Over a 1200 year span, there have been over 50 monarchs of England, the earliest of which were the Saxon kings who ruled what was then known as Wessex and Mercia. Today we’re going to take a look at our earliest monarchs dating before the Battle of Hastings.

Historians generally agree that the first monarch to really establish a rule of the whole of England was Ecgbeht (or Egbert) who was King of Wessex from 802 until his death in 839. During his reign he fought in a number of battles, eventually granting him rule of both Wessex and Mercia, something that his line managed to continue, making him the first monarch to rule the area that came to be known as England.

Unlike later monarchs, there isn’t as much known about the kings of this time. We do know that Egbert took the throne from Beorhtic of Wessex following his exile in 780. From here on, he maintained the independence of Wessex against the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia, which he then took control of in 829, ruling both Wessex and Mercia.

Egbert was succeeded by his son Aethelwulf, a deeply religious man, who even travelled to Rome to see the pope, though this ended up being his downfall, his younger son, Aethelbald forced his father to abdicate on his return from this journey. Kings from this era aren’t exempt from scandal, following the stealing of his father’s throne, Aethelbald went on to marry his step mother in 858! He is buried at Sherborne Abbey in Dorset, which was founded in 705. He ended up being succeeded by both his brothers, first Aethelbert who only ruled for 6 years and then Aethelred, who spent the whole of his reign battling the Danes who occupied York from 866 before moving across England and threatening Wessex. He was injured in a major battle and was also buried in Dorset, at Witchampton.

Image: Statue of Alfred the Great

A king you may have heard of from this era is Alfred the Great, the brother of Aethelred. He came to the throne after fighting alongside Aethelred against the Danish army and is widely considered to be a strong and wise leader, the first five years of his reign were peaceful, before war broke out against the Danish occupiers. He retreated to the Somerset Levels before masterminding his comeback eventually establishing Saxon Christian rule over firstly Wessex and then the rest of England. He founded a prominent army and the first incarnation of the Royal Navy.

His son, Edward the Elder succeeded him and retook south east England and the midlands from the Danish army. His sister ruled Mercia until her death when Edward united the kingdom and even formed an alliance with the Scottish King, Constantine II. The bloodiest battle thought to be fought on British soil was fought by his son and successor, Athelstan, who defeated the Scots, Celts, Danes and Vikings making him the first ever King of Britain. As is fitting for an important monarch, Athelstan is buried in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, where there is a museum dedicated to him. 

Up next was Edmund, who was just eighteen at the time of his ascension. His reign was shortlived though, he was murdered at the age of 25 by a robber at his royal hall in Pucklechurch on the outskirts of the city of Bath. His two sons were still children and were considered too young to rule, so the throne went to his younger brother Eadred, who ruled for the next ten years, though he too died early in the town of Frome, Somerset. He was unmarried and had no heir, so his nephew, son of Edmund, was crowned at 16. Legend has it that his coronation had to be delayed to allow the bishop to pry him from the arms of his lovers. Yes, lovers. A mother and daughter that Eadwig happened to be entertaining at the time.
In retaliation, Eadwig had the bishop exiled to France. Perhaps an act of karma or perhaps an unfortunate family trait, he died in his early thirties in mysterious circumstances and his estranged younger brother, Edgar stepped into his place.

One of Edgar’s first acts as king was to recall the aforementioned bishop from exile and making him Archbishop of Canterbury, another of his early acts was to sign an alliance with the various princes of Wales, the King of the Scots and the King of Strathclyde.

Edgar’s oldest son Edward the Martyr ascended the throne in 975 aged just 12 years old. He was supported by the Archbishop, but his reign was an uneasy one, with many of his subjects supporting his younger half brother, Aethelred the Unready. He ended up being murdered at Corfe Castle just two years after his coronation and Aethelred took over at the tender age of 10. He fled to Normandy in 1013 after the Danish invaded England, however their leader died just 5 weeks later, leading to his return. The rest of his reign was one of constant war with Canute of Denmark.

Image: Corfe Castle

Unlike many of the other kings of this time, Aethelred’s successor was actually chosen by the people of London, Edmund II. Unfortunately for him, the King’s council wanted Canute to be leader resulting in a treaty which ceded control of all but Wessex to Canute, with the caveat that should one of the kings die, the other would take all of England. Funnily enough Edmund died later that year, which ended Egbert’s line, for now, and bought in a new royal house.

A new era was born with Canute the Great, England’s first Danish king. He sent most of his army back to Denmark and gained popularity among his subjects. He ended up marrying Arthelred II’s widow and divided England into four earldoms, East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. His illegitimate son, Harold I, also known as Harold Harefoot because of his hunting skills, claimed the throne despite his half brother being the rightful heir. Harthacanute, the legitimate son, happened to be in Denmark at the time, looking after other areas of the family's kingdom. Harold died before Harthacanute’s return to England but he was still victim to his wrath, Harthacanute had his brother dug up, beheaded and thrown in the Thames. His remains were later recovered and buried at St Clement Danes in London.

Harthacanute was the last of England’s Danish kings. He invited his half brother, Edward, who was his mother’s son from her first marriage to Aethelred the Unready, to join him in England. In a very Game of Thrones style twist, Harthacanute died at a wedding while toasting the health of the couple, leading Edward to restore the House of Wessex. Known as Edward the Confessor, he was deeply pious and presided over the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey, leaving the running of the country Earl Godwin and his family. He died childless eight days after Westminster Abbey was completed.

Following the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066 there was a power struggle for the throne – a council of high ranking nobles elected Earl Godwin’s son to the throne, naming him as Harold II. Unfortunately for Harold, William, Duke of Normandy, took offence to this, claiming that Edward the Confessor, a relative of his, had actually promised England to him. He took an army to Hastings in Sussex where he battled Harold II’s forces, eventually killing him and declaring himself King, starting the rule of the Norman kings and earning himself the nickname of William the Conqueror.

Make sure to join us next month for our next monarch, William I.

Want to find out more about the early kings of England? You can at the following sites:

Winchester was once England’s capital and King Edgar's remains were placed around St Swithin’s Shrine in Winchester Cathedral before Cromwell attacked the cathedral during the reformation. You can now find the remains of several Saxon kings, as well as King William Rufus (who we’ll introduce you to soon) at the Cathedral surrounding the presbytery.

Sherborne Abbey, Dorset
As one of the first Saxon cathedrals, King Alfred the Great was schooled there and his two brothers were buried there.

Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury
King Athelstan was buried in Malmesbury, however the tomb in the Abbey is empty, so no one knows where his final resting place is. You can however visit the museum in his name to find out more about his rule.

The village of Pucklechurch is just on the outskirts of Bath in Somerset. While the Royal Villa that was one of the only royal palaces used by the House of Wessex, longer exists, its former site can be found behind the Star Inn.

Bath Abbey
Though it has changed immensely since the coronation of King Edgar, the original foundations of the building where he was crowned were uncovered during excavation work at the abbey.

Corfe Castle and Shaftsbury Abbey, Dorset
Edward the Martyr met his end at Corfe Castle. The oldest surviving building in the castle is the Norman Old Hall, which is thought to have been built on top of a Saxon Hall where Edward was murdered. He was later buried at Shaftsbury Abbey and his remains considered sacred relics. They were hidden during the dissolution of the monasteries, to keep them safe. His bones were discovered in the ruins of the abbey and were then enshrined in Surrey at the Church of St Edward the Martyr.

Westminster Abbey, London
Westminster Abbey has a very long history, but you can still find evidence of Edward the Confessor’s influence.

Hastings, Sussex
The birth place of the Norman rule and end of the Saxon and Danish lines. It is the site of one of the most famous battles in English history.




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