Ryan Lavelle, a professor of early medieval history at the University of Winchester and author of the book Alfred's Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age, recently provided some insight in a BBC History Extra article on how England could have been affected if King Alfred of Wessex lost the 878 AD battle of Edington against the Vikings.
In the year 871 CE, after King Alfred had taken the throne from his brother Æthelred as the ruler of Wessex, his kingdom was plagued by the Danish Vikings.
To secure peace, he opted to pay the Danish invaders to leave his kingdom. However, this period of calm was only short-lived, as the Vikings soon subjected them to further incursions.
Yet, this period was vital as it allowed him to strengthen his capabilities. Thus, when the battle of Edington came about in the year 878 CE, King Alfred was in a position to push the Vikings back into the neighboring kingdom of Mercia.
From then, he regained the Chippenham stronghold, and to deal with whatever future attacks that the Vikings might launch, he also constructed several fortresses.
Why Alfred's actions were important
On King Alfred's success, Lavelle notes that if another ruler had been in his shoes, we do not know whether they would have performed better than he did.
He notes that King Alfred was strategic enough to know that the peace of 871 CE had to be bought. "Perhaps he had skills as a negotiator," Lavelle speculates on Alfred's decision.
The peace of 871 CE was important because Alfred had time to regroup and likely got more warriors. This increase in power was crucial for the subsequent victory against the Vikings at Edington.
Indeed, if it wasn't for Alfred's actions, it is not hard to believe that the Danes would have succeeded in their expansion.
An alternative scenario
Had the Danes succeeded in their endeavors, it begs the question of whether the West Saxons or other Anglo Saxons would have opposed them.
On that, Lavelle says that a national uprising likely would not have happened. He explains that "I don't think we can expect groups of people who weren't bound in any political fashion to have managed it in the circumstances of Alfred having been hammered at the battle of Edington."
However, it was also unlikely that the regions controlled by the Danish could form a federation or state, a so-called "Daneland." The fact remains that the "Great Army" of the Vikings was not one of complete unity.
The peace of 871 CE was important - it provided King Alfred with ample time to regroup - and prepare for future clashes. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Within it were both different leaders and interests, so the divisions of the English kingdoms could have stayed in place, though with a "patchwork of territories."
Lavelle further says that "different Viking leaders might have disposed of the puppet leaders they'd installed, but I don't think they would have done it with the greater aim of creating some kind of Daneland."
Nevertheless, the West Saxons and Mercians at the time likely thought that this could happen.
Effects on religion
When it comes to culture, Lavelle believes that the Vikings' religion would have left a mark on the West Saxon people.
With the clash between the Vikings' pagan religion and the West Saxons' Christian beliefs, one has to wonder whether the Vikings could have outlawed Christianity.
Lavelle, however, does not think that religion would have been a great cause of conflict. He explains that "Vikings very quickly adopted Christianity in the places in which they settled. It suited Danish rulers to cooperate with existing networks of Christian authority".
Since the Vikings worshiped several gods, they could also have found room for Christ in their beliefs. In addition, the Vikings' reliance on their trade ties would be an important reason why they would still have to show some tolerance for Christianity.
Effects on culture
On the topic of culture, it is not hard to imagine that the Vikings also would have left their mark in the form of great Viking halls in the English countryside.
Lavelle also notes that since Alfred only constructed the fortresses after the Edington battles, it could mean that the English towns would have taken on a different shape.
Nevertheless, Lavelle concludes that the core purpose of the English towns would still have been unchanged as "the needs of towns as places for people to gather, to exchange news, to trade and sometimes to worship would have been the same. "
Though it is impossible to know for sure what effects a Viking victory at the battle of Edington would have had, we can nevertheless entertain different outcomes, using the vast amounts of information we have on the Viking Age today.
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