Fear of the Vikings Finally United the Rival Anglo-Saxons
For centuries after they settled in Britain, the Anglo-Saxons had divided their lands into disparate kingdoms that often fought against each other. It took the Vikings, who extinguished some of those kingdoms outright and brought the rest to the brink of extinction, to unify the Anglo-Saxons into the single country of England. That unification was conducted by Alfred the Great (849 – 899) and his successors. Alfred was the youngest son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex, who set up a succession whereby the throne would get inherited by each of his sons, from oldest to youngest. It was a departure from the primogeniture, where the throne passed from father to son, not from brother to brother. However, Wessex faced an existential threat from the Vikings, and Aethelwulf’s system sought to prevent a child from inheriting the throne in such a dangerous time.
Accordingly, Aethelwulf was succeeded by Alfred’s older brothers Aethelbard, then Aethelbert, then Aethelred. In 868, King Aethelred of Wessex and his younger brother Alfred tried, and failed, to keep the Vikings’ “Great Heathen Army” out of the neighboring kingdom of Mercia. By 870, Wessex was the last independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, when it was attacked by the largest Viking army assembled to date. King Aethelred and his brother Alfred led the Anglo-Saxons in a series of battles with varying outcomes. Victory in an early skirmish was followed by a severe defeat a few days later. That was followed by a brilliant victory in the Battle of Ashdown, January 8th, 871, in which Alfred played a leading role. Ashdown was followed by two defeats, Aethelred died soon thereafter, and Alfred finally became king of Wessex.