The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present

The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present by Rebecca Fraser

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Authors: Rebecca Fraser
Tags: History, Europe, Great Britain
bases. The sons of Ragnar Lodbrok sailed to Luna in Italy and captured it under the illusion that they had come to Rome itself. The Vikings now had all but encircled Europe with their raids, for in the year 865 the Swedish Vikings who founded Russia laid siege to Constantinople.
    It was against this background in 849 that the man was born at Wantage in Berkshire who was to save England from the Vikings. He is known to history as Alfred the Great, and he was a prince of the royal house of Wessex.

Alfred the Great to the Battle of Hastings (865–1066)
     
    Wessex was the kingdom of the West Saxons. According to folk memory its founders were chieftain Cerdic and his son Cynric in 495 when they landed at what is now Southampton but which they called Hamwic. (The suffix ‘wic’ comes from the Latin word vicus meaning a place, hence Ipswich and Norwich.) The eighth-century supremacy of the Mercian kings had put an end to Wessex occupying the valley of the lower Severn, but this kingdom–which began in the lush and rolling pastures of Hampshire–still ended at Bristol to the north, and incorporated all of Dorset and Somerset. The West Saxons were not only good military strategists. They were a reflective and organized people. One of their most important kings was Ine, who at the end of the seventh century had issued a code or accumulation of the West Saxon laws.
    By the third decade of the ninth century the Mercian supremacy in England had yielded to that of Wessex as, benefiting from vigorous rulers, the kingdom continued to grow rapidly. In 825 Alfred’s grandfather Egbert decisively defeated the Mercians at the Battle of Ellandune and thereafter the old Mercian tributaries of Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex became permanently part of the kingdom of Wessex and had no further separate existence. Egbert, who ruled for thirty-seven years, also finally put an end to the West Welsh or Cornish as an independent power by occupying Devon up to the Tamar; henceforth the Cornish paid Wessex an annual tribute. Only East Anglia, Mercia, Wales and Northumberland remained separate from the kingdom of Wessex but acknowledged Egbert as their overlord. And when Egbert obtained Kent he became the protector of English Christianity because it was the seat of the Primate of all England.
    The expansion of the Wessex kingdom was played out against the background of the increasingly daring raids of the Danish Vikings. As we have seen, they were beginning to pose a real threat to the peace and security of the whole of England from the 830s onwards; over the next thirty years there are records of at least twelve attacks, and there were probably many more. But as the records were mainly chronicles kept by monks they tend to be incomplete because so many were destroyed during the raids. In the 840s Vikings devastated East Anglia and Kent, attacked Wrekin in Mercia and in 844 killed the king of Northumbria. But at least they went away again, taking their booty with them.
    Ten years later the situation was worse. The Vikings were moving in greater numbers, operating in concert with one another, as opposed to the single-ship raids of earlier years. To contemporaries they had taken on the appearance of a ‘pagan army’. In 851 King Ethelwulf, father of Alfred the Great, defeated a fleet of Vikings several hundred ships strong attacking Canterbury and London which had driven King Beorhtwulf of Mercia into exile. Another Wessex prince, Ethelbert, one of Alfred’s brothers, who ruled Kent for his father, defeated a Danish army off the coast at Sandwich. Despite these successes, in 855 a large Viking fleet took up permanent winter quarters on the Isle of Sheppey, menacingly close at the end of the Medway to the mouth of the River Thames. The Vikings began building forts there. Many Londoners feared that, just as the Vikings had sailed straight up the Seine to Paris, it was only a matter of time before the Vikings sailed up the Thames and took London. As a

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