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The house of Wessex continued to supply a race of hard fighting and capable monarchs, who went on with Alfred's work, His son, Edward the Elder, and his three grandsons, Athelstan, Edmund and Edred, devoted themselves for fifty-five years (A.D. 900-955) to the task of conquering the Danelagh, and ended by making England into a single unified kingdom, not by admitting the conquered to homage and tribute, in the old style of the 7th century, but by their complete absorption. The process was not so hard as might be thought; when once the Danes had settled down, had brought over wives from their native land or taken them from among their English vassals, had built themselves farmsteads and accumulated flocks and herds, they lost their old advantage in contending with the English. Their strength had been their mobility and their undisputed command of the sea. But now they had possessions of their own to defend, and could not raid at large in Wessex or Mercia without exposing their homes to similar molestation. Moreover, the fleet which Alfred had built, and which his successors kept up, disputed their mastery of the sea, and ended by achieving a clear superiority over them. Unity of plan and unity of command was also on the side of the English. The inhabitants of the three sections of the Danelagh were at best leagued in a many-headed confederacy. Their opponents were led by kings whose orders were punctually obeyed from Shrewsbury to Dover and from London to Exeter. It must also be remembered that in the greater part of the land which they possessed the Danes were but a small minority of the population. After their first fury was spent they no longer exterminated the conquered, but had been content to make the Mercians and Deirans their subjects, to take the best of the land, and exact tribute for the rest. Only in Lincolnshire, East Yorkshire and parts of Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire do they seem to have settled thickly and formed a preponderating element in the countryside. In the rest of the Midlands and in East Anglia they were only a governing oligarchy of scanty numbers. Everywhere there was an English lower class which welcomed the advent of the conquering kings of Wessex and the fall of the Danish jarls.

Edward the Elder spent twenty-five labourious years first in repelling and repaying Danish raids, then in setting to work to subdue the raiders. He worked forward into the Danelagh, building burhs as he advanced, to hold down each district that he won. He was helped by his brother-in-law, the Mercian ealdorman Aethelred, and, after the death of that magnate, by his warlike sister Aethelflaed, the ealdorman's widow, who was continued in her husband's place. While Edward, with London as his base, pushed forward into the eastern counties, his sister, starting from Warwick and Stafford, encroached on the Danelagh along the line of the Trent. The last Danish king of East Anglia was slain in battle in 918, and his realm annexed. Aethelflaed won Derby and Leicester, while her brother reduced Stamford and Nottingham. Finally, in 921, not only was the whole land south of the Humber subdued, but the Yorkshire Danes, the Welsh, and even it is said the remote Scots of the North, did homage to Edward and became his men.

In 925 Edward was succeeded by his eldest, son Athelstan, who completed the reduction of the Danelagh by driving out Guthfrith, the Danish king of York, and annexing his realm. But this first conquest of the region beyond Humber had to be repeated over and over again; time after time the Danes rebelled and proclaimed a new king, aided sometimes by bands of their kinsmen from Ireland or Norway, sometimes by the Scots and Strathclyde Welsh. Athelstan's greatest and best-remembered achievement was his, decisive victory in 937 at Brunanburh, an unknown spot, probably by the Solway Firth or the Ribble over a great confederacy of rebel Danes of Yorkshire, Irish Danes from Dublin, the Scottish king, Constantine, and Eugenius, king of Strathclyde. Yet even after such a triumph Athelstan had to set up a Danish under-king in Yorkshire, apparently despairing of holding it down as a shire governed by a mere ealdorman. But its overlordship he never lost, and since he also maintained the supremacy which his father had won over the Welsh and Scots, it was not without reason that he called himself on his coins and in his charters Rex totius Britanniae. Occasionally he even used the title Basileus, as if he claimed a quasi-imperial position.

The trampling out of the last embers of Danish particularism in the North was reserved for Athelstan's brothers and successors, Edmund and Edred (940-955), who put down several risings of the Yorkshiremen, one of which was aided by a rebellion of the Midland Danes of the Five Boroughs. But the untiring perseverance of the house of Alfred was at last rewarded by success. After the expulsion of the last rebel king of York, Eric Haraldson, by Edred in 948, we cease to hear of trouble in the North. When next there was rebellion in that quarter it was in favor of a Wessex prince, not of a Danish adventurer, and had no sinister national significance. The descendants of the vikings were easily incorporated in the English race, all the more so because of the wise policy of the conquering kings, who readily employed and often promoted to high station men of Danish descent who showed themselves loyal and this not only in the secular but in spiritual offices. In 942 Oda, a full-blooded Dane, was made archbishop of Canterbury. The Danelagh became a group of earldoms, ruled by officials who were as often of Danish as of English descent.

It is notable that when, after Edred's death, there was civil strife, owing to the quarrel of his nephew Edwy with some of his kinsmen, ministers and bishops, the rebels, who included the majority of the Mercians and Northumbrians, set up as their pretender to the throne not a Dane but Edwy's younger brother Edgar, who ruled for a short time north of Thames, and became sole monarch on the death of his unfortunate kinsman.

The reign of Edgar (959-975) saw the culmination of the power of the house of Alfred. It was untroubled by rebellion or by foreign invasions, so that the king won the honorable title of Rex Pacificus. The minor sovereigns of Britain owned him as overlord, as they had owned his grandfather Edgar, Edward and his uncle Athelstan. It was long remembered how all the kings of this island, both the Welsh and the Scots, eight kings, came to him once upon a time on one day and all bowed to his governance. The eight were Kenneth of Scotland, Malcolm of Strathclyde, Maccus of Man, and five Welsh kings. There is fair authority for the well-known legend that, after this meeting at Chester, he was rowed in his barge down the Dee by these potentates, such a crew as never was seen before or after, and afterwards exclaimed that those who followed him might now truly boast that they were kings of all Britain.

Edgar's chief counsellor was the famous archbishop Dunstan, to whom no small part of the glory of his reign has been ascribed. This great prelate was an ecclesiastical reformer a leader in a movement for the general purification of morals, and especially for the repressing of simony and evil-living among the clergy a great builder of churches, and a stringent enforcer of the rules of the monastic life. But he was also a busy statesman; he probably had a share in the considerable body of legislation which was enacted in Edgar's reign, and is said to have encouraged him in his policy of treating Dane and Englishman with exact equality, and of investing the one no less than the other with the highest offices in church and state.

Edgar's life was too short for the welfare of his people, he was only in his thirty-third year when he died in 975, and his sons were young boys. The hand of a strong man was still needed to keep the peace in the newly-constituted realm of all England, and the evils of a minority were not long in showing themselves. One section of the magnates had possession of the thirteen-year old king Edward, and used his name to cover their ambitions. The other was led by his step-mother Aelfthryth, who was set on pushing the claims of her son, the child Aethelred. After much factious strife, and many stormy meetings of the Witan, Edward was murdered at Corfe in 978 by some thegns of the party of the queen-dowager. The crime provoked universal indignation, but since there was no other prince of the house of Alfred available, the magnates were forced to place Aethelred on the throne: he was only in his eleventh year, and was at least personally innocent of complicity in his brothers death.

Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.

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