William Sterling

Baltic Cruise Lecture 4

Lectures for Baltic and St Petersburg Cruise on the Ocean Countess July 2011


Lecture 4 Alfred and the Vikings

Summary of Lecture 3

During the Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England, Northumbria had emerged as the most important kingdom but the extinction of the immediate family of Oswiu led to squabbles for the throne which marked a major decline in fortunes. It was the Mercians who were able to take advantage of this and three successive kings; Ethelbald, Offa and Coenwulf expanded Mercian power by gaining more territory and diminishing the power of the other kingdoms. Their chief failure was to provide an obvious heir and this again led to internal conflict.

[SLIDE: Map of England.]

Egbert of Wessex

After Coenwulf’s death in 821 there was a series of short-lived monarchs in Mercia who struggled to maintain their position. They were faced with serious rebellions in East Anglia where a king called Athelstan (from his coins) emerged as a great fighter, defeating and killing two successive kings of Mercia in 825 (Beornwulf) and 827 (Ludeca). In Wessex King Egbert returned from exile at Charlemagne’s court in 802 to become king and slowly built his strength. In alliance with Athelstan he attacked Mercia and its allies. Having defeated the Mercians at Ellandun he invaded Kent in 825 and expelled Baldred, probably a Mercian puppet, and set his son Ethelwulf as sub-king where his own father had been king briefly. In 827-9 Egbert defeated King Wiglaf of Merica and possibly King Eanred of Northumbria. The Chronicle calls him the eighth Bretwalda. Some historians consider him to be the first true King of England but there were still rulers in several other kingdoms.

Just as Egbert was established as ruler of the whole south coast and land south of the Thames the Vikings returned, attacking Sheppey in 835 and then joining with the Cornish in 838 but were defeated by Egbert at Hingston Down.

[SLIDES: Coins and Egbert’s burial chest at Winchester.]

Ethelwulf and his sons

Something that Egbert managed which Ethelbald, Offa and Coenwulf had not was to have a worthy son and worthy grandsons to succeed him. Ethelwulf had been sub-king of Kent for 14 years when he became king of Wessex in 839 and passed Kent to his son Athelstan. Ethelwulf had five sons and one daughter. He made peace with the Mercians and even issued a joint penny with King Beorhtwulf – the only double headed coin ever to be legal tender. When Beorhtwulf died in 852 Ethelwulf was quick to arrange a marriage between his successor, Burgred, and his own daughter, Aethelswith, emulating Offa’s policy. When Ethelwulf first came to the throne the Vikings seem to have turned their attention to Francia after the death of Louis the Pious, and Northumbria. Continuing rivalries in East Anglia, Merica and Northumbria also allowed him to consolidate his position.

In 845 the Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok was shipwrecked and ended up, according to later legend, being killed in a viper pit in Northumbria for which deed his sons vowed vengeance. The same year a Viking force was defeated by one of Ethelwulf’s ealdormen when they tried to invade Somerset. Another raid on Kent in 850 was also defeated by Athelstan. When he suddenly died in 855 Ethelwulf decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome with his youngest son, Alfred (aged 6) and leave the country to his other sons. To the surprise of many Ethelwulf returned the following year with a new teenage bride, Judith, the daughter of the Frankish king and spent the last two years of his life as king of Kent again. Luckily Ethelwulf had 5 sons because the eldest, Athelstan, predeceased him and the next three (Ethelbald, Ethelbert and Ethelred) all succeeded but only briefly. Ethelred seems to have been the most able and although he had sons he recognised that they would be too young to succeed if he died young so he groomed his youngest brother, Alfred, to succeed him as king.

The Vikings stepped up their raids in the 850s attacking Wales from their new kingdom of Dublin in 856 and in 860 Winchester from their base on the Somme. The Great Army of Danes landed in East Anglia in 865 led by Ragnar’s sons Ivar and Halfdan. King Edmund bought them off so they rode to Northumbria and sacked York in 866. In 867 the Danes defeated and killed the rival kings of Northumbria who had united to fight them and inflicted the Spread Eagle on Aelle who had killed their father. They took over the rule of Deira for the next 90 years with their capital at York or Jorvik. The Northumbrian court retreated to Bernicia and was cut off from the rest of England. In 869 Ivar attacked East Anglia and burnt Peterborough. In 870 the Danes defeated King Edmund who was used as target practice and then beheaded. He was later revered as a saint and his shrine at Bury St Edmund’s became a great pilgrimage centre.

[SLIDES: Jewellery, ecclesiastical and everyday objects, Bury and images of St Edmund.]

Alfred the Great

After conquering Deira and East Anglia the Danes turned their attention to Wessex. King Ethelred was victorious at the Battle of Ashdown in 871 but died soon afterwards leaving the 22 year old Alfred in charge of the resistance. There was a series of battles and the West Saxons retreated to the south west. In 873 the Vikings turned their force on Merica and defeated them at Repton and expelled King Burgred in 874 installing a puppet king. Alfred was the last Anglo-Saxon ruler left to resist the Danes and fought several battles during the 870s against Guthrum and his horde. In 878 Alfred was surprised by the Vikings and fled into the Somerset marshes where he took refuge in a lowly cottage and whilst contemplating how to revive his fortunes let the cakes he was supposed to be tending burn.

Alfred won a huge victory over Guthrum at Edington and they signed the Treaty of Wedmore, dividing the country between them. Guthrum converted to Christianity with the name Athelstan and settled as King of East Anglia.

The last 21 years of Alfred’s reign were peaceful and he concentrated on building a new kingdom. As a child he had been encouraged to love poetry by his mother and encouraged reading and learning. He sent works to the bishops with a precious gift (aestel) encouraging them to read in the vernacular. It was also in his reign that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was begun. He appointed the Welsh monk Asser as bishop and adviser. Asser wrote a biography of Alfred as Einhard had of Charlemagne. In 879 he installed Ealdorman Ethelred as ruler of West Mercia and copied his father’s example by marrying him to his daughter Aethelflaed. In 884 Alfred and Ethelred recaptured London from the Danes and started a programme of fortifying towns called burhs (boroughs) along the border to use as bases for further conquests. In 894 the Welsh kings sought Alfred’s support against the Vikings. In 898, the year before his death, Alfred, aware of his failing health, seems to have raised his son Edward to be joint king (emulating Offa) and at the same time his daughter acted as joint ruler of Mercia where her husband’s health was preventing him from ruling properly.

[SLIDES: Images of Alfred, maps showing the campaign against the Vikings, coins, weapons, brooches, aestels including the Alfred Jewel, churches.]

Edward and Aethelflaed

On their father’s death in 899 Edward and Aethelflaed assumed the lead in the fight back against the Danes. They ran a joint campaign of conquest and burh building, each creating 10-12 new fortified towns. When Ethelred died in 911 Aethelflaed succeeded as sole ruler of Mercia and increased her attacks and she and her brother soon reconquered the Midlands. In 902 the Vikings were expelled from Dublin and came to Britain to find a new home. At first they came to an accommodation with Aethelflaed but seem to have been defeated at an unknown battle near Cuerdale. Aethelflaed’s most stunning victory was the capture of Derby in 918 after which she suddenly died. She had also subdued the Welsh and the Danes in York acknowledged her as their overlord.

The Danes were organised in two kingdoms, East Anglia and York with the five boroughs of Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Lincoln and Stamford between. After Aethelflaed’s death Edward let her daughter rule for 6 months before taking control himself and uniting Wessex and Mercia. From there he completed the reconquest of East Anglia as well.

[SLIDES: Maps, coins, Cuerdale and Goldsborough hoards.]

Athelstan and his brothers

Like his grandfather Ethelwulf, Edward married several times and left a large family. When he died in 924 he left Mercia to his eldest son, Athelstan who had been partly brought up at Aethelflaed’s court, and Wessex to Aelfweard. Aelfweard died suddenly a fortnight after his father and his younger brothers were too young to succeed so Athelstan became king of Wessex as well. He was extremely successful and has the right to be called the first king of England. In 927 Athelstan conquered the Viking stronghold of York and expelled the king who fled to Dublin. He also completed the conquest of Cornwall started a century earlier by Egbert. This meant there was only one king in England. In 931 the Welsh kings submitted to Athelstan and attended his court. Athelstan was also interested in literacy and learning like his grandfather and had an impressive collection of books. He also extended diplomatic relations abroad which Offa had failed to do and Alfred had started by marrying his daughter to Count Baldwin of Flanders. Athelstan’s sisters married King Charles III of France, Count Hugh of Paris, King Otto I of Germany, King Conrad III of Burgundy and King Louis the blind of Provence. Athelstan had several princes from abroad at his court either as refugees or to be fostered and brought up as great kings.

In 937 the brother of the expelled king of York, Olaf, returned at the head of a large Viking army and in alliance with King Constantine of Scotland. Athelstan defeated them at the Battle of Brunanburh which was celebrated in verse in the Chronicle and in the Icelandic sagas. Athelstan never married and was succeeded by his brothers Edmund and Edred. They reigned for only short periods but were also good military leaders. In York, the Viking kingdom was revived by Eric Bloodaxe, the son of King Harald Fairhair of Norway, who had been expelled from his country for being too violent. He twice imposed his rule on York and was eventually defeated and killed by Edred in 954 thus bringing an end to the independent Viking kingdom there.

[SLIDES: Coins, Vale of York hoard, books, buildings, textiles and other items.]

In the fifth lecture we shall look at how Wessex continued to dominate England during the final century before the Norman Conquest except for a brief interlude when the Danish invaders actually conquered the country and four of them ruled as king.