Eighth century England consisted of seven Anglo-Saxon sub-kingdoms which existed in a state of internecine warfare. Occasionally a king of one of the larger three kingdoms, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, would emerge from the dynastic turmoil to be accepted as Bretwalda (Bretanwealda in Old English) or 'overlord' by the others. One such was Egbert, of the House of Wessex, the first monarch to establish a stable and extensive rule over all of Anglo-Saxon England. His ancestor, Cerdic of Wessex (519-534), the founder of the Wessex line, claimed a mythical descent from the great Anglo-Saxon pagan god Wōden himself. The dynasty he founded was to rule England for over two hundred years and produced such varying characters as Alfred (871-899), the only English monarch ever to be bestowed with the epithet the Great who amongst varied achievements, established a peace with the invading Vikings and founded the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
The Anglo-Saxon line, as noted below, was interrupted for two decades by Viking conquerors, but was re-established by Edward the Confessor. The Confessor is said to have willed his throne to his brother-in-law, King Harold II Godwinson, who was killed at the Battle at Hastings, when the native Saxon House of Wessex was displaced by Edward the Confessors first cousin once-removed, William, Duke of Normandy, later William I of England and thereafter known as the Conqueror.
A word on pronunciation; the Anglo-Saxons had a predilection for some pretty intimidating-looking, tongue-warping names, though a good starting point is to know that the prefix Æth is pronounced eth to rhyme with Beth. Youll see a lot of Æthel-something-or-other, which means "noble", and is common prefix in high-status Anglo-Saxon names; Æthelred Eth-uhl-red for example means "noble counsel", Æthelflæd Eth-uhl-fled means noble beauty and Ælfflæd Elf-fled means beautiful elf.
See also Anglo-Saxons. Without further ado....
Cerdic of Wessex
The semi-mythical Founder of the Kingdom, Cerdic was King of the West Saxons and the founder of the House of Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides a pedigree tracing Cerdic's ancestry back to the ancient pagan god Wōden.
His influence was so profound that later genealogies of the English monarchy would claim that all the sovereigns of Britain, save for Cnut, Harthacnut, the Harolds, and William the Conqueror, were descended from him. Precisely why he was so influential is debated, in that the ancient sources conflict in their accounts of his life, who he was, and what he accomplished — so much so, in fact, that his origin, ethnicity, and even his very existence have been extensively disputed.
After him, over the next two hundred years, there followed a long line of succession (Cynric, Ceawlin, Ceol, Ceolwulf, Cynegils, Cwichelm, Cenwalh, Penda, Cenwalh (restored), Seaxburh, Cenfus, Æscwine, Centwine, Cædwalla, Ine, Æthelheard, Cuthred, Sigeberht, Cynewulf and Beorhtric) leading up to Egbert, who is the next notable ruler...
Egbert of Wessex
Egbert (Ecgherht) was the first monarch to establish a stable and extensive rule over all of Anglo-Saxon England. After returning from exile at the court of Charlemagne in 802, he regained his kingdom of Wessex. Following his conquest of Mercia in 827, he controlled all of England south of the Humber. After further victories in Northumberland and North Wales, he is recognised by the title Bretwalda (Anglo-Saxon, ruler of the British). A year before he died aged almost 70, he defeated a combined force of Danes and Cornish at Hingston Down in Cornwall. He is buried at Winchester in Hampshire.
Æthelwulf of Wessex
King of Wessex, son of Egbert and father of Alfred the Great. In 851 Æthelwulf defeated a Danish army at the battle of Oakley while his eldest son fought and defeated a Viking fleet off the coast of Kent, in what is believed to be the first naval battle in recorded English history. A highly religious man Æthelwulf travelled to Rome with his son Alfred to see the Pope in 855.
Æthelbald of Wessex
The second son of Æthelwulf, Æthelbald was born around 834. He was crowned at Kingston-upon-Thames in southwest London, after forcing his father to abdicate upon his return from pilgrimage to Rome. Following his fathers death in 858, he married his widowed stepmother Judith, but under pressure from the church the marriage was annulled after only a year. He is buried at Sherbourne Abbey in Dorset.
Æthelberht of Wessex
Became king following the death of his brother Æthelbald. Like his brother and his father Æthelberht was crowned at Kingston-upon-Thames. Shortly after his succession, a Danish army landed and sacked Winchester before being defeated by the Saxons. In 865 the Viking Great Heathen Army landed in East Anglia and swept across England. He is buried at Sherborne Abbey.
Æthelred I of Wessex
Æthelred succeeded his brother Æthelberht. His reign was one long struggle with the Danes, who had occupied York in 866, establishing the Viking Kingdom of Yorvik. When the Danish Army moved south, Wessex itself was threatened, and so together with his brother Alfred, they fought several battles with the Vikings at Reading, Ashdown and Basing. Æthelred suffered serious injuries during the next major battle at Meretun in Hampshire; he died of his wounds shortly after at Witchampton in Dorset, where he was buried.
Alfred the Great of Wessex / Alfred, King of the Anglo-Saxons
One of the British Isle's most celebrated rulers, there's a lot to say about him, so like many prominent British monarchs, he also has his own page — see Alfred the Great. Speaking of prominent British monarchs, Elizabeth II is his 32nd great-granddaughter.
Alfred is the only monarch in British history afforded the accolade "The Great". There are three main reasons for Alfreds fame: (1) his successful defence of his kingdom against the Vikings; (2) the relatively large number of sources which survive from his reign; and (3) the desire in later centuries to find Anglo-Saxon origins for the English constitution, Church, empire and character. These three aspects coalesce so that his very real achievements have become part of a myth. It is a process that began in his lifetime and reached its height in the millenary celebrations of his death in 1901.
Alfred was the right person in the right place at the right time. Early in his reign he very nearly succumbed, like so many of his contemporaries, to the onslaught of the Vikings, but somehow he managed to hold out. By the time of his second campaign against the Vikings, between 892 and 896, his kingdom of Wessex was better prepared to defend itself. The military changes Alfred made saved his land and his people, and secured his reputation as a war leader. Alfred was able to leave the throne far more secure than he found it, so that his son and grandsons could in due course capitalise on his achievements to become king of all England.
Alfred lived at the time of what is now known as the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of heightened interest in learning and the written word in western Europe. Due to this, his reign is among the best recorded of the entire Anglo-Saxon period. Alfred seems to have taken a strong personal interest in the production of texts in the English language, something which marks him out from all of the other Anglo-Saxon warrior kings. He commissioned a series of translations into Old English of key Latin texts. He also had circulated, and may have commissioned, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which recorded, in the native tongue, the main events of his and earlier periods, beginning with the invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar in 54 BC and rapidly moving on to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, including Alfreds supposed ancestors Cerdic and Cynric in the fifth century.
Most crucial of all for Alfreds subsequent reputation was the Latin biography written by one of his court advisers, the Welsh scholar monk Asser, who eventually became one of the bishops of Wessex. The Life of Alfred, written in 893 while the king was still alive, is the only biography that survives for an Anglo-Saxon king and provides types of information about the man and his reign that we do not have for other pre-Norman rulers.
Most British school-children will instantly remember him as "the one who burnt the cakes" — so what was that all about? One of the best known stories in English history, children are taught the story where Alfred is on the run from the Vikings, taking refuge in the home of a peasant woman. She asks him to watch her cakes (small loaves of bread) baking by the fire, but distracted by his problems, he lets the cakes burn and is roundly scolded by the woman. Possibly apocryphal, yet makes for a good story.
Finally, his name is one of the few surviving ancient Anglo-Saxon male names (along with Edward and Edmund) still in popular use. In Alfred's native England, the name (with the very Tolkien-esque meaning of "Wise Elf") has never really gone out of fashion, especially the diminutive "Alfie", which was the 7th most popular boys' name for babies born in 2019.
Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians
Æthelflæd, has been described as 'our greatest woman-general', was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and his queen, Ealhswith.
Although not a ruler of England, Æthelflæd was ruler of Mercia, a semi-autonomous Kingdom under her father's rule, and is notable as a strong, independent and well-educated lady. During her early years, Æthelflæd witnessed her father take back large swathes of England from the Vikings (Danes), starting with the famous battle of Edington in Wiltshire, a key turning point in the Anglo-Saxon campaign against the Vikings. As Æthelflæd reached her teens, her father had begun to push the Vikings out of south eastern England and began to reclaim territory for both his own kingdom of Wessex and his northern ally of Mercia.
Mercia itself had not been a proper, independent kingdom for many years. The eastern part of its territory had long been in direct control of the Danish Vikings, with the remaining western part of the kingdom being effectively a puppet of the Vikings. Soon afterwards the English-controlled western half of Mercia came under the rule of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, who accepted Alfred's overlordship. Alfred adopted the title 'King of the English', claiming to rule all English people not living in areas under Viking control. In the mid-880s, Alfred sealed the strategic alliance between the surviving English kingdoms by marrying Æthelflæd to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. Æthelred played a major role in fighting off renewed Viking attacks in the 890s, together with Æthelflæd's brother, the future King Edward the Elder.
When her husband died, Æthelflæd became the only sole female ruler in Europe. She expanded Mercias domains and built new forts to protect them against the Danes. In 917 she captured Derby and soon also forced the Danes of York to surrender. After her death in 918 her only daughter succeeded her as Lady of the Mercians.
Edward the Elder, King of the Anglo-Saxons
Succeeded his father Alfred the Great. Edward is often referred to with his byname "The Elder', which was not used in his lifetime but was a byname added after his death to distinguish him from Edward the Martyr. He retook southeast England and the Midlands from the Danes, and following the death of his sister Aethelflaed of Mercia, he united the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. In 923, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record that the Scottish King Constantine II recognises Edward as father and lord. The following year, Edward is killed in a battle against the Welsh near Chester. His body is returned to Winchester for burial.
Æthelstan, King of the Anglo-Saxons / Æthelstan of England
Edward's heir Æthelstan was also a distinguished and audacious soldier who pushed the boundaries of the kingdom to their furthest extent yet. In 927-8, he took York from the Danes; he forced the submission of king Constantine of Scotland and of the northern kings; all five Welsh kings agreed to pay a huge annual tribute (reportedly including 25,000 oxen), and he also eliminated opposition in Cornwall. Æthelstan became the first king to rule the whole of England and he is regarded by some modern historians as the first true king of England.
Æthelstan's codes strengthened royal control over his large kingdom; currency was regulated to control silver's weight and to penalise fraudsters. Buying and selling was mostly confined to the burhs, encouraging town life; areas of settlement in the midlands and Danish towns were consolidated into shires. Overseas, he built alliances by marrying four of his half-sisters to various rulers in western Europe.
He also had extensive cultural and religious contacts; as an enthusiastic and discriminating collector of works of art and religious relics, he gave away much of his collection to his followers and to churches and bishops in order to retain their support.
Æthelstan died at the height of his power and was buried at Malmesbury; a church charter of 934 described him as 'King of the English, elevated by the right hand of the Almighty ... to the Throne of the whole Kingdom of Britain'. He died childless, leaving his half brother Edmund to succeed him.
Edmund I of England
Succeeded his half-bother Æthelstan, above, as king at the tender age of 18, having already fought alongside him at the Battle of Brunanburh two years earlier. He re-established Anglo-Saxon control over northern England, which had fallen back under Scandinavian rule following the death of Æthelstan. Aged just 25, and whilst celebrating the feast of Augustine, Edmund was stabbed by a robber in his royal hall at Pucklechurch near Bath. His two sons, Eadwig and Edgar, were perhaps considered too young to become kings.
Eadred of England
The son of Edward the Elder by his third marriage to Eadgifu, Eadred succeeded his brother Edmund following his premature death. He followed in the family tradition of defeating Norsemen, expelling the last Scandinavian King of York, Eric Bloodaxe, in 954. A deeply religious man, Eadred suffered a serious stomach ailment that would eventually prove fatal. Eadred died in his early 30s, unmarried and without an heir, at Frome in Somerset. He is buried in Winchester.
Eadwig of England
The eldest son of Edmund I, Eadwig was about 16 when he was crowned king at Kingston-upon-Thames in southeast London. Legend has it that his coronation had to be delayed to allow Bishop Dunstan to prise Eadwig from his bed, and from between the arms of his strumpet and the strumpets mother. Perhaps unimpressed by the interruption, Eadwig had Dunstan exiled to France. Eadwig died in Gloucester when he was just 20, the circumstances of his death are not recorded.
Edgar of England
The youngest son of Edmund I, Edgar had been in dispute with his brother concerning succession to the throne for some years. Following Eadwigs mysterious death, Edgar immediately recalled Dunstan from exile, making him Archbishop of Canterbury as well as his personal adviser. Following his carefully planned (by Dunstan) coronation in Bath in 973, Edgar marched his army to Chester, to be met by six kings of Britain. The kings, including the King of Scots, King of Strathclyde and various princes of Wales, are said to have signalled their allegiance to Edgar by rowing him in his state barge across the River Dee.
Edward the Martyr of England
Eldest son of Edgar, Edward was crowned king when aged just 12. Although supported by Archbishop Dunstan, his claim to the throne was contested by supporters of his much younger half-brother Æthelred. The resulting dispute between rival factions within the church and nobility almost led to civil war in England. Edwards short reign ended when he was murdered at Corfe Castle by followers of Æthelred, after just two and half years as king. The title martyr was a consequence of him being seen as a victim of his Wicked Stepmother Ælfthryth's ambitions for her own son Æthelred...
Æthelred II of England (1st reign)
He was an ineffectual ruler who failed to prevent the Danes from overrunning England. The epithet unready is derived from unraed, meaning bad counsel or no counsel, and puns on his name, which means noble counsel.
The son of King Edgar, Æthelred ascended the throne upon the assassination of his half brother King Edward the Martyr in March 978. Widespread suspicion that Æthelred may have had a part in the murder created much of the distrust and disloyalty that undermined his authority. Hence, there was no unified defence when the Danish invasions resumed in 980.
Nearly all of the country was ravaged, and Æthelred's efforts to buy peace only made the invaders more rapacious. When they did begin to settle down in towns, Æthelred provoked further invasions by launching a massacre of Danish settlers. By the end of 1013 the Danish king, Sweyn I, had been accepted as king in England, and Æthelred had fled to Normandy...
House of Knýtlinga (41 days)
England came under the control of Sweyn Forkbeard, a Danish king of the House of Knýtlinga after an invasion in 1013, during which Æthelred abandoned the throne and went into exile in Normandy.
Sweyn I of Denmark
Sweyn Forkbeard, Englands forgotten king, ruled for just 5 weeks. Sweyn, known as Forkbeard due to his long, cleft beard, was the son of Harald Bluetooth, king of Denmark.
Viking warrior though he was, Sweyn was baptised a Christian, his father having converted to Christianity. Despite this, Sweyn was a brutal man who lived in a brutal time; he was a violent warlord and warrior. He started his life of violence with a campaign against his own father: in around 986, Sweyn and his ally Palnatoke attacked and deposed King Harald.
Sweyn then turned his attention to England and in the early 990s led a campaign of fear and destruction, laying waste to large areas of the country. He was declared King of England on Christmas Day in 1013 and ruled until his death on 3rd February 1014, although he was never crowned.
House of Wessex (restored, first time)
Æthelred II of England (2nd reign)
After Sweyn died in February 1014, Æthelreds council of advisers invited him to return to the throne on condition that he agree to satisfy their grievances. At the time of Æthelred's death in 1016, Sweyns son Cnut was ravaging England. Æthelred was succeeded by his son Edmund II Ironside; one of his other sons ruled England as Edward the Confessor from 1042 to 1066. Despite the overall failures of the reign, evidence from his charters and coinage suggest that Æthelred's government was more effective than was once believed.
Edmund Ironside of England
Although he was held in high regard during the 11th and 12th centuries, Edmund, who was given the nickname 'Ironside' by the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle in recognition of his bravery, has since been eclipsed by those who came immediately before and after him. The son of Æthelred II, Edmund II had led the resistance to Canutes invasion of England since 1015. Following the death of his father, he was chosen king by the people of London. The Witan (the kings council) however elected Canute. Following his defeat at the Battle of Assandun, Edmund made a pact with Canute to divide the kingdom between them. This treaty ceded control of all of England, with the exception of Wessex, to Canute. It also stated that when one of the kings died the other would take all of England Edmund died later that year, probably assassinated.
House of Knýtlinga (restored)
Cnut the Great of England, Denmark and Norway
Cnut (sometimes spelled Canute) became king of all England following the death of Edmund II. The son of Sweyn Forkbeard, he ruled well and gained favour with his English subjects by sending most of his army back to Denmark. In 1017, Cnut married Emma of Normandy, the widow of Æthelred II and divided England into the four earldoms of East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex.
Cnut became King of Denmark in 1019 and King of Norway in 1028, making him the ruler of a massive empire surrounding the North Sea. Cnut converted to Christianity and was an avid protector of the Church; he promoted leaders of the English Church and was acknowledged by the Pope as the first Viking to becoming a Christian King.
Cnut was an astute statesman. Rather than rejecting the former Anglo-Saxon kings of England, he went out of his way to show support for them. He did this by visiting or making gifts to shrines associated with Anglo-Saxon kings, such as Shaftesbury Abbey, where King Edward the Martyr lay buried, or Wilton Abbey, linked with St Edith, sister of Æthelred. He even paid his respects to his old adversary, Edmund Ironside, at Glastonbury Abbey. This Anglophile policy was a smart political move on Cnuts part, as it was well regarded by his English subjects. He also adopted a new law code, which was regarded as introducing a strong but fair regime to England. Cnut based these laws on those of the Anglo-Saxon king Edgar, whose reign was regarded as a golden age.
There is a famous story proclaiming Cnuts vanity, first recorded by Henry of Huntingdon in his twelfth-century Chronicle of the History of England, in which flattering courtiers convinced him he could hold back the tide of the ocean. The story is called Cnut and the Waves as is how he is best remembered today. While history has remembered him as an almost humorous figure the medieval historian, Norman Cantor stated that Cnut was the most effective king in Anglo-Saxon history. The size of his North Sea Empire (Norway, England and his native Denmark) should be a stark reminder of his success as a conqueror and ruler.
Harold I of England
Also known as Harold Harefoot, in recognition of his speed and skill as a hunter. Harold was the illegitimate son of Cnut; he claimed the English crown on the death of his father whilst his half-brother Harthacnut, the rightful heir, was in Denmark fighting to protect his Danish kingdom. Harold died three years into his reign, just weeks before Harthacnut was due to invade England with an army of Danes. He was buried in Westminster Abbey before Harthacnut had his body dug up, beheaded, and thrown into the Thames. His bits were later gathered and re-buried at St. Clement Danes in London.
Harthacnut of Denmark and England
The son of Cnut the Great and Emma of Normandy, Harthacnut sailed to England with his mother, accompanied by a fleet of 62 warships, and was immediately accepted as king. Perhaps to appease his mother, the year before he died Harthacnut invited his half-brother Edward, Emmas son from her first marriage to Æthelred the Unready, back from exile in Normandy. Harthacnut died at a wedding whilst toasting the health of the bride; he was aged just 24 and was the last Danish king to rule England.
House of Wessex (restored, second time)
Edward the Confessor of England
Son of Æthelred II and brother of Edmund Ironside. Following the death of Harthacnut, Edward restored the rule of the House of Wessex to the English throne. A deeply pious and religious man (hence his byname), he presided over the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey, leaving much of the running of the country to Earl Godwin and his son Harold. Edward died childless, eight days after the building work on Westminster Abbey had finished. With no natural successor, England was faced with a power struggle for control of the throne.
Harold Godwinson / Harold II of England
Despite having no royal bloodline, Harold Godwinson, son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, was elected king by the Witan (a council of high ranking nobles and religious leaders), following the death of Edward the Confessor. The election result failed to meet with the approval of one William, Duke of Normandy, who claimed that Edward, his first cousin once-removed, had promised the throne to him several years earlier. Harold defeated an invading Norwegian army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, then marched south to confront William of Normandy who had landed his forces in Sussex. The death of Harold at the Battle Of Hastings meant the end of the English Anglo-Saxon kings and the beginning of Norman rule.
Depictions in fiction:
- The Last Kingdom is a British TV series produced by The BBC based on The Saxon Stories, an on-going series of Historical Fiction novels by Bernard Cornwell, starring Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred of Bebbanburg and David Dawson as Alfred the Great. Many of the those listed above feature prominently; Alfreds wife Aelswith, Edward the Elder, Æthelflæd and Æthelred of Mercia, and many more.
- Parts of Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson's history of the kings of Norway, are concerned with the history of late Anglo-Saxon Britain; notably the Danish conquest, the Danish kings of England, and the unsuccessful Norwegian invasion of 1066.
- Cerdic of Wessex and his Saxon army are the villains in the 2004 film King Arthur
- Ivanhoe portrays the perpetuation of cultural friction between pure-blooded Saxon families and the ruling Normans in England, though in real life the two cultures had long since assimilated by this point.
- The novelist Bernard Cornwell has written several books set around this time period;
- The Warlord Chronicles trilogy (The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur: A Novel of Arthur) which is about King Arthur attempting to set up a kingdom by being threatened by invasion from the Anglo-Saxons.
- The Saxon Stories which is an ongoing series of novels about Alfred the Great and his uneasy ally Uhtred who is raised as a viking.
- The invading Saxons are the antagonists of the middle novels of Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth series The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Sword at Sunset, and Dawn Wind.
- The unearthing of an Anglo-Saxon crown is the catalyst of Montague Rhodes James's ghost story A Warning to the Curious.
< Prior to the arrival of the Saxons were going back to Roman Britain. See also Celtic Kingdoms for detail on the Britons the Saxons displaced, and Boudica for detail on one of Britains most famous, even earlier monarchs.
> After these guys, we're into the Norman Dynasty