The Anglo-Saxon period was one of turbulence, bloodshed and innovation. The 13 Anglo-Saxon kings of England saw the new, unified kingdom of England consolidated, fought off invasions, made (and broke) alliances and put down the basis for some of the laws, religious practices and ceremonies of kingship that we still recognise today.
But exactly who were these men, and what happened during their reigns?
Æthelstan ruled first as King of the Anglo-Saxons, before becoming the first King of England after conquering York and therefore unifying the kingdom for the first time. During his reign, Æthelstan centralised government to a greater degree and built working relationships with the rulers of Wales and Scotland, who acknowledged his authority. He also developed relationships with other rulers in Western Europe: no other Anglo-Saxon king played such a major role in European politics as Æthelstan.
Like many of his contemporaries, Æthelstan was deeply religious, collecting relics and founding churches across the land (although few remain today) and championing ecclesiastical scholarship. He also enacted important legal codes in an attempt to restore social order across the land.
On his death in 939, his half-brother Edmund succeeded him.
Edmund I (939-46)
Although Æthelstan had unified the kingdoms of England to become the first king of all England, on his death England became partially fragmented again, with Viking rule in York and north-east Mercia resuming: something of an initial set back.
Fortunately in 942, he was able to re-establish his authority in Mercia, and by 944 he had regained control of all of England, although this power was not consolidated before his death in 946. Edmund made use of family networks to ensure co-operation and alliances, including through marriage, and shifted from a reliance on Wessex-based nobles to those with Mercian connections.
During his reign, various significant pieces of legislation were enacted and the English Benedictine Reform began to take place, which would reach its peak under King Edgar, later in the 10th century.
Relatively little is known about Eadred’s reign: his crowning achievement was to bring the kingdom of Northumbria firmly under the control of the English crown, expelling the Norwegian ruler Eric the Bloodaxe from the region in the process.
He never married, and is thought to have suffered from severe digestive problems. On his death in 955, his nephew Eadwig succeeded him.
Eadwig became king aged just 15: despite, or perhaps because of, his youth, he feuded with his nobles and clergy, including the powerful archbishops Dunstan and Oda. Some accounts suggest these feuds developed because of Eadwig’s inappropriate sexual relationships.
His reign became gradually less stable, with nobles loyal to Oda switching their allegiance to Eadwig’s brother, Edgar. Eventually, the kingdom was divided between the two brothers along the Thames, with Eadwig ruling Wessex and Kent, and Edgar ruling in the north. Eadwig’s insecurity also saw him give away large parcels of land, probably in an attempt to curry favour.
He died aged just 19, in 959, leaving his brother Edgar to inherit.
Edgar the Peaceful (959-75)
One of the most stable and successful periods presided over by the Anglo-Saxon kings was during Edgar’s reign. He consolidated political unity and ruled firmly but fairly, taking advice from leading nobles and trusted counselors like Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. By the end of his reign, it seemed unlikely England would remain anything other than unified.
Edgar’s coronation ceremony, organised by Dunstan, is widely believed to form the basis of the modern coronation ceremony. His wife was also anointed during the ceremony, again marking the first basis of a coronation ceremony for queens of England too.
Edward the Martyr (975-8)
Edward inherited the throne after a leadership tussle with his half-brother Æthelred: their father, Edgar the Peaceful, hadn’t officially acknowledged either son as his legitimate heir, leading to a power struggle after his death.
After several months of struggle, Edward was chosen as king and crowned, but factionalism had weakened his authority, and a brief period of civil war ensued. Nobles took advantage of this fact, reversing the grants of Benedictine monasteries and lands Edgar had granted them.
Edward was murdered in 978 at Corfe Castle, and later canonised. He was buried at Shaftesbury Abbey.
Æthelred the Unready (978-1013, 1014-16)
Æthelred became king aged 12 after his older half-brother was assassinated. His nickname, the Unready, was something of a word-play: his name literally means ‘well advised’ but the Old English unræd, meaning poorly advised, was similar in lexical terms.
Despite making important reforms to coinage, his reign was scarred by conflict with the Danes, who began raids on English territory again in the 980s, taking advantage of the young king’s weaker grip on power than his father. A power struggle continued throughout Æthelred’s reign, including a brief period where the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard sat on the English throne.
Æthelred and his son Edmund tried desperately to fend off the Danes, including repeated challenges from Sweyn’s son Canute. He died suddenly in 1016.
Edmund Ironside (1016)
Reigning for a mere 7 months, Edmund II inherited a war from him his father, Æthelred the Unready against Canute, leader of the Danes. The country was divided into those who had supported the Danes and those who hadn’t, and Canute’s attempts to take the English throne were far from over.
Edmund fought 5 battles against the Danes during his brief reign: he was eventually defeated at the Battle of Assandun. The humiliating agreement led to Edmund retaining only a fraction of his kingdom, Wessex, whilst Canute took the rest of the country. He lived a little over a month after this cleaving of the country, and Canute seized the opportunity to take Wessex too.
Often referred to as Cnut the Great, Canute was a Danish prince. He won the throne of England in 1016, and succeeded his father to the Danish throne in 1018, uniting the two crowns. Whilst there were some cultural similarities which united the two countries, sheer force allowed Canute to maintain his power. He claimed the crown of Norway in 1028 and briefly also ruled over Scotland.
The ‘North Sea Empire’, as Canute’s power base was often known, was a time of strength for the regions. A devout Christian, Canute journeyed to Rome (part pilgrimage, part diplomatic mission to attend the coronation of the new Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II) and gave generously to the church, particularly favouring the cathedrals of Winchester and Canterbury.
Canute’s rule is generally regarded as extremely successful by historians: he maintained a strong grip on power across his various dominions and engaged in productive diplomatic relations.
Harold Harefoot (1035-40)
The oldest son of Canute but not his designated heir, Harold Harefoot was elected regent of England on his father’s death as his half-brother, and the true heir, Harthacnut, was stuck in Denmark. Two years into his regency, with Harthacnut still not returned to England, Harold was eventually proclaimed king with the support of several powerful earls.
However, his new role did not go unchallenged. His step-brothers returned to England, and after several years of strife, Harold was captured and blinded by men loyal to his half-brother, Harthacnut. He died from his wounds shortly afterwards in 1040. On his return to England, Harthacnut had Harold’s body dug up and thrown into a fen before dumping it unceremoniously in the Thames.
The last Dane to be king of England, Harthacnut was the son of Cnut the Great. Unlike his illustrious father, Harthacnut struggled to retain the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and England which had been united under one crown. He retained the crown of Denmark and England, but lost Norway, and many of his early years were spent in Denmark.
On his return to England, Harthacnut struggled to adapt to the differing systems of rule: in Denmark, the monarch ruled autocratically, whereas in England, the king ruled in council with the leading earls. In order to impose his authority, Harthacnut doubled the size of the English fleet, raising taxes to pay for it, much to the dismay of his subjects.
Harthacnut’s reign was brief: he suffered from regular bouts of illness and his extreme generosity towards the Church, many argue, can be seen in light of his awareness of his own mortality.
Edward the Confessor (1042-66)
Widely believed to be the last king of the House of Wessex, Edward’s epithet, ‘the Confessor’, is somewhat misleading. A relatively successful king in his lifetime, his 24 year reign saw him manage difficult relations with Scotland and Wales, as well as keep control over his own warring barons.
Canonised after his death, many historians consider his reputation as tarnished by the relatively quick Norman conquest, but royal power in England was certainly under strain during Edward’s reign, partly thanks to his lack of an heir.
Harold Godwinson (1066)
The last crowned Anglo-Saxon king of England, Harold Godwinson was the brother-in-law of Edward the Confessor. The Witenaġemot chose Harold to succeed, and it’s believed he was the first king of England to be crowned in Westminster Abbey.
Less than 9 months into his reign, Harold marched north to face Harald Hardrada, a Norwegian and rival claimant to the throne after Edward’s death. Harold defeat Harald at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, before hearing news that William, Duke of Normandy had landed with an invading force on the south coast. The ensuing Battle of Hastings saw Harold defeat, and William become the first Norman King of England.