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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Kings of England

 

Anglo-Saxon Kings ('United Kingdom of England')
AD 954 - 1016

The geographical and political entities which today are known as Britain (England and Wales), Great Britain (with Scotland added), and the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' (including the remaining controls over a single island of Ireland which was held in full until 1922). This politically united entity was formed out of a large number of Post-Roman kingdoms over the course of about six hundred years of struggle.

The West Saxons had emerged as the last standing opposition during the ninth century in the face of the overwhelming onslaught of Danish attacks. Almost all of the later Bretwaldas were West Saxon kings. This was so much the case that the kings of Wessex effectively subsumed that title within their own kingship.

The attacks had forced the English to consolidate their remaining territories into a 'Kingdom United', although it wasn't known by any such name at the time. However, it would not be recognised as a single kingdom of all the English until the Danish-controlled territories could be conquered.

That process was initiated by Alfred 'the Great', but it was his grandson, Æthelstan, who could claim to be the first king of a single, united England. From 927, he was the recognised ruler or overlord not only of all of England (including York), but also of the principalities of Wales, all of Scotland and Strathclyde, and the remnants of Dumnonia in Corniu.

It was ∆thelstan who initiated the concept of the Anglo-Saxon empire. It was only the fact that the Scandinavian kingdom of York regained independence after his death which prevented him from winning the undisputed title of first king of England. Instead it was his younger West Saxon siblings who saw to it that any remaining independent states within English territory were conquered. Anglo-Saxon kings of this period were at the height of their power, ruling the 'Anglo-Saxon Empire' of a united England, with the Scots and Welsh also largely remaining under their command.

While Eadred, fifth son of King Edward 'the Elder' and therefore the youngest of the consecutively-ruling grandsons of Alfred 'the Great', was the first universally-recognised king of a united England, it was not until the reign of Edgar 'the Peaceful' that the integration of all the English regions under a single administration was completed, making it highly unlikely that there could be a repeat of the slip back into regional rule which had taken place during the lifetime of Edwy.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Mick Baker, from Æthelstan: The First King of England, Sarah Foot (2011), from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, from Wessex, Barbara Yorke, from Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede, from the Oxford Online Dictionary of National Biography, Barbara Yorke (2004), from The Earliest English Kings, D P Kirby (1992), from Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, Barbara Yorke, from the Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales, John Marius Wilson (1870-1872), from The Peterborough Chronicle (the E Manuscript version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), from A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons, Geoffrey Hindley (Constable & Robertson Ltd, 2006), from A History of Britain, Simon Schama (BBC Books, 2003), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia of Earth, and Anglo-Saxons: A Brief History (Historical Association), and Anglo-Saxon England (Encyclopaedia Britannica).)

954 - 955

Eadred

Son of Edward (899). First accepted king of 'United England'.

955

Eadred has suffered from increasing ill health in his later years, even though he is only about thirty-two years of age by this date. Having united all of England and brought peace to the land, his health fails him. With no children of his own, his kingdom passes to his nephew, Eadwig.

Eadred silver penny
Shown here are both sides of a silver penny which is in surprisingly good condition and which was issued during the reign of Eadred, first acknowledged king of all England

955 - 959

Edwy / Eadwig 'the Fair'

Son of Edmund (939-946). Ruled the south (957-959). Died.

957 - 959

A successional rift flares up between Eadred's two nephews, Edwy and Edgar. Following a battle at Gloucester in which Edwy is defeated, the two agree to divide and rule in order to save the country from a costly civil war. Edgar takes control of Mercia and Northumbria, while Edwy rules in the south until his death in 959. Edgar then reunites the country, becoming the third king of a fully united England.

This is the golden age of Anglo-Saxon England, when the court rivals, and even exceeds, all of those on continental Europe, and receives tribute from all other kingdoms in the British Isles and Ireland.

959 - 975

Edgar 'the Peaceful'

Brother. Ruled the north (957-959). Regained entire kingdom.

963

One of the heroes of the north, a man who had assisted in expelling Eric Bloodaxe from York and making it possible for Eadred to assert his authority over the north, is Oswulf, high reeve of Bamburgh and earl of York. His death in this year means that governance of the powerful and important northern province can be divided, with his earldom of York going to a new candidate known as Oslac of Northumbria, possibly not a relation of Oswulf. Waltheof, Oswulf's son, inherits Bamburgh.

Bamburgh Castle
The eleventh century Norman version of Bamburgh Castle which survives today replaced the original British and Anglian fortifications which would largely have been wooden in nature

973

At Easter, Edgar is ritually anointed in Bath as the head of the 'Anglo-Saxon Empire'. His reign witnesses major administrative changes as local government is reorganised on the basis of shires. The English Church is also reorganised and coinage is reformed.

975

Edgar's unexpected death at the age of thirty-two throws the kingdom into turmoil. A period of instability and in-fighting follows. Edward is a teenager when he gains the throne, and he soon proves himself to be violent, unstable, and quick-tempered.

975 - 978/9

Edward 'the Martyr'

Son. Murdered by Edgar's second wife, Ælfthryth?

978/9

Retainers of Queen Ælfthryth (Elfrida) murder Edward (although this is never conclusively proven, and no one is ever brought to justice). Ælfthryth secures the throne for her ten year-old son, Æthelred. The queen and her son are strongly supported by Ælfhere, earl of Mercia.

978/9 - 1013

Æthelred / Ethelred II 'Unraed'

Half-brother. Popularly known as 'unready' (ill-advised). Fled.

991

The Battle of Maldon on the Essex coast is lost when the Norwegian Viking forces of Olaf Tryggvason defeat those of the ealdorman of Essex, Byrhtnoth. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle criticises the lacklustre performance of the Englishmen of Lindsey.

St Mary at Stow
St Mary at Stow served as the diocese church for the bishops of Lindsey, and even today it contains an unusually large amount of surviving Anglo-Saxon material despite later Norman and Victorian rebuilding work

The historian Florence of Worcester explains that half-heartedness by calling the men of Lindsey 'Danes on their father's side', referring to their recent close links to York and the Danelaw. The defeat is viewed as a national tragedy, one which weakens Æthelred's already shaky authority. The Vikings begin to demand heavy tribute from the Saxon lands.

1002

On St Brice's Day, Æthelred massacres Danes in the country who are not of the Danelaw. In Oxford, Danes who are fleeing for sanctuary break into the church of St Frideswide, but the citizenry burn it down about their heads. The number of dead across the country apparently includes the sister of King Sweyn Forkbeard.

FeatureThis prompts an increasing number of raids on the country by Danish forces (although Viking raids have already resumed with a vengeance since the 990s). One particularly successful raid in 1003 destroys King Æthelstan's castle of Exeter (see feature link).

1013

Viking raiders kill Alphege, archbishop of Canterbury, before being bought off with a huge bribe. Allied to King Olaf of Norway, Æthelred fights the Danes in the same year, but his reign is a relative disaster, as he fails to prevent these Danish incursions into the kingdom. A Danish occupation by King Sweyn Forkbeard takes place as Æthelred seeks refuge in Normandy.

Danish axe head
There was heavy fighting around London Bridge between Danes and English during the early 1000s, and this axe head was found with many others at the bridge's north end, possibly lost in battle or thrown into the Thames in celebration (courtesy Museum of London)

1013 - 1014

Sweyn Forkbeard

King of Denmark & Norway. Died unexpectedly.

1014

Canute / Cnut 'the Great'

Son. Supported only in the north. Forced to flee.

1014

The occupation of England ends with Sweyn Forkbeard's unexpected death on 2 February 1014. Æthelred is summoned back, subsequently fighting with limited success to expel Sweyn's son, Canute. But, with rumours of betrayal in the air, and his son Edmund deciding to fight the war his own way, Æthelred retires to London and dies there on 23 April 1016. Edmund is proclaimed king, and continues the fight against Canute when he re-invades the country in 1015.

1014 - 1016

Æthelred / Ethelred II 'Unraed'

Restored, but largely abandoned the fight to die in London.

1016

Edmund II 'Ironsides'

Son. Ruled from April to November. Died unexpectedly.

1016 - 1017

Eadric Atheling

Brother. Claimant to the throne. Murdered by Canute in 1017.

1016

With the help of Uchtred, high reeve of Bamburgh, Edmund fights strongly to prevent Danish control of England. After a series of successes, one disastrous defeat which is achieved through the treachery of his Mercian ally is enough to end his resistance. A treaty is agreed with Canute, after which Edmund dies suddenly - or is murdered. His successor, Eadric, is murdered by Canute, and another claimant, Alfred, is murdered in 1036.

Glastonbury Abbey, Glastonbury in Somerset
The body of Edmund 'Ironside' was laid to rest in the four hundred year-old Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset (click or tap on image to view more on a separate page)

Edmund's son, the rightful atheling (a noble of royal descent), is forced to flee the country, and by 1056 is to be found living in Hungary. In 1056 he is persuaded to return, along with his two sons, but dies on the way, in the hall of a Saxon thegn in 1057. England is now ruled by a Danish royal house.

Danish Kings (England)
AD 1016 - 1042

From 927 Æthelstan of Wessex was the acknowledged lord of all Britain, ruling a 'Kingdom United' which was largely West Saxon in its origins. He also initiated the concept of the Anglo-Saxon empire. It was only the fact that the Scandinavian kingdom of York managed to regain its independence after his death which prevented him from winning the undisputed title of first king of all the English.

Instead it was the West Saxon grandsons of Alfred 'the Great' who saw to it that any remaining independent states within English territory were conquered and a united Anglo-Saxon England was formed.

Unfortunately Edgar's unexpected death at the age of thirty-two threw the kingdom into turmoil. A period of instability and in-fighting followed, with two unsuitable kings succeeding him. The second of these was Æthelred II 'Unraed'. The defeat of English forces at the Battle of Maldon and then his decision to enact the St Brice's Day massacre of Danes in the country did a great deal to ensure the occupation of the throne in 1013 by Sweyn Forkbeard. His son, Canute, temporarily unseated in 1014, returned in 1016 to complete the Danish conquest of the English throne.

Canute's accession brought England into his vast Baltic-Scandinavian empire as its southernmost province. Immediately he set about removing his competitors for control of the country, including Eadric, brother of King Edmund II, and the earls of Mercia and East Anglia, whose domains were given to the Danish nobles, Eric and Thorkell 'the Tall'.

In the north, the high reeves of Bamburgh lost their established position as the powerful earls of York. Finally, Canute married Emma of Normandy, the widow of Æthelred, increasing the strength of his claim to the throne. However, having inherited the most intensely administered and best-organised government in medieval Europe, Canute ruled the country in the English manner.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Mick Baker, from Æthelstan: The First King of England, Sarah Foot (2011), from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, from Wessex, Barbara Yorke, from Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede, from the Oxford Online Dictionary of National Biography, Barbara Yorke (2004), from The Earliest English Kings, D P Kirby (1992), from Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, Barbara Yorke, from the Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales, John Marius Wilson (1870-1872), from The Peterborough Chronicle (the E Manuscript version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), from A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons, Geoffrey Hindley (Constable & Robertson Ltd, 2006), from A History of Britain, Simon Schama (BBC Books, 2003), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia of Earth, and Anglo-Saxons: A Brief History (Historical Association), and Anglo-Saxon England (Encyclopaedia Britannica).)

1017 - 1035

Canute / Cnut 'the Great'

Son of Sweyn Forkbeard. King of Norway & Denmark.

1023

FeatureCanute decides to have the body of Alphege, former archbishop of Canterbury, sent from its resting place in St Paul's to his home town for interment there. The cortege lands at Seasalter, on the East Kent coast, before progressing to Canterbury (see feature link for more on the old St Alphege Church in Seasalter).

Canute shows that he cannot stop the waves
Canute is popular in folklore for teaching his fawning courtiers that even he was not powerful enough to stop the tide's progress up the beach

1035

Canute's death sees his great Scandinavian empire begin to break up. By the late 1020s he had been able to claim kingship over England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden. Scotland had also submitted to his overlordship, and Viking raids against the British Isles had been ended. Now his brother Harold gains England, his son Hardicanute gains Denmark, and another son, Sweyn, gains Norway.

1035 - 1040

Harold I 'Harefoot'

Brother.

1036

Alfred

Son of Æthelred II. Claimant to the throne. Killed by Harold.

1036

FeatureAlfred, son of Æthelred II, makes the mistake of trusting the powerful Earl Godwine when he arrives in England to test the waters regarding his own claim to the throne. He is handed over to Harold to be mutilated, with his eyes also being torn out, and is dragged off to Ely where he dies of his wounds (see more on Ely Cathedral via the feature link). His brother, Edward, remains at liberty along with a substantial force of soldiers.

1040 - 1042

Hardicanute / Harthacnut

Half-brother, by Emma of Normandy. King of Denmark.

1041

With the help of a betrayal of Edulf of Bamburgh by Hardicanute, the Scandinavian Siward, earl of York since about 1031, begins to govern without any local officials under him, fully uniting north and south Northumbria under one 'ruler' and ending the line of high reeves, his main source of competition. Edulf's son, Osulf, later seizes the new earldom briefly, in 1067.

York Minster
Siward's York was focussed around York Minster, which occupies the land between Deangate and High Petergate in the centre of the city (click or tap on image to view more on a separate page)

1042

Hardicanute dies unexpectedly. His half-brother, Edward, son of Æthelred II, is perfectly positioned to ascend the throne. Having retained his freedom since his arrival in the country in 1036, he now ends the dynasty of Danish kings to replace it with a restored Anglo-Saxon dynasty.

Anglo-Saxon Kings Restored (England)
AD 1042 - 1066

From the acknowledgement of Æthelstan of Wessex as lord of all Britain in 927, to the West Saxon-dominated 'Kingdom United' of that period, and the rule of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England up until about 991, the concept of the Anglo-Saxon empire was essentially fact. Unfortunately Edgar's unexpected death at the age of thirty-two threw the kingdom into turmoil.

A period of instability and in-fighting followed, with the forces of Æthelred II 'Unraed' being defeated at the Battle of Maldon in 991 and then the St Brice's Day massacre of Danes doing a great deal to ensure the occupation of the throne in 1013 by Sweyn Forkbeard. His son, Canute, temporarily unseated in 1014, returned in 1016 to complete the Danish conquest of the English throne.

Canute's accession brought England into his vast Baltic-Scandinavian empire as its southernmost province and with Danish kings on the throne of England. Immediately Canute set about removing his competitors for control of the country, including Eadric, brother of King Edmund II, and the earls of Mercia and East Anglia, whose domains were given to the Danish nobles.

The high reeves of Bamburgh lost their established position as the powerful earls of York, and Canute married Emma of Normandy, Æthelred's widow, increasing the strength of his claim to the throne. His reign was largely sympathetic and successful, but his death introduced instability.

Not all of the Wessex royal family had been killed during the years of Danish rule in England. Two of the sons of Æthelred II and Emma had survived in the queen's Normandy homeland where they had been sent for their own protection. Both Alfred and Edward now entered England to test their claims to the throne. Edward, landing at Southampton, soon withdrew. Alfred made the mistake of trusting the powerful Earl Godwine of Wessex, and was murdered for his pains.

Edward was invited back by Hardicanute in 1041, and was fortunate to be in the right place when the Danish king unexpectedly died at a wedding feast. Unfortunately, he soon discovered that Earl Godwine wielded more power than he could, so he ended up devoting more of his energies towards ecclesiastic matters, becoming nicknamed 'the Confessor'.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Keith Matthews, from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, from Wessex, Barbara Yorke, from the Oxford Online Dictionary of National Biography, Barbara Yorke (2004), from The Earliest English Kings, D P Kirby (1992), from Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, Barbara Yorke, from the Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales, John Marius Wilson (1870-1872), from A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons, Geoffrey Hindley (Constable & Robertson Ltd, 2006), from A History of Britain, Simon Schama (BBC Books, 2003), from Gesta Danorum, Saxo Grammaticus, and from External Links: Encyclopaedia of Earth, and Anglo-Saxons: A Brief History (Historical Association), and Anglo-Saxon England (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and Westminster Abbey, and Archaeology News Network.)

1042 - 1066

Edward 'the Confessor'

Son of Æthelred II. Last West Saxon Cerdicinga to rule.

1040s

Edward establishes his royal palace by the banks of the River Thames on land known as Thorney Island. Close by is a small Benedictine monastery which had been founded under the patronage of King Edgar and St Dunstan around 960. Edward chooses to re-endow and greatly enlarge this monastery, building a large stone church in honour of St Peter the Apostle.

Westminster Abbey
The Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster, contains the coronation throne which has been used for all monarchs since the fourteenth century, while some parts of the structure date back to Edward the Confessor's original abbey (click or tap on image to view more on a separate page)

The church becomes known as the 'west minster' to distinguish it from St Paul's Cathedral (the east minster) in the City of London. It is consecrated on 28 December 1065, just a few days before Edward's death. His mortal remains are entombed in front of the high altar.

1051 - 1052

In an attempt to reign-in the Viking powerbase in England, Edward has Earl Godwine removed from office. Supported by his Norman followers, Edward's power is at its height, and it is from this period that William of Normandy later bases his own claim to the throne.

However, Edward's apparent favouritism of his Norman allies alienates many Anglo-Saxon nobles, most notably the powerful earls of Northumbria and Mercia. Invited to return, Earl Godwine sails into London and is not opposed by the royal fleet. Edward's position is irretrievably weakened.

1057

Edward 'the Exile'

Son of Edmund 'Ironsides'. Potential successor to the throne.

1056 - 1057

The son of Anglo-Saxon king, Edmund 'Ironsides', an atheling (a noble of royal descent) with the best claim to the throne after Edward, has been living in Hungary. The childless Edward 'the Confessor' sees him as a possible heir to the throne, so in 1056 he is persuaded to return, along with his two sons, but dies on the way, in the hall of a Saxon thegn in 1057. One of those sons, Edgar, presses his own claim in 1066.

Map of Germany AD 962
Germany in AD 962 may have had its new emperor to govern the territories shown within the dark black line, but it was still a patchwork of competing interests and power bases, most notably in the five great stem duchies, many of which were attempting to expand their own territories outside the empire, creating the various march or border regions to the east and south (click or tap on map to view full sized)

1066

Harold II Godwinson

Nominated successor. January to October. Died at Senlac Hill.

1066

Harold's army defeats an attempted invasion of England by the Norwegian king, Harald Hadrada, who has sided with Harold's rebellious younger brother, Earl Tostig of Northumbria. Almost immediately afterwards, Harold has to march his tired army south to face a second invasion by William, duke of Normandy. Harold is narrowly defeated at Selnac Hill near Hastings on 14 October (commonly known as the Battle of Hastings), and the Anglo-Saxon line of kings comes to an end.

However, three of Harold's adult offspring, according to Saxo Grammaticus, find refuge at the court of Sweyn Estridsson of Denmark (1047-1074). It is from here that Harold's daughter, Gytha is married to Vladimir II, grand prince of Kyiv (1113-1125).

Their descendants lead to Margaret of Oldenburg, who marries James III of Scotland. For this reason, all British monarchs from James I of England are descended from Harold II. Queen Isabella, consort of Edward II, is also a direct descendant of Gytha, introducing an Anglo-Saxon bloodline into the Plantagenet kings.

Battle of Hastings section of the Bayeux Tapestry
The Battle of Hastings section of the Bayeux Tapestry shows King Harold II being struck in the eye by an arrow (centre). For some time many thought this to be one of his bodyguard but it is now generally accepted to be the king himself

1066

Edgar 'the Atheling' ('the Prince')

Son of Edward 'the Exile'. King in name only, Oct-Dec.

1066

The young Edgar, grandson of Edmund 'Ironsides', contests William's claim, but is ultimately unsuccessful. Instead, he submits to William, and then spends the following decade joining many rebellions against the invaders while living in exile in Scotland, until finally accepting William's position as king about 1075.

During this period of constant unrest, there is evidence for the widespread emigration of Englishman in the dark days of the late 1060s and early 1070s, as many leave for Scotland, Denmark, and even Eastern Roman Constantinople. England is now ruled by a Norman nobility.

 
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