The death of Dunstan was the signal for the breaking down of the artificial kingdom which he had held together by the mere power of his solitary organising capacity. Æthelred, the son of Eadgar (who succeeded after the brief reign of his brother Eadward), lost hopelessly all hold over the Scandinavian north. At the same time, the wicking incursions, intermitted for nearly a century, once more recommenced with the same vigour as of old. Even before Dunstan's death, in 980, the pirates ravaged Southampton, killing most of the townsfolk; and they also pillaged Thanet, while another host overran Cheshire. In the succeeding year, "great harm was done in Devonshire and in Wales;" and a year later again, London was burnt and Portland ravaged. In 985, Æthelred, the Unready, as after ages called him, from his lack of rede or counsel, quarrelled with Ælfric, ealdormen of the Mercians, whom he drove over sea. The breach between Mercia and Wessex was thus widened, and as the Danish attacks continued without interruption the redeless king soon found himself comparatively isolated in his own paternal dominions. Northumbria, under its earl, Uhtred (one of the house of Bamborough), and the Five Burgs under their Danish leaders, acted almost independently of Wessex throughout the whole of Æthelred's reign. In 991 Sigeric, archbishop of Canterbury, advised that the Danes should be bought off by a payment of ten thousand pounds, an enormous sum; but it was raised somehow and duly paid. In 992, the command of a naval force, gathered from the merchant craft of the Thames, was entrusted to Ælfric, who had been recalled; and the Mercian leader went over on the eve of an engagement at London to the side of the enemy. Bamborough was stormed and captured with great booty, and the host sailed up Humber mouth. There they stood in the midst of the old Danish kingdom, and found the leading men of Northumbria and Lindsey by no means unfriendly to their invasion. In fact, the Danish north was now far more ready to welcome the kindred Scandinavian than the West Saxon stranger. Æthelred's realm practically shrank at once to the narrow limits of Kent and Wessex.
The Danes, however, were by no means content even with these successes. Olaf Tryggvesson, king of Norway, and Swegen Forkbeard, king of Denmark, fell upon England. The era of mere plundering expeditions and of scattered colonisation had ceased; the era of political conquest had now begun. They had determined upon the complete subjugation of all England. In 994 Olaf and Swegen attacked London with 94 ships, but were put to flight by a gallant resistance of the townsmen, who did "more harm and evil than ever they weened that any burghers could do them." Thence the host sailed away to Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire, burning and slaying all along the coast as they went. Æthelred and his witan bought them off again, with the immense tribute of sixteen thousand pounds. The host accepted the terms, but settled down for the winter at Southampton—a sufficient indication of their intentions—within easy reach of Winchester itself; and there "they fed from all the West Saxons' land." Æthelred was alarmed, and sent to Olaf, who consented to meet him at Andover. There the king received him "with great worship," and gifted him with kinglike gifts, and sent him away with a promise never again to attack England. Olaf kept his word, and returned no more. But still Swegen remained, and went on pillaging Devonshire and Cornwall, wending into Tamar mouth as far as Lidford, where his men "burnt and slew all that they found." Thence they betook themselves to the Frome, and so up into Dorset, and again to Wight. In 999, on the eve of doomsday as men then thought, they sailed up Thames and Medway, and attacked Rochester. The men of Kent stoutly fought them, but, as usual, without assistance from other shires; and the Danes took horses, and rode over the land, almost ruining all the West Kentings. The king and his witan resolved to send against them a land fyrd and a ship fyrd or raw levy. But the spirit of the West Saxons was broken, and though the craft were gathered together, yet in the end, as the Chronicle plaintively puts it, "neither ship fyrd nor land fyrd wrought anything save toil for the folk, and the emboldening of their foes."
So, year after year, the endless invasion dragged on its course, and everywhere each shire of Wessex fought for itself against such enemies as happened to attack it. At last, in the year 1002, Æthelred once more bought off the fleet, this time with 24,000 pounds; and some of the Danes obtained leave to settle down in Wessex. But on St. Brice's day, the king treacherously gave orders that all Danes in the immediate English territory should be massacred. The West Saxons rose on the appointed night, and slew every one of them, including Gunhild, the sister of King Swegen, and a Christian convert. It was a foolhardy attempt. Swegen fell at once upon Wessex, and marched up and down the whole country, for two years. He burnt Wilton and Sarum, and then sailed round to Norwich, where Ulfkytel, of East Anglia, gave him "the hardest hand-play" that he had ever known in England. A year of famine intervened; but in 1006 Swegen returned again, harrying and burning Sandwich. All autumn the West Saxon fyrd waited for the enemy, but in the end "it came to naught more than it had oft erst done." The host took up quarters in Wight, marched across Hants and Berks to Reading, and burned Wallingford. Thence they returned with their booty to the fleet, by the very walls of the royal city. "There might the Winchester folk behold an insolent host and fearless wend past their gate to sea." The king himself had fled into Shropshire. The tone of utter despair with which the Chronicle narrates all these events is the best measure of the national degradation. "There was so muckle awe of the host," says the annalist, "that no man could think how man could drive them from this earth or hold this earth against them; for that they had cruelly marked each shire of Wessex with burning and with harrying." The English had sunk into hopeless misery, and were only waiting for a strong rule to rescue them from their misery.
The strong rule came at last. Thorkell, a Danish jarl, marched all through Wessex, and for three years more his host pillaged everywhere in the South. In 1011, they killed Ælfheah, the archbishop of Canterbury, at Greenwich. When the country was wholly weakened, Swegen turned southward once more, this time with all Northumbria and Mercia at his back. In 1013 he sailed round to Humber mouth, and thence up the Trent, to Gainsborough. "Then Earl Uhtred and all Northumbrians soon bowed to him, and all the folk in Lindsey; and sithence the folk of the Five Burgs, and shortly after, all the host by north of Watling-street; and men gave him hostages of each shire." Swegen at once led the united army into England, leaving his son Cnut in Denalagu with the ships and hostages. He marched to Oxford, which received him; then to the royal city of Winchester, which made no resistance. At London Æthelred was waiting; and for a time the town held out. So Swegen marched westward, and took Bath. There, the thegns of the Welsh-kin counties—Somerset, Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall—bowed to him and gave him hostages. "When he had thus fared, he went north to his ships, and all the folk held him then as full king." London itself gave way. Æthelred fled to Wight, and thence to Normandy. He had married Ymma, the daughter of Richard the Fearless; and he now took refuge with her brother, Richard the Good.
Next year Swegen died, and the West Saxon witan sent back for Æthelred. No lord was dearer to them, they said, than their lord by kin. But the host had already chosen Cnut; and the host had a stronger claim than the witan. For two years Æthelred carried on a desultory war with the intruders, and then died, leaving it undecided. His son Eadmund, nicknamed Ironside, continued the contest for a few months; but in the autumn of 1016 he died—poisoned, the English said, by Cnut—and Cnut succeeded to undisputed sway. He at once assumed Wessex as his own peculiar dominion, and the political history of the English ends for two centuries. Their social life went on, of course, as ever; but it was the life of a people in strict subjection to foreign rulers—Danish, Norman, or Angevin. The story of the next twenty-five years at least belongs to the chronicles of Scandinavian Britain.
At the end of that time, however, there was a slight reaction. Cnut and his sons had bound the kingdom roughly into one; and the death of Harthacnut left an opportunity for the return of a descendant of Ælfred. But the English choice fell upon one who was practically a foreigner. Eadward, son of Æthelred by Ymma of Normandy, had lived in his mother's country during the greater part of his life. Recalled by Earl Godwine and the witan, he came back to England a Norman, rather than an Englishman. The administration remained really in the hands of Godwine himself, and of the Danish or Danicised aristocracy. But Mercia and Northumbria still stood apart from Wessex, and once procured the exile of Godwine himself. The great earl returned, however, and at his death passed on his power to his son Harold, a Danicised Englishman of great rough ability, such as suited the hard times on which he was cast. Harold employed the lifetime of Eadward, who was childless, in preparing for his own succession. The king died in 1066, and Harold was quietly chosen at once by the witan. He was the last Englishman who ever sat upon the throne of England.
The remaining story belongs chiefly to the annals of Norman Britain. Harold was assailed at once from either side. On the north, his brother Tostig, whom he had expelled from Northumbria, led against him his namesake, Harold Hardrada, king of Norway. On the south, William of Normandy, Eadward's cousin, claimed the right to present himself to the English electors. Eadward's death, in fact, had broken up the temporary status, and left England once more a prey to barbaric Scandinavians from Denmark, or civilised Scandinavians from Normandy. The English themselves had no organisation which could withstand either, and no national unity to promote such organisation in future. Harold of Norway came first, landing in the old Danish stronghold of Northumbria; and the English Harold hurried northward to meet him, with his little body of house-carls, aided by a large fyrd which he had hastily collected to use against William. At Stamford-bridge he overthrew the invaders with great slaughter, Harold Hardrada and Tostig being amongst the slain. Meanwhile, William had crossed to Pevensey, and was ravaging the coast. Harold hurried southward, and met him at Senlac, near Hastings. After a hard day's fight, the Normans were successful, and Harold fell. But even yet the English could not agree among themselves. In this crisis of the national fate, the local jealousies burnt up as fiercely as ever. While William was marching upon London, the witan were quarrelling and intriguing in the city over the succession. "Archbishop Ealdred and the townsmen of London would have Eadgar Child,"—a grandson of Eadmund Ironside—"for king, as was his right by kin." But Eadwine and Morkere, the representatives of the great Mercian family of Leofric, had hopes that they might turn William's invasion to their own good, and secure their independence in the north by allowing Wessex to fall unassisted into his hands. After much shuffling, Eadgar was at last chosen for king. "But as it ever should have been the forwarder, so was it ever, from day to day, slower and worse." No resistance was organised. In the midst of all this turmoil, the Peterborough Chronicler is engaged in narrating the petty affairs of his own abbey, and the question which arose through the application made to Eadgar for his consent to the appointment of an abbot. In such a spirit did the English meet an invasion from the stoutest and best organised soldiery in Europe. William marched on without let or hindrance, and on his way, the Lady—the Confessor's widow—surrendered the royal city of Winchester into his hands. The duke reached the Thames, burnt Southwark, and then made a détour to cross the river at Wallingford, whence he proceeded into Hertfordshire, thus cutting off Eadwine and Morkere in London from their earldoms. The Mercian and Northumbrian leaders being determined to hold their own at all hazards, retreated northward; and the English resistance crumbled into pieces. Eadgar, the rival king, with Ealdred, the archbishop, and all the chief men of London, came out to meet William, and "bowed to him for need." The Chronicler can only say that it was very foolish they had not done so before. A people so helpless, so utterly anarchic, so incapable of united action, deserved to undergo a severe training from the hard taskmasters of Romance civilisation. The nation remained, but it remained as a conquered race, to be drilled in the stern school of the conquerors. For awhile, it is true, William governed England like an English king; but the constant rebellion and faithlessness of his new subjects drove him soon to severer measures; and the great insurrection of 1068, with its results, put the whole country at his feet in a very different sense from the battle of Senlac. For a hundred and fifty years, the English people remained a mere race of chapmen and serfs; and the English language died down meanwhile into a servile dialect. When the native stock emerges again into the full light of history, by the absorption of the Norman conquerors in the reign of John, it reappears with all the super-added culture and organisation of the Romance nationalities. The Conquest was an inevitable step in the work of severing England from the barbarous North, and binding it once more in bonds of union with the civilised South. It was the necessary undoing of the Danish conquest; more still, it was an inevitable step in the process whereby England itself was to begin its unified existence by the final breaking down of the barriers which divided Wessex from Mercia, and Mercia from Northumbria.