Throughout this Dane-law, as it was called, the conquerors settled down among the conquered population as lords of the soil, thickly in the north and east, more thinly in the central districts, but everywhere guarding jealously their old isolation, and gathering in separate "heres" or armies round towns which were only linked in loose confederacies. The peace had in fact saved little more than Wessex itself. But in saving Wessex it saved England. The spell of terror was broken. The tide of invasion was turned. Only one short struggle broke a peace of fifteen years.
With the Peace of Wedmore in 878 began a work even more noble than this deliverance of Wessex from the Dane. "So long as I have lived," wrote aelfred in later days, "I have striven to live worthily." He longed when death overtook him "to leave to the men that come after a remembrance of him in good works." The aim has been more than fulfilled. The memory of the life and doings of the noblest of English rulers has come down to us living and distinct through the mist of exaggeration and legend that gathered round it. Politically or intellectually, the sphere of aelfred's action may seem too small to justify a comparison of him with the few whom the world claims as its greatest men. What really lifts him to their level is the moral grandeur of his life. He lived solely for the good of his people. He is the first instance in the history of Christendom of a ruler who put aside every personal aim or ambition to devote himself wholly to the welfare of those whom he ruled. In his mouth "to live worthily" meant a life of justice, temperance, self-sacrifice. The Peace of Wedmore at once marked the temper of the man.
Warrior and conqueror as he was, with a disorganized England before him, he set aside at thirty the dream of conquest to leave behind him the memory not of victories but of "good works," of daily toils by which he secured peace, good government, education for his people. His policy was one of peace. He abandoned all thought of the recovery of the West-Saxon over-lordship. With England across the Watling Street, a Roman road which ran from Chester to London, in other words with Northumbria, East-Anglia, and the half of Mercia, aefred had nothing to do. All that he retained was his own Wessex, with the upper part of the valley of the Thames, the whole valley of the Severn, and the rich plains of the Mersey and the Dee. Over these latter districts, to which the name of Mercia was now confined, while the rest of the Mercian kingdom became known as the Five Boroughs of the Danes, aelfred set the ealdorman aethelred, the husband of his daughter.aethelflaed, a ruler well fitted by his courage and activity to guard Wessex against inroads from the north. Against invasion from the sea, he provided by the better organization of military service, and by the creation of a fleet.
The country was divided into military districts, each five hides sending an armed man at the king's summons and providing him with food and pay. The duty of every freeman to join the host remained binding as before; but the host or fyrd was divided into two halves, each of which took by turns its service in the field, while the other half guarded its own burhs and townships. To win the sea was a harder task than to win the land, and aelfred had not to organize, but to create a fleet. He steadily developed however his new naval force, and in the reign of his son a fleet of a hundred English ships held the mastery of the Channel.
The defence of his realm thus provided for, he devoted himself to its good government. In Wessex itself, spent by years of deadly struggle, with law, order, the machinery of justice and government weakened by the pirate storm, material and moral civilization had alike to be revived. His work was of a simple and practical order. In politics as in war, or in his after dealings with letters, he took what was closest at hand and made the best of it. In the reorganization of public justice his main work was to enforce submission to the justice of hundred-moot and shire-moot alike on noble and ceorl, " who were constantly at obstinate variance with one another in the folk-moots, so that hardly any one of them would grant that to be true doom that had been judged for doom by the ealdorman and reeves." "All the law dooms of his land that were given in his absence he used to keenly question, of what sort they were, just or unjust; and if he found any wrongdoing in them he would call the judges themselves before him." "Day and night," says his biographer, he was busied in the correction of local injustice: "for in that whole kingdom the poor had no helpers, or few, save the king himself." Of a new legislation the king had no thought. "Those things which I met with," he tells us, "either of the days of Ine, my kinsman, or of Offa, king of the Mercians, or of aethelberht, who first among the English race received baptism, those which seemed to me rightest, those I have gathered, and rejected the others." But unpretending as the work might seem, its importance was great.
With it began the conception of a national law. The notion of separate systems of tribal customs for the separate peoples passed away; and the codes of Wessex, Mercia, and Kent blended in the doom-book of a common England.
The new strength which had been won for aefred's kingdom in six years of peace was shown when the next pirate onset fell on the land. A host from Gaul pushed up the Thames and thence to Rochester, while the Danes of Guthrum's kingdom set aside the Peace of Wedmore and gave help to their brethren. The war however was short, and ended in victory so complete on aelfred's side that in 886 a new peace was made which pushed the West-Saxon frontier forward into the realm of Guthrum, and tore from the Danish hold London and half of the old East-Saxon kingdom. From this moment the Danes were thrown on an attitude of defence, and the change made itself at once felt among the English. The foundation of a new national monarchy was laid. "All the Angel-cyn turned to aelfred," says the chronicle, "save those that were under bondage to Danish men." Hardly had this second breathing-space been won than the king turned again to his work of restoration. The spirit of adventure that made him to the last a mighty hunter, the reckless daring of his early manhood, took graver form in an activity that found time amidst the cares of state for the daily duties of religion, for converse with strangers, for study and translation, for learning poems by heart, for planning buildings and instructing craftsmen in gold-work, for teaching even falconers and dog-keepers their business.