sent to all the bishops of the kingdom. Alfred was patron of the Anglo-

Saxon Chronicle (which was copied and supplemented up to 1154), a patriotic

history of the English from the Wessex viewpoint designed to inspire its

readers and celebrate Alfred and his monarchy.

Like other West Saxon kings, Alfred established a legal code; he

assembled the laws of Offa and other predecessors, and of the kingdoms of

Mercia and Kent, adding his own administrative regulations to form a

definitive body of Anglo-Saxon law. 'I ... collected these together and

ordered to be written many of them which our forefathers observed, those

which I liked; and many of those which I did not like I rejected with the

advice of my councillors ... For I dared not presume to set in writing at

all many of my own, because it was unknown to me what would please those

who should come after us ... Then I ... showed those to all my councillors,

and they then said that they were all pleased to observe them' (Laws of

Alfred, c.885-99).

By the 890s, Alfred's charters and coinage (which he had also reformed,

extending its minting to the burhs he had founded) referred to him as 'king

of the English', and Welsh kings sought alliances with him. Alfred died in

899, aged 50, and was buried in Winchester, the burial place of the West

Saxon royal family.

By stopping the Viking advance and consolidating his territorial gains,

Alfred had started the process by which his successors eventually extended

their power over the other Anglo-Saxon kings; the ultimate unification of

Anglo-Saxon England was to be led by Wessex. It is for his valiant defence

of his kingdom against a stronger enemy, for securing peace with the

Vikings and for his farsighted reforms in the reconstruction of Wessex and

beyond, that Alfred - alone of all the English kings and queens - is known

as 'the Great'.

EDWARD «THE ELDER» (899-924)

Well-trained by Alfred, his son Edward 'the Elder' (reigned 899-924) was

a bold soldier who defeated the Danes in Northumbria at Tettenhall in 910

and was acknowledged by the Viking kingdom of York. The kings of

Strathclyde and the Scots submitted to Edward in 921. By military success

and patient planning, Edward spread English influence and control. Much of

this was due to his alliance with his formidable sister Aethelflaed, who

was married to the ruler of Mercia and seems to have governed that kingdom

after her husband's death.

Edward was able to establish an administration for the kingdom of

England, whilst obtaining the allegiance of Danes, Scots and Britons.

Edward died in 924, and he was buried in the New Minster which he had had

completed at Winchester. Edward was twice married, but it is possible that

his eldest son Athelstan was the son of a mistress.

ATHELSTAN (924-939)

Edward's heir Athelstan (reigned 925-39) was also a distinguished and

audacious soldier who pushed the boundaries of the kingdom to their

furthest extent yet. In 927-8, Athelstan took York from the Danes; he

forced the submission of king Constantine of Scotland and of the northern

kings; all five Welsh kings agreed to pay a huge annual tribute (reportedly

including 25,000 oxen), and Athelstan eliminated opposition in Cornwall.

The battle of Brunanburh in 937, in which Athelstan led a force drawn

from Britain and defeated an invasion by the king of Scotland in alliance

with the Welsh and Danes from Dublin, earned him recognition by lesser

kings in Britain.

Athelstan's law codes strengthened royal control over his large kingdom;

currency was regulated to control silver's weight and to penalise

fraudsters. Buying and selling was mostly confined to the burghs,

encouraging town life; areas of settlement in the midlands and Danish towns

were consolidated into shires. Overseas, Athelstan built alliances by

marrying four of his half-sisters to various rulers in Western Europe.

He also had extensive cultural and religious contacts; as an enthusiastic

and discriminating collector of works of art and religious relics, he gave

away much of his collection to his followers and to churches and bishops in

order to retain their support.

Athelstan died at the height of his power and was buried at Malmesbury; a

church charter of 934 described him as 'King of the English, elevated by

the right hand of the Almighty ... to the Throne of the whole Kingdom of

Britain'. Athelstan died childless.

EDMUND I (939-46)

Son of Edward the Elder, succeeded his half-brother, Жthelstan, with whom

he had fought at Brunanburh. Combated the Norse Vikings in Northumbria and

subdued them in Cumbria and Strathclyde. He entrusted these lands to an

ally, Malcolm I of Scotland. Edmund met his death when he was killed at

Pucklechurch, in Gloucestershire, by a robber.

EADRED (946-55)

King of Wessex and acknowledged as overlord of Mercia, the Danelaw and

Northumbria. A challenge to Eadred, which serves to illustrate one of his

chief qualities, developed in the north, in the early 950's. Eric Bloodaxe,

an aptly named, ferocious, Norse Viking who had been deposed by his own

people, established himself as king of Northumbria at York, apparently with

the fearful acquiescence of the Northumbrians. Eadred responded by marching

north with a considerable force to meet the threat. He proceeded to ravage

the Norse-held territories, then moved back to the south. He was attacked

on the way home by Eric's forces. Eadred was so enraged that he threatened

to go back to Northumbria and ravage the entire land.

This prospect frightened the already frightened Northumbrians into

abandoning Eric Bloodaxe. It must be that they viewed Eadred as more

formidable than a bloodthirsty Viking, who had been thrown out of a society

known for its bloodthirstiness, because he was too bloodthirsty and

tyrannical for them. In any case, according to the "AngloSaxon Chronicle",

"the Northumbrians expelled Eric."

As to his personal side, William of Malmesbury provides some

illumination. He says that Eadred was afflicted with some lingering

physical malady, since he was, "constantly oppressed by sickness, and of so

weak a digestion as to be unable to swallow more than the juices of the

food he had masticated, to the great annoyance of his guests." Regarding

his spiritual side, apparently the pillaging, ravaging and laying waste

that he did, had no deleterious effects on him. As Malmesbury states, he

devoted his life to God, "endured with patience his frequent bodily pains,

prolonged his prayers and made his palace altogether the school of virtue."

He died while still a young man, as had so many of the kings of Wessex,

"accompanied with the utmost grief of men but joy of angels."

EADWIG (EDWY) (955-59 AD)

On the death of Eadred, who had no children, Eadwig was chosen to be king

since he was the oldest of the children in the natural line of the House of

Wessex. He became king at 16 and displayed some of the tendencies one could

expect in one so young, royalty or not. Historians have not treated Eadwig

especially well, and it is unfortunate for him that he ran afoul of the

influential Bishop Dunstan (friend and advisor to the recently deceased

king, Eadred, future Archbishop of Canterbury and future saint), early in

his reign. An incident, which occurred on the day of Eadwig's consecration

as king, purportedly, illustrates the character of the young king.

According to the report of the reliable William of Malmesbury, all the

dignitaries and officials of the kingdom were meeting to discuss state

business, when the absence of the new king was noticed. Dunstan was

dispatched, along with another bishop, to find the missing youth. He was

found with his mind on matters other than those of state, in the company of

the daughter of a noble woman of the kingdom. Malmesbury writes, Dunstan, "

regardless of the royal indignation, dragged the lascivious boy from the

chamber and...compelling him to repudiate the strumpet made him his enemy

forever." The record of this incident was picked up by future monastic

chroniclers and made to be the definitive word on the character of Eadwig,

mainly because of St. Dunstan's role in it.

Dunstan was, after that incident, never exactly a favorite of Eadwig's,

and it may be fair to say that Eadwig even hated Dunstan, for he apparently

exiled him soon after this. Eadwig went on to marry Жlgifu, the girl with

whom he was keeping company at the time of Dunstan's intrusion. For her

part, "the strumpet" was eventually referred to as among "the most

illustrious of women", and Eadwig, in his short reign, was generous in

making grants to the church and other religious institutions. He died,

possibly of the Wessex family ailment, when he was only 20.

EDGAR (959-975)

Edgar, king in Mercia and the Danelaw from 957, succeeded his brother as

king of the English on Edwy's death in 959 - a death which probably

prevented civil war breaking out between the two brothers. Edgar was a firm

and capable ruler whose power was acknowledged by other rulers in Britain,

as well as by Welsh and Scottish kings. Edgar's late coronation in 973 at

Bath was the first to be recorded in some detail; his queen Aelfthryth was

the first consort to be crowned queen of England.

Edgar was the patron of a great monastic revival which owed much to his

association with Archbishop Dunstan. New bishoprics were created,

Benedictine monasteries were reformed and old monastic sites were re-

endowed with royal grants, some of which were of land recovered from the


In the 970s and in the absence of Viking attacks, Edgar - a stern judge -

issued laws which for the first time dealt with Northumbria (parts of which

were in the Danelaw) as well as Wessex and Mercia. Edgar's coinage was

uniform throughout the kingdom. A more united kingdom based on royal

justice and order was emerging; the Monastic Agreement (c.970) praised

Edgar as 'the glorious, by the grace of Christ illustrious king of the

English and of the other peoples dwelling within the bounds of the island

of Britain'. After his death on 8 July 975, Edgar was buried at Glastonbury

Abbey, Somerset.


The sudden death of Edgar at the age of 33 led to a succession dispute

between rival factions supporting his sons Edward and Ethelred. The elder

son Edward was murdered in 978 at Corfe Castle, Dorset, by his seven-year-

old half-brother's supporters.

ETHELRED II «THE UNREADY» (979-1013 AND 1014-1016)

Ethelred, the younger son of Edgar, became king at the age of seven

following the murder of his half-brother Edward II in 978 at Corfe Castle,

Dorset, by Edward's own supporters.

For the rest of Ethelred's rule (reigned 978-1016), his brother became a

posthumous rallying point for political unrest; a hostile Church

transformed Edward into a royal martyr. Known as the Un-raed or 'Unready'

(meaning 'no counsel', or that he was unwise), Ethelred failed to win or

retain the allegiance of many of his subjects. In 1002, he ordered the

massacre of all Danes in England to eliminate potential treachery.

Not being an able soldier, Ethelred defended the country against

increasingly rapacious Viking raids from the 980s onwards by diplomatic

alliance with the duke of Normandy in 991 (he later married the duke's

daughter Emma) and by buying off renewed attacks by the Danes with money

levied through a tax called the Danegeld. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1006

was dismissive: 'in spite of it all, the Danish army went about as it

pleased'. By 1012, 48,000 pounds of silver was being paid in Danegeld to

Danes camped in London.

In 1013, Ethelred fled to Normandy when the powerful Viking Sweyn of

Denmark dispossessed him. Ethelred returned to rule after Sweyn's death in

1014, but died himself in 1016.

SWEYN (1013-1014)

The son of a Danish king, Sweyn 'Forkbeard' began conquering territory in

England in 1003, effectively devastating much of southern and midland

England. The English nobility became so disillusioned with their existing

king, Ethelred 'The Unready', that they acknowledged Sweyn as king in 1013.

Sweyn's reign was short, as he died in 1014, but his son Canute the Great

soon returned and reclaimed control of England.


Edmund was King of England for only a few months. After the death of his

father, Жthelred II, in April 1016, Edmund led the defense of the city of

London against the invading Knut Sveinsson (Canute), and was proclaimed

king by the Londoners. Meanwhile, the Witan (Council), meeting at

Southampton, chose Canute as King. After a series of inconclusive military

engagements, in which Edmund performed brilliantly and earned the nickname

"Ironside", he defeated the Danish forces at Oxford, Kent, but was routed

by Canute's forces at Ashingdon, Essex. A subsequent peace agreement was

made, with Edmund controlling Wessex and Canute controlling Mercia and

Northumbria. It was also agreed that whoever survived the other would take

control of the whole realm. Unfortunately for Edmund, he died in November,

1016, transferring the Kingship of All England completely to Canute.

CANUTE «THE GREAT» (1016-1035)

Son of Sweyn, Canute became undisputed King of England in 1016, and his

rivals (Ethelred's surviving sons and Edmund's son) fled abroad. In 1018,

the last Danegeld of 82,500 pounds was paid to Canute. Ruthless but

capable, Canute consolidated his position by marrying Ethelred's widow Emma

(Canute's first English partner - the Church did not recognise her as his

wife - was set aside, later appointed regent of Norway). During his reign,

Canute also became King of Denmark and Norway; his inheritance and

formidable personality combined to make him overlord of a huge northern


During his inevitable absences in Scandinavia, Canute used powerful English

and Danish earls to assist in England's government - English law and

methods of government remained unchanged.

A second-generation Christian for reasons of politics as well as faith,

Canute went on pilgrimage to Rome in 1027-8. (It was allegedly Christian

humility which made him reject his courtiers' flattery by demonstrating

that even he could not stop the waves; later hostile chroniclers were to

claim it showed madness.)

Canute was buried at Winchester. Given that there was no political or

governmental unity within his empire, it failed to survive owing to discord

between his sons by two different queens - Harold Harefoot (reigned 1035-

40) and Harthacnut (reigned 1040-42) - and the factions led by the semi-

independent Earls of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex.


Harold Harefoot was the son of Canute and his first wife, Elfgifu. The

brothers began by sharing the kingdom of England after their father's death

- Harold Harefoot becoming king in Mercia and Northumbria, and Harthacanute

king of Wessex. During the absence of Hardicanute in Denmark, his other

kingdom, Harold Harefoot became effective sole ruler. On his death in 1040,

the kingdom of England fell to Hardicanute alone.

HARDICANUTE (1035-1042)

Harthacnut was the son of Canute and his second wife, Emma, the widow of

Ethelred II. His father intended Hardicanute to become king of the English

in preference to his elder brother Harold Harefoot, but he nearly lost his

chance of this when he became preoccupied with affairs in Denmark, of which

he was also king. Instead, Canute's eldest son, Harold Harefoot, became

king of England as a whole. In 1039 Hardicanute eventually set sail for

England, arriving to find his brother dead and himself king.


The penultimate Anglo-Saxon king, Edward was the oldest son of Жthelred

II and Emma. He had gone to Normandy in 1013, when his father and mother

had fled from England. He stayed there during the reign of Canute and, at

his death in 1035, led an abortive attempt to capture the crown for

himself. He was recalled, for some reason, to the court of Hardicanute, his


Canute had placed the local control of the shires into the hands of

several powerful earls: Leofric of Mercia (Lady Godiva's husband), Siward

of Northumbria and Godwin of Wessex, the most formidable of all. Through

Godwin's influence, Edward took the throne at the untimely death of

Hardicanute in 1042. In 1045, he married Godwin's only daughter, Edith.

Resulting from the connections made during Edward's years in Normandy, he

surrounded himself with his Norman favorites and was unduly influenced by

them. This Norman "affinity" produced great displeasure among the Saxon

nobles. The anti-Norman faction was led by (who else?) Godwin of Wessex and

his son, Harold Godwinsson, took every available opportunity to undermine

the kings favorites. Edward sought to revenge himself on Godwin by

insulting his own wife and Godwin's daughter, Edith, and confining her to

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