Vikings slash deep into Britain, pillaging homes and farms, raping and killing. Leading the people of Wessex, Alfred will rise to defeat them, forgive them, and create a society based on Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Saxon and Viking laws. Preceding Alfred is a Brit who frees slaves; after him is a Brit who protests high taxes. Both these Brits are women.
600s THE ‘WISE MEN’ OF THE WITAN GATHER
Witan is the Anglo-Saxon word for wise. Witans in England’s ancient kingdoms advise Anglo-Saxon kings on land grants and the law, and help them to deal with rebels. When a king dies with no heir or a very young one, the witan will select the new king thought to be the best ruler. If necessary the witan will boot out bad kings like Sigeberht of Wessex (in 755) and Ethelwald of Northumbria (in 765). The last Witan is held in 1066. Some 17th century Brits believe that the Witan’s power to curb the power of the king is an ancient and prophetic dream of Parliament.
650s CHRISTIAN BRIT BECOMES QUEEN OF FRANKS, AND FREES FRANKISH SLAVES
Slavers kidnap Bathilde from Britain when she is a teenager. They take her across the Channel, and sell her to the Franks.
A Frankish teenager, Clovis II, King of Burgundy, sees Bathilde in the palace where she is working, and falls in love with her. He frees her, and they marry.
They live passionately, but not long. Clovis dies in his early twenties. Bathilde becomes Queen Regent for their eldest son, who is only five. As Queen she makes the personal and momentous decision to outlaw slavery in the kingdom of the Franks.
870s ALFRED DEFIES INVADERS
Alfred has four older royal brothers, so he does not expect to be king. He learns how to be a knight, and sometime after the age of twelve, teaches himself to read. At the age of twenty-one he rides with his brother, King Ethelred, against the armies of the invading Danes, and in one year faces them in battle nine times, fighting "like a great boar" at Ashdown where he defeats them. Then his brother dies, and the Witan names him King of Wessex, the last free kingdom in England. Alfred is 23 years old and a Christian.
The Danes attack again. Alfred raises the fyrd – the men of his kingdom who owe military service – but most of them are farmers, with crops to plant and harvest, not warriors like the Danes. Alfred and the men of Wessex lose the battle of Wilton in 871, and are forced to buy off the Danes to make peace.
Alfred's vision for his kingdom is one of Christian civilisation and peace. He launches a Navy (he is the father of the Royal Navy) to keep the Danes from invading, and he pays danegeld to keep the Danes peaceful. But the peace cannot last.
In 878, on Twelfth Night, while Alfred’s court is celebrating Christmastide, the Danes violate the truce. They burn his capital and towns and homesteads across Wessex, plundering, raping, and taking women and children to be their slaves.
878 ALFRED’S COUP DE GRACE
When he first became King, Alfred was warned by a relative, who later became St. Neot, that he would suffer adversity because he was ignoring the petitions of his people. He is now a fugitive king reduced to hiding in a swamp.
Alfred risks all on one last throw. Against the odds, he manages to resist the Danes while a fugitive and to maintain a resistance that raises the warriors and farmers of Wessex. In May, they gather at a place called Ethandun or Edington, high in the windy downs in what is now the County of Wiltshire, and prepare for battle.
They are outnumbered, but they charge the Danish shield wall. The battle is brutal with hand-to-hand fighting with spears, swords, and axes and merciless attacks by cavalry and archers.
As the old song says, Alfred and his men
Fought for their God-given birthright,
They fight for their homes and families, and defeat the Danes. The Danes flee. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Alfred follows them, and lays siege to their camp. After two weeks, Guthrum and the Danes surrender. To the amazement of both sides, Alfred does not kill Guthrum or his surviving men. Once again he invites the Danes to become Christians, and to live in peace.
Alfred converted them so they understood the ground rules. He laid out fortified urban centres (in rectilinear street patterns still visible in Winchester, Cricklade, Wallingford, and Wareham) because he could not rest on his victory. He had to maintain it.
Shipborne traders, explorers, and warriors, the Vikings are an energetic people, skilled at crafts, and highly disciplined, but not always amenable to the law. However, they respect his fortified towns, his navy, and his army.
Just thirty years old, Alfred believes that the law must apply to all the people in his kingdom and must be a safeguard for personal liberty and a shield for the weak. Calling on Anglo-Saxon and Viking traditions, he establishes laws in harmony with Judeo-Christian teaching as the laws of his kingdom. Significantly Alfred uses English not Latin as the basis for education. He learns Latin himself so he can translate key texts into English, "the language that we can all understand," but he is keen that "all the youth of free men now among the English people. . .are able to read English writing." He builds grammar schools so young freemen can learn to understand the law, to read the Scriptures and – Alfred is always practical – to read the messages he sends. (One of the first grammar schools is in Oxford.) He accomplishes all this while enduring a recurrent and painful illness.
Alfred believes that the first responsibility of a King is to protect his people, since nothing else he does will matter if he fails to keep them safe. He shares their danger. He is willing to die defending them. He also believes that we have the right and responsibility to bear arms to defend ourselves, our families, and our country. In the 890s Alfred and his people face and successfully overcome a second huge Danish invasion. He wrote,
You each have something divine in your soul, namely Reason and Memory and a discerning Will to make choices in life.
909-918 LADY OF THE MERCIANS DEFENDS NORTHWEST
Aethelfleda, the daughter of Alfred, is a little girl when her father is hunted by the Danes. She learns to ride beside him, and to read. She marries Ethelred, the Earl of Mercia, and rides with her husband to protect their people from the ravages of invading Vikings. They call her the Lady of the Mercians.
Three days after her husband dies in 912, Aethelfleda rides at the head of her people against the attacking Vikings. She is a superb leader, and introduces a strategy that was introduced by her father Alfred and will be used by William the Conqueror 250 years later and by the American General Petraeus in Iraq in the 21st century.
The lady of Mercia "abandoned the older strategy of battle and raid for that of siege and fortress-building. Advancing along the line of Trent, she fortified Tamworth and Stafford on its head-waters, then turning southward secured the valley of the Avon by a fort at Warwick. With the lines of the great rivers alike secure, and the approaches for Wales on either side of Arden in her hands, she in 917 closed on Derby" (JR Green, A Short History of the English People). After she secured Derby, she turned southward, and forced the surrender of Leicester. Her brilliant exploits reduce the Danish threat and bring East Anglia and Middle England under English rule.
She depends, naturally, on her people's willingness to defend the forts and defend their lands and families. They were willing.
937 ATHELSTAN UNITES ALL ENGLAND, AND ESTABLISHES LOCAL GOVERNMENT
The grandson of Alfred the Great, Athelstan is a shrewd leader and political player who uses dynastic opportunities to unite the Anglo-Saxon kingdom he inherited with Mercia, Northumbria, and parts of Cornwall. He becomes King of all the territory now known as England as is the first to be called r[ex] tot[ius] B[ritanniae], king of all Britain. Athelstan establishes the mint, promotes trade, and legally establishes burhs as centres of local government, where local decisions can be made. No doubt this organisation is useful to Athelstan, but the step will make a positive contribution to the history of freedom since it is only by ruling themselves that a people can be free.
973 ST DUNSTAN ESTABLISHES THE IDEAL OF THE SERVANT KING IN THE CORONATION SERVICE, AND EDGAR PROMISES TO RULE PEOPLE JUSTLY IN FIRST CORONATION OATH TAKEN BY A KING OF ALL ENGLAND
The younger son of the half-brother of Athelstan (see above) and great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar is twelve when he becomes King of Mercia in 955. When his brother Eadwig dies, Edgar becomes King of Wessex. That is, Edgar is acclaimed king by a conclave of nobles, but is not crowned.
In his kingdom is the man who will come to be known as St. Dunstan. A scholar, craftsman, and reformer who liked to play the harp and carried it with him when he travelled, Dunstan survived savage beatings and court intrigue to rekindle Christian teaching. He restored the ruined abbey of Glastonbury, and will found the abbey on Thorney Island that will become Westminster Abbey.
Dunstan and Edgar establish the ideal of the just King in the Coronation Oath. In 973 Edgar is anointed and crowned at Bath in a service created by St. Dunstan that forms the basis of the present-day British coronation ceremony. It embodies the practical ideal of justice.
The people affirm their willingness to serve the King; the King in turn swears an oath to his people to protect them; the Eucharist is celebrated; the King is anointed; robed, crowned, and enthroned. The Biblical practice of anointing and the conception of the ‘Servant King’ whose duty is to serve God and people and to treat them with justice and mercy are the fruit of Old and New Testament teachings.
The Coronation Oath, which shows the wisdom of a saint who had seen people at their worst and a king who had ruled his people for seventeen years was worded as follows:
“First, that the church of God and the whole Christian people shall have true peace at all time by our judgment; second, that I will forbid extortion and all kinds of wrong-doing to all orders of men; third, that I will enjoin equity and mercy in all judgments.”
970s EDGAR REORGANISES ADMINISTRATION, ESTABLISHES A SAXON 'GOLDEN AGE'
Edgar is no saint. (His sexual activities outside marriage infuriated Dunstan, and may have contributed to the death of his own son, Edward.) But his reign was peaceful. Edgar reconstructed English institutions so that "each shire had a sheriff or reeve, a royal officer directly responsible to the Crown. The hundreds – subdivisions of the shire – were created, and the towns prepared for defence. An elaborate system of shire, hundred, and borough courts maintained law and order and pursued criminals. Taxation was reassessed. Finally with this military and political revival marched a great re-birth of monastic life and learning and the beginning of our native English literature" (Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples).
1020 IN THE WAVES KING CANUTE SUPPOSEDLY SHOWS COURTIERS THE LIMITS OF GOVERNMENT
Keen-eyed, powerful, and ruthless Canute was the son of a Danish king and a Slavic princess. He invaded and conquered England in 1016, and with bloody efficiency became king of Denmark and Norway. His power lay in his ships and mercenaries and heavy taxes. So it is interesting that a remarkable story is told about him in which Canute (also known as Cnut) proves to his flattering courtiers that his power has limits. We think there is a subversive explanation for the story.
Sometime before his death in 1035, King Canute had his courtiers take his throne down to the beach. He sat on it, and commanded the waves to stop. Naturally they did not. They wet the hem of the king's robe and the shoes of his courtiers, and as the tide continued to roll in, king and courtiers eventually fled up the beach. The lesson that Canute supposedly taught was that the power of the king is not all powerful.
It's a useful lesson, but we don't think it ever occurred to King Canute, the most powerful man in Europe, that his power had limits. We think instead that it occurred to some Brit that it would be good to show up the king, and to teach a lesson to current kings about the limits of power.
The story first appears in the 12th century chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, an archdeacon and the man who probably invented it. Huntingdon was a man made melancholy by observing that many people were obsessed with the possessions. He lived during the reign of Henry I, who had been forced to promise he was not above the law and who was often in conflict with the church. Using a dead king to teach a living king may have appealed.
In another scenario, the story may be part of that marvellous British oral tradition that included King Arthur, Lady Godiva and Robin Hood, all of them defenders of justice, and all of them elusively connected to real historical persons and events.
1057 LADY GODIVA PROTESTS HEAVY TAXES
She is supposed to be merely a legend.
According to legend, in 1057, Lady Godiva asked her husband Leofric, the Earl of Mercia, to reduce the heavy taxes he had laid on the people of Coventry. She could clearly see that heavy taxes depressed business and trade and hurt people. All those centuries ago, when people were supposed to be more benighted than the enlightened leaders of the 21st century, a mere woman grasped a basic economic fact that eludes the Prime Minister and Chancellor.
Leofric refused, but Godiva, whose name means 'gift from God', refused to take no for an answer. The Earl ended the discussion with the favourite gambit of the tyrant - he tried to silence her by attacking her dignity. He told his wife that he would reduce taxes when she rode naked through the town of Coventry. Clearly he did not expect she would.
Lady Godiva gazed at him. Perhaps she spoke. Perhaps not.
She went to the people of Coventry and asked them to remain indoors. Loosening her hair to cover her as a cloak, she rode naked through the city, seen only by a rude fellow known ever afterward as Peeping Tom.
Lady Godiva became the first tax protester in recorded history, and a defiant exponent of demonstrating outdoors.
Her husband slashed taxes. As late as the 13th century the people of Coventry paid no taxes except on their horses.
The story that Brits recounted - that of a vulnerable, naked woman confronting an unjust leader and achieving a victory - is marvellous. Too marvellous, say scholars, who overlook her great protest against taxes, and rather pettily insist she must at least have worn a shift.
The myths and legends of a people may not be true, but they say a good deal about them.
In years to come, Brits will implement equally dramatic ways of reducing taxes.
1066 BRITS DEFEND ISLAND FROM NORMANS
William of Normandy has a legitimate claim to the throne of England, but in another indication that in Britain a King is chosen by the Witan, the Witan names Harold King. In September, 1066, Norwegians invade the northeast. Harold and his men defeat them near York in the bloody battle of Stamford Bridge, just as William lands near Hastings with his Norman army to claim the throne. Harold and his army march south night and day to repel William and his Normans, Norsemen who generations earlier had invaded France.
The bastard son of the Duke of Normandy, William is a huge, grim-faced, ruthless man, the best and fiercest fighter of his generation. He has already brought the robber barons of Normandy to heel. Harold prepares to meet him on the Sussex Downs near Hastings. Harold and his men have gathered behind a stockade on a low spur ever after called Senlac. They were in full armour and carrying huge axes. There were also farmers, half-armed, who had responded to Harold's call.
Again and again the Normans launched themselves at the stockade. William is cool, courageous, inexhaustible. When panic spreads that he has been slain, he drags the helmet off his head and shouts, "I live, and by God's help will conquer yet." He it was who broke through the shield-wall of warriors. As dusk falls, Harold is felled by an arrow through the eye, and dies.
William and his small band of knights have won, and several months later, the Witan agrees that William should be king, and he is crowned. He keeps his soldiers from plunder, makes no changes in law or custom, and recognizes the liberties of the City of London with a royal writ. Some land owned by Brits is seized to pay his knights, but it is not until 1068 when all of England rises in rebellion that William becomes the Conqueror. Northumbria, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, York, and Chester all rise. In York, 3,000 Normans are killed. William responds by ravaging the whole country with fire and sword. From York he leads the troops who had remained faithful to Chester, digging with his own hands to clear the road of snow.
Malcolm in Scotland resists. Hereward the Wake mounts a fierce resistance in East Anglia, and Edric the Wild fights the Normans in the Marcherlands. They fight, and lose, but for a thousand years they are heroes to the Brit who believes his house is his castle, and who would die rather than lose his freedom.
William who has brought many more men to Britain "to hold by the sword what his sword had won" maintains his army by a vast confiscation of lands. His knights swear fealty to the greater lords and to him. All over the island, fortified Norman castles rise above the land.
Brits who oppose Norman rule are blinded, or have their hands cut off, but the spirit of liberty remains unbroken, hidden, but not dead, breathing. It is breathing in the people's love of their ancient laws and customs. And it is alive in William's need.
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