Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Old English, A Historical Background: Consolidation By Wessex, Vikings II.0, And The Battle Of Brunanburh

The death of Alfred the Great in 899 A.D. undoubtedly was a great shock to the entire territory controlled by Wessex - he had been the King for almost 30 years and had singlehandedly inspired and led the country back from almost complete occupation by the Vikings (mostly Danes).  An entire generation grew up knowing nothing but Alfred as King.

And the challenges still remained:  While Alfred had forced the Danes into a treaty in 886 the land they inhabited still remained outside of the control of Wessex.  Nor had the Vikings stopped their raiding merely because turn of the century was almost at hand.

(Map of the Danelaw 886 A.D.  Source)

Fortunately for Anglo-Saxon England, Alfred had left both a legacy of a defensive network, a strong army, and a set of strong descendants to implement the strategy.

Upon Alfred's death, his son Edward (known now as "Edward the Elder) became King of Wessex while his older sister Ethelfleda and her husband Æthelred, the Ealdorman of Mercia ruled Mercia in concert with the policy of Wessex.  After fending off a threat to his power by a cousin Æthelwold in 901 and 902 which ended in the Battle of the Holme and the death of Æthelwold and an ally in the Danish King of East Anglia, a peace was signed with the East Anglians and Northern Danes. A tit for tat developed:  In 909 Wessex and Mercia invaded Northumbrian Danish territory; in 910 the Northumbrian Danes returned the favor, but were caught in their return and heavily defeated at the Battle of Tettenhall.  The defeat was significant enough that the Northumbrian Danes would not cross the Humber for a generation; Edward and his associates could concentrate on the Southern Danelaw.

In 911 A.D. Æthelred died; his wife Ethelfleda (who has come down in history as "The Lady of Mercia") administered Mercia until her own death in 918 A.D.  As part of Æthelred's death, Wessex inherited the lands around London and Oxford.  Both Edward and Ethelfleda began building forts (burhs) based on the initial strategy of their father Alfred and as they began leapfrogging eastward.  Besides building there was fighting; by 918 A.D. all the Danelaw had submitted to Edward.  Ethelfleda had died as well in 918 A.D. and the Mercian territory was now brought fully under the control of Wessex.

Meanwhile, in the North a new threat re-appeared:  The Vikings of Jarvik (York)

To go forward, we have to go back a bit:  As you may recall, during the Invasion of the Great Heathen Army in Alfred the Great's day, Northumbria was invaded by the Danes.  The city of York (Norse: Jorvik) was captured and administered as a kingdom until 901 A.D. when the above mentioned Æthelwold briefly ruled until his death in battle and replacement by another Viking King.  An uneasy series of submission and invasions to place as the King of York would submit to the Anglo-Saxon King, then turn around and invade.  Thus the threat from the north continued for years after the Danelaw had been integrated under the ruling house of Wessex.

(Map of Anglo-Saxon England 900-950 A.D Source)

Edward The Elder died in 924 A.D. and his son Æthelstan took the throne after some years of dispute.  He conquered the kingdom of York in 927 A.D.  As part of this conquest, the kingdoms of Scotland, Strathclyde, Bernicia, and part of Wales submitted to him, making Æthelstan the first ruler of all the English lands.  The submission lasted until 934 A.D., when Scotland broke the treaty.  Æthelstan invaded Scotland in return.  The invasion in return called forth an alliance of Scotland, Strathclyde, and Hiberno-Norse Vikings from the Kingdom Dublin.  In 937 A.D. all sides met at the Battle of Brunanburh.

Brunanburh is attested to by multiple sources in Anglo Saxon, Welsh, Scottish, Norman, and Irish sources.  The date of the battle is guessed to be in October, but we do not know that - nor do we fully know where the battle itself took place.  We do know that the battle was an all day affair and terribly costly.  We do know that it inspired a poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  And we do know, after the terrible slaughter, the Anglo-Saxon army held the field and chased the survivors away.  

The outcome of Brunanburh to history is disputed.  Æthelstan would die within two years and the Kingdoms of Strathclyde and Scotland would remain independent.  The Hiberno-Norse were perhaps less of an immediate threat, but that did not end the Danish or Norwegian Viking threat.  However, it did preserve the Anglo-Saxon portion of the kingdom as a whole unit; one can imagine that if Æthelstan had lost, there was a very real chance the kingdom could have dissolved back into some level of its component units.  The unity of Anglo-Saxon England was still a relatively new things, and beneath the surface the old independence of Mercia and Danelaw undoubtedly lurked.

(Old English Posting Page)


Keynes, Simon and Lapidge, Michael:  Alfred The Great:  Asser's life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources.  Penguin:  Great Britain, 1983.

Brooke, Christopher:  From Alfred to Henry III 871-1272.  Norton Library:  USA,  1961.

Trevelyan, G.M.:  History of England Volume 1:  From the Earliest Times to the Reformation.  Anchor Books:  USA, 1953

Hollister, C. Warren:  The Making of England 55 B.C. to 1399.  D.C. Heath and Company:  United States,  1976.

Nicolle, David:  Arthur And The Anglo-Saxon Wars.  Osprey Publishing:  Hong Kong, 1984

Heath, Ian:  The Vikings.  Osprey Publishing:  Hong Kong, 1985

Harrison, Mark:  Viking Hersir 793 - 1066 AD.  Osprey Publishing:  Hong Kong, 1993.

Wikipedia:  Edward the Elder, Scandinavian York, Æthelstan, Battle of Brunanburh


  1. What fascinates me most about all this is the genetic impacts of all these invasions. The Vikings left very little DNA behind compared to the Anglo-Saxon invasion. I think it is something like 6% of people living in England have Viking DNA while somewhere around 40% have Anglo-Saxon DNA. I guess that was due to cultural differences between them.

    Although my DNA profile keeps getting refined for higher Danish and Swedish DNA, nothing has shown up from the Vikings. I get most of my DNA profile (44%) from the Scots though I have never found an ancestor that lives in the modern day borders of Scotland. All of my "English" ancestors that I can trace have come from modern day northern England.

    1. But aren't the Vikings, in general, Danes? I don't understand the Vikings to be a separate people, but rather Danish raiders and pillagers who cleared the way for Danish farmers and settlers.

    2. Ed - Part of the issue (at least from reading) seems to be that where the Danes settled was largely in what was called the Five Boroughs (overlapping the Danelaw above) and not more widely - in fact, I suspect (given the time) settlements of Danes in Mercia or Wessex was strongly discouraged. Thus it was a concentrated form of settlement (The other thing, of course, is we do not know how many "settled' there). My suspicion is that what is referred to as Scandinavian York was a thin ruling class of Norse over a much mix of Anglo-Saxon and Romano-British.

      Maybe a thought: The original "Scots" were actually Irish invaders. Does Ancestry allow for that kind of precision.

    3. Leigh - Yes and no. The "Vikings" consisted of raiders from all three of the Scandinavian countries - Norway, Denmark, Sweden - but they tended (due to geographical location) to raid in specific areas although, of course, they could raid anywhere at any time. The Swedes tended to look East (thus the great Rus civilization in what is now Ukraine and Russia), the Danes tended to looks West and South (to England/Scotland and the Continent) and the Norse tended to look South and West (Scotland/Scottish Isles/Ireland). And while likely that any viking expedition could have a mix of Scandinavian peoples (and others), they could be referred to by the main constituent of that group.

      Keep in mind as well at this time, the languages we think of as Danish/Norwegian/Swedish (and Icelandic) were really only dialects of a single language, Old Norse - which from what we can tell, had some level of mutual intelligibility with Old Anglo-Saxon - and the Kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark were just coming into the concept of a unified kingdom (prior to around 900 A.D. or so, they were much more sorts of sub kings).

      All of that to say - one could be a Dane and a viking and the same time, or a Norwegian and a viking. The two were not mutually exclusive.

    4. Leigh - I guess for DNA purposes, the site I use must consider Vikings from only Norway as it says I don't have any Viking DNA in me though shows a highlighted region of Denmark and Sweden as where some of my ancestors are from.

      But DNA is really a tricky thing and is mostly accurate up to 500 years. Beyond that, the amount of DNA passed are almost infinitesimally small to register using today's technology. So it may just be that the contributing ancestors from Denmark and Sweden (none of whom I even know) just didn't contribute DNA to me in an expected way.

      TB - You might be right because when I took my DNA test well over a decade ago, it had very little Irish in it but as the years go by, that number keeps creeping upwards. But they do identify it separately from my "Scottish" roots. Honestly though, I don't put much faith into those profiles and it really does nothing for me other than serve as a conversation topic. What the DNA tests really help me do are make connections to solve genealogical mysteries by allowing me to rule out theories in a matter of minutes that I might ordinarily spend many years trying to discount.

    5. Ed, I am not genealogist, but to some extent that would historically match up. I did not know there was that level of loss after 500 years (when I should be surprised at all we can do that).

      It certainly does make for a good conversation topic!

  2. Nylon124:46 AM

    Thanks for this continuing series TB, as Mr. Spock said....."Fascinating!"

    1. You are welcome Nylon12. I am learning all kinds of things!

  3. I really look forward to new posts in this series. I think having a genealogical connection to the topic really fuels my interest, which means that the series is much appreciated.

    As a side note, I thought it would be interesting to read a biography of Alfred the Great, but discovered that my county library system doesn't have a single book on him. That was disappointing.

    1. Thanks Leigh! I have to admit that the more I learn, the more fascinated I am as well. Anglo-Saxon history prior to this was a sort of solid blur in my mind; there are a great many nuances that I did not realize (and explain a lot of later English History).

      If you are a Project Gutenburg person, it appears Asser's Life of Alfred The Great is here. It was written in the 9th Century and is a bit of a panegyric, but does have some interesting history:

    2. leigh get interlibrary loan
      any library in your state will send what you want at your library's request
      my husband loved it. judging from his borrowings toledo has a magnificent library [ohio, not spain!]

    3. Thanks Deb! Those things do not even occur to me at all.

    4. TB and Deb, thank you both!

    5. The power of the Social Internet Leigh. I am a big believer.


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