Portrait of Britain: AD 1000

Ann Williams describes the state of the island at a time when Anglo-Saxon culture was reaching its peak, while also politically challenged by the Vikings.

‘The King went into Cumberland and ravaged very nearly all of it; and his ships went out round Chester and should have come to meet him, but they could not. Then they ravaged the Isle of Man. And the enemy fleet had gone to Richard’s kingdom that summer.’

Brief though it is, this entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 1000 is an epitome of the political history of Britain at the time. The king in question was Æthelred II, misnamed ‘the Unready’ (r. 978-1016), and seen here in a decidedly ‘ready’ mood. He was not indulging in mindless destruction for the sake of it, but furthering a process begun by his forebears: forging of a united kingdom of the English. A century earlier, his great-great-grandfather, Alfred, had defended the kingdom of Wessex from Viking assault and won the loyalty of all the English people ‘except those who were under the power of the Danes’. Alfred’s heirs, his son Edward, king of the West Saxons, and his daughter Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, overran the southern Danish settlements and absorbed them into a ‘greater Wessex’. Edward’s son, Æthelstan, conquered the Viking kingdom of York, and became the first ‘king of the English’ and Æthel-stan’s brothers, Edmund and Eadred, consolidated his work. Edmund’s sons, Eadwig and Edgar, ruled over an English kingdom which stretched northwards from the Channel to the Tweed in the north east and to Stain-more in the north-west. This kingdom was the inheritance of Æthelred, Edgar’s younger son, who received it after the murder of his half-brother Edward the Martyr at Corfe in Dorset in 978.

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