Wednesday, August 16, 2017

England in the Age of Alfred (Notes:66)



In Anglo-Saxon England, Viking attacks dealt far more damage than on the continent. At this time, England consisted of various kingdoms of variously changing sizes, though some of the more long-lasting territories, such as Kent in the far south-east or Sussex, Mercia, North Umbria, managed to maintain a relatively consistent geo-political formation. In this England, there is two trends: cultural and political.

The cultural trend is the rise of North Umbria into a position of power. It was North Umbria who produced both leading intellectuals of the seventh and eighth centuries (Bede of Jiro and Alcuin of York) as well as producing the most recognizable artistic masterpieces of the middles ages, such as the Lindstfarm Gospels.

Regarding the political trend, it is the ascension of Mercia to a position of dominance which presents itself as a notable moment. This kingdom was most successful in establishing control over the kingdoms to its south and east. Not all kingdoms accept Mercia’s rule, however, some, such as North Umbria, manage to remain independent.

The most famous Merica king is someone by the name of Offa (who ruled from 757-796). Being a contemporary of Charlemagne, he wielded great power. This power can be seen even today in the earthen formation known as ‘Offa’s Dike’, a great manmade barrier which separates Anglo-Saxon England from Celtic Wales; though its actual effectiveness is in doubt, as it would have demanded a large number of men to properly utlize, the creation of this construction impressed Offa’s contemporaries, including Charlemagne, who called Offa ‘his dearest brother’, a phrase which connoted equality in stature.

It is in the 780s that Viking attacks against the British Isles begin. This came as a shock to many people since they hadn’t faced any kind of attack in several centuries. Furthermore, the Vikings were well known to the inhabitants of the British Isles due to their trade involvement.

In comparison to the continent, Viking attacks against the British Isles escalated quickly.
Following the sacking of the Lindstfarm monastery in 793, the monastery at Jiro was sacked in 794, Iona in 795. Additionally, the Vikings are able to attack the entirety of the British Isles from the onset of their campaign due to the small size of the territories but also due to the fact that they are islands, and so vulnerable to Viking transportation penetration. Between 835 and 865 Viking raids became an annual occurrence. Whereas the Carolingian Empire only experienced Viking settlement in the region of Normandy, in Anglo-Saxon England, however, settlement happened on a much larger scale—after 865, and the destruction of the North Umbria kingdom as it had been known, and the capture of York, large scale settlement transpires with the invading Danes crowning themselves kings. Then, in 869, East Anglia has its king killed, and the Danes take over, while early in the 870s, the Danes capture even the kingdom of Mercia itself.

For a time, it seems that the Vikings will conquer all of Anglo-Saxon England. However, this conquest is averted by King Alfred of Wessex. Ruling from 871-899, he repels a Viking attack in the 870s and becomes king when his brother dies, taking over responsibility for the defense of the kingdom. Then, in the 878, Alfred manages to defeat the Danes so severely that the Danish king agrees to accept baptism. As a result, Anglo-Saxon England had saved itself from further Viking assault, though it is now divided into two zones: one zone, in the north and east of England, was known as the Dane Law, or, the territory under the rulership of Danish kings and which experiences substantial Danish settlements. The other zone consists of Wessex and other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms willing to accept the overlordship of King Alfred.

Part of Alfred’s leadership was in preparing for what many believed to be the inevitable Dane attempt to conquer all of England. So, on the site of many formerly Roman town and cities, he built ‘burghs’, or, fortified towns. But Alfred is also known for his intellectual pursuits, endeavors such as being fluent in Latin to the point of translating several Latin texts into Old English.

After Alfred’s death, the major goal for Anglo-Saxon kings is to reconquer the Dane Law, not an easy task since many Danes had since come to settle. Also, the Norwegians would become involved, to an extent, thanks to their own involvement in Ireland, specifically, in settling in and around Dublin. During these wars of re-conquest, the Norwegians had a tendency to attack either the Danes of the Anglo-Saxons. Then, of course, there was also the Celts to worry about, as they would also attack wither the Danes of Anglo-Saxons when hostilities came too near the border. As a result of all this, the re-conquest of the Dane Law took some time. But in the end, Anglo-Saxon rulers succeed in reconquering the Dane Law and in 959, they drive out the Danish rulers, making themselves masters over the whole of England.

So, the end result of the Viking raids against England has an inverse effect when compared to what happened on the continent; on the continent, we see whole and united territories break down in response to the raids, but in England, we see fragmented territories unite against the raids, with one kingdom being in charge of all of England.

Unfortunately, the Danes had not given up in their attempt to conquer Anglo-Saxon England.
Viking raids against Anglo-Saxon England resume at the end of the tenth century. These raids are worse than ever before as the Vikings are no longer attacking Anglo-Saxon England as part of a series of attacks, this time, they are only attacking Anglo-Saxon England, so the Danes have far greater amounts of man-power to direct against them. Another factor in making these attacks more dangerous was that by the time this second wave assaulted England, a Danish king by the name of ‘Herald Bluetooth’ had gained control of both Denmark and Norway, thus fermenting a formidable quasi-professional military force which was a stark contrast to the un-professional force of looters of the first wave.

The new Viking attacks begin in the early 980s. Beginning initially as small probing raids, they quickly gain traction into larger assaults. In 991, an Anglo-Saxon king by the name of Ethelred (the Unready, or, Unadvised) is force dot pay tribute—the Donageld—in order to secure peace. This practice repeats after major raids in 994 and in 997, and in 1002.

To try and confront this new Viking attack, Ethelred perused an alliance with the dukes of Normandy. The idea being that since the dukes of Normandy sometimes allowed other Danes to use Normandy as a base to attack Anglo-Saxon England, if Normandy accepted an alliance, then the Viking raiders would have their base of operations robbed of them. To cement this alliance, Ethelred marries a daughter of one of the princes of Normandy. It is this marriage which would, eventually, hold great meaning for the future of Anglo-Saxon England.

Another policy perused by Ethelred to protect Anglo-Saxon England, was to massacre all the English Danes. Though impossible to carry out, in some places, such as Oxford, massacres are carried out. A desperate act from the get-go, Ethelred’s orders to massacre the native Danes, backfired badly; it, of course, angered those who survived, tainting their loyalty, but also it angered the inhabitants of Norway and Denmark who didn’t take too well to seeing their ethnic cousins slaughtered. In 1003, a Denmark king—Swaine—led a punitive expedition against Anglo-Saxon England. In 1013, when Swaine came with a new invasion force, the ethnic Danes of the Dane Law switched sides to Swaine. With their support, Ethelred flees England after the Danes capture London. All of Ethelred’s subsequent attempt to recapture England fail.

The consequence of this second wave of Viking attacks is dramatically different from the first wave. The first wave resulted in England’s unification under a single dynasty, the House of Wessex. The second wave drove that dynasty out of England and incorporated England into part of a Scandinavian empire with the kings of Denmark and Norway also ruling over England. When Swaine dies, his son, Cnut, gains control of England; in 1019, though, Cnut gains possession of Cnut’s other possession as well. But this Scandinavian Empire is short lived; it fell apart in the early 1030 and 1040s, with the end-result being that in 1042, the exiled Wessex dynasty was able to peacefully return to England and resume rule over Anglo-Saxon England.

Compared to other Barbarian tribes, the Anglo-Saxons had a great run. Neither the Vandals nor the Ostrogoths survived past the sixth century as they were conquered by the Byzantines. The Visigoths got into the early eighth century but then they are conquered by the Arabs. No one conquers the Franks. But the Anglo-Saxons make it into the eleventh-century.

In 1066, the last Anglo-Saxon king dies. So a free-for-all breaks out among those who feel that they should be king. The Anglo-Saxons elect one of their own as king, someone by the name of Herald, over and above two other candidates, each with decent claims to the throne thanks to their blood-ties. One of those candidates was the king of Norway. The other candidate was the duke of Normandy. Since the only legitimate way to settle the issue was to fight it out, England was invaded by several forces; but the contest is short lived, as the Anglo-Saxons defeat the king of Norway but are promptly defeated by the duke of Normandy, William the Bastard, in the Battle of Hastings (a battle which the Anglo-Saxons came close to winning) after Herald, the English candidate, is shot in the eye with an arrow and killed.

As a result of the conquest of England by the Normans, who were ethnically descended from the Danes, England is wrenched out of the North-sea orbit; Norway, Saxony, Denmark will no longer matter to England as it now is oriented toward the English Channel and France. Accordingly, England will find itself embroiled more and more in continental, especially French, affairs. Centuries after, much of England is almost a colonial society with a French speaking aristocracy ruling over a body of English speakers; the main linguistic take-away from this is a flood of new words, including many synonyms, as well as the evolution of Old English into Middle English.