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Anglo-Saxons: The Making of England

When did England become England? Was Alfred really the great ruler of all the English - or was it just a question of clever Wessex PR? Patrick Wormald investigates the myths and realities of unification in Anglo-Saxon England.

The court of an Anglo-Saxon king (from the 10th-century Junius manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)In 1991, the British Museum staged an exhibition entitled 'The Making of England'. It was of course a superb show, and must have taught its countless visitors an immense amount about the culture of the early Christian English. But one thing about it was inept: its title. The period covered was from the coming of St Augustine in 597 to the death of Alfred in 899. Many very important things happened in these centuries. The 'Making of England' was not among them. There was no single kingdom of the English even at the end of the period. There had been a progressive reduction in the number of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms between the sixth and ninth centuries, leaving only four by 865. Of these, only one, Alfred's Wessex, survived the attentions of the Vikings. But this was a kingdom of the West Saxons, not of 'the English' as a whole.

There is evidence that Alfred came to see himself in some sense as a king of all Englishmen. There is almost no evidence that Englishmen beyond Wessex and perhaps the West Midlands would have agreed with him. The Northumbrians, East Anglians and at least some Mercians came to terms with the Vikings. Alfred's successors in due course took control of these areas. But it is an illusion that there was anything pre-ordained about that. Their campaign is usually called the 'Reconquest of the Danelaw'. It was in fact a conquest of lands never ruled by West Saxon kings before.

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