14th century Medieval illumination from the Chronica Majora depicting Kings Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut (right)
A thousand years ago, Danish king Cnut the Great penned his Letter to the English People, casting him as an upholder of English law and tradition. His declaration followed a series of Viking attacks on Britain that began with a small-scale raid in 787 A.D., accelerated six years later with the destruction of the holy island of Lindisfarne, and extended into two centuries of wars.
At the start of these conflicts, Britain was a patchwork of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic kingdoms. By their conclusion, much of Britain was consolidated into a single one, England. Richard Abels, emeritus professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy, explores how the Viking wars served as the catalyst for its creation.
Jan. 8 From Raids to Conquest, 787–874
Abels defines who and what the Vikings were, examines political and social conditions in Scandinavia and England at the beginning of the Viking Age, and traces the evolution of the Viking threat. Initially, the motivation of Viking captains and their crews was simply to acquire wealth to enhance their status at home. This gave way to a more ambitious goal, as the raiding Viking fleets coalesced into a “great heathen army” of conquest.
Jan. 15 The Reign of Alfred the Great, 871–899
The leadership of King Alfred created a decisive turning point in the First Viking War. With his kingdom of Wessex barely surviving a surprise attack in 877, he analyzed the deficiencies of its defenses and in response constructed 30 fortified towns, bolstered the royal army, and assembled a small navy. Alfred defended Wessex successfully and extended his rule over western Mercia, claiming a new title, King of the Angles and Saxons.
Jan. 22 Establishing the Kingdom of England, 899–978
Aided by Alfred’s reforms, his son Edward the Elder, daughter Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, and his grandsons conquered the Danelaw, the areas of England under Danish political control. Abels examines both the Anglo-Scandinavian hybrid culture that emerged in the Danelaw and the creation of the kingdom of England through conquest and administrative innovation.
Jan. 29 The Second Viking War and the Danish Conquest, 978–1020
The Second Viking War dominated and doomed the reign of Ethelred the Unready. A prosperous England proved an irresistable attraction for rival Scandinavian warlords striving to consolidate power in Denmark and Norway. Raiding again gave way to conquest, as England was overtaken twice, first by the Danish king Swein Forkbeard and again by his son Cnut, who reinvented himself as a Christian Anglo-Saxon king.
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