Conquered and conquerors

In the Middle Ages, English society was confronted with a number of major invasions that resulted in conquest.

Handling the Vikings

King Alfred: confrontation, conversion and coexistence

Portrait of Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great

Alfred had a strong approach that was successful in coping with the Viking invasions.

  • Confrontation: Alfred was king of one kingdom; Wessex. Faced with the invasions of the Vikings in the 9th century, he set out to unite some of the kingdoms together to fight back against the invaders. In 878 Alfred raised a large army to launch a major counter attack against Guthrum’s Danish army. The two armies met at Edington and Alfred’s forces won a decisive victory. The Danes surrendered soon afterwards.
  • Conversion: One of the terms of the surrender was that Guthrum would convert to Christianity. Three weeks later the Danish king and 29 of his chief men were baptised at Alfred's court and Guthrum accepted Alfred as his godfather.
  • Coexistence: Alfred and Guthrum’s treaty divided England between them. Guthrum and the Danes were allowed to settle in East Anglia and parts of north east England, which became known as the Danelaw.

King Ethelred: money, marriage and massacre

Alfred’s great-great-grandson, Ethelred, faced renewed Viking invasions in the late 10th century and he struggled to cope.

  • Money: Ethelred began by paying the Danes their 'protection money', called Danegeld, which he hoped would keep them away. However, it seemed to just encourage them to continually ask for more.
  • Marriage: One of the problems was that the Normans helped the Danes out when they came on raids to England by sheltering and refitting their longboats. Ethelred arranged a marriage with the Duke of Normandy’s sister, Emma, in 1002 to try to persuade the Normans to support the English against the Danes.
  • Massacre: In November 1002, Ethelred decided to go on the offensive with the Danes and ordered the massacre of any Danes living in England. This was on St. Brices’ Day.

King Cnut: revenge, re-marriage and restoration

Cnut was the son of Sweyn Forkbeard, the Danish viking who returned to England after the St.Brice’s Day Massacre looking for revenge.

  • Revenge: Sweyn waged all-out war against Ethelred from 1003 and by 1014 he had conquered England. By 1016 Cnut had fully taken control of the kingdom after his father died.
  • Re-marriage: Cnut married Ethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, in 1017 to show his intention of stabilising the government of his newly conquered kingdom.
  • Restoration: Cnut ordered the Viking warriors home by 1020 and set about keeping peace in England. This included making generous grants to churches, like Winchester.
curriculum-key-fact
The viking threat prompted the Anglo-Saxons to unite as an English kingdom in the 9th century. However, by the 11th century, it was a Danish king who firmly united the kingdom of England, with the help of his Norman wife.

The Normans taking control

Illustration depicting the Battle of Stamford Bridge
The Battle of Stamford Bridge

When the Normans conquered England in 1066, the viking threat more or less came to an end. The viking, Harald Hardrada, had been defeated by King Harold II, the Anglo-Saxon leader at Stamford Bridge, a few days before Harold was himself defeated at Hastings by William of Normandy.

There had been Norman servants and advisors migrating to England decades before 1066; first with Emma in 1002, and then in the 1040s when her son Edward, known as ‘the Confessor’, came over from exile in Normandy to be King of England. However, it was only in 1066 that hundreds of Norman knights and barons came over with Duke William, and they took over the vast majority of land ownership across England. The laws of England started to reflect Anglo-Norman practices, and many words from the Norman French language began to be heard, like beef, justice, castle and parliament.

For a long time French was the dominant language of government in England until King Edward III introduced a law in 1362 that said all law courts should conduct their business in English. The following year, Simon Langham, the King’s Chancellor, gave the first a speech in English to parliament.