Defeat of the Danelaw and the Establishment of England
The Anglo-Mercian foundations of the ‘Borough System’
King Alfred the Great was the initiator of the fortified garrison burhs or boroughs. King of Wessex from 871 to c886 and of the Anglo-Saxons until 899. He was succeeded by his son Edward the Elder, who was king until his son Æthelstan became king over all of England.
Alfred’s eldest child was his daughter Æthelflᴂd who became known as the ‘Lady of the Mercians’. She was highly respected for her aptitude and great fortitude. King Alfred arranged a strategic marriage of Æthelflᴂd to Æthelred the (Hwicce) Lord of the Mercians. Thereby he created an alliance of Wessex with the remaining parts of Mercia not overruled by Viking control.
When Æthelred died in 911, Æthelflᴂd, who had been fighting the Danes alongside her husband and her brother Edward, took full command of the Mercian forces. Wessex was first invaded in 870, and the Danes in 871, forced King Alfred to seek shelter in the Somerset Levels. As he regained a small fighting force, he began a scheme of fortified ‘burhs’ (at 25mile intervals) from which to recover territory. In 910 Edward, Æthelred and Æthelflᴂd embarked on a program of extending the burhs. Examples were at Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Warwick and Runcorn. Æthelflᴂd recovered many more towns from the Danelaw including Leicester in 918 without any resistance. The Viking leaders in York eventually offered her their loyalty.
On Æthelflᴂd’s death in 918, she was succeeded by her capable daughter Ælfwynn, but Edward intercepted this and placed her into a convent, thereby taking control over Mercia. The eldest son of King Edward was Æthelstan, by the first of his three marriages. Born in 895 he was then fostered by his aunt Lady Æthelflᴂd and brought up and educated in piety within the Mercian Royal Court. He succeeded his father in 924 as King of Wessex and Mercia. During his minority, his father and his aunt led two armies who destroyed the uncoordinated Danish forces. Each advance northward was reinforced by garrisoned boroughs. The defeated Danes were allowed their local law codes and the management of their ‘peaceful’ territories. They accepted Æthelstan as King when he was crowned in 924. In 937 Æthelstan, king of the English, destroyed the combined army of Scots, Strathclyde Britons, Welsh, Hiberno-Norse and Norwegians from York and Norway, at the Battle of ‘Brunanburh’. He was accompanied by many Danes who joined with the English army. The elite were the West Saxon horsemen and the steadfast and loyal Mercian Englishmen.
Æthelstan was declared the first Ruler of the whole of Britain (and Kinsman of Europe). His half sisters were married to influential kings in Saxony, France and the Holy roman Empire. King Æthelstan was regarded as “the Pillar of Magnificence for Europe”. Alan, second Duke of Brittany and Haakon the Good, son of Harald the Fair of Norway, were both fostered by Æthelstan. He also provided protection for the exiled Louis, son of Charles the Simple of the West Franks.
Æthelstan died without issue, October 939, in Gloucester and was buried at Malmesbury Abbey. His household had been a centre of learning and there were more legal texts surviving from his reign than any other during the 10th century. Mercian inherited rights were an important part of their administration. To this end there were accurate and responsive regulations. Armed forces were made readily available to be despatched when and where required.
Wessex was the kingdom of the West Saxons, modern Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset and west Berkshire. Mercian territory covered the Midlands and below Northumbria until the ‘Danelaw’. Æthelstan conquered Northumbria in 927 when England became a unified kingdom. There was a royal palace at Gloucester by 896 where the Mercian council would meet. The royal manor or liberty of King’s Barton was not appropriated to the palace until the late Anglo-Saxon period. The old Gloucester burh had been in the western part of the City and was destroyed by the Conquest to make way for the Norman castle. The royal palace at Kingsholm was the home of Æthelflᴂd. When she married her dowry was the City of London. Both she and Æthelred are buried at St Oswald’s Priory. Æthelstan died in the palace in 939.
The Mercian capital at Tamworth was established by Penda, and under King Offa it became the largest town in the English Midlands. It was sacked by the Danes in 874 and remained a ruin until 913, when Æthelflᴂd, Lady of the Mercians, rebuilt the town as a defensive burh (borough) to defend it against Viking invasions. She died there in 918 and was buried with her husband in Gloucester. Tamworth has royal borough charters dating back to 1319 and in 1337, the right to hold two annual fairs. Queen Elizabeth granted another charter in 1560. The 11th century Norman castle was besieged during the Civil war and ordered to be destroyed. Fortunately, that was never carried out and the castle remains an attraction to visitors today.
Alan Shelley, March 2019
For more information on Boroughs, please refer to my post on Borough Freemen.