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18 September 2014
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Birth of England: The Wessex Kings

By Michael Wood
Essential glue

Image of Anglo-Saxon kings on horseback
The Anglo-Saxon kings sought a common allegiance 
We should, however, always be aware of where our history comes from, and the account above is one that comes from - to use a modern term - the spin doctors of Alfred's dynasty. Specifically from the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' produced in Alfred's Winchester. We have to remember that the story is told from the point of view of the English, not the Celts, and from the point of view of the West Saxons, not the Northumbrians, Mercians or East Angles.

Just because Alfred wanted to be acknowledged King of the English does not mean that people in East Anglia, or the East Midlands, or Northumbria - or even the heartland of English Mercia in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire - were happy with that.

Indeed, there were those who were very unhappy about it. North of the Humber, one chronicler wrote feelingly, '... we had never before been subject to the South Angles [the southern English]'. But pretty soon, the West Saxon kings of England won the allegiance of people south of the Humber, including those of Danish descent.

'... [Wulfstan's] complaint was that this allegiance had broken down, that group feeling had disintegrated ... '

Then, by the time of Athelstan's death, people in the East Midlands also acknowledged that their interests were best served by a Southern king. Over the next century, many Northerners seem to have come to the same conclusion.

The creation of this allegiance developed what we might call 'group feeling' - the essential glue in any state. And the creation of that allegiance is the product not of the Normans or the Tudors, but of the tenth century.

That is what Wulfstan was talking about in his sermon. His complaint was that this allegiance had broken down, that group feeling had disintegrated - but he knew what it was to have had them in the first place. The creation of that allegiance was what made England England, and it was made long before the Normans came to stay.

About the author

Michael Wood is the writer and presenter of many critically acclaimed television series, including In the Footsteps of...series. Born and educated in Manchester, Michael did postgraduate research on Anglo-Saxon history at Oxford. Since then he has made over 60 documentary films and written several best selling books. His films have centred on history, but have also included travel, politics and cultural history.


Published: 2004-11-12

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