king to be reliably recorded is Penda, the great enemy of the kings of Northumbria, who killed two of them (Edwin and Oswald), as well as three kings of East Anglia. Penda was the last great pagan king of the Anglo-Saxons and when he fell in battle with Oswiu, Oswald’s brother and successor as king of Northumbria, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity was assured.

Mercia and Northumbria continued to struggle for dominance until, with the death of King Ecgfrith in 685, Mercian supremacy was assured. It reached its height during the reign of King Offa (757 – 796), when Mercian power encompassed the whole country and Offa could deal, almost as an equal, with no less a king than Charlemagne. The power Offa wielded is given earthen form in the vast labour required to build Offa’s Dyke.

However, Mercian power declined after Offa’s death, and was then dealt a terminal blow with the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in 868. The Vikings deposed Burgred, king of the Mercians, in 874 and installed a puppet king in his place. Following the victory of Alfred of Wessex over the Vikings, Mercia was divided, its north eastern half becoming part of the Danelaw, its south western portion being ruled by an alderman owing fealty to Alfred. Even following the reconquest of the Danelaw by Alfred’s children and grandson, Mercia remained part of the expanding kingdom of the men who had come to see themselves as not just the kings of the West Saxons but the kings of the English.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: The Kingdom of the East Angles

On 14 June 1939, light broke into the darkness that had shrouded the so-called Dark Ages for centuries. For on that day, as storm clouds were gathering in Europe, archaeologist Basil Brown opened the burial chamber of the great ship burial at Sutton Hoo.

Over the next few weeks, archaeologists discovered the extraordinary riches that a Dark Age king could command. That king was probably Rædwald, and he is the first king of the East Angles of whom we know anything more than a name. The people who settled in the land almost cut off from the rest of country by the Fens were Angles, split into the North Folk and the South Folk (names that continue to this day as Norfolk and Suffolk). The kings of the Angles traced their lineage back to one Wuffa, making them Wuffingas (‘sons of the Wolf’).

Rædwald became king of the East Angles in the early seventh century as the power of Æthelfrith of Northumbria was steadily growing. However, the two kingdoms were separated by the Fens and the kingdom of Lindsey (another Anglo-Saxon kingdom roughly corresponding to Lincolnshire that is not numbered among the Heptarchy although it probably should have been), so Rædwald was happy to give sanctuary to a fugitive Northumbrian prince, Edwin.

But when Æthelfrith learned that Edwin had taken shelter with Rædwald he sent a series of messengers, bearing increasingly explicit threats, demanding Edwin’s head. Rædwald vacillated, then decided to fight. With Edwin, he defeated and killed Æthelfrith, installing Edwin on the throne of Northumbria and becoming himself Bretwalda, the pre-eminent king in Britain, until his death around 626.

His successors fought a series of unsuccessful campaigns to retain their independence from the rising power of Mercia, campaigns that usually ended with the East Anglians having to find a new king. The East Anglians continued to kick against Mercian supremacy throughout the eighth century and they managed to regain their independence in the ninth century, only to be conquered by the Great Heathen Army in 869. The last independent king of the East Angles was Edmund the Martyr, who was venerated after his death by the newly Christian children of the Vikings who had killed him. These Christian Vikings, who had settled in East Anglia, created the shrine of Bury St Edmunds to commemorate an Anglo-Saxon king.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Essex

The seven ancient kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England: the Heptarchy

The history of the kingdom of the East Saxons is as obscure as that of the South Saxons. Its origins probably lie in the 6th century, when groups of Saxons settled in the flat lands north of the Thames. However, even the king lists for the East Saxons are late, dating from the ninth century, with some disagreement about the dynasty’s founder. Kings Æscwine and Sledd are separately credited as the first king in different genealogies, although the one listing Æscwine as the first king works in Sledd as his son and successor.

The kingdom grew by aggregating small tribal groups, eventually encompassing the modern county of Essex as well as parts of Hertfordshire and the now lost county of Middlesex. London was under the control of the kings of the East Saxons in the seventh century, when the first attested king is recorded. His name was Sæberht and in 604 he was baptised, with King Æthelberht of Kent standing as his godfather.

Pope Gregory’s initial plan had been that Britain should have two metropolitan sees, in London and York, corresponding to the administrative centres of the old Roman province. However, having established his bishopric in Canterbury under the protection and sponsorship of Æthelberht of Kent, Augustine could not move to London. He did, however, send Mellitus to London as its bishop, where he founded the first St Paul’s on the site of the present cathedral. However, when Sæberht died, his three sons, who had remained pagan, expelled Mellitus, apparently over his refusal to give them communion without their first being baptised, and the bishopric lapsed.

The conversion of the kings of the East Saxons continued back and forth over the next generation, with another pagan succeeding the three brothers after their death in battle, only to be followed by King Sigeberht II, who converted to Christianity under the influence of King Oswiu of Northumbria, only to be murdered by two brothers who disapproved of the novel approach King Sigeberht was taking to rule: he was forgiving his enemies rather than killing them.

In the eighth century, Essex fell under the control of Mercia, then was subsumed into the kingdom of Wessex in 825, only to become part of the Danelaw as part of the treaty signed between Alfred and Guthrum. Essex was conquered by Edward the Elder, Alfred the Great’s son, in 917, becoming part of Wessex as it expanded towards becoming a newly unified country: England.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Sussex

The kingdoms of Britain around AD800.

Sandwiched between Kent and Wessex, with Mercia bearing down from the north, Sussex struggled to survive.

Although included among the Heptarchy, the history of the Kingdom of the South Saxons is obscure and its status more a product of being included in the list of main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms produced by the 12th-century historian, Henry of Huntingdon, than any real claim to eminence among the many kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons. However, despite its perilous position, sandwiched between the kingdoms of Kent and Wessex, with Mercia bearing down from the north, the kingdom of Sussex retained its independence longer than other, similarly sized kingdoms, such as Lindsey, only finally submitting to the rule of the kings of Wessex in 827.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the kingdom was founded by Ælle in 477 when he landed with his three sons and three boatloads of warriors near Selsey. The kingdom followed the pattern of gradual expansion against Britonnic resistance, although the archaeology of the area suggests that Saxons had settled in Sussex before Ælle’s arrival, possibly originally coming as paid mercenaries in the service of the Roman Empire to man the forts of the Saxon Shore. This was a series of strongholds and ports that the Romans established to guard against barbarian raiders.

The kingdom comes briefly into the light of history in the second half of the seventh century, when the baptism of its king, Æthelwealh, is recorded. Æthelwealh’s sponsor and godfather was Wulfhere, the king of Mercia, and as a baptismal gift Wulfhere gave Æthelwealh the Isle of Wight and the Meon Valley. Standing as godfather to another king was both an act of spiritual brotherhood and political mastery, a mastery emphasised by Wulfhere’s giving of land as gift: Æthelwealh was very much the junior of the two monarchs.

However, although Æthelwealh had become a Christian, his people had not. Their conversion, the last of the major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, waited upon the rain. Wilfrid, the most tumultuous of Northumbrian bishops, had been deposed from his throne by King Ecgfrith and exiled to Sussex. Arriving in the midst of a severe drought, Wilfrid brought the rain. The South Saxons, abandoned by their gods, accepted Wilfrid’s offer of a new god, an offer Wilfrid sweetened by throwing in lessons on new methods of fishing that helped alleviate the effects of the famine the drought had brought. Sussex became a client kingdom to Mercia in the 8th century when Offa was supreme, but by 825 it had been subsumed into the kingdom of Wessex.