Once you pay the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane. So discovered the rulers of the kings of the Anglo-Saxon era, during which England became subject to the threat of Viking invasions. It wasn’t, of course, the England we know today, but it wasn’t exactly not the England we know today either. The fact of the matter, according to the animated Knowledgia video above, is that England didn’t take its full form until 927 A.D.. In ten minutes, it goes on to encapsulate what happened in the foregoing century and a half to make England as we know it a viable geographical and political entity — a process that wasn’t without its complications.
“As the Roman Empire began to fade from the British isles,” explains the video’s narrator, “the area of modern-day England started to see a wave of migration from Anglo-Saxon Germanic tribes.” Then came attacks from the other direction, mounted by the Picts and Scots, whom the Germanic peoples eventually expelled — before taking power from the native Britons themselves. After a few centuries of division into various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, along came the Vikings. By the year 875, only the kingdom of Wessex hadn’t been overtaken by the Danes. Its king, Alfred, started the custom of paying them off before engaging and finally defeating them in the Battle of Edington.
The following generations of rulers of Wessex and the retaken kingdom of Mercia pushed north, taking back territory from the Danes a piece at at time. It was Æthelstan, who ruled from 925 to 939, who finally made it all the way up through Northumbria. “This is generally the time that most historians view the Kingdom of England as having been created,” but Æthelstan’s domain “was still not quite what we know as England today.” The king’s 937 invasion of Scotland, culminating in his victory in the Battle of Brunanburh, “may have truly solidified the unity of England, and stirred up a new sense of nationalism and pride amongst the English people.”
Not that the troubles ended there. After Æthelstan’s death, the Vikings returned to do a bit of reconquering, subsequently un-reconquered by the English under Edmund. Later came Eric Bloodaxe of Norway, who made inroads into England as fearsomely as his name would suggest, only to lose his conquered territories to the locals. The bloody conflicts involved in all this didn’t come to a pause until the reign of the aptly named Edgar the Peaceful, which began in late 959. Under Edgar “the true foundations of the English kingdoms could finally be established,” and he passed many reforms — but made sure to uphold the Danish law where it had been established. If recent history had offered any lesson, it was that one should never upset the Danes.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.