For this period see also Mr. Green's "Conquest of England."]
aelfred's work of peace was however to be once more interrupted by a new invasion which in 893 broke under the Danish leader Hasting upon England. After a year's fruitless struggle to force the strong position in which aelfred covered Wessex, the Danish forces left their fastnesses in the Andredsweald and crossed the Thames, while a rising of the Danelaw in their aid revealed the secret of this movement. Followed by the Londoners, the king's son Eadward and the Mercian Ealdor-man aethelred stormed the Danish camp in Essex, followed the host as it rode along Thames to rouse new revolts in Wales, caught it on the Severn, and defeating it with a great slaughter, drove it back to its old quarters in Essex. aelfred himself held Exeter against attack from a pirate fleet and their West-Welsh allies; and when Hasting once more repeated his dash upon the west and occupied Chester, aetbelred drove him from his hold and forced him to fall back to his camp on the Lea. Here aelfred came to his lieutenant's aid, and the capture of the Danish ships by the two forts with which the king barred the river virtually ended the war.
[Authorities. - Mainly the English Chronicle, which varies much during this period. Through the reign of Eadward it is copious, and a Mercian chronicle is embedded in it; its entries then become scanty, and are broken with grand English songs till the reign of aethelred, when its fulness returns. "Florence of Worcester" is probably a translation of a copy of the Chronicle now lost. The "Laws " form the basis of our constitutional knowledge of the time, and fall into two classes. Those of Eadward, aethelstan, Eadmund, and Eadgar are, like the earlier laws of aethelberht and Ine, "mainly of the nature of amendments of custom." Those of aelfred, aethelred, Cnut, with those that bear the name of Eadward the Confessor, "aspire to the character of codes." All are printed in Mr. Thorpe's " Ancient Laws and Institutes of the Anglo-Saxons;" but the extracts given by Dr. Stubbs ("Select Charters," pp. 59 - 74) contain all that directly bears on our constitution. Mr. Kemble's "Codex Diplomaticus aevi Saxonici" contains a vast mass of charters, etc., belonging to this period. The lives of Dunstan are collected by Dr. Stubbs in one of the Rolls volumes.
The Danes streamed back from Wales, whither they had retreated, to their old quarters in Frankland, and the new English fleet drove the freebooters from the Channel.
The last years of aelfred's life seem to have been busied in providing a new defence for his realm by the formation of alliances with states whom a common interest drew together against the pirates. But four years had hardly passed since the victory over Hasting when his death left the kingdom to his son Eadward. Eadward, though a vigorous and active ruler, clung to his father's policy of rest. It was not till 910 that a rising of the Danes on his northern frontier, and an attack of a pirate fleet on the southern coast, forced him to re-open the war. With his sister aethelflaed, who was in 912 left sole ruler of Mercia by the death of the Ealdorman aethelred, he undertook the systematic reduction of the Danelaw. While he bridled East Anglia by the seizure of southern Essex, and the erection of the forts of Hertford and Witham, the fame of Mercia was safe in the hands of its "Lady." aethelflaed girded her strength for the conquest of the "Five Boroughs," the rude Danish confederacy which had taken the place of the eastern half of the older Mercian kingdom.
Derby represented the original Mercia on the upper Trent, Lincoln the Lindiswaras, Leicester the Middle-English, Stamford the province of the Gyrwas - the marshmen of the Fens - Nottingham probably that of the Southumbrians. Each of the "Five Boroughs " seems to have been ruled by its earl with his separate "host;" within each twelve "lawmen" administered Danish law, while a common justice-court existed for the whole confederacy. In her attack upon this powerful league aethelflsed abandoned the older strategy of battle and raid for that of siege and fortress-building. Advancing along the line of Trent, she fortified Tarn worth and Stafford on its head-waters, then turning southward secured the valley of the Avon by a fort at Warwick. With the lines of the great rivers alike secure, and the approaches to Wales on either side of Arden in her hands, she in 917 closed on Derby. The raids of the Danes of Middle-England failed to draw the Lady of Mercia from her prey; and Derby was hardly her own when, turning southward, she forced the surrender of Leicester.
aethelflaed died in the midst of her triumphs, and Eadward at once annexed Mercia to Wessex. The brilliancy of her exploits had already been matched by his own successes as he closed in on the district of the Five Boroughs from the south. South of the Middle-English and the Fens lay a tract watered by the Ouse and the Nen - originally the district of a tribe known as the South-English, and now, like the Five Boroughs of the north, grouped round the towns of Bedford, Huntingdon, and Northampton. The reduction of these was followed by that of East Anglia; the Danes of the Fens submitted with Stamford, the Southumbrians with Nottingham. Lincoln, the last of the Five Boroughs as yet unconquered, no doubt submitted at the same time. From Mid-Britain the king advanced cautiously to an attack on Northumbria. He had already seized Manchester, and was preparing to complete his conquests, when the whole of the North suddenly laid itself at his feet. Not merely Northumbria but the Scots and the Britons of Strathclyde "chose him to father and lord." The submission had probably been brought about, like that of the North-Welsh to aelfred, by the pressure of mutual feuds, and it was as valueless as theirs.
Within a year after Eadward's death the north was again on fire. aethelstan, aered's golden-haired grandson whom the King had girded as a child with a sword set in a golden scabbard and a gem-studded belt, incorporated Northumbria with his dominions; then turning westward broke a league which had been formed between the North-Welsh and the Scots, forced them to pay annual tribute, to march in his armies, and to attend his councils. The West-Welsh of Cornwall were reduced to a like vassalage, and the Britons driven from Exeter, which they had shared till then with its English inhabitants. A league of the Scot King, Constantine with the Irish Ostmen was punished by an army which wasted his kingdom, while a fleet ravaged its coasts. But the revolt only heralded the formidable confederacy in which Scotland, Cumberland, and the British and Danish chiefs of the west and east rose at the appearance of the fleet of Olaf in the Humber. The king's victory at Brunanburh, sung in noblest war-song, seemed the wreck of Danish hopes, but the work of conquest was still to be done.