In this comprehensive prequel to his acclaimed tome on the Norman Conquest – as reviewed by The Viking Herald in January 2023 – Marc Morris tackles several seminal periods of English history in one fell swoop.
This amounts to 666 years in all, the chronological equivalent of outlining the development of England from the mid-1300s to the present day. It's a huge and complex task that Morris handles with ease and good humor in The Anglo-Saxons – A History of the Beginnings of England 400-1066 (available to buy on Amazon, here).
The Hoxne hoard
Moreover, for the first two centuries, he has next to no written records to rely on – Morris must feel his way by means of archaeological finds, weaponry, ornamentation, and, best of all, currency.
His story starts with just such a discovery, an astonishing trove of nearly 15,000 coins unearthed in 1992 by a metal-detectorist friend of a Suffolk farmer determined to locate a misplaced tool.
Now on display in the British Museum, they represent the largest collection of gold and silver coinage from the fourth and fifth centuries found anywhere in the former Roman Empire. Adds Morris, in his gentle opening to the first of ten chapters: "They also found Mr. Whatling's hammer."
Each section deals with a specific place in time and, quite often, its fascinating signature personality. This initial description of the Hoxne hoard sets the tone for a light yet erudite journey through the monasteries, battlefields, and burgeoning cities of pre-Norman England.
The celebrated treasure, also shown in the first of 24 color images complementing 32 illustrations and a family tree of Anglo-Saxon royalty, is the first of many clues Morris uncovers. Always keen to ascertain the actual silver content of unearthed currency as bellwethers of the contemporary economic climate, the author muses on why 14,865 Roman coins were buried in the first place.
Quoting a fellow historian on matters of hidden silver, "a reliable barometer of unrest," Morris suggests that the imminent threat of a Saxon raid forced the depositor to gamble with GBP 3.8 million in today's money.
Morris has to tread equally precariously between keeping the layman stimulated through dark decades of AEthelreds and AElfflaeds – "I hope my audience will be entertained," as he signs off in his introduction – while not alienating the initiated.
He references the Glastonbury music festival in his chapter on St Dunstan, restorer of England monasteries in the 900s, and begins a reverential if myth-busting chapter on King Alfred by alerting the reader to a specific landmark related to the heroic monarch: "It is a pleasing fact that the oldest memorial to Alfred the Great in Wessex – and very nearly the oldest in the world – is a pub."
Never afraid to use modern jargon, Morris namechecks "broken Britain" in the same breath as plucking out the extraordinary fact that only 30 words in Old English carried over from the original Celtic Brittonic, so deep was the influence of the Saxons.
Or rather, Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, the settlers from Jutland mainly populating Kent, predating the Vikings by some three centuries.
Morris selects enough detail to illustrate the reasons for the Vikings' swift gains without overloading us with superfluous background on Scandinavian history. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Enter the Vikings
The devastating impact of the Viking assault of Lindisfarne in 793 CE, the dramatic opening to chapter 5, "The Storm from the North," is prefaced by evil omens, flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons.
Enter the Norsemen stage left, not so much as making their appearance as hacking down the curtains and breaking up the scenery. Having daintily ushered the reader through the pious world of St Wilfrid, guiding them down the steps beneath Hexham Abbey, the crypt little changed since Britain's then most powerful bishop would have sat in his church and scribed in the 680s, Morris prepares the scene for the wanton destruction of Holy Island a century later. It's all here, the blood-spattered altar, the trampled saints' tombs.
These pagans made other raids, but none so detailed or with such targeted venom. This was not only a smash-and-grab raid for shiny booty and slaves but an attack on Christianity itself. The Scandinavians had been trading with Britain for generations – they knew of its monasteries filled with holy trinkets and its defenseless communities, relatively few now living within sturdy Roman walls dating back half a millennium.
The shockwaves caused Londoners 600 kilometers away, all 7,000 of them, to retreat within fortifications they had long outgrown; Saxon England was relatively prosperous compared to the chaotic fall of the empire around the year 400.
The writer selects enough detail to illustrate the reasons for the Vikings' swift gains – citing the 30 oar holes in the Oseberg ship by way of example, then calculating an approximate number of warriors involved in any given attack – without overloading us with superfluous background on Scandinavian history.
Morris only has 650 pages at his disposal to describe the 666 years in question, around one for every page – a granular overview of Norse society would have simply not been practical.
What is relevant to the story is presented concisely yet effectively, no easy task considering, as Morris admits, the scant records concerning military strategy. Partly for this reason, the writer widens the scope of the Viking chapter to cover Britain and Francia, thus allowing him to show how, across the Channel, Charles the Bald was able to counter the Norse terror by means of the tactical use of riverbanks and bridges.
While the Vikings shuttled between Britain and the Continent, depending on how docile and rich they estimated their populations to be, military leaders learned from previous fatal mistakes.
The devastating impact of the Viking assault of Lindisfarne in 793 CE is prefaced by evil omens in the book. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Pubs, cakes, and Christianity
The most learnéd of them was Alfred, of course, which is where the writer really hits his stride. Wary not to lionize yet reverent of the ruler's considerable achievements, Morris uses the aforementioned King's Alfred Head pub to illustrate the cult that bloomed around the monarch a millennium after the fact, in the 1800s.
The "Great" epithet only came centuries later. Here, Alfred is flawed, both physically – his hemorrhoid problem affects all areas, not least his responsibilities as a husband – and intellectually, reading a skill that came to him relatively late in life.
We see how Alfred cottons on and catches up, adopting similar battlefield tactics to those deployed in Francia and having key Latin and Greek texts translated into English. Just as there was a concept of Germany and Italy before 1871, so England was a concept in waiting, and its realization is the foundation of this story.
Although only king of Wessex and Mercia west of Watling Street, Alfred broke new ground in two areas yet explored over decades of treacherous dealings with the Vikings: defense and diplomacy.
While fortifying scores of towns, the king spent 12 fruitful days with his Norse opponent Guthrum, during which time they apportioned sections of Mercia and, crucially, agreed upon the Dane's Christian baptism. Guthrum remained true to his new faith, and no longer did Vikings attack English communities on feast days for greater effect. For a while, at least.
Although more lived under the Danelaw north and east of Watling Street, the "Forging of Englishness," as Morris assigns part of this chapter heading, was fashioned by a man most famous for burning the cakes.
The other pivotal point in the story comes one Saturday in 1066 CE, "around teatime," as Morris puts it, when the sun sets on Anglo-Saxon England.
Dipping into the material that made his The Norman Conquest - The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England such a lively read, the writer proposes that the fateful Harold Godwinson had previously approached Duke William of Normandy, the first event depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, in order to bargain for the release of two hostages, his sibling Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon. He comes away half empty-handed.
By this stage, the scene is already awash with regal intrigue, the bloody fallout of Cnut's rule and the Danish Conquest of 1016 CE, the unwise return of AEthelred the Unready, and the untimely deaths of monarchs in waiting. As the games of political chess play out across the Channel, William waits for his moment.
When it comes, three weeks after the onerous if victorious Battle of Stamford Bridge, the hapless Harold has already disbanded his coastal forces, unable to remain in place for so long.
The end is swift and short on sentiment. Godwinson is sliced into tiny, unrecognizable pieces, consigning Anglo-Saxon England to history.
The Anglo-Saxons – A History of the Beginnings of England 400-1066 is available to buy on Amazon, here.
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.