Britain was invaded in the 5th century A.D. by Anglo-Saxons from what are now southern Denmark and northern Germany. These invaders and settlers came to dominate most of what is now England. The previous Roman-Celtic civilization was replaced by Anglo-Saxon language and culture. The Celtic languages of Britain’s previous inhabitants survived in more outlying parts of the British Isles- Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and on some smaller islands like the Isle of Man. By the 6th or 7th century, Anglo-Saxon England was divided into seven kingdoms- Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, Kent, Essex, Sussex and East Anglia. The first Saxon king to rule the entire island was Egbert, the King of Wessex.
Egbert was the son of the King of Kent. In 802, however, he became King of Wessex. That year he conquered Mercia. In 829 the Northumbrians recognized him as their ruler. This effectively made him the first King of England, although he never officially held that title.
Egbert was succeeded by his son Ethelwulf. Ethelwulf had several sons. His first 3 sons, Ethelbald, Ethelbert and Ethelred, ascended to the throne in quick succession. All had relatively short reigns.
Ethelwulf’s most famous son was Alfred the Great. Alfred is the most well-known and celebrated of Saxon King of England. Alfred was the last of Ethelwulf’s sons to ascend to the throne in 871. During Alfred’s reign, and those of his brothers, England was under constant threat from Norse invaders. In Anglo-Saxon chronicles, these Norsemen were collectively referred to as ‘Danes’, regardless of which part of Scandinavia they came from. In 865 a large Dane invasion force, known as the Great Army, landed in East Anglia. By 870 the Great Army had conquered Northumbria and East Anglia. The Danes then prepared to attack Wessex. On January 8, 871, Saxon forces defeated the invaders at the Battle of Ashdown. Soon afterwards, Alfred’s brother, King Ethelred died of wounds he had sustained in another battle. Alfred was chosen by the Anglo-Saxon council, the Witan or Witenagemet, to be the next king. Dane attacks on Wessex continued throughout the early years of Alfred’s reign. One surprise attack, early in 878, forced Alfred to flee his palace. For the next few months Alfred lived as a fugitive, hiding from Dane forces in the countryside. Eventually he was able to gather followers and defeat the Danes. By 879 the threat of Dane invasion had subsided. Alfred is credited with founding 25 towns, including Oxford. Alfred spent much of the remaining years of his reign encouraging learning in the kingdom. He died in 899 at the age of 50.
Alfred died without choosing a successor, and two rival contenders for the throne emerged. The claimants were Edward the Elder, son of Alfred, and Ethelwuld, son of Alfred’s brother Ethelred I. The Witan council chose Edward the Elder. Ethelwuld, however, refused to accept this decision and turned to the Danes for help. When Ethelwuld and his Dane allies invaded Wessex, however, they were defeated in battle. Ethelwuld died in the engagement. Edward went on to re-conquer many of the Dane-held areas of England.
Edward’s successor Athelstan was the illegitimate son of Edward’s mistress, Egwina. As king, Athelstan continued his father’s campaigns against the Danes. After winning several military victories, Athelstan was forced to turn his attention to internal problems. His half-brother Edwin, a legitimate son of Edward, as accused of plotting against him. Athelstan had Edwin put to death. In 937 a large combined Dane-Scottish army invaded England. After this victory, rulers from across Britain paid homage to Athelstan.
Under Athelstan‘s successor Edmund I (“the Magnificent”) continued to battle the Danes. He was assassinated in 946, apparently by a vengeful bandit he had banished earlier. Under the next king, Edred, warfare against the Danes continued. During Edred’s reign a clergyman named Dunstan gained a great deal of influence (1). Dustan’s influence continued during the reigns of Edred’s successors. Edwy “the Fair” came into conflict with Dunstan. Edwy’s successor, Edward “the Martyr”, was assassinated on the orders of his stepmother, Queen Elfrida. The Queen’s 10 year old son, Ethelred “the Unready” then came to the throne. The child-king was first dominated by his mother and then by Dunstan. When the Danes attacked England in 991, Ethelred offered them tribute instead of meeting them on the battlefield. This began the practice of paying a regular tribute, known as the Danegeld, to the Danes. In 1002, Ethelred turned against the Danes, ordering the massacre of all the Danes in his territory. Among those killed was the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark. Her death began a blood feud between the Danish King and the Saxons. In 1013 the armies of King Sweyn conquered England and Sweyn was proclaimed King of England. Sweyn died in 1014, however, and Ethelred was again proclaimed king by the Witan council.
Edmund II (“Ironside”) succeeded his father Ethelred. Soon after coming to power, a Dane army under Sweyn’s son Canute arrived in England. Since Sweyn had briefly been king of England, Canute claimed that he was the rightful heir to the throne of England. According to legend, Edmund and Canute agreed to divide England between them. Whoever outlived the other would inherit the entire kingdom. Edmund was soon assassinated by a supporter of Canute. Edmund’s death brought a temporary end to the Saxon line of rulers. Canute reinstated the Dane line of English kings that his father Sweyn had begun. The Danes ruled England until 1042, when Edward the Confessor, son of the Saxon king Ethelred, came to the throne. During Edward’s reign, Normans gained influence in his court. Edward, who was known for his religious devotion, died in 1066 without leaving any heirs. This brought the royal Saxon line of Alfred the Great to an end. His chosen successor was a Saxon without royal blood named Harold. In 1066 Harold was crowned King Harold II. There had been a number of claimants to succeed the childless Edward. Among these was the Norman Duke William. In 1064 Harold promised William that he would support his candidacy for kingship after Edward died. When Harold reneged on this promise and took the crown for himself instead, William gathered an invasion force. At the famous battle of Hastings, William and the Normans defeated Harold’s army. William, who is known to history as “the Conqueror” because of this victory, then became king of England. This brought an end to Saxon rule in England, and began Norman rule. The Saxon royal line was not completely extinguished, however; William married Mathilda, a descendant of the famous Saxon king Alfred. Their children and grandchildren succeeded William the Conqueror.
A List of Saxon Kings of England. The names of non-Saxon rulers are in brackets. The dates of some reigns overlap.
Name of King… date of reign
Egbert… A.D. 802-39 (King of Wessex after 802, de facto king of England by 829)
Ethelwulf… 839-58 (Son of Egbert)
Ethelbald… 858-60 (Son of Ethelwulf)
Ethelbert… 860-65 (2nd son of Ethelwulf)
Ethelred I… 865-71 (3rd son of Ethelwulf)
Alfred the Great… 871-99 (4th son of Ethelwulf)
Edward the Elder… 899-924 (Alfred’s son)
Althelstan the Glorious… 924-39 (Edward the Elder’s 1st son)
Edmund I… 939-46 (Edward’s 2nd son)
Edred… 946-55 (Edward’s 3rd son)
Edwy the Fair… 955-9 (Edmund’s son)
Edgar the Peaceable… 959-75 (Edmund’s younger son)
Edward the Martyr… 975-8 (Edgar Peaceable’s son)
Ethelred II… 978-1016 (son by Edgar’s 2nd wife, Elfryth)
[Sweyn of Denmark]… 975-8 (known as “Forkbeard”, took over from Ethelred in 1013, died in 1014, whereupon Ethelred resumed rule)
Edmund II Ironside… 1016 (Ethelred II’s son)
[Canute]… 1016-35 (Son of Sweyn, also King of Denmark & Norway)
[Hardicanute]… 1035-42 (Canute’s son by Emma, also King of Norway)
[Harold I Harefoot]… 1037-40 (Canute’s illegitimate son, usurped throne in 1037; Hardicanute resumed throne after 1040)
Edward the Confessor… 1042-66 (Ethelred II’s younger son)
Harold II…1066 (Edward the Confessor’s brother-in-law)
[William I, known as “the Conqueror“]… 1066-87 (Duke of Normandy, won the throne by defeating Harold II at Hastings. Married Mathilda, a descendant of Saxon King Alfred).
(1) Dunstan was canonized after his death, becoming St. Dunstan.
Marc Alexander. A Companion to the Royal Heritage of Britain. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd., 2005.