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Edward The Elder

The A5 near Downton Shropshire, on the old border between the English and Danish sectors. This photo is by Mark Evison

When Alfred the Great died in 899 he did not specify a successor. Councillors were left free to choose from members of his family. With a powerful Danish presence in eastern England, contained until now by Alfred, a strong leader was required. The councillors chose Alfred's son Edward, over Aethelwold, son of Alfred's elder brother Ethelred. Edward had already proven himself a formidable soldier in the 893 campaign which had driven an invading Danish force back across the Thames. Aethelwold had no such background, but he refused to accept the council's decision. He fled to the Danes, who sensed an opportunity to divide and rule Saxon Wessex, which had held out for so long against them. The Danes agreed to help the pretender.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

East meets west on the river Lea at the O2 arena

In a land grant dated 901 Edward is referred to as "King of the Anglo Saxons". This suggests a developing unity of Saxon peoples under Edward's rule. Ironically it was the Danish threat, bolstered by their new ally Aethelwold, that helped maintain this unity. Aethelwold's invasion came in 902. The Saxon and Danish armies met at the Battle of the Holme in which the Danes were defeated and Aethelwold killed. Edward decided to follow up this victory by going on the offensive. Teaming up with Ethelred, King of English Mercia, roughly coincident with today's west Midlands, a joint offensive against Danish territory in east England began. The frontier between Saxon and Danish England ran from the river Lea, at today's O2 Dome in London, and then cut diagonally across the country, following the old Roman road of Watling Street, which originally ran from Canterbury to Shrewsbury. Today much of the A5 follows Watling Street, which means it is easy to follow the old frontier through the Midlands. Edward began by trying to buy land east of Watling Street from the Danes. But it was difficult to find people willing to risk money buying land in an enemy area, where the chance of loss of investment was high. This policy did not continue for long, so we can assume it was unsuccessful. In 909 the policy changed to military action, and what is sometimes referred to as the English Reconquest began. Edward used a simple and effective plan. Each year he would make a cautious advance into Danish territory, then build at least one fortified area, known as a burh, and put a garrison inside it. This garrison, in partnership with the English field army would then defeat the Danes in the area. The following year the same thing would be done again. When Edward's Mercian ally Ethelred died in 910, his sister Aethelflaed took over very effectively, and the remorseless advance continued. By 917 Colchester had fallen to Edward, and this victory brought Edward all of East Anglia and the eastern Midlands.

In 918 Aethelflaed died, soon after the Danes of York offered to surrender to her. Edward then made a show of leading the Mercians himself, and led Mercian troops to a victory at Nottingham in 919. The result was an historic merger of Wessex and Mercia. Making this year of 919 even more significant was the nature of Edward's accommodation with the Danes. He ordered Nottingham "to be repaired and manned both with Englishmen and Danes. And all the people who had settled in Mercia, both Danish and English, submitted to him" (The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, quoted by Richard Humble in The Anglo Saxon Kings P78). The Reconquest ended with the assimilation of Danes, rather than the hopeless task of exterminating, or expelling them. The Danes had been living in England for over forty years, since the arrival of the Great Army in the 866. By this time it wouldn't have been all that easy to classify Dane or Englishman. Forty years is a long time for people to live in close proximity, and marriage between the two groups must have occurred. 919 was yet another moment in the long history of Britain as an endlessly complicated mix of people.

 

 

 

Winchester Cathedral.

Edward's last expeditions used Mercian troops to liberate remaining Mercian territory held by Danes. Once again Edward knew that inspite of the ranting of nationalists, divisions between people are not clear cut. The divide between Wessex and Mercia could be just as dangerous as that between England and Denmark. By making a show of using Mercians to liberate Mercia he was fighting a complex battle for unity, where the enemy could also be a friend. This move to unity achieved another milestone in 920 when the famously aggressive and awkward province of Northumbria submitted to Edward.

Edward died in 924 and was buried in the traditional resting place for Saxon kings, at Winchester Cathedral. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle which is the main source of knowledge about his reign survives in nine copies, seven of which are held at the British Library. A silver coin from Edward's reign is kept at the British Museum, and is classified as one of the highlights of the collection.

Edward was succeeded by his eldest son Athelstan.

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