The most famous date in British history is 1066, by some margin. It refers to the defeat of Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king, by the French Norman Duke, William the Bastard more generally known as William the Conqueror, or William I of England. This is also the story of a conflict between two rulers of Danish background. Names ending in ‘son’ in English indicate Danish ancestry. Danish vikings had started large scale raids on England in the late eighth century, a process which became one of settlement. The raids from the north may go back to the end of the Roman era, but only become politically significant in the period under discussion here. So significant that one of the major monarchs in English history was Cnut (Canute), who was also Danish king. So there was a period of union between England and Denmark, but only a personal union through the monarch, not a union of laws or political institutions. Harold’s father Harold Godwin (no Danish ‘son’) rose under Cnut, marrying a Danish noblewoman, Gytha who was a sister of a brother-in-law of Cnut. Presumably these links are why Harold Godwin’s son was known by the Danish style of Godwinson.
Duke William was descended from a Danish chieftain Rollo who was given land and the exalted title of Duke by King Charles of France, in response to defeating or expelling the Viking invaders. Rollo may have been Norwegain rather than Danish in origin, but is normally referred to as Danish. Rollo converted to Christianity, and the line of Dukes became completely Gallic and Christian, so not connected with Danish-Norse culture. In adopting French, they were using a language not connected to or influenced by Danish-Norse.
English includes very few words of Danish-Norse origin, but they are all Germanic languages, there are certainly words of Norse origin in the dialects of northern England and Scotland (known as Scots). The first major work of English literature is usually considered to be Beowulf, a long Anglo-Saxon poem referring to Danish legend and tradition about a King Beowulf. I cannot resist pointing out that J.R.R. Tolkein did a lot of the work of establishing that Beowulf stood out from surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts as a great work of literature, so we must consider it an influence on The Lord of the Rings.
So in 1066, Harold Godwinson was defeated by the Dano-French Duke of Normandy, who became the King of England. William and future English Kings were maybe more French than English right up to the fourteenth century when Edward III started using English for official documents. William was related to the English royal family and Norman influence was favoured by Harold’s predecessor as King of England Edward the Confessor (who sought a counterweight to the power of the Godwins). Nevertheless, without a doubt William was more Norman-French than English. French became the language of state, different laws applied to the French and the Saxons in England, a more feudal system was introduced, and castles appeared over England as never before.
Harold’s claim to England goes back to Alfred (the Great, as he became known centuries after his death), who was King of Wessex (the West Saxons in the southwest of England) from 871 to 879, and claimed the title of Rex Saxonum or Rex Anglorum et Saxonum, King of the (Anglo-)Saxons. Alfred himself claimed descent from the original west Saxon king (more of tribal chieftain than the kind of king Alfred was) Cerdic who ruled in the early sixth century, so emerging from the defeat and absorption of post-Roman celts/Britons by invaders from northern Germany and Denmark. The time of Alfred was the time of maximum Danish viking expansion, to the extent that the existence of the Anglo-Saxon states was under question, and England was on the verge of becoming a viking realm, with the possible consequence that those who know speak English would speak something that would belong to the Norse family of languages.
Anyway, Alfred prevented such a scenario, along with his subjects in Wessex, through a refusal to give into Danish predominance. The Danes won victories in Wessex, and Alfred retreated into the marshes around his family lands in Somerset, deep into Wessex. The decisive victory over the Danes from this desperate position was at Ethandun, now known Edington in 878. From this victory Alfred was able to keep advancing against the Danes, and though he did not take over the whole of England, and was far from doing so, he was able to take London and create the beginnings of an English state.
Alfred was a remarkable man and ruler, a much more sympathetic figure than William the Bastard with a much wider range of achievements. Alfred was a thiner about government, religion and education. He translated the great late Roman philosopher Boethius in Anglo-Saxon. A modern English version of Alfred’s translation can be found here. The Anglo-Saxon text can be found here. Modern English translations of all of Alfred’s writings and translations from Latin, including legal, religious and historiographical texts, can be found here. He was a reformer of the military institutions of Wessex, which affected the future administration of England in civil and military terms. So he create a series of royal fortresses, burghs, which became the centre of towns, and that is why there are many British towns with -burgh or -borough at the end of the name. The word also survives in ‘borough’ as a unit of local government. Alfred favoured moderation in the administration of justice and had a principled concern with the moral foundations of government. We can put some of this down to the necessities of survival, but certainly a less sympathetic man would have done things more brutally and cruelly, as indeed most of his successors did.
William was a man of great military and administrative qualities, and was capable of inspiring great loyalty amongst his followers. He was kind to his wife and showed genuine religious feeling. However, none of these things is incompatible with great cruelty and William was a harsh ruler even by the standards of the time. Some of this comes from circumstance. Survival as Duke of Normandy, a position he held from childhood required extreme cunning and the destruction of enemies. When he first took over England he made some efforts to co-operate with the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, who still conspired against his rule. There is however no getting round the basic facts of his rule. Those who opposed him, of any station, were treated with cruelty. In the north of England this extended to the destruction of the population of York, and of many others in the north, along with the slaughter of farm animals to ensure the starvation of survivors. Anglo-Saxon England would not strike us as a model of human rights, humane law, and equality before the law. It was built on laws and institutions understood and accepted by most, and was administered by people who shared the language and culture of the people as a whole. We cannot say these things about Norman England, and as noted above the situation of shared language, laws and culture was not restored until after the end of the Norman dynasty, under an Angevin-Plantagenet king three centuries later.
The beginnings of English kingship in Alfred must be qualified by the usual ambiguities that arise in defining the historical beginning. It was Alfred’s grandson Athelstan who was the first King of all England. The late eight century King of Mercia (Middle England) Offa used the title Rex Anglorum, though no one believes he had any interest in creating an all England state. We could take English statehood back to Cerdic, Alfred’s apparent, but not proven, ancestor in the sixth century. No doubt other ambiguities could be found in the origin of the English state, which is the nucleus and the by far dominant part of the current British state. Alfred is remembered well, though somehow his great victory over the Danes has not stuck in the collective consciousness like Harold’s defeat by the Norman French. It’s a strange fact that the English remember their most decisive defeat so well, but not their most decisive victory, the one which ensured there would be an English people and nation, later on within a British state, as much as we can give so much weight to one victory. There are more records of the Battle of Hasting than of the Battle of Ethandun. There is no equivalent of the Bayeux tapestry, which shows in a beautiful visual narrative how William the Bastard became Rex Anglorum, for Ethandun. William did shape England in ways which lasted and became part of the deep history of England. We can say the same of Alfred, however, and we can find much more to admire.
The forgetting of the really important dates is an English habit. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 which guaranteed the supremacy of Parliament in making laws, and raising taxes ever since, and the whole idea of the accountability of the government to bodies representing the nation, has only the vaguest presence in collective memory, much less distinct than 1066. 878, like 1688, is a year to remember, along with 1215, the year of Magna Carta which lies somewhere between 1066 and 878 in collective consciousness.