Anglo-Saxon Kings : Handout (Pennsic 43)
©2014 Hlafdige Arastorm/ Tchipakkan/ Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor
Anglo-Saxon Kings of Britain
In the “timeline” I haven’t got many kings from before the 7th century, or from kingdoms other than the Heptarchy, we don’t have good enough records. Much of what we know comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was started in the 9th century, and concentrated on Wessex, just as Bede (in the 8th c.) concentrated on Northumbria.
Earliest kings (5th/6th centuries) ruled territories only as big as they could hold. There were many kings with warbands/armies (here) who they kept as personal retainers, either kept (fed, housed) in their households, or rewarded them with land to support themselves. Their income consisted of the produce of the lands they held (they got a share from the farmers), tribute from areas they’d conquered, and booty, looted after current campaigns (cattle or slave raids). This led to a continuous series of battles as kings raided other kings. At the same time, they also interacted peacefully with the other kings and kingdoms, Bede often mentioned princes (Æthlings) living in the courts of other kings as exiles, or visiting as friends, and they intermarried with royal lines of other kingdoms (often as part of treaties or alliances).
There were many more kingdoms in the first years (see map): Elmet, Linsey, the land of the Hwicce, and others that were absorbed by more powerful kingdoms. In what we now call Wales and the Cornish Peninsula, British kingdoms remained: Gwynedd, Powys, Reged, Dumnonia, Dyfed…., and northern Pictish kingdoms included Rheged, Strathclyde, Gododden, and Dalriada ruled by the Picts. The Scots, later to give their name to Scotland, were in Ireland.
Kings were drawn from a “pool” of Æthelings, those whose bloodline made them “throne worthy”. While the Victorians liked the idea that the Witan or council, elected the kings, they were more of a group of powerful men who approved or opposed whoever came to power. The role of king passed father to son, to brother, or uncle, whoever seemed able to hold the kingdom. Often there were co-rulers (especially in Kent, or when an older King crowned his son during his lifetime), and after a victory, a defeated kingdom generally retained or was given a sub-king. They had to pay tribute, and get the over-kings permission to give charters for land. Some kings were very aggressive about seeking out and eliminating other possible candidates for the throne, for example Æðelfrið of Bernicia who had assassins pursue Edwin after taking over Diera.
By the 7th century, the number of kingdoms was reduced to “the Heptarchy“: Kent, East Anglia, Northumbria (Bernicia and Diera), Wessex, Essex, Sussex, and Mercia (the border marches). These kings continued to raid and make alliances between these kingdoms, reducing to Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, and Anglia.
It’s important to be aware that during most of the Anglo-Saxon period, the Church had great power. Bishops and Arch-bishops were major land (and wealth) holders, and calling them “Princes” is quite accurate. Kings picked who they wanted to be Arch-bishop, but the Pope had to send the Pallium. The Church also had a great influence over written law-codes. Occasionally, especially after the conversion, when a king was no longer interested in fighting, they would retire, often to a monastery.
The queens and ladies were influencial as carriers of bloodlines, and some were involved in policy making, although they generally stayed behind the scenes, dominating religious life (many became abbesses and saints), but were not expected to make policy. (Wessex, between Edburh (802) and Judith (862), allowed consorts, but not queens.)
Kings who ruled over many kingdoms were called Bretwaldas. Bede used this term meaning “wide ruler”. These “bryten cynings” were able to command other kings, giving & getting protection, and receiving tribute from the under kings. Bede’s list:
- Ælle of Sussex (488 – circa (c.)514)
- Ceawlin of Wessex (560–92, died 593)
- Æthelberht of Kent (590–616)
- Rædwald of East Anglia (c. 600 – around 624)
- Edwin of Deira (616–33)
- Oswald of Northumbria (633–42)
- Oswiu of Northumbria (642–70)
Other powerful high kings (after Bede) included:
- Penda of Mercia (628/33–55)
- Wulfhere of Mercia (658–75)
- Æthelred of Mercia (675–704, died 716)
- Æthelbald of Mercia (716–57)
- Offa of Mercia (757–96)
- Cœnwulf of Mercia (796–821)
- Egbert (802-839)
Although Alfred is generally considered to be the man who united England, it is his grandson Aethylstan who is the first king to claim to be King of All England (Alfred called himself King of West Saxons and Mercians, and Edward the Elder King of the Mercians, West Saxons and Northumbrians). The Statute of Rhuddlan 1284 added Wales, and Scotland wasn’t added until James I/ VI.
I have used Wikipedia for the basic dates for convenience, checked against British Monarchy in https://www.royal.gov.uk/HistoryoftheMonarchy/KingsandQueensofEngland/TheAnglo-Saxonkings/Overview.aspx
Some of my favorite Anglo-Saxon Kings
(alphabetically – see AS King chart for chronological list)
Æthelbald, King of Wessex 858-860> Æthelberht, King of Wessex 860–865 > Æthelred, King of Wessex 865-871 brothers of Alfred, serially kings of Wessex, killed off fighting the Vikings. Æthelbald married his father’s wife Judith.
Æthelwulf of Wessex 839–858 father of Alfred the great, (and 3 other kings of Wessex). Married Osburh, who bore 4 kings, then Judith of Flanders, anointed Queen.
Æthelred Unrede reigned 978-1016 (with a gap 1013-14), born ~ 966, son of Edgar and Ælfthryth, married Aelfgifu and Emma of Normandy (13 children). Crowned at about 13, his mother was his regent, then turned the kingdom over to him. Unrede is a pun, and means bad or no council (not “Unready”). There was controversy when his half-brother and predecessor Edward was killed. His mother Ælfthryth served as regent until his majority. He reorganized the Ealdormen, and had trouble because of the monastic reform movement. He is known for paying danegeld, and his ordering the St. Brices Day Massacre (1002) precipitating the invasion of England by Sweyn. He is also credited with the creation of the 12-theyn Jury; he certainly reformed the laws, and improved the coinage. When Sweyn conquered England he fled to Normandy, but returned and ruled briefly after Sweyn died.
Æthelred of Mercia 675-704 brother of Wolfhere of Mercia, married Osthryth maintained the north, but not the south that Wolfhere had conquered.
Æthylstan 924-939 (“first king” of England) was eldest of 13 children, never married, had no children (was probably not gay). He was raised by Æthylflaed, Lady of Mercia, became king Mercia, then Wessex, conquered York, Brunaburh 934. He raised his young sibs, and married 4 of his sisters to kings on the Continent. (Germany- Henry the Fowler, Otto I HRE, Hugh the Great of Franks, and a prince near the alps). His full sister married Sitric of Dublin & York. He reformed coinage, was a collector of relics & books, six of his law codes survive. The kingdom fragmented after his death (for 15 years).
Alfred the Great 871-899 married Ealhwith, father of Edward and Æthylflaed (and 3 others). He held and pushed back Vikings, reorganized the Fyrd, created the Burg system, “created” the English Navy, did a lot of legal reform, promoted learning, translated many works of Latin to Old English, created court schools, took 2 trips to Rome. His biographer was Asser who claimed he “Didn’t learn to read until 12”, but learned (to recite?) a book at 5. Modern scholars think he probably had Crohn’s disease.
Ælfweard July 17-2 August 924, b.902, son of Edward the Elder (he died right after his father, had perhaps been campaigning with him, leaving the throne uncontested to Æthelstan.
Cnut the Great 1016-1035 married Emma (Æthelred’s queen). He was born 985-95, was the son of Sweyne Forkkbeard (King of Denmark and England Norway “and some Swedes”), as was he. He instituted Eorls/jarls rather than Ealdormen, was a friend of the church, returned England to prosperity.
Eadred (946-955) (b923-d 955) Received the submission of Welsh rulers, but had to keep fighting in Northumbria as new Vikings declared themselves kings up there. Eadred also probably had Crohns disease.
Eadwig the Fair 955-959 (born 941-died 959) This is the young king who was found ducking out of his coronation feast and “cavorting” with Aelfgifu and her mother Aethylgifu in his chambers by Dunstan. He had a short reign and quarreled with Dunstan a lot. He divided the kingdom between himself and his brother Edgar the Peaceful.
Edgar the Ætheling r 1066 (debatable) proclaimed, but never crowned, last Saxon King of England, son of Edward the Exile.
Edgar the Peaceful 959-75 (born 943-died 975) Took half the kingdom from his brother, Eadwig, two years before he became king. Quarreled with the church and nobles who he dispossessed, killed a rival in love. His third wife was Ælfthryth. He’s the king who had 8 kings rowing his barge at his coronation.
Edmund the Magnificent 921-946 (born 939-died 946) One of Æthelstan’s brothers, reconquered Northumbria and Strathclyde, set up Malcolm as king of Scotland, and brother-in-law Louis IV as king of France. Dramatically murdered at Mass.
Edmund Ironside April to Nov 1016, son and heir Æthyred Unrede, drove back Cnut (for a while), negotiated division of country at Forest of Dean, then died. His sons Edward the Exile and Edmund Ætheling were sent to Sweden, but raised in Hungary, then Kiev.
Edmund the Martyr of East Anglia slain by the Great Heathen Army 869, remembered as a martyr to his faith.
Edward the Confessor 1042-1066 (born 1003-5) son of Ethelred Unrede and Emma, lived in exile until the death of Harthacnut, then brought back. Very religious, worked with Godwins, married Edith (Godwin’s daughter), they had no children.
Edward the Elder 899-924 (born 874/77- died 924), had three wives: Ecgwynn, Ælflaed, Eadgifu, children included Kings Aethelstan, Ælfweard, Edmund, Eadred, a daughter who married Sihtric Caech of Dublin and York, Saint Eadburh, and 7 others. He fought his cousin Æthelwold for Alfred’s throne who encouraging the East Anglian Danes to rise. He continued to build the burh system, and worked with Æthlyflaed to push back and detain the Danes. But he deposed Ælfynn Æthylflaed’s daughter to take over Mercia, thus consolidating all of England (but the Danelaw) under his rule.
Edward the Martyr ruled 975-978, 962-978 eldest but illegitimate son of Edgar, 13 when crowned. His cause was supported by Dunstan and Oswald, and opposed by antimonastic nobles. His death was blamed on his step-mother Ælfthryth as he was killed visiting her house. Anti reform uprisings marred his brief reign.
Egbert of Wessex 802-839, born ~770, Offa forced his father out and replaced him with Beortric, but he returned in 802 after Beortric was killed. He reversed the Mercian supremacy, took over Kent, Sussex, and Surrey, 825, then conquered Mercia (Battle of Ellendun) 829, and Northumbria and fought Welsh.
Harold Godwinsson 1066 (Jan 5-Oct 14) born 1022 Son of Godwin and Gytha Thrkelsdottir (sister-in-law of Cnut). Able statesman and warrior. Brothers: Sweyn of Mercia, Gyrth of East Anglia, Leofwine of Kent, and Tostig of Northumbria, sister, Queen Edith.
Harold Harefoot 1035-1040 Son of Cnut, he was in England when Cnut died, and Harthcnut couldn’t get there, so her ruled north of the Thames, and Godwin ruled for Harthcnut south. The Bishops wouldn’t crown him, so he rejected Christianity and went hunting. Ælfred Ætheling, came to England and was killed during his reign. He died of “mysterious illness”.
Harthacnut 1035-1042 son of Cnut and Emma, last Danish King of England. (born 1017) also King of Denmark, came to England 1040, with his mother. He’d been delayed in claiming his patrimony by Magnus (who actually claimed the English part of the Danish Empire after Harthacnut’s death). Died suddenly at wedding feast.
Offa, of Mercia 757-796 (~730-26 July 796) Offa was married to Cynethryth, he extended Mercian supremacy over southern England, installed Beorhtric of Wessex and married his daughter Eadburh, to him (until she accidentally killed him), and married his daughter Ælfflæd to the Æthelred of Northumbria. He offered a marriage exchange of children with Charlemagne, which led to a mutual trade embargo for a few years. He had enough control over East Anglia to have Æthelberht II of East Anglia beheaded. To the West, he built Offa’s Dyke, a 64 mile barrier to reduce cattle raiding by the Welsh. The Tribal Hidage (a listing of land or tribute) may date from his reign. While Christian (he is said to have created the Schola Saxorum in Rome), he quarreled with the Church, especially Archbishop Jaenberht, and had a new archdioces created at Lichfield (to rival Canturbury). Offas coins are famous for adding name of king (or bishop) and monier, and creating the flatter pennies that replaced “sceattas”. His son Ecgfrith, followed him but died immediately.
Peada reigned 653-56, he was the son of Penda, served as King of the Middle Angles, in 653 he converted to marry King Oswiu’s daughter and ushered in conversoin to Mercia. After Penda was killed in 655, became under-king under Oswiu, but the queen killed him the next year.
Penda of Mercia d 655, reigned 50 years (or died at 50) at the battle of Winwaed. He was the “Last Pagan King”, although he allowed his subjects to convert. He expanded control, created “Mercian Supremacy” over the Heptarchy. Co King with Eowa of Mercia at least at first.
Rædwald of East Anglia- 599-624 He was probably the king buried at Sutton Hoo. He took in Edwin of Diera while Æthelfrith of Bernicia was after him, helped him re-take Diera at the battle of the River Idle, and was his overking for a while. He seems to have been baptized an a visit to Kent (~604) but maintained altars to both Christ and the old gods in his temple. (This appears to have been the only Christian altar left in 616 after Æthelberht of Kent died.) Time of his death is uncertain ~625.
Sweyn Forkbeard 986-1014 King of Denmark conquered England, was driven off, but came back. He was father of Cnut the Great.
Wulfhere d 675 son of Penda, m Eormenhild of Kent. “first Christian King of Mercia” reasserted Mercian supremacy after defeat at Winwaed in 655. This ended Northumbrian power, he extended Mercian authority over Kent, possibly East Saxons. The Tribal Hidage may date from Wulfhere’s reign (they really don’t know). He was followed by his brother Æthelred who maintained the northern holdings, but not the south.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle [kindle] (I have several versions, including the disappointing The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in Plain & Simple English from CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012
Abels, Richard, Alfred the Great: War Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, Longman, 1998
Arnold, C.J., An Archaeolgy of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, Routledge, 1997
Asser’s Life of King Alfred, And other Contemporary Sources, Penguin, 1984
Barlow, Frank, The Godwins: Rise and Fall of a Noble Dynasty, Routledge 2003
Brown, Michelle, Farr, Carol, Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe, Continuum 2005
Chaney, W. A., The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, Manchester University Press 1970
Foot, Sarah, Aethelstan: The First King of England, Yale U P 2011
Fox, Peter, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Kingship, Anglo-Saxon Books 2004
Henson, Donald, A Guide to Late Anglo-Saxon England: from Ælfred to Eadgar II, Anglo-Saxon Books, 1997
Higham, N.J., The Convert Kings, Manchester University, 1997
Hill, Paul, The Viking Wars of Alfred the Great, Pen and Sword, 2012 [Kindle]
Hunt, William, King Edward the Elder- A short Biography Shamrock Eden 2011 Kindle
Jennings, Pete, Penda, Heathen King of Mercia: His Anglo-Saxon World, Gruff 2013 (kindle)
Larson, Laurence Marcellus, Canute the Great The Rise of Danish Imperialism during the Viking Age, Amazon Digital 2012
Lynch, Joseph M, Christianizing Kinship, Ritual Sponsorship in Anglo-Saxon England, Cornell U Press, 1998
Oman, Charles, England Before the Norman Conquest: Being a History of the Celtic, Roman and Anglo-Saxon Periods Down to the Year 1066, Forgotton Books, 2010
Peers, Chris, Offa and the Mercian Wars: The Rise and Fall of the First Great English Kingdom, Pen and Sword 2012
Price, Maurice, Bretwalda, Amazon Digital Services, Inc. 2013
Trow, M.J., Cnut: Emperor of the North, Sutton 2005
Venning, Timothy, Anglo-Saxon Kings, the, Amberley 2011
Walker, Ian W., Harold: the Last Anglo-Saxon King, History Press 2011
Williams, Ann, World Before Domesday: The English Aristocracy 871-1066, Continuum, 2011 [kindle]
Weir Alison, Britain’s Royal Families: the Complete Geneology [Kindle] Vintage Digital 2011
Yorke, Barbara, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, 1990
* most of these links are from Wikipedia– for convenience, checked against British Monarchy as shown in: https://www.royal.gov.uk/HistoryoftheMonarchy/KingsandQueensofEngland/TheAnglo-Saxonkings/Overview.aspx