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Historians increasingly speak of the ‘long tenth century’, a period in which the states which had survived the turbulent ninth century (particularly Anglo-Saxon England and Ottonian Germany) consolidated themselves, enjoying relative stability and success against foreign enemies.

The first half of the tenth century saw a succession of West Saxon rulers build on Alfred’s military, political and economic reforms, fighting repeated campaigns to bring the lands of the Danelaw under their control. This seems to have been marked by ‘divide and rule’ tactics, securing the submission of individual regions and building fortified boroughs to consolidate their hold. Mercia was particularly active in this process, initially under the rule of Ealdorman Æthelred and Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd. Mercian autonomy ended with her death, and the concept of a ‘kingdom of the English’ stretching from the Welsh borders to the North Sea was created. From the mid-920s, control of Northumbria became the key political issue, with the kings of the English facing the established interest of the Hiberno-Norse rulers of Dublin.

The second half of the tenth century was something of a golden age for England. With no external threats, warfare was limited to raids and expeditions to Wales and Scotland designed to maintain overlordship of Britain. This period saw a cultural flowering, producing high-quality gold and silver metalwork and beautiful embroidery.

The relative peace was shattered in the 990s, with the return of viking raids. We only have one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for most of this period, which gives a very negative perspective, but England’s military response was not as ineffective as sometimes suggested. However, with a strong, centralised state, regular taxation and control of the coinage, the most reliable way of getting rid of the raiders proved to be tribute payments – Danegeld. After twenty years of pressure, the Danish king Swein Forkbeard and then his son Cnut took an interest, leading royal armies in a bid for the English crown. Both succeeded (though Swein died shortly afterwards and King Æthelred recovered control). The years 1014-16 saw intense campaigning and several major battles, ending in a division of England between Cnut and Æthelred’s son Edmund ‘Ironside’. Further conflict was avoided when Edmund died from earlier injuries, allowing Cnut to assume control of England and, soon afterwards, Denmark.

Vikings in the tenth century

The 10th century was in many ways the high point of the Viking Age. It saw Iceland and Greenland settled, the Norse discovery of Vinland, the emergence of the Icelandic Commonwealth and the Viking kingdom of York, and the creation of both Normandy and the Varangian Guard. It even saw the rise to fame of the Dane Axe.

Yet it also saw the emergence of relatively strong centralised kingships and the rise of Christianity. Christian English kings reconquered the Danelaw, the Kievan Rus kingdom expanded and converted to Orthodoxy, and Scandinavian kings converted Denmark and – nominally, at least – Norway and the North Atlantic settlements to Christianity.

Strong kings meant fewer opportunities for independent raiding, as warfare became more an instrument of national, or rather royal, policy. By the end of the 10th century, what we think of as Viking activity could just as well be seen as royally-sponsored warfare and invasion. For instance, Æthelred Unræd's Danegelds saw tonnes of silver and gold paid to Danish kings and jarls, and a few years after the Battle of Maldon in 991, the reputed victor would be king of Norway.

And while the Scandinavian Vikings were famed as pagans, they were willing to convert to Christianity when they found themselves ruling predominantly Christian territories (such as the Danelaw, or in Ireland), or if it was a precondition to military service for Christian rulers. From the later 10th century those Christian rulers included Scandinavian kings, who vigorously promoted Christianity (often at sword-point) as a means of establishing their authority over independently-minded jarls.