Monday, December 26, 2011

Monarchy~ The Dark Ages House of Wessex

by Debra Brown

We will start with the Anglo-Saxon kings of the "Dark Ages", since most of the Romans left and King Arthur may or may not have existed. The earliest works mentioning Arthur are from centuries after he would have lived and do not call him a king. There is a stone from Tintagel Castle upon which is carved "Artognou descendant of Patern[us] Colus made (this)." Some have said that this may speak of Arthur, who it was claimed (again, centuries later) was conceived in Tintagel. A battle in which he is said to have fought has been recorded, but there is no mention of him in the writing. The most substantial evidence of Arthur's existence is that where there is smoke, there must have been a fire. Yet, fictional characters can yield the same smoke.

The Wuffingas dynasty ruled the long-lived Anglo-Saxon kingdom which today includes the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Though not much is known about many of the kings, there is a little information HERE in Wikipedia, including a family tree. The best known of these kings was Rædwald, living at the turn of the 6th century.

Augustine preaching to Æthelberht.

At that time, the area now known as England was divided into various kingdoms. Of note, pagan King Æthelberht of Kent married Bertha, a Frankish Christian princess. This marriage brought Catholicism to the Anglo-Saxon royal houses. Pope Gregory sent the monk Augustine. Æthelberht converted and thereafter claimed the divine right of kings.

757- 796: King Offa of Mercia (who likely killed his predecessor) brought Mercia to power over the other six kingdoms. He was ruthless and brought an end to their dynasties, including that of Æthelberht. He did claim to be Christian, though he conflicted with the Church when his rulership wishes were hampered. Though he had a role in unifying England, his goal was not that, but his own personal power. Coins were struck with his image and were of better quality than the Frankish coins of the time. Offa's Dyke was built, possibly by King Offa and probably to create a barrier and establish commanding views into Wales. It shows that the builder had considerable resources.

In the 780s King Egbert of Wessex was forced into exile by Offa of Mercia and Beorhtric of Wessex, but on Beorhtric's death in 802 Egbert returned and took back the throne. He took Northumbria and defeated the Danes at Hingston Down. He reigned until his death in 839.

Within twenty years of Offa's death, England had reverted into smaller kingdoms and Viking invasions had begun. By the 860s, the Vikings had decided to stay.

King Æthelwulf of Wessex died in 855, leaving the throne to his four sons, one after the other. Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred all ruled for short periods of time, fighting the Danes. Their youngest brother became known as Alfred the Great; he was King of Wessex from 871 to 899.

Alfred took the throne at age twenty two. He endured difficulties with the Vikings for some time, but in May 878 he rallied a force of men and won a brilliant victory at the Battle of Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs. He then trapped the Danes in their stronghold at Chippenham and their king Guthrum fulfilled his promise to leave Wessex. Alfred reorganized the army to be ready at any time and built the first English Navy. He took London and its mint.

Alfred established a long law code which he determined to be just, taking parts of the Bible into account, and he considered judicial matters with care. He built burhs- fortified communities in which, rather than being a place of protection for a lord, the people lived under his patronage and protection. (The suffix -bury and the word burough come from burh.)

Alfred became the King of not just the West Saxons, but the Anglo-Saxons. He translated a writing from Pope Gregory into the vernacular and sent it to his bishops, establishing himself as the religious head of the country.

Edward I the Elder
succeeded his father in 899. His eldest sister Æthelflæd married Æthelred of Mercia and ruled in his place when he became ill. After her death, her daughter ruled for a short time before being supplanted by Edward. This union helped Edward to recapture the Midlands and Southeast of England from the Danes and drive them out. The princes of West Wales acknowledged Edward as their overlord, but he died in a Welsh-Mercian uprising against him.

Æthelstan succeeded Edward and reigned from 924 or 925 to 939. He was the first English king of several to be crowned on the King's Stone at Kingston. In 927 he was recognized as overlord by the rulers of Northern England, some of which now includes southern parts of Scotland. Ten years later he defeated Scots, Welsh and Viking forces at the Battle of Brunanburh and claimed the title "King of all Britain". He never had a son, but his sisters married five European monarchs, adding to England's wealth and prestige.

In 939 he was succeeded by his half-brother Edmund I, who subdued the Norse Vikings. The story goes that Edmund was murdered by Leofa, a thief whom he had once exiled. Leofa was instantly killed thereafter.

Eadred, another brother, ruled from 946 through 955, taking the throne at age sixteen. He faced off with former Norse king Eric Bloodaxe, so named after he'd bloodied his axe on his seven brothers- his people drove him into exile for the act. The Vikings had been ruling within the Roman walls of York since the 870s. Eadred threatened all of Northumbria, who then sided with him and drove out Bloodaxe, killing him in the war. Eadred died at age 25 from a digestive malady without a wife or children.

Eadwig or Edwy, the sixteen year old son of Edmund I lived to the age of twenty, ruling from 955-959. The Thanes of Mercia and Northumbria switched their allegiance to Eadwig's younger brother Edgar. Edgar, who took over Mercia and Northumbria at age fourteen, doubted Edwy's qualifications. In 957, rather than see civil war, an agreement was reached by which the kingdom would be divided along the Thames, with Eadwig ruling Wessex and Kent in the south and Edgar ruling in the north. Eadwig's marriage was annulled by powerful church officials, although that was against the will of both husband and wife. The picture above is entitled "The Insolent Behaviour of Dunstan to King Edwy on the Day of his Coronation Feast." This was the first time that Dunstan dragged him away from her. Dunstan claimed that they were too closely related, but they were less so than today's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip.

After Eadwig's death, Edgar ruled from 959 to 975 as king of a united England. He was the first to be crowned with a crown rather than a military style helmet. Though not a peaceful man himself, his rule was free of war and he came to be called Edgar the Peaceful. His rule unified England to the extent that it never again broke up into sovereign kingdoms. He founded forty religious houses and helped instigate a monastic revival.

Edgar was succeeded by his twelve year old son, Edward II, though Edgar's third wife claimed that her son Æthelred should have the throne. In 978, young Edward went to visit his ten-year-old half-brother and was killed by Æthelred's agents. He has since been called Edward the Martyr.

Æthelred II 'The Unready' ruled from 979-1013 and 1014-1016. He was the pawn of those who brought him to the throne. He paid off the Danes to leave him alone, but it failed. He fled from them to Normandy where he was protected by Robert the Good while the Danish King Sweyn ruled. In just a few months, however, the Danish king fell off his horse and died, and Æthelred returned to rule for two years more. His wife was Emma of Normandy, the sister of Robert the Good, who was eventually the grandfather of William the Conqueror.

Edmund II 'Ironside', Æthelred's son, was king from April to November of 1016. He thwarted the son of Danish King Sweyn, Cnut, who tried to take London. Edmund foolishly agreed to a deal where Cnut would get Mercia and Northumbria while he ruled Wessex, and after one of them died, the other would get the rest of the country. Edmund somehow died shortly thereafter.

Cnut 'The Great' reigned from 1016-1035. He had Edmund's younger brother Eadwig murdered and Edward's sons exiled to Hungary. Cnut had sons by his English mistress Ælfgifu of Northampton, who was acknowledged as Queen of Denmark. He also had a son, Harthacnut, by his new wife, (whoa!) Emma of Normandy, widow of Æthelred II. Emma's son by Cnut was regarded as the heir in England. Cnut was the first Dane to rule England in the sense of being able to collect taxes and mint money. He poured out his English wealth on Danish supporters while still a teenager. In time, though, he was said to become more English than the English- he loved Emma. She married him because it would help to neutralize British claims on the throne and the claims of her own older sons once she had a child by Cnut. Cnut endorsed the code of laws by Æthelred I and was deemed Cnut under Heaven. He severed his Nordish roots and was remade as a Christian king. He was seen as a good and just ruler and was buried in Winchester Cathedral when he died.

Harold Harefoot, son of Cnut and Ælfgifu, contended for Harthacnut's throne as did Alfred, son of Emma and Æthelred II. What a mess. Alfred was killed by Earl Godwin of Wessex. Harold Harefoot, the name referring to his swiftness, became Regent from 1035 to 1040 while rightful heir Harthacnut was busy being King of Denmark. They were to be joint monarchs, but in 1037, Harold was elected king by the English. Harthacnut had made preparations to invade and claim his throne, when Harold died, childless.

Harthacnut, 1035 to 1042, should have been happy. The throne was his. However, he had spent a great deal of money preparing to fight for it, and he was displeased. He blamed it on the English, who had voted his half-breed brother as king, and so he imposed a "fleet tax" on them. His popularity suffered. They shed no tears when he died with no wife or children of convulsions at a drinking party in 1042.

Edward 'The Confessor' ruled 1042 to 1066. The eldest son of Æthelred II and Emma, he had stayed in Normandy through the reign of Cnut. He attempted the throne in 1035, and helped by Harthacnut and Earl Godwin of Wessex (who wanted political favor), he succeeded in 1042. He married Godwin's daughter Edith. Godwin later decided that he wanted his own son on the throne instead of Edward. Since he had been involved in the murder of Edward's brother Alfred, Godwin was sent into exile, and Edith was banished to a monastery. In 1051, Godwin returned with the people's support and the king was forced to restore him to favor. He also had to expel his Norman friends and have Godwin's son, Harold Godwinson, as his chief advisor. However, he announced that upon his death he would have his cousin William, Duke of Normandy, as his successor, unless he had children. William came to him and pledged his loyalty.

Edward built the original Westminster Abbey. Most monarchs have been crowned there (or in the newer model) since. Too sick to attend its consecration, he died the next January. On his deathbed, he named Harold Godwinson to be the next king. However, the right actually belonged to his own grandson, Edgar.

Harold II ruled from January to October, 1066, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. Harold was the first of only three English kings to die in warfare. He was killed at the Battle of Hastings by Norman invaders during the conquest by William, Duke of Normandy.

Edgar the Ætheling
was declared King of England, but never crowned. He was born in Hungary where his father, Edward the Exile, had lived since being sent there when Cnut became king. Edward the Confessor had learned of his (Edward's) existence and sent for him to take his place in court as heir to the throne. (That makes three people to whom he promised it, besides the legitimate heir, Edgar. Sometimes I wonder what history would have been if he had not put the idea into William's heart!) Edward the Exile died in strange circumstances shortly after arriving. Edgar was only six years old at the time. Edward the Confessor made no attempt to make him the heir, but after the death of Harold II, the Witanagemot assembled and elected Edgar king. However, as William of Normandy began his invasion, they brought Edgar to William. Later in his life he struggled for the throne, but never succeeded. He was still known to be alive in 1126.

Berkhamsted Castle, where the Crown of England is said to have been handed over to William by nobles including Edgar the Ætheling.

See a follow-up post on William the Conqueror. Watch this blog for future posts on the English-Norman monarchy and subsequent dynasties.

Debra Brown is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, an early Victorian story of a servant girl dragged along into snobbish London society, unwelcome by many.


Monarchy (U.K.) Monarchy with David Starkey (Documentary)

The Complete Idiot's Guide to British Royalty


Pictures are from Wikimedia Commons


  1. I've just discovered this site and blog and I'm so excited to read more. This is my passion!

  2. What an amazing article, Debra! I really learned a lot.

  3. Thanks Connie, Wanda and The Afflicted Girls! Glad you are here with us now, Connie.

  4. What an excellent digest of a very complex time. Thank you, Debbie!

  5. I always found the ins and outs of Anglo-Saxon Royalty so confusion to follow with all their similar names, relationships, and short terms in the kingship.

    Very fascinating post! Thanks!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.