The Danes and the end of the Saxon Period
Not long after the time of Werhard the country was again invaded. This time it was by the Danes, close relatives of the Saxons, and as destructive and hungry for land as the Saxons themselves had once been. Many years had passed since the Saxon invasions and the settlers had become tamer, and at first they proved as easy to overcome as the British had been. After a stubborn struggle against the newcomers King Alfred of Wessex fixed limits for them by the treaty of Wedmore in 878. The Danes were to occupy the country north and east of a line along Watling Street and the River Lea, and this left the whole of Middlesex, including London, in Alfred’s kingdom.
The Danes soon broke out, however, and for years contending armies fought over this dangerous frontier area in an effort to control the rich prize of London. Middlesex finally became a Danish posession just after 1000, shortly before the whole country was unified under Canute in 1016.
The influence of the Danes appears to be curiously slight: those who settled in Middlesex were absorbed into the Saxon population and left few traces of their presence in monuments or place nemes. They seem to have invigorated the Saxons, but the Danes were very adaptable, and it looks as if the Saxons left more of a mark on their conquerors than the Danes did on them. It was during the Danish period that England was divided into shires. In the Saxon part of the country the king was represented in each shire by an ealdorman and a reeve, in the Danelaw by an earl.
Initially the Danes had a greater aptitude for commerce, though the Saxons quickly learned and towns began to take on a new life. Most of the country was still devoted to agriculture, however, and on the land the society was begining to be more sharply stratified: ‘every man must have a lord’ was the final codification of a long process. The local chieftain had long ceased to be a farmer; his men did all his farming for him and were no longer fighters unless there was an immediate threat of danger. The ploughman or shepherd owed increasingly greater allegiance to the lord, who in his turn was more and more responsible to a greater lord or directly to the king for the peace of his domain and the administration of justice within it. Gradually the peasants were impoverished as they were taxed for the money to buy off the Danes (the Danegeld) and later as they were taxed for the defence of the realm by the same Danes under Canute.