This section is from the book "Popular Law Library Vol1 Introduction To The Study Of Law Legal History", by Albert H. Putney. Also see: Popular Law-Dictionary.
The union of England, effected by Ecgberht, was rather the combination of separate kingdoms under the over lordship of Wessex, than the fusion of all into one common country. The distinction between Wessex, Mercia, and Wessex and Northumbria still remained, in spite of the fact that now, for the first time, each acknowledged the rule of a common king. The force that finally erased these ancient racial and territorial distinctions, and welded together the inhabitants of the seven kingdoms to form a kingdom and people of England came from without. The same course of events, which created a united English people, at the same time infused a new element into the nation. The ninth century witnessed the beginning of the second great Teutonic migration to England. The first warnings of the threatening danger from the north came in the reign of Ecgberht, but the full force of the storm was reserved for his sons and grandsons. Worn out by the hardships and difficulties of their early positions, Eathelwolf and his three eldest sons followed each other to early graves, leaving the throne of England to Ecgberht's youngest grandson, and the greatest of all Saxon Kings, Aelfred.
It was in the year of 871 that this King, to whom history has given the title of "The Great" succeeded his brother, Aethelred upon the throne. A few years of comparative calm at the outset of his reign is succeeded by the great Danish invasion of 878, before which for a time, the whole of England lay prostrate. With a different ruler than Aelfred, that year might easily have seen the end of the Wessex monarchy, and the consequent change in the course of future English history. In place of this it saw the Saxon victory of Edington, followed by the treaty of Wedmore, which divided England between Dane and West Saxon. The dividing line of the Watling Road gave Northum-bria, East Anglia, Essex and half of Mercia to the Danes, while Wessex retained, besides her own ancient territory, Kent, Sussex, and southwestern Mercia. Later Aelfred recovered London and a part of Mercia but the greater part of the work of reconquest was reserved for his successors.
The remainder of the life of Aelfred is of a different character. While never neglecting to provide for the military defense of his country, he appears from now on, principally as the law giver, the collector and revisor of law codes, the educator and civilizer of his people. The laws of Aelfred are, in the main, a compilation of the laws of earlier times. He himself makes no claim to innovation or originality. We find him saying: "I, then, Aelfred, King, these (laws) have gathered and had many of them written, which our forefathers held, those that we liked. And many of them that we not liked, I threw aside with my wise men's thought, and nowise held them. For why I durst not risk of my own much in writ to set, for why, it to me unknown was, what of them would like those after us were. But that which I met, either in Ine's laws, my kinsman, or in Offa's, the king of the Mercians, or in Aethelberts' that erst of English Kings, babtism underwent, those that to me rightest seemed, these have I herein gathered and the others passed by. I then, Aelfred, King of the West Saxons, to all my wise men these showed, and they then quoth that to them it seemed good all to hold."
It is probable, however, that intermixed with the ancient laws of Ine or Offa, appeared much that was original with Aelfred himself, it may have seemed to him wisest to claim the authority of precedent for all his code, rather than to let a portion of it rest solely upon his own judgment and decree. At the least, to Aelfred is due the credit for the revision, selection and codification of the laws of his people. There was no longer one set of laws for Kent, another for Sussex and a third for Wessex. There was one law throughout his kingdom, and as territory was from time to time conquered from the Dane, this territory also fell under the same law. Absolute uniformity there could not be; various local customs and usages had acquired strength, which enabled them to stand for centuries in opposition to the national law. Such exceptions, however, were the necessary result of the times and detract nothing from the credit due to the work of Aelfred. The inhabitants of Mercia, of Wessex and of Kent, submitted to this new general law, the more readily, because something had been taken from the laws of each. Of the laws of Northumbria we find no trace. Domestic anarchy and foreign invasion had destroyed the laws and records of this northern kingdom, and had reduced the former center of power, education and government in the island to the position of secondary importance, which she was fated to occupy in the future.
Side by side with the revision of the law, went on the work of reforming the administrative side of the government. For the better organization of the army, the country was divided into military districts. Each five hides of land was required to send a soldier to the army and to provide for his support. The host was divided into two halves, one of which was in the field, while the other was guarding the individual burghs or townships. The creation of a fleet provided against invasion by seas. Aelfred continued the old familiar courts, those of the hundred and those of the shire, and endeavored to increase the power and influence of both. It was his desire that men shall no longer seek to take the law into their own hands, but that all alike Eorl and Ceorl should be obliged to yield submission to the courts.
A period of external warfare is seldom an era of constitutional development; and the years which follow the death of Aelfred, in 901, furnish no exception to the rule. The first half of the tenth century was occupied with the reconquest of Northern England from the Danes. The work was begun in 901 by Eadward the Elder, the warlike son of Aelfred. Before the death of Aethelstan, Eaward's son and successor, in 940, the work of conquest seemed to have been completed, and all England once more united under the rule of Wessex. It soon appeared, however, that it has been merely a reconquest and not an incorporation, the supremacy was held by the force of character of Eadward the Elder, and Aethelstan; and when in 940 the latter was succeeded by Eadmund, the first of "the six boy kings," Northern England again slipped away from Wessex.