In Wessex Aethelred strove hard against the Viking invaders. He won a great victory at Aescesdun (Ashdown, near Reading), on the northern slope of the Berkshire Downs. After a succession of battles he was slain in 871. Though he left sons of his own, he was succeeded by Aelfred, his youngest brother. It was not the English custom to give the crown to the child of a king if there was any one of the kingly family more fitted to wear it. Aelfred was no common man. In his childhood he had visited Rome, and had been hallowed as king by Pope Leo IV., though the ceremony could have had no weight in England. He had early shown a love of letters, and the story goes that when his mother offered a book with bright illuminations to the one of her children who could first learn to read it, the prize was won by Aelfred. During Aethelred's reign he had little time to give to learning. He fought nobly by his brother's side in the battles of the day, and after he succeeded him he fought nobly as king at the head of his people. In 878 the Danish host, under its king, Guthrum, beat down all resistance. Ælfred was no longer able to keep in the open country, and took refuge with a few chosen warriors in the little island of Athelney, in Somerset, then surrounded by the waters of the fen country through which the Parret flowed. After a few weeks he came forth, and with the levies of Somerset and Wilts and of part of Hants he utterly defeated Guthrum at Ethandun (? Edington, in Wiltshire), and stormed his camp.
After this defeat Guthrum and the Danes swore to a peace with Aelfred at Chippenham. They were afterwards baptised in a body at Aller, not far from Athelney. Guthrum with a few of his companions then visited Aelfred at Wedmore, a village near the southern foot of the Mendips, from which is taken the name by which the treaty is usually but wrongly known. By this treaty Aelfred retained no more than Wessex, with its dependencies, Sussex and Kent, and the western half of Mercia. The remainder of England as far north as the Tees was surrendered to the Danes, and became known as the Danelaw, because Danish and not Saxon law prevailed in it. Beyond the Tees Bernicia maintained its independence under an English king. Though the English people never again had to struggle for its very existence as a political body, yet, in 886, after a successful war, Aelfred wrung from Guthrum a fresh treaty by which the Danes surrendered London and the surrounding district. Yet, even after this second treaty, it might seem as if Aelfred, who only ruled over a part of England, was worse off than his grandfather, Ecgberht, who had ruled over the whole. In reality he was better off. In the larger kingdom it would have been almost impossible to produce the national spirit which alone could have permanently kept the whole together. In the smaller kingdom it was possible, especially as there was a strong West Saxon element in the south-west of Mercia in consequence of its original settlement by a West Saxon king after the battle of Deorham. Moreover, Aelfred, taking care not to offend the old feeling of local independence which still existed in Mercia, appointed his son-in-law, Aethelred, who was a Mercian, to govern it as an ealdorman under himself.
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