It’s the year 900. We’ve closed out another century, and the 900’s are looking as tumultuous as the 800’s. But before we move forward in our story of our Island – still in many ways at the end of the world – the BHP is going to take a moment to look at what is happening with the rest of human civilization around the globe around the year 900. History, like society, only makes sense with context. A lot was going on for everybody and it all has important implications for how we became the people we are today. This is just a brief snapshot – a way to get our bearings for where Britain sits among the rest of the world’s civilizations. It’s going to be a whirlwind tour – and there are unfortunately still some significant gaps. I’ll point those out as we come to them.
We’ve reached the end of an era. It was late 899, and Alfred (who has been our central figure for dozens of episodes) was at last at rest. But with his death, there was a sudden opening at the top levels of West Saxon politics and Alfred’s son, Edward, was a top contender for that position.
By 897, everything Alfred had known…. changed. He was barely in his 20s when he took the throne and he hadn’t had a chance to stop for a breath for the decades that followed.
He had been king for over half of his life, and in those years he’d proven himself to be an energetic and inventive king. Wessex under his rule had been transformed. Defensive structures, public infrastructure, educational reforms, legal reforms, military reforms, and even the creation of a written history. He had even changed the concept of Kingship within the Anglo Saxon territories. Under Alfred, the entire Realm from the very top (and the concepts of what makes a noble, with everything from their powers to their obligations to scholarship) all the way to the bottom (with the duties of the peasants and the organization of their lives)… all of it had been molded to fit his vision. And even though it had been a difficult task, even though he had even lost his kingdom for a time (quite likely due to a coup)… in the end, he got what he wanted.
The Danes encamped at Bridgnorth had been campaigning for years. Many had come here with Haesten and the Appledore fleet. They were the veterans of the continental campaigns. And for years now they had been fighting tooth and nail with the Anglo Saxons.
But despite all the time they had spent here. Despite their massive numbers, their surprise marches, their end runs, their seizure of territory… despite the fact that they had made allies with (and campaigned alongside) the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia… despite all of that, they had nothing to show for their efforts.
When I write an episode I begin by looking at what has happened in the past, then at what will come in the future, and only after that do I allow myself to focus on what is occurring for this episode.
I do this because I want to know the context of these events. The sources that have survived don’t often give us the Why, or even the How. They’re all about what and when… and that’s not the real meat of history. If you want to know what people were actually experiencing, you need to know what they had already gone through, and why they were making the decisions that they made. This will become easier as we move forward in time – we will eventually have diaries and personal letters and detailed accounts of political meetings. But even now – if you look close you can see a bigger picture. We can get – at least a little bit – to the why and the how.
For the Viking army fleeing Shoebury, there wasn’t much to look forward to in a winter holiday at Chester.
It would be wet. It would be cold. It would be creepy. The old Roman settlement had been abandoned for quite some time, and that probably didn’t sit well with the superstitious danes.
And besides being creepy, Chester promised generally rough living. Sure, it might sit next to farm land and a few small settlements, but this wasn’t the civitas it had once been… the Danes weren’t marching in and setting up in a nice little manor. These were ruins. Old ruins. This was going to be hardcore camping.
“Then came the king’s troops, and routed the enemy, broke down the work, took all that was therein money, women, and children and brought all to London. And all the ships they either broke to pieces, or burned, or brought to London or to Rochester.”
That’s what the Chronicle has to say about AEthelred’s siege of Hasten’s fortress at Banfleet. As we spoke about last week, we don’t know how many women and children came with fleet, but it’s clear from the Chronicle that they existed.
Imagine that you’re in your 20s. You are a member of the royal dynasty… the next in line for the throne. But your future court is filled with powerful Ealdormen who expect their king to be a warrior. Given the mood of the nobles, and how some of them are chaffing at your father’s style of rule, it’s become clear that you can’t leave any doubt. Any weakness and your succession could be in jeopardy. And then suddenly, one of the most fearsome armies of Northmen in Western Europe arrives on your shores… and you lead the army that routed it.
That was the situation that Edward AEtheling found himself in at Farnham. His position at court dramatically improved in response to that victory. In a single day of fighting, he had proven his worth and silenced his detractors.
Alfred’s gambit to pacify the forces of Hastein through the power of baptism and gifts had failed utterly, and now they were encamped in Benfleet Essex, launching raids into Wessex and (probably) Mercia.
And as for the gargantuan fleet of 250 ships to the south at Appledore? It was still there.