August 4, 2011

THERE IS NO BRITAIN:

England in the Age of Vikings: Alfred was great, but his grandson was also instrumental in cobbling together a country from its fractious parts. Tom Shippey reviews "Æthelstan: The First King of England." (Tom Shippey, 8/01/11, WSJ))

Now comes Sarah Foot with a biography of Alfred's grandson Æthelstan, whose 15-year reign (924-39), the author says, has never received its historical due. In Æthelstan's youth, what is now England was roughly divided into five or six main sections. There was Wessex, securely English and Christian as a result of Alfred's victories, but accounting for only about a quarter of England's land and manpower. The kingdom of Mercia, or "the Mark," was double the size of Wessex, but its king had fled from the Vikings to Rome. Mercia was split between the Danish-controlled north and east, and a dozen still-Christian English-speaking counties, ruled in Alfred's time by his son-in-law, the mysterious Alderman Æthelred.

It was the achievement of Edward and his sister Æthelflæd (married to Æthelred) to take over those Christian counties of Mercia, thus doubling the wealth and manpower of the Wessex kingdom. The next section to be picked off was East Anglia, not very big but quite rich; it was Danish-occupied but not securely. That left the Five Boroughs of Danish Mercia, with the Viking stronghold of York behind them. Beyond York lay the rest of Northumbria, still English, still Christian, but isolated, fragmented and mixed up with competing Celtic states.

The conventional English history is that Æthelstan annexed York in 927, having cowed Danish Mercia, and went on to force submission from the Scots, Welsh and English Northumbrians at a ceremony in far-north Cumberland later the same year. When an attempt was made by a Viking-Celtic alliance to break free 10 years later, Æthelstan and his half-brother Edmund defeated them decisively at the Battle of Brunanburh. "They left the corpses behind for the raven," says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, "never was there greater slaughter in this island."

That is the story, and Ms. Foot stays with it, in support of her contention that while his father Edward was "king of the English," but not the other ethnic groups, Æthelstan was "king of England" and even "ruler of all Britain."



Posted by at August 4, 2011 7:36 AM
  

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