The Mercian Register records the construction of 10 fortifications by Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, commencing with Bremesburh in 910 and finishing with Runcorn five years later, in response to attacks by the Vikings. In addition Æthelflæd restored Chester in 907 and Shrewsbury in 901. Along with her husband, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, they restored fortifications at Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford as part of a Mercian revival. Possibly originating from the land of the Hwicce, Æthelred emerges from the shadows as ruler of English Mercia following the death of Ceolwulf II in 879.
There were few coastlines in western Europe that did not experience the violent raids of the Norsemen in the late 8th century. The Viking Age is a allotted a timespan of 793 to 1066, the raid on Lindisfarne to the Norman Conquest. In England the first encounter with seaborne raiders from Scandinavian is recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle in 787 at Portland. However, it seems these raids had started well before they were first recorded as Offa, king of Mercia (757-796), was constructing coastal defences in the later part of his reign.
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Then the Vikings changed tact; the Great Heathen Army, a mixed Scandinavian army drawn from Denmark, Norway and Sweden, arrived in England in 865, no longer was their strategy to raid and pillage, now in much larger numbers they were intent on conquest and would focus on the Anglo Saxon kingdoms one after the other. After landing in East Anglia they overwintered at Thetford, unchallenged, before attacking York in 866. Seemingly able to roam around the country unhindered, they then marched on Mercia and wintered at Nottingham in 868. The Mercian's agreed terms and the Army returned to York. In 869 they went back to East Anglian, murdering King Edmund and overwintered into 870. The following year they headed for Wessex and engaged in nine battles, resulting in just one English victory, the Battle of Ashdown. Berkshire. Alfred became king of Wessex that year after his brother Ethelred died following the battle of Merton.
As the youngest of five brothers Alfred was never destined to be king. Born in 849 at Wantage, the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, he seemed destined for an ecclesiastical role, at the age of 5 he had been taken to Rome and confirmed by Pope Leo IV. He was a student of books and credited with initiating the production of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
The Danes appear to have lost interest in Wessex and after overwintering at London 871-72 headed for York the following year. After overwintering at Torksey 872-73 they then moved to Repton in Derbyshire on the river Trent. Overwinter 873-74 they dug in and fortified this settlement with the church of St Wystan, desecrating the Royal Mercian mausoleum, centred in the ditch and rampart. It would appear the Vikings had a rough time during their stay at Repton; excavations on the site have revealed several single burials and a mass burial containing the remains of at least 264 people. With no evidence of weapon trauma they probably died of disease.
In 874 they attacked and destroyed the Mercian Royal palace at Tamworth, said to have then lain in ruins until restored by Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, forty years later. Burgred, the king of Mercia, fled to Rome, driven out of the kingdom by the Vikings who installed Ceolwulf, described by the Chronicle as “a foolish king's thegn”, a puppet king who swore oaths to them. Presumably Ceolwulf's dominion was reduced to western Mercia, as the eastern half was now ruled solely by the Danes.
In less than 10 years of the arrival of the Great Army in England three of the four Anglo Saxon kingdoms had now fallen; Edmund of East Anglia had been murdered, Northumbria conquered, and Mercia split in two; English Mercia being reduced to Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire. The Vikings now set their sights back on Wessex again. But the heathens made a grave tactical error; the army, reduced in numbers from disease during their winter camp at Repton, now split in two, half followed Halfdan on to York, the other half, under Guthrum, heading south for Wessex, after stopping at Cambridge in late 874.
Halfdan returned to Northumbria and fought the Picts and the Strathclyde Britons, his army is not mentioned after 876. Guthrum's much reduced Great Army began the onslaught on Wessex in 875. In January 878 they nearly captured King Alfred in his winter quarters at Chippenham “in midwinter after Twelfth Night”. The King of Wessex was forced to flee to the Somerset marshes, spending the winter at Athelney, where he is famously said to have burnt the cakes.
In May 878 Alfred mustered the men of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire then attacked the Danes at Edington in Wiltshire. We are not told what happened to the men of Dorset and are forced to question if they participated in the Wessex revival? However, the battle was a resounding victory for the English which led to the baptism of Guthrum, Alfred being his Godfather, and a Treaty agreed in which the Danes were required to leave Wessex and return to East Anglia, where they were able to remain in control of much of the Midlands and eastern England, the boundary defined north of the Thames and east of Watling Street, an area that would become known as the Danelaw.
English Mercia was effectively now part of Wessex, it is clear that the two kingdoms were working together against the Vikings. Ceolwulf's fate is uncertain, yet by 881 Æthelred was ruling west Mercia when he led an unsuccessful raid into north Wales. He may have been installed by King Alfred of Wessex; they certainly enjoyed a close relationship with the betrothal of Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd, and in 886 when Alfred re-took London, a Mercian town from the 7th century, it was handed back to Æthelred. By now Alfred was deemed the king of the Anglo Saxons.
|England 878 AD (Source: Wikimedia Commons)|
Æthelred led an alliance of Mercians, West Saxons and Welsh to victory over a Viking army at the Battle of Buttington, Powys, in 893. In the following years Æthelred fought alongside Alfred's son, Edward the Elder, the future king of Wessex. In 910 a combined force of Mercians and West Saxons inflicted a major defeat on a Viking raiding army that had come up the Severn at the Batle of Tettenhall. It seems likely that Æthelred was severely wounded in this battle, he died the following year and Æthelflæd become the sole ruler of Mercia.
Fortress, Bridge and Fyrd
Alfred knew the Vikings were sure to return, yet during the period of relative peace that Alfred and Guthrum's treaty brought he began a policy of building fortified towns, or burhs, throughout Wessex, such that no place was more than 20 miles from another; some burhs were built at old Roman or Iron Age fortifications, some were restorations of existing towns protected within a perimeter ditch and earth rampart, topped with wooden palisade. The network of burhs was to essentially provide safe refuges for the local people of the district, complete with food and supplies. A charter makes it explicitly clear that the burh at Worcester was to “shelter all the people”.
There was no standard size for Alfred's burhs, some were fortified towns, centres of commerce and local government, complete with mint. The larger burhs were constructed in the Wessex heartland and along the river Thames, where a Viking longship attempting to sail upstream would face five burhs in succession.
Some would develop into municipal centres in modern times, such as Chester, Stafford, Hertford and Warwick. The word 'burh' evolved into 'burgh', 'bury' then 'Borough' which can be found in many English place names today, as in council administrative districts.
Other burhs were small fortifications at river crossings or on the coast, to block access upstream to Viking longships. Some of these never developed into towns and cannot be located today. With a series of lookouts and beacons the burhs controlled movement within the borders of Alfred's territory and nullify the possibility of the Viking key strategic weapons; mobility and the surprise attack.
To man these fortifications Alfred introduced military obligations which extended burh work to include fyrd service. A record of Alfred's defensive system can be found in the early 10th century document known as 'The Burghal Hidage', which lists 33 fortifications in Wessex and southern Mercia.
The size of each burh is recorded by a land measure known as a 'hide'; the length of the ramparts determining the number of local men required to defend it. Early records indicate that each hide would be required to supply one man for each four feet of burh perimeter. Later Anglo Saxon fyrds would be required to provide one man for every five hides. Alfred also made provision for permanent manning of the defences with half the fyrd on active service and half at home. He also founded a fleet of warships to tackle the Vikings at sea before they could get in land.
The defensive system was continued by Alfred's children Edward and Æthelflæd in the reconquest of Mercia where 22 burhs were built, over half of these the Mercian Register credits the construction, or restoration, to Æthelflæd. Burhs had previously been established in the heartland of the west Mercian kingdom at Gloucester, Worcester, Hereford, Winchcombe and Tamworth in the late 9th century by Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.
Alfred certainly had a vision for the defence of his kingdom, and the network of Wessex burhs is seen as considerable innovation on his part, but where he did get his inspiration?
In the 9th century Pope Leo IV ordered the construction of a fortified city to provide protection to the Papal City. The Leonine Wall was constructed from 848 to 852 in response to the sacking of Old St. Peter's Basilica in 846 by Saracens – the boy Alfred visited Rome shortly after its completion.
The Vikings attacked Paris for the first time in 845, and returned three times in the 860's, in response the Frankish king Charles the Bald declared a series of military reforms, The Edict of Pistres included the fortification of bridges built at all towns on rivers to prevent the Viking longships from penetrating the interior, such as the Loire and the Senne. These fortified bridges fulfilled their intended purpose during the Viking Siege of Paris of 885–886 with the low-lying bridges blocking the passage of the longships.
But the first record of burh work in Anglo Saxon England is made in a Mercian charter c.749. In this case the earliest Mercian burhs have been seen as fortified bridges, thereby blocking land and river movements. Prior to the re-development of the burh during Alfred's reign, in early records the word 'burh' could be used for an Iron Age hillfort or a monastic site, often distinguished by a form of curvilinear bank. Yet from the 8th century in Mercia a 'burh' had come to describe a fortified settlement, often sited on or near rivers or the coast. This network of burhs would also have provided centres for commerce, protected within the defensive walls of the burh.
A network of burhs was almost certainly constructed across greater Mercia in the 8th century which may have been instrumental in the emergence of the kingdom as the most dominant in Anglo Saxon England, the years of the so-called 'Mercian Supremacy'. Here military obligations were supplied by the great estates in exchange for land tenure and consisted of service in the fyrd, bridge work and burh work; the 'Three Necessities' which emerged under the Mercian kings Æthelbald (r. 716 to 757) and reinforced by Offa (r. 757 to 796) in response to Viking coastal raids.
Nicholas Brooks, The development of military obligations in eighth- and ninth-century England, in England Before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources Presented to Dorothy Whitelock, ed. Kathleen Hughes and Peter Clemoes, Cambridge University Press, 1971, pp.69-84.
Richard P Abels, Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England, University of California Press, 1992.
Jeremy Haslam, Early Medieval Towns in Britain, Shire, 2010.
Jeremy Haslam, Market and fortress in England in the reign of Offa, in World archaeology vol. 18, 1987, pp. 76-93.
Ryan Lavelle, Alfred's Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age, Boydell Press, 2010.
Ryan Lavelle, Fortifications in Wessex c. 800-1066: The Defences of Alfred the Great Against the Vikings, Osprey, 2003.
Chris Peers, Offa and the Mercian Wars, Pen & Sword, 2012
Gareth Williams, Military obligations and Mercian supremacy in the 8th century, in Æthelbald and Offa: Two Eighth-Century Kings of Mercia, ed. David Hill and Margaret Worthington, British Archaeological Reports, 2005, pp. 103-109.
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