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First Raids and Battles

By the 9th century, Wessex consolidated all the kingdoms into a unified country, but it still was far from a centralised state with a strong power of the king — big landowners were strong and separate regions were politically independent. The Scandinavian invasion caused the unification of the country as an alternative to a complete loss of independence.

In 793, two Scandinavian peoples, the Danes and the Norwegians began raiding the eastern shores of Britain; later the Danes became the invaders of England and the Norwegians — of Scotland and Ireland.

They were skilful warriors and furious sea-rovers. Cooped up on bleak and narrow Scandinavian land, they saw the fields of England and Ireland as the greatest attraction.

The first of the Danes aimed at plundering — they came in spring or summer, loaded their ship, with plunder and returned home for winter. As every year they went to a different place, all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms experienced their raids.

As the kingdoms had no regular army, soon the Danes settled north of the Thames, taking Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia into their hands. In 842, they burnt up London, and since 850, they started their first settlements. In 871, they founded a fortified camp ready to push on to Wessex, but were stopped by the young king of Wessex Alfred the Great. This year showed the resistance of the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavian invasion assumed new forms — they settled down to found kingdoms.

In 872, Danish attacks increased, and after constant fighting in 878, Alfred with his army took refuge in the islands of Athelney.


In 879, a peace treaty was signed. It divided the country into two equal parts: "the Danelaw" in the northeast and England proper. The great Roman road, Watling Street, was the boundary between them.

Alfred the Great made vigorous efforts to restore the country's economy and built up its military potential so as to secure it against future invasions. The key points were fortified and later developed into the first Anglo-Saxon towns. Alfred established a system of administration, improved the laws in the interests of landowners and raised the standards of culture among them. The specialists from the Continent were invited to rebuild monasteries and churches, which had been burnt by the Danes.

The first code of England's Common Law called "Truth" was complied about 890. It was based on the old customs and laws followed by the Anglo-Saxons in Wessex and Mercia. The whole country was divided into shires and hundreds as before and strictly controlled.

The Danes were made subjects of Wessex and they never tried to make the Danelaw into a separate kingdom. The Danes influenced the development of trade and shipbuilding in the country. The majority of the Danes were free peasants and remained free on that territory throughout the Middle Ages.

The territory of the Danelaw was divided into shires, like the Anglo-Saxon part. Each of the shires had the market town for its centre and even today many of the midland counties are named after their country towns.

The Scandinavian raids were renewed at the end of the 10th century in the reign of Aethelred the Unready (978—1017). As the Anglo-Saxons were unable to organise the resistance, they gave the Danes money. In 991, the tribute was paid in the form of a special tax called Danegeld, or Dane money. The Danes retired and in a year came back to demand more.

Trying to change the situation, Aethelred ordered a massacre of all the Danes in England in 1002, which only made the matters worse as new revengeful hordes of the Scandinavians came claming for compensation in various forms.


Task 10. Compare the territory of the Danelaw to the territory of England. Speak about the possible consequences of this invasion.

Cultural Focus: King Alfred the Great

Alfred, who is the only English King named "Great", was the youngest son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex. When he was a little child, men and women around him were constantly talking about the Danish raids and invaders. During the short reigns of Alfred's two elder brothers nothing was heard of him. His public life began with the accession of a third brother, Ethelred in 866. For more than ten years of his reign Alfred was side by side with elder brother in public and on the field of battle.

Alfred succeeded his brother in 871, at the time of national crisis. The Danes, who had before come in scattered groups, now came in big numbers, determined to conquer and occupy England. That year of Alfred's reign was called "Alfred's year of battles", when young Alfred with his army showed the resistance to the Danes. The Danes, who used lightning-speed attack, won some decisive battles, and pushed Alfred to the island of Athelney, where he took refuge.

On Athelney Alfred gathered a bigger army, trained it to imitate the enemy's strategy and tactics and rearmed it. Finally he dressed up as minstrel and spent a week in the enemy's camp, spying and taking careful note of the Danes' defenses. These preparations showed the result — in 879, a peace treaty was signed to divide the country into the Danelaw and England proper. Now Alfred saw the defects in the English defensive system. So he built a fleet of ships, which were longer, higher and faster than Danish ships — all the ships were built according to the King's own designs. Alfred also fortified the country with a net of permanent fortifications; he created peasant militia, who could defend their villages and liides. All these arrangements allowed the English to live and work in peace.

Together with military achievements Alfred took great care of other state matters — he revived a practice of law giving and in 890, the first code of England's Common Law, "Truth", was complied. These laws, based upon earlier Anglo-Saxon codes, helped to stabilise the society that was badly shaken by Danish raids.

Next Alfred's task was revival of learning — for establishing court school he imported scholars from various parts of Britain and from the Continent. Alfred's main wish was to disseminate the elements of learning all over England.

Alfred himself helped to translate important books of the time from Latin into English and disseminate them in the country. Among others, he translated "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" which the Venerable Bede had written in Latin. He also tried to collect and arrange earlier facts of the English race into the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", which became a source of information for many later historians. The Chronicle was continued for 250 years after the death of King Alfred.

Task 11. All these word combinations are often used to characterise Alfred the Great. Explain why he is called so and choose the variant, which, to your opinion, characterises this great King best of all. Prove your choice:

—the founder of the English fleet;

—the King who burnt cakes in a woman's cottage;

—the King, who stopped the Danes;

—the first English translator from Latin;

—many-sided genius.

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