With Vikings to repel and rival kingdoms to conquer, ruling England during the Anglo-Saxon period was no mean feat. Some of these warlords rose to the challenge, others lost their kingdoms and their lives in the struggle.
For over 600 years, from the departure of the Romans in 410 to the arrival of the Normans in 1066, England was dominated by the Anglo-Saxon peoples. These centuries saw many great wars between Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, such as Mercia and Wessex, and against Viking invaders.
Here are 12 of the men and women who commanded armies in these bloody conflicts:
1. Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great was King of Wessex from 871 to 886 and later King of the Anglo-Saxons He spent years fighting Viking invasions, eventually winning a great victory at the Battle of Edington.
During this engagement against Guthrum’s Vikings, Alfred’s men formed a mighty shield wall which the invaders could not overcome. Alfred routed the Vikings ‘with great slaughter’ and negotiated a new peace agreement called the Danelaw.
Alfred the Great was also a man of culture. He established many schools in England, bringing together scholars from all across Europe. He also advocated widespread education in the English language, personally translating books into English.
2. Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians
Aethelflaed was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, and the wife of Aethelred of Mercia. After her husband grew sick, Aethelflaed personally took up the defence of Mercia against the Vikings.
During the siege of Chester, her people supposedly poured hot beer and dropped bee hives from the walls to repel the Vikings.
When her husband died, Aethelflaed became the only sole female ruler in Europe. She expanded Mercia’s 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.
3. Oswald of Northumbria
Oswald was a Christian King of Northumbria during the 7th century. After his brother Eanfrith was killed by the Celtic ruler Cadwallon ap Cadfan, Oswald attacked Cadwallon at Heavenfield.
Oswald is recorded having a vision of Saint Columba before the battle. As a result, his council agreed to be baptised and accepted Christianity. As the enemy approached Oswald even set up a cross and prayed, encouraging his small force to do the same.
They killed Cadwallon and defeated his much larger host. Oswald’s success as a Christian king led to his veneration as a saint throughout the Middle Ages.
4. Penda of Mercia
Penda was a 7th-century Pagan King of Mercia and a rival of Oswald of Northumbria. Penda first crushed King Edwin of Northumbria at the Battle of Hatfield Chase, securing Mercian power in the Midlands. Nine years later he fought Edwin’s successor and his main rival in England, Oswald, at the Battle of Maserfield.
At Maserfield the Christian Northumbrians were defeated by Penda’s Pagan forces. Oswald himself was slain on the battlefield whilst praying for the souls of his soldiers. His body was dismembered by the Mercian troops, and his head and limbs mounted on spikes.
Penda ruled Mercia for another 13 years, also vanquishing the East Angles and Cenwalh of Wessex. Eventually he was slain while fighting Oswald’s younger brother Oswiu.
5. King Arthur
If he truly existed, King Arthur was a Romano-British leader from c. 500 who protected Britain from the Saxon invasions. Many historians also argue that Arthur was a figure of folklore whose life was adapted by later chroniclers.
Nonetheless, Arthur holds a unique place in our conception of the early Anglo-Saxon period. The Historia Brittonum describes his great victory against the Saxons at the Battle of Badon, in which he apparently slew 960 men single-handedly.
Other sources, such as the Annales Cambriae, describe Arthur’s combat at the Battle of Camlann, in which both he and Mordred died.
6. Edward the Elder
Edward the Elder was the son of Alfred the Great and ruled the Anglo-Saxons from 899 to 924. He defeated the Northumbrian Vikings on several occasions, and conquered southern England with the help of his sister Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. Edward then ruthlessly took control of Mercia from Aethelflaed’s daughter and defeated a Mercian revolt.
His victory against the Vikings at the the Battle of Tettenhall in 910 resulted in the deaths of many thousands of Danes, including several of their kings. It marked the final time a great raiding army from Denmark would ravage England.
Aethelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, ruled from 927 to 939 and is widely regarded as the first King of England. Early in his reign as King of the Anglo-Saxons he defeated the Viking kingdom of York, giving him command of the whole of the country.
He later invaded Scotland and forced King Constantine II to submit to his rule. When the Scots and Vikings allied and invaded England in 937, he defeated them at the Battle of Brunanburh. The fighting lasted all day, but eventually Aethelstan’s men broke the Viking shield wall and were victorious.
The victory guaranteed the unity of England under Aethelstan’s rule and secured Aethelstan’s legacy as the first true King of England.
8. Sweyn Forkbeard
Sweyn was King of Denmark from 986 to 1014. He seized the Danish throne from his own father, and eventually ruled England and much of Norway.
After Sweyn’s sister and brother-in-law were killed in the St Brice’s Day Massacre of English Danes in 1002, he avenged their deaths with a decade of invasions. Although his successfully conquered England, he ruled it for only five weeks before his death.
His son Canute would go on to fulfill his father’s ambitions.
9. King Cnut the Great
Cnut was King of England, Denmark and Norway. As a Danish Prince, he won the English throne in 1016, and within a few years was crowned King of Denmark. He later conquered Norway and parts of Sweden to form the North Sea Empire.
Cnut, following his father Sweyn Forkbeard’s example, invaded England in 1015. With 200 Viking longships and 10,000 men he fought for 14 months against the Anglo-Saxon prince Edmund Ironside. Cnut’s invasion was nearly defeated by Ironside but he snatched victory at the Battle of Assundun, marking the beginning of his new empire.
He is also renowned for the story of King Cnut and the Tide. Canute allegedly demonstrated to his flatterers that since he could not hold back the incoming tide his secular power was nothing compared to the power of God.
10. Edmund Ironside
Edmund Ironside led the defence of England against Canute and his Vikings in 1015. Ironside successfully raised the siege of London and defeated Canute’s armies at the Battle of Otford.
He was King of England for only seven months, dying not long after Canute finally defeated him at Assundun. During the battle, Ironside was betrayed by Eadric Streona of Mercia who departed the battlefield with his men and exposed the English army.
11. Eric Bloodaxe
Relatively little is certain about the life of Eric Bloodaxe, but the chronicles and sagas inform us that he got his nickname by killing his own half-brothers while taking control of Norway.
After his father King Harald of Norway died, Eric betrayed and butchered his brothers and their armies. His despotism eventually led the Norwegian nobles to drive him out, and Eric fled to England.
There, he became King of the Northumbrian Vikings, until he too suffered betrayal and was killed.
12. Harold Godwinson
Harold Godwinson was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. His short reign was tumultuous as he faced invasions from Harald Hardrada of Norway and William of Normandy.
When Hardrada invaded in 1066, Godwinson led a rapid forced march from London and reached Yorkshire in 4 days. He took the Norwegians by surprise and crushed them at Stamford Bridge.
Godwinson then marched his men 240 miles to Hastings to repel the invasion of William of Normandy. He was unable to replicate his success at Stamford Bridge, and died during the fighting. His death, either from an arrow or at William’s hands, brought an end to Anglo-Saxon rule in England.