The Unification of England

The Unification of England

With the accession of Edward. Wessex passed from the defensive to the offensive; she met about the task of driving back the boundaries of the Danelaw, a task that Alfred had commenced in 886, when he recovered London and the lands round it. It was not by sweeping inroads and by great victories that Edward carried out this work. He did it piece-meal. Year by year the West Saxons and the Mercians, who lived west of Watling Street, marched into the Danelaw, erected burhs and garrisoned them. A typical entry into the Chronicle runs thus –

“In 911 Edward went with some of his force into Essex to Maldon, and encamped there, while his men built and timbered the burh of Witham. And many of the people submitted to him, who were before under the power of the Northmen.”

All traces of the stockades, and of the buildings which sheltered the garrison, have long since disappeared, but the earthen ramparts remain both at Witham and elsewhere.

Witham seems to have been but a small place. Some, however, of Edward’s burhs were populous centres before he captured them and can have needed merely a restoration or strengthening of existing defences. Some are still important places in our own time, as, for instance, Hertford, Bedford, Huntingdon, Tamworth, Stafford, Towcester, Warwick, Buckingham, Colchester, Nottinhham, and Manchester. Edward seems to have followed his father’s policy, and to have assigned to each burh a stretch of territory, the inhabitants of which were responsible for its upkeep. These territories were probably the origin of some of our midland counties, and the burhs they maintained are now often their county towns.

Success after success poured in upon Edward till, at the end of his reign, he was king of all England south of the Humber. North of the Humber Edward achieved a striking success, when Regnald, the Danish king of Deira, Constantine, king of the united Picts and Scots, Ealdred, the English king of Bernicia, and Owen, king of the Strathclyde Britons, chose him as “father and lord.” Edward died in 924.

His son Athelstan succeeded him, pushed on the great task bequeathed to him with true West Saxon vigour. In 926 he drove out the Danish king of Deira and his brother, Anlaf, and took his kingdom under his own rule. In that year, therefore, it may be said that the kingdom of England, as we know it today, first appeared.

Something else appeared also. In Athelstan’s day, at the very commencement of its being, this new England found itself faced by problems which were to test its energies for nearly a thousand years. Dwellers in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland began to be conscious of a possible union that included much more then English territory. Pict, Scot, Briton and Welshmen became fearful that the all-conquering power of Weesex, which had built up a realm of England, might go on to construct a till greater realm of Great Britain and Ireland. To King Constantine and his subjects in [articular, such a prospect of absorption was peculiarly distasteful. Promptly the threatened realm Athelstan’s discontented subjects in Deira. Help was looked for from Northmen in Ireland, and especially from their king Anlaf of Dublin, who had blood connection with the dispossessed brothers of Deira. This spectacle of a nervous Scotland bestirring herself against England and raising trouble among English subjects at home and rivals overseas became very familiar in later days, and, indeed, was seen far into modern times in the eighteenth century. Edward I., Henry VIII., Elizabeth, George II., and many other monarchs, were but the inheritors of the problem. but it was new in Athelstan’s day, because England herself was new.

In 937 a mighty host came together to destroy the new power which threatened their independence, and a great battle, lasting from sunrise to sunset, was fought at a place called Brunangurh, or Brunanwerc, the site of which is unknown. Bromborough in Wirral, Birrenswark in Dumfriesshire, Burnley in South lancashire, ad Bourne in Lincolnshire, are some of the localities suggested. Somewhere probably in the north-west Saxons, Mercians, and probably East Anglians and Anglicised Danes met together to do battle with Northumbrian Danes, Irish Danes, Scots, Picts and Britons for the kingdom of England as we know it today, to strike a blow for their belief that Wessex had a right to unify beneath her rule the whole of England, and, if she had the power, to subdue surrounding nations, Scots, Welsh and Irish, to her will. Brunanburh is the first and the mightiest in a list of famous battles, which contians Bannockburn, Halidon Hill, Flodden, Pinkie, Boyne, Culloden, and many others. Some nameless Anglo-Saxon poet dimly recognised its greatness, and composed a battle song upon it which is worthy of its theme. In it the triumphant courage of a new England finds glorious expression. The scribe who composed the scanty annals of the Chronicle in Athelstan’s reign had the merit of recognising a good poem, and has inserted some of it. It tells us almost all that is known of one of the greatest events in English history. The quotations below are given from Lord Tennyson’s English version of the poem :-

“Athelstan King,

Lord among earls

Bracelet-bestower and

Baron of barons,

He with his brother,

Edmund Atheling,

Gaining a life-long

Glory in battle,

Slew with the sword edge

There by Brunanburh,

Brake the shield wall,

Hew’d the linden wood,

Hacked the battle shield,

Sons of Edward with hammered brands.


“Bow’d the spoiler,

Bent the Scotsman,

Fell  the ship crews

Doom’d to the death.

All the field with blood of the fighters

Flow’d, from when first the great

Sun-star of morning tide,

Lamp of the Lord God

Lord everlasting,

Glode over earth till the glorious creature

Sank to his setting.


“There lay many a man

Marr’d by the javelin,

Men of the Northland

Shot over the shield.

There was the Scotsman

Weary of war.


“We the West Saxons,

Long as the daylight

Lasted, in companies

Troubled the track of the host that we hated,

Grimly with swords that were sharp from the grindstone,

Fiercely we hack’d at the flyers before us.


“Mighty the Mercian,

Hard was his handplay,

Sparing not any of

Those that with Anlaf,

Warriors over the

Weltering waters

Borne in the bark’s bosom,

Drew to this island :

Doom’d to the death.


“Five young kings put asleep by the sword stroke,

Seven strong Earls of the army of Anlaf

Shipmen and Scotsmen.


“Then the Norse leader,

Dire was his need of it,

Few were his following,

Fled to his warship :

Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it,

Saving his life on the fallow flood.


“Also the crafty one,


Crept to his North again,

Hoar-headed hero.


“Slender warrant had

He to be proud of

The welcome of war-knives,

He that was reft of his

Folk and his friends that had

Fallen in conflict,

Leaving his son too

lost in the carnage ;

Mangl’d to morsels,

A youngster in war !


“Then with their nail’d prows

Parted the Norsemen, a

Blood redden’d relic of

Javelins over

The jarring breaker, the deep sea billow,

Shaping their way to Dyflen* again.

Sham’d in their souls.


“Also the brethren

King and Atheling,

Went to his own in his own West Saxon land

Glad of the war.”




In the fifty years that followed the battle of Brunanburh England was on several occasions split into two kingdoms. but the separation never lasted for more than a year or two. The West Saxon royal house always restored the union. Not even during the reign of Ethelred the Redless (978 t o 1016), Alfred’s great-great-grandson, when a second series of invasions began from Norway and Denmark, was the work of Alfred’d house permanently undone. In 1016 Canute, a Dane, became king, but he was king of all England. He died in 1035. In 1042 Edward the Confessor, Alfred’s great-great-great-grandson, succeeded to the throne. His death, in 1066, was followed by the French-Norman/Conquest-Crusade . But this event, so far from destroying the union of England, rather gave it permanence? A cold heart and bloody hand now ruled the English land and beyond.