The conversion of Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity was not followed by a period of peace or by political unity. For many years the country was harassed by internal wars and political power varied with the personality and military success of the local kings. In the eighth century the great central kingdom of Mercia became very strong, but after the death of Offa of Mercia in A.D. 796 Wessex became the leading kingdom, and its kings united England and drove back the new invaders, men from Scandinavia, usually called Danes or Vikings. Wessex had powerful neighbours, but King Egbert, who died in A.D. 839, succeeded in annexing Kent, was overlord of Mercia, harried Cornwall, and was recognised as Bretwalda, ‘ruler of the British’. When southern England was again troubled by invaders in the middle of the ninth century, it was Egbert’s son, Etheiwuif, and the most famous of his grandsons, Alfred, who organised the opposition and eventually drove back the Danes. After Alfred made peace with the Danes in A.D. 877 and their leader Guthrum was baptised, many Danes remained in England in the area known as the Danelaw, but Alfred’s military successes made possible the blossoming of Anglo-Saxon civilisation, and established the political importance of Wessex.
The kingdom of Wessex consisted of a number of shires, and the historic existence of Hampshire goes back to at least A.D. 757. In that year, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King Sigberht, who had ruled badly, was deprived of most of his kingdom except for ‘Hamtunscire’. The shire presumably derives its name from Hamtun, the Anglo-Saxon settlement in the south of the county and the predecessor of the medieval town of Southampton. Significantly it was not called after the centre of the diocese, Winchester (Wintanceaster) though that cathedral city later became the county town. By the time of Alfred, local government in Hampshire,. as in other Wessex shires, was the responsibility of an official known as an ealdorman who also had to lead the men of his shire in time of war as did the ealdorman Wulfheard who routed the Danish attack on Southampton in A.D. 840. Ealdormen were royal officials, sometimes members of the royal family, but they often had their own local estates, and their local knowledge was of help when they administered the King’s laws and presided over the shire’s court. At least one ealdorman of Wessex, Aelfric, had his own personal seal; it was he who betrayed the army to the Danes in 992 and again in 1003 and who was killed at Ashingdon in 1016.
Much of what is known of Anglo-Saxon society is derived from the various codes of laws compiled by successive kings of Wessex and political history is contained in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a great chronological record written down in the vernacular, of which the earliest surviving manuscript has a particular Hampshire interest, for much of it was written in Winchester, probably in the Old Minster. The use of the Anglo-Saxon language for codes of law and for the writing of history did much to encourage the feeling that England under the leadership of the royal house of Wessex was becoming a nation, and the feeling of national pride was encouraged by Alfred’s successes against the Danes, by the growth of English towns, and by a revival and reorganisation within the national Church.
In Hampshire it is clear that there were important towns at Southampton and at Winchester. The centre which gave the shire its name, Hamtun, was not on the site of the later medieval and present town, but appears to have been composed of two districts on the peninsula of land lying between the Rivers Test and Itchen. It has been suggested that the prefix ‘South’ was added to distinguish two parts of the settled area from each other, and not to distinguish the town from Northampton in another county. On the Test side perhaps stood Hamtun, but its site has not been identified. On the shores of a lagoon formed by the Itchen stood Hamwic, the commercial area of the town, perhaps as its name may suggest, a trading suburb of the fortified main settlement. Hamwic had a Minster church, the ‘Minister at Wic’ being the original of the church later dedicated to St. Mary, the mother church of modern Southampton. Hamwic, described as a Mercimonium, was convenient for trade with the Continent, and recent archaeological excavations have resulted in the discovery of jars and flagons for wine-carrying, and fine imported glassware. Yet its position was very vulnerable; Ealdorman Wulfheard was able to defeat a Viking attack on Hamwic in 840, but in 980 a very severe raid resulted in the slaughter or captivity of most of the population.
The Viking raids on Southampton, and the fact that the bishop’s Chair was at Winchester were both factors which helped to increase the importance of the cathedral city. Yet very little indeed is known of Winchester as an Anglo-Saxon centre before the reign of Edward the Confessor. Like Southampton, it was a burh, or fortified centre to be defended against the Danes, a place of resistance and refuge in time of trouble. The system is described in a document called the Burghal Hidage, dating from the reign of Edward the Elder—though the idea probably originated with his father Alfred, and listing the centres which were to be fortified and the number of men required to man them. In Hampshire there were burhs at Winchester, Southampton, Twynhain and in the Roman port of Portchester, the last a late addition to the system. A recent interpretation of the Winchester evidence suggests that the fortification of the burh coincides with the line of the Roman-medieval wall and needed some 2,400 men to man its total length of nearly two miles. All that can be added with any degree of certainty of Winchester in the hundred years after Alfred’s death is that the layout of the town was dominated by two factors. The group of three royally-founded minster churches already referred to occupied much of the area on the south side of the High Street, and secondly, the presence of the river Itchen and of many brooks was an important factor in the topography of the city. It is also reasonable to assume that the Anglo-Saxon kings had some sort of residence in Winchester and that their hail or palace was not far from the three minsters. There were undoubtedly other royal ‘residences’ within the county, for example perhaps at Andover, where Edgar made part of his Law, and where Ethelred the Unready stood as sponsor to Olaf of Norway in 994 in a period of temporary peace with the Danish invaders, and perhaps also at Twynham, where there was a ‘residence’.
Later on, for a short period in the first half of the 11th century England was ruled by Danish kings, a period of considerable growth and prosperity in Hampshire. Cnut, his wife Emma (widow of Ethelred the Unready) and their son Hardicanute were all buried in the Old Minster at Winchester, one of the many Anglo-Saxon foundations enriched by the Danish royal family in England. In 1043 the old line of English kings was restored by the coronation in Winchester cathedral of Edward the Confessor, the son of Emma by her first marriage.
It was a measure of the vitality and integrity of Anglo-Saxon civilisation that it was able to withstand and even in some ways to profit from the prolonged struggles with the Danes. To this civilisation Hampshire made an important and considerable contribution. The two royal monasteries at Winchester became the fountain heads of a moving and magnificent style of manuscript illumination and writing which is now known all over the civilised world as the ‘Winchester School’. Its most famous example is the Benedictional of St. Etheiwold, commissioned by that bishop and known to have been at Hyde Abbey (Newminster) in the later medieval period, though it may have been made in the Old Minster or indeed in one of the monasteries outside Hampshire reformed by Bishop Ethelwold’s influence. The great minster churches themselves were renowned examples of contemporary architecture, richly decorated and famous for their music. Indeed, their outstanding contribution to England’s musical history, the Winchester ‘tropes’, ornamental additions to plainsong music which went out of fashion after 1066, can be recalled today from the existence of two rare manuscripts, the Winchester trophers. A less formal kind of music was envisaged in the special provision which the church made for the particularly English custom of pealing bells, provision confirmed at the great national synod held in Winchester in c. 970, a synod which apparently met at Bishop Ethelwold’s request and issued the Regularis Concordia, an agreed rule for general use in all English monasteries.
The language of the Church was Latin, which was also often used for some formal documents and charters concerning land. Yet the language of the ordinary people was alive and already so strong in use that it was able to survive the Norman Conquest, to conquer French, and emerge at the end of the Middle Ages as the language of English society. Its strength was helped by the translations of King Alfred, by the continued existence of the Chronicle, by the fact that Anglo-Saxon was used in many charters and official documents, and that it was alsb the language of some serious scholarhip. Wulfstan of Winchester wrote descriptive poems about his monastery and its music; Alfric the Grammarian (c. 980-c. 1020) compiled vast quantities of original homilies for feast days, lives of saints, and sermons for all occasions.
The civilisation of Anglo-Saxon Christian Hampshire was thus vigorous and manifold and was never insular nor merely local. Trade with Western Europe flourished, and with Scandinavia, the Anglo-Saxon Church, though it had its pecularities, was part of Christendom. It was a monk from Nursling, near Southampton, St. Boniface, who, in a series of great missionary journeys, preached Christianity to the Frisians before his martyrdom at their hands in 754. Boniface had the help and encouragement of the Bishop of Winchester, Daniel, and of the Pope; regular contacts were always maintained with the Papal Curia. There were frequent contacts, too, with France; the first Abbot of Newminster, St. Grimbald, was a Frenchman. Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor, sister of Duke Richard of Normandy and ‘the Gem of the Normans’, spent much of her widowhood at Wherwell and in Winchester after the death of her second husband, Cnut. When her son, Edward the Confessor, was crowned King of England in Winchester cathedral in 1043, Winchester was no longer merely the chief town in Wessex, but had become the royal capital of Anglo-Saxon England.