The Danish Invasions of England

Part 2: Back and Forth and Back Again

Alfred wasn't done defending his homeland, however. He set his people about the task of developing a series of defended towns called burhs. He set about organizing a militia system that necessitated half of the army to be on constant alert. He bulked up the navy.

Alfred provided the Anglo-Saxons with the breathing world that they needed. Although the Norse were still in England when Alfred died, the groundwork was there for a continued push for expulsion. And push back the Saxons did, so much so that the aptly named Erik Bloodaxe has gone down in history as the last Norse King of York. Having seized the city in 947, he was forced to leave in 954.

Alfred had passed on the keys to the kingdoms to his son Edward the Elder, who did his part to stabilize the realm for a good quarter-century. One of his sons was Æthelstan, the first "King of all the English." The other sons took turns atop the Wessex throne, their reigns coinciding with the northward drive that ended in the expulsion of Erik from York. One of Æthelstan's grandsons ruled as Edgar the Peaceful, and he got his name for being the first king to rule over all the English people and all the Norse people living in England.

Edgar had a strong hand and a strong army and ruled for a good 16 years. His two sons were not so successful. The older son has come to be called Edward the Martyr because he was murdered was king. The younger son, Aethelred, has been given the epithet "Unready" because he proved to be unable to deal with a Norse resurgence.

Æthelred was on the throne in 980, when Norse raids recommenced. He led a spirited defense of London at one point, but the strife continued. At one point, Aethelred decided to try to win by throwing money at the problem. This was the Danegeld, an amount of money paid by England to the Danes as a means of preventing further attacks. The theory likely was that the Danes would take the money without having to fight for it, and they certainly did; but they also kept increasing the price.

Æthelred finally had enough and declared a day on which all Danes living in England would be killed. This came to be called the St. Brice's Day massacre. The two sides continued to trade acts of violence until a large Danish appeared, in 1013, with King Sweyn Fordbeard at the head of it, assisted by a Norwegian contingent commanded by Olaf Tryggvason. The Danes asserted themselves military once more, and Æthelred fled to Normany, leaving the throne to Sweyn.

Having gotten exactly what he wanted, Sweyn settled in to rule. He died just one year later, however, and Æthelred pounced, reclaiming his throne and his land. Æthelred and his son Edmund ("Ironside," as he is now known) reasserted the English presence for a handful of years.

The Danes weren't done, though, and another large army under an even more impressive king, Cnut, arrived, in 1016. After the Danish victory at the Battle of Assandun, Cnut settled in to rule England (and Denmark). He ruled both countries until his death, in 1035.

Two of Cnut's sons succeeded him as King of England and Denmark. They were Harold Harefoot and Hardacnut. Together, they kept the Danish hold on the English throne until 1042. In that year, a son of Æthelred II named Edward put Wessex back on the map and the throne. Edward ruled a full 24 years but had no children and did not name an heir. That lack of succession led to a series of events that culminated in the Norman Invasion.

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