Wikijunior:Kings and Queens of England/The Anglo-Saxons
Our history of the kings of England starts with the Anglo-Saxons, at the beginning of the 9th century. Because it was so long ago, the dates, and even the years are uncertain. At this point in time, England, as you know it, doesn't exist yet. The land is divided into several small kingdoms, and the people who live there are called Anglo-Saxons.
It was during this time, around the year 830, that the Vikings realized that England was a very interesting country to loot and plunder. Between 830 and 865 they came by more and more often, much to the dismay of the people living there. In 865 these Vikings formed a "Great Army". While their previous raids were aimed at looting and plundering, the Great Army was sent to actually conquer England. They were surprisingly good at that - in only three years they had conquered northern and eastern England. Even in the west, one by one the small kingdoms fell until only one of them remained independent. It was the kingdom of Wessex.
It's here that we find Alfred the Great, the first of the Kings and Queens of England.
Alfred the Great (871-899)
Alfred the Great was born around 850 in Wantage, in what is now Oxfordshire. Alfred was the fourth son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex. He became king of the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex in 871, when his brother Ethelred I died.
When the Danish Vikings had conquered most of England, they finally came to Wessex. Alfred had only just been crowned, and now had to face the invaders at his borders. During a fierce series of battles, he managed to drive them from Wessex. Defeated, the Vikings retreated. However, seven years later they returned in full force. In May of 878, Alfred had to confront his enemies once more, and crushingly defeated them near Edington in Wiltshire. This victory earned him the name "the Great", making him the only English monarch called by that name.
With the Danes defeated, the way was cleared to unite England. By building a system of fortifications, the kingdom of Wessex managed to expand its borders. Alfred encouraged education, being educated himself, and improved the kingdom's laws. Under his guidance, the kingdom began to prosper.
Very little is known about what Alfred did during the short reigns of his two eldest brothers, but when his third brother, Ethelred, became king in 866, Alfred became active in public life. In particular, he worked hard to free England from the influence of the Danes, and Alfred was appointed as Ethelred's successor.
In 868, Alfred tried unsuccessfully to relieve the central English kingdom of Mercia from Danish influence. For nearly two years after, though, the Danes did not attack Alfred's native Wessex. At the end of 870 this era of peace ended, and the next period of time became known as "Alfred's year of battles". The Kingdom of Wessex fought nine battles in 870 and 871, winning some, and losing others. In April of 871, Ethelred died, and Alfred became king. The Danes then defeated the English in a battle, whilst Alfred was away burying his brother, the old king. The English were then beaten again under Alfred's command in May.
After that Alfred agreed to a peace, and for the next five years the Danes were busy in other parts of England. But in 876, the Danes, under a new leader, Guthrum, attacked Wareham and then went on to Exeter. Here Alfred blockaded them, and after the Danes lost many ships in a storm, the Danes retreated to Mercia. Then, in January 878, they suddenly attacked Chippenham, where Alfred was. Alfred himself then retreated to Athelney in Somerset.
There is a story that whilst he was hiding in the marshes of Athelney, Alfred was given shelter by an elderly peasant woman who didn't recognise who he was. She left him to watch some cakes she had left cooking on the fire. Preoccupied with the problems of the kingdom and the war against the Vikings, Alfred uncareingly let the cakes burn, and the peasant woman complained and also beat him when she returned. When some of his knights returned and called him "Your Majesty", she realised who Alfred was, and she apologised, but Alfred insisted that he was the one who had to apologise. This story shows Alfred was not only a hero, but also a humble one, with mistakes and faults.
In the middle of May, Alfred and the Danes met at the Battle of Edington in Wiltshire, which Alfred won. England became split into two, the far south-western parts being controlled by the Saxons under King Alfred, and the rest of England, including London, being controlled by the Danes. This part became known as the Danelaw. By 879, the Danes had been forced out of Wessex and much of Mercia. For the next few years there was peace, partly because the Danes were kept busy in Europe. Then, after a Danish uprising in East Anglia, which Alfred put down, he went on to take London in 885 or 886. Then in 892 or 893, the Danes attacked England again, but were ultimately repelled in 896 or 897, with only those Danes with connections to England remaining in East Anglia and Northumberland.
Marriage and children
In 868 Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of Aethelred Mucill, who was ealdorman of the Gaini, a people who lived in Lincolnshire around the town of Gainsborough. She was the granddaughter of a former king of Mercia, and they had five or six children, one of whom was Ethelfleda, who was later queen of Mercia.
Death and legacy
After the Danes retreated, Alfred turned his attention to the royal navy, and ships were built according to the king's own designs. This is not, as some say, the beginning of the English navy, although both the Royal Navy and the United States Navy claim Alfred as the founder of their naval traditions. Alfred probably died in 899, though the year is not certain. How he died is unknown. He was originally buried in the Old Minster, then moved to the New Minster, and finally moved to Hyde Abbey in the year 1110.
Edward the Elder (899-924)
Edward the Elder was king of England after Alfred. He reigned from 899 to his death in 924. Edward the Elder was Alfred's son.
Edward was born between 868 and 877. He married Ecgwynn around 893, and they had a son Athelstan and a daughter who married Sihtric, the Danish King of York. However, Ecgwynn's status was not royal enough, and so, when Edward became king in 899, he set Ecgwynn aside and married Elflaed, a daughter of the ealdorman of Wiltshire. Their son was the future king Ethelweard. They had six daughters and possibly a son, Eadwine, who drowned in 933. Two daughters became nuns and the rest married quite well. Eadgifu married Charles III, "The Simple", who was King of France. Eadhild married Hugh "The Great", Duke of Paris. Eadgyth married the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I. Aelfgifu was a wife of Conrad, King of Burgundy.
Edward married for a third time, in about 919, to Eadgifu, the daughter of the ealdorman of Kent. They had three sons and two daughters. In total Edward had about fifteen children from his three marriages, and he may have had an illegitimate child too.
As king, Edward spent his early reign fighting his cousin Aethelwald, son of Ethelred I. He also got rid of the Danelaw. He died in 924 and was buried at Winchester.
Ethelweard was born in Wessex around the year 904. He did not have a long reign. According to one version of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, Ethelweard was appointed king on 17 July 924 after the death of his father, Edward the Elder. He died sixteen days later on 2 August 924. Some claim that he was killed on the orders of his half-brother Athelstan, who became the next king. Ethelweard never married. He was buried at Winchester.
Athelstan was born around the year 895 and became king, first of Mercia, in 924 and then of Wessex in 925. He was the son of King Edward the Elder. Political alliances were high on Athelstan's agenda. A year after becoming king, he had a sister married to Sihtric, the Viking King of York. Sihtric died a year later, and Athelstan took the chance to capture Northumbria. This was a bold move, and made him the king of a larger territory than any Anglo-Saxon king before him, roughly equivalent to modern England, except for Cornwall. The rulers of the territories neighbouring Athelstan's then appear to have submitted to him at Bamburgh. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle noted that these included " Hywel, King of the West Welsh [that is, the Cornish], and Constantine II, King of Scots, and Owain, King of the people of Gwent, and Ealdred...of Bamburgh". Owain, King of Strathclyde, may well also have been present. Similar events are recorded along the western parts of Athelstan's domain. Because his realm covered most of modern-day England, except for Cornwall, Athelstan is generally regarded as the first king of England. He achieved considerable military successes over his rivals, including the Vikings, and extended his rule to parts of Wales and Cornwall. Although he established many alliances through his family, Athelstan never married and had no children of his own. He fostered Hakon, who later became known as Hakon the Good, King of Norway. Athelstan was religious and gave generously to the Church. When he died in 939 at Gloucester he was buried at Malmesbury Abbey rather than with his family at Winchester. He was succeeded by his younger half-brother, King Edmund I.
Edmund the Magnificent (939-946)
Edmund I, otherwise known as Edmund the Magnificent or Edmund the Deed-Doer, was born in 921 in Wessex. He was a son of Edward the Elder and half-brother of Athelstan, and succeeded to the throne when Athelstan died on 27 October 939.
Shortly after his proclamation as king he had to face several military threats. King Olaf I [of Dublin] conquered Northumbria and invaded the Midlands. However, when Olaf died in 942, Edmund reconquered the Midlands, and he reconquered Northumberland in 944. In 945 Edmund conquered Strathclyde in Scotland, but gave up his rights to territory to King Malcolm I of Scotland in exchange for a treaty of mutual military support. This ensured that the northern borders were safe. Edmund's reign also saw a revival of monasteries in England.
Edmund was murdered on 26 May 946 by Leofa, an exiled thief. He had been having a party in Pucklechurch, when he spotted Leofa in the crowd. When Leofa refused to leave, the king and his advisers fought Leofa. Both Edmund and Leofa were killed. He was buried at Glastonbury. Edmund was succeeded as king by his brother Edred. Later, two of Edmund's sons became kings of England – Edwy and Edgar – who you can read about below.
King Edred or Eadred was born in Wessex around the year 923 and became King of England in 946. He was a son of King Edward the Elder. Like both of his older brothers, Edred enjoyed military success over the Vikings. He was a religious man, but his health was poor and he could barely eat his food. He died on 23 November 955 at Frome in Somerset, and was buried at Winchester Cathedral. He never married, and was succeeded by his nephew, Edwy.
Edwy the Fair (955-959)
Edwy All-Fair or Eadwig was born in Wessex around the year 941 and became King of England in 955 when the nobility chose him to succeed his uncle, King Edred. Edwy was the eldest son of King Edmund I. His short reign was marked by disputes with his family; the Thanes, who were the king's retainers; and the Roman Catholic Church. Frustrated by the king's impositions, and supported by Odo, the Archibishop of Canterbury, the Thanes of Mercia and Northumbria switched their allegiance to Edwy's brother Edgar in 957. Edwy was defeated in battle at Gloucester, but rather than see the country descend into civil war, an agreement was reached among the nobles by which the kingdom would be divided along the Thanes, with Edwy keeping Wessex and Kent in the south and Edgar ruling in the north. In the few remaining years of his reign, Edwy was a better king and made significant gifts to the Church. He died, however, at the age of 18 or 19 on 1 October 959. He was married to Elgiva, but the marriage was annulled. Edwy was succeeded by his brother and rival, Edgar, who reunited the kingdom. He was buried at Winchester Cathedral.
Edgar the Peaceable (959-975)
King Edgar was born around the year 942 in Wessex. He was the younger son of King Edmund I. Because of his peaceful reign Edgar is known as "the Peaceable". He was a stronger king than his elder brother, Edwy, from whom he took the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia in 958. Edgar was named as King of England north of the Thames by a group of Mercian nobles in 958, but officially succeeded when Edwy died in October 959. Edgar was crowned at Bath, but not at the start of his reign. His coronation was in 973, and was planned as the culmination of his reign. The symbolic coronation was an important step, and six other kings of Britain, including the kings of Scotland and of Strathclyde, came and gave their allegiance to Edgar shortly afterwards at Chester. Edgar married twice, first to Ethelfled, and later to Elfrida. He had several children. When he died on 8 July 975 at Winchester he left two sons, both of whom became kings of England. His eldest son, Edward, by his first wife, succeeded him on his death, and a second son, called Ethelred, by his second wife, succeeded his half brother. Edgar was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. There is some belief that Edgar married his mistress, Wulfryth, in between his other two wives, and that she produced a daughter, Eadgyth, who became the Abbess at Wilton.
Edward the Martyr (975-978)
King Edward the Martyr was born around the year 962 in Wessex. He succeeded his father Edgar as King of England in 975, but was murdered after a reign of only a few years in 978. As the murder was attributed to "irreligious" opponents, whereas Edward himself was considered a good Christian, he was made a Saint, Saint Edward the Martyr, in 1001. He never married.
Edward's kingship was contested by a group of nobles led by his stepmother, Queen Elfrida, who wanted the king to be her infant son, Ethelred, who later became king and is now known as Ethelred the Unready. Edward, however, had more support, and was confirmed king by the council of nobles known as the Witan.
At the time a great famine was raging through the land and violent attacks were stirred up against monasteries by noblemen who were looking to get and keep control of the lands which Edward's father King Edgar had given to them. Many of these monasteries were destroyed, and the monks forced to flee, but the king stood firm with archbishop Dunstan in defence of the Church and the monasteries. Because of this, some of the nobles decided to remove him and replace him with Ethelred.
Death and legacy
On 18 March 978 the king was hunting with dogs and horsemen near Wareham in Dorset. During this trip the king decided to visit Ethelred who was being brought up in the house of his mother Elfrida at Corfe Castle nearby. King Edward went alone. Whilst still on his horse in the lower part of the castle, his stepmother, Elfrida, offered Edward a glass of mead, and while he was drinking it, he was stabbed in the back by one of the queen's party. Ethelred himself was then only ten years old, so was not involved in the murder. An alternative account claims that Elfrida herself committed the murder.
Immediately following the murder, the body of the murdered king slipped from the saddle of his horse and was dragged with one foot in the stirrup until it fell into a stream at the base of the hill on which Corfe Castle stands. The stream was later found to have healing properties, particularly for the blind. The queen then ordered the body to be hidden in a nearby hut. A woman who was blind from birth lived in the hut. During the night, she suddenly received her sight. The church of St Edward at Corfe Castle now stands on the site of this miracle. At dawn the queen ordered King Edward's burial in a marshy place near Wareham. A year after the murder however, a pillar of fire was seen over the place where the body was hidden, lighting up the whole area. This was seen by some of the inhabitants of Wareham, who raised the body. Immediately a clear spring of healing water sprang up in that place. Accompanied by what was now a huge crowd of mourners, the body was taken to the church of the Most Holy Mother of God in Wareham and buried at the east end of the church. This took place on 13 February 980. Other miracles also became attributed to King Edward.
Edward was officially made a saint by the All-English Council of 1008, presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury. King Ethelred ordered that the saint's three feast days should be celebrated throughout England. Shaftesbury Abbey was rededicated to the Mother of God and St Edward. Shaftesbury was renamed "Edwardstowe" only reverting to its original name after the Reformation of the Monasteries under the reign of King Henry VIII many centuries later. Many miracles were recorded at the tomb of St Edward including the healing of lepers and the blind.
During the sixteenth century, St. Edward's remains were hidden so as to avoid desecration during the Reformation. In 1931, they were discovered. They were later placed in a church in Brookwood Cemetery, in Woking, Surrey. The church is now named St Edward the Martyr Orthodox Church.
Ethelred the Unready (978-1013, 1014-1016)
Ethelred the Unready was born around the year 968 in Wessex and died in 1016. He was King of England between 978 and 1013, and then again between 1014 and 1016. He is also known as King Ethelred II. His nickname "The Unready" does not mean that he was ill-prepared, but comes from the Anglo-Saxon unræd meaning "without counsel" or "indecisive". This could also be interpreted as a pun on his name, Æðelræd, which may be understood to mean "noble counsel". Ethelred became king when he was aged about 10 after the death of his father, King Edgar, and the murder of his half-brother King Edward.
Conflict with the Danes
England had experienced a long period of peace after the reconquest of the Danelaw. However in 991 Ethelred was faced with a Viking fleet larger than any since Guthrum's a century earlier. This fleet was led by Olaf Trygvasson, a Norwegian with ambitions to reclaim his country from Danish domination. After initial military setbacks, Ethelred was able to agree to terms with Olaf, who returned to Norway to try to gain his kingdom with mixed success. While this agreement won him some time, England soon faced further Viking raids. Ethelred fought these off, but in many cases followed the practice of earlier kings, including Alfred the Great, in buying them off by payment of what was to become known as Danegeld. However, on 13 November 1012, Ethelred ordered the massacre of the Danes living in England. This drew an angry response which led to Sweyn Haraldsson leading a series of determined campaigns to conquer England. He succeeded in this, deposing Ethelred, who fled to Normandy, where he sought the protection of his brother-in-law, Robert of Normandy. However, Sweyn died shortly afterwards, and in February 1014, Ethelred returned as king.
Marriage and children
Ethelred's first marriage was to Ælflaed, daughter of Thored, the ealdorman of Northumbria; she was the mother of four sons, including Edmund Ironside (later King Edmund II). In 997, he married Ælfgifu, daughter of ealdorman Aethelberht, who gave him two sons. His third and final marriage, in 1002, was to Emma of Normandy, whose grandnephew, William I of England, would later use this relationship as the basis of his claim on the throne.
Death and legacy
Ethelred died on 23 April 1016, in London, where he was buried. He was succeeded by his son, Edmund Ironside. Despite the steady stream of Viking attacks, Ethelred's reign was far from the disaster described by chroniclers writing well after the event. Ethelred introduced major reforms to the machinery of government in Anglo-Saxon England, and is responsible for the introduction of Sheriffs. The quality of the coinage, always a good indicator of the prevailing economic conditions, remained very high during his reign.
Edmund Ironside (1016)
Edmund II was born sometime between 988 and 993. He was king of England from 23 April 1016 until his death later that year on 30 November. He was nicknamed "Ironside" for his efforts to fend off the Danish invasion led by King Canute. After the death of Ethelred the Unready, although he succeeded to the throne, Edmund had little support from the London nobility, whilst Canute enjoyed greater support, particularly from the Southampton nobility.
When Edmund recovered Wessex from Canute's previous invasion in 1015, Canute responded by laying siege to London, a siege won by Edmund. Despite the victory, conflict continued until Edmund was defeated on 18 October by Canute at Ashingdon in Essex. After the battle the two kings negotiated a peace in which Edmund kept Wessex while Canute held the lands north of the River Thames. In addition, they agreed that when one of them died, their kingdom would be ceded to the one still alive. On 30 November 1016, King Edmund II died of natural causes, either in Oxford or London. His kingdom was therefore ceded to Canute who then became king of England. Edmund was buried at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset. Edmund's two children by his wife Ældgyth, Edward and Edmund, both escaped to Hungary.