The Battle of Hastings and the Birth of the English Language (1066)

Adventus Saxonum: The Backdrop

When Rome abandoned ‘Britannia’ in 410 AD, the British Isles were open to invasion. Sure enough, Germanic tribes such as the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes (among many others) invaded and settled along the eastern coast of modern-day England. This mass migration of Germanic tribes became known as the Adventus Saxonum, which is Latin for ‘Arrival of the Saxons.’

The Saxons eventually rose to power as the most prominent of the other settlers and would become mostly united by the middle of the 900s. Think of it this way, do you remember how the American colonies were settled? The Dutch came over and founded New Amsterdam, and then the English who had already ruled all of New England took over Manhattan and renamed it New York after the Duke of York, then eventually claimed everything else. It’s pretty much the same kind of thing. Only here, in early Britain, the Angles and the Saxons had mostly intertwined, giving birth to the term ‘Anglo-Saxon.’ Although we have no evidence to say that there were more Angles than Saxons or vice versa, the land eventually became known as ‘Anglialand’ over time, which became ‘England’ and there they spoke the Anglo-Saxon language that we call Old English. It was slightly similar to the language we speak today and we still use some Anglo-Saxon words. In fact, you’ve probably spoken a few of them today, such as above, apple, awake, back, blood, body, daughter, ear, evening, ice, king, man, open, queen, quick, right, say, shadow, walk, winter, yes, and you (just to name a few).

England was ruled by the Anglo-Saxons until the last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, died in 1066. Edward is described in the Vita Ædwardi Regis as

“…a very proper figure of a man—of outstanding height, and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands, and long translucent fingers; in all the rest of his body he was an unblemished royal person. Pleasant, but always dignified, he walked with eyes downcast, most graciously affable to one and all. If some cause aroused his temper, he seemed as terrible as a lion, but he never revealed his anger by railing.”

EDWARD THE CONFESSOR Reigned 1042-1066

EDWARD THE CONFESSOR
Reigned 1042-1066

The Imperial State Crown - the blue sapphire in the cross on top of the crown was once a ring worn by Edward the Confessor. The crown also has the Black Prince's Ruby, the Cullinan II , the Stuart Sapphire, and Queen Elizabeth I's pearls.

The Imperial State Crown – the blue sapphire in the cross on top of the crown was once a ring worn by Edward the Confessor. The crown also has the Black Prince’s Ruby, the Cullinan II, the Stuart Sapphire, and Queen Elizabeth I’s pearls.

There is no denying that Edward was a great king. He was the first and only Anglo-Saxon sovereign of England to be canonized. He was exceptionally pious and unworldly for a man of power of his time, and when he died in January 1066, England suffered a succession crisis between several claimants to the throne.

After the Death of Edward the Confessor

Edward slipped into a coma before he died, never naming his plans for succession. Historians debate Edward’s intentions as to who he believed should have been his successor as king. Some say William, The Duke of Normandy was his rightful heir, others argue that the rich and powerful aristocrat Harold Godwinson was the rightful one.

Regardless of what Edward may or may not have wanted, Harold became king. The Witenagemot* intervened and elected him to rule.

*From the seventh to eleventh centuries, the Witenagemot was an assembly of the ruling class whose function was to advise the king. It was comprised of a group of England’s most powerful noblemen. Harold was crowned on January 6, 1066.

Once word reached Normandy that Edward was dead and Harold had succeeded him, Duke William of Normandy was absolutely furious.

Death of Harold as depicted by William Blake in his work Visionary Heads.

Death of Harold as depicted by William Blake in his work Visionary Heads.

The Bayeux Tapestry, which is one of the most well-preserved documentation of this story, is showing here the coronation of Harold as King of England.

The Bayeux Tapestry, which is one of the most well-preserved documentation of this story, is showing here the coronation of Harold as King of England.

Norman Interest in the Throne

(I’ll be honest, it’s starting to get confusing, even for me. So, take a peek at the family tree if you’re really interested in this section, especially if you are a visual learner like I am.)

Family tree showing Edward the Confessor's relation to his brother-in-law, Harold, and his cousin, William, The Duke of Normandy.

Family tree showing Edward the Confessor’s relation to his brother-in-law, Harold, and his cousin, William, The Duke of Normandy.

Present-day Normandy in France was settled by Viking invaders from the North (hence the term ‘NORmans’), and a duchy was established there. In 1002, King Æthelred II of England married Emma, the sister of Richard II, then-Duke of Normandy. Their son was King Edward the Confessor. Edward’s Norman roots created a very strong interest in English politics for the Normans, especially since Edward had continually called on them for support throughout his reign. It is believed that Edward even encouraged William to succeed him on the throne. Some historians even suggest that William was promised it.

According to the website of the British monarchy, “William’s claim to the English throne was based on his assertion that, in 1051, Edward the Confessor had promised him the throne (he was a distant cousin) and that Harold II – having sworn in 1064 to uphold William’s right to succeed to that throne – was therefore a usurper.”

Were the Normans ‘barbaric’ and trying to invade England just to gain more power, or were they men of honor with a legitimate claim to what they were promised?

William had a lot of support for his vision of England. Not only did he have the allegiance of Emperor Henry IV, but he also had the approval of the pope. The pope has always been considered the closest man to God. In 1066, this was exceptionally true, and to have the pope’s help meant that you also had God’s.

A map depicting the locations of where the King of Norway's forces landed in York in the north, and where William and the Norman forces landed in the south for the Battle of Hastings.

A map depicting the locations of where the King of Norway’s forces landed in York in the north, and where William and the Norman forces landed in the south for the Battle of Hastings.

The Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest of England

On September 28, 1066, William landed on the south coast of England and within a week had raised fortifications at Hastings. By this time, Harold’s army was exhausted. They had just fought off a Norwegian invasion in the north (near York) that month, eliminating the King of Norway’s claim to the throne. Learning that the Normans had landed and were setting up camp and getting ready to fight, Harold and his army were forced to march south. They covered 250 miles in about nine days to meet William. Many people died or had to stop marching along the way and were replenished by completely inexperienced soldiers. This was a major advantage for William and his army.

On October 14, 1066, fighting began around 9am and lasted until the sun was setting. Harold’s army was still weak not only from the battle against the King of Norway’s army up north, but also from the trek down to where the Normans were waiting for them. However, they had the advantage of being based uphill from the base of Duke William’s army. Also to the advantage of the English was that their army included Europe’s best infantry equipped with two-handled battle axes.

The Normans made the first move by having their archers shoot uphill at the English shield wall. This failed. The arrows probably bounced off the shields or flew over them completely, since the arrows had to be shot uphill. Historian Matthew Bennett writes in his Campaigns of the Norman Conquest (2001) that William then sent the spearmen forward to attack the English, who were met with a barrage of missiles and not arrows but spears, axes, and heavy stones. They couldn’t break the shield wall and after failing to make headway, a general retreat began. As the Normans were slowly withdrawing, Harold’s army suddenly charged after them.

It was rumored that William had been killed. To dismiss all confusion, he raised his helmet on the battlefield to show his troops that he was still fighting alongside them.

As the English charged after them (which may not have been an order given by Harold, since a contemporary source relates that Harold ordered his army to stay in formation), the Duke then led a counter-attack against them. Some of the English then rallied on a hillock before facing the massive forces of William’s army.

The Bayeux Tapestry shows that Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were killed just before the confrontation by the hillock. The fact that they were even depicted on the tapestry suggests that they may have started the initial charge against the retreating enemy. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings, ca.1067), one of the earliest written sources of the battle, states that William slew Harold’s brother Gyrth in combat.

Harold was then killed. Since there are few to little sources that tell us how he died, it is believed that was hit by an arrow and then taken down by a mounted knight’s sword. The Bayeux Tapestry doesn’t clarify much, but it depicts a figure holding an arrow sticking out of his eye next to a figure being hit by a sword. Above this, it says “Here King Harold has been killed”, not specifying which figure. Traditional stories say that Harold really was hit through the eye. The earliest mention of that comes from the 1080s from a history of the Normans by the Italian monk, Amatus of Montecassino. The tradition is later supported by William of Malmesbury who stated that an arrow went through his eye and pierced his brain, and then was hit by a knight’s sword. Other than this one consistent and probably true theory, other chroniclers state completely different and contrasting causes of death for the King.

The Bayeux Tapestry reflects the tradition that Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow, although it is debated that the figure (second from left) with the arrow in the eye is him. (The arrow is very faint, it almost blends with the background).

The Bayeux Tapestry reflects the tradition that Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow, although it is debated that the figure (second from left) with the arrow in the eye is him. (The arrow is very faint, it almost blends with the background). It reads “Here Harold was killed.”

The battlefield. The Abbey was built over the spot where Harold was killed.

The battlefield. The Abbey was built over the spot where Harold was killed.

Without a leader, the English army finally collapsed. Most that remained fled, and those who were close to Harold bravely stayed put and fought off as many remaining Normans as they could before being destroyed by William’s outstanding and already-victorious forces.

The next day, Harold was identified either by the marks on his body or by his armor and officially confirmed dead. Peter Rex, the former Head of History at Princethorpe College writes in Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) that Harold’s personal standard was then presented to William and sent to Rome.

William, Duke of Normandy. Later 'William the Conquerer.'

William, Duke of Normandy. Later King William I of England, or ‘William the Conquerer.’

William was crowned King of England on Christmas in Westminster Abbey in 1066. It took a total of six years for him to consolidate his conquest of England, and faced constant challenges both there and in Normandy, where he remained Duke. One of his first actions as king was to built an abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings (or Sandlac, as it is also commonly known) in the modern-day town of Battle, England. The high altar of the abbey was erected on the site where Harold was killed. Battle Abbey was destroyed during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monestaries from 1536-1541. The ruins still stand today.

Battle Abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings. Photo by Antony McCallum.

Battle Abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings. Photo by Antony McCallum.

The location where Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings, later the site of the high altar. Photo taken by Néstor Daza.

The location where Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings, later the site of the high altar. Photo taken by Néstor Daza.

Culture Shock: The Birth of the English Language

The Normans did not remain in Normandy. Once they acquired England, many gathered as families and moved there. They took advantage of the land and made it their home. They even married the natives and assimilated. As they slowly over time became English, they also ended up creating a new language. It was a blend of the Germanic Old English and Norman ‘Old French.’ This new language that evolved after 1066 is known today as ‘Middle English.’

As you probably noticed earlier, Old English words were pretty simple. They had one or two syllables and they were rough and to the point. Norman words were much more elegant and less harsh. This culture shock with the language spoken in England created some of the first synonyms of our language. This is why we have two words for almost everything, such as hug: very short and rough; and embrace, which is much more elegant and fitting of the sophisticated Norman culture. Consider these other example of Old English and Old French words that we still use today:

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You’ve probably been told at some point in your life that when you speak English, you’re really speaking a bunch of ancient French and German at the same time. Now you can see exactly what they meant. The reason the French language truly became mixed with the Anglo-Saxon language though is because once William marched into London and forced the English to submit to him, he changed the official language of the kingdom into Old French. The commoners maintained their Anglo-Saxon language at home and the elite or those working with the governing body spoke French. Descendants of both bodies eventually learned both. Over time, the two languages simply evolved into one complex Middle English language, making one of the most common things of our everyday lives today a descendant of the Battle of Hastings. It is only one of numerous profound contributions the Normans made to the world of our ancestors.

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King Alfred’s Ambitious Vision For a Secure Kingdom (878-899)

Wessex Under Attack

Alfred possessed all the qualities that only a legendary king would have. His character was one of honesty, courage, brilliance, and piety, and he was just as good at peace as he was valiant in battle. The only thing about his legendary reign is that, for starters, it isn’t exactly ‘legendary.’ Alfred was real, and in many ways, he truly honors his epithet of ‘The Great.’

A modern sketch of Alfred the Great.

A modern sketch of Alfred the Great.

Vikings from modern-day Denmark (referred to as the Danes) ravished the northern kingdoms of England. Northumbria first succumbed to their wrath, then East Anglia, and shortly afterwards, Mercia fell to their control. They were called ‘The Great Heathen Army’ and they were unstoppable, ruining everything in their path like a plague of locusts.

When Alfred succeeded the throne of the southern kingdom of Wessex, the Danes stopped their vast expansion. They probably did so to gather and save their strength for a massive attack on Wessex, which they surely would have known they would need to defeat a recognized war hero like Alfred. Eventually, they did attack. Alfred suffered a major blow after a surprise attack in January 878.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dictates:

…most of the people they [the Danes] killed, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way by wood and swamp, and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe.

From there, Alfred is known to have forged a massive resistance movement.

Alfred is often depicted, ever since his death, as a victorious hero valiantly moving forward. This is likely symbolic of his victory at Edington after being viciously defeated beforehand. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images).

Alfred is often depicted, ever since his death, as a victorious hero valiantly moving forward. This is likely symbolic of his victory at Edington after being viciously defeated beforehand. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images).

Alfred would rise from the marshes of Somerset to defeat the Danes with a major victory at the Battle of Edington in May 878. According to Alfred’s biographer, Bishop Asser:

‘Alfred attacked the whole pagan army fighting ferociously in dense order, and by divine will eventually won the victory, made great slaughter among them, and pursued them to their fortress (Chippenham) … After fourteen days the pagans (Danes) were brought to the extreme depths of despair by hunger, cold and fear, and they sought peace.’

This contemporary source is extremely important because it ends up providing some credibility of Alfred’s greatest ‘legendary’ traits, which were his brilliance as a warrior, and his ability to stem peace from chaos. Alfred knew that he was unable to drive the Danes from the rest of the land. Instead, he made peace with them in the Treaty of Wedmore. Guthrum, King of the Danes was converted to Christianity. Alfred, a devout Christian, even stood as his godfather.

Alfred then negotiated a partition treaty and a frontier was designed, allowing northern and eastern England to remain under the jurisdiction of the Danes, where most had settled as farmers.

This became known as ‘Danelaw.’

A map of the territories clearly outlined by the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.

A map of the territories clearly outlined by the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.

King Alfred and His Ambitious Vision For a Secure Kingdom

  1. Burghal System
  2. Taxation
  3. A Navy

Although all seemed to be falling into place, Wessex was still very much under threat from the Danes. Alfred used the time of peace following Edington as an opportunity to completely reconstruct his kingdom’s military defense system. He believed that defense and prosperity were interdependent, and so he took on this ambitious project with this philosophy as one of it’s foundations.

The inspiration for his ideas may have come to him on a visit to Rome. According to Richard Abels in Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (1998), Alfred studied how the Carolingian kings dealt with Viking invasions. By learning from their experiences, he was able to design a system of taxation and defense for Wessex. Another influence could have been a system of fortifications that had been built in pre-Viking Mercia.

  • The Burghal System

Alfred designed a network of burhs (later called boroughs) which became known as the Burghal system. These were fortifications that were distributed strategically throughout Wessex. Each one was nineteen miles away from the other, enabling the reorganized military to confront any attack within the kingdom in a single day. The Burghal system was revolutionary because of it’s strategy and how it was supported through taxes.

A Map of the Burhs of the Burghai System. Image based on information 'The Defence of Wessex' by Hill and Rumble. Image by Hel-hama.

A Map of the Burhs of the Burghal System. Image based on information ‘The Defence of Wessex’ by Hill and Rumble. Image by Hel-hama.

An example of what one of Alfred's newly designed burhs would have looked like.

An example of what one of Alfred’s newly designed burhs would have looked like.

  • Administration and Taxation

The people of Anglo-Saxon England had to pay a heavy tax for reform based on their landholding for the “common burdens” of the military, the Burghal system, and bridge repair. According to Ryan Lavelle in Alfred’s Wars Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age (2010), the original term for this threefold tax was called trinoda neccessitas. The Old English term for a fine due (if you didn’t pay this tax) was called fyrdwitee.

  • English Navy

In 897, Alfred designed and ordered the construction of a small fleet. This was not the very first English fleet since we have records of a royal fleet long before the reign of Alfred. This was also not the birth of the Royal Navy, which truly flourished during the sixteenth century. This small fleet was, however, to become the first English navy to combat Viking longships.

The entire thought process behind this was that Viking ships should be intercepted before they could reach the coast. This way, Alfred’s navy could spare their kingdom from being ravaged like the other kingdoms had recently been by the invaders, most of whom had come by sea.

And so, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle regarded 897 as a very important development in the naval forces of the kingdom. The chronicler wrote:

…King Alfred gave orders for building long ships against the esks, which were full-nigh twice as long as the others. Some had sixty oars, some more; and they were both swifter and steadier, and also higher than the others. They were not shaped either after the Frisian or the Danish model, but so as he himself thought that they might be most serviceable.

These were perhaps some of the earliest battleships in England. The chronicler is extremely fond of them, clearly pointing out that they were ‘swifter and steadier’ than Danish or Frisian ships. Not to mention, they are also described as rising higher above the seas than the others. With a hero like Alfred on the throne, where better a direction to make an enemy face than up?

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And yes, these ships did rise higher, because Alfred’s designs were based off of Greek and Roman warships with high sides good for fighting, instead of for navigating. However, according to Richard Abels (pp. 305–307), these early English battleships were brilliant in conception, but in practice they turned out to be too large to maneuver well in the waters they were used in, such as rivers, where any naval battles would have likely occurred.

Overall Conclusion

The actions for taken by Alfred were indeed ambitious, but this is extremely dependent on the important factor of trust. Political instability was extremely huge at this time. Several kingdoms surrounding Wessex had completely fallen to invaders in just a short period of overall Anglo-Saxon history. Alfred was one man, just like any other sovereign of those realms. So, in order for this to work, Alfred would have seriously needed to have been trusted by his people. Not that they had a choice in paying taxes (because they would be fined if they didn’t), but it looks like they did because they trusted the proposed system. And even though the nobility is reported to have been iffy about spending their money on what the king considered a ‘common good for the people’ that the court should help provide, no mass protests were demonstrated, and nobody migrated to the Danelaw over the border of Wessex. Alfred’s people had sworn him allegiance, and by doing so, they gave the king who rose from the marshes after a defeat their whole trust to protect them.

An 887 penny forged during the reign of Alfred. It reads "Ælfred Rex." Rex is Latin for 'King' and is still used when referencing a king (or 'Regina' for queen) on English currency. A British monarch still signs their name with "R" after their name for either Rex or Regina. © National Portrait Gallery, London

An 887 penny forged during the reign of Alfred. It reads “Ælfred Rex.” Rex is Latin for ‘King’ and is still used when referencing a king (or ‘Regina’ for queen) on English currency. A British monarch still signs their name with “R” after their name for either Rex or Regina. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Alfred’s success is greatly measured by the way he valiantly carried himself with dignity, completely unwilling to accept defeat, yet absolutely willing to compromise. Perhaps at the end of the day, he simply asked his subjects to do just that. For many, given the fact that the taxes were paid and the burhs and the ships were completed, a compromise was the greatest way to give hearty ‘thanks’ to the hero of their home. And sure enough, when Viking raids returned in 892, Alfred and the Kingdom of Wessex were extremely prepared.

Æthelstan, The First King of England (c.893-939)

Æthelstan was the King of Wessex who would become the first to style himself as ‘King of the English.’ He was the son of Edward the Elder and the grandson of Alfred the Great.

Athelstan, c.895-939. Illuminated manuscript from Bede's Life of St Cuthbert, c.930. Originally from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287.

Athelstan, c.895-939. Illuminated manuscript from Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, c.930. Originally from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287.

There’s just no other way to say it. Æthelstan was Disney prince material. Chronicler William of Malmesbury described the king as handsome, slim, and blond. He was also extremely educated and personally brave. It’s written that he “won by the sword’s edge undying glory in battle.” In other words, if we didn’t have proof of his existence, he would be as legendary as King Arthur.

Æthelstan, King of Wessex

Æthelstan was born in Wessex in either 893 or 895. When his father, Edward the Elder died in battle in 924, the Mercians accepted him as king. It is widely believed that he had an older half-brother, Ælfweard who became King of Wessex after the death of Edward the Elder, but he died within only a few weeks of Edward. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dictates that the two were even buried together at Winchester. Manuscript D of the Chronicle states that Ælfweard outlived his father by only 16 days. It is unknown whether or not he was actually assassinated. Either way, chronicler William of Malmesbury related that Æthelstan succeeded Edward immediately as part of the terms of Alfred the Great’s will (since lost).

Æthelstan centralized government and increased and maintained control over the production of charters. He also might be one of the first kings, if not the first, to basically invent ‘state visits,’ as he invited rulers from foreign areas to attend his councils, particularly the neighboring Welsh kings. Historian Thomas Charles-Edwards writes that the most dominant figure in Wales at this time was Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, who is described as “the firmest ally of the ‘emperors of britain’ among all the kings of his day.” The Welsh kings attended Æthelstan’s councils which created a strong alliance between England and Wales. Also by attending these councils, the Welsh acknowledged Æthelstan’s overlordship (an overlord is a person who has authority over other people in power; in this case, a lord who has power over other lords. The Welsh kings therefore were sub-kings of the English sovereign).

A large-scale map of Britain (up to Edinburgh) in the reign of King Æthelstan (924-39), showing settlements, bishoprics, and known mints, with lots of historical notes in the margins. Map drawn by Reginald Piggott for Simon Keynes.

A large-scale map of Britain (up to Edinburgh) in the reign of King Æthelstan (924-39), showing settlements, bishoprics, and known mints, with lots of historical notes in the margins. Map drawn by Reginald Piggott for Simon Keynes.

Æthelstan, King of the Anglo-Saxons

Unlike the Welsh, the Scots and the Vikings were resistant to accept him as a supreme ruler of the British Isles. In 927 AD, Æthelstan invaded and reconquered the last remaining Viking kingdom, York. This victory is what officially made him the first Anglo-Saxon ruler of England, and from 927 until his death, he was styled as King of the English.

Once he had gained control of York, the king was persistent in trying to persuade them to acknowledge him as the supreme ruler of all Britain. Instead of force the Archbishop of York (the most important lieutenant in the region) to submit to him, Æthelstan purchased a major territory in Lancashire and gave it to him. He showered ministers in York in gifts. Still, despite southern England swearing allegiance to him without question, and despite his peaceful-like tactics, he was still resented in the North, and the northern British kingdoms allied elsewhere, in one instance with the pagan Norse of Dublin.

Anxious for the Scots to accept his rule and accompanied by four Welsh kings, Æthelstan invaded Scotland in 934 and forced King Constantine to submit to him. Several factors made Æthelstan extremely comfortable with this invasion. Firstly, his half-brother Edwin died in 933, removing any insecurities that his people in Wessex might have against his rightful claim to the throne (which by now he’d held for ten years). Furthermore, the Norse king of Dublin, Guthfrith (who briefly ruled Northumbria in Northern Britain) died in 934. Guthfrith’s death created an insecurity among the Danes which gave Æthelstan a flawless opportunity to make his claim over the North. Two sources briefly explain this invasion. The Annals of Clonmacnoise (a 17th century translation of a lost Irish chronicle covering events in ireland from pre-history to 1408 AD) explains that Constantine and Æthelstan were disputing over who rightfully should claim the territory that Guthfrith left behind. The Chronicle briefly explained the expedition without an explanation but a twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester stated that Constantine had broken a former treaty with Æthelstan.

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A modern sketch of Æthelstan.

Whatever the reason, filled with resentment, the Scots and Vikings retaliated by invading England. They were defeated at the Battle of Brunanburh, a victory that gave Æthelstan a major prestigious status across continental Europe.

The Battle of Brunanburh

The Battle of Brunanburh was fought against a combined army of Scots, Vikings, and Britons. The battle has been deemed “the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before the Battle of Hastings” by historian Alfred Smyth. Another historian, Michael Livingston claims that Brunanburh marked the moment when Englishness came of age. The site of the battle is unknown but it is well recorded in dozens of sources in Old English, Irish, Welsh, Middle English, Latin, and more. The Battle of Brunanburh is also a poem recorded in the Chronicle.

Never, before this,

were more men in this island slain

by the sword’s edge–as books and aged sages

confirm–since Angles and Saxons sailed here

from the east, sought the Britons over the wide seas,

since those warsmiths hammered the Welsh,

and earls, eager for glory, overran the land.

The poem also describes the deaths of five kings and seven earls among Æthelstan’s enemies, among them Constantine’s son:

Five lay still

on that battlefield – young kings

by swords put to sleep – and seven also

of Anlaf’s earls, countless of the army,

of sailors and Scotsmen. There was put to flight

the Northmen’s chief, driven by need

to the ship’s prow with a little band.

He shoved the ship to sea. The king disappeared

on the dark flood. His own life he saved.

So there also the old one came in flight

to his home in the north; Constantine,

that hoary-haired warrior, had no cause to exult

at the meeting of swords: he was shorn of his kin,

deprived of his friends on the field,

bereft in the fray, and his son behind

on the place of slaughter, with wounds ground to pieces,

too young in battle.

Æthelstan’s defeat of the Norse-Celtic army confirmed England as a fully unified kingdom. He was now officially the first King of the English.

Æthelstan, King of the English

Fortunately, we have many texts and manuscripts surviving from his reign, more than any other king prior to the 1000’s. As a religious leader, Æthelstan was famous for collecting relics and founding churches across England. He was extremely intelligent especially in the areas of foreign relations, and even had some of his sisters married off to other rules of Europe at the time. This offered him a great deal of protection and greatly supported his throne.

Æthelstan can be seen in many stained glass windows in churches across Europe because of his support for learning and his support for the church. He was one of the most religious Anglo-Saxon kings.

Æthelstan can be seen in many stained glass windows in churches across Europe because of his support for learning and his support for the church. He was one of the most religious Anglo-Saxon kings.

King Æthelstan built on his grandfather’s efforts to rebuilt, support, and maintain ecclesiastical scholarship. He was praised in his day for his piety and encouragement for learning. His reputation as a collector of books and relics attracted very intelligent educators to his court and he also aided Breton ministers who fled Brittany (in France) following it’s Viking conquest in 919. He sent to those clerics from Brittany, now exiled in Central France, some of his relics of Breton saints. This resulted in a major foreign interest in England for commemorating Breton saints.

Æthelstan took many grand and extravagant titles as the first King of England. Coins and charters of his time describe him as Rex totius Britanniae, King of the Whole of Britain. Charters from 931 on record him as ‘King of the English.’ Many historians regard him as a bit pretentious. For example, historian Sarah Foot writes in Æthelstan: the first king of England (pp. 212–213) that he was styled in one manuscript dedication as basileus et curagulus, the titles of Byzantine emperors. His titles reflect something very important: his status. Greatness was not something he solely saw in himself. It was recognized everywhere. Continental rulers saw him as a Carolingian emperor, and historian Veronica Ortenberg further argues that he was clearly treated as the new Charlemagne, writing:

Wessex kings carried an aura of power and success, which made them increasingly powerful in the 920s, while most Continental houses were in military trouble and engaged in internecine warfare. While the civil wars and the Viking attacks on the Continent had spelled the end of unity of the Carolingian empire, which had already disintegrated into separate kingdoms, military success had enabled Æthelstan to triumph at home and to attempt to go beyond the reputation of a great heroic dynasty of warrior kings, in order to develop a Carolingian ideology of kingship. (Ortenberg, The King from Overseas, pp. 211–222).

Something remarkable about Æthelstan is that he also wasn’t selfish. He was very kind and giving to other rulers, of course, if they showed him respect. Having married his sisters off to other kings, he had many young nieces and nephews around the known world. He supported them greatly in times of need. In 936, he sent an English fleet to help his foster-son, Alan II, Duke of Brittany, to regain his lands that had been conquered by the Vikings. He also assisted the son of his half-sister Eadgifu, Louis, to take the throne of West Francia. After having helped another possible foster-son, Hakon (the son of the king of Norway) to reclaim his throne, he was known by the Norwegians as ‘Æthelstan the Good.’

Stained glass window, All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. Originally obtained from Warden and Fellows of All Souls, Oxford.

Stained glass window, All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. Originally obtained from Warden and Fellows of All Souls, Oxford.

A miniature of St. Matthew in the Coronation Gospels presented by King Athelstan to Christ Church Priory. The manuscript is Carolingian in origin. British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A ii.

A miniature of St. Matthew in the Coronation Gospels presented by King Athelstan to Christ Church Priory. The manuscript is Carolingian in origin.
British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A ii.

Æthelstan died at Gloucester on October 27, 939. Although his father Edward and his grandfather, Alfred the Great had been buried at Winchester, he chose not to honor that opposed his rule. He was buried therefore at Malmesbury Abbey, where his cousins that died at Brunanburh were interred.

His bones were lost during the Dissolution of the Monestaries, but he is commemorated by an empty fifteenth-century tomb.

The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England.

The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England.

The Wessex Family Tree. Courtesy of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and www.royal.co.uk.

The Wessex Family Tree. Courtesy of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and http://www.royal.co.uk.

 

Edward the Elder (c.874-924)

Alfred the Great died in 899. He was succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder (c.874-77 – July 17, 924), as King of Wessex.

Edward the Elder.

Edward the Elder.

Edward is a very important Anglo-Saxon ruler for his success in extending his father’s victorious achievements. Alfred preferred a defensive look against threats from the Danes, whereas Edward took an aggressive approach.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that Edward struggled with realms outside of Wessex as early as 907, which was when the document states that Edward regained Chester. The fact that it’s mentioned in such a noteworthy document full of battles and important losses and victories, it’s likely that Chester was won back by Edward in battle.

Edward sent an army to antagonize Northumbria in 909, whom retaliated by attacking Mercia. Once the Northumbrians arrived there, they were met by the combined armies of Mercia and Wessex and it became known as the Battle of Tettenhall. The Northumbrian Danes were destroyed. The result of this victory is that the Danes never came further south than the River Humber.

Edward then had a number of burhs, or fortresses built to keep the Danes at bay.

Following a series of impeccable victories in 917, Edward captured Essex and the East Midlands was able to force the Vikings of East Anglia to submit to the rule of Wessex. Then, in 918, he expanded the kingdom even further by taking control of western Mercia (which was ruled by his niece, Aelfwynn) and then conquered Danish Mercia (the Five Boroughs). His aggression was vicious, his determination was clear, and his success in domination was incomparable by any of his predecessors to date.

The Five Boroughs and the English Midlands in the early 10th century. Adapted from Falkus & Gillingham and Hill.

The Five Boroughs and the English Midlands in the early 10th century. Adapted from Falkus & Gillingham and Hill.

Edward died in battle at Farndon-Upon-Dee on July 17, 924. At the time of his death, his kingdom was the most powerful in the British Isles.

He was buried in the New Minster in Winchester, which he established in 901, which eventually was replaced by Hyde Abbey to the north of the city. Edward’s body was transferred there but is now lost. His last known resting place is marked by a stone slab.

The last known resting place of Edward.

The last known resting place of Edward.

The Elder was first used in Life of St Æthelwold by the Anglo-Saxon monk, writer, composer, and scribe, Wulfstan (c.960-1000’s) to distinguish him from a later monarch, Edward the Martyr.

The Wessex Family Tree. Courtesy of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and www.royal.co.uk.

The Wessex Family Tree. Courtesy of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and http://www.royal.co.uk.

Alfred the Great (849-899)

Alfred the Great (849-899) was the fifth son of Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. By the time of his death, he had become the dominant ruler in England after defending his kingdom against a major Viking attempt at conquest.

Statue of Alfred the Great, Wantage, Oxfordshire, England.

Statue of Alfred the Great, Wantage, Oxfordshire, England.

Alfred was born in Wantage in 849 and died in 899. Upon the death of his father, Aethelwulf, Alfred’s elder brothers first succeed their father in order of birth. This was Aethelwulf’s way of making sure the seat of power didn’t pass to someone who was too young to reign, amidst a very unstable time. Unstable it certainly was, as the Kingdom of Wessex was under the threat of Viking raids by the Danes.

Based on Stenton 'Anglo-Saxon England.' An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England' p40-1.

Based on Stenton ‘Anglo-Saxon England.’ An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England’ p40-1.

A map of Wessex and Danelaw, 870.

A map of Wessex and Danelaw, 870.

By 870, all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had fallen to the Vikings. The Vikings eventually established a territory that we refer to as ‘Danelaw.‘ Wessex alone was still standing, unconquered. As anticipated by Alfred and his older brother, King Aethelred, by the end of that very year, Wessex was under attack. Alfred and King Aethelred commanded the kingdom’s forces themselves. The following year, 871, has been historically described as “Alfred’s year of battles.” Nine recorded battles were fought with varying outcomes.

Alfred became king upon the death of his brother on April 23, 871. The raids ensued. The Danes were on a mission to take over the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom standing, and despite all odds, Alfred was on a mission to defend it and ward them off. While Alfred was preoccupied with burial ceremonies for his brother, the Vikings took a vicious victory at Wilton that May. This defeat smashed Alfred’s hope to drive the Danes from his kingdom. Instead, he was forced to make peace, the terms of which are unknown. According to Richard Abels in Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, the result was that the Danes were probably paid cash to vacate the realm, much as the neighboring Mercians would do the following year. Still, this major loss at Wilton left Alfred in retreat for several years, and thanks to his likely peace treaty, the Danes occupied other parts of England for the next five years.

In 876, the Danes had a new leader, Guthrum, who intended to finish what his predecessor started. The Danes slipped past the English army and took control of Wareham in Dorset. Alfred tried to blockade them, but the battle was true to be a loss. According to the ancient Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he negotiated peace by exchanging hostages and oaths. The Danes swore on a “holy ring” associated with the worship of Thor. The Danes, however, broke their word. They killed their hostages and escaped to Devon in the middle of the night. Alfred blockaded them and they were forced to submit.

Plaque on the site of Chippenham today, where a museum is located. Visit their website at http://www.chippenham.gov.uk/museum.

Plaque on the site of Chippenham today, where a museum is located. Visit their website at http://www.chippenham.gov.uk/museum.

However, in January 878, the Danes made a surprise attack on a royal stronghold called Chippenham. Alfred had been staying there over Christmas. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dictates that “most of the people they [the Danes] killed, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way by wood and swamp, and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe.” From there, Alfred is known to have forged a massive resistance movement.

A popular legend originating in the 12th century states that Alfred took refuge in the home of a peasant woman who did not recognize him. She asked him to watch her cakes on the fire while she stepped out, but he let them burn as he was preoccupied with the struggles of his kingdom. Many paintings and sketches depict him getting scolded by the peasant.

A popular legend originating in the 12th century states that Alfred took refuge in the home of a peasant woman who did not recognize him. She asked him to watch her cakes on the fire while she stepped out, but he let them burn as he was preoccupied with the struggles of his kingdom. Many paintings and sketches depict him getting scolded by the peasant.

Around May 878, Alfred rode to Egbert’s Stone, where people of three neighboring provinces gathered to rejoice at his sight as he emerged from the hidden marshland stronghold he had been living in. Much like a hero right out of a Lord of the Rings novel, he rode in on a horse to visit people who viewed him as a symbol of hope, even though his survival after the January attack was likely debated.

King Alfred's Tower (1772) on the supposed site of Egbert's Stone, the mustering place before the Battle of Edington.

King Alfred’s Tower (1772) on the supposed site of Egbert’s Stone, the mustering place before the Battle of Edington.

Alfred’s emergence was part of a careful plan to unite the fyrds of three different shires. A fyrd was an army mobilized from freemen to defend their shire during a royal expedition. All of them swore their allegiance to him.

Somewhere between the 6th  and 12th of May 878, Alfred and his kingdom took a major victory at the Battle of Edington. According to Asser, a Welsh monk alive during the time of Alfred, described in his Life of King Alfred: “Fighting ferociously, forming a dense shield-wall against the whole army of the Pagans [the Danes/Vikings], and striving long and bravely…at last he [Alfred] gained the victory. He overthrew the Pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress [i.e., Chippenham].”

Following Alfred’s 878 victory, the Danes took refuge in Chippenham, and the West Saxons removed all the food that their enemies might take from the area. Starving, the Danes begged for peace, and Alfred was given hostages and the oath that they would leave his kingdom immediately. Unlike the last treaty Alfred made with them (which they broke), they had been completely defeated this time, and were less likely to abandon their word.

Following his victory in defending England against “the Great Heathen Army” (as described by The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) and after signing the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum after another less-vicious confrontation in 884Alfred still had to fight off several other minor independent Viking raids, but he maintained his victorious status. He became the most powerful king in England at that time, and even had Guthrum (now king of East Anglia, ruled by his fellow vikings) convert to Christianity, which shows the major shift in power. He built up the defences of Wessex to ensure the Danes wouldn’t threaten it again. He reorganized his army and built extremely well defended settlements throughout southern England. He also established a navy to ward off the independent Viking raids that ensued across the coast.

A map of the territories clearly outlined by the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.

A map of the territories clearly outlined by the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.

Alfred advocated for justice and order and established a code of laws and reformed coinage. He also established many schools because of his belief that education was of the upmost importance (he himself even learned Latin in his late thirties). He arranged and even helped with the translation of books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon, or as we call it today, “Old English.”

A Family Tree showing the descent of St. Edward the Confessor from Alfred the Great. Courtesy of Her Majesty, The Queen and www.royal.co.uk.

A Family Tree showing the descent of St. Edward the Confessor from Alfred the Great. Courtesy of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and http://www.royal.co.uk.

By the time of his death in 899, Alfred’s charters and coinage were referring to him as ‘king of the English.’

Richard III (with his legendary twisted spine and all) was discovered underneath a modern-day parking lot in 2012, making global headlines. Richard III and Alfred the Great's bodies were buried in Catholic churches, which were dissolved and ruined following Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century after he broke with Rome in order to divorce his wife.

Richard III (with his legendary twisted spine and all) was discovered underneath a modern-day parking lot in 2012, making global headlines. Richard III and Alfred the Great’s bodies were buried in Catholic churches, which were dissolved and ruined following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century after he broke with Rome in order to divorce his wife.

He was buried at his capital, Winchester, and following the successful discovery of the body of Richard III, a search for his body is now under way.

Adventus Saxonum: A Brief Look at the Birth of England

Believe it or not, London wasn’t built in a day. If you ever visit, you’ll occasionally notice some ancient ruined walls around the perimeter of the central city. This is because London was once part of the Roman Empire and it was called ‘Londinium,’ in case you ever wondered where the name ‘London’ came from.

Statue of Trajan in front of a section of the Roman wall, Tower Hill.

Statue of Trajan in front of a section of the Roman wall, Tower Hill.

Emperor Claudius declared the island of modern-day Britain part of the Roman Empire in 43 A.D. and introduced theaters and paved streets. It is roughly estimated that Londinium had a population of over 30,000 people. Historians argue over the general population of the British Isles at that time, but it is estimated to have been between one and four million.

However, politics in Britain were weak. The Romans were more focused on their southern and eastern territories, and the Roman occupation of Britain was not even for civilians, it was primarily for military. As Roman soldiers faced constant battles against numerous barbaric tribes, on top of an economic collapse, the British cause was deemed (for lack of a better description) “not worth it.” Roman soldiers of Britain were ordered to return to Rome by Emperor Honorious in either 409 or 410 A.D. The natives of Britain, the Britons, were told they were on their own and that they needed to defend themselves from the now vicious invaders.

When the Romans withdrew from Londinium in 410, it left the land open to invasion from barbaric tribes that the Romans had been too busy to ward off. Ultimately, several Germanic warrior-like groups primarily invaded and settled around the Eastern parts of the country, such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who had started their invasions and settlements long before Roman withdrawal.

This, the Adventus Saxonum, was the beginning of England.

That is the Latin term used to describe the invasions of England by Germanic peoples, first used by Gildas in ca. 540 A.D. People from the North desperately needed new land. Continental Europe had become far too populated and the region experienced an ongoing series of marine transgressions, which caused floods that left layers of clay all over their land, causing heavy blows to their already-scarce crops and making the land inhabitable between 350-700 A.D. As a result, people left their homes, and emigrated elsewhere.

Statue of Gildas near the village of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys (France).

Statue of Gildas near the village of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys (France).

Gildas (500-570), a native Briton and a British cleric, authored De Exicidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which gives us some of the only narratives of the post-Roman history of Britain. This work is the only substantial source of information of this period written by a near-contemporary. He gives us an overview of Roman occupation from its conquest under the principate to the then-present era. He describes the “Groans of the Britons,” in which the native Britons make one last request for aide against the now-dominating invaders from the evacuated Roman military.

Detail from Lambeth Palace Library MS 6 folio 43v illustrating an episode in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae in which Vortigern meets the young Merlin, who explains that an underground fight between red and white dragons is causing Vortigern's fortress to collapse.

Detail from Lambeth Palace Library MS 6 folio 43v illustrating an episode in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae in which Vortigern meets the young Merlin, who explains that an underground fight between red and white dragons is causing Vortigern’s fortress to collapse.

Tradition tells us that the Saxons (as well as other tribes) first entered Britain in large quantities as part of a deal to protect the native Britons from the Picts, Gaels, and other tribes that were deemed dangerous to the Britons’ post-Roman society at the time. This deal is depicted in the Historia Brittonium, as well as De Exicidio et Conquesto Britanniae, in which the British King Vortigern allowed Germanic warlords to settle their people in exchange for their services as mercenaries. Vortigern was convinced to offer them more land, thus resulting in the beginning of a mass Germanic settlement in Britain.

Europe by the end of the 5th Century.

Europe by the end of the 5th Century.

Although he never mentions who led the Britons into battle, Gildas then mentions the victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus, a victory attributed to King Arthur in later sources.

It is said that the Saxons were slaughtered at the battle of Mons Badonicus, and Britain reverted to Romano-British rule. The 8th-century English historian Bede argues instead that the Saxon invasions continued after the battle of Mons Badonicus, along with invasions from the Jutes and the Angles, which resulted in a complete change of leadership in the entire Southeastern part of Britain. Ultimately, the Angles and the Saxons that had already settled would merge and form Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Four separate Saxon realms emerged: Essex, Middlesex, Sussex, and Wessex.

anglo-saxon_kingdoms

The Kings of Wessex would be the ones to eventually unite the country into the eventual Kingdom of England. Alfred the Great (849-899) became King of Wessex in 871 and remains famous for defending his kingdom against Viking attempts at conquests, which made him the dominant ruler out of all the other kingdoms. Following his victories, especially against the Danes (or ‘heathens’ as they became known), he became the first King of the West Saxons to style himself as King of the Anglo-Saxons. This would be the norm until 1066.

Statue of Alfred the Great in Wantage, England.

Statue of Alfred the Great in Wantage, England.

According to historians Peter Hunter Blair and Simon Keynes in An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, nothing suggests that there was a larger presence of Angles than there were Saxons. However in Medieval English, people referred to themselves as ‘Engles,’ and in Latin it was ‘Angli.’ The name Englaland eventually became England and was used regularly by the 11th century.