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Birth of England: The Wessex Kings

By Michael Wood
Alfred the Great

Drawing depicting Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great 
Before Alfred arrived on the scene, England had consisted of a number of small kingdoms, but these were simply overrun and their royal families wiped out by the Vikings by the end of the 860s.

At this point, the Vikings threatened to overrun the whole of England, and the King of Mercia fled overseas, as did a number of well-to-do West Saxons.

But on the verge of total disaster, something happened which became part of the English myth in the Anglo-Saxon period, and still is. In early 878, Alfred the Great was surrounded in the marshes of Athelney in Somerset, almost finished. 'England' was on the ropes before it had even come into being.

'... he had become the most powerful regional king in Britain.'

This is the moment when legend has Alfred burning cakes in a peasant woman's cottage - a tale which was already in existence in the tenth century. However, Alfred was able to claw back a victory at Edington in Wiltshire that year.

Meantime, the Viking advance slowed down. They started to parcel out good settling land in East Anglia, in the East Midlands and in Northumbria - land for their armies, for the rank and file. This gave Alfred the chance he needed and he took it. He fought a prolonged war of resistance, and by the time he died in 899 he had become the most powerful regional king in Britain.

He was succeeded by his son Edward the Elder. By the 910s Edward was strong enough to embark on the military conquest of the Midlands and East Anglia, enforcing southern English rule over the lands up to the Humber. The tide had turned. Bede's blueprint was suddenly achievable.

Published: 2004-11-12

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