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
Madingley Hall is the home of Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education – their Adult Education facility. They run weekend courses on a diverse range of subjects, historical, literary and modern language based, but also the more accessible sciences such as the “Story of the Universe”. You need have no formal qualifications to apply. They also do five week courses during the first months of the year, on one morning a week. To attend these one really needs to live in Cambridge, but the weekend courses can be residential and may be attended by anyone in the country. A major part of their activities however now seems to be largely commercially based, as a hotel, conference centre and wedding venue. Back in 1980 it wasn’t organised in quite the same way. There was no emphasis on the more profitable uses of the property; it is a sign of the times that money-making is seen as so important. Undergraduates too had a generous maintenance grant in 1980 and no fees to pay. They did not need to consider money during their university years – that could wait till later. It was in many ways a happier time.
For the weekend courses you live in the 16th century hall for a couple of nights and enjoy the restaurant and the Capability Brown gardens. I went to Madingley twice over thirty years ago, once to a course on the History of a House, and once to a series of lectures on Baroque and Classical Music. This latter course was held in 1980.
I drove to Cambridge on Friday afternoon – the journey was quite eventful as I got a hole in my silencer! This required me attempting to patch it up with an old tobacco tin, and later with a slightly more permanent kit that I bought in Cambridge. Although only mid April the weather was really hot. On Sunday morning I was up before breakfast was served and walked down to the lake. I was followed by three other course members who were observing the spawning toads. One lady who taught fabric design in Northampton was a former a ballerina with the Ballet Rambert. Also among our party was the under bursar of Clare College and man from East Bergholt in Suffolk who wrote music reviews for the East Anglian Daily Times.
Our lecturer was Alan Stripp. He had been a classics scholar at Cambridge in the early years of the war, but was interviewed by an army officer having only completed a year of his degree course. The interviewer seemed more interested in his ability to do crossword puzzles and to read a musical score than his language ability and Alan thought he was being recruited to a military band! The upshot however was a crash course in written Japanese. Within six months he was sent to the code breaking centre at Bletchley Park, where he was immersed in intelligence to counter the Japanese. He was later sent to India and Afghanistan and learnt Farsi. After demobilisation he returned to Cambridge but not to Latin and Greek. For the last two years of his degree he read Classical Chinese, Japanese and Far Eastern History. He then worked for ten years for the British Council in Portugal and Indonesia. He then went to work for the Cambridge Board of Extra Mural Studies at Madingley. None of this I knew in 1980; to us he was just a very knowledgable musician. The story of his work at Bletchley Park was only revealed many years later, when released from his obligation under the Official Secrets Act, he wrote a number of books on his wartime experiences.
CLICK HERE to see Madingley Hall Hotel.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
In 1972 hauled trains still ran from Norwich through to Cambridge, and not merely to Cambridge but all the way to London Liverpool Street. Expresses from Norwich to London alternated between the Cambridge and Ipswich lines, although the Cambridge route took about half an hour longer. This green painted class 31 diesel is heading a rake of coaches in BR maroon livery. Compartments were already being phased out, but the rolling stock was much more spacious and comfortable than today’s. You could open the windows too, which meant that you did not overheat and suffocate in the summer if the air conditioning broke down (because there wasn’t any).
Even in 1987 when I travelled to Cambridge from Norwich in connection with an article I had been commissioned to write on the facilities in the town I was able to travel directly without changing trains at Ely. This was by dmu by then but it was still a fairly good service. Then for over ten years it was no longer possible to travel to Cambridge without a change of train at Ely. This was rather galling, as we had always known the line through Thetford as the “Cambridge line” although its official title was the “Breckland Line” by then. Now the direct rail link between the university towns of Norwich and Cambridge has been restored. Maybe one day there will again be line between Oxford and Cambridge; they are the two world class universities in the country which used to be connected by rail in the pre-Beeching era – as if!
This line through Cambridge was the first line to be built between Norwich and London. The railway began operating on July 30th 1845 from Norwich Thorpe. The station in Norwich had been opened the previous year to take trains from Yarmouth on the first railway in Norfolk. The line from London via Colchester and Ipswich did not open until 1849 and ran into the Norwich Victoria station. At first there was no connection between the the two stations.
The stations along the Cambridge line are a mixed bunch. Hethersett has been closed for many years, although many more people live in that village than live at Spooner Row, and yet this little halt just south of Wymondham still has a service, if a restricted one. It doesn’t have many trains stop there. For over forty years all these minor stations were unmanned, but now the ticket office has reopened on a restricted hours basis at the larger stations of Wymondham and Attleborough.
Wymondham station has the added attractions of an award-winning flower garden and an historic railway themed restaurant. The line has recently been provided with an up to date signalling system but until then the signal boxes were staffed, and at Attleborough the signalman also operated the crossing gates. Having a human being doing the job is much safer; a person could have said “Watch out there’s a second train coming” and saved two young lives, but no one seems to make this simple point. A similar way of operating the gates at Harling Road continued until December 2012. The gates have now all been replaced by automatic barriers. Harling Road is the last station before Thetford. In the northerly direction Eccles Road come between Harling and Attleborough. Thetford is the most important place on the line until you get to Ely and is staffed from 7 a.m. until mid-afternoon. Brandon is one of two stations on the line as it passes through Suffolk (the other one is Lakenheath) although Brandon Station is actually just across the border in Norfolk.
I remember a plantation of poplars beside the line as it passes through the fens and a sign proudly stated to travellers by train that these were trees were destined for Bryant and May to be made into matches. Unfortunately match production moved from Britain to Scandinavia before the trees were mature and the promised provision of matchwood never materialized. The sign disappeared, although the trees may still be there.
In about 1978 I was travelling back home after a railtour special with the M&GN Society. It was late at night or the early hours of the next day when our train terminated at Thetford. The track was being repaired. We all had to pile out and transfer to buses to finish our journey. It may have been inconvenient but at least in those days they waited to do major works in the dead of night when few people would be inconvenienced, rather than shutting down the line all weekend. There has recently been a change of heart on this issue, but we must wait and see the practical effects of more uninterrupted daytime Sunday train journeys.
FOR MEMORIES OF RAILWAYS