THE END OF THE KINGDOM of EAST ANGLIA

The kingdom of East Anglia came to an end in the year 917 when it was conquered by Edward the Elder, the son of Alfred the Great. This was the culmination of a process of conquest that had been going on for over thirty years, since the time of Alfred. This was another step in the chain of events which led to the kings of Wessex becoming the kings of England. Alfred was probably the first king to use the title Rex Anglorum, or King of the English people.

Bloods Dale in Drayton in the foreground is the traditional site of a battle with the attacking Danes. St Edmund’s church, Costessey is in the middle distance. Was this where Edmund died?

Bloods Dale in Drayton in the foreground is the traditional site of a battle with the attacking Danes. St Edmund’s church, Costessey is in the middle distance. Was this where Edmund died?

A hundred years before, at the beginning of the 9th century, it had been Mercia, not Wessex, that dominated the kingdom of East Anglia. In the next half century East Anglia regained a large measure of independence as the influence of Mercia over the rest of England waned. By this time the seven kingdoms of England had been reduced to four; all the land between the river Humber and Scotland was known as Northumbria; Mercia, which included Lincolnshire and the midlands; Wessex in the south west, and East Anglia which comprised Norfolk and Suffolk and part of Cambridgeshire.

This independence enjoyed by East Anglia was brought to an abrupt end by the political upheavals which followed the arrival of the Viking army in 865. The Vikings first arrived in Kent as a raiding army and in Norfolk thet demanded horses. In Northumbria they carried out their first full scale onslaught on an English kingdom, establishing themselves as rulers in the city of York. Next they turned to Mercia but their campaign along the river Trent proved inconclusive.

Next they turned their attention to East Anglia, where they killed the king, Edmund. The dead king was almost immediately recognised as a saint. This however was not the end of the kingdom of East Anglia. There were Danish kings of Norfolk, Suffolk and indeed further afield until 917. The death of Edmund did not signal even the end of the Anglo-Saxon kings of East Anglia. We have no written record of the next two kings of East Anglia, but there are a number of coins which tell us that king Aethelred and king Oswald followed king Edmund in the nine years between his death in 869 and the arrival of the Danish king Guthrum to settle the land in 878.

The number of coins found is very small, and those from East Anglia (all of them except a couple) seem to be concentrated in south Norfolk. From the evidence we can make a number of tentative conclusions. The moneyers’ names include one who was working for Edmund, and the style of the coinage is at first very similar to the designs that appeared on the coins king Edmund minted. It appears that Oswald followed Aethelred, and his coins show more differences.

We know rather more about the Danes who ruled East Anglia for nearly forty years. Their leader, Guthrum, was defeated in Wessex by king  Alfred who desperately wanted an end to the ten years of conflict with the Danes. He therefore decided to give Danes East Anglia, providing they were baptised as Christians. This was achieved, at least among their leaders, and Guthrum became known as king Athelstan. Alfred was however giving away a land over which he had no rights of ownership. A similar thing happened to Mercia, a part being ceded to the Danes. Following the death of the Mercian king Coelwulf in about 883 the part of that kingdom not occupied by the Danes became absorbed into Wessex.

In spite of a peace treaty between Wessex and the Danes (of which a copy still exists) the Anglo-Saxons and Danes repeatedly waged war. There were reversals of fortune but gradually the part of the country under Danish control shrank.  First Alfred took Essex, then his son took Norfolk and Suffolk, Lincolnshire and finally by the middle of the 10th century, the English controlledYorkshire. These actions are often referred to as the reconquest of the Danelaw, but this term is misleading. It only makes sense if one sees things in a purely racial way, Anglo-Saxons against Danes. In any other sense it was conquest pure and simple, for the kings of Wessex had never had control over these northerly counties until the 10th century.

The year 917 saw the end of the kingdom of East Anglia but even the end of the independent kingdom of Yorkshire was not the end of the Viking threat. The kings of Wessex, and later the kings of the English, held sway over the land  but by 1017 the whole country was conquered by the Danish king Cnut. The triumph of the Normans in 1066 might appear to be a French victory, but in fact Norman is the shorter version of Norseman. Back in the days when Guthrum and his successors were establishing Norse rule over East Anglia his fellow Dane Rollo was setting up the Duchy of Normandy. (There is even a hint in an old legend that Rollo began his career in East Anglia; maybe even in Flegg at Rollesby!) Within two hundred years they had finished the Anglo-Saxon kings for good. In a very real sense it was the Vikings who won in 1066, and have never been defeated since.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA

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