Today Wessex exists only as a county of the mind, of literature and history. In the middle of the 8th century Wessex was a powerful and expanding kingdom, holding sway over a substantial portion of southern England. In the years before Alfred's reign there were few real towns or urban centres. At that time the heartland of Wessex was, as it still is, a country of rich farmland and scattered woodland The only significant urban and commercial centre in Wessex up to the mid 9th century was Hamwih, near modern Southampton. London was also an important centre, described by Bede as an emporium for many nations who come to it by land and sea, but it only came within the influence of Wessex towards the end of the 9th century.
Pre-Alfredian Wessex was based around many hundreds of rural communities, villages, farms, noble and royal strongholds. The rich farmland was well cultivated, although wild regions of woodland were numerous. In the absence of an established urban society, administrative and commercial life was centred around important religious centres, and the estates of kings and other magnates. The population of 9th century Wessex, based on Domesday estimates, would not have been more than about half a million people, probably less.
For a view of the countryside near Alfred's birthplace in Wantage, click here.
Wessex had some contact with the outside world. There was trade with the Norse and with the continent, and journeys such as that by King Aethelwulf (and Alfred) to Rome to visit the Pope were not unknown.
|The Danish crisis of the late 9th century was a serious one, and led to the extinction of every Anglo-Saxon kingdom except Wessex. No longer satified with raiding, Danish hosts were remaining on English soil from one year to another, and other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were losing their independence. The Danes were able to go where they wished, raiding royal and ecclesiastical centres with impunity, and demanding hefty payments as ransom.|
|Alfred's response to this was the establishment of a system of fortified centres (burhs) covering the whole of Wessex. This meant not just building ramparts or patching walls, but seeing to it that there were warriors to defend them. This, and confidence in his ability to come to the rescue with his army, imbued these centres with a spirit of resistance which they had previously lacked. No part of Wessex was to be more than 20 miles from a burh, and strategic centres, such as those on important rivers, had quite substantial garisons. These garisons were drawn from the surrounding population and were probably not permanent, but the system had an immediate impact on the course of the conflict.||
This was the most significant physical legacy of Alfred to his kingdom; a system of fortified refuges which were well placed to become administrative and commercial centres over the following centuries. For more detail see the Burghal Hidage page.
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