Ælfred’s Britain: War and peace in the Viking Age

Publication: November 2017, by Head of Zeus

A history of the peoples of Britain, in the century and a half between the first Viking raids and the expulsion of the Vikings from York in 954. In 865, a great Viking army landed in East Anglia, precipitating a series of wars that would last until the middle of the following century. It was in this time of crisis that the modern kingdoms of Britain were born. In their responses to the Viking threat, these kingdoms would forge their identities as hybrid cultures: vibrant and entrepreneurial peoples adapting to instability and opportunity. Traditionally, Ælfred the Great is cast as the central player in the story of Viking Age Britain. But Max Adams, while stressing the genius of Ælfred as war leader, law-giver and forger of the English nation, has a more nuanced and variegated story to tell. The Britain encountered by the Scandinavians of the 9th and 10th centuries was one of regional diversity and self-conscious cultural identities: of Picts, Dál Riatans and Strathclyde Britons; of Bernicians and Deirans, East Anglians, Mercians and West Saxons.  The Scandinavian contribution to our island story is brought vividly into focus through the landscapes, documents and artefacts that betray their lasting influence.

‘Remote places, like the haunts of robbers and wild beasts on the moors of Yorkshire or the marshy fenlands of East Anglia, the Vale of York and the Somerset levels, were profitable sources of fear and wonder, inhabited by devils and unspeakable demons… In mythologizing Ælfred’s sojourn in these lonely and unhealthy landscapes his hagiographers were not just preparing the ground for his miraculous survival and improbable final triumph; they were also tapping the dark recesses of the Early Medieval psyche.’ FROM ÆLFRED’S BRITAIN