Why London is the capital of Britain

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:18 pm

Eamont Bridge, Cumbria, Athelstan, England

People talk of a north-south divide in Britain, but it was once even more serious than it is now

It’s all a matter of power and geography.  The Danes had defeated the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia.  If the Danes had beaten Alfred of Wessex too, maybe the capital of Britain would have been York.  Or Copenhagen.  Without Alfred, there would not only have been no England but, also, no English-speaking world. Alfred’s power-base was manifestly in the south of England and by the time he died the components of an organised, unified, state were pretty much in place.

London was also the largest trading settlement in the whole of Britain.  The original Saxon invaders, suspicious of urban areas, had for the most part ignored the old Roman town, underneath the present City of London, but by the 8th century had developed an important cosmopolitan trading centre, Lundenwic, immediately to the west of it.  It offered a sheltered anchorage, handy for the European mainland, and its position as a crossing point over the barrier of the Thames at London Bridge also gave it a unique position in north-south communications.  The Saxons have left their memory behind in names like Aldwych (old town) and Strand (beach).  The Danes attacked London in 842, again in 851 – and by 871 were in occupation.  Despite the fact that, technically, Lundenwic was in the Kingdom of Mercia, Alfred thought it vital enough to re-take the city in 886 and secure its fortifications and position outside the area of Danelaw.  His son-in-law, Ethelred of Mercia, was charged with maintaining it as a commercial centre under Anglo-Saxon control.

After Alfred’s death, his son Edward and daughter Æthelflæd set about wearing down Danish rule south of the Humber.  Alfred’s grandson, Æthelstan took York, defeating the Danes in Northumbria, and in 927 he accepted the submission of the kings of the Scots, Strathclyde Welsh, Cumbria and the Earl of Northumbria at Eamont Bridge, Cumbria.  The southern Anglo-Saxon Æthelstan is known as the first king of all England – Englaland, the land of the Angles.  But what had been won by conquest was consolidated by laws and regulation – for example with regard to coinage – that applied equally across the whole kingdom.  This was no casual toppling of tribal military rivals; it was organised state rule.

Battle, Brunanburh, EnglandHowever, these were violent times when fortunes ebbed and flowed.  In 937, Æthelstan crushed a combined invasion of Norse and Scots at the Battle of Brunanburh.  No one knows for certain where the battle took place, but it was possibly somewhere on the Wirral in North West England; other suggested locations include Burnswark in Dumfries and Galloway.  Anglo-Saxon control of the north then seems to have collapsed after Æthelstan’s death.  But, by the reign of Edgar in the 970s, a more united kingdom of England seemed to be once again emerging.  Then, the next few years seem to have been plagued by faction-fighting – and more raids by Danes and Norse.  In 991 a Viking force sacked Ipswich and defeated the English at Maldon in Essex.  In 1002, King Ethelred the Unready ordered the massacre of all Danes in England, including peaceful settlers, and then attempted to buy the invaders off with bribes – known as ‘Danegeld’. The massacre, known as the St Brice’s Day Massacre, provoked an invasion by King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark in 1013 and Ethelred fled into exile in Normandy. Sweyn died in 1014 and Ethelred returned, to spend the rest of his days occupied in warfare against Sweyn’s son, Cnut. Ethelred died in 1016, Cnut defeated his son, Edmund, at the battle of Ashingdon later that year, shortly after which Edmund died too. So England got a Danish king, Cnut, and it was left to him to unify the country once more.  One of his first acts in 1017 was to divide the land into four administrative earldoms: Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria – retaining Wessex under his own direct control.  The same year, Cnut married Ethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, who was herself of Norse descent and by all accounts a remarkable woman.

Holy Trinity, Bosham, Cnut, England

After Cnut’s death in 1035 (he was buried in Winchester, capital of the old Saxon Kingdom of Wessex), the throne of the English state eventually returned to the Anglo-Saxon line.  The new king, a son of Ethelred and Emma, is known to history as King Edward the Confessor.  And one of allegedly pious King Edward’s greatest legacies was the decision to build a grand church on swampy ground at the mouth of the River Tyburn – his ‘West Minster’ – as well as a splendid palace next door.  Just as the area by the old Roman City of London was growing in commercial importance, so would Westminster become the centre for royal administration. And this pattern continued; even now, the City enjoys a unique status in the economy of the United Kingdom, while the centre of national government is based around Westminster.

Meanwhile, back in 1018 at the battle of Carham on the River Tweed, the King of Scotland, Malcolm II ‘Forranach‘ (the Destroyer), combined with Owen the Bald, King of Strathclyde, to defeat the Anglo-Saxon Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria.  Though Cnut later defeated Malcolm, the battle of Carham appears to have settled the oft-disputed Lothian/Borders area and placed the English/Scots boundary along the River Tweed.  By the mid 11th century, the boundaries of England on a map would have looked pretty much as they do today, though it was still a bit fuzzy round the edges and the northern frontier a little further south in Cumbria than it is now.

Neither Wales nor Scotland was a unified entity as we would understand it.  Wales consisted of different kingdoms, or principalities, though Gwynedd under the leadership of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was emerging as the most powerful force.  What we know as Scotland comprised the Norse Earldom of Orkney (in the north and west), the old Celtic Kingdom of Strathclyde (which included a good chunk of modern-day north west England), as well as the Kingdom of the Scots north of the Forth and covering most of the Highlands.

However, England was just about to be invaded all over again – and that would be a game-changer for everyone.

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