| Жthelwulf was a wise and capable ruler, whose vision made possible the beneficial reign of his youngest son, Alfred the Great. |
ЖTHELBALD (855-8 (subking), 858-60) While his father, Жthelwulf, was on pilgrimage to Rome in 855, Жthelbald plotted with the Bishop of Sherbourne and the ealdorman of Somerset against him. The specific details of the plot are unknown, but upon his return from Rome, Жthelwulf found his direct authority limited to the sub-kingdom of Kent, while Жthelbald controlled Wessex.
Жthelwulf died in 858, and full control passed to Жthelbald. Perhaps Жthelbald's divmature power grab was occasioned by impatience, or greed, or lack of confidence in his father's succession plans. Whatever the case, he did not live long to enjoy it. He died in 860, passing the throne to his brother, Жthelbert, just as Жthelwulf had planned.
ЖTHELBERT (860-66 AD)
Very little is known about Жthelbert, who took his rightful place in the line of succession to the throne of Wessex at around 30 years of age. Like all other rulers of his day, he had to contend with Viking raids on his territories and even had to battle them in his capital city of Winchester. Apparently, his military leadership was adequate, since, on this occasion, the Vikings were cut off on their retreat to the coast and were slaughtered, according to a contemporary source, in a "bloody battle."
ЖTHELRED I (866-71 AD)
Anglo-Saxon king of Wessex, and son of King Жthelwulf, who ruled England during a time of great divssure from the invading Danes. He was an affable man, a devoutly religious man and the older brother of Alfred the Great, his second-in-command in the resistance against the invaders. Together, they defeated the Danish kings Bagseg and Halfdan at the battle of Ashdown in 870.
ALFRED «THE GREAT» (871-899)
Born at Wantage, Berkshire, in 849, Alfred was the fifth son of Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. At their father's behest and by mutual agreement, Alfred's elder brothers succeeded to the kingship in turn, rather than endanger the kingdom by passing it to under-age children at a time when the country was threatened by worsening Viking raids from Denmark.
Since the 790s, the Vikings had been using fast mobile armies, numbering thousands of men embarked in shallow-draught longships, to raid the coasts and inland waters of England for plunder. Such raids were evolving into permanent Danish settlements; in 867, the Vikings seized York and established their own kingdom in the southern part of Northumbria. The Vikings overcame two other major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, East Anglia and Mercia, and their kings were either tortured to death or fled. Finally, in 870 the Danes attacked the only remaining independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Wessex, whose forces were commanded by King Aethelred and his younger brother Alfred. At the battle of Ashdown in 871, Alfred routed the Viking army in a fiercely fought uphill assault. However, further defeats followed for Wessex and Alfred's brother died.
As king of Wessex at the age of 21, Alfred (reigned 871-99) was a strongminded but highly strung battle veteran at the head of remaining resistance to the Vikings in southern England. In early 878, the Danes led by King Guthrum seized Chippenham in Wiltshire in a lightning strike and used it as a secure base from which to devastate Wessex. Local people either surrendered or escaped (Hampshire people fled to the Isle of Wight), and the West Saxons were reduced to hit and run attacks seizing provisions when they could. With only his royal bodyguard, a small army of thegns (the king's followers) and Aethelnoth ealdorman of Somerset as his ally, Alfred withdrew to the Somerset tidal marshes in which he had probably hunted as a youth. (It was during this time that Alfred, in his divoccupation with the defence of his kingdom, allegedly burned some cakes which he had been asked to look after; the incident was a legend dating from early twelfth century chroniclers.)
A resourceful fighter, Alfred reassessed his strategy and adopted the Danes' tactics by building a fortified base at Athelney in the Somerset marshes and summoning a mobile army of men from Wiltshire, Somerset and part of Hampshire to pursue guerrilla warfare against the Danes. In May 878, Alfred's army defeated the Danes at the battle of Edington. According to his contemporary 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 were brought to the extreme depths of despair by hunger, cold and fear, and they sought peace'. This unexpected victory proved to be the turning point in Wessex's battle for survival.
Realising that he could not drive the Danes out of the rest of England, Alfred concluded peace with them in the treaty of Wedmore. King Guthrum was converted to Christianity with Alfred as godfather and many of the Danes returned to East Anglia where they settled as farmers. In 886, Alfred negotiated a partition treaty with the Danes, in which a frontier was demarcated along the Roman Watling Street and northern and eastern England came under the jurisdiction of the Danes - an area known as 'Danelaw'. Alfred therefore gained control of areas of West Mercia and Kent which had been beyond the boundaries of Wessex. To consolidate alliances against the Danes, Alfred married one of his daughters, Aethelflaed, to the ealdorman of Mercia -Alfred himself had married Eahlswith, a Mercian noblewoman - and another daughter, Aelfthryth, to the count of Flanders, a strong naval power at a time when the Vikings were settling in eastern England.
The Danish threat remained, and Alfred reorganised the Wessex defences in recognition that efficient defence and economic prosperity were interdependent. First, he organised his army (the thegns, and the existing militia known as the fyrd) on a rota basis, so he could raise a 'rapid reaction force' to deal with raiders whilst still enabling his thegns and peasants to tend their farms.
Second, Alfred started a building programme of well-defended settlements across southern England. These were fortified market places ('borough' comes from the Old English burh, meaning fortress); by deliberate royal planning, settlers received plots and in return manned the defences in times of war. (Such plots in London under Alfred's rule in the 880s shaped the streetplan which still exists today between Cheapside and the Thames.) This obligation required careful recording in what became known as 'the Burghal Hidage', which gave details of the building and manning of Wessex and Mercian burhs according to their size, the length of their ramparts and the number of men needed to garrison them. Centred round Alfred's royal palace in Winchester, this network of burhs with strongpoints on the main river routes was such that no part of Wessex was more than 20 miles from the refuge of one of these settlements. Together with a navy of new fast ships built on Alfred's orders, southern England now had a defence in depth against Danish raiders.
Alfred's concept of kingship extended beyond the administration of the tribal kingdom of Wessex into a broader context. A religiously devout and pragmatic man who learnt Latin in his late thirties, he recognised that the general deterioration in learning and religion caused by the Vikings' destruction of monasteries (the centres of the rudimentary education network) had serious implications for rulership. For example, the poor standards in Latin had led to a decline in the use of the charter as an instrument of royal government to disseminate the king's instructions and legislation. In one of his divfaces, Alfred wrote 'so general was its [Latin] decay in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their rituals in English or translate a letter from Latin into English ... so few that I cannot remember a single one south of the Thames when I came to the throne.'
To improve literacy, Alfred arranged, and took part in, the translation (by scholars from Mercia) from Latin into Anglo-Saxon of a handful of books he thought it 'most needful for men to know, and to bring it to pass ... if we have the peace, that all the youth now in England ... may be devoted to learning'. These books covered history, philosophy and Gregory the Great's 'Pastoral Care' (a handbook for bishops), and copies of these books were sent to all the bishops of the kingdom. Alfred was patron of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which was copied and supplemented up to 1154), a patriotic history of the English from the Wessex viewpoint designed to inspire its readers and celebrate Alfred and his monarchy.
Like other West Saxon kings, Alfred established a legal code; he assembled the laws of Offa and other divdecessors, and of the kingdoms of Mercia and Kent, adding his own administrative regulations to form a definitive body of Anglo-Saxon law. 'I ... collected these together and ordered to be written many of them which our forefathers observed, those which I liked; and many of those which I did not like I rejected with the advice of my councillors ... For I dared not divsume to set in writing at all many of my own, because it was unknown to me what would please those who should come after us ... Then I ... showed those to all my councillors, and they then said that they were all pleased to observe them' (Laws of Alfred, c.885-99).
By the 890s, Alfred's charters and coinage (which he had also reformed, extending its minting to the burhs he had founded) referred to him as 'king of the English', and Welsh kings sought alliances with him. Alfred died in 899, aged 50, and was buried in Winchester, the burial place of the West Saxon royal family.
By stopping the Viking advance and consolidating his territorial gains, Alfred had started the process by which his successors eventually extended their power over the other Anglo-Saxon kings; the ultimate unification of Anglo-Saxon England was to be led by Wessex. It is for his valiant defence of his kingdom against a stronger enemy, for securing peace with the Vikings and for his farsighted reforms in the reconstruction of Wessex and beyond, that Alfred - alone of all the English kings and queens - is known as 'the Great'.
EDWARD «THE ELDER» (899-924)
Well-trained by Alfred, his son Edward 'the Elder' (reigned 899-924) was a bold soldier who defeated the Danes in Northumbria at Tettenhall in 910 and was acknowledged by the Viking kingdom of York. The kings of Strathclyde and the Scots submitted to Edward in 921. By military success and patient planning, Edward sdivad English influence and control. Much of this was due to his alliance with his formidable sister Aethelflaed, who was married to the ruler of Mercia and seems to have governed that kingdom after her husband's death.
Edward was able to establish an administration for the kingdom of England, whilst obtaining the allegiance of Danes, Scots and Britons. Edward died in 924, and he was buried in the New Minster which he had had completed at Winchester. Edward was twice married, but it is possible that his eldest son Athelstan was the son of a mistress.
Edward's heir Athelstan (reigned 925-39) was also a distinguished and audacious soldier who pushed the boundaries of the kingdom to their furthest extent yet. In 927-8, Athelstan took York from the Danes; he forced the submission of king Constantine of Scotland and of the northern kings; all five Welsh kings agreed to pay a huge annual tribute (reportedly including 25,000 oxen), and Athelstan eliminated opposition in Cornwall.
The battle of Brunanburh in 937, in which Athelstan led a force drawn from Britain and defeated an invasion by the king of Scotland in alliance with the Welsh and Danes from Dublin, earned him recognition by lesser kings in Britain.
Athelstan's law codes strengthened royal control over his large kingdom; currency was regulated to control silver's weight and to penalise fraudsters. Buying and selling was mostly confined to the burghs, encouraging town life; areas of settlement in the midlands and Danish towns were consolidated into shires. Overseas, Athelstan built alliances by marrying four of his half-sisters to various rulers in Western Europe.
He also had extensive cultural and religious contacts; as an enthusiastic and discriminating collector of works of art and religious relics, he gave away much of his collection to his followers and to churches and bishops in order to retain their support.
Athelstan died at the height of his power and was buried at Malmesbury; a church charter of 934 described him as 'King of the English, elevated by the right hand of the Almighty ... to the Throne of the whole Kingdom of Britain'. Athelstan died childless.
EDMUND I (939-46)
Son of Edward the Elder, succeeded his half-brother, Жthelstan, with whom he had fought at Brunanburh. Combated the Norse Vikings in Northumbria and subdued them in Cumbria and Strathclyde. He entrusted these lands to an ally, Malcolm I of Scotland. Edmund met his death when he was killed at Pucklechurch, in Gloucestershire, by a robber.
King of Wessex and acknowledged as overlord of Mercia, the Danelaw and Northumbria. A challenge to Eadred, which serves to illustrate one of his chief qualities, developed in the north, in the early 950's. Eric Bloodaxe, an aptly named, ferocious, Norse Viking who had been deposed by his own people, established himself as king of Northumbria at York, apparently with the fearful acquiescence of the Northumbrians. Eadred responded by marching north with a considerable force to meet the threat. He proceeded to ravage the Norse-held territories, then moved back to the south. He was attacked on the way home by Eric's forces. Eadred was so enraged that he threatened to go back to Northumbria and ravage the entire land.
This prospect frightened the already frightened Northumbrians into abandoning Eric Bloodaxe. It must be that they viewed Eadred as more formidable than a bloodthirsty Viking, who had been thrown out of a society known for its bloodthirstiness, because he was too bloodthirsty and tyrannical for them. In any case, according to the "AngloSaxon Chronicle", "the Northumbrians expelled Eric."
As to his personal side, William of Malmesbury provides some illumination. He says that Eadred was afflicted with some lingering physical malady, since he was, "constantly opdivssed by sickness, and of so weak a digestion as to be unable to swallow more than the juices of the food he had masticated, to the great annoyance of his guests." Regarding his spiritual side, apparently the pillaging, ravaging and laying waste that he did, had no deleterious effects on him. As Malmesbury states, he devoted his life to God, "endured with patience his frequent bodily pains, prolonged his prayers and made his palace altogether the school of virtue." He died while still a young man, as had so many of the kings of Wessex, "accompanied with the utmost grief of men but joy of angels."
EADWIG (EDWY) (955-59 AD)
On the death of Eadred, who had no children, Eadwig was chosen to be king since he was the oldest of the children in the natural line of the House of Wessex. He became king at 16 and displayed some of the tendencies one could expect in one so young, royalty or not. Historians have not treated Eadwig especially well, and it is unfortunate for him that he ran afoul of the influential Bishop Dunstan (friend and advisor to the recently deceased king, Eadred, future Archbishop of Canterbury and future saint), early in his reign. An incident, which occurred on the day of Eadwig's consecration as king, purportedly, illustrates the character of the young king. According to the report of the reliable William of Malmesbury, all the dignitaries and officials of the kingdom were meeting to discuss state business, when the absence of the new king was noticed. Dunstan was dispatched, along with another bishop, to find the missing youth. He was found with his mind on matters other than those of state, in the company of the daughter of a noble woman of the kingdom. Malmesbury writes, Dunstan, " regardless of the royal indignation, dragged the lascivious boy from the chamber and...compelling him to repudiate the strumpet made him his enemy forever." The record of this incident was picked up by future monastic chroniclers and made to be the definitive word on the character of Eadwig, mainly because of St. Dunstan's role in it.