By John Sunderland
2017 is the anniversary of the Battle of Towcester between the Saxons and the Vikings which took place in 917 AD. The Vikings are also known as the Danes. The battle marked the origin of Towcester as a town.
This year celebrates eleven centuries of being ‘TOWCESTER’ the name that originated from the Anglo-Saxon ‘TOFECEASTRE’ and an important event in the town’s history, when the Wessex King EDWARD THE ELDER successfully held off the Danes of Northampton who then submitted to his authority. It was another step in the creation of what became ENGLAND, a process begun by Edward’s illustrious father ALFRED THE GREAT. But the creation of England was no easy process. It took the best part of 500 years and involved almost endless conflict and struggle. It created the country we recognise today, and Towcester was to play its part in all of this.
When the Romans were forced to abandon their province of BRITANNIA early in the 5th Century A.D. life in this part of the country must have continued little disturbed for some decades. But with the Romans went their system of government, their protection and their laws. Saxon pirates, emboldened by the withdrawal of the Roman fleet in the 4th century had started to establish themselves on the eastern fringes of Britannia. The Roman evacuation further encourage this process - part of the massive migration of heathen peoples from the plains of central Asia which swept over western Europe collapsing the classical world and, quite literally, changing Europe’s D.N.A. Britannia was on her own, unable to defend her people and customs against this infiltration of tribal communities with very different ways of living. What remained of the Roman world collapsed and new social orders emerged out of the ruins of the old. LACTODORUM (Roman Towcester) fell into disuse and must have been more or less abandoned. But the WATLING STREET, the great Roman highway from Dover to Chester, presumably still found use as it survived into the present day.
By the end of the 7th century seven major English kingdoms were in existence (known as the HEPTARCHY). These were WESSEX, KENT, SUSSEX, ESSEX, EAST ANGLIA, MERCIA AND NORTHUMBRIA. Mercia became the dominant power.
With these evolved more effective structures of government which enabled the formation of defence forces heralding a period of conflict which was to last intermittently until the creation of the English nation some three centuries later. A significant factor in this was the Viking incursion towards the end of the 8th century. These fearsome warriors, in 865, brought over their GREAT ARMY. It overwhelmed all the ancient English kingdoms except Wessex, which under the leadership of King Alfred the Great, was just able to withstand their onslaught, but it drove him into hiding in Athelney. Rested and reinforced he emerged to defeat the Vikings and their leader GUTHRUM at the Battle of Edington, concluding a peace by the Treaty of Wedmore. This divided the country into Saxon Wessex and Mercia in the west, leaving the east under Viking “Danelaw” (under the jurisdiction of Danish law). The boundary between these two kingdoms in its northern part ran alongside Watling Street. Towcester became a ‘frontier town’.
In the remaining years of his life Alfred consolidated his hold on his kingdom, building a network of ‘burhs’. These were towns fortified by earthworks on which rested timber palisades and they succeeded in their aim of holding the Vikings at bay. When he died in 899 Alfred had established Wessex as the protector of all Saxons, had endowed it with law and scholarship, and laid the foundations for the campaigns of his son, Edward the Elder - campaigns that would see Edward’s son Athelstan proclaimed as the first King of England.
The first half of the 10th century was dominated by the Saxon reconquest of Danelaw. It started in 910 with the defeat of a Viking raid into Mercia. In 917 Edward saw off the Viking attack on Towcester and accepted the submission of the Vikings and their army in Northampton. By 918 he controlled all southern England and at the end of 920 the English frontier extended to the River Humber. It was a magnificent achievement. In the space of two reigns Wessex had gone from a position of almost total annihilation to that where its royal house came to create and rule England.
In this Edward was helped by his sister AETHELFLAED who had become leader of the Mercians and a major ally. She took Derby in 917 as Edward was fortifying Towcester. The possession of these two strategically important ‘frontier’ towns had consolidated the eastern border of Wessex, allowing Edward to invade the Danelaw territories.
From 920 England as a kingdom seemed secure. Its rulers may have been of Saxon or Viking stock, as both races had been absorbed within its boundaries, but the fragmentation that had followed the departure of the Romans did not recur. The crown was to be contested, but the kingdom remained intact. After briefly emerging from the obscurity of early medieval times Towcester slipped back into what still remains an essentially ‘dark age’. It was to re-emerge recorded in the Doomsday Book, twenty years after the Norman Conquest. By then England was ‘under new management’.