Alfred came to the throne of Wessex in 871. He was immediately thrown into the continuing war with the Danes; they were fresh from their victory over the King of East Anglia, which had involved the death of Edmund. Previously the Danes had successfully defeated the Northumbrians at York, so they appeared invincible. King Edmund had been killed by the invading Danes eighteen months before Alfred came to the throne, when his brother was killed in battle with the Danes.
There is no written record of any Anglo-Saxon kings who might have succeeded Edmund in East Anglia, and for many centuries it was assumed that none did, but the names of two kings are now known from the discovery of coins that they issued. The names of these two East Anglian rulers were Oswald and Æthelred. For simplicity’s sake I will restrict my comments to King Æthelred, and from his coinage we can state a few basic facts. One coin from his reign bears the name of the moneyer (i.e. coin-issuer) Sigered, who had also acted in the same capacity for Edmund. The design is also identical with the coinage that had been issued by Edmund. The coins issued a few years later by the Danes were very different; from this information we can assert that there was continuity between the reigns of Edmund and Æthelred, and the change to Danish rule came after 880.
We know that these coins circulated outside East Anglia, as one example was found in Kent, which by then was part of Wessex. This means that it is impossible that the Wessex court was unaware of the King Æthelred’s existence; in spite of this, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (that work of Wessex propaganda) gives the clear impression that Edmund was the last English king of East Anglia, although (perhaps significantly) they did not explicitly say so. Were the authors of the Chronicle trying to hide something? And if so what?
Knowledge was something that Alfred prized above almost everything else. He was an avid collector of travellers’ tales, and we have the details of what he heard about the far north of Norway, and of Ireland too. If he was that interested in distant lands, how could he not have known the king of an adjacent realm like East Anglia? Surely the Wessex court was not only very interested in what was happening there, but they would also have been very well informed. If the writers of the Chronicle were unforthcoming about the king, it was not because of a lack of knowledge. Why was the Wessex establishment so keen to give the impression to posterity that East Anglia had already fallen under Danish rule in 869, with the death of Edmund?
Between the departure of the Danish army from East Anglia late in the year 870, and the return of this army as settlers in 880, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has nothing to say about what was happening in East Anglia. However, we can be certain that its future was high up on the list of concerns discussed at Wednore, after Alfred’s victory over the Danish army. Alfred had emerged from his low point in hiding at Athelney with a radical solution to the problem posed by the Danes in Wessex. After his defeat of Guthrum’s army Alfred was able to put his plan into effect. Despite his victory, he knew that the best way to protect Wessex from future Danish attacks was to give them somewhere else; if they were occupied in setting up another kingdom, they would have less time to bother Alfred. Northumbria they had already taken over, and Alfred had plans to annex the kingdom of Mercia; that left the kingdom of East Anglia as the place to give Guthrum, and he was duly dispatched thither in 880.
For an English king to impose a Danish monarch on an Anglo-Saxon nation was certainly a betrayal, but if it protected Wessex then Alfred could live with that. What he could not contemplate was to impose a heathen king on a Christian people. That is why it was so important for him to have Guthrum baptised, and anointed as a Christian king. This was achieved in 878, but then there was a long delay.
In 878 -880, with the decision to establish the Danes in East Anglia, we have now reached a period of inactivity on the part of Guthrum and his army. Between his baptism and his eventual arrival in East Anglia there was a period of about 18 months. This posed a problem of provisioning; as the Danish army could no longer forage for itself as predators on the people of Wessex they would have to be provided with food. That difficulty however paled into insignificance compared to that task of keeping so many fit young warriors idle for so long. Eventually they became too much for the people of Wessex to deal with, and they were moved across the border to Cirencester in Mercia. This was not a wholly satisfactory solution, for the advantage of putting a reasonable distance between them and the kingdom of Wessex was offset by the difficulty of supervising and controlling them. The question that must be asked is ‘why were these hungry and impatient Danes not sent straight to East Anglia’? The answer must lie in East Anglia itself.
It is sometimes stated that in 880 Guthrum returned to East Anglia, but this implies he had been there before. However, it is clear from reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that he had never before been to East Anglia. He had not arrived in England until after the Danes had left the despoiled lands of Norfolk and Suffolk for Wessex. The nearest he had got to East Anglia was in 874, which year he spent in Cambridge. This has never been a part of the province of East Anglia, and in any case he was only in Cambridge to muster his troops for a renewed assault on Wessex; all his attention was directed west, not east.
When Alfred was arranging the future of East Anglia with Guthrum in 878, they were dealing with a kingdom that neither leader had any legitimate claim to. Even if King Æthelred of East Anglia was (against all the evidence) a Danish puppet king, he owed his allegiance to the dynasty of Ragnar Lothbrok, members of which family had led the earlier invasion of East Anglia which had led to the death of King Edmund. Æthelred could not have been the puppet of Guthrum under any circumstances; if he had been a puppet, Æthelred’s strings would have been pulled from York, the city Ragnar’s sons had retired to after 870. Guthrum was not a part of this family, and the fact that he could walk into East Anglia suggests to me that York had no influence over East Anglia after 870.
The other party to the arrangement, Alfred, had no authority over East Anglia either. His own view of himself as protector of all Anglo-Saxons would not have been shared by the people of East Anglia, who he was engaged in delivering to the mercies of a foreign king. We may imagine that once Æthelred got wind of the fate that Alfred and Guthrum had cooked up for him frantic representations were made, not only to the West Saxon court but also to anybody else who would listen. We may also imagine that some important people in Wessex itself must have had some serious misgivings about Alfred’s intentions.
The fact that not a word of all this appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is not surprising. Like the silence of the Chronicle on the existence of King Æthelred, the propagandists of Wessex were keen to leave the impression to posterity that nothing stood between Alfred and the smooth implementation of his plan. The long delay gives the lie to this story. We cannot know how this situation was eventually resolved, but it is cannot have been done in a pleasant manner.
There is some evidence that Alfred himself had some conscience about the fate that he was wishing on his fellow Englishmen in Norfolk and Suffolk. For all Guthrum’s apparent conversion to Christianity and his Anglo-Saxon baptismal name of Athelstan, Guthrum had not really changed, and Alfred was aware of this. His new religion was politically expedient, not the result of a heart-felt change in belief. No bishops were allowed to promulgate the faith in the east throughout the period of Danish rule. Guthrum proved to be as oppressive as everyone had feared. What evidence do we have have for this? The violent and unjust nature of Danish rule can be found in the treaty between Alfred and the Danes known as Guthrum’s Peace. This also demonstrates how Alfred continued to feel responsible for the conditions under which Guthrum’s English subjects lived.
This treaty, which is likely to date from 886, has five articles. Numbers two and three both deal with murder in East Anglia; article two begins “If a man be slain we esteem all equally dear, English and Danish.” This is a strong hint of two things; one is that inter-ethnic violence was rife. If murder were a rare occurrence there would have been no need to refer to it in the treaty. Secondly, if when it did occur, Danish and English perpetrators were treated equally, there would have been no need for such a clause either. We can therefore be sure that native East Anglians found themselves second class citizens in their own land, as a direct result of Alfred’s intervention. Alfred’s concern for these victims of discrimination has been attributed to his view of himself as the king of all Englishmen. Although it is is certainly true that he saw himself in his way, there is more to it than that. His responsibility was more direct and personal, and reveals perhaps that he felt a sense of guilt for his treatment of the East Anglians. Surely I am not alone seeing Alfred’s queasy conscience at work here?
It is doubtful if Guthrum took these treaty obligations any more seriously than the other oaths he had taken and then reneged upon when it suited him. Alfred certainly wished to improve the conditions under which East Anglians lived, but his ability to do anything about them was severely limited. Ultimately he intended to extend his kingdom into East Anglia, a policy objective which was only accomplished some twenty years after his death. For the time being, and for the remainder of his lifetime, all that Alfred could do was to demonstrate his good intentions by such things as the treaty with Guthrum.
As ruled over by Guthrum East Anglia was more extensive than it had been as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom; it reached into most of Essex and Cambridgeshire, and into part of Lincolnshire too. Essex was the first part of this kingdom to be lost, becoming part of Alfred’s Wessex before Guthrum’s death in 890. North Norfolk finally fell to the Anglo-Saxons in 917.
This examination of the last period of East Anglia’s existence as an independent kingdom reveals how intimately involved it was with Alfred the Great, despite his having no direct power over the land. He established its last dynasty of Danish rulers, and then plotted to depose them and establish his own rule. He even tried to influence their laws in treaty negotiations with the Danish king. You might think Alfred’s story is all about Wessex; but East Anglia was an abiding concern throughout his life.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA