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 (Figure 1). 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, where a more stable economy could be established for them. The British Isles, fed by the warmer waters from the Gulf stream, were 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, in part by acting as a rallying cry against the polytheistic Danes, 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. This bought time for Wessex to become even more powerful and develop better army strength to fight the remaining Danes and Norse in England. While the invasions by Danes and Norse likely seemed to be a threat to Anglo-Saxon England, it also 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 even though they often fought the Angles and Saxons. 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. In effect, the control of Mercia was critical to the eventual unification of all of England, as it brought the two more populated regions under united control.
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 (Figure 2). Many, particularly in Mercia, did not want Wessex to rule over all England; however, the continued threat of Danish and Norse invasions, including those that occurred later, did help rally people to Wessex (Figure 2). Thus, it was the weakness of the defeated kingdoms and Wessex proving that it could stand against Norse and Danish invasions that helped to ultimately unify the land in what became known as the land of the Angles (i.e., England). Alfred may have harbored interests in unifying the state even without the invasions of the Danes and Norse; however, this would have been very difficult, as it would have required fighting the three other kingdoms. The Danes and Norse had weakened potential enemies for Alfred, while also making themselves as a rallying cry for Anglo-Saxons to unite under the banner of Wessex. The viking invasions of England, in effect, became a perfect opportunity for a smart ruler such as Alfred to realize it created a great opportunity to unite the divided states.
Interestingly, while Alfred and his successors became successful in preventing successful Danish and Norse invasions of England, this also created the seeds for the eventual Norman conquest of England. Many of the Norse, rather than settling in England, settled in what became Normandy, as this land seemed easier to settle than England that had many burhs and increasingly became more united. Over time, they formed the kingdom and Duchy of Normandy by the 10th century. As Normandy became more powerful in Europe, it was able to invade England and conquer it in what became known as the Norman invasion in 1066.
If the Viking invasions did not happen, then it would have been difficult to unify England. One only needs to look at Germany or Italy in the Medieval and early modern period to see that many states that exist today in Europe took a long time to develop as unified nation states. Kingdoms in early Medieval Europe, such as Charlemagne, were able to create larger monarchies or states; however, they soon became fragmented as children of the monarch or rivals would compete for power. On the other hand, areas most threatened by invasions became more likely to unite, as a greater outside threat helped to catalyze similar cultures to merge together to form a more powerful kingdom. For instance, Scotland and Wales also experienced similar greater unity after viking invasions of their territory.
We could, therefore, speculate that a lack of clear outside threat could have meant a longer continuity in the power struggles that affected England before the 8th century, specifically back and forth fighting between Anglo-Saxons and sometime Britons. By being unified relatively early, England became a more attractive crown, which is one reason why the Normans were interested in its conquest in the 11th century, as a larger political entity and having now greater wealth made it more of interest for the Normans who were more boxed into their territory in France by the French.
The so-called Viking or Danish and Norse invasions of England had a profound effect in the making of what became known as England. The idea of England may have been more ancient than Alfred, that is a united kingdom of English speaking people; however, its forging was unlikely prior to the 9th century. During the Anglo-Saxon period after the Roman Empire's rule of England, much of the land was politically fragmented and Angles, Saxons, and Britons were often in competition. Kingdoms such as Mercia were able to at times become relatively more powerful, but even then it was difficult to fully conquer the area we know as England. It took outsiders, who were far more superior in military capability, initially, that created great weakness in three of the four major English kingdoms. This provided an opportunity for Alfred the Great and his successors to not only eventually reconquer the kingdoms but the invasions served as a way to unify the English speaking population. In effect, if the invasions did not occur, it would be hard to imagine that England could have formed relatively easily in the 10th century. Possibly, it would have taken longer and examples of Italy and Germany in the 19th centuries show that this process could have even taken centuries.
- For more on the background on the conflict between the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, see: Baillie, Benjamin James. 2015. The Great Heathen Army: Ivar "the Boneless" and the Viking invasion of Britain. Benjamin James Baillie.
- For more on why Alfred the Great was able to triumph over the Vikings, see: Dougherty, M.J. (2014) Vikings: a dark history of the Norse people. New Holland Publishers.
- For more on the process of unification for England, see: Stafford, P. (1989) Unification and conquest: a political and social history of England in the tenth and eleventh centuries. London ; New York : New York, NY, E. Arnold ; Distributed in the USA by Routledge, Chapman, and Hall.