It seems a simple enough question, doesn’t it? How old is England? And yet it’s an astonishingly difficult question to answer.
England is an odd country when it comes to history. Unlike countries like America (1789), Germany (1871), and even Scotland (843), we have no exact date from which to count the age of our nation. Different historians will offer different dates, further confusing the issue. Some will offer 878, while others will suggest 927. Still others will put forward a date of 937, and the mad ones will suggest 1066 – which I will say right now is complete rubbish; one of the sides fighting at Hastings is THE ENGLISH.
So why do historians suggest these dates, and what is the right answer? Is there a right answer?
BEFORE THE VIKINGS, 410-866
One thing that is certain is that the presence in Britain of the English people and the English language far predates the existence of England. In 410, the Roman Empire withdrew from the province of Britannia, roughly equivalent to modern England and Wales, and in their place the Britons – who lived a Celtic-Roman hybrid existence – were left to fend for themselves. The people they had to fend for themselves against came from what we would know as northern Germany and Denmark, tribes with names like the Saxons, the Jutes and the Angles. These tribes were almost indistinguishable from one another in terms of culture and language, and all of them spoke what we know today as “Old English”. This language bears very little resemblance to modern English, but is nonetheless the basis of the language spoken by billions of people all over the world as a first or second language.
These tribes, though, instead of forming one country when they arrived in Britain, formed many small kingdoms that fought each other just as often as they fought the Britons. By 800, the number of kingdoms had been reduced to seven: Northumbria ruled all of the north, from southern Scotland to the river Humber; Mercia dominated the midlands; East Anglia was precisely where modern East Anglia is; Wessex sprawled across the south; and Kent, Essex and Sussex were small kingdoms clinging onto existence as the larger kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex and East Anglia forever threatened their existence
And then came the Vikings.
THE FURY OF THE NORTHMEN, 866-878
The first recorded Viking raid against English-speakers occurred in 793, when a longship’s crew burned down the monastery at Lindisfarne, Northumbria, looted the monastery’s treasure and took the monks as captives. Raids were then sporadic until, according to legend, the Danish king Ragnar Lodbrok (Lodbrok, by the way, means “Hairy Trousers”) landed in Northumbria, was taken prisoner by the Northumbrian king Aella, and was executed in a pit of serpents. That story is almost certainly fictitious – we’re not even certain that Ragnar Lodbrok existed – but it is certain that in 865, the same year that this is supposed to have happened, an enormous army of Danes, Frisians and Norsemen arrived in East Anglia. That army, called The Great Heathen Army by Saxon chroniclers, was led by Ivar the Boneless (we don’t know why he was called that, although it might be that he had Brittle Bone Disease) and Ubba, who are said to have been the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok.
The Great Heathen Army spent the winter in East Anglia, being bought off by King Edmund with horses. In 866 the Vikings sailed north, arriving in Northumbria and swiftly conquering the first English kingdom. They established their capital in York, brutally killed King Aella (apparently by Blood Eagle, in which the ribs were ripped away from the spinal cord and arranged to look like wings, and then the lungs laid on the victim’s chest and covered in salt) and installed a puppet ruler on the Northumbrian throne. The next year, the Vikings invaded Mercia, which they rapidly took over. In 870 they invaded East Anglia, killing King Edmund (apparently by filling him with arrows). Essex, Sussex and Kent also fell, leaving only Wessex to withstand the Viking invasion.
Wessex did withstand. Close though they came several times, the Vikings could never complete the conquest of the final Saxon kingdom, and after the battle of Edington in 878, they would never again get the chance. Wessex survived, in no small part, due to its king, a chronically ill, physically weak and incredibly clever man named Alfred.
ALFRED, EDWARD, AETHELFLAED AND AETHELSTAN, 878-937
The battle of Edington is the first date that several historians take to be the date of the foundation of England. With hindsight, it is plain to see that after this point there is never again any question that Saxon culture and the English language will survive, and it is after Edington that Alfred began in earnest to work toward his ambition of a single, united English-speaking kingdom.
But I disagree. A man’s ambition does not make the fact, and Alfred’s merely wishing for a single country called England does not mean that his greatest victory brings it into being. And although England as we know it today could never have existed without Alfred and his ambition, that does not mean that he is solely, or even primarily, responsible for the creation of England.
Toward the end of his life, Alfred did call himself “king of all the people who speak English”, but this was a manifest lie. There were millions of English-speaking people in Britain when Alfred died in 899 who had never been ruled by him, before the Viking invasions or afterward. Even so, this claim to be monarch of all English speakers was perpetuated by Alfred’s son and heir Edward, and he continued his father’s campaigns against the Viking kingdoms in Britain and claimed more land for Wessex. Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, arguably did more than her brother did in working toward a united England, fighting the Vikings in Mercia and Northumbria, often taking to the battlefield herself and becoming revered as “the Lady of Mercia”. By the time of Edward’s death in 924, only Northumbria remained under Viking rule, the other English kingdoms all having been reconquered – and assimilated into Wessex.
It is not, however, until Edward’s son Aethelstan that any figure in history calls himself “king of England”. This Aethelstan did in 927, after taking Northumbria from the Viking king Guthfrith. Not content with England, however, in 934 Aethelstan invaded Scotland. We know nothing about this campaign. No battles are recorded, and the outcome is never mentioned by sources from either country.
In 937 an alliance of Vikings, Scots and Irish invaded England, seeking to reconquer Northumbria for the Vikings, and Aethelstan met them at Brunanburh. Where Brunanburh is, precisely, nobody is certain, but the battle fought there was colossal by the standards of the time. Thousands and thousands of men would have fought, and although we don’t know how big either army was, we do know that both sides suffered heavy losses. Almost a century, later, we are told, the common people of England referred to Brunanburh as “the great battle”, and a larger battle would not be fought on English soil until Hastings (or, possibly, Stamford Bridge) in 1066.
In the end, the English won the battle, and this victory secured England’s existence forever. Although after Aethelstan’s death Northumbria would briefly become Viking again, by 954 England was, finally, unified for good.
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
- Asser, Life of King Alfred
- Paul Cavill, Vikings: Fear and Faith in Anglo-Saxon England
- Sarah Foot, Aethelstan: The First King of England
- Susan Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study of West Saxon and East Anglian Cults
- Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England