What if the Vikings Never Invaded England
The Viking, or more accurately Danish and Norsemen, invasions of England in the 9th century CE (865) helped lead to what ultimately would become the united country of England. Before 865, England was divided into four or sometimes more countries, populated by Angles and Saxons (or Anglo-Saxons). Wales and Cornwall were also occupied by the remaining Britons, who were the pre-Roman population of the British Isles. These divided lands often fought each other; however, a clear dominant kingdom rarely emerged. In the 860-890s, Alfred of Wessex forged the idea of an England, one that was a united kingdom from Anglo-Saxons. This did not happen in his lifetime but by the reign of his grandson, Æthelstan, it became a reality in 927. In effect, the invasions by the Danes and Norsemen set off a series of events that ultimately led to the unification of England, where after this time England would never be seen as having multiple states or crowns.
Impact of Viking Invasions
By 865, the Danes and Norse had seen the British Isles as a region to settle rather than simply raid. At that point, conditions in Scandinavia may have forced many populations out of the region because it became difficult to farm. This likely encouraged many Danes to take to raiding and then later into settling new areas. The British Isles, fed by the warmer waters from the Gulf stream, was attractive and fertile land. After landing in 865, eventually the Danes had defeated three of the four kingdoms of England, including Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, with only Wessex having survived this onslaught. The conflict with Wessex occupied much of the late 860s and early 870s. Alfred, later known as Alfred the Great, took up the throne of Wessex and confronted the Danes.
Although Alfred faced a devastating defeat and was forced to seek refuge in the swamps of Somerset, he was able to reorganize himself and won the crucial battle of Edington. This helped to re-establish Wessex and new boundaries where areas north of Wessex and to the east became Danelaw, or regions where the Danes ruled. Alfred created a series of fortified towns or forts, known as burhs, that made the conquest difficult for Danes or Norse attackers, as they had not developed effective siege warfare tactics. While the invasions by Danes and Norse likely seemed to be a threat to Anglo-Saxon England, it effectively gave Alfred a chance to foster the idea of a unified English speaking kingdom, which was also Christian. This helped it stand as a contrast to the Dane and Norse regions that were polytheistic. Furthermore, Danelaw lacked very strong central governments, where the rulers often had little real power and local warlords were able to do as they please.
As the Danes and Norsemen remained largely fragmented, Alfred went about unifying his kingdom and building a stronger base of support among Anglo-Saxon populations. First, he appealed to most of them using his religion. This also helped to bring some Britons to his cause, who likely saw Christianity as a way to unite against the invaders. Second, Alfred married his daughter, Æthelflæd, to Mercia, which helped to eventually bring that former Anglo-Saxon kingdom into Wessex's control. In fact, after Æthelflæd's husband, Æthelred, died, she was able to rule Mercia and effectively bring it into the control of Wessex. Mercia was once the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. With Wessex's control of Mercia, it was able to use it as a base to then re-conquer East Anglia in the reign of Edward, Alfred's son, and then Northumbria, during the reign of Æthelstan.
Why England Became United
What is clear is that all of the kingdoms that became England either willingly joined Wessex or eventually joined after a relatively brief power struggle. In effect, the invasions and occupation by the Danes and Norse led to many Anglo-Saxons to see Wessex as the unifying force for the country. While Alfred did call himself "King of the English speaking people," he was able to transplant this idea to his son and grandson, where the idea of England as a unified state soon became state policy in the reconquest.